Ladies And Gentlemen, President George W. Bush

Posted on February 29th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 7 comments

At a press briefing today:

Q What’s your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4 a gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing –

THE PRESIDENT: Wait, what did you just say? You’re predicting $4 a gallon gasoline?

Q A number of analysts are predicting –

THE PRESIDENT: Oh, yeah?

Q — $4 a gallon gasoline this spring when they reformulate.

THE PRESIDENT: That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that.

Q Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes. I know it’s high now.

Eleven more months, eleven more months.

(via Passport)…

Yao’s Out for the Season- but for the Olympics?

Posted on February 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Sports. 2 comments

The big story right now in the NBA is that Houston Rockets star center Yao Ming has fractured his foot and will not play again this season. For Rockets fans, this is surely terrible news: the team has won 12 games in a row and were a legitimate championship contender. Without Yao, Houston’s hopes for an NBA championship are nil.

Ordinarily, this story wouldn’t be earth-shattering news. Big-time players get hurt all the time, and sports fans have long learned to cope with these kinds of disappointments. But Yao’s injury has broader implications than just the Rockets’ season- he of course is the most famous athlete in China and the star of the country’s ultra-popular national basketball team, expected to compete for a medal in the upcoming Beijing Games. Should Yao be unable to play, both China’s competitive chances and the spirit of the nation’s millions of basketball fans would surely dampen.

At the moment, it appears Yao will heal in time to hit the court this summer. Let’s hope for the sake of China’s hoop fanatics he doesn’t suffer any setbacks. 加油!

UPDATE: Just for the record, the Rockets have now won 21 games in a row- the last nine without Yao. The streak is the second longest in NBA history and has catapulted the Rockets to the top of the Western Conference standings.…

Dealing With the Landlady

Posted on February 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 1 Comment

Last week was one of those weeks in which everything seemed to come up at once. My Visa was due to expire, my rent was due to elapse, and I had to pay tuition for another semester at the language school. The first and third of these responsibilities were easy enough to handle, as the administration at my school tends to be very efficient. But dealing with the landlord proved to be something of a hassle.

In Kunming, unlike other parts of the world (and even other parts of China), most landlords request that tenants pay at least six months of a year’s rent up front. Mine last year insisted that I pay for the whole year at once, something I agreed to grudgingly. This year, since I had taken care of the place and wanted to rent it again, I hoped I could persuade her to allow me to pay six months’ rent out of convenience.

She said no, and when pressed admitted that she wanted to buy another house and so needed my money more quickly. Hardly a legitimate reason, but being disinclined to look for another apartment I agreed if she gave me sufficient time to withdraw rent money from the ATM.

See, in Kunming rent is payed in cash. And because I don’t have a bank account in China, I’m only allowed to withdraw a certain amount of money within a 24 hour period with my foreign debit card. So it usually takes me about a week to get all the cash together, a process entailing stuffing money into my desk Depression-style and living off the skin of my bum for awhile.

Yesterday, the landlady came by with a consigliere, a rather unfortunate looking woman who spoke a little English and acted ostensibly as a translator. My roommate and I hired a Chinese friend of mine with the aim of using her negotiating skills to ensure we wouldn’t get ripped off.

The negotiations begun- I made a final plea for a six-month payment that was shot down instantly. At first, they couldn’t believe I didn’t have the money on hand (do all Chinese people stuff money under their mattress or what?) but when I managed to inform them of my situation they agreed to meet me in two weeks’ time for the payment. So far, so good.

Then, I mentioned two maintenance issues in the apartment: a broken toilet flush and a corroding front door. The landlady brusquely informed me these were my responsibilities because “you broke them”. I countered that the toilet and door weren’t of particular high quality and that these were routine issues under her purview. She again shook her head, and said no. What was in the house was my responsibility, not hers.

My Chinese friend then sprung into action. She told the landlady that I had dealt with and paid for previous maintenance issues during the past year without even contacting her (which is true though they were admittedly minor), and that should the landlady have the foresight to consider a new toilet and front door an investment, she could conceivably raise the rent next year for her next tenants. The landlady countered by saying that because she lives far away, she doesn’t have enough time to swing by the apartment anytime anything went wrong. I was going to retort that if she didn’t want to deal with coming over here, then why buy an apartment in this neighborhood? But I kept my mouth shut. Finally, my friend said that fixing the door and toilet wouldn’t be expensive and could be handled almost immediately. The landlady agreed, though according to my friend (when speaking privately to me later) her friend urged her in Kunming dialect not to trust these foreigners and their turncoat Chinese friend.

