Home stretch in Xi’an

We ran into some light rain in Chengdu after nearly 10 days of perfect weather; Xi’an however, is cold and wet, sleet turning the sidewalks into slippery black puddles. I didn’t come to Xi’an to sightsee (I was here before in 2003 to do that). It’s been about research for a new project I’m working on, and in terms of actually reaching some of my work goals, it was the highlight of the trip. (In terms of fun, it loses by a long shot to Yunnan.) I actually think I’m getting somewhere. Along with the work, Xi’an has also been about the best dumplings and yangrouchuanr I’ve had in my life, anywhere.

Short thoughts about Chengdu and Chongqing: Chengdu is as relaxed and as civilized as they say. Chongqing is a teeming, frenetic, hysterical mass of development and anarchy and impossibly random construction. Needless to say, I loved Chongqing, and liked Chengdu. The latter was a little too civilized for me, with things closing relatively early and the city generally lacking the breathlessness of Chongqing, or even Kunming.

Back in the real world…. Suddenly work opportunities have jumped from few to several, not all of them set in stone, but at least things are looking positive for the future. At the same time, I hear from my twitter friends recently that out-of-work Westerners are arriving in droves to Beijing to take advantage of the relative work glut, real or imagined. A lot of the young Westerners arriving FOB don’t know anything about China’s visa policies, or anything else about China, but this is the Last Great Hope, according to my friends. It’ll be interesting to see how they fare, and what their presence means for freelancers here like me (like lower fees and greater competition for work as China becomes the biggest buyers’ market on the planet).

There’s no question now that MNCs are continuing to place even more hope and investment in China, accelerating their efforts to the clicheed fever pitch as they strive, maybe a bit desperately, to tap into “the final frontier.” The thinking seems to be this is the last possible bright spot on a planet consumed in a morass of economic chaos, confusion and despair. (Their thinking, not necessarily mine.) Time will as usual tell if they’re right, but as far as bets go, this one doesn’t seem too insane to me.

I wanted to meet friends for business in Guangzhou and Shanghai next, but time is running out and I really want to see Pingyao. On the other hand, it will be freezing in Pingyao, and Guangzhou will be a relative paradise of tropical breezes. And I really should see those business associates in Shanghai. So once again I’m using my blog as a sounding board to help me figure out what to do next.

Update: I’m probably going to go back to Beijing early. Enough travel; ever since Lisa went west and I went east two days ago I’ve sort of lost interest and feel it’s time to get back to Beijing. Work to do, promises to keep, etc.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 47 Comments

I loved Xi’an… seemed such a mix of old and new.

Don’t know if this is typical for China, but we really got a kick out of the crosswalk signals… the little walking man sped up when you were supposed to walk faster!

February 26, 2009 @ 1:34 am | Comment

Richard.

I think China’s visa policy is still quite loose. You can come on a tourist visa, find a job and change to a work visa without leaving the country. Is it still the policy these days?

You cannot do this in most other countries. For example if you want to work in US, you have to find a job and get a work visa BEFORE you arrive in the country.

February 26, 2009 @ 2:04 am | Comment

Each country does what is more convenient according to local circumstances.

If they are interested in getting people they will pave the way.

If they are receiving already more immigrants than they want, they will put as many difficulties as deemed necessary.

Immigration policies to US and EU are quite restrictive nowadays. Sometimes even paranoid.

February 26, 2009 @ 2:21 am | Comment

….out-of-work Westerners are arriving in droves to Beijing to take advantage of the relative work glut, real or imagined.

What jobs do they think they can get? Apart from people who have total fluency in English, I can’t think what China needs lots of that it can’t get through Chinese people yet there is an abundance of in America/Europe.

I know you say “real or imagined”, but I would guess there has to be something behind it rather than just rumours and desperation. Though I hear that a lot more people are applying for VSO in the UK these days.

February 26, 2009 @ 2:59 am | Comment

This guy has blogged that he’s having some visa issues. I hope all those Laowai know what they’re doing, and can find work.

http://ionlylikechina.blogspot.com/2009/02/visa-update-for-year-of-ox-shorter.html

February 26, 2009 @ 4:13 am | Comment

Good luck to them, but that’s not exactly where the trend is going let’s say.

