Notes on a Rail Crash

Posted on July 26th, by matt_schiavenza in China, Current Affairs. 1 Comment

Amid all the other terrible news of the weekend, the train collision near Wenzhou that claimed the lives of over 30 people escaped much notice overseas. Yet here in China, the story has aroused public opinion far more than similar disasters have in the past. For the most comprehensive analysis of the issues at stake, ChinaGeeks is your source. Check out parts 1, 2, and 3 of Charles Custer’s coverage of the rail disaster for what you need to know.

Thomas Friedman, the influential New York Times columnist, has often wrote that he wishes the US could be China for a day; this way, we’d be able to start critical infrastructure projects without any nettlesome political opposition. I’ve always agreed with Friedman in spirit, but I think he’d think twice if he knew exactly how unreliable and shoddy so much of China’s new infrastructure development has been. Not to mention, but I don’t think Friedman would admire a society in which the central government propaganda industry issues directives to the local media of how not to cover the story. ChinaGeeks translated the following from the China Digital Times:

Central Propaganda Department Notification: With regards to the Wenzhou train accident, all media must speedily report whatever information is released by the Railway Ministry. No media may send reporters to report [on the accident]. Carefully manage all newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do not connect it to information about the development of high speed rail [in China], do not do “re-thinking”-type reports [i.e., analytical reports]

We’ll quite likely never know the full truth of how the collision occurred or of its underlying factors- and that’s just how the Chinese government likes it.


Kunming Fake Apple Stores- Oh, China

Posted on July 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in China. 1 Comment

In the past few days, a few of my friends have asked me to comment on the now-viral story of fake Apple Store outlets in Kunming. For those who haven’t been following: an American blogger in Kunming visited what appeared to be an authentic Apple Store in Kunming only to discover that it was in fact fake. The store sold real Apple products but wasn’t actually authorized by Apple, whose only official stores in China are located in Beijing and Shanghai. The story has attracted considerable attention in the international press.

Alas, flagrant violations of intellectual property is nothing new in China. Medium-sized cities in China that do not have a Starbucks typically have a chain called SBC instead. From the logo to the internal decor, SBC quite obviously is trying to rip off Starbucks. In Lianyungang, a fast-food chain had literally taken a McDonalds golden arch and turned it upside down, selling chicken burgers to eager customers. Even the Apple area of Beijing’s massive electronics market at 百脑汇 is designed to resemble the atmosphere at an Apple Store.

Seeing such places shocked me at first, but they’re not incongruous in a country where fake software, DVDs, and CDs proliferate and quite a few college graduates are given fake diplomas for their efforts.

UPDATE: For a more comprehensive explanation for why the fake Apple Stores story isn’t really “news”, here’s Stan at China Hearsay.


The Art of Business Travel- China Style

Posted on July 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Beijing 2011. 3 comments

I’ve always been fond of traveling, but traveling on my terms. This means lots of lazy days, journal writing, novel reading, and long, luxurious meals. I’ve never subscribed to the ‘if it’s Tuesday it must be Belgium’ method of hitting as many sights as possible within a limited time frame. Travel for me means independence and freedom; it means not having a fixed agenda. If I want to spend six days on a Thai beach resort doing nothing, I will and not feel the slightest bit guilty about it.

This summer in China I’ve been traveling more than I ever have. I work as an examiner for an international English-language test which allows foreign students to study in English-speaking countries. Given China’s huge population and frenzy for overseas study, you can imagine that there’s an enormous demand for our services here. Our job is to fly to various cities in northern China, handle the speaking portion of the examination, and then fly back to Beijing where we mark the writing portion of the exam.

I won’t lie- the job has a lot of perks. The pay is great and we get to stay in 5-star hotels, which (for the uninitiated) is quite a fantastic treat. I get to work with a lot of interesting people and see, at least superficially, a number of cities I otherwise wouldn’t have traveled to on my own. And- best yet- I have four days a week free in Beijing to do as I please.

