By Steve Kelman
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 on Mar 27, 2013 at 6:18 AM0 comments
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