Shaun Rein writes the single most irritating article on the Google-China calamity

[UPDATE: Rein has once again outdone himself. Check the comments and the links to the original blog post by Modern Lei Feng. Yikes.]

I’ve been wondering for a couple months now how Shaun Rein got one of the sweetest deals in China – a column in Forbes that lets him link to and plug his own marketing company in nearly every column as he tells readers how great business is in China and how rosy things look there. In one recent column, modestly titled, Yes, China Has Fully Arrived As A Superpower, he takes James Fallows to task for pointing out that while China is rising fast it is still far too poor and wracked with internal challenges to be considered a true superpower along the lines of the US, a not-so-outlandish assertion. These are the lines from the article that jumped out at me:

“China is certainly not altogether as wealthy as the US or Japan, as Fallows correctly observes. But it is emerging confident and relatively unscathed from the financial crisis.

Not altogether as wealthy as the US?? As if it’s almost as wealthy as the US? China’s great. I love China. But hundreds of millions of Chinese are still dirt-poor, and while China is improving and getting wealthier, to compare its society’s wealth with that of the US and Japan, even with all of their problems, is irresponsible. “Not altogether as wealthy as the US”?? But let’s get back to Google.

If Rein’s column on China emerging as a great superpower was awful, his new column on Google with the provocative title Google’s Act Of War Against China is way worse. Like all of Rein’s columns, it echoes the party line and is resoundingly “pro-China,” always playing up the great market potential of China, (where, coincidentally, Rein heads a marketing company). It’s fine to be pro-China. I consider myself to be pro-China. But we expect to read stuff like this on Chinese BBS’s, not in Forbes:

Has Google really thought through the implications of its actions, beyond just giving up the world’s fastest growing digital advertising market and the welfare of its employees and legal representatives in China? Or is this the impulsive move of an arrogant and immature leadership team used to getting its way?

Looking beyond the implications of what is, in effect, a new mode of statecraft, we should ask whether Google isn’t using censorship and cyber terrorism as an excuse to get out of China because of business failings there. If Google were making more money in China, would it necessarily have taken this stand?

Here’s what James Fallows, a real journalist who writes consistently great posts on China, has to say about the argument Rein is embracing (that Google was creating an excuse to leave China because it was trailing in market share).

Sky Canaves of the WSJ in Beijing has saved me a lot of time (and done readers a favor) by producing a catalogue of the biggest “misstatements and misunderstandings” people have promulgated about this situation.She starts with the most preposterous: that Google deliberately picked an extremely public fight with a notoriously thin-skinned government, merely to distract attention from its commercial struggles in a market where it enjoys “only” a 35% share. That Chinese officials and “netizens” would claim this is understandable. The Westerners who took it up reveal their preference for the counter-intuitive and “clever” rather than the believable.

Rein goes on to wag his finger at Google, as if he has a better grasp of their situation – as though Google is stumbling and bumbling and screwing up, with no idea how they’re damaging themselves. He almost makes it sound as if they need a good China marketing company.

Its mistakes may have long-term effects on its bottom line. Beyond giving up search for China’s 380 million netizens, the company may now find handset makers being pushed not to carry its Android operating system. That could mean a serious long-term loss of revenue in a country with 720 million mobile phone users.

Google’s China experience also illustrates that anyone operating in China needs to empower local employees to make decisions early and fast. You also need a head of your business in China who has the credibility and headquarters support to champion such decisions.

I assure you, Shaun, Google has taken the possible loss of potential revenue from its Android phone into account, but I’m sure they appreciate the free advice.

Earlier on in the article, Rein tells us, ominously,

If other foreign firms and activist investors in companies conducting business in China banded with Google, they could launch a serious threat to the stability of China, or of any country.

You see, this is Google “declaring war on China.” There is one bad guy here, the one declaring war, and other companies might follow suit leading to a potential crisis for China (which would be bad for marketing companies in China, no?). But has China no say in this matter? Why is there not a single word about what foreign companies need to go through to enter the China market? Not a word about the actual reasons Google spelled out for its decision? Instead, we are fed pablum like this:

They [China’s leaders] have also seen how 30 years of economic growth brought happiness to the Chinese population. Let’s not forget that the Pew Center has found that 86% of Chinese are happy with the direction the government is taking the country.