But, in an odd way, the job has changed my perception of travel. A friend of mine has been an examiner for many years. Once before traveling together, he said “oh great. Another airport”. I couldn’t understand what he meant. To me airports have always represented excitement- the last place I see before embarking on an adventure. When I told him this, he laughed. “Try doing 50 flights a year,” he said.

I now know what he means. After spending a large amount of time in China’s airports lately, I am now aware of the following facts:

– Terminal 1 has a KFC and a Starbucks, while Terminal 3 has a Starbucks, a KFC, and a Burger King. This is vitally important knowledge.

– Toothpaste cannot exceed 100 grams in volume in your carry-on luggage. No exceptions. You can have 5 tubes of 95 grams each, but if you have one at 101 grams it will be briskly confiscated.

– 45 RMB is about the going rate for a bowl of lukewarm beef noodle soup at most airports. Hence the above reference to American fast food joints.

– If there are delays of over three hours- and most flights seem to be delayed about that long- there is at least a 90% chance that some sort of physical skirmish will occur. For all their supposed Confucian passivity, I’ve seen some startlingly vicious acts from aggrieved Chinese people in airports.

– And in a wonderful example of Murphy’s Law, the automated check-in machine will only work if the check-in line is less than 10 minutes long.

There’s a funny scene in the George Clooney film Up in the Air in which his character, a man who spends his whole life traveling on domestic flights, lectures his new colleague on ways to minimize time wasted in the airports. Lately, I’ve actually begun taking his advice seriously. I’ve now gotten the security check process down to an exact science, knowing exactly which items will pass through and which ones won’t. I know now exactly what sized bag will be permitted as a carry-on, and what sized bags must be checked-in. I cringe at colleagues who delay us by checking-in bags on two-day trips, feeling like Lone Star carrying Princess Vespa’s giant hairdryer around in Spaceballs.

The hotels, too, possess their own internal logic. Each has a bountiful dinner buffet, which despite its prohibitive cost still manages to lure quite a few of us each time.  I remember that during my college-era trips to Vegas, the hotel buffet was one of the major draws of the experience. When you’re hungry, a buffet looks as attractive as a briefcase full of money. You mean, you can have steak and pasta and tempura and tamales rounded off with French onion soup? Never mind that within minutes you’ll be utterly stuffed and eyeing the dessert tray like an alcoholic walking past an Irish bar and then laid out with a food coma so severe that even the hotel’s flannel robe doesn’t fit. But for some reason, the buffet still has an enduring appeal in hotels, and the ones in China are no different.

One of my favorite aspects of the job is having critical conversations with my colleagues about the various hotels on the circuit. “In the rooms in Harbin you can watch TV from the bath,” “The Guiyang place has enormous rooms and a 50-meter pool, but the breakfast buffet is only so-so,”. “The Wuhan hotel has CNN but not BBC and they charge 50 yuan for a small beer,”. And so on. Foreigners who would have been happy sleeping in a one-star guesthouse on their own dime find the most trivial matters to complain about when ensconced in a 5-star hotel.

An interesting part of the experience are Sunday nights, when examiners flying back from wherever they were usually land in Beijing at the same time. Like kids going home after a week at camp, we all wave goodbye to each other in the taxi queue, but nobody is too sad- we’ll see each other again the following weekend.

In a couple weeks, I’ll fly to Kunming for a short vacation. I only hope that I’ll be able to regain that lost sense of wonder at the prospect of travel. Whatever the case, in the meantime I’m happy to continue my strangely delightful tour of northern Chinese airports and hotels.

Note: An earlier version of this post had “compensated” rather than “confiscated” in discussing the toothpaste limit at airports. Error fixed.


Google+ Thoughts (II)

Posted on July 15th, by matt_schiavenza in Technology & Society. 1 Comment

Earlier thoughts on Google + here.