Downturn drives expat exodus from Shanghai

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f064752e-0293-11de-b58b-000077b07658.html

And we say, let’s put our money where our mouth is, I’m leaving China in a month.

February 26, 2009 @ 4:19 am | Comment

Bao, safe trip and do not come back please.

February 26, 2009 @ 6:29 am | Comment

I still remember visiting Xian as a 7 year old in 1978, and the masses of hungry beggars standing around our table, ready to pounce on the leftovers as soon as we were done eating…When I returned for a visit in 1988 Xian was still a poor place, but the city wall had been restored and there were yogurt vendors everywhere we turned…apparently the result of a UN aid project involving donated skim milk powder. I haven’t been back since but hope the city has not lost its genteel charm. The city had culture and civility that more than made up for the dust and grime and smell of industrial chemicals in the air.

February 26, 2009 @ 9:38 am | Comment

Schticky, I was in Xian in Feb. 1980 and then just a few years ago – the contrast was remarkable. Some charm has been lost (alas) but I felt like overall the city had done a good job with preserving historic areas and some of the new developments.

Richard, I think you’d like Chengdu better from the perspective of the neighborhood I’m in now. It’s really nice!

February 26, 2009 @ 9:53 am | Comment

Bao, we’re talking about two kinds of expats: First are those who have been here working who have been laid off, facing hard times and going home. Then there is the phenomenon I was pointing out – people with no prospects in the US coming to China looking for work. And there are opportunities for these people, but whether it’ll be enough to pay the bills and make the trip worth it I can’t say.

Raj, the kind of work that I personally know about that they’re looking for is mainly in services, such as marketing and writing. Thus the coming battle for freelance work. Everybody’s offering writing and consulting services.

Lisa, I loved Chengdu. I just didn’t find it as intense as some other destinations.

It is snowing heavily in Xi’An today. First real snow I’ve seen in a year. Wish it would stop.

February 26, 2009 @ 10:55 am | Comment

“Bao, safe trip and do not come back please.”

Don’t worry, it’s not in my plans. I’m just too happy to finally leave the Mordor.

Say Bye Bye to Sauron from me, please.

February 26, 2009 @ 1:28 pm | Comment

Raj, the kind of work that I personally know about that they’re looking for is mainly in services, such as marketing and writing.

Hmmm, I suppose it depends how many people are arriving compared to how many are leaving. But I think many of them are going to get a nasty surprise, one way or another.

February 26, 2009 @ 6:33 pm | Comment

As I was trying to explain to Bao, it’s apples and oranges. The ones leaving, as Bao’s linked article explains, are with Japanese and Korean MNCs that are reducing their operations. The new arrivals I’m discussing, on the other hand, are unemployed Americans from the service industries (PR and marketing and consulting), who can work independently, or at least who think they can, hawking their writing and branding skills, etc. The link Bao offered is irrelevant to this thread. I don’t know of a single Westerner in my field in China who is leaving, and I know a lot. Most are doing way better than we had expected a few months ago, and yes, that includes myself. China is the place to be for this group, no doubt about that.

February 26, 2009 @ 6:47 pm | Comment

I should have phrased my comment differently and not say that the trend is going somewhere else, I agree with you. It was not meant to contradict what you said, I just wanted to add a point to it.

I heard about this as well (more from Europe than the US on my side), mostly young graduates and some adventurous high skilled professionals facing the grim job market in their country.

At a time where the government in China is promoting street cleaning jobs to university’s graduates, I don’t think that most the people coming here at this point will have a lot of opportunities. of course there are exceptions and high demand in some sectors.

February 26, 2009 @ 7:07 pm | Comment

At a time where the government in China is promoting street cleaning jobs to university’s graduates, I don’t think that most the people coming here at this point will have a lot of opportunities.

Again, a poor comparison. The expats are not competing with the those whom the government is encouraging to sweep streets. They are looking for opportunities that the local university graduates cannot compete for, such as writing that can only be done by native English speakers.

February 26, 2009 @ 8:20 pm | Comment

I visited Xi’an about four years ago to attend the China Ad Festival and loved it. Has the nicest people and best food of any Chinese city I have been to. Wish I were there with you now!

