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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Cheng Yu of the Day

Cheng Yu are Chinese idioms, usually four characters long, often associated with a story, either folk or historical. And there are THOUSANDS of them. I think I'll have learned over 100 from my texts this semester alone, along with a bunch on the side.

Today's is: Qi2 Lv2 Zhao3 Ma3 (the lv is a lu with an oomlaut over the u)

Ride donkey, search for horse.

It usually means to be with one girlfriend while on the lookout for another.

Sweet! Chinese Swears

So I made a new Chinese friend last night through a Japanese classmate of mine, and he's very cool. Smart too. Fucker speaks excellent english, some cantonese, and good Japanese as well. Works at CCTV - I may have to try to exploit that connection.

It's good to have a male Chinese friend because most of the students offering to be language partners are female, and while that's fine, given the cultural rules concerning male/female interactions, I definitely would not ask a female language partner to teach me any of those oh-so-interesting words that you don't find in the dictionary.

I don't know if there's a definitive book out there on Chinese swearing, but there should be, because it's cool and interesting, and definitely full of insights into the culture. Anyway, without further ado, some gems from my new friend.

"I fuck your eight generations of ancestors" (wo3 cao4 ni3 zu3 zong1 de ba1 bei4r)

Fuck off/fuck yourself - literally "pull your dick inverted" (la1 ji1 ba dao3)

Fuck off/fuck yourself - literally "roll your dick into a young calf" (gun3 ji1 ba du2 zi)

This one I knew for a long time, but wang2 ba1 dan4, which means "turtle egg" is usually translated as bastard, but occupies essentially the same place in the language as motherfucker - questioning someone's parentage is generally pretty serious in China.

"stupid cunt" - sha3 bi1 - a favorite of Beijing taxi drivers having to stop for another car or a pedestrian.

Another intersting thing is that the closest analogue of dammnit is "ta1 ma1 de" which means "his mom (possesive)". It can be used alone or like the F-word in the english language, as an adverb, adjective, or emphatic word. Sweet.

It's not surprising that most of these words are male-oriented - in the past women weren't even supposed to leave the house (nei4 ren2 - inside people), and just going out in public unaccompanied was looked down upon, let alone using such salty language with others.

Now, of course, Chinese women are out working, shopping, doing almost everything men are doing. Behavorial standards continue to be different - women don't drink or smoke nearly as much, and there is certainly still a lot of sexism, but it will interesting to see how this aspect of the language evolves as women start to participate in the less seamly parts of public life.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Abortion In China

Interesting read at nytimes about single women getting abortion in China. They really do need to get on the sex education bandwagon if they want to have family planning - despite the deep prudishness of the culture.

The point I want to make about abortion in China though relates to the "old" face - women getting forced abortions. People often criticize China for this practice, calling it a human rights violation, but they rarely attack the idea behind the one child policy itself.

It seems to me that there are three ways to enforce such a policy 1) prison terms for offenders, 2) hefty fines impoverishing both parent and child, and 3) forced abortion. Given those choices, and especially for a developing country in which most of the penalties will be meted out on the rural poor, option 3 seems the least harmful to me.

Yes, the one child policy is coercive - that's the whole point of it. Then again, taxation is also coercive; if you don't pay, you go to jail. The freedom to have a child may be a fundamental right, but it's already abridged once you have the policy; the question is whether it's justified. Given the fact that it hasn't stopped China's population growth (particularly in the countryside) and has led to many illegal, unreported children, you could argue the policy is a failure, in which case it clearly is unjustified. On the other hand, India's population is slated to overtake China's, so there probably has been some population restricting effect.

I certainly don't know what the right solution is, or even what the costs of unchecked population growth would actually be (I suspect they would be less that the costs of the one-child policy), but when we criticize the policy, we should be clear about what aspect of the policy is objectionable, and to my mind, it's not the forced abortions.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Want To Be A Celebrity? Move To China

These days, while people are still impressed that a "lao wai" can speak Chinese, the site of a foreigner is just not the spectacle it once was, at least in Beijing. In addition to Da Shan, there are now several foreigners on TV who speak perfect Chinese, damn them all.

