Sunday, March 30, 2008

Two First Steps

I've been thinking a lot about traffic in Beijing lately, and why it doesn't work.

First, there's the streets: there are plenty of wide, four to six lane roads, and plenty of narrow, twisting hutongs, but little in between. In between the broad boulevards are enormous city blocks that could have twenty thousand people living in them, as well as numerous shopping and dining establishments. But to get to the buildings within the blocks, you need to navigate through the hutongs with two-way traffic, bikes, pedestrians, and usually cars parked on either side of the road. Near the school where I teach on Saturdays, I often see six or seven cars backed up in either direction and two drivers in the center honking at each other until one backs down and ever-so-slowly tries to back up and let the other pass. This usually takes an inordinately long time because all of the drivers behind him have to back up as well. There's plenty of honking, but people I've talked to about this don't seem to think there's any solution, or that it's an inescapable problem of greater car ownership.

I beg to differ. If the government were to ban parking on the side of the road except for a few designated areas, the problem would ease enormously. China puts up concrete shells in no time flat, but I can't recall seeing an above-ground parking complex in Beijing. Surely the government could easily construct enough of these to accommodate cars that park on the street now.

And it's not just hutongs that have parking problems. I see lines of cars parked on the ring roads all the time. Can you imagine cars parking along a freeway in America? The ring roads run at full capacity for much of the day in Beijing, and there's a large cost in terms of time and money when people wait in traffic. Drivers might not like having to go out of their way and pay money to park in a parking tower, but as it is now everyone is paying for it in lost time, and for me on my bicycle, increased risk of death as I move out into the road to avoid cars parked in the bike lane.

I also think that the narrowness of your average hutong necessitates ditching two-way traffic. There's just no way to have an efficient flow of traffic when a whole line of cars literally has to back up and pull to the side to let another line of cars through - not to mention the inconvenience it causes the pedestrians and cyclists.

Like many of the other campaigns the government has undertaken to change people's behavior, I'm sure this wouldn't be easy to implement. But we are, after all, talking about a country which has (at least somewhat successfully) managed to control how many children a person can have. Surely they can tell you where you can and can't park you car. And if this serves as a disincentive to buying a car? We can only hope. . .

Now if I can only think up a solution to Beijing's preternaturally even population distribution (lack of a dense city center). . .

Friday, March 21, 2008

Xiong Shi Lai Le (Here comes the bear market)

Or maybe not - the Dow doesn't seem to understand that the economy is in real trouble. First it went up four hundred points after Bear Stearns collapsed, then it went down a bit, then up two hundred points again. I just keep telling myself that short term fluctuations aren't really important, but I thought people would be running for the hills by now.

I have to say I'm disappointed that taxpayer money is being used to bail out a bank without the government itself taking possession of, and selling off, the assets. Dean Baker's commentary has been very illuminating with regards to this matter, and it's due to him that I know there are other options - what the Bank of England did with Northern Rock, for example.

The bottom line is, these bad loans are going to have their negative effect on the economy - we can't avoid it. Better to expose them now, deal with them, and move on. But the Fed seems to think putting Bear Stearns into bankruptcy would cause even more harm, despite the fact investors still suspect it's virtually worthless.

I wonder what the government of China thinks about the fact that it's 10 billion dollar investment was sold for pennies on the dollar in closed door, fire-sale meetings? And why are the top people at Bear Stearns not out on the street?

Random Thoughts On the iotsRa in ibetTa

Some bad, bad things happening on the roof of the world recently.

I'm temperamentally inclined to sympathize with the Tibetans, as is most of the world. Whereas most of China has been experiencing a dramatic increase in the amount of personal freedom they have (as long as it doesn't interfere with the Party), everything the Tibetans want (autonomy, independence, and the Dalai Lama) is anathema to the Chinese government.

It's also not hard to see why the Tibetans view the Chinese as oppressors - you can argue either side of the self-determination question, but there are many Tibetans alive who remember their independence, not to mention the depredations of the cultural revolution, and the still heavy weight of authoritarian rule than undoubtedly falls heavier on their shoulders than on those of the Han.

An interesting aspect of the current situation is the degree to which the Dalai Lama seems to be being marginalized by his own people. At least in public (and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity), he has always preached non-violence, sought autonomy not independence, and asked his followers to avoid causing problems for India by protesting. The younger members of the Tibetan independence movement don't think this "middle-way" is achieving anything, and want to push for more forceful methods (ironically still including "long live the Dalai Lama" in their protests).

But what do Free Tibet protesters in the US really want to happen? Do they expect America to install the Dalia Lama as the supreme leader of a theocratic government? It hadn't occurred to me until last week, but the Dalia Lama is still the head of the Tibetan government in exile, giving some justification to Chinese suspicions that he wants independence.

There's also been little in the way of condemnation of the violence against Han civilians and their property in Lhasa. Whatever the crimes of the Chinese government, surely shopkeepers ought not be the ones to pay the price. This thought brings me to another issue, the migration of Han into Tibet that has been described as cultural genocide. Certainly I can appreciate that when a place like Tibet receives a massive influx of outsiders eager to modernize, there is something lost in terms of the pristine, remote, austere quality that has enchanted so many visitors. But Tibet is not by a long shot the only place on earth confronting this dilemma, and it's not clear what the solution would be. If it were even possible, are we saying that non-Tibetans should be barred from moving there? I'm certainly not comfortable with such an idea.

There are also difficult questions with regard to America's "authority" to criticize China's behavior in Tibet - certainly nothing China has done compares to the complete decimation of the American Indian. And had we not killed them all with smallpox and straight-up murder I doubt that we would have respected their desire to live a traditional life free of strip-malls and gas stations. Are several generations enough separation from these horrible crimes to free us from a charge of hypocrisy? I don't know. These are complex questions, and that's really the whole point I was trying to make.

Of course, for now the solution would be for the Tibetans to stop killing Chinese civilians (I'm going to avoid digressing on whether or not Tibetans are Chinese and in what sense)and the government to stop oppressing the Tibetans, but that's about as likely a the US government not bailing out irresponsible bankers or sensibly ending the war in Iraq. Good night moon, good night China, good night Tibet, good night suffering and misery, you'll still be there when I wake up tomorrow.