My friend left, and the landlady and her hatchet woman came back to inform me a worker was on his way over to fix the toilet. He arrived, did the job, they paid him, and he left. While sitting waiting for him, my landlady’s friend informed me in broken English that my friend wasn’t welcome to negotiate with them anymore because “we don’t like her”. I nodded and smiled and bit my tongue. Of course they don’t like her- without her they probably could have gotten their way with me. Finally, the door repair man turned up and fixed the door without much pomp and circumstance. He was paid and then departed with the landlady and her friend.

Dealing with a situation like this brings up an assortment of reactions common to any foreigner having to make big financial decisions in China. Part of us has a Platonic image of a landlady in mind, a sweet and understanding person who inquires how she can help and fixes all maintenance issues with a smile, and who wouldn’t dream of raising the rent because we’ve been such helpful tenants. Hell, I suppose some people in China do have landladys like this, just not me.

In the end, you think pragmatically. Factoring in the cost and hassle of moving, not to mention the possibility that the next place we find could be significantly worse, it made sense to just deal with the devil we knew.

So I signed a form stipulating that the rent will remain the same and when I’ve collected the money, they will be paid and hopefully disappear for awhile. And before long I’m sure the whole experience will be safely out of my head.…

Kunming: The Chinese Hollywood?

Posted on February 25th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Film. No Comments

According to reports (via Go Kunming), a wealthy Hong Kong film producer has the ambitious goal of creating the Chinese equivalent of Hollywood right here in our fair city of Kunming. Before we get excited about celebrity sightings and star maps, however, such a project will require years before it is fully realized.

Choosing Kunming as the center for movie studios actually makes quite a bit of sense. Hollywood, after all, was ideal for the American film industry due to its consistently pleasant weather. A studio based in Kunming can count on quite a few sunny days as well as take advantage of Yunnan’s incredible scenery.

And, if the current traffic congestion on Kunming’s streets continue, we can be rest assured that the similarities to Los Angeles will not end with simply the film industry. …

Random Complaining

Posted on February 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 7 comments

I’ve been in China long enough to get past the point of having very many “bad China days”, but every now and then getting a few pet peeves off my chest isn’t a bad thing. Here’s the latest in an irregular series:

1. If for whatever reason I don’t answer my phone, it means (a) I have it on silent mode because I am busy (b) I don’t want to talk to you for some reason or (c) I don’t like having phone conversations at 8am on Saturdays. It doesn’t mean that if you keep calling, over and over, eventually on the 44th ring I’ll decide to pick up. I realize this problem exists because few people here have voice mail, but could you wait for one hour at least before trying again?

2. If I give you a 100 kuai note to settle a 60 kuai tab, is it really necessary to give me a dirty look because you can’t be bothered to make change?

3. No, the whole restaurant doesn’t want to hear you shouting to your friend on your cell-phone.

4. Waitresses: please remember what dishes are unavailable. Twice recently (at a Western-owned restaurant no less) I’ve ordered a meal only to have a waitress come back 20 minutes later to inform me that they’ve run out, and that I would have to order something else. This really is a management issue but it isn’t very pleasant when your table-mate is able to finish his whole meal before yours even arrives.

5. To the wonderful, beautiful Chinese women I know: it isn’t hot when its 24 degrees C. And it won’t kill you to sit in the sun, either.

That’s enough for now.…

The Great Firewall Explained

Posted on February 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Technology & Society. 1 Comment

The March issue of The Atlantic, America’s best magazine, is now online (available with free registration). Included within is a fascinating piece by the magazine’s man in China, James Fallows, that unravels some of the mysteries behind what expats have dubbed “The Great Firewall of China”: China’s sophisticated method of censoring the internet.

What’s notable is how easy the firewall is to evade- it isn’t as if men in black suits and sunglasses will appear at your front door if you mistakenly type “Taiwan independence” in your Google search bar. Most internet-savvy foreigners I know in China use proxy servers (available free on the internet) that renders the entire firewall completely moot. In effect, it simply isn’t difficult at all to find any information you want on the internet from within China.

Yet the simple hassle of circumventing the censors makes most people unwilling to go to the trouble. Fallows points out that Chinese cities are simply teeming with media and that most information that affects people’s lives is convenient to obtain.

Here’s a follow-up interview with Fallows for those who have read the article. The rest of the issue is excellent too-as always.…

“Freedom of the Press Is an Inevitable Trend”

Posted on February 20th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

That quote comes from a new study published by a leading Chinese think tank, urging greater political transparency and media freedom. Here’s the lede from the Guardian:

China must embrace political reforms that would cut back censorship and curb the Communist party’s powers, its top thinktank says in a new report warning that the alternatives are economic damage, worsening corruption and public discontent.

