Snake or Snacks, What’s the Big Deal?

Last weekend, I met up with another classmate from law school, Fei, and we went to dinner together. We had all our classes together, but we had never really gotten to know each other outside of school. I learned a lot about him over the course of the night.

We met at a restaurant by my house. Dinner was delicious, and I always appreciate having someone order for me. I like to eat almost anything, but I don’t really know what I should eat here. The problem is compounded by not really being able to read Chinese menus. I choose dishes based on the number of characters I can read, but I can never read all of the characters, which adds suspense to waiting for the food to arrive. So I know I’ll be getting a dish that is pork and potatoes, but that one character I can’t read could mean head, feet, any organ, or a spice that makes you nauseous with just a whiff of it.

Fei ordered many dishes and beer, true to Chinese dining. He set me up with a crab dumpling. Right when they arrived, he told me to go for it. I unabashedly throw the dumpling in my mouth and bite down, and steaming-hot liquid explodes into my mouth and all over the table. Dumplings in the North are just meat filled, and in Shanghai, they fill them with soup. He had a good laugh at my expense and taught me an important lesson about biting and sipping out the soup first.

The other notable dish was whole, breaded and deep fried frogs. The maxim that “it tastes like chicken” is not true, but they are very good nonetheless. The meat is white like fish, not like chicken.

Fei is a Shanghai native. He left fifteen years ago to attend Dennison College in the middle of Ohio. He said he could read and write, but he couldn’t really speak English. He studied computer programming because it didn’t test his language abilities and moved out to LA. He worked as a programmer for a little while but decided he wanted to come back to China. There is no market for foreign-trained programmers in China because there are already plenty of local ones, so he need gain a skill that would be valuable to bring back to the country. He decided he could do intellectual property law and came to BU Law. His wife and son stayed behind in LA.

This is quite an accomplishment in itself, being able to attend law school in your non-native language. Law school requires being able to articulate complex reasoning in class, and on exams, it requires fast and precise writing. It is especially impressive given he didn’t really speak English until he was an adult, long after prime language learning age. I can’t imagine studying a language right now and ever being able to study law in that language.

We talked a lot about Chinese politics, and my views on the matter are certainly heterodox in American circles. It was a long conversation, and I’m going to include details so I can get my thoughts written down on the subject. Fei argued for democracy in China, and I addressed democracy’s limitations. Most of my opinions on the subject were formed from being in China not too long after the 2004 election and as a response to reading Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom last summer.

Fei’s argument is that most of China’s development comes at the expense of the rural Chinese for the benefit of the city dwellers. The rural population provides food and migrant labor for construction and manufacturing. The currency is kept artificially low so that labor remains cheap to encourage foreign investment, but that means the earnings of rural workers don’t buy them as much as much as their labor merits. Furthermore, there is no social safety net in China, so workers save as much of their earnings as they can for that rainy day when illness, injury, or unemployment strikes. Their savings are loaned to the US, so we can buy flat screen TVs on credit. The economic situation is compounded by political, social, and religious repression. Fei proposed a solution, democracy.

I question both the extent of the problems and democracy’s ability to solve those problems. First, I’m skeptical of how the West perceives the level of oppression in China. I heard an interview with a Chinese labor organizer, and she made an analogy that reflected my conversations and experiences. She likened China to a large cage, with many people in the country never feeling its limits of its bars or knowing that they are even there. Most people can do whatever they want to do within their means. It is not the police state that Western media would like to make it out to be.

The problems are in the economic policies that keep the poor at the bottom. However, wealth helps to perpetuate wealth in all systems. And it isn’t as though the rural populous hasn’t benefited from the economic boom; rural incomes have grown over ten percent per year over the last decade (whereas urban incomes have grown by nearly fifteen percent). Since the reform and opening period, China’s poverty rate has dropped from sixty-four percent to ten. With a country the size of China, that is hundreds of millions of people.

