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.