February 26, 2009 @ 9:01 pm | Comment

I’ve been in China for about a year now doing freelance cosmetic surgery. Mostly male and female enlargements. There’s plenty of work, and God knows they need it! It’s definately the land of milk & honey.

February 26, 2009 @ 9:57 pm | Comment

“They are looking for opportunities that the local university graduates cannot compete for, such as writing that can only be done by native English speakers.”

This must be something to do with “China plans media empire to boost image” http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2009-02-18-chinamedia_N.htm

February 26, 2009 @ 10:09 pm | Comment

Speaking of Xian, what’s the deal with the Bing Mayong (Terracotta Soldiers) anyway?

I always feel like we’re not getting the real story behind the whole Emperor Qin’s Tomb “Thang”?

That place gives me the creeps!

Call me crazy, but I can swear that those terracotta soldiers are spirits! It’s a bloody TOMB inhabited by ghosts! No telling what kind of black magic Emperor Qin seeded in that place!

February 26, 2009 @ 10:28 pm | Comment

who can work independently, or at least who think they can, hawking their writing and branding skills, etc

Well if they’re that desperate it’s worth a try. I guess I’m just a bit sceptical about the likely demand for work given that China’s economic growth is slowing.

February 26, 2009 @ 10:36 pm | Comment

Normandy, great to see you here. Wish you were in Xi’An too, though I wouldn’t wish this cold and snow on anyone.

Raj, you (and most others living outside of China) may not realize that when things get hard, when companies are suffering, they often spend more money on exactly the types of services I’m talking about, especially if they believe it’ll help them crack the one and only market that they believe can save their necks. So while construction work here has gone totally to hell along with so much of the manufacturing sector, we are beginning to see a boom for certain very select service businesses serving the MNCs to whom China is still the Holy Grail. For the lucky few who really understand how to navigate this market, 2009 represents an unprecedented opportunity, even as it seems to those who are out of touch that China is on the verge of collapse (surprise – it isn’t). There is still enormous money to be made here, and you need to pay the people on the ground who know how to move the influence needle. A nightmare for some is always sunshine for others, I’m afraid.

February 27, 2009 @ 1:01 am | Comment

Japan Focus has an interesting take on the MNC investment cycle, with Brenner arguing that the problem isn’t finance but overcapacity, and discussing David Harvey’s view of the geographic expansion of capitalism.

Brenner Interview

Michael

February 27, 2009 @ 10:06 am | Comment

“…consumed in a morass of economic chaos, confusion and despair.”

Remember the cult classic Mel Gibson flick “Mad Max”? MAD Australians tear-ass’n down the highways of outback Australia with loud-mouth, naked, big-titted women shouting “Yee Hah!”. What a great country!

It was Mel who later made the end-of-the-world blockbuster “Apocalypto”.

February 27, 2009 @ 10:44 am | Comment

Arrgh the link is…

Brenner Interview

February 27, 2009 @ 10:59 am | Comment

The Mad Max example is not so far from certain recent scientific predictions…

Check this depressing article and compare it with the 1980 movie. Reality could meet fiction faster than we think.

ALLIGATORS basking off the English coast; a vast Brazilian desert; the mythical lost cities of Saigon, New Orleans, Venice and Mumbai; and 90 per cent of humanity vanished. Welcome to the world warmed by 4 °C.

February 27, 2009 @ 2:40 pm | Comment

@Thang Long
“That place gives me the creeps!”

A former president from my country when visiting the big building where terraconta soldier are presented for display… commented that it looked like a main subway station at peak rush hour.

February 27, 2009 @ 9:52 pm | Comment

Richard,
I like the blog, and I just know how much everyone loves having their writing questioned typographically, so here goes:

My understanding is that 西安 is one word, and that the apostrophe is a pinyin rule before “an” for two reasons. 1) To make it clear it’s not the one-syllable word “xian.” But also, if “an” were its own word, such as in “wan an”–”good night”–then there would be no apostrophe, but a space. The apostrophe is there, in fact, 2) to make it clear that this is the second syllable of a two-syllable word.

So my question is, obviously by this point, why do you say “Xi’An” throughout? Wouldn’t that be the same as saying “BeiJing” “ChengDu” and “ChongQing”?

February 27, 2009 @ 9:52 pm | Comment

Mike, it’s just force of habit. I’ll change it in the header.