Second, I question whether democracy is the institution necessary or sufficient to correct the country’s problems. Democracy allows the eighty percent to have a say, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a democracy will represent the interests of the eighty percent. Fei even noted that if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) opened up the country to multiparty elections, they would probably retain power from a vote. I have also found that while they recognize problems, most Chinese people generally approve of the job that the CCP is doing. Just because people have a vote doesn’t necessarily mean that they will vote in their own best interest. (I’m not saying that a vote for the CCP necessarily wouldn’t be in the interest of the general populous. The CCP have at least realized that their right to rule is contingent on their ability to continue to provide positive economic growth.)

American democracy provides two choices to represent an entire spectrum of political opinion. Those representing and controlling these two choices are the societal elites, much like the CCP. They run the media, fund campaigns, lobby, and thereby set the entire scope of the political debate. It is irrelevant that they debate each other; what is at issue here is that the methods that determine how the political process functions are largely unavailable to the eighty percent we are concerned about representing.

One advantage of a non-democratic system is that there are no election cycles that force politicians to think about short-term results. This creates a short-sighted political culture that makes the populous more impatient with political results than they are waiting for their Hot Pockets to get out of the microwave. The CCP has the luxury of thinking about how they are going to rule thirty years down the road, and maybe currency suppression is part of a broader plan to develop the economy to a certain point then transition to a more service based economy later. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that the broader plan comes at the expense of those living at the bottom today.

Other institutions and policies seem particularly important for economic development and prosperity. Countries that have certain institutions prosper regardless of their political system: rule of law, openness to competition, access to international markets, education, healthcare, incentives for investment, and industrialization. I think land reform, giving the rural populous private ownership of their land, would do more for the country than any other single change.

My point is not that the Chinese system is a good one; its that the two systems don’t function so differently, and democracy is not necessarily determinative of the prosperity of a populous. Other institutions are necessary to assure good governance. China’s reform period has outperformed India, a full-fledged democracy beginning a couple decades before China’s reform, in economic growth and poverty reduction. Is there greater deprivation in North Korea, Cuba, and Myanmar than in some Sub-Saharan African countries that have nominal democracies? The country with the greatest wealth disparity in the world is Brazil, a fully-functioning democracy for a number of years now.

Fei was quick to point out a fundamental difference in the two systems, expressions of discontent and breaking with government norms are met with repression. Protests are quelled. Several religions are not allowed to be practiced openly and practitioners are oppressed. We have outlets to vent; the Chinese don’t. If problems continue to swell and are only met with repression, there is a potential for discontent to boil over.

That point I have to concede; there are a number of Chinese policies I find indefensible, and democracy at its very least could be a vent for frustrations caused by these policies. However, democracy still has the danger of tyranny of the majority. As long as the consensus of over half the population is maintained, anything can be done to the minority, and it would be consistent with democracy.

I think Churchill said something like democracy is the worst system, except for all the others, and I think that is accurate. Voting is at least some check on abuse of power. Sen cites that there has never been a famine in a democracy to show that the prospect of a vote at least assures that the most fundamental interests of the general populous are maintained. Authoritarian governance relies on the chance that a benevolent or rationally self-interested sovereign comes to power, but it doesn’t exclude a sovereign from acting in the best interest of the country and its people. And a good authoritarian is highly improbable; that’s why good ones (I’m thinking good monarchs here) have been idolized. Democracy is the better system in principle but not always in practice.

The corollary of my position is that I don’t think democracy is a good in itself, but it is good as a means to an end. What is important are the outcomes of the political system. I think many would be happy not to participate in the political system if it functioned perfectly. Would a utopia be any less perfect if people couldn’t vote?

From dinner, we went to the Lujaizui Financial District and up the Jinmao Tower, the fifth tallest building in the world right now by my research. The building is eighty-eight floors, and it costs one hundred yuan to go to the very top. Fei took me to a bar called Cloud 9 in the Grand Hyatt on the eighty-seventh floor. The elevator ride was free, but the cost of operating the elevator is subsidized by the drinks. The hotel and bar were amazing. It was a cloudy night, so a surely spectacular view was blocked in exchange for the strange feeling of being in a cloud. Fei said when he came here for the first time he knew he wanted to come back to Shanghai and be a part of what is happening here. I understood.

