To follow up on my last post, I’m putting up links to articles I’ve found over the last week about how the Chinese government is responsive to the public in the context of a recent internet censoring policy. (I read a lot of news everyday now. It’s my job.) The interaction of an authoritarian regime with public sentiment is certainly very interesting; they pick their battles. Also, I saw another relevant piece of information this week that would cut against the statistics I proffered; China’s average GDP per capita ranks below Angola and El Salvador. So take what statistics you like and use them to support your version of the truth about where China is politically.
Green Dam and the Politics of Consent (I recommend reading the link about the Harmonious Society on this page)
The riots in Urumqi this week add an additional level of depth to the debate. Here are some articles give some good analysis in relation to democracy and the response to the riots. I would like to note that democracy doesn’t solve this problem necessarily; tyranny of the majority can still be an issue. Our democracy was one that legally oppressed a minority for a few hundred years, and let’s not forget the riots in France of a few years ago by an oft-ignored Arab population. It is unlikely that after years of nationalist education the majority Han Chinese would recognize the interests of minorities in a democracy.
As a response to the riots, the Chinese government tightened constraints on the internet. To prevent communication between potential protesters and rioters, Facebook has been blocked across China. This greatly angered the foreign community because they no longer had a way to procrastinate at work. Taking away Youtube after the site had reduced everyone’s attention span to minute long clips of amateur comedy was hard (for myself as well), but this was too much to tolerate. On sites that were accessible, people began to discuss way to escape the brutal oppression of not being able to look at their friends’ pictures and status updates, and by reading these discussions, I have found a way to circumvent the “Great Firewall of China”. This is the first post that I have been able to publish myself.
The consequence of being able to publish my own posts is that they will hopefully be shorter and more frequent since I don’t have to impose any work on my brother. I envision some posts being purely narrative, others purely observation and analysis. There probably will be some video posts on occasion as well.
A few weekends ago, I went to a Couchsurfing gathering at hotpot restaurant. Hotpot is form of dining brought to China from the Mongolians who would cooks soups in their metal helmets over an open flame. The modern version doesn’t require any military equipment or fire, just an electric hot plate with a pot of water in the middle of a big table. You order whatever vegetables, noodles, and raw meat you like, the water is brought to a boil, and the food is cooked right there in front of you. You then fish the food out with chopsticks or a ladle. This was a special hotpot restaurant, special enough to merit being called the ‘Hotpot King’, because you could mix your own dipping sauce.
At this gathering, there was an Englishman named Sam. He also taught English in Harbin at the same time as me. We knew the same people, played on the same soccer team, but somehow we had never met. He arrived in Harbin before me and lived there until moving to Shanghai last year to work for a chain of tea houses. I was really nice to talk to someone who had been in both Harbin and Shanghai for a while. He validated most of what I thought about the two places, and I really appreciated that confirmation on my observations of both places. Sam hosted a dinner gathering the following night, and it was another nice evening.
I celebrated the 4th of July in authentic fashion. Another person I met at hotpot hosted a party at his suburban home. We grilled out, but he also had some barbeque catered from a place called ‘Bubba’s’. It was the best barbeque I have had outside of the South. There was pulled pork with a vinegar-based sauce and dry ribs. Earlier in the week, my roommates and I discussed what foods we missed most from home. I submitted pulled pork, so needless to say, I was delighted. The party also had obligatory beer and fireworks.
Last week, I was called back in to the big boss’ office to meet the owner of China Economic Review, Graham Earnshaw. He owns a series of publications all part of his company, Sinomedia. I had seen him in the office a couple times, but I didn’t think anything of him. He has a bad hip for some reason unbeknownst to me and limps around the office when he is there. I guess I had dismissed him for that reason.
He sits a small, black plastic desk by himself at the end of a smaller room. Several people work in the same room, so everyone can hear what is happening with the business. He did this to maintain transparency in the company.
I took the opportunity to ask him a lot of questions. He failed out of college in Australia and decided to move to Hong Kong. He became infatuated with written Chinese and learned the language well. He parlayed this skill into a position with Reuters in Hong Kong, and when he came out on the wrong side of some office politics, he lost his job there. Then he came to Shanghai, started some businesses, and failed at most of them. But China Economic Review (CER) became well established. Now he uses the respect of the CER brand name and its database to start new ventures. He develops something, and if it takes hold, he passes it off to someone else to run; he is only really interested in starting new areas of his business.
He also asked me some questions, and then started talking to me about some of the business ventures he is contemplating. He has an article in CER where he writes about his experiences walking west from Shanghai to Tibet. He does it in stages and picks up where he left off. He met an American who started a private school in the third-tier city of Wanzhou, and he was interested in his business model. He said that he didn’t think it is scalable, but he is still interested in doing something with the education market. Having been an English teacher, he was interested to see if I had any ideas in education and offered me the opportunity to write a business plan for him. I don’t know the first thing about writing a business plan, but I’m going to take him up on the offer.
With Pete gone to Seattle last week for a wedding, work was slow. Pete left me with a few open-ended tasks for a week’s worth of work. These quickly became monotonous, so it was not a fun week at work.
