Questions about how do deal with a Global China (in Hong Kong)

I love to listen to the witty and very knowledgable banter of Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn over at the Sinica Podcast on SupChina. I’ve been listening to these guys for years now—long before they started SupChina when it was still hosted at Pop-up Chinese (and also long enough to know that they are much more knowledgeable about China than their poor puns and re-reading of the week’s Caixin News on the Caixin-Sinica Business Podcast would suggest—yuck). These guys have an engaging rapport with one another, they are funny, extremely well educated, very experienced in China, and have GREAT guests and the best recommendations. They typically ask timely and provocative questions of their guests too. If you’re not subscribed to the Sinica Podcast from SupChina, then you are truly missing out. These guys and their podcasts really are a great China resource and my only complaint is that we don’t get enough of them. More, please! (No, I get nothing for shamelessly promoting them.)

But a couple of weeks ago I was stuck by the simple answers from a guest that seemed to be allowed without much follow up (except, of course, for Jeremy badgering the guest about how they were going to make money—we still don’t know). I couldn’t stop thinking about the conflict of interest presented and so I put my thoughts down in this short blog.

Listening to Gary Liu, the new Editor in Chief (EiC) of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), talk with the SupChina guys,  it’s clear that he’s pioneering a new path through the mire that is Hong Kong-China relations. But it’s also clear that there are some real unanswered questions in his presentation of journalistic objectivity, independence, and integrity at the SCMP.

Now I am not questioning the integrity of the paper, Mr. Liu, or any of the staff. But I am not sure I can comprehend his explanations about how the paper plans to navigate its complex relationships with China.

Granted, I’m neither a journalist nor do I have to manage cross-border (cross-customs?) relations. But I’ve interviewed scores of people that do and I’ve also worked in China with an office in Hong Kong (and Bangkok) for most of the last 25 years. My “China-sense” is up when I hear somewhat vague explanations of how to manage professional/governmental relations.

First, in terms of content that offends China, according to Mr. Liu there is an identified but undefined line that he explicitly said the paper wants to go up to but will not cross. He says they will not back down covering controversial content, but that there is certainly a line they are aware of. He states that this act of act of self-censorship (my term, not his) shows that the paper has both editorial independence and moral integrity. Come again? If the paper is willing to do, just to be polite, what it claims it will not do under duress, how is that being independent?

Further, how can anyone go right up to a line, if it’s not clearly defined? And, if there indeed is a content-specific line that someone else (the CCP) has defined for the paper, then the paper is explicitly not independent, right? The integrity in the editorial process that comes from this awkward position is, at best, limited to accepting fuzzy standards set outside of their own boardroom (and country?). In the Mainland, Hong Kong is widely considered to be the spoiled step-child that will eventually be taught a lesson. That they still publish on topics that Beijing doesn’t allow Mainland papers to cover doesn’t mean they are independent, just not yet reprimanded.

Second, the SCMP does not make a profit and doesn’t expect to any time soon (nor do they know exactly how they eventually will, if ever). All of their funding comes from their new owner, Alibaba, as does all of the physical hosting of their archives and content—which, by the way, has now been transferred 100% to the Alibaba cloud servers (in China).

For the moment, lets ignore related news from just this last year that will likely directly affect this relationship: Online editing of historical and academic archives by the CCP. Tracking of journalists and citizens inside and outside of China by the CCP. Kidnapping of journalists/booksellers by the CCP. The CCP’s United Front’s desire to “tell a new story” for China. Demands by Xi et al that Hong Kongese and other overseas Chinese are loyal to China. And, of course, the new Orwellian Sesame Credit program of the Chinese government, pioneered by Chinese companies, including Alibaba.

Back to the SMCPs cloud and money, or lack thereof. The purchase of and hosting of the SCMP by Alibaba means a couple of significant things. Despite what the EiC says, monetary control is editorial control. The SCMP is specifically controlled by Alibaba who is unapologetically influenced by and works tightly with the Communist Party and government in China to develop, ironically, systems to monitor the conversations and movements of Chinese citizens (which Hong Kong citizens are specifically considered to be). Chinese newspapers in Australia have been affected by China’s content control though they are not owned by Chinese companies (and are significantly further away than is Hong Kong). To think that this won’t be, at some point, a significant issue, is (imo) naive. While the EiC stated that as of yet, they have never been told what to write or not to write, there is a line that they will not cross and the paper is willing to commit it’s financial future to those that define that line, i.e. Ant Financial (Alibaba) and the CCP.

