Chinese Democracy and “Chinese Democracy”

Posted on November 27th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events, Music. 3 comments

In 1989, the Chinese government opened fire on groups of protesting students in a large square in Beijing, killing thousands. That same year, Guns’n’Roses was the most popular rock band in the United States after releasing their classic album, Appetite for Destruction. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed and several ex-Communist states established nominal democracies. Observers wondered whether China would follow suit.

Guns’n’Roses that year completed a double album (“Use Your Illusion I” and “Use Your Illusion II”, released separately) and began work on an album titled “Chinese Democracy”.

Years passed. The Chinese state grew stronger as more people escaped poverty. Guns’n’Roses eventually split up. Axl Rose, the iconic vocalist of the group, resumed work on the album alone.

Political scientists debated whether there would ever be Chinese democracy. Some pointed to factors such as the growth of the middle-class, the rise in international travel, and the increased use of the Internet as reasons to expect China to democratize. Others were skeptical.

Music critics, simultaneously, debated whether there would ever be “Chinese Democracy”. Some pointed to factors such as Axl Rose’s television appearances, concerts, and the ever-revolving door of studio musicians as signs that the album would soon appear. Others were skeptical.

Now it is November 2008. Chinese democracy still hasn’t arrived. Most now believe it won’t for awhile. But “Chinese Democracy” has. So far, critical reaction has been tepid; the album doesn’t appear to be worth the 17-year wait.

Ones hopes that when Chinese democracy arrives, it’ll be better received than “Chinese Democracy”.…

Speech Recognition Fun

Posted on November 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. No Comments

A friend of mine who is in graduate school in Canada recently said that he sometimes writes papers while driving thanks to speech recognition software he installed on his Macintosh, which he keeps in the passenger seat next to him. What a boon for us procrastinators of the world! Apparently, though, the program isn’t 100% accurate though it can be trained to learn the contours of your voice.

Even if it were accurate, though, proofreading would of course be necessary. Otherwise, his term paper might end up like this:

“The rate of growth in the Chinese economy has been affected by, uhh, the global financial crisis, and Hey asshole! You cut me off! Umm, where was I……oh. The decline in demand among Western nations has led the government to consider…, yeah…that’ll be a Big Mac, large fries, and a medium Coke.”

Or maybe it works, who knows?…

Snapshots: The Fu Wu Yuan

Posted on November 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Snapshots. No Comments

Fu wu yuan (服务员) literally means “service person” in Chinese, yet the term applies to waitresses, barmaids, and virtually anyone else in the service sector. At any Chinese restaurant or bar, it is entirely appropriate and normal for customers to shout this word in order to summon help, something that makes Westerners new to China noticeably uncomfortable.

The fu wu yuan at The Box, my local watering hole, is 17 years old. She comes from Guizhou, the province east of Yunnan and amongst the poorest in all of China. Her parents are illiterate peasants and no longer work; her father is an alcoholic and her mother disabled. She herself has little education, as she has had to work from an early age. When she came to Kunming, she worked in a hairdressing shop, but for the past year or so has been at the bar. This work she likes better.

She typically works about fifty hours a week for a rather low salary, though her wage has recently been doubled due to her diligent management of the bar. In addition to making drinks (including alien concoctions like screwdrivers and mojitos), she also serves as the bar chef, making mainly Italian-style pizzas and lasagnas. She once confided that she doesn’t much care for Western food, and when the bar is quiet she typically sneaks outside and grabs noodles or vegetables for dinner.

The Box, like most laowai bars in a foreign city, is often rowdy and full of drunken men. It is also small, grim, and full of cigarette smoke. Yet the fu wu yuan never complains. She often steals catnaps during the afternoons so she won’t be tired at night. For a girl without any English, she remembers every regular customer by name, and greets them with a “ni hao!” and a smile.

Once, while I was there having an afternoon coffee, she told me that the she had spent her day off with friends at Grand View Park, one of Kunming’s greener and more scenic outdoor spaces. Her friend had taken photos and had them developed. In the Chinese style, each photo showed the fu wu yuan posing in front of a scenic landscape. In no photos did she smile. I asked her why.

“Because I don’t like my teeth”

This girl, at 17, sends most of her salary back to her family in Guizhou. Her younger brother plans to attend college, and will be the first member of her family to do so. He will do so based almost solely on the financial support of his older sister, who at this moment is making pizzas and serving drinks to foreigners in a dingy bar.…

Strange Days

Posted on November 18th, by matt_schiavenza in Daily Life. 3 comments

I was running late this morning so took a taxi to work. We hit traffic, so the taxi driver calmly pulled into the bicycle lane and continued driving. Unfortunately, our path was slowed by bicyclists who understandably could not travel particularly fast. My driver found this frustrating.