A final thought: this article, nearly ten years old, is still awesome and incredibly poignant. I learned a lot about the Chinese perspective:

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Yellow Fever

As an American living in China you naturally tend to notice your fellow foreigners as you go about your life, and pay them slightly more attention than you would to a passing Chinese - something about being a minority I suppose. Naturally, you notice the large number of Chinese-American couples, and the extreme prevalence of the male LaoWai, female Chinese match, and you begin to wonder about the dynamics of interracial attraction and dating.

Well, wonder no more because someone better educated and more dedicated than myself has done the hard work for me. A new article in slate reports the results of an economist's study of speed-dating in a bar.

Unsurprising: Men value looks, and are reluctant to date a woman who is smarter or more ambitious. Women emphasize success and intelligence, and have no problem with being number 2.

Surprising: Men have little in the way of racial preferences, but women of all races prefer members of their own race. The prevalence of white man-asian women matches is explained by a Asian women having no aversion to white men, but being less likely to date blacks or hispanics.

Perhaps the greater prejudice shown by women stems from the fact that women, in general, have much more to fear from a prospective partner than a man (vis a vis rape, murder, assault), and this has the effect of bringing out racial preferences.

Men having less prejudice also makes sense in a way. I like to think I care about intelligence and personality foremost, but if I'm being cynical about my preferences I care far more about overall hotness than membership in a particular race.

Some film students in California have their own take on the phenomenon:

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Woman Billionaires

Another notable development:

Six of the ten richest self-made women in the world are in China. That's impressive, and important. Nearly all the richest women on the US Forbes list inherited their money.

Given that China is in many ways much more sexist than the US, how can this be? Chinese people readily acknowledge that the vast majority of man would consider it a total loss of face to have a wife who earns much more, and such women have a terribly difficult time. But maybe that's a contributing factor - once your chances of marriage have been crushed by your success, maybe you decide to stick it to the man by becoming yet more successful.

Chinese Billionaires

Last year, there were 15. This year there are over 100. It's astounding, mind-boggling, jaw-dropping, and staggering. Of course, it could all come crashing down (as, if fairness, could any newly-minted billionaire coming off their IPO in the western world).

PetroChina is now bigger than Exxon Mobile. Alibaba raised almost as much as Google in it's IPO. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China is now the largest bank by market cap. Supposedly (can't find the link) 5 of the 10 largest companies in the world by market cap are Chinese.

Certainly the composition of the Chinese market must be different than the US. China's economy is about 10.2 trillion USD (2006) if you look at purchasing power parity, and 2.2 trillion (2007) at exchange rates, while the US is north of 13 trillion. I suspect the US has many more companies that are very large, but not the giant state-run behemoths of China (both PetroChina, and ChinaMobile, for example, were government run and still partially government owned).

I've been thinking the amount of inequality must be much higher in China than in the US, given how a college grad here subsists on something like 1500-3000 RMB per month, and yet there are $100,000 (including import tax) BMWs plying the roads, but this study, cited by Yglesias, says I'm wrong.

I thought this must be bunk in view of what I see every day, and I thought the number of billionaires must surely be evidence of this, but I don't think so.
China's per capita (PPP) GDP of $7800 in 2006 is about 5.5 times less than the US total of $43,500. Given that China has about five times the population of the US, I'm tempted to think that those two factors should balance out, and the number of billionaires be about the same if inequality is also relatively the same, but China only has 1/4 as many. I suspect the fact that this study found inequality to be about the same in both countries has to do with the vast difference in wealth between the middle class (who are still poor relative to Westerners), and the peasants, who are dirt-poor. Of course, it's not that simple, and it all depends on how exactly the national wealth is distributed, and I really don't know all that much about it.

Interesting though. . .

Sunday, October 21, 2007

I've Been Rivercrabbed!

Well, not yet, fortunately.

Homonyms are very important in China. They show up in superstitions, for example; you don't give someone four gifts because four sounds like death in Chinese; nor do you give a clock, because that sounds like "sending someone to the end," which I've heard can describe attending a funeral.

Today's youth, what with their crazy music and their websites, use homonyms to avoid the net-nanny. Referencing chairman Hu's "harmonious society" program, bloggers have begun to refer to being censored as being harmonized. Of course, if you're going to censor the internet, you're not going to let people say whatever they want about it, or even acknowledge that it's happening; so now the word "harmony" (he xie) is a commonly blocked word on large Chinese blogging sites.

But those naughty netizens, they've found a way around it. Instead, they talk about river crab, which is only one tone different from harmony, and apparently the censors are still none the wiser. I guess you could call it teenage rebellion with Chinese characteristics.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Another Looming Problem

I have pondered what it will be like for the children of the one-child generation - they will have no aunts and uncles, and thus no cousins. Just parents, and grandparents.

Via Megan Mcardle, Nicholas Eberstadt wonders what will happen when what is already a low-trust society (and one in which family ties are considered very important) has no familial ties between the 20-40 cohort.

I'm at once both intrigued and skeptical. While I like my cousins, and knowing them probably somewhat advantageous, I haven't found those connections to be crucial channels for getting jobs or business ties. Of course, I'm 26, so I haven't really had time to tap those connections for business purposes, but it doesn't seem like my dad, or most other adults I know heavily rely on cousin connections. The sibling connection, which has already been lost, seems much more important.

Of course, China is a very different place, and family-based business ties make up a large percentage of the total, so I guess we'll see.

The Japanese are CRAZY!

But in all the right ways. From their wacky cartoons (and their disturbing pornographic cousins), to Iron Chef, the crazy game shows*, all the robots, and now dresses that can disguise you as a vending machine if you're attacked.

Seriously though, it's impressive that you can store that costume in a skirt. Not too believable in daylight, but at night? who knows.

It's good to know our wacky brethren over there are continuing to be themselves.

* especially the one that Stephen Colbert constantly shows clips of, where a bunch of girls with steaks strapped to their heads are sticking their heads through holes in a cage containing a monitor, and when it runs towards them they flip out.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

I'm Free!

Sweet. Dan Wei informed me blogger is now accessible in China, and I'm pleased as punch. Unfortunately, it happened at the same time that YouTube has been blacklisted. Something to do with the 17th party congress? Who knows. Given that I don't actually need to read my own blog, I think I'd rather have YouTube.