February 28, 2009 @ 8:00 am | Comment

Richard, If time had allowed, you would have enjoyed a few days in Chongqing’s more off-beat places. The folk are the salt of the earth !
Places like Wanzhou:
http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/chinacalling/archive/2009/02/27/not-your-grandfather-s-chinese-laundry.aspx
Best,

February 28, 2009 @ 9:25 am | Comment

What’s happening with the Real Estate “Thang” in China?

http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com/2009/02/14-year-commercial-real-estate-supply.html

February 28, 2009 @ 1:02 pm | Comment

Grubby, next time. I couldn’t do everything this trip.

Thang, China’s overbuild real estate market poses an huge threat and could be the country’s most serious problem. I have written a lot on this blog about the mystery of the “ghost malls” that dot the big cities and wondered how they could possible survive. Like the Olympic construction, these monuments to a “build, baby build!” mentality could cause the country incredible headaches and leave the construction industry in a dead zone for decades to come. And that means huge national problems, because most of those migrant workers you see in your neighborhood are there for construction projects.

February 28, 2009 @ 1:25 pm | Comment

Sorry about my previous insulting comment, but you really made me mad last night Richard.

February 28, 2009 @ 1:27 pm | Comment

Bao, that was a really bad comment – next time send me an email. You are so totally off-base, thinking that because I say some sectors are doing very well that it indicates a lack of compassion for those that aren’t doing well. China is in a crisis. Some areas will profit from the crisis and do just fine. Most will suffer. My saying this or that group will do okay doesn’t mean I take pleasure in the suffering of the other group. Far from it,

February 28, 2009 @ 2:10 pm | Comment

I know, I really apologize for this and I’m glad you deleted it. I was in a very bad mood last night and too impulsive. Was silly of me to post this piece of junk comment.

February 28, 2009 @ 2:13 pm | Comment

Are you back in Beijing yet? Call me if you are.

February 28, 2009 @ 2:53 pm | Comment

Just arrived a few hours ago after the most infuriating train ride of the whole trip. Best sleeper I’ve ever seen, sparkling clean, well appointed, quiet as an empty church. My car-mates, however, were determined to ruin it. The two business partners smoked in the car (not allowed), kept the lights on and talked without a single break for 13 hours, making a mockery of the purpose of the overnight sleeper car, which is to sleep. I emerged in Beijing dazed and jet-lagged.

I strongly endorse the sleeper train from Xian to Beijing. I also would love tips on how to deal with selfish people who seem not to care about anyone else. Never had this problem before on a Chinese train.

February 28, 2009 @ 4:34 pm | Comment

I strongly endorse the sleeper train from Xian to Beijing.

Agreed, it was very good when I used it. In fact I’ve always used sleepers where possible.

February 28, 2009 @ 7:08 pm | Comment

What do you dudes think about Jim Roger’s comments on China, etc. below: (“There’s no question now that MNCs are continuing to place even more hope and investment in China….”)

From Jim Roger’s blog ( http://jimrogers-investments.blogspot.com/ ):

Are you worried the economic crisis will lead to political turmoil in China and elsewhere?

I absolutely am. We’re going to have social unrest in much of the world. America won’t be immune.

What does all this mean from an investment standpoint?

Always in the past, when people have printed huge amounts of money or spent money they didn’t have, it has led to higher inflation and higher prices. In my view, that’s certainly going to happen again this time. Oil prices are down at the moment, but that’s temporary. And you’re going to see higher prices, especially of commodities, because the fundamentals of commodities are enhanced by what’s happening.

Which commodities are worth buying or holding on to?

I recently bought more of all of them. But I really think agriculture is going to be the best place to be. Agriculture’s been a horrible business for 30 years. For decades the money shufflers, the paper shufflers, have been the captains of the universe. That is now changing. The people who produce real things [will be on top]. You’re going to see stockbrokers driving taxis. The smart ones will learn to drive tractors, because they’ll be working for the farmers. It’s going to be the 29-year-old farmers who have the Lamborghinis. So you should find yourself a nice farmer and hook up with him or her, because that’s where the money’s going to be in the next couple of decades.