Within the context of the government’s desire to control media and rewrite history, that the SCMP archives is hosted in China, where it is also banned, should be a huge red-flag in the face of independence (pun intended).

Third, the new EiC said that he and the BOD have want want to “tell a different Chinese story.” This is almost a direct quote from Xi Jinping’s United Front plans; and un-ironically, Xi’s words were directly targeted at the CCP’s guiding of the media’s presentation of China and China-related issues outside of China. The perception of China outside of China is the specifically identified audience of the SCMP. What does it mean that the paper wants to tell a better Chinese story? According to Xi, they want to present the PRC specifically in a light that is not (as) negative and that is not (as) critical. In other words, a presentation that is not (as) deeply investigative, but is more positive of the CCP’s version of Chinese history, politics, and other social issues. Saying that the SCMP wants to tell a different Chinese story than what they were previously telling highlights the CCP’s desire to challenge any independent coverage of China outside of China. Further, the fact that new ownership, directly or indirectly, has made a break from the prior China story that was told in the SCMP strongly suggests that we will explicitly not be getting the same quality/style paper—there’s a New China Story in town, and it’s being authored by Xi and the CCP.

Let’s be honest, any agenda that is set by one’s own object of investigation is a conflict of interest. That the CCP is that subject and has its own explicit agenda for Chinese media outside of China means that the EiC is either not willing to publicly recognize the obvious conflict or worse—he believes it really doesn’t exist. It is folly to think that the SCMP can have Alibaba paying for the production of content, hosting all archives, presenting the same position as the CCP, agree to undefined content limitations, and still claim to be independent.

Finally, the EiC says that he’s committed to serving the paper’s Hong Kong base and the interests of Hong Kong. But what happens when that base and those interests are in direct conflict with the idea of telling a “better” China story (i.e. the PRC is not infringing on Hong Kong’s independence or violating in anyway the 1997 agreement)? Yes, they have indeed covered protests in the past, but next time there are demonstrations, and the PRC weighs in (either with words or bodies) how critical or inquisitive or exposing can the SCMP be? That the EiC doesn’t know what will happen if this occurs highlights both the conflict of interest as well as the questionable independence of the paper in the face of a conflict with China.

And this is the biggest concern I have: the EiC says that the BOD of the SCMP has not even prepared for a future “existential conflict” (when somebody from Alibaba, or higher up, calls and says that “xyz is over the line”). How can the SCMP be independent and truly have integrity but not have prepared for that specific call? If there is a chance that that call could come—don’t they have to already have an answer ready? When the SCMP is supposed to be defending, or at least being loyal to its Hong Kong base, a base that is regularly in direct conflict with the Chinese mainland, the absence of even a discussion of what position the paper will take shows a lack of commitment to both integrity and to Hong Kong.

Readings and other Conversations

Over the last month in Shenzhen not only have I been blessed to have a very cooperative and generous host company allow me to observe their daily work, but I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to interview another 15-20 individuals, foreign and Chinese, about their own personal experiences with Chinese Business Culture (中华企业文化). People have literally given me hours of their time and shared personal and professional insights that I never would have considered on my own.

I’ll share a couple of their insights from others, mingled with my own analysis.

On Govt. Chinese Engineer/Businessman, leading a publicly listed tech company.
You have to follow the money in China—and it’s all coming from the govt and being directed into specific places. The good part of this is that specific industry and sectors and regions that need help are targeted and develop faster then they otherwise would. The bad is that there are govt gatekeepers guarding the money (and making profit off of access) and that the there are limited funds in the economy for other developments. Uneven development, and over-interest in targeted sectors is the result. Corruption too.

On Chineseness. Taiwanese Businessman, working in a Chinese company (5+ years).
There is a certain cachet in being foreign in China—Taiwanese included. He can use his foreignness to get out of some difficult situations, but nothing like Westerners (occidentals) can. While he can get out some legal situations because it’s too much trouble for public employees to deal with a “foreigner,” at other times, especially in social situations (after hours work drinking activities) or informal business transactions (“gifts” to gain access) he is expected to be Chinese. Like a taxi drive told me yesterday, “You’re a foreigner, You just don’t get it.” I have a built in excuse for not participating in some activities. As a Taiwanese citizen of Chinese descent, he does not have the same degree of leeway.