After dinner drinks and desert were accompanied by more interesting conversation. When I asked how his father’s business was going, Fei gave me a lot of background about his family. His father was educated to be an engineer. Then the Cultural Revolution came, and he never got to work as an engineer. He shoved coal among other menial tasks for ten years. After reform and opening, he started a construction company and now lives in a townhouse, a stark departure from the shared bathroom apartments Fei lived in as a kid.

His mother’s story didn’t resolve so nicely. She was in high school when the Cultural Revolution began, so instead of finishing her education, she was forced to work in a factory. When market economic reforms came, she was relatively uneducated and couldn’t keep her factory job. She was born in 1949, the year the Communists came to power. The first generation living their entire lives under Communist leadership ended up being the most neglected by the systems they created.

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The next day, I went to Lunch with Apolline, the French girl who had hosted me when I arrived. We went to a French restaurant because she was in need of some comfort food and a break from noodles. Lunch was followed by a trip Shanghai Urban Planning Museum. It was a nice introduction to the city with many pictures of traditional Chinese and Western architecture in the city. There was a whole floor that was a scale model of the entire city, and another floor was dedicated to the Shanghai 2010 World Expo.

To and from the restaurant, we walked through People’s Square. On Sundays, mothers go to the park to look at advertisements for a spouse for their children. Perspective husbands and wives write a little about themselves and hang their sheets of paper in plastic protectors on clotheslines. Pictures are noticeably absent. We also walked by the weekly English corner where Chinese people practice English with each other. The few Westerners participants got the most attention and drew large crowds. Migrant workers also inhabit People’s Square on the weekends, sleeping under trees with bags that most likely hold all their possessions here in Shanghai. They aren’t dirty and disheveled like our conception of homeless people, but they are certainly living on the margins.

Shanghai has many idiosyncrasies, and it is growing on me fast. Many adults leave their house in their PJs to go to the store at night. The weather has been cooler and clearer, and I’ve gotten to appreciate the impressive skyline. The city just feels energetic, like something is always about to happen at any money. Although the city is more expensive than I anticipated, it allows me to experience high-end luxuries that I otherwise couldn’t afford and aren’t available in other Chinese cities.

I had a very symbolic experience last week, and it has since been repeated. When Grace and I were in Harbin, she went to walk through a doorway, and an old woman rushed up and rammed through her and through the doorway at the same time. There was no rush, no crowd, it was totally unnecessary. It is a good example of the cold, hard people of Harbin (although I can’t blame them for being this way; I would be cranky too if I had to deal with that weather all the time). I was walking into my apartment building. An old man and I approached the doorway at the same time. We both stopped, I motioned for him to go through, he smiled, nodded and went. It was a small thing that reflects the ‘civility’ Shanghainese.

There are other little things to confirm my impressions of the Shanghainese. Diners in restaurants quietly call for servers by saying ‘miss’ instead of yelling ‘waiter’. Bargaining feels less intense. Vendors regularly offer me free samples. I’ve had prices rounded down from street vendors without having to ask. They seem to appreciate my repeated patronage.

I guess all of this is relative though. I was put in contact with someone who had lived in Shanghai for a year with the Fulbright program before moving to Taiwan. When I wrote asking for advice, among other things he advised, “The Shanghainese can be abrasive and cold, I suppose like an extreme version of New Yorkers. But you kind of become rougher and get used to it. Don’t be afraid to scream at people and barrel through crowds.” Maybe Harbin just lowered my expectations for Chinese people so that Shanghai could easily surpass it.

However, I’m not totally won over by Shanghai. My lungs have had a hard time getting used to the city. A pollution-induced, deep chest cold finally traveled out of my throat and nose and finally went away this week (although the mucus was never tainted black with coal like Harbin).

The number of crossing guards has surpassed being humorous and become obnoxious. Nine people man each downtown intersection, one police officer in the middle directing traffic like it is the most important job on the planet, one crossing assistant at each corner to blow a whistle at you if your toe slips onto the street, and one volunteer crossing assistant’s assistant wearing World Expo garb and apathetically holding a red flag. I assume the volunteers are a relatively new addition to keep all the pesky foreigners that will soon come to town from breaking the rules. I’ll post a video of this spectacle on YouTube when I get back.

