Friday, March 30, 2007

US To Set New Duties On China

Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez announced that the US is going to put duties on Chinese imports because the Chinese government is subdizing the companies in questions.

I have a couple takes on this. First, this isn't really a change in policy, we're just not applying the "Communist countries don't count" exception to China anymore. This makes a lot of sense. China is not a Communist country - I think it's best described as authoritarian capitalism with a large, decaying sector of state-owned firms.

I'm not an economist, so I don't really know whether the Chinese government is subsidizing these companies (I'd be willing to believe it though) or what the effects of such duties are likely to be.

Reflexively I tend to be a free-trade kind of guy. If the other guy wants to subsidize our consumption (and the low prices at Wal-Mart are the result of low-priced Chinese exports), let him. On the other hand I can see limits to this kind of thinking - if, say, all of America's paper producers go out of business and China starts raising the prices, it certainly won't be better for consumers (this is what Rockefeller used to do with oil back in the day). Then again, we could reopen the paper plants at that point - it's not like the technology will dissappear, and if China is forced to continously subsidize us in fear of a resurgance of domestic competition, so much the better for us.

I also wonder, what would be the effect of a sizable dimunition of Sino-American trade? We tend to think of ourselves as dependant on foreigners because of our large debt, but thinking about this has made me wonder. If our trade with China suddenly went to zero, we would be left without our cheap televisions and ipods, but with a pile of money, and start looking for other places to spend it, including domestic products, or different products alltogether. Meanwhile China would be left with a surplus of televisions and ipods that exceed their domestic demand, and are out of the price range of most of the country. They'd also be missing all the dollars that were flowing in from America. I know which situation I'd rather be in. Of course, as I said, I'm not an economist, and all of this speculation could be based on some faulty logic, so who knows.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Calling All Winos

All winos will want to move to China after reading this. Your days of brown bagging it on the streets of America are over, now you can CLEAR bag it. We found this plastic bag of alcohol (53%) at Wu Mart. Granted, it was in the cooking alcohol section, but so is Er Guo Tou (which people drink in freakin' restaurants!), and anything that's not expensive enough to go in the glass case. Besides, look at the guy pictured on the bag. He hasn't been cooking.

I doubt we'll muster the guts to try this stuff, but I had to shell out the 3 kuai (less than 50 cents) just to take this picture. Man, winos in China have it easy. An hour or so of begging (how hard can it be to get 3 kuai?) and you're set for the rest of the day!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Why are drug dealers in Beijing black?

Last weekend we went out to San Li Tun, the most developed bar strip in Beijing, for some pizza and to check out the scene. It looks like a lot of fun, with good places to hang out and good food, though with prices that aren't far removed from America.

Just like the guide book said, we were approached by several African (although one had an English accent) fellows offering various wares (don't worry mom, we turned them down). This struck me as extremely odd - why aren't the drug dealers Chinese (in Dali the shitty weed is sold by old ladies)?

It's not as if poverty or lack of opportunity can explain it. For one thing, there's plenty of Chinese with no opportunities, and second, China has no immigration, so you can only get in if you have a job or you a tourist. Are these guys really on tourist visas?

There's rumours that these guys are the sons of the ambassadors or other high-level diplomats from various African nations, but I have to wonder why those people would be selling drugs as well. And does their status really give them effective immunity?

Rumour has it that the police don't really care what foreigners do as long as no Chinese are involved, and the demography of drug dealers does seem to lend credence to that. It's not as if the Chinese poice are not allowed to do racial profiling, and if they wanted to catch these guys they certainly could. Then again, perhaps these guys are safe because of their connections and the police lie in wait for their customers (who would do such a thing?).

At any rate, it just seems bizzare for there to be such a marked association between race and illicit career when all those concerned are foreigners. It's definitely there though - I saw four black people on San Li Tun that day. Three offered me drugs. The other was wearing a "Citigroup Wealth Management" hat.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Dear Chinese Government

Hi, I hope you're reading this - I have a little suggestion.