Word on the street says that Google+ has already surpassed ten million users, an impressive feat considering that the service is still only available by invitation. Buzz in the media seems to be mostly positive. Social media heavyweights have giddily joined. The Google leviathan is growing- their profits are apparently up 36%.

So will Google + inevitably conquer the social networking world and relegate Facebook to the Friendster-like ether? No. And Twitter, which I think is probably more threatened by Google + than Facebook, should be fine as well.

First of all, tech junkies tend to forget that not everyone thinks like them. A large number of people are satisfied with Internet Explorer, for example, which to a tech geek is akin to being satisfied with a Model T. Millions of people still use Hotmail or Yahoo for their e-mail. Others don’t see the need for purchasing a smart phone, even if they could afford it.

Where Facebook thrived was in being able to bring those people- ones not normally technologically inclined- into the social media orbit. People who could barely turn on a computer began signing up for accounts and zinging off friend requests to their family and friends, and before long they were uploading photos and linking articles like seasoned professionals.

While it’s natural to assume that these people will glide easily over to Google +, I think a significant percentage of them will say: “I just got used to Facebook and now I have to start all over again? Forget it. I’m staying put”. Others might just feel oversaturated…they already spend all their time on social networks and need another one like a hole in the head.  Still others might feel uncomfortable with giving yet another corporation all their data.

Earlier I thought Twitter would be the first casualty of Google +, but now I’m not so sure. For the same reason that people still use Hotmail or Internet Explorer, Twitter might just survive simply due to a large number of people being satisfied with it and not wanting change. Facebook too will probably prove more resilient than its predecessors like MySpace and Friendster. Until your grandma starts posting old photos on Google +, it’ll be too early to write Facebook’s obituary.…

The Daily China Read

Posted on July 15th, by matt_schiavenza in China. No Comments

This is a snapshot of the Chinese internet today: one can surf the web without a proxy (or VPN) and achieve moderately fast service, but won’t be able to view Facebook, Twitter, Google +, YouTube, Google Docs, and a variety of other sites, not to mention have very spotty access to Gmail. One can also switch on a VPN and have access to those sites, but then have to deal with excruciatingly slow connection speeds, frequent timeouts, and intermittent periods when the service simply doesn’t work at all. There appear to be no alternatives to these two methods of using the internet in China.

Here are a few China-related links that caught my attention this morning:

David Moser writes that the China of 1988- when he was a student at Beijing University- was a more open society in many ways than the China of 2011. I would add that today’s China is more closed than the China I first encountered in 2004- just seven years ago.

In “China’s New Parochialism”, Fareed Zakaria discusses how through restrictions of Hollywood films, economic protectionism, and the peculiar new Maoist nostalgia China has begun pursuing a more isolationist approach. It’s worth bringing up a point made by Ian Bremmer in his excellent The End of the Free Market: the Chinese embrace of markets in the past thirty years is by no means “liberal” in the sense Westerners understand it.

The venerable China Daily is at it again, publishing a sickening editorial attributing the Tiananmen Square massacre to foreign media fabrication. Richard provides an excellent rebuttal at The Peking Duck, just in case anyone for even a second felt inclined to question what actually happened.

Finally, here’s a lengthy piece by Edward Steinfeld arguing that by embracing economic reform, China has altered the contract between citizen and State and may face unwanted political reform as a consequence. Steinfeld is correct that the changes to Chinese society in the Reform era have been tremendous, if for no other reason that the China of the mid-1970s essentially resembled contemporary North Korea. Yet Steinfeld’s comparison of China to South Korea and Taiwan- formerly authoritarian countries that democratized at roughly the same time in the 1980s- is flawed. Nonetheless, one can’t expect that China’s vast societal changes in the past thirty years will never be able to change the political system. In the long run, something’s gotta give.…

A (Mild) Complaint about Beijing Taxis

Posted on July 13th, by matt_schiavenza in Beijing 2011. 3 comments

Has anyone else noticed that Beijing’s taxi service has gotten worse? Or has it always been this bad and I just have been out of the country for too long. Recently, the following things have happened to me:

