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By Steve Kelman

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China vignettes: Techies in politics, Starbucks saturation and panda porn

Panda at the National Zoo

A pastiche of vignettes from my latest trip to China:

1) China Daily ran a story called "Web bosses go into politics" about Internet entrepreneurs who had become delegates to recent meetings of China's legislature (the National People's Congress) and another non-legislative body that discusses various issues facing society, both of which meet for a few weeks each year. Superficially this might seem like American IT entrepreneurs becoming involved in politics either to promote an industry-related IT agenda (e.g. more visas for tech workers) or because they believe in a cause such as gay marriage. However, I'm suspecting that what's behind this entrepreneurial entry into politics is more a recognition of the need to have government connections and government blessings if one is to succeed in business, even private business. To the extent this is what is going on, it may be a pessimistic sign about the high-tech industry in China, with entrepreneurs succeeding based on connections more than the quality of what they do.

2) While in Shanghai, I wandered around a pedestrian street in the middle of town (Nanjing Road) and People's Square, which abuts it. I saw four different Starbucks outlets within perhaps a quarter-mile of one other. One was so crowded that it was actually difficult to move around. If you ever visit a Starbucks in China, check out how the menu is set up. Actual coffee (what they called an "Americano" or espresso) has a modest place in a bottom corner of the menu, which is dominated by various frappachinos and other sweetened drinks. Most Chinese don't like the actual taste of coffee, and Starbucks' success has been based on a lifestyle appeal more than anything. Chinese Starbucks prices in absolute terms -- forgetting even the lower wage levels in China -- are about 25 percent higher than prices for the same items in the United States. (By the way, next to one of the Starbucks there was a large Hershey's chocolate outlet -- which I had never seen before in China -- where Chinese could buy Reese's peanut butter cups and other delicacies.)

3) Although the Western media gives attention mostly to McDonald's, KFC, and Starbucks as western food attractions, I've been noticing a lot of pastry and sandwich outlets -- a style of cuisine not particularly closer to traditional Chinese eating habits (where the concept of a sweet dessert at the end of a meal doesn't really exist). Breadtalk, a Singapore company, is in a lot of food courts in malls, selling both French bread and lots of sweet pastries. I've been noticing more and more outlets of a company called French Baguette, which is, perhaps incongruously, Korean-owned.

4) Checking out an upscale shopping mall, I noticed an enormous disparity in relative prices of U.S. clothing and packaged food. American menswear brands were typically priced far above U.S. prices, often five times as expensive as stateside. But packaged foods (Pringles, tomato sauce, even -- somewhat bizarrely, since China doesn't lack for hot sauces -- Tabasco) are priced only slightly above American prices. Surprisingly as well, a moderate amount of the processed food is not just American brands, but actually manufactured in the United States.

5) Finally, I can report a small item in one day's English-language edition of the Global Times, which is actually published by the Communist Party and has something of a nationalistic reputation. Entitled "Panda porn helps female get in the mood for love," the article reported that "after several failed attempts to get it on, a pair of pandas in Chengdu were able to successfully mate after watching a specially tailored 'adult video' or panda porn."

Posted by Steve Kelman on Mar 27, 2013 at 12:09 PM


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