Please oh please oh please require all cabs in Beijing, and later on in the rest of China, to stop taking the seat belts out of the back seats, and put them back if they have. We foreigners, and I'm sure some Chinese, like them, and there's really no added convenience to not having them. Every time I take a cab, I worry that I may die because there isn't a seat belt to restrain me if I crash. I know I sound whiny, but I've been strapping in since Fred Flinstone used to tell me to buckle up for safety, and it's a hard habit to break.

I'll admit that Americans have gone kind of safety crazy with respect to kids and the numerous alarms, leashes, and other safety contraptions we've thrust upon them, but you really can trust us on this seat belt thing. They work.

Besides, don't you want to show how safety conscious you are during the Olympics? What better way than protecting your foreign friends with a good ol' an1 quan2 dai4?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Weirdest Thing Ever

Chocolate Cheese.

No, I'm not making this up. They sell it at the Wu-Mart across the street. It's actually not bad, but it's kind of surreal eating chocolate flavored cheese, even if the cheese is totally artificial to begin with. It tastes kind of like really thick pudding.

And doesn't the picture kind of look like lunch meat? But it's not, read the packaging.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ughghgh Rice Vomit

No, not me.

But someone.

Beijing seems to have more public vomiting that any other place I have ever been, even Dartmouth. A week ago, on the way back from Jiu Jitsu we saw two people vomiting on the road side, assisted by their friends.

And on the way to class I would say we pass a pile of vomit nearly every other or every third day, often on the bridge across Xin Jie Kou. It's nasty too, non-digested rice and some goop.

I have two theories. 1) the drinking. We don't think of Asians as huge drinkers in the US, but they are, and they like their BaiJiu (liqour). 2) Milk. Maybe these unfortunate souls got sucked in by some western ad for dairy products and didn't realize they were lactose intolerant.

Whatever it is, it's gross. Apparently though, according to a Korean student in my class, it's even worse in Seoul.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Chinese Mulletude

China is not only the most populous nation on earth, but also, I am increasingly convinced, the one with the largest population of mullets.

Particularly for women, the mullet is very much a de rigeur hairstyle here. Our real estate agent had one, one of my professors has one, and both of the elevator attendents in our building sport the androgynous mullet look.

How did this happen? How did a hairstyle that's associated with rednecks and hicks in the US become so chic in the middle kingdom? Of course, it's entirely possible that the mullet developed independently here, but it seems likely in the age of the internet and television that the original Chinese proto-mullets were inspired by mullets overseas. But what were they thinking? And why aren't the internet's mullet awareness sites on to this?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Please Stop Honking At Me

I hate being honked at. In the US it pisses me off, but in China it goes to a whole other level. If the warning alerts me to potential harm or averts a fender-bender, I'm fine with it, but when people honk just because they're impatient, or do the Chinese honk-just-to-announce-your-presence thing, it really gets under my skin.

There's just something about the sound of it - it's so sharp, loud, high pitched. I can't help but stiffen up and get agitated when that sound suddenly bursts into my consciousness. Sometimes, getting home from a bike ride, I really hate China, and really dislike the Chinese. It's gone after an hour or so outside the range of those horns, but it's surprising how an irritating noise can creep into your attitude towards an entire nation. Of course I don't really dislike the Chinese, but you realize how malleable human emotions are, and how small things could develop into deep set attitudes.

What I really want though, is to be like this old lady here:

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Two Words: Hearing Aids

By my calculations, in about 20 or 30 years the market for hearing market for hearing aids in China is going to be booming, for the following reasons:

A) The horns. Honking in China is not like the US. You honk to greet. You honk to let someone know you're behind them. You honk when you pass. And you damn sure honk when you think someone has intruded into your space in the slightest. Thing is, they have the same loud horns that are used in America for emergency warning. Someone should make a "Asia" horn that is softer and lower.