“Why are they all in the way?”
“Well, it IS a bike lane”
“Yeah, but I’ve got a car so I should have right-of-way anywhere”
“I don’t know…doesn’t sound very safe”

He then pulled back into traffic and someone let him in. As we approached my office, I wondered what would have happened if a motorist pulled a similar stunt in say, suburban California. First, two or three police cars would rush to the scene and arrest him for reckless driving. He’d lose his license. Then, he’d face the opprobium of hundreds of pissed-off cyclists, horrified drivers, and others who couldn’t believe that he would possibly try such a thing. The story would be a regional news item, and political organizations would make him the poster-boy of why cars should be banned (or something).

Here it happens every day.

Then, a few hours later at Carrefour, I saw an actual fistfight between a man and a female employee in which she smacked him with a broom at one point. They were both red in the face and screaming and shoving each other around, and the woman was in the process of kicking the man’s ass when I wandered along.

Nobody else did a thing.…

Shenzhen in a Nutshell

Posted on November 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments


Loose translation: “Come, and thus you’re a Shenzhen native”

I truly believe there is no other city in the world about which such a statement could be made.…

Hong Kong

Posted on November 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 7 comments

The Chinese government summarizes its relationship with Hong Kong as “one country, two systems.” Actually, the opposite is true: for all intents and purposes, the countries are separate, yet both seem driven by a rapacious capitalism that the Hong Kong-ese have made their trademark. “Two countries, one system” would be more apt.

Hong Kong, like its sister Macao, is a Special Administrative Region of China. The two countries have separate customs arrangements, separate visa policies, separate currencies, separate laws, and separate political structures. They speak separate languages (though Cantonese is of course widely spoken in China’s Guangdong Province), and write in seperate character systems. China does appoint some of Hong Kong’s government officials and is responsible for its defense, but in effect China and Hong Kong are not the “same” country.

Hong Kong is busy, brash, and vertical; there are skyscrapers everywhere. At times being a pedestrian here means traipsing through a succession of high-end shopping malls, and it may even be possible to traverse the city without setting one foot on the ground.

As a US citizen, I was able to enter Hong Kong from Shenzhen without a visa, yet for most Chinese this simply isn’t possible. Hong Kongers, it seems, feel more comfortable around “foreigners” than their co-ethnicists who occupy the vast continent beside the territory. When my boss once asked an Englishman whether the Chinese were allowed into the territory, he was told, “of course not! They’d break it”.

Yet something tells me this is an incomplete picture. Hong Kong Chinese chafed under British rule for a century and a half and exulted when the territory reverted to Chinese control in 1997. Beijing for its part is careful not to change anything, as Hong Kong hums along fine on its own. Billboards around the city boast of being Asia’s “world city”, and in a sense HK is more international than most other places. However, it is blissfully self-contained; a necessity for a place that stuck to money-making while its giant neighbor experienced the trauma of Maosim in the post-war period.

In any event, my time here will be brief; I arrived at about eleven this morning, and will catch the six o’clock ferry back to Shenzhen. In the meantime, I’m off to do things I can’t do in the “real” China; buy magazines and books in English, eat roast beef sandwiches, and ignore all the Mandarin I’ve ever learned.…


Posted on November 12th, by matt_schiavenza in Me, Travel. 2 comments

Here I am in Shenzhen…ground zero of China’s Gilded Age. Thirty years ago, Shenzhen literally didn’t exist; it was a typically stagnant Chinese village that happened to border Hong Kong. Now, it is a city of ten million, none of whom are from here. There are no old buildings in Shenzhen and I’m unsure if there are any old people. The city exists for one reason only: to do business and to make money. There is scant culture, no history, and little charm; unless greed counts as charm.

Think about the clothes you’re wearing now; they were probably stitched here. Many of the items you own may have been manufactured here as well, shipped from the port a mere 800 meters from where I type. Many of the young men and women toiling in Shenzhen factories are migrant laborers, coming not from a foreign country (as in the US) but from the poorer inland provinces of China. These migrant workers- of which there are over 100 million in China- receive no services from the state and often live in ramshackle apartments that dot the perimeter of the city.

Thirty years ago, China closed the book on Maoism and began considering economic reform. They saw Hong Kong, shining like a beacon just beyond its border, and decided to emulate it. Thus Shenzhen- and four other cities- were born as “special economic zones”. A fishing village in my lifetime, the city is now larger than any in Europe and all but two in North America. In ten years, its port will likely surpass Singapore in size and become the busiest in the world.

Perhaps from my description you picture a dystopian nightmare, but from my limited experience here much of the city is quite pleasant. The area around Shekou port resembles San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist trap I avoid when home but find oddly reassuring here in China.