  • An available taxi pulls up, takes a look at me, and then pulls back into traffic and speeds away. I was dressed in a collared shirt and slacks, if that’s what you’re thinking.
  • A taxi driver pulling up, asking me where I was going, and then refusing to take me because he wasn’t going that way. What, are we hitchhiking?
  • Taxi driver after taxi driver either waving me off or ignoring me completely. In Kunming, cabbies often did this between 5 and 6 in the evening due to shift changes. But in Beijing, typically three or four taxi drivers wave me off for each one who stops no matter what the time of day.
  • Taxi drivers displaying an incredible lack of knowledge of the city. By law, taxi drivers must be a registered resident of Beijing, but this means the “municipal area” rather than the city itself.  I’ve had quite a few cabbies who have quite clearly just moved to the city from the nearby countryside and have no idea where anything is. I don’t blame them personally, but shouldn’t there be a modicum of training? I wouldn’t expect every taxi driver to know each little hutong in Beijing, but knowing where, say, Sanlitun is seems like it should be a requirement.
  • Taxi drivers grumbling loudly at simple requests such as stopping for two minutes to pick up a friend.
  • Taxi drivers who, in a desperate bid to dodge the constant Beijing traffic, find creative ways to circumvent the city’s main arteries and end up tacking on a half-hour and 25 kuai to the journey.

Funnily enough, taking taxis in Harbin last weekend was like timewarping back several years in China’s history. The drivers lit cigarette after cigarette and the cars themselves looked like they were on the verge of collapse, but you knew by sticking out your hand you’d be taken where you’d want to go with a smile and cheery conversation to boot.…

China and Democratization

Posted on July 12th, by matt_schiavenza in China, Politics. No Comments

The Economist has a long and interesting post mulling over why China remains an undemocratic country. The whole piece is worth a read, but particularly thought-provoking is the contention that China and Vietnam may have stumbled upon a sort of “sustainable authoritarianism”; that is, one without nepotism, regular succession, and regular economic growth.

A few extra things worth considering about China:

  • The Chinese government runs a very effective propaganda apparatus that inculcates the idea that China’s success is due to the Party’s leadership and that democratic countries are susceptible to political and economic instability.
  • The vast majority of Chinese people receive no formal education beyond the Party-implemented state system, never travel abroad, or ever encounter independent media in their lives. Thus, their exposure to ideas beyond the Party’s control is minimal.
  • China isn’t capitalist in the same way traditionally capitalist societies are; state control over the economy remains common, and no Chinese succeed in business without the acquiescence, support, and (often) co-optation of key government officials.
  • For some reason, the Chinese largely believe that government corruption is due to a “few bad apples” in the Party hierarchy rather than intrinsic to the system of government itself. The majority of the population hasn’t yet made that conceptual link between “local Party official A is a corrupt criminal” and “he’s corrupt because of perverse incentives and a lack of accountability”

As the piece points out, the Chinese and Vietnamese models can’t be exported; the Communist Parties in those countries retain legitimacy through their role in unifying and stabilizing their countries after an extended period of war and chaos.

But the example of Egypt is worth remembering. Nobody I know of thought in late 2010 that within a few months the Mubarak regime would be thrown out of office in a revolutionary uprising. It wouldn’t surprise me if people spoke of the CCP’s resilience right up until the moment it collapses.


    Uncomfortable Question, China-Syria Edition

    Posted on July 9th, by matt_schiavenza in China, China and the US, China and World. 3 comments

    I’ve criticized former US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman in the past for his appearance- intentional or otherwise- at a political demonstration in Beijing in February. Basically, I felt it was inappropriate at best for a representative of the American government to insert himself in such an incident.