B) Conversation level. For some reason, people just talk louder here - it's just a cultural thing. It's not quite shouting, but most people talk with a very full, quite loud voice. Although for some reason, some Chinese women speak so softly you can barely hear them. Must have something to do with notions of feminine modesty

C) Cell phones. The decibel level doesn't drop one iota when people switch from face-to-face communication to cellular. If anything, it sometimes increases. People don't seem to have grapsed that constantly having someone shout into your ear can be a bad thing, especially when you have your nifty little in-ear bluetooth headset.

D) Music. Young people the world over seem to like loud music, but in many places this is expressed mostly in clubs and rock concerts. Now I haven't been to any rock concerts here, but the clubs certainly throb as violently as any in Europe or the states. What is different is that you will hear ear-splitting music blasting form a store fronts in the cities, as if this would have an enticing effect on passers by. I have seriously covered my ears while walking down the street. The increasing ubiquity of MP3 players and iPods can't help this any.

Most people in the world don't seem to be taking threats to their hearing seriously - in Chicago I constantly saw people iPodding it on the L, even though you have to crank up the volume to hear over the train, and this has been shown to kill your hearing. But safety is especially unconcerning to the Chinese at this point; this is a country where most people still don't where seat belts, and tell you reassuringly that it's ok when you try to put yours on. There are going to be a lot of people with hearing problems in the coming years - I just hope the hearing aid manufacturers are getting ready.

Wait, scratch that. They're probably already made in China.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

God Damn Chinese Is Hard

My classes are killing me. Well, not really, but I'm definitely feeling the pressure from all the work. Every week I have to memorize and learn 150 to 200 characters, so by the end of the 15 week semester, I'll have added say one or two thousand new characters, assuming some overlap. But I still cannot read a newspaper without using my dictionary every other sentence.

Compounding this difficulty is the fact that there are many words which are for literary use only. In English we have modes of speaking that are better suited for writing, and you can choose to sound literary and erudite or earthy and colloqial, but it's not like there are words which are exclusive to either style.

Then there's ancient Chinese. I'm not studying this, but a thousand years ago, they used the same characters, but the grammar was completely different, and some characters had different meanings.

I've studied this language for 2 years already, and I'm beginning to think it's going to take another year before I can read a newspaper, and maybe another year till I'm anything approaching fluent.

Why didn't I pick Spanish?

A Flat Tire Repaird For 25 Cents

So we're setting out for Jiu Jitsu, and as I start riding, I discover that my front tire is totally flat. During the day, Beijing has bicycle repair stands on virtually every street corner, but at 7 PM, most of them are closed. Luckily, the stand near the Wu Mart across from our apartment was still open.

The guy popped my tire off in like two seconds, filled the tire up, found the leak, patched it up and had me on my way in ten minutes. The charge for this prompt and expert service? 2 Yuan. Roughtly 25 cents. I love this country.

If I got a flat tire on my bike in Chicago, or worse, in Wausau, I'd be walking home. But in Beijing, I was back on the road in no time.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Why Don't We Have That Here?

On that same trip to Carrefour on which I got so frustrated with the fa piao system, on my way out I noticed another little thing that would be useful in America: coin operated cell-phone rechargers.

You put in a coin and there's like 50 different plugs for all different kinds of phones, and you charge yours up. Can you hear me now?

I Hate Fa Piaoing

As amazing as some aspects of China's development are, there are still sectors that are astoundingly ancient and inefficient. Do some shopping outside of the major tourist centers, and you will soon encounter the ordeal that is fa piao. Fa piao means to make or fill out a reciept, and it is one of the most inefficient and infuriating processes I have ever seen.

We were in Carrefour, the French supermarket chain, a week or so ago, and I thought I'd pick up some shaving cream. Turns out though, that if you want shaving cream, you can't take it to the check out counter like everything else, you have to go to the costmetics counter (which had a line), have them fill out a reciept (fa piao), go pay, come back with another reciept, and then you can take your shaving cream, which you won't have to pay for in the regular checkout line because you have your piao.

