Monthly Archives: June 2014

China’s rich and poor

In his book about modern China, Yua Hua tells a story about a China TV show where, on children’s day they interviewed kids from across the nation and asked them the gift they’d most like to receive. The boy from Beijing wanted a Boeing Jet. The girl from the northwest wanted a pair of shoes.

Okay so the boy from Beijing is pretty awesome, though less so than if he’d wanted an Airbus. But that’s not the point. “Unequal lives give rise to unequal dreams” says Hua. And lives are certainly unequal in different parts of China.

As I did for Colombia, I’ve taken a look at the per capita purchasing power for Chinese in different administrative districts. The differences are massive. Tianjin, adjacent to Beijing, is the richest province. Its citizens manage $23,000 USD per year. That’s on par with Portugal, just short of Greece and richer than anywhere we went in Latin America. If Tianjin were a country its citizens would be the forty sixth richest in the world.

Guizhou is the poorest province. Its citizens get by on less than $6,000 USD a year. That’s around a quarter of their comrades in Tianjin. It’s about as much as people in Bolivia, or Ghana. I’ve put the whole table over the break if anyone is interested.

We’re in Yunnan province now. Staying on the tourist trail will probably broadly insulate us from the poverty here. Kunming, Yunnan’s largest city, feels rich and modern. There are malls with multiple Starbucks, the streets are clean, and no one looks hungry. But Yunnan is the third poorest of China’s administrative regions. Most of its population is rural, and the urban-rural divide is what really defines disparity here, more so than administrative region.

Sadly I can’t find purchasing power statistics to make the comparison but there’s a commonly cited ratio that says urban Chinese earn about three times more than their rural counterparts. There’s also evidence that the government’s policies favour the urbanites, and are likely to increase the disparity over time. Addressing, rather than exacerbating, the inequality is one of the massive policy challenges on China’s horizon.

Continue reading China’s rich and poor

Dogged capitalism

There’s been a bunch of media recently about the dog eating festival that’s currently going on in Guangxi province. The organisers changed the date to try and avoid protestors, but the protestors managed to get there nonetheless. So did some foreigners, apparently, who got cheers from the locals.

But the thing that really caught my eye was a story about a man who must be one of China’s most dogged capitalists. He brought a bunch of lives dogs. He rocks up to the dog loving protestors and says he’s going to kill the dogs, in a pretty nasty way it must be said, unless they stump up and pay him for the dogs. It’s a fairly stunning example of black mail, and also exploitation of differences in moral views.

A few random thoughts:

  • This seems to be a situation where both the actions of the dog killer and the dog buyers both make sense within their individual moral framework. There’s an odd parallel to the case of some doctors performing abortions, and anti-abortion campaigners trying to murder them.
  • It also reminds me, a little, of Ecuador’s ask that the developed world pay it to not exploit its rainforests through petroleum exploration.
  • Are there vegetarians out there who’d pay to keep cows alive? If not, why not?
  • Is it possible that this whole thing is a win-win? Dog stays alive, dog lover feels happy for their contribution to this end, dog killer gets cash.

The buzzards but not the buzz: electric scooters in China

Note: no exhaust pipes.
Note: no exhaust pipes.

Like pretty much everywhere we’ve traveled in South East Asia, swarms of motorised scooters zoom up and down the streets we walk in Chinese cities. But here it felt slightly here different and at first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then I realised: the scooters buzzing past us didn’t actually buzz. The noise they made was little more than a pushchair. They were electric.

Apparently China has been a fast adopter of ‘e-bikes’ which have only recently become widely available. Their development seems to have coincided with the growth of China’s middle class and determination to slink through the gridlock endemic in many of China’s larger cities. It isn’t clear that there’s really an environmental motivation to the electric choice – it seems they might be replacing push bikes rather than petrol fueled scooters.

The silence of these electric scooters does have its downsides. No revving engines makes it harder to navigate traffic as a pedestrian. Although, to be fair, e-bike drivers do use their horns liberally, maybe to compensate. We’ve tried the road crossing technique we learned in Viet Nam’s scooter meccas – you just cross slowly and steadily assume the scooters will move to accommodate your path. That doesn’t work here. We just get more beeps.

