Off-Line This Week

Posted on September 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Housekeeping, Me. 2 comments

’tis the October holiday, and while it would be nice to relax in Kunming all week, I’ll be up to something far more interesting. A few friends and I will be going off to towns in the central Yunnan countryside, traveling almost exclusively by bicycle. I won’t have the opportunity to blog during the trip, but am taking my camera and a notebook so should have some meaty content up on the site sometime next week. In addition, I’ve made some arrangements to write longer-form pieces for various publications* and will keep you posted when those are ready.

One of the friends I’m traveling with, Jeff Crosby, authors the blog South of the Clouds**. Those interested in Yunnan or China in general should give it a look- Jeff has been here for quite awhile and has a lot of interesting posts about China from a more cultural perspective. I’ll see if I can persuade him to write some trip thoughts up after we get back.

I’ve also been giving a site re-design a bit of thought. I like the current layout but it hasn’t changed one iota since last August, an epoch in blog years. The content won’t change, though after the Presidential Election I’ll probably write less about non-China related matters.

If any of you have suggestions for me, particularly those concerning layout or design, leave them in comments or send me an e-mail at matthew.schiavenza (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks!

* I sound so important, don’t I?

** “South of the clouds” is the English meaning of Yunnan, by the way.

PS- Apologies for the shitty photo posting I did in the George W. Bush post…I’ll do a better job next time but am tired and anxious about my trip.…

Grandpa Wen on CNN

Posted on September 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 1 Comment

Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was interviewed recently by well-regarded foreign affairs journalist Fareed Zakaria. A transcript of the conversation is here.

Note the exchange regarding Tiananmen Square. Wen was photographed standing next to former Premier Zhao Ziyang as the latter addressed the demonstrating students in 1989. Zhao, who was the lone member of the Politburo to oppose the crackdown, was purged from the Chinese government and lived his remaining years in anonymous exile in Beijing.

Wen is justifiably popular for his leadership after the Sichuan earthquake, but when asked about his thoughts about 6/4 he was slippery without being evasive. He managed to answer the question directly without giving Zakaria any admission of guilt, or even regret. Very slick. Perhaps Sarah Palin should watch.…

The Swiftly Aging President

Posted on September 29th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 1 Comment


Here is a photo of President Bush appearing on television to urge the House of Representatives to resolve the bailout legislation as quickly as possible. Bush is 62 years old, but here he looks north of 70. He also looks haggard and exhausted, undoubtedly due to dealing with the recent financial crisis. Still, though- wow. I’m surprised he hasn’t started drinking again.

As a contrast, below is a photo of Bush when he was first elected president, in 2000. He was 54 years old.

Here is a recent photo of former president Bill Clinton, who is the exact same age as Bush.

And here are the two men together, taken (I presume) earlier this year

I wonder what a President Obama or President McCain will look like in eight years. Scary thought- in 8 years John McCain will be 80 years old. …

Debate and China

Posted on September 28th, by matt_schiavenza in China and the US, US Politics. No Comments

I didn’t watch the debate (I might later if I can find a spare hour and a half and a decent feed) but have read enough reactions, spin, and prognostications to give me an impression of what happened. After all, in American politics, substance typically means very little during election season.

IR blogger Dan Drezner watched the debate and asked, rhetorically, which foreign policy topic was missing. The answer is China. Nary a word was spoken by either candidate about the Middle Kingdom, a startling omission when considering how important US/China relations are to world affairs.

There are two explanations for why China was ignored, one incidental and one important. First, the financial crisis dominated the first half of a debate meant to focus entirely on foreign policy, so the amount of time dedicated to world issues was truncated significantly. Perhaps had the debate lasted thirty minutes longer the subject would have swung around to China and East Asia.

Secondly, there simply isn’t much breathing room between the two candidates’ positions on China, just as there really hasn’t been much in the past thirty-five odd years. Since Nixon’s visit and the restoration of Sino-US relations in the 1970s, there has generally been a broad consensus across the mainstream political spectrum about China. Both Republicans and Democrats tacitly acknowledge the “One China” policy while still protecting Taiwan. Both parties favor economic engagement, though both also lapse into populist rhetoric on occasion and denounce outsourcing. Both admonish Beijing for human rights abuses, including liberal Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and conservative Republicans like George W. Bush. Both parties agree that China should apply more pressure on various rogue nations, though neither party knows how to go about persuading them.

