Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The anti-corruption, pro-Xi juggernaut

Yet another kingpin going down in Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign. (A factional enemy of Xi Jinping's, of course.)

This one is especially interesting, because he's the first major figure who's still active in the government. The others so far have all been minor officials, or else retired heavy-hitters. That Xi should go after a currently-active government official, signifies a major tipping-point in the anti-corruption campaign. If he's successful in taking this guy down, it's deuces wild for the whole lot of them.

Part of me thinks Xi Jinping should actually be thanking this guy, not taking him down. If this guy's son hadn't slammed his Ferrari into a restraining wall on one of Beijing's ring roads in the wee hours of the morning, Xi's goal of eradicating the influence of Hu and the other retiring leaders would have been essentially impossible to achieve. After that event two years ago, the entire Hu Jintao faction was massively embarrassed.

Nonetheless, as one commentator said in the NY Times (I think it was), Xi almost didn't have a choice but to go after this Mr. Ling. Having pushed his hand so far, if he stopped short of going after Ling, he'd have been seen as just another pretend reformer.

Some evidence is starting to emerge that Xi has run his course, and that the military in particular has lost its patience with his anticorruption campaign. Nonetheless, he's already worked the Chinese political system far better than I would have considered possible. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to hold out against the enemies he has created for himself, but so far he has been incredibly deft and crafty at taking out his rivals inside the Chinese system.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Peccadillos and evils

Peccadillo is a wonderful word which gets used too frequently. It comes from Spanish, meaning "small sin" or "small error." "Pecado" means "sin," and the "illo" ending means "small."

Smoking in the elevator is a peccadillo. Forgetting to repay $5 to your buddy is a peccadillo. I don't believe there's an equivalent term in Chinese, but there definitely should be.

Peccadillos are small things, not evil in themselves, but steps on the road toward much larger evils. And there's a huge amount of empirical evidence that peccadillos in fact metastasize and become full-on evils.

China is full of peccadillos, and if they want to reduce major corruption, I would submit that the peccadillos are the place to start. Common manners would be a good first step.

There are many, many examples I could draw from, as I've written about in the past. Today, I had just one other set of experiences that made me think about the issue once again.

My students sometimes ask me a forlorn sort of question, to the effect of "when will China take its rightful place in the world?" I.e., when will China be a world leader?

My answer always surprises them.

China will be a world leader when old men don't hawk and spit on the sidewalk.

China will be a world leader when children don't pee inside the building.

China will be a world leader when its bathrooms don't reek.

China will be a world leader when men stop hitting their wives.

China will be a world leader when manners become common.

Here's an example:

In China, it's quite common for every public doorway to be covered by these huge, heavy, army-looking blankets to keep out the cold air. They work well, but they're filthy-disgusting, and they are really heavy to lift. I always get a little allergy twinge after walking through one, and I definitely feel like washing my hands if there's anywhere to do so. (There seldom is.)

I try to avoid walking through such doorways as much as possible, but today I had occasion to go through six or eight of them, including one on the way into the Walmart.

I happened to be doing so during daytime hours, today being my day off teaching, so most of the other customers were women. As an American, I just naturally expected to hold the giant-army-surplus-blanket for women, as we always do in America.

But that particular bit of manners requires a bit of reciprocality. The woman needs to expect that the man will hold it for her, and quicken her pace to fit with the rhythm of his giant-blanket-holding. She's also expected (in both my culture and the Chinese) to say a quick thank-you.

My wife gets super-pissed when I hold doors for people and they don't reciprocate in any way. It happens often enough in China, that I'm actually afraid to hold doors for people when my wife is around. If they blow me off, it's just one more little thing adding stress to me... but she gets ready to cuss someone out.

I think we have the same standards, we have very different ways of processing the frustration. I usually just say "Aw, hell, it's China!" But she goes to rip someone's head off. My way is more peaceful, but the stress gets internalized a lot more. I'll get high blood pressure long before she does.

Today, of the six or eight women for whom I held the blanket, exactly one quickened her pace and said thanks.

Three that I can remember were too busy on their phones to pay any attention or quicken their paces, so I gladly dropped the giant thing right into their faces. I'm not going to wait all day.

Two pushed right past me, ducking under my armpits without so much as a "fare-thee-well." They were at least alert enough to get that I was holding the blanket for them, but not polite enough to acknowledge it.

So I'd say Dalian's manners quotient for the day was about ⅕. 20% is probably a good estimate of the not-totally-ill-mannered population in this city.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Heating in China

They've turned on the heat in Dalian. Actually, in most of China. It's all scheduled by government decree: if you're north of the government-defined Mason-Dixon Line of China, you get heat on such-and-such date, and it gets turned off on such-and-such date. South of that line, there’s no heating. By common assent, the coldest you’ll ever feel is living in an apartment on the wrong side of the heating-line of China.

