By Steve Kelman
Pluralism, and with it, freedom of expression, seems to be on the rise in China. (Stock image)
I have written in past blog posts that anybody who thinks China is a semi-totalitarian society where anything but official opinions are suppressed does not understand the country's growing pluralism.
True, it is something of a fine art to figure out what is allowed and what isn't, but I think most Americans would be surprised at the range of publicly expressed opinions. The pluralism has been dramatically increased by social media, which are creating a small revolution in Chinese society and politics through the spread of "microblogs" (weibo) that are filled with non-official information.
As I mentioned in my recent blog post from Hong Kong, anger at unsafe food and unsafe products has been rising in China. (Indeed, the recently concluded session of China's National People's Congress, the country's quasi-legislature, approved an upgrading of the status of the food safety regulatory agency.) Observers have noted that CCTV, the government TV broadcaster, along with some media, frequently emphasize food or product safety issues involving foreign multinationals (such as McDonald's, KFC, the Japanese noodle chain Ajisen, and Walmart), though these firms' products are certainly much safer than those produced by many Chinese companies.
Recently, CCTV had its annual consumer protection gala tied to the annual World Consumer Rights Day, where it exposed various product and food safety scandals. As frequently occurs, foreign brands were disproportionately represented in the gala – this year Apple was attacked for refusing to replace broken back covers of iPhones in order not to extend the warranty period, and Volkswagen was criticized for some defective gearboxes that could cause vehicle acceleration.
What was interesting was not so much these somewhat-trivial attacks on foreign brands, but the reaction in the weibo and even the print media. Shortly after the program was broadcast, many of the most popular microbloggers in China published, at around the same time, statements on their microblogs attacking Apple and praising the CCTV program.
However, the weibo world quickly noticed a line at the end of one of the posts, published by the movie star Peter Ho (with 5.4 million followers): "To publish at about 8:20 pm." Quickly, the incident went viral: weibo lit up with accusations that these comments were planted by CCTV. Within a few hours, many of the celebrities had deleted their posts. It is unclear what happened – the celebrities claim that the posts were put on their sites without their knowledge, while others suspect (and some have publicly stated) that CCTV, a powerful media outlet and representative of the government, leaned on them to publish the "recommended" remarks.
As noteworthy as the spread of all this on weibo, though, is that it was picked up by at least the English-language Chinese media. (This seems to have been in the Chinese-language media as well, because a Chinese friend I asked knew about the story.) Shanghai News, in a typical headline, headlined their story: "Comments 'At about 8:20' Put CCTV in the Firing Line."
The next day, the Global Times ran a story subtitled: "Public outcry as CCTV gala expose chooses 'wrong targets.'" In addition to discussing the celebrity comments on the CCTV Apple story (including providing a quote from one of those involved stating that "CCTV has invited influential Internet figures to comment in accordance with a certain event,") the Global Times story stated that the problems unearthed in the CCTV show were trivial. The article ended with a quote from a public management professor at Renmin University: "People are increasingly disappointed with environmental pollution and food safety issues. The fact that these issues were not addressed and the knowledge that CCTV was trying to control public opinion rather than embrace it is going to hurt the authority of CCTV and create a crisis of confidence."
Speaking of the environment, the Chinese media also reported that almost a quarter of the delegates to the National People's Congress voted against a list of candidates presented for the body's environmental protection committee, as a protest against insufficient efforts to fight pollution. An American asked me whether the local media has been mentioning the dead pigs found recently in waters near downtown Shanghai, which has gotten significant attention in the US media. The answer is yes – as the article "Floating Carcasses Prompt Safety Concerns" from China Daily illustrates.
Posted on Mar 22, 2013 at 3:43 PM1 comments
Hong Kong (Wikimedia photo)
Since 1997, Hong Kong has been part of China. One can see the acceptance of this in the terminology used by the Chinese media. For example, in an article about the new Chinese government cabinet, the South China Morning Post referred to the "nation's" new cabinet. The same newspaper referred to Hong Kong's chief executive visiting the "capital" in reporting on his trip to Beijing. The Chinese flag flies in Hong Kong, higher than Hong Kong's own local flag, which features a stylized five-petal orchid flower on a red background. The Chinese government, not Hong Kongers, designed and adopted this flag.
However, there are some big buts...
One thing I have noticed during this visit to Hong Kong is that so few flags are on display – far fewer hotels or buildings feature flags than is the case in China itself (or in the flag-waving United States). It almost seems that rather than displaying the Chinese flags, many just choose to show no flag at all.