Interesting.…

Whither Cuba?

Posted on February 19th, by matt_schiavenza in World Affairs. 10 comments

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the ailing Fidel Castro announced his resignation as President of Cuba. In practical terms, new President Raul Castro (Fidel’s younger brother) has been the de facto head of state for the past eighteen months, so very little will likely change.

Cuba is one of the five remaining Communist countries in the world, alongside China, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea. The former three have each implemented market reforms that have modernized their respective economies without loosening the Communist Party’s grip on power. Cuba, like North Korea, remains a somewhat fossilized Communist state, dominated by a single man who rules amid a cult of personality.

For the United States, Castro’s resignation represents a unique opportunity to reconsider our idiotic, counter-productive trade embargo. Since Castro’s ascension nearly fifty years ago, the US has attempted to isolate the Cuban regime in the hopes that it would collapse, something that has clearly not worked out as planned. Instead, Castro emerged as something of a hero for other Latin American regimes resentful of American economic and political interference. The embargo persists due to intense political pressure from Cuban exiles in south Florida, a powerful interest group willing to spend large amounts of money in order to maintain a stupid policy.

Florida’s Cubans tend to be staunch Republicans, so a Democratic president such as Barack Obama may feel safe enough to alienate them. Obama has pledged direct engagement with unfriendly nations as part of his foreign policy platform, and Cuba would be a fairly low-risk theater in which to implement it. …

China and Kosovar Independence

Posted on February 19th, by matt_schiavenza in World Affairs. 6 comments

The world’s club of independent nations added Kosovo to its members list this week, to decidedly mixed applause. The US, Britain, France, and Germany immediately recognized the new republic, while Spain ruled out following suit. Serbia, having seen its territory further reduced, is incensed. Its long-time patron Russia also opposed the independence declaration, while other countries have thus far remained on the sidelines.

One such country of course is China, whose reaction has merely been to express “grave concern” and to call for a solution more congenial to Serbia’s interests. Beijing did not say whether or not it would recognize Kosovo, although my sense is that this is extremely unlikely. China falls into a category of countries concerned that Kosovar independence might inspire their own separatist movements to emulate its example.

This issue dovetails with a discussion I’m having with commenter Marco in this thread about China’s Janus-faced relationship with imperialism. Beijing has long denied harboring imperialist intentions itself, pointing out that China was a victim of foreign domination in the century prior to the founding of the People’s Republic. This cannot be swept aside: China was intimidated, carved up, bullied, and ultimately occupied by a number of imperialist powers, an experience that has not been forgotten.

That aside, what does China make of its historical behavior in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia? In each case, China appropriated ethnically separate territories under its own control, brutally suppressed any dissent and encouraged Han settlement in order to dilute the native proportion of the population. Beijing’s flatters itself by claiming its significant material investment in each region has greatly improved the overall quality of life, and to an extent this is true. Yet were the Japanese to claim that their occupation of China in the 1930s and 40s represented an altruistic attempt to develop the country, all Chinese would be up in arms.

Nowadays, these issues are largely moot. Turkic people in Xinjiang comprise but a minority of their own autonomous region, and Han settlement in Inner Mongolia has been so thorough that they now represent 90% of the province’s population. Tibet’s situation is rather more complicated, but even their exiled supreme leader (the Dalai Lama) has ceased calling for independence. In other words, China lacks a breakaway region on par with Kosovo.

And as for Taiwan? Its parallels with Kosovo are rather slim. One of Kosovo’s strongest claims for independence was its ethnic distinctiveness from Slavic Serbia: 95% of the Kosovar population is ethnically Albanian. Taiwanese people are predominately Chinese. And while Kosovars endured a brutal suppression by Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian army, Beijing has mainly left Taiwan alone since 1949. The international community has largely united behind the mainland’s One China Policy, and few countries still recognize Taiwan as China’s rightful government.

So China is left in a pickle. Recognize Kosovo, and it leaves itself susceptible to claims of hypocrisy. Denounce the new country, and it then has to fend off questions of why an ethnically homogeneous country should be at the whim of an aggressive, dominant foreign power. As a result, I sense that “gravely concerned” will be Beijing’s official policy for awhile.…

More Democracy In China Musings

Posted on February 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Politics. No Comments

There’s quite a good thread going now at The Peking Duck, in which I’ve thrown my hat in, wondering when China will liberalize its political system and become a “democracy”. What struck me about the comments was not only the level of disagreement over what China can and should do but also what democracy itself means.

This confusion is understandable, as democracy is complex. There isn’t a one-size-fits all definition, after all. And that, my friends, is why basing one’s foreign policy on the vague notion of “democracy promotion” has been such a disaster. …