Of course, what I'd really like is for China to take a more targeted approach to Internet censorship. Censoring all of YouTube and the entire Wikipedia borders on the ridiculous.

My Worst Fear in Beijing

Ryan and two of my friends recently had a cab driver who they were sure had just started driving - he slammed on the brakes several times, and exhibited little control over the car. And he didn't know where the train station was. The fact that such people are driving several thousand pounds of metal around scares me.

To really make good time getting anywhere here in Beijing, you have to ride, walk, or drive aggressively. Now, I never just run through the intersection on during a green light like this guy did, but one mistake and you are TOAST.

It's kind of refreshing to know that they'd actually show it on TV. In the US, we'd mention it, show the twisted bicycle, and the rest, but never in a million years would NBC or CBS show some AARP-type getting blasted fifty feet off his bicycle and dying. But that video will be in my head next time I'm biking the mean streets of Xi Cheng, and it just might result in that extra bit of caution that saves my life.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Oy Vay

A girl I know recently bought herself this cute little QQ car (think Chinese mini-cooper) for 40,000 RMB, or a little more than five grand. I was envious for a moment. It would be nice to be able to cruise around Beijing, especially when it's raining, or you want to go somewhere relatively far.

Then I saw this blog post, and these videos.

It seems that the "crumple zone" in these cars is the drivers seat. Damn.

Also awesome is the flying piece of glass at the end of the second video. Take that, bystander!

Brits Get Rich in China

Stumbled upon this documentary that has been uploaded to YouTube, and it's just awesome. It follows three British guys around as they try to make money in China, and all the obstacles they run up against.

One guy has given 100,000 pounds to a factory owner for an order and the guy writes back that he doesn't have it ready, and he's already spent all the money. The British dude heads out to the factory to find that this guy has built a pool, and swank office, and a new house for himself. After all this, and after the factory owner tries to get him to try a local delicacy (fried donkey dong), which the British dude suspects is intended to humiliate him, he still stays in business with him. Bizarre. Also really, really scary. I'm sort of thinking of trying to start a business here, and I certainly don't have $200,000 I can afford to lose. What do I do when a factory owner steals my money?

And why doesn't he sue? One quibble - the documentary states that China has extremely lax IP laws. From what I read on China Law Blog, that's not at all true. The laws are totally up to Western standards. It's the enforcement that's the issue - the central government has trouble keeping local officials in line, and it's hard to know exactly who is in charge of what in China.

The documentary did give me some hope of finding a job in China though. None of these three guys lives in China or speaks Chinese. The guy who lost money to the factory boss has been in China the longest and seems to be coping best. He has a Chinese assistant who speaks some English, but needs to go himself on all these factory inspections. It seems to me that all of these guys would need, or would benefit from, a Western representative there. I can't fully communicate with Chinese businessmen, though I'm pretty good. Their Chinese assistants, while their English is good, can't fully communicate with their bosses, or directly communicate with Western clients. If you had both on site, that would be a powerful combination.

You can see all 7 parts here

Sexy Beijing

In The Four Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss recommends designing products and services for groups that you yourself are a part of, the idea being that it's too hard to try and understand people who are different, and much easier to simply sell to people of a similar class, culture, and lifestyle.

At first this line of thought didn't seem to mesh well with my current situation; I'm surrounded by a billion Chinese, who can cheaply produce things for my compatriots back home, but there are relatively few people who are like I am at the moment - an expat in China. But as I've been reading more and more expat blogs I've discovered that the community here is fairly well connected, and there's even original content being produced almost entirely for expat-in-china consumption - case in point Sexy Beijing.

Quite a bit of time and energy has gone into the production of these segments, and they're pretty entertaining as well - but you all probably won't find them quite as amusing as I. After all, you aren't here, are you? The opening sequence is a damn good Sex in the City imitation though.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Richest Person in China

Is my age. Jesus god almighty. Apparently her father, who started a property development company in Guangdong, gave her all of his shares, worth some 16 billion dollars, making her the richest person in China. Crazy stuff; stuff that can only happen in a place as crazy as China.

Last year, the richest man in China was Huang Guangyu, who had 2.6 billion dollars. His wealth has increased by a cool billion, but he's fallen to number 10. Last year, less than half of the Forbes 40 list were billionaires, and their combined wealth was less than Warren Buffet's. This year, they're all billionaires, and the first 10 can surpass Buffet. Tells you something about inequality in China, which is already worse than in the US, and rising faster.

It seems China's wealth rankings have all the stability of world hotdog eating rankings. While I'm attracted to the idea of starting a company here and trying to cash in on this rising tide, there is definitely some bubbling happening. Half the list of richest people are property developers, and property prices around China are going gangbusters. Of course, Chinese banks are notorious for making bad loans, and the recent troubles in the US are all you need to remind yourself that these upward trajectories are anything but permanent. But for a generation of Chinese who have experienced three decades of year over year improvements, these sorts of thoughts aren't don't come easily.

If I were investing in China right now, I would be all about taking profits at regular intervals and waiting with some cash on the sidelines for when a crash does come. . .

Randy? Gone?

Man, 2007 has already been such a crazy, crazy year for MMA - George St. Pierre getting knocked out by Matt Serra, Crocop getting KO'd with a high kick, Randy Couture reclaiming and defending the heavyweight belt at 43, and now the ageless warrior leaving the UFC.

UFCmania has a good rundown on Couture's reasons for leaving, and all I can saw is that both this departure and the UFC's failure to sign Fedor Emelianenko has me seriously questioning Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta's sanity. I have nothing but respect for how they have brought the sport into the popular consciousness, and gotten it on live TV, but now that they are rolling in money it would seem to be the time to pay the top talent what they demand and create a true "superbowl of mixed martial arts."

Instead, they have failed to sign the man who anyone in the know would consider the baddest man on earth and lost their most popular fighter. This is a sad, sad day for the sport.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Wonderful World of Visas

Deciding to leave Beijing Normal and study on our own has been somewhat of an adventure ; there's some risk that we won't learn as much, but it could be much better, and we can earn more teaching, spend more time looking for a job, and study for the LSAT in December. Unfortunately though, it means no visa.