In recent years, it appears as if Hong Kong's sense of cultural independence from the mainland has increased, not – as one might have expected with the passage of time and the greater distance from the British colonial era – decreased. There is a lot of talk about Hong Kong "core values" of clean government and integrity, reflecting pride in Hong Kong's highly successful efforts reduce corruption and a not-so-implicit comparison with the high level of corruption in China.
While I have been in Hong Kong, there has been a flap about a Hong Kong TV journalist roughed up in Beijing when he tried to visit the home of the wife of Chinese dissident Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobao, who is under house arrest.
Recent sources of tension between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders have involved Chinese problems spilling over to the island. The most dramatic involves purchases of packaged food – especially infant formula -- by Chinese visitors to Hong Kong who don't trust the safety of Chinese food and want to bring safer food back to China. With Hong Kong food shelves regularly denuded of supplies of such items, the Hong Kong government recently took the dramatic step of limiting purchases by Chinese visitors to two tins of infant formula. (I have not been able to get a good explanation for why the multinationals such as Nestle's that sell these products in Hong Kong cannot just direct larger supplies to Hong Kong to meet the demand. The products are produced elsewhere in Asia anyway, and it the total demand increase coming from the Chinese tourists must be relatively modest.)
More generally, Chinese tourists – and small-business traders – buy everyday-use products in Hong Kong, take them back to China, and sell them at a profit (because of higher taxes and less competitive prices in China). I took the subway to a suburb on the Chinese border which is a center of such purchases – Chinese tourists are walking around with big roller suitcases and buying products from what was formerly an anonymous local shopping mall, and Hong Kong police monitor the subway stop headed one stop further to the Chinese border, under big signs stating that Chinese may not take with them more than 45 pounds of products.
A second problem spilling over from China involves many Chinese parents who come to Hong Kong to give birth to a child. This reflects a mix of Mainland concerns. Some are hoping to circumvent China's one-child limitation. Some believe the quality of hospital care is better. Some want their children to be born in Hong Kong and receive Hong Kong residency, an insurance policy against a deteriorating situation in China. Meanwhile, Hong Kongers are not happy about the strain this has created in the hospital system.
As with much of politics involving China, there is real irony in the sources of support on Hong Kong for the Mainland. Despite China's communist past, the most reliable supporters of the Chinese government are the super-rich, who have investments in China and find keeping in the good graces of the authorities far more important than ideology. Indeed, added to the irony is that to some extent growing anti-Mainland sentiment in Hong Kong reflects a sort of populism of the ""99 percent" upset by the power of the rich on the island.
Posted on Mar 19, 2013 at 8:39 AM0 comments
Hong Kong's public rail system is rare in that it's a money-maker. Steve Kelman explains how. (Wikimedia photo)
While visiting Hong Kong for a conference, I had a chance to have lunch with a former colleague, Jay Walder, who is now the CEO of the Hong Kong subway system MTR. To my surprise, he told me about a unique business model for the Hong Kong subway that might – like the idea of “social impact bonds” I discussed in my last blog post – have some implications in terms of creative ways to fund government activities in tight times.
Everybody knows that mass transit systems lose money, often a lot of money.Indeed, at the federal level, the Urban Mass Transit Administration has traditionally financed some of these losses. However, mass transit typically raises property values, especially in areas near stations, because having mass transit nearby is attractive to some people, and can also be a good location for retail outlets. (When the subway was extended in Cambridge a number of years ago, neighborhoods near new stations experienced a renaissance.)
Government gets some benefit from rising property values through increased real estate taxes, but subway systems themselves have not participated in these rising values.
That’s where the Hong Kong model is unique. MTR – which is now a privatized, stock market-listed, profitable company in Hong Kong – is also in the property business, especially in areas where new stations are being built, often on reclaimed land. Typically, MTR develops both residential and commercial property around stations. It gains revenues from rising property values.
That means the business model of the Hong Kong subway company is to engage in its core activity – running a mass transit system – while also benefiting from some of the wealth that activity creates. And thus the Hong MTR is not a money-losing enterprise that needs to be supported by public funds, but makes a profit.
I bring this up not necessarily to suggest that we should repeat this specific model in the United States – I don’t know enough to have an opinion on that. My point is that government activities often create substantial private benefits, and that government should perhaps consider participating in those benefits more directly, especially in tough economic times.
Consider how often government-supported research leads to patents. (I say this at the risk of wading into a very controversial area, but I tried out this idea on one of the country’s leading experts on intellectual property, I was told that it might have merit.)Federally funded research produces patents with enormous economic benefits to the parties that received government money. Why shouldn’t the government receive some modest percentage of royalty revenues such patents generate? I am guessing that if we put our minds to it, other examples will come to mind.
Again, tight budget times demand some creativity. Thoughts?
Posted on Mar 14, 2013 at 9:13 AM0 comments