    Yet look at what’s just happened in Syria:

    Tens of thousands of Syrians on Friday poured into a square that has emerged as a focus of defiance in Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city, as the French and American ambassadors stayed there for a second day in what their countries called a gesture of support for demonstrators and Syrian officials lambasted as interference.

    The comparison raises troubling questions. If it was wrong for Huntsman to appear at an anti-government rally in Beijing, is it similarly wrong for Robert Ford to travel to Hama, Syria in a show of solidarity with anti-government protesters there? To raise the stakes further, what if Huntsman had flown to, say, Chongqing to lend his explicit support to an anti-government uprising there? Such a brazen act would have almost surely resulted in his immediate termination as well as the end of any 2012 electoral aspirations.

    Or, perhaps, the two cases are different and should be treated differently. Syria may be an important country in its neighborhood, but it’s no burgeoning power like China. Whether Assad stays or goes likely means little to US interests in the Middle East, while Washington would be very, very, very careful before endorsing any sort of regime change in China. So while the American heart might be with the demonstrators in both instances, the American brain knows that what’s good for the goose isn’t necessarily good for the gander, or in this case the Peking duck.…

    Google Plus One

    Posted on July 9th, by matt_schiavenza in Technology. 2 comments

    I’ve had a couple of days now to play with Google Plus and am hereby declaring myself  an official member of its bandwagon. In one fell swoop, Google has identified Facebook and Twitter’s weaknesses, fixed them, and combined them into one holistic service. Facebook, the ball’s now in your court.

    Speaking of Facebook, founder Mark Zuckerberg had this to say (via Techcrunch) about Google’s “circles” innovation:

    The definition of groups is . . . everyone inside the group knows who else is in the group

    Really? Once most people get past their freshman year of high school, they tend to regard exclusive “circles” of friends as childish, don’t they? Most “groups” and “circles” are diffused and evolving. For example, I am a big fan of the San Francisco Giants. Many members of my family are also Giants fans, though certainly not all. Likewise, many people I went to high school with are Giants fans, as are a fair number of people I met in college, since I attended both high school and college in California. Yet in subsequent years I’ve met plenty of Giants fans through other life experiences- I even had a long conversation about the team once while chatting with a stranger in Luang Prabang, Laos. It would be unrealistic to expect all of these people to know each other simply because they’re all Giants fans, wouldn’t it?

    I can see why the Zuck would be snippy, though. Through Facebook he did the heavy lifting of introducing Baby Boomers, Luddites, and yak farmers from Bhutan to social networking, but now he can legitimately fear quite a few of these people will ditch him at the altar for Google.

    But Zuckerberg can take solace that in essence, Facebook is a victim of its own success. When practically the whole sentient world signed up, the site became an unwieldy beast where users lived in constant fear that well-intentioned friends would tag them in embarrassing photographs. In the last two years Facebook has become the world’s largest awkward zone- imagine a drunken party with your buddies being crashed by your parents, the local dry cleaner, and your boss, all the while arguing with your middle school science class lab partner about something none of them particularly care about.

    Zuckerberg’s basic gamble was that once everyone saw the benefits of sharing, they wouldn’t care about privacy anymore. Yet what he didn’t understand was that the two aren’t symmetrical. People who don’t want to share don’t have to- they can sit back and observe. But people burned by an invasion of privacy are not easily convinced that it’s all part of our brave new high-tech world, and that they’d better just get used to it.  Google Plus seems to understand that we can have both privacy and sharing so long as privacy comes first.

    Nevertheless, I come here not to bury Facebook but to praise it. For an inveterate social network junkie like myself, the ability to share thoughts, photos, and links to such a wide variety of people- an ability facilitated by Facebook- has sincerely changed my life for the better. But even the most narcissistic of us must realize that not everyone we “know” wants or needs to know everything we want to share. Google- whose stated purpose is to organize the world’s information- seems to be the first to grasp that information is only valuable if it’s sent to people who want it.

    I have no plans to stop using Facebook. But given the site’s constant game of chicken with users over privacy settings and given the notion that a little competition never hurt anyone, I am hoping Google Plus catches on in a big way.