And the Olympic fever that has swept through Beijing has finally infected the visa office as well. Normally, visa consultants can get you a year-long business visa for about 2500 RMB, but since July that's no longer possible, and I have to settle for six months. I could live with that, but the restrictions are going to tighten further in the coming months. I'll be able to extend that visa again until June, but after that nobody is getting a business visa for anything less than an invitation letter from a major multinational. And tourist visas will only be given for 30 days (in Hong Kong, Americans have never been able to get them for more than that - Europeans, no problem). And no extensions.

Beijing welcomes you to the 2008 Olympic games! Come to China! Now GET OUT!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Impenetrable Chinese Politics

I don't think I will ever understand how the Chinese political system actually works.

According to the NY Times, there's a deadlock of sorts among the upper echelons of the Communist party over who will succeed Hu JinTao at the end of his next five year term in 2012. What's interesting to me is that his opposition comes from Jiang ZeMin, the former CCCP chairman (why do we call them the president of China?), who is now 80, and holds no official office. Apparently his stature and authority is still enough to effectively veto the man who currently is supposed to run the country.

Now I understand that on some level all power is based on a perception of authority. Civil disobedience, behind-the-scenes revolts, walkouts, and even coupes do happen. Less dramatically, when there is a question of authority or power in government, one party will often step forward and just assume the power in question; think Marbury vs. Madison, or whichever president it was that decided declarations of war are not necessary for sending out the army.

That said, I don't think for a moment that Bill Clinton could do anything whatsoever to hinder George Bush in exercising his powers. Bush, after all, claims that he has the power to do virtually anything he wants for national security reasons. Despite massive opposition from the population, Congress, and even higher levels of the military, most people agree that Bush has the legal authority to start bombing Iran if he so chooses, and I'm pretty sure that the soldiers would go along with it, even if there were some opposition voiced.

In China, not so. We often assume that the CCP, or the people in charge of it can do whatever they want, and aren't hindered by checks and balances that constrain politicians in the west. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In many ways, even the top officials in China are much more constrained in terms of what they can actually do than a President or Prime Minister of a western country.

Here's the most interesting line of the article, referring to Zeng Qinghong, who was Jiang Zemin's right hand man, but who Hu still wants to keep around:

But they say that Mr. Hu has sought to retain Mr. Zeng. This is partly because Mr. Hu’s grasp of the party’s internal workings remains incomplete, they say.

If the chairman of the party doesn't get it, there's not much hope for me.

Stupid Ideas

I love Christopher Hitchens. I love his constant skewering of religion, is wit, his unapologetic love of drink and cigarettes, and, usually, his thoughts. Lately though, we've been diverging - his continued insistence that the Iraq war is a good thing is annoying, but his reasons are at least not as banal as those of most war supporters these days. His latest though, a call for us to boycott the Beijing Olympics, strikes me as fairly retarded.

First of all, shouldn't we have brought all these things up before the Olympics was awarded to Beijing? I'm sure the critics did, but they lost, and it's time to move on.

The real problem with this thinking is the arrogance and hypocrisy behind it. The US has only recently invaded another country for reasons that turned out to be false, and was opposed BY NEARLY THE ENTIRE WORLD for doing so. We also support, and have supported our own cast of unsavory types for reasons ranging from mere convenience to "geostrategic concerns." Does that make us ineligible to host the Olympics? And what do the Olympics even mean if the country that produces all of our cheap electronics and clothes, and has more nearly a fifth of the world's population can't host?

We've made the decision to recognize, conduct diplomacy, and trade with the PRC. Drawing the line at playing games with them doesn't make much sense. And if we've learned anything from the Iraq debacle, it's that yes, world opinion does count, and US power is not the end all to beat all of getting stuff done. China's population will be PISSED if we decide we're too good to come to their coming out party, and that will have long-term, far reaching consequences. The consequences might be worth it if there was a decent payoff - but ask yourself how many times the Chinese have caved to this type of threat. Would America?

James Fallows, who's blog I consistently enjoy and makes me actually consider shelling out to subscribe the The Atlantic, says all of the above better than I.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Wages in China

Sometimes when I go to restaurants and cafes frequented by expats I wonder about the logistics of running such a business, and how much they pay for labor and for rent. Well, after looking in the employment ads on, I know. Here's what a pizza place (best in Beijing in my opinion) which is opening a new branch is offering:
(spelling errors are not mine)

8 Waiters/waitness(basic English required)
--1200/m-1500/m, depend on experience

2 Cooks(know how to cook Pizza)
--2000 first month, 2500 second, 3000 after probation.

2 small cook(knowledagble with salad and appetizer)
--1500/m first month, 2000 after probation.

2 dishwashers(age over 35)--800/m
1 cashier--1500/m

volunteer-- you will get free food and beer if you want help us out in the rush hours.

I was struck by how little these people are earning (our apartment costs 3100 per month, and our food budget is about 1000 per week, and we are at least somewhat frugal), but also by how well they compare to college grads salaries. A good job for a recent grad pays about 4000 per month, but I also know a girl making 2300, and another friend did an internship where she got 20 per day, although she probably did it mostly for the experience.

It's also notable how big the discrepancy is between the dishwashers and the pizza cooks - nearly four fold! Granted, knowing how to make decent pizza is a fairly rare skill in China, but I can't imagine it's that hard to teach. . .

In contrast, I make 150 RMB per hour of teaching at one job, and 200 for an hour and a half an another.

Jobs I Don't Want

Welcome back, oh patient readers. Sorry to have been a total douchebag and not written anything for quite some time.

Anyway, while I browse the internet looking for work that is somewhat enjoyable and compensated at levels at least reminiscent of the west, I thought I'd share with you some of the jobs that Chinese people hold that I have absolutely no interest in pursuing.

Today's subject is the card flicker. This is a guy who stands in the middle of a busy road and sticks business cards in the windows of cars as they whiz by at a minimum of 20 MPH. If you happen to have your window open a crack, as I did one day on my way to meet some friends for sushi, this guy will expertly flick the card (or several) through the window as you go by. Their accuracy is startling; I've seen them get a card through a 1 inch slit from several feet away.