First of all, what concievable purpose does this serve? It's not like this process will allow them to track their sales more efficiently. And it's not like it deters theft. In fact, it probably makes theft easier, as you can just forge a reciept.

Don't they realize that today it's all about customer service? and if there's one thing we hate more than waiting in a line to check out, it's waiting in two lines?

And it's not like this is restricted to the most expensive items in the store, it was shaving cream. At our local Wu Mart (a Chinese big-box retailer), we had to fa paio for a power strip costing less than $2, while we could take five or ten dollar items straight to the register. Who comes up with this crazy system?

At Gome, an electronics store who's owner is China's richest man at the moment, you have to fa piao for EVERYTHING. I wonder if there's some sort of onerous government regulation that requires this madness - I cannot fathom why the French superstore would tolerate this nonsense otherwise.

Overall, paperwork in China is a serious impediment to progress. They're sticklers about filling out mountains of forms (all with 3 carbon copies) that they could never possibly have time to look at, even though they often have computers at the same desk.

That's China for you though, one minute you're impressed by how clever and innovative something is, and the next your cursing their crippling beauracracy.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

China Creating Giant Investment Fund

China is looking to diversify it's foreign reserves, which is currently mostly in US treasury bonds, and will create one of the world's largest investment funds in order to diversify it's holdings with riskier assets.

Fundamentally, this seems like a good idea. There's no reason for a country, which theoretically should be a longer term investor than most individuals to only buy treasuries. As a gigantic investor with no short-term requirements, they should be able to achieve substantial returns, similar to what many Universities have done with their endowments, except an order of magnitude larger.

There may be a message in this for America as well: we won't finance you forever. China is not, of course, the only purchaser of US treasuries, but it is a large on. What would be more significant is if China were to dump the treasuries it currently holds, sending the price down and putting pressure on the US to raise interest rates. According to the article, China is more likely to shift its purchases rather than getting rid of the assets it already has.

This is actually what I thought the US should have done with Social Security. There's no reason diversifying the trust fund has to include private accounts; why not just create a giant social security endowment and invest in a range of assets. I guess this is another instance of an authoritarian government being able to push through policies that in a democratic one get bogged down with all sorts of interest groups trying to make the system more favorable to themselves.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Why Don't We Have That?

The Chinese are very keen on preventing shoplifting, so in many stores you can't take any sort of backpack or bag (even a plastic shopping bag from another store) in, and you have to leave it at the entrance. Fortunately, many of the larger stores have a very user-friendly and convenient method for doing this.

You press a button, a locker opens, and a reciept with a barcode prints out from the panel in the middle. You put your stuff in, close the door, which locks, and you leave. When you come back, you hold the barcode up to the scanner right below the printer, and the locker opens! This is easy and so simple, I cannot imagine why these things aren't all over America.

Why don't they have this at the gym so you don't have to carry your own lock or a gym locker key? What about stores in America? or bus stations and airports (there it may be the terrorist paranoia that prevents leaving anything for any amount of time)?

Basically, why should there be any situation in which a nation that is much poorer and somewhat less technologically advanced have nify gizmos that we don't?

Coolest Thing Ever

It has nothing to do with China, but this is freakin' sweet. I hope to see one next time I'm in the US.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

The Upward Trajectory

Whenever I get dejected about the political situation in China (it is, after all, an authoritarian country with rule BY law rather than rule OF law), I'm comforted by the continuous improvement virtually all aspects of life (with the exception of pollution) over the last 30 years.

Granted, coming out of the Cultural Revolution, China was not in a very good spot. Not only were people dirt poor after 20 years of failed economic policies, which in turn came after a gigantic world/civil war in which million were slaughtered, but there was a climate of fear that remained after what is perhaps the largest outbreak of totalitarian madness in history, and one most people still don't know much about.