    Zaijian, Yao Ming

    Posted on July 9th, by matt_schiavenza in China, Sports. No Comments

    Image from

    In the fall of 2004 I came to Lianyungang, China to teach English to a group of high-school students. I was 23 years old, spoke no Chinese, and had never formally taught before. The vast majority of my students were good sports, but a few clearly didn’t want to be there. After my initial efforts to engage them fell short, I mostly was content to let them sit in the back of the class and doze off.

    One boy in the class was particularly difficult to reach- he never spoke, and since I couldn’t speak any Chinese we mostly communicated in nods and grunts.  One day, while walking home, I saw him shooting hoops by himself. He waved at me, and I came over. For the first time, he spoke to me in English.

    “You are American, aren’t you?”
    “Do you like basketball?”
    “Yes, I do”

    His eyes lit up. He then spat out the names of some of the league’s marquee players. Kobe Bryant. Allen Iverson. Shaq. Then, he managed to ask me which team I liked.


    Appropriately, he laughed in pity. For unfamiliar readers, the Warriors were then (and still are) a laughingstock of the NBA, a team that had been terrible for years. I asked him about his favorite team.

    “Lakers. I like Kobe,” he replied immediately. Of course. The Lakers are the Manchester United or New York Yankees of the NBA, the marquee franchise.

    We then parted ways, silently acknowledging that we had ran out of language with which to communicate. But for the rest of that year, that student would diligently supply me with the number of points Kobe scored each game. 27. 32. 16. 47. And while I don’t think his English ever developed much beyond that, basketball at least provided him with a portal into the language and the cultures that use it.

    That, more than anything, is the legacy of Yao Ming, who has the distinction of being the first Chinese star in NBA history. Can you imagine the pressure that he must have felt? In China, stellar athletes are seldom found, randomly, in rural sandlots or anonymous urban gyms. They’re bred, cultivated, nurtured, trained, and funnelled into a life where they have little choice but to excel in the sport, whether they like it or not. For a man of extraordinary height (7 feet 6 inches) like Yao Ming, basketball was to be his profession from the beginning- whether he liked it or not.

    At an age when most people are still trying to find themselves, Yao went to America as the first pick in the NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. Being picked first is a great honor for any player, of course, but also a great burden: in a game like basketball, a first overall pick has the fate of the franchise resting on his shoulders. So Yao not only had the usual baggage associated with being a high draft pick but also the weight of a billion Chinese eyes to deal with. And- it should go without saying- he was a young man with limited language skills sent to a faraway country, thousands of miles from family and friends and everything familiar. Being in a similar situation myself, I understood that that pressure alone could be unbearable at times. And I was just an anonymous English teacher, not a famous professional athlete.

    Given all that, it would have been easy to understand of Yao crumbled- if the big man from China couldn’t hack it in America, with all the heckling fans and bright lights and translators and handlers. No one would have blamed him if after a while he decided to return to China and attempt to live an ordinary life.

    But instead Yao Ming turned himself into one of the very best players in the game. Prior to his career, men of his size in the NBA were typically awkward freaks, players called upon to do little else besides block shots and disrupt an opposing team’s offense. But Yao was a force. When he was on his game, there were few players more dominant on the floor than the center from China. Yao not only shut down opposing team’s big men but also could score, relying on a deft touch around the basket.  Not only that, but the man was truly a gentle giant- he conducted himself with grace and aplomb, never letting the criticisms and jibes distract him from the game. Even when injuries ravaged his body in recent years, causing him to lose much of his on-court effectiveness, he was a credit to his team, the league, and his country.

    Yao Ming, aged 31, has reportedly decided to retire from the NBA after nine seasons. Now wealthy and a hero on two continents, Yao seems to have set himself up very nicely in his retirement. Given what he has been through, it’s difficult to imagine anyone who deserves it more.…