Barack Obama and John McCain have extremely divergent views on Iraq, Afghanistan, India/Pakistan, the Middle East, Israel, and just about every other important foreign policy consideration within the American purview. Yet on China, the two don’t have much to discuss, which is ultimately why China is typically omitted in foreign policy debates.…

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Posted on September 27th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 1 Comment

I woke up too late to watch the Presidential debate live, but I turned on my local National Public Radio affiliate (KQED) to see if I could catch a bit of post-debate spin. Instead, I’ve been listening to an hour-long interview with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Commonwealth Club. The interview has focused mainly on the environment, transportation, infrastructure, and pollution, with very little about politics. Schwarzenegger is articulate, funny, and well-informed. I don’t agree with him on everything, but he’s very credible.

Since I moved to China, I’ve taken a fair amount of grief from foreigners and other Americans for having Schwarzenegger be the governor of my state. People are typically stunned when I say that he’s the only Republican I’ve voted for in my life, and that I generally think he’s doing a good job. If there’s anyone to be embarrassed about, it isn’t him; it’s Bush and McCain.…

The Maddening Chinese Holidays

Posted on September 26th, by matt_schiavenza in China Culture. 4 comments

In his latest Sinosplice post, John wonders whether the dread 7-day workweek will become a thing of the past as China adjusts its holiday schedule.

I arrived in Lianyungang on a Friday evening right before the October holiday. When my colleagues greeted me at the door, they said that while I didn’t have to take over my classes until after the break, I should still come and observe their lessons over the weekend.

“But, isn’t tomorrow Saturday?” I asked.

They murmured to one another and informed me that, while the next day was indeed Saturday, Chinese schools “make up” days lost to the holiday on the preceding (and occasionally succeeding) weekends. This means that your five-day holiday is bookended by seven-day workweeks, resulting in an odd wish that the holiday hadn’t occurred at all.

Of all the little Chinese scheduling intricacies foreigners learn to deal with, the seven-day workweek is easily the worst. A colleague of mine in Fuzhou once directed a spirited tirade against our Chinese 外办, as if a tiny office in Fuzhou Senior Middle School were responsible for the national calendar. Typically, I scheduled two relaxed days over the weekend before a holiday, including a classic teacher’s cop-out of screening a DVD.

Last year, those who make these decisions in China decided to phase out the two weekly holidays in May and October and scatter days off throughout the year, perhaps in an effort to avoid tourist crunches that occur when a billion people hit the road at the same time. This year, our May holiday was reduced to three days. According to John, this will be the last week-long October holiday. He’s for it. So am I.

Five-day holidays are fine, but the infuriating seven-day workweeks make them almost worth not having at all. Plus, there’s something wonderful about four-day workweeks, particularly when Mondays are off….long weekends followed by short weeks are great.

In any case, I shouldn’t be complaining. Because my boss is English, not Chinese, I get nine days off for the holidays. Next week, I’ll be off on a five-day bicycling trip around southern Yunnan, from which photos and text will follow. Life is good.…

San Francisco, Explained

Posted on September 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Useful Links. No Comments

This is too funny:

Chris Tavelli, who owns the Yield Wine Bar in San Francisco’s revitalized Dogpatch neighborhood, noticed recently that demand for his best-seller, an organic wine from Chile’s Lymari Valley, had plummeted.

The likely reason? The wine’s name, Palin Syrah, sounds a lot like Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee


. …


Posted on September 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 8 comments

Recently I wrote about how the fast-food chain KFC has different cultural significances in China and in the US. In the former country, KFC represents modernity, cleanliness, worldliness, and sophistication. In the latter, the restaurant signifies poor health, cheapness, and simplicity. And yet the restaurant itself is nearly identical in both countries, though as Matthew Stinson points out, KFC does make an effort to introduce Chinese-friendly items on their menus here. Nevertheless, a KFC is a KFC is a KFC.