Yes, the country is Authoritarian, but it used to be Totalitarian, and that's a big difference. Mess with the government, and you're going down, but these days if you don't rock the boat (and even if you stop once you've gotten the message they don't like it) you can pretty much live as you like. You can't move anywhere you want, and money is a severe limitation on much of the peasantry, but no one in China is enforcing rigid controls on thinking, private speech, or personal activities.

The story everyone is so interested in is the economic rise of China, and this goes hand in hand with the expansion of personal freedom here. China has awakened from its communist slumbers by allowing entrepreneurship, ownership, and choice in economic affairs. It's impossible to separate this from a basic shift in thinking, from a view in which the party and the greater good of society should dictate everything about your life, to one in which the government can manage a society in which people make their own choices.

There is still a long way to go here. Many people live on less than $2 a day, and people are still getting in trouble for advocating for the powerless, and agitating for greater freedom. But looking at the past 30 years, I can't help but be optimistic. The cultural and economic forces that have created the current prosperity cannot be easily bottled up, and will probably continue to create more opportunity and more freedom. There will be attempts to curtail this or that expansion of freedom, but in the long run, the government cannot turn back from this course (did I just say 'stay the course?) without the risk of losing everything they've gained, or even plunging the country into chaos - something that would be a disaster not only for the Communist party, but everyone in China, and indeed, everyone in the world.

Given these choices, I think the government will continue on its present path - slowly loosening its grip, carefully watching the expansion of the country. There's always a place for worry and preparing for disasters, but the recent past gives me great confidence that China will continue to become a better and better place to live, for Chinese and Lao Wai.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Chinese Military Spending

Is increasing, and America is worried about it. Worry is certainly justified; China is the biggest emerging power and also the most militaristic. In addition, China is an authoritarian country that may not be restrained by popular anti-war sentiments.

Still, on some level the American response is just comical. Here we are, the biggest, baddest country in the world (our military budget of 481 BILLION is almost ten times China's official military budget, though their actual spending may be twice that), waging an unpopular war against nearly unanimous opposition in the rest of the world, and we have the gall to tell them to be more transparent and peaceful.

It's amazing that we sometimes don't get that not everyone is on board with the "America as global policeman" thing.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Why The @#%& Don't They Get This?

While we were travelling throughout China last fall, we encountered a large number of hotel bathrooms that just flat out stank. Not post-crap stink, but straight-up sewer stink. We soon discovered the problem: they don't have the S pipe here. You know the S-pipe, right? The little bend in the pipe underneath your sink which ensures that there will always be a little water in the pipe preventing sewer gasses from coming up. Despite the ubiquitous presence of high-tech cellular phones, flat-screen televisions, and now fleets of luxury cars, this staple of western plumbing has yet to catch on here.

Thankfully, the shower and kitchen drains of our new apartment seem to be thusly equipped (a non-smelling bathroom was one of our key requirements). Here is the interesting variation beneath our kitchen sink:

After a few days, however, we noticed a nasty rotten vegetable smell coming from somewhere in the vicinity of the bathroom. Soon after, we made a shocking discovery: our bathroom sink has no S curve. Fortunately, we can close the drain in the sink, but it just amazes me that such a basic (and oh so necessary) plumbing fixture continues to be left out of even fairly new constructions.

There is hope though - in Chengdu we noticed a public bathroom in which an enterprising plumber had seen the problem and devised a solution. He bent a loop into the pipe running down from each urinal.

Why Don't We Have That?

Nothing irritates a person more than someone stealing your parking space (except maybe keying your car), but back in the US we don't have anything to prevent it. Even the CEO of a company usually only has a sign, which can be ignored. In Chicago during the winter, people on our block would resort to putting chairs out in the street to reserve their spot. Here in China, they believe in the direct approach: a lockable stand that prevents any car from moving into your space until you unlock it with a key. It could even be improved, I suppose by activating the lock mechanism by a proximity sensor you put on your car.