But even a bus ride from Beijing things can be totally different. This weekend Ryan and I went on a volunteer trip to teach english at a high school outside of Shi Jia Zhuang, the captial of HeBei province (where Beijing is located). Shi Jia Zhuang is one of 50 or so Chinese cities that have like 5 million people, but somehow aren't big enough to show up on the conciousness of anyone outside the province. The city itself seems to be booming - lots of new skyscrapers, and lots of luxury brands being sold to the ever-expanding class of Chinese nouveau-riche. But just outside the city, the surroundings revert to the endless expanse of half-countryside half-suburb that is rural China.

The school was huge - more than three thousand students attend, and the main building was a giant four-story courtyard with giant classrooms on all sides. This being China, the facilities were rudimentary - troughs for bathrooms, with sinks constructed of concrete and tile and smells that make you want to rip out your olfactory center.

We sat in the principal's simple office for a bit and then went to a mid-size auditorium (100 or so people) where the students were all waiting. As it turned out, we wouldn't be teaching at all, but would be answers students questions in English, and where we could, Chinese. Our rudimentary Chinese set off rounds of applause, but when they asked if we could sing Chinese songs and I pulled out a little Jay Chou (you don't know him, but they do, oh yes they do), they went crazy. We sat for five classes and in between each one we continually signed autographs for the kids, who apparently don't realize that we're a couple of nobodies. While Da Shan may be cemented at the top, there's plenty of room in the Chinese heart for foreigners who speak a little, especially if you can sing Qian Li Zhi Wai.

We had dinner at the house of the local top dog - not sure if he was a government official or just a local business leader, this being China it was probably both. We had some fabulous dumplings and lamb skewers, and were plied with as much Chinese liquor as they could get us to drink (we still had two classes of students after dinner. . .). Man, not only is most Chinese booz 50+ percent alcohol, but they were drinking out of huge shot glasses, such that when asked to "gan bei" (dry glass) I definitely could not get it down in one gulp and was forced to become more acquainted with the taste of lighter fluid than I'd like.

Unfortunately if I want to do business in China, I'm gonna have to get used to it - refusal to drink is impolite, and is viewed as a sign of dishonesty. Notions of alcoholism as something other than a bad habit have not caught on here. Of course, they want to outdrink you to save face, so maybe I can squeak by with a few shots and then protesting that I'm a lightweight and we Americans just can't drink as much as Chinese people. . . Take that western stereotypes!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Apartment Troubles

Oh China, why must you always be so sketchy? I try to do everything on the up and up here - communist countries entail mounds of paperwork, and any detail out of place can result i delays or impasse. But even though I went through a real estate broker, my apartment is sketchy somehow. When I registered with the local police (and today, when a repairman came to fix the fuse that had blown) I was told by my agent I should say this is a friend's apartment, and not that I've rented it.

Sigh. I have a signed contract, and I went through the proper channels, and yet, somehow, I still have a sketchy apartment. That's China for you. If anything happens, I'll deny any knowledge of impropriety. My best guess, though, is that my landlord's dan wei (work unit) probably gave him this apartment, and they don't want him to rent it.

I do feel bad for my real estate agent, as my landlord is permanently in Gansu (bumblefuck China) on business, so she has to handle any problems I have, including this latest electricty problem, and I'm not sure she's getting paid for it. Not that I could even help the situation - she would almost surely refuse any money from me. Chinese pizza guys even refuse tips (from Chinese pizza places - Dominoes people do - Yay capitalism!).

The electrical problem turned out to be simply that we had tripped the circuit breaker by plugging in the fan on wednesday night and lost power to half the outlets. This should have been a simple matter of re-flipping the switch, but the switch is in a locked box that I lack a key to. The repairman came, but claimed he couldn't break the lock without the owner's permission. Eventually my agent showed up with some dude in tow who simply put a metal bar into the loop of the lock and pushed, and it opened. Seems easier that opening a Kryptonite bike lock with a bic pen!

Electricity is back, and as I write I'm watching the Taiwanese parliament have a brawl - I seem to recall this isn't the first time I've watched a similar scene there. On the one hand I wonder why their government is so crazy - but then I think it would be pretty cool to see our senators go at it every once in a while.

Now my only problem is that Gmail is down. . . Always something. . .