Anyway, not only does the job seem boring, monotonous, and extremely dangerous (knowing Chinese driving practices), but most of the cards offer "massage" services. Even more hilarious, they promise American, European, and Japanese women are all available. Sure.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Randy Still The Man

Damn, I thought this guy was impressive beating Chuck Liddell at 39, but now he's defended his title (which he's holding for the third time) against a younger, larger grappler - precisely the kind of fighter that was supposed to be his weak point (at least at heavyweight).

Granted, Gonzaga getting his nose crushed like an empty pop can was a stroke of bad luck, but Randy dominated him from start to finish, and shrugged off at least two hard headkicks of the kind that had Mirko Crocop demonstrating new frontiers in ankle flexibility.

Forty four years old and still beating the daylights out of men not much more than half his age. You go Randy!

To Kill A Predator

Well, they've finally done it. The Dateline team that tempts, tracks, films, and then hands child molesters over to the police caused some guy to commit suicide as they were sitting outside his house.

I have to say I've been uncomfortable with the whole concept since I first saw the show. Something about reporters doing police work, and particularly the fact that they set these guys (and they are, of course, overwhelmingly, if not uniformly, men) up always smelled of pitchforks and torches to me.

Of course, no one wants to defend child molesters, so my guess is this will go nowhere, at least in terms of public opinion, but it should. According the article Dateline basically did all the police work, and the real police just showed up as bystanders to do the arrest once Dateline has gotten its footage. And while I'm totally for catching people soliciting children online, I'm uncomfortable with ascribing true intentions to everything the john says while the other half of the conversation is being carried on by an adult pretending to be a minor and egging this guy on to say something inappropriate.

This whole thing goes to a larger problem in our society, namely the crazy paranoia we've generated around the whole topic of child molesters. To watch Dateline or Bill O'reilly you'd think you're neighborhood is just crawling with people waiting for your children behind every bush, and that just isn't the case. To my knowledge, there's no evidence of a surge in these sorts of crimes; what has changed is that we're much more knowledgeable and open about these sorts of events.

In any case, just like normal adult on adult rape, I think we need to start distinguishing between different sorts and degrees of crimes, and stop acting like all inappropriate acts between adults and children are the same. Michael Jackson taking thirteen year-olds to his ranch and then giving them wine and a handjob, while immoral and illegal, is just not in the same league as sodomizing eight year-old boys. It's just not.

Of course, if you have sympathy for child molesters (maybe because they tend to be brutally murdered in prison), you're probably with the terrorists as well, so have fun in sunny, beautiful, Guantanamo Bay.

As you can see, I'm kind of straying from the China topic. Having three separate blogs has been annoying, some I'm going to try posting all of my thoughts on this one page, and see how everyone likes it.

Let me know if you love it or hate it.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Holy Mother of God

This really sounds like it's out of the weekly world news, but according to a Chinese news site, a giant baby, three quarters of a meter tall was just born in Harbin.

My favorite part though, is the article listing his weight 7.05 km.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Thank You, and Thank You

I haven't posted anything especially positive about the Chinese government lately, but that's changing today, because they've done two things that please me to no end.

First, most of Wikipedia has been unblocked by the great firewall! Yippee!!! It's not like I usually searched for anything especially anti-China on there anyway - I mostly wanted to know about historical figures, obscure subjects, or the history of small nations. I just hope at some point the Chinese government learns that censorships only adds credibility to those you are censoring. And people will find ways to get around the block (proxy servers, for one. And with Wikipedia, you can always just claim the articles were written by anti-China zealots.

Secondly, Shanghai has banned using the car horns in the city. I didn't even notice this till Ryan informed me of it, but we could really use this up in Beijing. People are more than liberal with the horn here - it's the mainstay of intervehicle communication. And if you're on foot or on bike, it's loud, obnoxious, and irritating as all get out. So thank you Shanghai for leading the way. Hopefully the rest of China will follow the example you and Chongqing have set.

Blogging has been light the last couple of days as I have been spending 12 hours a pop filming this promotional piece for BNU. Very boring. Will blog about it later.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Better & Better

The fakes, that is. I went out yesterday looking for Shanghai's XiangYang clothing market, a rat's nest of piracy and counterfeiting (and hence, very popular with tourists), only to discover it had recently been torn down. No matter, there were several people on hand only too willing to lead me to the fake watches, bags, shoes, and shirts I desired.

On this visit I was particularly impressed with the quality of the watches and shoes. I actually shelled out $30 for a fake rolex, because I was so impressed that it actually had a self-winding mechanism, and I honestly could not tell it apart from my dad's rolex (same model), and I am eager to put them side by side for a comparison.

Later, it even occured to me that I should go to the Rolex shop in Beijing and ask them how I can tell a real Rolex from these high-quality fakes (buy it in a Rolex shop?). Maybe I can even turn the whole thing into an article of countereits and try in get it published in an expat magazine (wheels turning. . .).

Oddly enough, one of the screws in the watch band came off in my pocket as I was walking back to the hotel. No matter to me, since the band was too large anyway, and I need one or two links removed, but it struck me as very odd. The band is certainly not the costliest or most complex part of faking a Rolex, so why skimp on that part (if it indeed was something more than just that the screw was not put in properly)? Wouldn't you want to invest the extra fifty cents to preserve the illusion of quality for at least a while?

I also picked up a pair of fake Ferragamo loafers for $30, we'll see how they hold up. They seemed to be using at least OK quality leather (to my very untrained eye and touch), and the stitching seemed secure and even. Only time will tell. Oddly, similar looking shoes from no-name Chinese brands cost more in the shops I've seen, but maybe that's because of the cost of actually renting storefront space instead of selling out of a back-alley apartment.

Traffic Troubles

Sometimes the Chinese government seems thoughtful, far-sighted, and prudent. China's foreign reserves, now over one and a half trillion dollars, and beginning to be made into the world's largest investment fund, is an example of this. So is China's foreign policy, where it makes just enough of a stink to make other nations reluctant to bother them, but quietely makes friends with resource rich countries around the globe, particularly nasty dictatorships that the west, and America in particular, dislike (ethically debatable yes, but also smart).

At times, I think this leads people to ascribe wisdom and foresight to the government to a much greater degree than is warranted. Remember, this is a government that is controlled by a byzantine system of authority, and Chinese leaders in the past have made titanic blunders; one thinks of the great leap forward, of mobilizing the masses to kill all the sparrows (which resulted in plauges of insects), or China's last tussle with Vietnam in which they were not defeated, but sorely dissapointed.