Other experiences reminded me I’m in China with all its little inconveniences. A man wanted to polish my shoes. I declined, so he smeared white shoe polish on my black shoes in an attempt to get me to consent to his service. For a while, I was afraid that my fruit vendors were ripping me off, but after shopping around, my fears have abated.

My greatest dissatisfaction with Shanghai still relates to the foreigners. I met a French girl who declined a job in London because she absolutely had to come to Shanghai and to experience it. She was leaving in three days after being in the city for six months. She never ate Chinese food, took cabs everywhere even to work in the morning, and went out to Western bars with other French people. Shanghai is probably just as good for learning French as it is for learning Mandarin. The foreign community has established their home country in the middle of Shanghai and isolated itself from the rest of the city with the exception of foreigners and locals seeking each other out for sex/gold-digging. I wondered what the response would be in America to an immigrant community like this one. Of course there are many exceptions, but my ability to venture outside of this experience has been limited by its pervasiveness.

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I met with Dr. Liu again this past Wednesday. Translating forty-seven pages of Chinglish is turning out to be no small task. Take this sentence for example, “But such reply issued by the court is only reference for the application, which cannot guarantee the proprietors committee with a decent competence as a litigant in the rights protection.” What that means, even in context, is unintelligible. He also reasons through problems very differently than I would, and it strikes me as overly formal and un-analytical at times. He seems more interested in making a five point list than making sure the reasoning between the five points is coherent, but that could be distorted by my inability to understand what he is trying to express.

We went to dinner after meeting again. I liken Dr. Liu to a bespectacled, modern day Chinese Buddha in appearance, demeanor, and occasionally, thought. He and his staff gave me extensive recommendations on Chinese movies, and he taught me a phrase that has come in handy in bargaining that translates roughly as, “Are you trying to make a fool out of me?” We had a similar conversation as I had with Fei. He reiterated his support for democracy within the party, which I find to be a strong position in itself or a reasonable stepping stone to broader political reform. One of his attorneys, Mr. Zhang, told a story about the rural population not knowing how to vote to represent their interests. There was a vote for some small municipal position, and a candidate gave everyone a bag of flour to secure their votes. He was elected unanimously.

Work with China Economic Review has also picked up. I conducted an interview with the founder of an environmental consulting firm/non-profit called Greennovate. She worked as an environmental engineer in rural China and saw a total lack of foresight in terms of environmental concerns. She quit and founded Greennovate. She sent a photo of the company doing environmental education in rural Guizhou province to run with the story, and the picture was entitled, “Snake or snack, what’s the big deal?” I’ll post the link to the interview once it is published.

I’ve also been working on a story about the Lujiazui Financial District. It is part of a supplement about special economic zones in China. I’ve gotten a crash course on policy, investment, and macroeconomic conditions related finance from local bankers and academics. I think the story has come along nicely, and it is going to be the cover story for the supplement.

This past weekend I met Fei for dinner again with friend of his from high school named Ming. Ming is now a lawyer for the largest firm here in Shanghai, and he was looking for a chance to practice his English. I was happy to make the connection. Fei and Ming spoke Mandarin to each other on my behalf, and it helped me realize that my listening ability wasn’t as bad as I thought it was. They demonstrated the difference in Mandarin and Shanghainese, and Fei told met that the two languages are as different as French and Spanish. I immediately felt much better about not understanding much of what was being said on the street.

Ming treated us at a very nice restaurant. He ordered river turtle in sticky rice, which was alright. It was a bit difficult to get the meat off of the shell, and the meat didn’t merit the work it took to get it. He also ordered roasted pigeon. It was absolutely delicious. The skin was crispy, and the meat was tender and salty. I gushed to Fei, “This is so good! We have so many pigeons; why don’t we eat this in the US?” He smiled and said, “I know, but I keep that to myself.”

Ming was able to fill me in on the climate on legal deals. Chinese business is usually conducted in a restaurant while you are very drunk, and I wanted to know if law was the same way. He said it was, and that the contracts for the prosperous real estate market were usually drafted in night clubs.

After dinner we met with our other classmate in the city, Scott, at a blues and jazz bar in the Bund, the old English part of the city. The bar was another nostalgic Shanghai bar to a greater scale than I had seen before. The band was made up of Berkelee School of Music students, and the piano player hailed from Millen, Georgia.