In the old days, the heat was provided by the government, but nowadays it's from a company (probably government-owned or government-sponsored). You pay the equivalent of about $250 by a date-certain, and you get radiator heat throughout the government-defined winter. If it's cold before or after the pre-defined dates, tough noogies. If it's warm before or after the pre-defined dates, open your windows. If you don't pay by that date-certain, you don't get heat. Just like Obamacare, if you don't enroll in time, you pay the penalty: in this case, a long, COLD winter.

We paid, of course, and our radiator is nice and warm. But it was making a lot of noise the other day, so Ma Lei opened an escape valve to let some air out. The water that squirted out with it went into a little watering jug, but got quickly poured down the drain. I figured we should use it to water the plants, or give it to the dogs, but she'd already disposed of it before I even had a chance to ask. "It's not safe," she said. I sort of shook my head at that. What do you mean it's not safe?

Ma Lei told me that the residents of her former apartment used to collect water from their radiators to wash their clothes, in order to save a few pennies on their water bill. With the whole building doing so, the company that was responsible for steam heating was losing money, so they started putting antifreeze into the radiator water. The first few people who didn't recognize what they were washing with, ruined their entire wash loads. I hope no one gave it to their dogs to drink.

In other heat-related news, Ma Lei's Little Brother told her that the guy at the head of the company supplying heat for the apartment complex just behind where Little Brother lives, absconded with all the money the residents had paid for their heating. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, that's probably about $150K, perhaps a bit more. Once the money’s been paid and stolen, that’s it: they’re all going to be freezing this winter. And for what?

If the guy managed to escape down one of the tropical wormholes south of here, he could live on that for a while. But really, it's not much of an annuity for the entire rest of one's life. And if he doesn't manage to escape the country, he's going to find it was a very bad bargain. And also, he can never return to China. 

The Chinese government isn't very efficient, but it has a long memory. The papers are full of stories of people who absconded after committing crimes, then 25 years later they returned for what they thought was a brief visit — perhaps a parent's funeral — only to find themselves quickly clapped in irons upon their arrival.

Maybe the guy had already been collecting illicit money for a while, and he just needed $150K to top off his retirement fund. But seriously, I can't believe it was worth it.

Nevertheless, the people in the apartment building are well and truly scrod. In China, if your money didn't get to the proper authorities, it's not going to be the authorities who lose out. Get yourself a lawyer, try to raise a court case, protest all the way up to Beijing, and all you'll earn for yourself is an illegal detention for being a troublemaker.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

In order to make a little extra money so my wife can open her pet supply shop next year, I recently started teaching a few classes on weekends at a English school for little kids (ages 4-7). It's exhausting work — not exactly what I had in mind when I went for my PhD — but that's where the money is, and we need money to start the business.
The first couple of days, I absolutely hated it. 
I'm not really teaching English. I'm teaching words, and playing games. "Father." "Grandfather." "Giraffe." "Play." Walk in a circle around flash cards laid out on the ground, until I call out "Shirt!" and they all jump on the right one. Dance around the room to a song that goes "Itchy, Itchy Insect, i-i-i!"
The most complicated sentence I got to teach them, the one that made them tremble with fear whenever it popped up on the screen, was "I like to do things with my family." (Incidentally, I'm kind of on their side: "do things" is far too vague a verb to be throwing at a five year-old ESL student.) The ones they could manage were things like "I like to cook with my mother" and "I like to play with my sister."
The job isn't mentally stimulating in the slightest, but it is physically exhausting. At first, I was thinking "why the hell am I doing this?!"
Eventually, I came to enjoy the work quite a bit, just as I imagine I'll enjoy fatherhood. The kids are adorable, and their personalities are disarmingly simple.
There's poor William, who enthusiastically volunteers to answer every question, but consistently gets them all wrong. I swear, his percentage of correct answers would be below random, if anyone bothered to conduct a study. But he is undaunted: he jumps up at every opportunity to jab at the wrong answer on the screen. Especially when we get to use the extended magnetic pointer to bang dents in the Smartboard at the front of the classroom. He wields that thing like a monkey with an epee. I expect eyes to be lost at any moment.
Then there's Tony, whose father already taught him the alphabet, so he's at a tremendous advantage. Just as adventurous as William, yet armed with a lot more knowledge. He's got the alphabet down, though when you put it together into actual words, he's not always on the spot.
Little Sir, the youngest of the boys, jumpy and distracted. He's smart as a whip, and gets the material when his mind focuses on it for even half a second. But it doesn't always do so.
Grace, the older girl in her class (at all of 5, I think it is). She's too shy to jump up most of the time, but she usually knows the answer if I ask a direct question.
The one who intrigues me the most, perhaps, is Yun Hang, the tiniest little apple in the class. Her features are exquisitely sculpted, like a classic baby doll — she'll be a model in 15 years, if she wants to be — and she's as silent as a doll in my class. If I ask her to say a word, she mumbles it. A sentence as long as "I like to shop with my mother," she can barely manage even to mumble. Yet she's got a functional grasp on the vocabulary that bests even Tony with his alphabetic advantage. She understands and gets the right answer, even if she can't express it. She never, ever volunteers: I always have to pick on her, but she almost never disappoints.
I look forward to Ma Lei starting the pet supply shop, so I can quit this job and we can focus our attention on something with greater long-term benefits and more intellectual challenges. However, in the mean time I've found out that teaching the little critters can be fun and interesting.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The end of the road