Normally I wouldn’t bother writing a post like this about an article that’s so blatantly one-sided and suck-uppish. But this is Forbes, and they have such a great Beijing bureau chief and the quality of most of their articles is so outstanding – I am at a loss as to how self-advertising puff pieces like this are allowed to run. I read it with disbelief.

Updated with cosmetic edits, January 17 1PM Mountain time.


How bad can one post be?

At the risk of igniting a blog war, I feel I have to point out what might be the very worst post on China I have read in a long, long time, from a blog I respect enough to include on my blogroll. When I say bad, when I say dumb, when I say wrong – let’s just say it’s the equivalent of what I’d expect Sarah Palin to write about the Iraq war, saying how it was an exercise in successful American can-do determination and that no civilians were hurt and it all went like a cake-walk. I mean the type of post where you have to willfully block out any and all hints of truth as you arrive at your own fact-free truthiness.

It’s about the milk scandal, and it could have been written by HongXing:

While dismayed by the rogue manufacturers’ ability to abuse the public for such a long time (a year, I heard), I am relieved that eventually the scams were exposed, exclusively by forces within the Chinese society. No foreign White knight was in a position to rescue the Chinese people from their rulers and deliver them from their misery. In fact, the New Zealand diary company who owned a stake in the main culprit, Sanlu Diary Corporation, was part of the problem. The Western media have been on the sideline; their opinions on this event are largely irrelevant to the Chinese public. It has been the Chinese parents’ outrage and the Chinese media’s probing and revelations that constitute the main source of the Chinese authorities’ embarrassment and the main forces that prompted them into action. Heads have been rolling, with the resignation of a mayor and a cabinet member, and an executive’s arrest.

An indigenous and home-grown momentum of change is a hopeful sign of the Chinese society at these turbulent times. The society has demonstrated the means and resilience to channel the momentum into productive movements of improving the way businesses are supervised in particular and social activities regulated in general, developing mechanisms for righting wrongs and addressing grievances. The same resourcefulness and resilience were demonstrated in the revelation of kidnapped and enslaved teenagers in Shanxi province’s brick making factories, in the organized reactions when the snow storms in southern China stranded millions of migrant workers on their way home for the spring festival in railway stations, and when earthquake struck Sichuan.

It is heartening to observe that foreign elements and forces have little influence over the Chinese authorities, on either their legitimacy or policy preferences.

The light at the end of this dreary tunnel: the commenters on this site ripped the writer to shreds, called him out on his fact-averse approach and made a fool of him, in the spirit of the blog’s title. This post is all about looking at some of China’s most shameful recent catastrophes and pointing to each as proof of China’s greatness. Now, I’m not saying China isn’t great. It is. (That and much more.) I think America is great, but I don’t point to the Abu Ghraib photos and say there’s the proof of our greatness.

The whole things is a bit surreal, like a big practical joke, like a parody of the party propagandist transforming a nation’s flaws into virtues. And then there’s the closing sentence: “This is the silver lining I see in the scandals and disasters inflicted upon us in the year of 2008” – as if these scandals were “inflicted upon us” by some passive-voiced villain, and not by the sleazy corruption that is a defining characteristic of the CCP.

Nothing in this post seems to make any sense. It’s a Sarah Palin interview. Unless I’m missing something. Am I missing something?


Slipping through my fingers

I knew I was sticking my neck out several weeks ago when I admitted to being a closet Abba listener. Now I will go even further, devoting an entire post to a new song of theirs I discovered last week. New to me, at least; it’s actually been around a quarter of a century, and it’s the first song that succeeded in reducing me to serious tears in a very long time.

Practically unknown following its late release in 1994, the much under-rated Slipping through My Fingers is a song about loss, specifically, a father’s loss of his daughter, who is growing up quickly – a daughter he has failed to appreciate and is now about to lose. It is the only Abba song that is unquestionably 100-percent autobiographical (although many of their songs do seem to form a narrative reflecting their lives, especially the two couples’ divorces). This is Bjorn’s agonizing admission that by being a workaholic who made a conscious choice to spend his time at the recording studio and on the road to pursue his musical and financial ambitions, he allowed his marriage to deteriorate. His wife, who chose home and family over career, “slipped through his fingers” with his daughter.

