Could it happen in China?

Just a few minutes ago, at a live press conference with White House press secretary Robert Gibb, one of the reporters asked him whether he believed the spirit of revolution we’re witnessing in Egypt and Tunisia might spread to China. Gibb dodged the question, of course, and said he couldn’t make any broad generalities.

If I were Gibb I’d have been less equivocal, and would have said, “No.” Anything is possible, I suppose, but the very idea of Chinese activists being so inspired by the riots in Egypt that they’d try to implement the same tactics in China is so absurd it’s laughable.

The only renowned activist in China who’s been pushing for democratic reforms is named Liu Xiaobo, and he’s sitting alone in a jail cell. And most Chinese people believe that’s where he belongs. Not only did he never garner anything like mainstream popular support, he’s considered a “criminal” and a “traitor” by most Chinese citizens who, unfortunately, only know of Liu through the government-owned Chinese media. The Chinese are in no mood to follow anti-government activists into the streets to battle the army and the police.

Most Chinese, as we’ve said here many times, have little to no interest in democratic reforms. The vocal few who do quickly become marginalized or silenced altogether. A major factor behind both the Tunisian and Egyptian conflagrations was poverty and massive unemployment. Recent explosions in the price of food helped bring these crises to a head. (Everyone should be aware that the food inflation that’s plaguing much of the Middle East and Asia is a recipe for widespread instability. Governments are starting to hoard rice to safeguard against riots. Nothing gets the people onto the streets like food inflation.)

China has done a far better job than Egypt and Tunisia in terms of keeping people employed and placated. Its public works projects and subsidies of Chinese businesses have helped keep unemployment in check and, unlike in Tunisia, the mood in China (at least when I was there last a few months ago) was wildly optimistic. Tunisia and Egypt are poor, China is rich. Massive riots are virtually unthinkable. Today’s Chinese have little appetite for chaos.

The only thing that might, at some point in the future, lead to widespread protests in China would be crushing inflation. We aren’t near that point, but I believe we’re inching in that direction. Just yesterday China announced new real estate taxes in Chongqing and Shanghai to slow down the sizzling real estate market (the taxes are probably too mild to make much difference). For now, China has things under control and the reporter at today’s press conference can rest assured that we won’t see in Beijing what we’re seeing in Cairo. But I want to repeat my warning that inflation, and especially food prices, is going to be the greatest threat to global stability in the not too distant future. A couple of months ago I sold a fair portion of gold and put the money into agriculture stocks. You might want to do the same.


China’s massive Time’s Square video ad

This ad, coinciding with Hu’s trip to the US, runs on six colossal video billboards over Time’s Square. According to the FT it was created by the global ad agency Lintas, but I’m willing to place bets it was conceived and produced in China, and it wasn’t run by any US focus groups.

The golden rule for this kind of messaging is to speak in the voice of your audience. I don’t think this ad does that. It calls out for localization, and I’m afraid it’s going to backfire, if it hasn’t already, raising cries about “Red China” and its creepy propaganda.

Reading between the lines of WSJ reporter Loretta Chao’s post about the ad, I get the sense that she thinks it’s a mistake, and that she won’t be alone in this belief.

[E]ach group of people in the ad is pictured with a banner — some more literal than others. A photo of Yao Ming and other athletes standing in front of the Birds Nest national stadium in Beijing is titled “Thrilling Chinese Athletics.” An image of Mr. Li standing alongside two other technology entrepreneurs, Netease founder Ding Lei and Alibaba Group founder Jack Ma, carries a banner that reads “Chinese Wealth” — a label probably more immediately meaningful (and more appealing) to Chinese viewers than the hundreds of thousands of daily passersby in Times Square.

The appearance of the Internet executives fades into a solo shot of Wang Jianzhou, chairman of China’s biggest state-owned telecom giant China Mobile, also under the “Chinese Wealth” banner. That image, while almost certainly obscure for New York pedestrians, could probably be interpreted by imaginative Chinese viewers as either ominous or depressing in the light of the company’s government-backed ubiquity.

I understand China’s thirst for soft power and image enhancement outside of China. I question, however, why they never seem able to get good marketing advice about how to present themselves. Chinese Wealth and Thrilling Chinese Athletics banners simply won’t resonate (I believe) with Time’s Square pedestrians. It will be seen as cheesy propaganda, the likes of which most Americans thought went out of style with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I suggest that next time they find a Donald Draper-type on Madison Avenue who understands the need to focus on the viewer first. They (China) need to put away all their beliefs about what works in China. It’s irrelevant when you’re putting up gargantuan ads in New York City. Americans aren’t interested in Wang Jianzhou.

Update: Interesting comments here, some of them quite stupid.

Update 2: China Geeks has a superb post on the ad, much better than my own.

Update 3: And another great analysis of the ad can be found here.


Chinese parenting

There are nearly 7,000 comments to Amy Chua’s now infamous article in the Wall Street Journal titled, modestly, Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior. I read the piece, as I’m guessing most of you did, with grim fascination. Its main contention is that Chinese parents raise kids who are more successful than their Western counterparts because these parents deprive their kids of fun, slave-drive them to study constantly, prohibit them from acting in school plays and sleeping over at friends’ houses, and insisting that they never get a grade below A. Chua’s description of how she terrorized her daughter to force her to master a piano piece is not something you’ll soon forget.