There have been a number of well-publicized cases in recent years of local governments grabbing land from farmers who didn't want to sell, then paying them ridiculously low prices for their land (if they paid at all). The government tried to hush these up at first, but eventually the protests became too big to hide any longer. In response to public outcry, the government (at least in my part of China) has recently been treating reluctant homeowners with kid gloves. Sometimes the results are tragic in their own right.

There is a new road that makes our trip to the farm much more convenient, shaving twenty minutes or more off the drive. However, in two places along the road you can see where holdouts have forced the government to build the road around their houses. Here's what we saw last weekend on our way home from the farm.

Here is the newly-constructed road. It's a big, beautiful boulevard about five kilometers long.

This picture is taken at one end of the new road, standing right where the lane was SUPPOSED to go.

This is the view 180 degrees behind the last picture. There is supposed to be a lane through this farmer's back yard, to connect with the road off in the distance.

Cars barreling down the road at 80 km an hour have to make a pretty sudden swerve around the farm house. You can see there's just one little tiny blue sign to indicate the sudden end of the road. There's no signage to warn you in advance, no red plastic cones or barrels — nothing.

Wait a moment. What's that on the side of the house?
I guess this guy didn't see the little blue sign in time! I'm guess that the black tarp over the truck's cab is not a good sign. It probably indicates that there's stuff inside there that you don't want to see. Given how few Chinese drivers wear seat belts, that's a fair guess.

You can just barely see it in this picture, but the truck smashed into the wall of the house pretty hard. There's a big cracked-up place right between the two windows.

I don't know how he got dug in so deep.

Here's the little cut-out where both directions of traffic share one and a half lanes. It's a little unnerving when those giant lorries come rumbling past in the other direction.

By the way, we went past the same spot again today. The truck has been removed, leaving no trace except a big smack on the side of the house.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A failure of corporate communication

This post is completely off-topic, but I can't resist. I hope you won't mind too much.

In Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs, he recounts Jobs' having told him that the one industry he would most like to have worked in, if not computers, was the automotive industry. Today I watched the online video of the unveiling ceremony for Mazda's 25th-Anniversary MX-5 Miata (http://www.mazda.com/stories/craftmanship/mx-5/mx-5_25th/thanksday/ustream/), and I was struck by how very much Mazda needs the ghost of Steve Jobs.

For several years during grad school, I drove a cherry-red 1990 Miata. It was the best car I've ever owned, a sheer joy to drive. I miss that car like an old lover.

It's a common experience. The Miata inspires love in its customers like few products except those made by Apple. Like an iPhone, it's not bare-bones practical — its selling points are style and fun. The Miata makes you want to drive it, and any other car is disappointing. A new edition of the Miata is anticipated by its fan base with the same excitement as a new iPhone.

So it was that Mazda prepared an unveiling ceremony clearly inspired by Jobs' keynote speeches. Except that they did almost everything wrong.

First there was the introduction. The designer who did the presentation seemed almost to be downplaying the greatness of the achievement that was the first Miata. In a risky and daring business move, Mazda revived a category that had been dead for ten years. Roadsters were considered a low-volume, no-profit niche market, yet Mazda sold millions. They were the low-cost tail that wagged such giant dogs and Porsche and BMW. It was an act of scrappy corporate audacity on par with the first iPhone.

Mazda's presentation said some of those things, but in such a jumbled-up, understated way that the message had almost no impact.

There was a nice little video, reasonably well-done, at the end of which the car quickly rolled onstage. Too quickly: there was no build-up, no drama, no music. Just a few puffs of smoke from the sides. In fact, the sound was still on the video, so you couldn't even hear the car!

If you're not a Miata fan, you might not be horrified by this omission, but the sound of the Miata is one of its major selling-points. Mazda spent countless dollars and man-hours into carefully engineering a satisfying exhaust rumble in the first-edition Miata. It's one of those perfect, Steve Jobs-like details that make the Miata such a full-body joy to drive. So it's a dreadful failure of communication to have the new edition of the car roll onstage in silence.