One of the biggest blunders I see today is the lack of attention that has been given to developing a sustainable, equitable, and efficient transportation system, and the decision to make the car the basis of intra-city transport in China.

While I am currently blogging from Shanghai, the streets of which bear much greater resemblance to a western city than Beijing, and also seems to have less traffic, I have spent most of my time in the captial, which is an unallayed traffic catastrophe.

In the first place there are those blasted ring roads. The second ring road seems to function all right, but the further out they get, the less sense they make; why go around in a circle when you could build a road that goes straight? The biggest problem with them is of course that they are not connected, except by tediously slow streets with traffic lights. There are no highways going into the center of Beijing (within the third ring).

As a result, the ring roads are the only option for most travel around the center. The second ring is almost constantly busy, and the third has traffic jams for several hours a day. Sure, Los Angeles, DC, and other cities in the US also have this problem, but they do not have car ownership growing at 10-15% per year, which doubles the number of cars on the road every 5-7 years. Yes, my friends, it will get worse.

Beijing currently has only 4 subway lines (one of which is an extension). Although there are five more in the works, this is probably still inadequate for a city this large. Chicago has 8 lines, plus a network of commuter trains to the suburbs, all to serve one fourth the population of Beijing.

Density, or lack of it, is also a problem. Beijing and Shanghai are two of the largest cities on earth, and yet their average population density is less than almost any major city in Europe. Certain districts are crowded, to be sure, but they are filled with miles and miles of low-rise housing. Less density means greater distances, which means greater transportation needs that are going unmet.

Parking is a huge issue as well. While many apartment complexes have underground parking, the lack of parking towers in Beijing is conspicuous. As a result, most parking seems to be done on the street, and on sidewalks, inconveniencing those not using fuel-based transport, and taking up tons of space. Real efficient.

What pisses me off the most, though, is the total lack of respect for the bicycle, which is especially infuriating given it's importance to China in the last 100 years. Bike lanes serve as pedestrian walks, parking lanes, and driving lanes as well for cars, the drivers of which generally have no patience for cyclists (a class thing, in my view). Biking is actually faster than driving if there's any traffic in Beijing. And if they would just construct ACTUAL bike only lanes, or even better, an elevated bike-highway across town, biking could become significantly faster.

The density of people per square foot of road is much higher with bikes (even scooters and motorcycles) than cars. They don't make smog, don't make CO2, and are actually good for you (bonus for China: long hours in the bike saddle can lead to infertility in men). Yet for some reason, a government that has no problem restricting the freedom to have children is unwilling to even encourage citizens to use their bikes. Now, every time I hear someone saying China has to be careful to preserve its own institutions and not adopt everything western I think "oh yeah? What about bikes?"

For those of you who are argumentative like me, yes, I realize that the bicycle is also a western invention. But is has been here a lot longer than the car, is intimately associated with China (the bicycle kingdom), and today the non-mountain, non-racing bike with a basket on the front is almost unkown in the west. So there.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Kids These Days

I recently taught a three day course for graduating Beijing high school students who are applying to universities in Hong Kong. The course was to prepare them for the oral interviews, which will be conducted in english: how to answer questions, how to debate and analyze arguments, and how to present themselves.

Not sure how qualified I was to do this, but I think I did a good job, although you'd think that someone from Hong Kong would be more qualified to speak about cultural issues and ettiquete relating to the SAR.

Anyway, what surprised me was the views several of the students had about Taiwan. One of the sample questions given to me was "if you had 30 billion RMB, how would you use it to help China?". Three out of the forty some students said they would use it to buy weapons to defend the country against America, and to retake Taiwan. I cautioned them that it's not clear how HK people feel about that issue, and they might not like hearing that sort of view, but I was genuinely surprised.

Another question "what is the biggest problem facing China today?" also drew several answers of Taiwan. What was odd was that A) the kids seemed to think the only solution was invasion, and B) no one seemed to think that the fact that millions of people could be killed was a downside to that plan. I didn't ask for any clarification (it's a sensitive subject here), but that was the sense I got.

I would have thought that the younger generation would be dissolutioned with old rhetoric about Taiwan, and given the massive influence of movies and music from Taiwan, there would be some protective sentiments, but no.

I did manage to convince them that Taiwan actually isn't a very pressing problem - no other countries recognize Taiwan, and every year China's strength grows in comparison. If Taiwan wanted to be free, the ideal time has long passed.

Apparently propoganda and indoctrination have not nearly lost all their power. The government may not be able to convince people of anything, but if it feeds nationalistic sentiment, it usually works. Of course, that's also a pretty good description of how things work in America. Food for though. . .


Sometimes the central government seems all powerful in China, and you're tempted to think it's a giant big brother state with eyes everywhere.

That's partially true, of course. The central government does indeed have lots of eyes, but there control is certainly not absolute, particularly when you get down to the local level. Local cadres has a lot of direct control over their cities or counties, but sometimes even they don't call the shots.

David Barbossa, the New York Times' business reporter in China writes about being held for some nine hours by a factory boss after he went to investigate the factory that produced the lead-coated Thomas the Tank Engine toys.

The most interesting part is that his translator called the police, who showed up an hour later and did nothing. Then a local government official arrived an explained that he was powerless to do anything about it, and that they'd better negotiate.

Amazing, a government official says he is "powerless" to make a factory owner stop detaining a foreign journalist.

What's also amazing though, is that the factory owner didn't get anything. It sounds like Barbossa kept the pictures he took, and the factory owner was demanding some sort of confession, which he didn't even get. What was the point of it all?

I sometimes feel like the Chinese like to create a lot of theatrical huff & puff during negotiations and diplomacy that means relatively little, but still confuses the bejeezus out of lao wai.

Don't Answer The Phone

The phone rang around an hour after Ryan and I had gone to bed last night. Roused from a deep, peaceful sleep, I picked up the phone and mumbled in response to the gibberish coming from the other end. At least I surmise that's what happened. I clearly remember that the phone rang, but I don't really remember having a conversation or anything, I just remember wanting the person on the other end to let me go back to sleep.

