Monday, December 16, 2013

Ma Lei and the Taxi Driver

Ma Lei was taking a taxi home from the grocery store the other day. In front of her cab was a car driven, very slowly, by a woman. Ma Lei's driver was very annoyed.

"Stupid woman driver!" He said to her. "Women all have pig-brains!" He continued in that vein for some time, insisting that every woman alive is a complete and unmitigated idiot.

China is a place where political correctness has never hit, and sometimes that can be quite refreshing. One doesn't have to tiptoe around people's sensitivities, use only the exact right word ("differently-abled"), or worry that a woman will take offense at being called "Miss Jones" rather than "Ms. Jones" In this instance, though, Ma Lei was not amused.

"Really?" She asked. "All women have pig-brains?"


"How about your mother?" 

No answer.

"How about your sisters?" 

Still no answer.

"How about your daughter? All pig-brains?"

Here, he could have gotten a bit offended if he'd taken her remark out of context as an insult to his own daughter. (I know that wouldn't make logical sense, since she was just using the logic of his own comment against him, but it wouldn't be uncommon for someone to respond in a knee-jerk, illogical way to a remark like that.) 

Somehow, though, her manner was such that rather than getting his dander up he was starting to chuckle out loud.

Like a good martial artist, she pressed her advantage: "And Cixi?" (Former Empress Dowager of China. She's widely despised by the contemporary Chinese as an evil, manipulative genius, but certainly not an idiot.)

"How about Queen Elizabeth? Pig-brain?"

"And Hu Jintao's wife? Pig-brain too?"

Ma Lei has this way of cutting people down to size, but in a manner that is more good-natured than harsh. I've seen it many times. By this time, the driver was red-faced from laughter rather than from anger.

I wish I had her skill of significantly upbraiding people, slicing their whole worldview to ribbons in ruthlessly logical form — yet somehow making their day in the process. I'd be a much more persuasive philosopher and occasional cultural activist, if I did! 

Alas, all I can do is enjoy her rapier wit and, once in a while, report it to the world that needs to know of her awesomeness.

Sub-Prime Comprehension

Interesting cultural details come up when I give my students exams. I had a question about sub-prime mortgages on my biz ethics exam, and the majority of students lost a lot of points.

Why? They defined a sub-prime loan as a loan to "the poors" (i.e., poor people), or to "people who cannot pay it back." In some cases, their description of a sub-prime loan made it sound as if the banks were seeking out bums on the street to give loans to. The answer I was looking for was simply that a sub-prime loan was one given to a person with a relatively low credit rating, but fewer than 1 in 10 got that right.

The reasons for this failure to comprehend were very interesting.

First of all, the American system of credit is quite alien to China. Most people have never heard of a "credit rating" (though a banking insider has told me that they have them). So when you say someone has a "low credit rating," that has no real meaning to my students. Understandably, they unwittingly translate that to "not enough money to pay." Never mind that America has plenty of people who could pay their debts, but choose not to.

Herein lies the second alien concept. China doesn't have much of a credit economy. Almost no one carries a credit card. Even a bill for services is essentially unheard-of in my part of China. The hospital is cash-only, and you pay *before* you get treated. You get loans for two things in this country: a condo, and a car. And the idea that someone would intentionally default on either of those is utterly incomprehensible to most Chinese people.

A car is an enormous status symbol, often possessed as much for bragging rights as for transportation. So if one month you're driving a fancy car, and the next month it's gone, repossessed, you suffer tremendous embarrassment. You would only do that if you suddenly found yourself poor.

A condo is an even more ironclad obligation. In America we call owning your house a key part of the "American Dream." Here it's not a dream, it's a necessity.

As I've mentioned before, social custom dictates that a young man literally cannot get married unless he owns his own condo. No woman worth her salt will think of marrying him. And so, to have a condo and default on the payments is worse than a shame. It would be tantamount to divorce, bankruptcy, and social suicide. No one would do it unless it was absolutely, 100% unavoidable.

With that background, you can see how my students equated sub-prime mortgages that didn't get paid back, with wildly reckless "loans" to bums on the street. Even if they understood the idea of a credit score, the idea that someone with even a modest amount of money would have a low credit rating would enter a Chinese mind like a square peg into a round hole.