Once the car was there, the designer went on to show off the new look. This is the part I had been looking forward to, because I'd already seen some great-looking photos here: http://www.mazda.com/stories/craftmanship/mx-5/mx-5_25th/movie_photo/

This car was designed to be aggressive, where the first-generation Miata was bubbly. It's been aptly described as looking like a Maserati. The front end is low and wide, like a race car on the track. It looks fast and hot. It makes all the testosterone in your blood sing like a tuning fork. One look, and I felt an irresistible compulsion to be the one behind the wheel.

In the entire 23-minute video, there was not one single shot of the car from the front.

The interior of the car looks to be yet another design masterpiece. It's a gorgeous steampunk union of pre-computer-era knobs and dials with slick high-tech chrome-on-black style. The short-throw shifter in the middle speaks of control, responsiveness, and twisty, wind-whipped mountain roads. The palm of my right hand longed to rock-solid snicker-snack Miata shifting. The calves of both legs felt chills anticipating lightning-fast clutching.

There was not one single shot of the interior. The designer hosting the unveiling ceremony spoke in adjective-rich prose about the beauty and attention to detail Mazda had invested in the interior of the car, but he did not show it. Not once.

The car got driven onto the stage, presumably to show that it did in fact have an engine, but otherwise it sat static throughout the demo. There wasn't a turnstile to show it from different angles, nor did it move around at all. There was no video of the new Miata, only the intro video showing older generations. Even the driver seemed awkwardly immobile. This aggressive-looking, nimble little car looked stuck in mud.

Half the unveiling was spent on a concert by Duran Duran. I suppose this is appropriate to the Miata's sales demographic, but if I were planning the event I'd have skewed a little younger. The whole point of a car like this is to make people feel just a little younger than we are. Perhaps Duran Duran was supposed to remind us of our youth, but to me it was just a reminder of aging. The band has lost a lot of the spring from their step. They had an almost perplexed look about them, as if they, too, we wondering why they were there.

None of their songs had any obvious connection to the car, which sat forgotten on the opposite side of the stage. Rather than take the opportunity to cut away to exciting footage of the new Miata zooming down the road, the producers stayed glued to the aging rockers for a dozen long minutes.

I haven't been so disappointed in the work of a highly-paid, supposedly professional communicator since — well, now that I think about it, the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. If you wanted to un-sell a car, Mazda just provided a great example of how to do it.

Monday, September 1, 2014

A hitchhiker in my class

Another first:

Last week was the first week of classes. In European Civilization class, I gave a general introduction to European Civilization (overall outline, breakdown into Ancient, Medieval, Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, and Contemporary periods, with a few very rough dates). Then I gave an introduction to some key themes of the course, by way of a lecture I call "Three Ideas That Made the West Great." The three ideas are Logic, Individualism, and Freedom. It's a very generalized introduction, the purpose of which is to get them thinking about some of the terms and themes that are going to come up throughout the semester.

At the end of class, I asked the students to write a simple self-introduction with their contact information, something about their background, reasons for taking the course, and a little bit about what they're interested in. Here is one of the responses I got. I'm quoting here in its entirety, with the very slightly rough Chinese grammar (not bad at all, by Chinese standards), so you get the flavor of the student's thinking.

So glad to participate in your class, sir. Actually I'm not your "true" student. I am a post-graduate majored in Labor Economics. I was looking for place to read books when you are preparing your class. [The class meets at 6:30PM, and it's common for students to use classrooms as study space in the evenings.] 
Anyway I feel happy, which you said is the most important thing for human being. Western civilization is great and Chinese culture is also special. I want to learn more from you, a foreigner, to see a world in your eyes, if it is allowed. [Allowed?! I'm THRILLED!] 
About the three ideas you talked about tonight, I can't agree more. Logic makes the world scientific and put the way to knowledge, so that we human can know better about everything around us. Individualism makes people live for themselves so that we can realize a harmony society, in which everybody is equal. Freedom is the vital factor to push a country moving on. We Chinese is waking up from the less free past. Though we have a long way to go, we still have lots of problems, we will not stop changing...
 In other words, this grad student was sitting in the classroom studying on his own, when our phalanx of 50 students piled into the room. He must have asked one of the students what class it was, and had enough interest in the topic to stick around for the first class. I guess our first night of class caught his interest enough that he wants to keep coming back.

This sort of thing almost never happens in the US, unless you're lucky enough to be at a superstar university like Chicago, where students are motivated by pure love of knowledge. Nor is it the norm here in China, where the vast majority of students are motivated by pure love of grades and credits. But I have had more auditors in my classes here in China than I ever did in the States.

Paradoxically, the Chinese focus on "hard sciences" gives my philosophy and culture classes a certain niche popularity. Students who are relentlessly hammered with business management classes sometimes long for something different, and there aren't very many offerings that can satisfy them.

I've had auditors before, but this is the first time my class has picked up a hitchhiker!