This got me thinking; what other objects change meaning depending on cultural context? Bicycles come to mind.

Outside of New York, San Francisco, and a handful of other large cities, you absolutely need a car to get around in the US. Bicycles are great, of course, but not when you have to commute 100 miles each way to get to work. Bikes also don’t help much with grocery shopping or other similar errands.

Typically, the only people who ride bikes in the US (excepting kids in the suburbs) are bicycle enthusiasts. These types will own a fancy bike, have state-of-the-art accessories, and restrict their cycling to organized journeys. Few Americans, I suspect, think of bicycles as a mode of transportation. Instead, bikes signify affluence, sophistication, good health, and concern for the environment. Bicycling is almost exclusively a hobby.

Here, in China, the vast majority of bicycles are little cheap claptraps that could fall apart at any moment. While cyclists in the US ride as fast as they can for the exercise, many of the people I see on bikes here ride at a leisurely pace, simply making their return home a little more pleasant. Most bicycle commuters would happily trade their two-wheeler in for a proper car if it were affordable. On the other hand, a lot of cyclists in the US can, and do own cars; these they use for transportation.

Then again, perhaps times are changing. The other day I was cycling home from work when I encountered a steep hill. I went for it, but only made it about halfway before I had to step off and walk the rest of the way up. Suddenly, I heard a loud “加油!” from the left, and saw three middle-aged Chinese men, wearing bicycle vests and helmets and riding expensive bikes, zooming past me up the hill.

And so I thought, “here is the American ruing the fact that he doesn’t own a car, slowly trudging home from another work day. And here are the Chinese indulging in their favorite hobby, happily tackling the same hill that I regularly curse.”…

Best Thing I’ve Read Today…

Posted on September 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. No Comments

…was an aside in a Nicholas Kristof column discussing the alarming number of Americans who believe Obama is a Muslim, or possibly Satan. Writes Kristof:

Just imagine for a moment if it were the black candidate in this election, rather than the white candidate, who was born in Central America, was an indifferent churchgoer, had graduated near the bottom of his university class, had dumped his first wife, had regularly displayed an explosive and profane temper, and had referred to the Pakistani-Iraqi border …

That candidate, almost certainly, wouldn’t have made it as far as Obama. …

Even Again?

Posted on September 18th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. No Comments

I admittedly know very little about finance, hence my bleg from the other day. What I do know about, though, is American politics. It appears that Obama has gained a little momentum in recent days, presumably directly related to the Wall Street meltdown.

Momentum is extremely, extremely important in American politics. John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate, followed by her subsequent speech at the Republican National Convention, gave the Arizona Senator momentum for the first time in this race. Palin became an instant media superstar, the red-meat Republican base was fired up, and Obama was left on his heels.

Generally, bad economic news favors the political party that’s out of power. Bill Clinton defeated George H W Bush in 1992 for this reason, even though the latter had presided over the collapse of the Soviet Union and the popular Persian Gulf War. No matter how much responsibility the current president has over the Wall Street crisis (and again, I don’t know enough to comment), he will be blamed. Democrats tend to hold more popular positions on economic matters anyway, and Obama will surely exploit this in coming days.

But more importantly, Palin is no longer a front-page story. The “political superstar” meme has been replaced by the “just another politician unable to explain what is happening,” one. And given Palin’s light experience on these matters, she’s far more likely to emit a gaffe-worthy comment than McCain, Obama, or Biden. I suspect McCain’s advisors will try to keep her off-the-cuff interactions with the media to a minimum over the next week or so.

One analyst I read believes that the race has returned to its pre-convention balance, with Obama two or three points ahead. I’d say it’s likelier that the race is pretty much exactly tied, and that McCain’s modest lead has probably evaporated. Again, with six weeks to go state polls are more important than national ones.

My guess- the polls will remain even until the debates, when the balance will shift again. In whose direction none can foresee. But it is difficult to make an accurate prediction until the debates are over.…