Half an hour later, a doorbell rings. Can that be our room? Do hotels even have doorberlls. Another ring. Maybe it's next door. Hopefully they'll go away. Another ring. Fuck. I'm going to have to get up.

I stagger to the door, and open the door a crack, the door chain preventing a full opening. A woman is in the hallway, telling me something I am competely not understanding. Is she speaking Shanghainese or something. Then a second woman appears. "massage" she says, and makes a gesture which could be taken in multiple ways.

Ah. So that's what's going on. A couple of Ji (chicken, Chinese slang for prostitutes) "bu yao" I say, "wo xiang shui jiao" (I don't want it, I want to go to bed), I say and shut the door.

I read in the Rough Guide that Chinese prostitutes sometimes call random hotel rooms to offer their services but I had never encountered it. On further reflection though, youth hostels don't seem particularly amenable to that sort of behaviour; our current hotel, on the other hand, is somewhat nice, inhabited by lots of Chinese business travelers, but not one of the ritzy western chains, where prostitutes may not be welcome.

So next time you're in China, and the phone rings at night, don't answer. And whatever you do, don't incoherently mumble something that will be taken as "I want sex massaggee" (that's what most of them say).

In other news, every Uighur restaurant in Shanghai sells hash - I have been offered it over five times today alone, and in the same manner that Chinese people sell DVDs (Hello! Hashish!)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Real Jie Zhan (Streetfighting)

So I'm down in Shanghai visiting Ryan for the week, and last night we decided to sample some local seafood on the street near her hotel. Most of the actual seafood proved to be too expensive for our budget (!), but we had some delicious scallops baked in garlic. We then bought a beer and took a stroll around the neighborhood, and as we are returning, we see the fishmonger of the restaurant we just ate at exclaim "da jia!" (fight!).

This guys defintely has an eye for it, as the fight had not started yet, but there was a crowd developing to wei guan (surrounding look, or for a crowd to look at something), so we joined in - what could be more Chinese? At first I couldn't even tell who the combatants were, but then I see one dude stride purposefully towards the back of the crowd and I think this must be one of our contestants.

Then, all of a sudden, a couple of beer bottles go flying. oddly, they are thrown mosty upwards (though I supposed they could have bounced off somebody's head), and, incredibly, do not break upon landing on the concrete. Then a couple of pairs of guys start going at it, and these Shanghainese do not fool around. Almost immediately a chair comes out and is broken over someone's head, and then the pieces are picked up as clubs.

One dude gets thrown down and hit in the face with a beer bottle, full force, at which point I yell "Hey" and think about trying to break this up - this guy could definitely be killed. Fortunately, his assailant only went for one more and then ran away, so i wouldn't have even gotten there in time (and hopefully not been attacked myself). Anyway, the outcome is this dude in the street lies there holding his head for a while, and his buddy staggers around, shirtless, bleading from his head. He falls down in the street very dramatically a couple times, but I'm pretty sure that was because he was completely shitfaced.

At least three (maybe four) guys ran off, so it seems these two bit off more than they could chew. Cops arrived maybe three minutes later and started taking statements.

Lessons learned: some streetfights in China are almost comical - lots of kicks and flying hands but not much more; others are quick and brutal, and they don't wait to pull out the weapons.

I feel like Peyton Quinn and Animal Macyoung have given me some good guidance here. 1) don't fight - you'll get hurt. 2) if you're going to fight, hit first, hit hard, and don't stop till he's not going to hit back. And don't throw your beer bottle in the opening salvo - keep it to hit the guy. 3) book it. You don't want to be around when his buddies or the police show up.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

I Rule!

So I went to our local blind massage clinic yesterday to work out some kinks in my back (masseur is a traditional occupation for the blind in China), and the masseus starts asking me what kind of work I do, and becomes genuinely confused when I tell him I'm studying Chinese at Beijing Normal.

Then he says "wait, are you a foreigner?"

Victory is mine!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thomas the Lead-Paint Engine?

Yes, it's true - Thomas the tank engine can make your child retarded, but not because it's a bad show (I liked it when my little bro's were of that age). No, it's because it contains lead point.

And why does it contain lead paint? Sigh. It's because it was made in China. First the poisoned medicine, then the wheat gluten (or was that first), and now poisoned toys. To those of us that live here, these concerns are not at all new. We hear stories of fake baby formula (true, killed 12 infants), fake cars (don't know), and fake eggs (unconfirmed, but scary as all hell).

What is going on here?

Sadly, I think the news is only going to get worse. This sort of thing is incredibly widespread. Enforcement in China is almost non-existent. Wait till I post tomorrow about the slavery story involving Shanxi brick kilns. It's as bad as it sounds.

And how long has this been going on? I want to dig up some of my brothers' old Thomas toys and have them tested. This is some fucked up shit - has my family been poisoned by dishonest factory owners? I'm pissed.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Like Some Horrible Fairy Tale

Children kidnapped and then forced to be slaves in brick kilns in Shanxi province? According to the New York Times (and apparently the Chinese media as well), yes.

This is so fucked up. I'm not so naive to think that things like this don't happen in the world, but jesus, shanxi province is a couple of hours from Beijing, it's not like it's the middle of nowhere out it the desert.

So much counterfeiting, so much business cheating - why does a country that has such a strict legal system have the very idea of law and order so openly flouted?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Polluting China's Rivers? That'll Be Twelve Grand

Sometimes I'm skeptical of those who say China's regulatory apparatus has no teeth, and that polluters, grafters, counterfeiters, and the like can all get away with a slap on the wrist.

Then I see, from Xinhua (the official news source) no less, that polluting China's rivers and lakes gets you a 100,000 yuan fine. That's about twelve thousand five hundred dollars. Wow.

When I personally could afford to be fouling the liquid that gives an entire country life, you can only imagine how little incentive a large factory has to change its ways.

Here's an idea. Just close the freakin' offending factories.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

China Invests US$ 3 Billion in Blackstone

Via Economic Times, India.

Earlier this year we heard that China was going to start diversifying its foreign exchange reserves into areas other than various treasury bonds, and this appears to be the first big step. Now, the dollar amounts may be small relative to the 1.2$ TRILLION that China has, but the Chinese generally like to move slowly and cautiously. They are, however, buying a large stake in America's second largest private equity firm, and private equity is certainly a riskier (and more profitable) investment than most of us are able to add to our portfolios.