I don’t have any children, but I have experienced intense and painful loss. Just like all of us. This song brought it all back to me; the pain of making a choice that resulted in someone slipping through my fingers, and out of my life, maybe forever. I would claim that for any parent watching their child grow up, or for anyone at all who has experienced the loss of someone they love – especially a loss they might have prevented – it is virtually impossible to listen to this song without breaking into tears.

It didn’t happen right away, the tears. I had downloaded five new Abba songs I was unfamiliar with and put them on my iPod playlist. When I heard Slipping Through My Fingers the first couple of times it did not make a super-strong impression. I was struck right away by it’s unusual tone (for Abba): Nearly all of their songs, even the ones that are about separation and pain, somehow manage to be upbeat, the one glaring exception being their masterpiece, The Winner Takes it All (another autobiographical song). From first note to last, Slipping Through My Fingers is purely about pain, regret and sadness, without the usual healing froth Abba is so wonderful at providing.

I realized the song had touched something deep within me when, several nights ago, it kept playing in my head as I tried to sleep (always a sure sign that a song is affecting me). Then I began to play it over and over again, memorizing all the harmonies, the words, the instrumentals. And then, it just kicked in – I suddenly “got” that this song was speaking to me, about my life today in Beijing, and what is not part of my life here in Beijing. And since then, every time I hear it I choke up.

Amazingly, this is a live performance – none of the usual over-produced studio pyrotechnics that typify your standard Abba song. And the performance by Agnetha confirms my long-held belief that she is simply the greatest pop vocalist who ever lived. This, I have to say, is among her greatest performances ever.

After a charming classical-style piano introduction, Agnetha starts out with a sweet, almost saccharine description of a father saying goodbye to his little girl. And she sounds like a little girl at first, though in a few seconds that changes. It’s only in the next section that Agnetha unleashes the explosion of sadness, with the words, “The feeling that I’m losing her forever, and without really entering her worth….” Suddenly we know, it’s not just a father saying goodbye to his daughter as she leaves for school; no – he realizes he has lost her forever, and that he never appreciated her while she was there. The chorus begins, one of their most beautiful ever, so poignant, free of their usual optimism-even-in-the-face-of-sorrow. As the chorus ends, Annifrid’s voice intertwines with Agnetha’s for the next verse, and the following line, “What happened to the wonderful adventures,” is almost unbearable in its anguish – lost, forever, the dreams and the plans, all the good intentions unfulfilled. Gone is the childlike tone of the song’s opening; now we feel the full power of the music that reflects life’s deepest disappointments and regrets. After the chorus repeats there’s a mesmerizing duet between two guitars, a final repeat of the chorus, and the song ends.

As I said, it doesn’t hit you at first. It took me a full week of listening before I realized I was obsessedhooked. Knowing that with music beauty is often in the ear of the beholder (or be-hearer), I asked a friend of mine to listen to it. He went through a similar process, at first finding it sweet, but wondering why I was raving about it so much. Then he said he listened again and again, and now he, too, cries when he hears it – and this is someone who, unlike me, does not cry easily. You can see the live video of this performance, but I think it has to be heard on an iPod to really overwhelm you. Whatever you do, don’t watch the youtube clip on a laptop with mediocre speakers; it won’t work. (But do go there to read the comments!)

I know I’ll never be rich or famous, and I’ve had to readjust my dreams and ambitions to conform to the realities of life. But when I am grabbed by a song like this, and when I am overpowered by emotions that bring tears to my eyes, I realize that I wouldn’t give up that ability – the ability to feel deep emotions for something that is beautiful simply because it is beautiful – for anything in the world.

Go to iTunes and pay the 99 cents for the song (from their album Thank You for the Music). If after multiple listenings you don’t think it was worth it, let me know and I will somehow pay the 99 cents back to you. Yeah, it’s just a pop song, and the lyrics are at times lame, even cheesy, but nothing can dam the inspiration behind it. As it was conceived you know its creators were touched by a wave of emotion from deep within their own well of experience. The result: a song that is ever so poignant, ever so moving, and utterly sublime.