Marked zebra crossings get pedestrians no additional respect from scooters nor cars. We just wait at them as the traffic whizzes by, waiting. We wait for enough locals to arrive. They eventually determine they have critical mass to muscle their way across traffic and we scamper over in their shadows.

Five kinds of Chinese weirdness

There’s so much crazy and mystery here that I fear these sorts of posts may become a regular occurrence. We’ve less chance to communicate with people here, and to get to grips with what’s going on for them and their society, but we can sure come up with good lists of strange things we’ve seen, read and heard about:

Some things we really can't explain. We just hop they're lost in translation.
Some things we really can’t explain. We just hope they’re lost in translation.

  • I’ve heard, and now read, that it’s common to have a semi-enforced nap time at Chinese companies in the middle of the day. You eat your lunch as fast as you can, then roll out your sleeping mat and snooze for about an hour in the middle of the day.
  • Chinese kids of about the toddler age don’t seem to wear nappies here. Instead their parents just hold them out over a ditch, or encourage them to squat on the pavement, to pee. To facilitate this, some of them have clothing that is missing the section around their crotch and has a split or a flap at their backside.
  • This great article unpacks the strange phenomenon of Kenny G’s Going Home being played all over China when it’s closing time and time for people to leave. Few in China can identify the song by name, but they know its meaning when shops close, or hosts want them to leave a wedding banquet. It’s like a society wide version of the orchestra playing to stop people giving long Oscar acceptance speeches.
  • From the gross files, apparently a new craze among China’s super rich males is to employ wet nurses. Some claim that breast milk’s curative properties are useful after surgery – “it’s even better than bird’s nest” – whereas in other cases the service is more explicitly sexual.
  • Some people have asked about whether people care about the World Cup here. The answer is that most don’t seem to, but some do a great deal. With the games being scheduled in the middle of the night here there’s been a spike of people buying fake doctors notes to get them off of work. There have also been deaths reported from the excitement of it all.

Why we’re not buying black market yuan

Like Argentina and Venezuela, China’s exchange rate is managed by its Central Bank. In Argentina and Venezuela we exchanged our money on the black market and enjoyed travel that was between 50% and 900% cheaper than we might have otherwise. But we will be sticking to official channels here in China.

The difference here is that the central bank is managing China’s currency, the yuan, so that it is worth less than it might be if traded on an open market. That means that Chinese exporters have a competitive advantage because the goods they produce are cheaper to foreign consumers. As in Argentina and Venezuela, the central bank still needs to stump up cash to offset transactions, so you might even claim that the Chinese government is subsidising Western consumers.

As tourists we get a good deal from the official rates. If there were a black market for yuan, it would be sold at a higher price than the official exchange rate, and that’s not to our benefit.

The yuan is allowed to flex within a range, relative to other currencies. Interestingly, the central bank here has actually just expanded how flexible it can be. This is understood to be part of a project to liberalise China’s financial institutions over time. There’s also a special free trade zone in Shanghai where you can exchange currency even more freely.

This gradual move towards a freer market is interesting a) in the context of an ever growing acceptance of capitalist institutions within China and b) because there’s a lot of talk about how China’s development has been export led, but it needs to foster a stronger domestic market to sustain its growth. It also distinguishes China from Argentina and Venezuela where we thought the exchange rate controls were probably unsustainable. In China the exchange rate management seems more like a transition mechanism.

The rice after the rain


We took a visit to the Dragon’s Back rice terraces and spent a pleasant day wandering between them. Daenerys Stormborn was nowhere to be seen, a disappointment I fear will be repeated at many of China’s so called ‘dragon’ destinations, but it was very pretty.

Though China is the world’s largest agricultural producer only about a quarter of its land is actually arable. Some of that is in steep hills like the ones we ambled about. Rice terracing is a way to harness land for intensive agriculture. The landscape is so structured it looks like a frustrated cartographer went and cut contour lines into the hillside in the hope of making the landscape look more like the map, rather than the other way around.