However, when Pete returned, there was miscommunication with a freelancer about writing an article about carbon markets, and Pete decided it would be best to do it himself. Then he decided that we should work on it together. I got started on the article while he worked on other things. After a couple days, I finished the article without his assistance ever coming. This article is longer than the last and will be in the main CER magazine instead of the supplement.
To write this article, I had to learn a lot. The carbon credit trading system established by the Kyoto protocol is quite complex. I read many articles and spoke to many people about the story. Once the article had begun to take shape, I called the European Climate Exchange to fill in a missing piece. Our contact in their office was on holiday, so I just asked the secretary if I could talk to someone who was willing to comment on my issue. She put someone on the phone. Only wanting very specific information to plug into my article, I gave a very poor interview and attempted to goad the interviewee into giving me what I wanted. I concluded the interview with the stellar questions, “Is there data on your website about this?” and, “What is URL for your website?” Then I asked for the interviewee’s name and title, and he said, “Patrick Birley, Chief Executive.” I laughed out loud. I blame the secretary for putting some random guy on the phone with the CEO.
I have been very skeptical of friendship with Chinese people on this trip. On my last trip, I often felt manipulated by attempts to befriend me, whether it be for practicing English or the social status of getting to hang out with a foreigner. Some just plainly came on too strong for comfort. I think this email from one of my students provides a good example (unedited for your reading pleasure).
I an sorry ,I have not contacted with you for a long time.I worked in Shanxi (Jincheng CITY),I am all right.But I have not practiced my English for a long time. Do you have this long vacation in Shanghai ?
I hope to see you again,and I can practice my English with you,I can enhance my English .*_*
This email was not sent by any student; this student was one of four I spent a lot of time with in Harbin and would consider a friend. I had not sought out making Chinese friends on this trip until this weekend, and to some extent, I actively had avoided it.
I was looking for a place to play basketball, so I posted an inquiry on Couchsurfing for someone to tell me where a court is in my area. A local responded with an offer to play basketball with he and his friends, and I accepted.
I enjoy playing basketball in China. Chinese people play good team offense and hard defense, but they are generally not as skilled offensively. Having more experience playing and being a head taller than everyone else, I get to shoot a lot more and hone my skills against decent competition. I don’t have to play for assists. The level of competition in Shanghai is higher than in Harbin, as one might expect, and it made the game better.
I went to dinner afterwards with everyone who was playing. They were friendly, but not too friendly. The only noteworthy part of our conversations was that they were pretty adamant about how black people were inherently superior atheletes. They mostly talked to each other in Mandarin. This gave me the choice to either pay attention to try and improve my listening skills or space out, one of my favorite activities. I appreciated being able to just hang out.
The experience made me recall my time with my Chinese friends in Harbin. We played basketball, ping-pong, pool, swam, and went ice skating in the winter. As much as I complained about my choice of social activities, I ignored several million potential solutions here in Shanghai. It is often difficult to have a strong friendship with a Chinese person because of the language barrier, but there are plenty of good times to be had if you find the right people and activities.
Given my tone in the previous posts, I must say that I have nothing against going out. I have done much socializing this past year in school (maybe too much), and I was looking for some variety this summer. Also, I have a problem with paying too much for drinks, and that is a serious issue here. Chinese people drink in restaurants, so drinking in a bar is a Western luxury with Western prices.
I followed up my game of basketball with a more ambitious social endeavor with a Chinese person, dinner. At Sam’s dinner party, I talked with a Chinese girl who offered to help me with my Chinese. Our conversation was interesting, so I decided to take her up on the offer. The first lesson was to be about food. I chose food because it is the most practical of all topics; eating daily is a hobby of mine.
We went to a restaurant that served spicy foods from a number of regions in China. After learning some food vocabulary the lesson digressed into conversation. I decided to breach the subject of the Uighur riots. The response I got was surprising. She advocated independence for the Uighurs. She argued that prior to the China taking this territory, the Uighurs’ had defacto independence and since China has had control of the region, there has been much violence. It isn’t in anyone’s interest to continue holding Xinjiang.
This is the first I’ve ever heard of any Chinese person advocating independence for a minority group. I tried to attribute this to her status as a minority herself, she is Hakka, but she responded that the Hakka people are Han Chinese as well. Upon further research, I found that Hakka are far from an oppressed minority in contemporary China, Sun Yatsen married a Hakka, and Deng Xiaoping was Hakka. Arguing against the objectivity of the speaker instead of addressing the argument is a logical fallacy anyway.
Another unusual aspect about this girl is that she is currently studying to go back to school to be a psychologist. She explained that the earthquake in Sichuan raised the profile of psychologists as they helped parents cope with losing their only children, and the prospect of being able to help people compelled her to quit her job and prepare to go to school again. Although this reasoning may seem trite to a Western audience, this way of thinking is novel in China. We discussed how even affluent Chinese students only seem interested in acquiring more wealth without any real regard for how their profession impacts society, and conversely, how some young Americans’ desire to help others handicaps their ability to make an impact with their profession.
This weekend refreshed my memory of an important lesson. China is rarely fits into your preconceptions and expectations, and the people are no exception.
I was walking down the street today, and I saw a woman on the sidewalk outside of a restaurant filling a small bucket full of duck heads with water from hose.
Expect more pictures soon. Write me an email, please. firstname.lastname@example.org.