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I emailed some of my students from Heilongjiang Institute of Technology to see how they were doing. One of my students and best friends from my time there, Crystal, replied, and his email challenged my views on development as a way the government represents the marginalized. The assumption that my students were getting good jobs as a result of foreign investment from Caterpillar was some of the strongest anecdotal evidence I had supporting my idea that China’s development was a good thing. Here is the unabridged version of our correspondence because I couldn’t possible replicate both the inadequacies and brilliant liberties of his English:

Hello Ryan,

I’m glad to hear from your everything. Since we met for the last time, it has been for about two and half years. I am always missing you. Now I work in Jincheng City in the province of Shanxi. I am always busy working the machine and the condition is rather bad, I feel very tired. What’s the worst, the salary is very low.

What are you doing now in Shanghai, then will you return to America? What’s your plan in the future? Would you like to stay in China or America?

Best Regards,

Crystal

Hello Crystal,

It makes me very sad to hear that your working conditions and salary are not good. I thought this was going to be a good job for you, and I am disappointed to know that it is not. Have you stayed in contact with your classmates from Heilongjiang Gongcheng Xueyuan? How are they doing?

I am just going to be in Shanghai for the summer for an internship (实习). I am working for an English language magazine called China Economic Review. I like my job so far. In August, I will return to America to go back to law school. I just finished my first year, and I have two more years before I graduate. I will try to study abroad in China next year in the fall at Tsinghua University. After I graduate, I do not know what I will do. Maybe I will work in America for a while, but I hope to work in China at some time. I still hope to start a factory that is very good to the workers and the environment or something like that. What about you? What is your future plan?

Maybe I can come visit you sometime this summer. Do you think it would be possible for me to visit your factory? I am very curious to see what it is like. Take care.

Your friend,

Ryan

Hello Ryan,

I’m enjoyed I heard from your reply. Now Brad and Fred work here with me and we live in the same room which is only worthy of our delight. Dave works in the province of Neimenggu whose condition maybe is the same as us. The other classmates work different places and jobs.

Sometimes I have a not good mood, because the job. However maybe it’s propitious to develop our ability and skills. Above all, we just now graduated from school. Now I think I only work hard and study the technique. If I have a chance later, maybe I will change my work. Of course, I also would like to do myself something just like you, but it seems not to be impossible for me in rather long time. We are different, you can do yourself thing because you have the advantage, but I can’t.

I’m very excited that you are going to see me in the summer. I think you may visit to our factory in proper time if you come here. I’m looking forward you coming.

Your friend,

Crystal

Hi Crystal,

I’m glad that you get to live with your friends and that all of you got to stay together.

That is the sad thing about life; some people are born with advantages and others are not. The people who are born with advantages didn’t do anything to merit those advantages. It is not very fair. That is why I hope to do good things with my advantages.

When would be a good weekend to come visit? Could you make sure with your supervisors that it is OK for me to visit your factory? I’m very excited to see all of you soon.

Best,

Ryan

Hello Ryan,

I’m glad to receive your letter again. I’m sorry to reply you in time because we are buzy now.

The life is just like a box of chocolate, you never know what is the next one. So we everyone have to strive for the freedom and happiness.

The weather is more and more hotter. How well it is if I have a summer holiday.

I think it must be no problem that you visit to the factory. It is convenient that whenever you come here. It depends on you that which weekend you want to come here. You can arrive in Zhengzhou(郑州) first, then you take bus from Zhengzhou to Jincheng (晋城).

Best,

Crystal

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So I may be traveling outside of Shanghai and getting to see some friends and a Chinese factory with “bad condition”. I thought I wouldn’t travel outside of Shanghai for the sake of expense and convenience, but this opportunity might be too much to pass up. I doubt getting to see the factory will happen even if I go there. There is no way they would let a white person into the factory if this is some sort of sweatshop.

Your comments and correspondence are always greatly appreciated. Keep in mind that I can’t read the comments page on the blog itself, so email me (rmm@bu.edu). I really like to get emails from home, so if you are reading this, please send me one, even if you don’t have anything to say.