If you wonder about the future of the Chinese economy, and especially the housing bubble that many people think exists in this country, one part of the answer lies in my students' inability to understand sub-prime mortgages.

Housing prices will always be sustainably higher relative to personal income in China than they are in the West, because there is so much cultural pressure toward home-ownership. A debt crisis such as hit America in 2008 would happen here only if people's incomes fell dramatically, such that they literally could not pay back their loans. I do think it's possible, or even likely, that this will happen, but it will not happen lightly.

Given that my students seemed to think a sub-prime loan was a loan to someone who literally had no chance of paying it back, my Western mind immediately asked why they wouldn't have asked a question about this seemingly absurd idea. Why would a bank loan money to people it knows can't pay it back?

To be fair, some of my students knew about banks immediately selling the debt upstream, but this really only pushes the question back a step: why would anyone buy obviously bad debt from the banks? I guess in China it wouldn't be unheard-of for a bank to simply lie to upstream purchasers, falsify the loan paperwork, and leave someone else holding their counterfeit loans.

But even more fundamentally, in China one gets accustomed to economic transactions that seem preposterous on their face. It's always someone paying someone else off by accepting a bad deal, or someone moving money from A to B to make B look momentarily better than it really is. It's a political kickback, or stock manipulation, or personal enrichment at the expense of one's company, or whatever. Usually someone — usually the government — sweeps in with some money to prevent the situation from exploding, and the banks and companies stumble forward another day until the next crisis arises or the next bribe is needed. The system has been held together this long, only because of a combination of how universally-accepted it is, and how incredibly crafty the Chinese are at drafting these complicated deals.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Another blog-reader

Today we interviewed a candidate for an Oral English teaching position. (We're still in need for spring semester — qualified candidates please apply!!!)

She gave her teaching demonstration, and we asked her plenty of questions about her background and experience. All well and good. Then at the end, as she was getting ready to leave the room, she asked "Are you, by any chance, Professor-in-Dalian?" I confessed that indeed, I am.

"I love your blog! Oh my god, it's great! It's so funny!" She practically gushed. After her good-byes, she asked me to please "keep up the good work."

When I write the blog, I imagine my friends, FB friends, family members, and perhaps one or two random stragglers happening across it. I'm always surprised to find that I'm slightly famous.

It occurred to me to ask her how she found out about the blog. (It turns out: via a posting on a discussion group she's a member of). Hi, members of that discussion group, whichever one it is! Thanks for the plug!

It didn't occur to me to ask her how she knew it was I. Maybe I've posted a picture or two of myself — such as the one with the garlic hat on my head, from WAY back when — but there haven't been many.

Oh well. I guess I should now expect the paparazzi to be watching wherever I go and whatever I do.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

I've been meaning to post this for a couple of days now. China has made a very minor, qualified step back from one especially brutal form of repression, while maintaining much of the reality of the system in quieter, less-well-known forms.

As with most "reforms" in China, there are two entirely opposite possibilities, and the proof will be in the pudding. One is that this is simply a face-saving move to avoid public criticism, but it literally means nothing. The second is that this is a face-saving way to slowly back away from the system, one baby-step at a time. What's so maddening about China is that it's essentially impossible to know which it is, until long after the fact.

Indeed, the reality may be indeterminate at this point. Chinese officials value "flexibility," the ability to change policies instantly without admitting that they're doing so. If things are going well and there's relative stability within the country, perhaps they'll continue to back away from the policy. If they sense a "need" for the old repression, they'll quietly reinstate it under new names — all the while, never repudiating their original policy of closing down the labor camps.

The proof will be in the pudding, and the pudding bakes VERY slowly. Or, if you prefer this metaphor, China is like a giant Schroedinger's Catbox: the reality of today's event will only be determined later, long after the fact.

Incidentally, one of the dissidents says that the ending of the labor camps is vitiated by the fact that it's not accompanied by an official apology or clearing the records of those who were caught up in it. This shows an astounding lack of understanding of her own country, imo. The Chinese government almost never does such a thing. Rather, they simply quietly and behind-the-scenes restore