February 28, 2009 @ 8:00 pm | Comment

From Marc Faber’s blog ( http://marcfaberblog.blogspot.com/ )

Buy a Farm, Escape from the Cities

The best bet for investors may be to buy a farm and escape from the cities, as a prolonged recession could lead to war, as the Great Depression did. If the global economy doesn’t recover, usually people go to war.

February 28, 2009 @ 8:03 pm | Comment

I guess education is also a safe field in times of economic difficulty. My boss has been quite happy recently. We’ve needed to replace two departing teachers, and we were understaffed last semester. At the beginning of the winter holiday, my boss was very happy with one aspect of the current state of the economy: More Americans were coming here in search of jobs, he said, making it easier for him to fill all the positions that needed to be filled. And unlike last summer, he succeeded and we are fully staffed again.

February 28, 2009 @ 9:28 pm | Comment

@Thang Long

All of this is really out of the subject of the thread… I hope our host tolerate us being errant.

I just watched the I.O.U.S.A movie, and it was very interesting, if anybody watch this and then come to say that the crisis was not engineered, I’d say today that he’s a fool. It’s written on white. Buffet and many others saw the necessity of this crisis, a long long time ago. When there is a need, there is a solution. And it also fall in line with what Nial is saying (and some other less known clowns such as myself).

It’s amazing to see conspiratorial stuff starting to spill in the realm of reality. But it’s very scary at the same time and not so funny.

February 28, 2009 @ 9:45 pm | Comment

It’s written on white. = It’s written black on white… Typo…

February 28, 2009 @ 9:48 pm | Comment

“It’s going to be the 29-year-old farmers who have the Lamborghinis.”

Sorry for not condensing this comment with the others, I have no intent to spam…

You know Thang, it’s already the case in some countries. This was an interesting episode of my life, trying to explain to my Chinese wife that in some western countries, farmers are actually rich. In some countries, we don’t have this separation of wealth based on here you live (city VS country side). Even in my distant family, some members are farmers, and they are far more richer than me, we are speaking about millions of dollars here. So for me, it was interesting to see in China how much the farming sector was snubbed by people living in Shanghai for example.

The poor farmers VS the elevated city’s citizen is not a norm worldwide, but it prevails in poorer countries. Btw, 200 years ago, the same model could be applied in our western countries as well of course. But it’s interesting to see the major shift that occurred.

February 28, 2009 @ 10:08 pm | Comment

chriswaugh wrote: “More Americans were coming here in search of jobs, he said, making it easier for him to fill all the positions that needed to be filled. And unlike last summer, he succeeded and we are fully staffed again.”

I guess that even if the economy tanks, the Chinese will still come up with money for their kids’ English lessons?

On the other hand, I’m not sure that I would want to be a racial minority vis-a-vis the majority when the shit hits the fan. It’s going to be as tempting as shit is to a fly for the leadership everywhere to stoke nationalistic sentiment as a distraction from domestic economic troubles.

February 28, 2009 @ 10:40 pm | Comment

“On the other hand, I’m not sure that I would want to be a racial minority vis-a-vis the majority when the shit hits the fan.”

And that’s exactly why I’m leaving China. I got offers here, but once things starts to be ugly here, it won’t be a good thing to be white and wealthy or poor, won’t make a difference.

This phenomenon has already started in some countries, beyond what we call rationality, in time of crisis, we are simple humans. And usually, it quickly turns out to the very ugly. What’s happening now is NOT normal and simple. I’m struggling everyday with this thought, because I initially had plans for China. Now I need to draw a clear line between expectations and what’s going on, and it sucks, big time.

Primitive fallback = protectionism, racial conflicts, conflicts, wars.

A very simple and basic equation. But some prefer to follow the trend, where everything is good and humans are great!

I’m definitively not an optimist.

February 28, 2009 @ 10:50 pm | Comment

“Never had this problem before on a Chinese train.”

Lucky you! Guaranteed you’ll get more respect for ‘lights out’ and the smoking rule with a hard sleeper. Or travel soft class with three friends.

March 1, 2009 @ 10:54 am | Comment

[...] traveled by train from XiAn to Beijing, I had to deal with a similar issue, but approached it with a somewhat different frame of mind: My car-mates, however, were determined to ruin it. The two business partners smoked in the car [...]

March 10, 2009 @ 1:30 pm | Pingback

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