A local woman plays with what was probably her very newborn, granddaughter. If we were still in South America we'd say she was indigenous. But actually pretty much everyone here is indigenous. So we should be saying 'minority' instead.
A local woman plays with what was probably her very newborn, granddaughter. If we were still in South America we’d say she was indigenous. But actually pretty much everyone here is indigenous. So we should be saying ‘minority’ instead.

Our spirits have been a little dampened by the rains in recent days – which, by guide book rites should have finished about a fortnight ago – but the rain did make the rice paddies shine in a very pleasing way. We saw photos of the terraces at other times of the year in a springtime blossom, a summertime yellow hue, and even covered in a light dusting of snow in winter.

Again we were joined by a large number of domestic Chinese tourists, though these seemed to be of the more independent traveler variety. One real upside of this we’re experiencing is that there’s a much higher level of tourist infrastructure around than we’d expect given the small number of foreign tourists.

Pealing on our Mandarin skin

Still struggling with our massive comprehension gap relative to South America, we’ve been trying to learn a thing or two about Mandarin. And when I say we, I primarily mean Fiona, who remains my linguistic guide dog.

Here’s a little of what we’ve learned and observed.

  • Written mandarin is generally more efficient than English. If you look at a sign with both languages the mandarin characters will take up between a third and a half of the space of the English.
  • Mandarin also tends towards efficiency in spoken form, see Fiona’s “China compare New Zealand big” example.
  • However, to our despair, there aren’t words for yes and no. Instead you answer using the verb. Can you speak Chinese? Cannot.
  • When you say the number two you sound unavoidably like a pirate.
  • This one’s cribbed straight from our phrasebook, but it’s interesting. In revolutionary times the term comrade – tongzhi – was the standard term of address for men and women. It’s now seldom used in that way. Instead it’s used as a colloquial term for someone who is gay. It’s a kind of play on words because tongzhi literally means ‘of the same mindset’. The term has been adopted by the gay community in preference to the official term tong xing lian which literally means same sex love.
  • In English we might talk about a bunch of parsley and a punnet of strawberries. In mandarin these sorts of counting words vary among a wider range of things than produce. For example there are different counting words for: flat things, long things, drinking receptacle, people, trees, vehicles… Madness.

Ordering from a Chinese menu


The best menus in China are the ones with pictures. Pictures are the most accurate descriptors, certainly more so than English translations which probably come second best. But venture outside the tourist centre, even by a block, and the menus often just have mandarin characters.

Reading from a menu with characters is like doing an iterative Sudoku, so of course Fiona loves it. Here’s an example:

  • Waitress points out breakfast section of menu.
  • We know noodles are common breakfast food.
  • We remember character for rice. Deduce combination for rice noodles.
  • Rice noodles come with egg. Hens egg.
  • Hen is chicken, deduce character for chicken.

And on it goes. It’s fair to say that so far we’ve found the cuisine a little hit and miss. Some things – like the spicy chicken and garlic broccoli in the picture – have been delicious and a fresh change from the stodge of South America. Other times we thought we were getting beef, and probably did, but it came in offal form which was not to our tastes.

Overall I think the freshness and variety of Chinese food means we can eat a lot more of it in a row than any other cuisine we’ve come across while traveling. Even Argentinian steaks become a bit much after day four, but Chinese should sustain us well for days on end, with just the occasional slice of pizza or pancake for good measure.

Twelve hours of censorship

Never having had an interest in snuff films, nor having been especially interested in seeing the Blair Witch Project before my thirteenth birthday, I have never really been personally confronted by censorship. But in YangShuo we encountered our first hostel that doesn’t break the Great Firewall of China for us. It took me twelve hours (intermittently of course) to break through myself. Now I believe this post is officially coming to you from Viet Nam, or maybe Malaysia.

As much as I’m all for experiencing new things while traveling, I have to say the twelve hours of censorship had me seething. I fully acknowledge that the impact for me is relatively minor, and time limited, but it still really sucks.