I hope this gets US lawmakers thinking about how we could be investing our remaining social security surpluses more profitably than just letting other parts of the federal government spend the money. I expect China will probably have huge success with this move - just look at how well pension funds and university endowments tend to do - and China's fund is larger than any of them.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Hammer May Be About To Fall

First it was a coal-byproduct in the wheat gluten killing dogs and cats; then it was diethylene glycol in cough-syrup shipped to Panama; now the New York Times is reporting that toothpaste, also shipped to Panama, contains this same, poisonous, dietethylene glycol (a cheap substitute for glycerin). Do the Chinese have it in for Panama or something?

This could turn out to be a BIG, BIG problem for China. While I always have to point out the sensationalism of news stories (nobody is believed to have been harmed by the toothpaste, and it's unclear how many pets died from the gluten, though hundreds of people were killed by the cough-syrup in Panama), there is real reason to be concerned about products, particularly anything you ingest that comes from China.

What surprises me is that I thought counterfeiting was mostly an internal thing. Within China, there have even been cases of counterfeiting rabies vaccine (which is essentially intentional homicide), but I always though economic incentives and the importance of exports to China's economy would keep this in check. Guess I was wrong.

Now, many of the products being shipped from China are going to be subject to increased scrutiny, and the Chinese seem less likely to get approval to ship poultry abroad, something they've been lobbying for. What's worse, "made in China" could be seen by the consumer as a black mark on an otherwise reputable product.

While the New York Times is absolutely right that regulations are often lax, and enforcement before the fact lacks teeth, the Chinese government gets VERY serious about these things once they start shaming the country. My guess is that many of the people behind these incidents may be executed. And yet, these things still happen. What is it about China that makes people willing to take such risks? Did they not think people would figure out what happened when they put a poisonous chemical in medicine?

I've been itching to get a Chinese perspective about all of this, but the Chinese media is completely avoiding the issue, and I'm afraid bringing it up will result in either denial (it's a US plot), embarrassment and unease, or even get them in trouble if they believed it and told others. . .

By the way - to any government censors who may be reading this. Hi. You know, nobody reads my blog anyway, just my parents and friends. And just because I have a blog doesn't mean I have journalistic integrity. Feel free to tell me to shut up, I will. Just don't deport me.

Friday, May 18, 2007

China's Traffic Problems

One of my least favorite aspects of life in China is dealing with virtually all forms of traffic, whether on bike, in a car, or on foot. To some degree, this is to be expected, given that this is the second most populous city in the most populous nation on earth, but it still gets to me.

Cars making right turns, for example, are a constant source of irritation for me. The US standard of coming to a full, or even rolling stop at a red light is entirely absent - in China, drivers don't even really slow down, and right turns proceed throughout the whole traffic cycle. For a bicyclist, this is extremely dangerous - when you have a green light, and you pedal past a bus sitting at the front of the last straight-going lane only to be nearly run over by a taxi hurtling through it's right turn without even braking, you begin to see the sense in some of the traffic regulations one finds so onerous in the west.

In fact, there seems to be a general disrespect that drivers of cars show towards pedestrians and cyclists. My guess is this is a class thing - you have to be upper-middle class or rich to drive a car in China, and I think they view pedestrians and bikers as plebs who should get the hell out of the way. Drivers on the campus of Beijing Normal, taking streets that are FULL of walkers and bicyclists, honk at anyone in their way, and speed past with inches to spare. That kind of behavior would get you lynched at a US university, where it's pedestrians are generally the ones showing no respect.

Of course, I can understand their frustration - while jaywalking seems to be a universal in big cities, it's taken to another level in China. People also seem to prefer walking in the bike lanes to walking on the sidewalks. Sure, there are lots of narrow sidewalks, or even streets without them, but you often see an empty sidewalk, and a whole stream of pedestrians in the bike lane.

The strangest thing to me is that people often step into the bike lane, or even into the road with their back towards traffic! No looking both ways, not even the right way, just plunging right in with the expectation that drivers and bikers will avoid them. And for the most part they do. Aside from a few close calls, a brush or two, and one not-even-fender-bending bike collision, we haven't been involved in or seen any big accidents.

I've seen one or two car collisions (after the fact), one of which looked pretty serious, but I have to say I'm really surprised at how seldom they occur.

of course, people here generally don't where seatbelts (even educated types), so when they do happen, the results are disastrous. I've heard that over 300,000 people a year die on the roads in China. When I go out tonight, I'll drink to my not becoming one of them while I'm here.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Pong In Beijing - Sweet!

Eeeeek! A Caterpillar!

Now I know cultural differences can be vast, but I was flabbergasted by this. Cicadas are mentioned in our latest reading text, which led us to discuss bugs, and our teacher to say that the bug she is most afraid of is mao mao chong, or caterpillars.

Caterpillars?!? They're so cute! And they don't bite, they just crawl on you!

I'm pretty into nature in generally, and I like bugs, but even so, some creepy crawlies get to me. I wouldn't want spiders of a certain size crawling on me, and while I think I could do the fear-factor sit-in-a-tub-full-of-cockroaches thing for money, I would definitely be flipping out during it. And this is a place in which fried scorpions (big ones, too) are a street snack, along with grasshoppers, and some sort of bug still in their chrysalis. And yet, somehow, caterpillars are freakout worthy. . . Baffling.

So then I asked my hui hua (conversation) teacher which chong zi (creepy crawly) she thought most terrifying, and she replied bi hu, or wall tiger. I looked it up in my dictionary, only to find that it means GECKO! Yet again! Another cute little thing that in American sells us car insurance, and here it's apparently terrifying.

It just baffles me that the Chinese can eat so many things American's find disgusting (and a little terrifying in a culinary context) and yet be petrified of them when alive. Of course, my teachers may not be in the eat anything demographic - they've both said they think Cantonese people are freakin' weird for their propensity to eat strange and exotic things (monkey brains, apparently - maybe Indiana Jones should have gone to Hong Kong to find the temple of doom).

For those who haven't heard, there's a saying in China - the Cantonese will eat anything that flies except an airplane, and anything with four legs except a table. Just don't show them a caterpillar while they're doing so.