American parents, on the other hand, indulge their children and fail to treat them with authority. Their kids are raised believing they don’t owe their parents anything, and thus they don’t do all they can to excel and delight their parents. But the Chinese parents, Chua argues, aren’t doing this for their own gratification. It’s all because they want the very best for their children.

Western parents try to respect their children’s individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they’re capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.

The parent’s might also be arming them with a rip-roaring case of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Not surprisingly, a lot has been written in response to this article. I am not going to try to say which side is right or wrong. I just want to point out some of the arguments.

The best critique I read came from Adam Minter of Shanghai Scrap, who points out an interesting fact: Chua’s arguments are in no way consistent with those she makes in her new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which she’s promoting with her article. The outspoken, borderline vindictive tone of the article, Minter says, seems to be a product of her PR people (very possible) and fails to reflect what she actually says in the book.

[A]fter the first chapter, I realized that I was going to stick with it, because – regardless of what you think of so-called Chinese parenting – it’s a beautifully written, oftentimes funny, humble and modest book about assimilation. That is to say, it has very little in common with the Wall Street Journal piece. Indeed, Chua is quite clear – in the book – that the genesis for the narrative is not a belief that Chinese mothers are superior….

The cruelty that some readers found in the Wall Street Journal is present in the longer text, but it is present with doubts about their efficacy, the damage that was being done to her relationship with her daughter, humor, and emotion. The Wall Street Journal excerpt doesn’t contain any of that. In fact, in large part, the Wall Street Journal “excerpt” only qualifies as an excerpt in name. In reality, it’s nothing more than some of the book’s most inflammatory paragraphs and passages, cherry-picked from various points in the book, and arranged in order, minus context

Now it’s all making sense. Because it’s truly hard to imagine that a Yale law professor like Chua could be so one-sided and obsessive. And yes, cruel. Only Minter, to my knowledge, has provided this insight; there’s much more to the story of how Chua views Chinese parenting.

Today David Brooks, who I very rarely quote, took Chua on from a different perspective:

I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

A good point. Relationships with our friends, doing things with them in groups, provide important training for our future. From personal experience, I would say there’s nothing more valuable for kids than to perform in the school play and sing in the after-school choir. That’s part of education, too, part of preparation.

But the most moving response to the article I saw comes from an actual victimproduct of a “Tiger Mother.” For all those not suffering from Chua fatigue, I recommend you read it all. Here’s a piece.

All my young life, my parents were quick to remind me of my stupidity. They constantly compared me to the children of their friends. They were particularly preoccupied with my lack of progress in school. Fixated on the idea that I was a slow learner, they confused my cautiousness for a lack of desire, and my need for affection as the wants of a spoiled American brat.

In telling me that I was a stupid, worthless waste of space, they believed they were spurring me on to do great things. By keeping me away from my friends, engrossed in several hours of teaching each day after school, my parents were confident they were helping me in every way they could. And no matter how hard I worked, or how obediently I obeyed their commands, it was never enough….

In spite of this, my parents’ approach failed. I still question every day if I am, indeed, stupid. I didn’t even raise my hand in class until graduate school because I believed a moron like me would have nothing worthy to say. I’ve been through countless hours of psychotherapy, and my lack of self-esteem still beckons me to trust alcohol to numb the agony. I should be chasing my dreams, not chasing pain.

If I could say one thing to Amy Chua, it’s that I would trade every bit of my success in life — in a heartbeat I’d switch places with the guy who shovels elephant dung at the zoo — to remove the scars left by a Tiger Mother.

Maybe I’m too bound by my Western mentality, but this approach doesn’t seem to me a formula for success.

That said, I need to point out one thing: Most Chinese people I know haven’t been permanently scarred by “tiger moms.” Yes, they had to study hard and nothing was as important as education. But all things considered, most of these people emerged very smart, very successful and psychologically okay. Obviously I can’t say exactly how they were treated as children, but I suspect it was not as grim a childhood as Chua endorses in her article. I think there was some compromise, and the parents instilled in them a strong study ethic while still nurturing their self-esteem. (Must the two be mutually exclusive?)

My bottom line on the whole furor: Chua’s article has hurt China, giving a false impression of how and why Chinese kids grow up to be so successful. If people were afraid of China before, that fear shot up to a whole new level after reading Chua’s treatise. The lists she provides of what parents should forbid their children from doing is a disgrace, a formula for neurosis and social ineptitude; as Minter said, his first reaction was to check Chua’s bio to see whether the whole things was a parody, a bad joke.

Maybe it lets Chua off the hook somewhat if this was the doing of ruthless PR people (and they sure got publicity). But I don’t believe for an instant that the WSJ published this without her approval and her blessing.


Hu Jintao arrives in DC by stealth jet

I’ll bet Hu will love this. (Can you visualize Hu Jintao laughing at himself?)



I’m going through one of those post-New Year’s Hamlet moments, where I wonder whether I want to blog or not to blog. I know that at the moment I don’t want to, but that could change. Being this far from China has made me feel awfully detached from life over there; it was much easier to blog from there, where I always seemed to have a story to tell.

Whether I continue to post or not, I’m definitely taking a few more days (weeks?) off. Hopefully I can get back into the swing sometime soon.