First off, the censorship seems entirely capricious: I can access Wikipedia, in all its free speech glory, and I can read all about the conflict in Tibet and the suppression of Falun Gong. But I can’t access some of my preferred airfare search sites. Fiona’s tablet gave her facebook notifications, but should couldn’t access the messages she notified. So, she could see that a good friend had gotten engaged, and was very excited. But she couldn’t see the details.

And it’s facebook for heaven’s sake. It’s a mechanism that plausibly allows someone to say something at odds with the preferences of the Chinese government, but that’s not what the site is for. The odds of a facebook post appearing mischievous through the eyes of a Beijing bureaucrat are far smaller than for this post. And gmail isn’t blocked, but loads incredibly slowly. I’ve read that that is quite plausibly retaliation for google’s (occasional) disinclination to accept censorship laws. I was also, shudderingly, reduced to using bing as a search engine.

I’ve done enough competitive debating to be able to construct a pretty good case for censorship. It’s generally checking speech when it creates harms that outweigh benefits, though it’s often a tough sell. But for the kind of censorship that exists here I feel like the arguments need to start with: “okay, assume individuals don’t have rights” or “assume free speech dangerous”. And, as much of a sophist as I am, I’m just struggling to do that math for the rest of the argumentation.

Fiona spoke with some of her Chinese classmates in Paris about censorship. They seemed broadly nonplussed by the issue, though most got facebook accounts once they got to France. The defence they mounted was that the Chinese population wasn’t ready for free speech, that there was a risk that if they were able to access information freely and without some commentary or mitigation from government, they might get the wrong end of the stick about government policies and kick up a fuss. I suppose you can read a utilitarian perspective into this: prevent riots, maintain economic growth. But I just don’t buy that access to information necessarily leads to social disorder. And, if it does in the Chinese case, then maybe it should.

What am I doing to protest? Well, there’s this post obviously. And the fact that we’ve found a workaround around the Great Firewall. I also intend to eat a lot of dumplings. Take that!

Some initial thoughts on the bigness

As I write Fiona is having an initial wrestle with our Mandarin phrasebook. She’s also offering me a literal translation. “China compare New Zealand big” she says. It’s hard to imagine a greater understatement.

The train we’re on left from a city with fourteen million people and in about an hour we’ll pass through another with twelve million more. Sometime in the night we’ll rumble out of this province, leaving its 93 million inhabitants behind. A big number, but less than a tenth of China’s population. There are plenty more provinces on the horizon.

We’ve been thinking about what this bigness must mean and how it might affect your psyche. It’s an unavoidable feature of the Chinese condition,.

Our thoughts at the moment is probably about as nuanced as Fi’s phrasebook line, but here they are nonetheless.

Does the bigness make you feel less special?

If you tell someone they’re one in a million you’re saying there’s about fourteen hundred of them in China. In this context it must be harder to sustain the narrative that everyone is special and unique. Would you even try and teach it in kindergarten? Relative to where we come from, surely there would be diminished expectations that you can:

  • do what you dream of as there’ll be more competition if there are more people around you
  • have an idea and make a million bucks (nope that’s the American dream)
  • live in a house that is different from your neighbour’s
  • do something really unusual with your life

Fiona’s Masters class in Economics in Paris was about half Chinese. She recalls how her classmates talked differently about their aspirations for jobs once they finished their degrees. Competition and randomness in selection processes was at the forefront of their minds.

Are you less able to affect change?

You might also imagine that bigness makes you think your capacity to change things around you is small. Bigger things are harder to change. And bigger societies might value initiative less, and the following of instructions more. Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world says Margaret Mead. Undoubtedly, but can they change China?

An ex-pat friend of ours who is working in Hong Kong made an interesting observation. It seems, he told us, that people don’t really complain about their lot in life, even if they spend their working hours pushing trash up hill. There’s less of a feeling of entitlement than at home and more of an acceptance of being a tiny, scarcely significant part of the whole. That might not explain the mass migration from rural China to the factories of the Eastern seaboard, but it might explain workers’ acceptance of squalled dormitories once they get there.