I spent an hour or two clothes shopping, hoping to find bargains on items that are eventually destined for the shops of the developed world. The Chinese I meet all seem shocked that I speak their language, as few of the expat businessmen have reason to learn Mandarin. I make a point to ask them where they come from; and they all oblige- Guangxi, Henan, Hunan, Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Hubei natives have all spoken to me. When they describe their home, they speak with wistful pride, perhaps knowing that their future is thousands of miles away, here in the buzzing Pearl River Delta.

Perhaps I should explain what I’m doing here; I’m tagging along with my two supervisors as they do business with port operators, businessmen, and government officials. Tomorrow we’re off to Hong Kong, and I’ll be certain to have a thing or two to say about my favorite SAR.…


Posted on November 10th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

Greetings from sunny Yangshuo, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, where I find myself this morning. I recently attended a two-day conference for work in nearby Guilin, and so I’ve come with my two colleagues to chill out in Yangshuo for a couple of days.

Except….Yangshuo isn’t really chill anymore. When I came here two years ago, I stayed and relaxed a week; a perfect antidote to a hectic and oft-difficult stay in Vietnam. Now, though, things have changed; several of the laid-back cafes have been transformed into raging discos with scantily-clad Chinese dancing girls and ubiquitous games of dice. The number of beggars and hawkers have multiplied, too. So have the number of travelers; early November is off-season, yet Yangshuo is much more crowded than when I visited in the height of summer.

One thing, though, hasn’t changed: the magnificent karst scenery. Jutting from the ground like chocolate chips on a cookie, the karst mountains are justifiably famous and feature in many tourist videos of China. Guilin itself has long been a scenic destination for the Chinese masses, yet in truth it remains a rather ordinary, ugly city plopped in the middle of a stunning landscape. Although we were there for business and mostly remained in a hotel, the rapacious taxi drivers and brothel activity indicated a city desperately dependent on tourism.

The province of Guangxi is still among China’s poorest, though times are changing. A lot of manufacturers have relocated here from neighboring Guangdong (the “Factory of the World”) to capitalize on cheap labor. In the southeast of the province, the Chinese government has established a major logistics center designed to facilitate trade with booming Vietnam, with which Guangxi shares a border. Tourism too will remain important. In addition to Guilin/Yangshuo, the Guangxi government promotes the southern city of Beihai as a beach resort destination.

Yangshuo used to be something of a backpacker’s secret. For many years, Chinese tour groups steered clear of the city and remained in the far larger Guilin, and as a result Yangshuo always had a sleepy feel to it. No more. 西街, or “Western Street”, reminds me more of Bangkok’s Khao San Road than anyplace else.

Tomorrow I continue my trip, accompanying my bosses to Guangzhou (for a stopover) and then Shenzhen, where we have a few meetings. After over four years in China, I will be going to Guangdong for the first time, and will see whether the engine of the Chinese economic miracle still hums as before.…

Predictions Revisited

Posted on November 5th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

In the Presidential race, three states haven’t been called: North Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri. With all precincts reporting, Obama has won the Tar Heel state by roughly 12,000 votes. McCain won Georgia handily, but due to voter irregularities, the Peach state hasn’t yet been called. Mac also has appeared to win the Show-Me state by a few thousand votes. Let’s give Georgia and Missouri to McCain and North Carolina to Obama.

In the Senate, three races are too close to call. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens- a convicted felon, by the way- leads challenger Mark Begich by 4,000 or so votes. In Minnesota, comedian Al Franken leads Sen. Norm Coleman by 1,000 or so votes with about 3% of precincts yet to report. In Oregon, Sen. Gordon Smith leads Jeff Merkley by about 3,000 votes with three-fifths of precincts in the books. It’s too early to tell, but let’s assume Stevens and Smith are re-elected and Franken ousts Coleman. In addition, let’s say that Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss will retain his seat regardless of whether or not there’s an eventual runoff.

By my count, that gives Obama 364 electoral votes and McCain 174. My prediction was 353-185, so I was off by 11, incorrectly predicting McCain would take Indiana.

My Senate picture is a bit more muddled, for as Jascha points out in the comments I incorrectly guessed 56-44. 57-43 is likelier.

So far, Democrats have gained 15 House seats though this number should trickle up in the next few days as votes are finalized.

My predictions- not bad! Though they weren’t exactly bold. In the end, there weren’t a lot of surprises in the election based on relevant polling.…


Posted on November 5th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments


We’ve all known this for about five hours, but it still hasn’t sunk in: an African-American man named Barack Hussein Obama has just been elected President of the United States. Amazing.…