On Tech. Ex-Chinese Military Engineer, leading a successful tech company.
Despite the fact that he’s spent his life in this company, he’s putting his money in foreign baskets—literally. He’s moved his family to the US and made sure that his investments and retirement are there too. He’s here to make money, but doesn’t expect this (the rapid growth of China) to last and is concerned about the instability and other issues here (pollution, corruption, censorship & control). He tells me that I don’t have any idea how deep the connections between the private sector and the military extend. Much of the tech industry in the country is originally “borrowed” from the West, improved and then re-copy righted (not new). But why it’s allowed, he says, is because it (“borrowing from the West) is supported by the govt so the tech can be sold back to the military via a vast network of related and intermediary companies.

On organizational culture and relationships. Chinese Educated Foreigner, working in a Chinese company (10+ years).
Rather than there being large differences in organizational structure here, this guy talked about how interpersonal relations color professional interactions here in significantly different ways. Ideas and methods for both dealing with relationships and problems are different—understanding what’s actually happening (vs what is being said) is the key to understanding Chinese corporate culture, he thinks. “Managers” are hired because they have connections and/or seniority, rather than professional skills. This works fine when they are in Chinese companies as the expectations are for them to “manage” relationships rather than “do” work. But foreign companies either don’t get the relationship management aspect of Chinese business or the need for “managers” to be hobnobbing with big-wigs more than creating spreadsheets. Conflict often ensues when expectations and reality do not align.

On Gender Roles. Foreign Professional Women, working in a Chinese company.
Chinese women’s’ social and professional roles in China are different from both Chinese men’s and Western women’s, even though Chinese women are now equally well educated and many have not taken time off for children (no career breaks). Even among women, the expectations for other women is different than what is expected of/for men. For example, she noted that Chinese women can be “cute” for much later in life than can a man—and that she doesn’t fit this ideal-type is noticeably off-putting to superiors. Dress and hobbies can be relatively less (relative to the West) mature for women without impacting their social status in a professional office. This extends to different standards for dress as well. While the white/blue dress shirt, slacks and leather belt/shoes/bag combo for men is almost mandatory, almost anything goes for women—from shorts, to mini-skirts, to prom dresses, to club-wear, to casual dresses—all are common office attire.

Two of my own thoughts

The fluidity of the Chinese individual amidst so much seeming chaos. People, traffic, calls, family, work, more people, constant WeChat conversations, and still more people makes business here seem to me to be more overwhelming and fast-paced than it was just a few years ago when I was here full time. The concentric focus of priorities (recognizing both where power/influence comes from and what can actually be controlled/accomplished) is emerging as a key to managing time, relationships/hierarchy, and responsibilities. Without the ability to actively ignore much of the chaos that surrounds individuals in China, I think that distraction and inefficiency would result.

Second, What are “Chinese values” today. This phrase is in the news almost daily. President XI mentions it all the time. Many think it’s the “cause” for Chinese business success (ironic since it was seen as the cause of China’s lack of economic success prior to the 80’s). It’s much easier, I think to list of what are not current Chinese values today than what are. If pressed, I can list off the traditional Confucian values of propriety, filial piety, thrift, patriarchy, and likely add in guanxi to manage external relations, as well as wuwie (or inaction) for dealing with conflict. But do those values resonate today? I’m seeing A LOT of change in current professional environments. How does conspicuous consumption fit into “Traditional Chinese Values?” How does the ubiquitous WeChat (distant and somewhat impersonal communications) mesh with the need for close interpersonal relationships? How has the population policies and increasingly western entertainment/professional environments affected the traditional family and persona roles?

If you want to comment, I’d love to hear from you—what do you think of Chinese Corporate Culture (中华企业文化)?

Reading Recommendations:
Since I’m here doing research I’ve had and increasing number of people ask me for book recommendations. I’m not always sure that what I’m reading is of much interest to others but in case it is, here is a list that I’ve started to put together after multiple requests over the last month. These are mostly books that I have remembered I really like or have used in my own research (as examples and/or sources).

Books about the Chinese Business Environment:
Capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Huang
Wealth into Power, Dickson
China’s Cooperative Capitalists, Dickson
Marketing Death, Chan
Capitalism without Democracy, Tsai
Factory Girls, Chang
Chinese Capitalisms, Chu

China history:
The Search for Modern China, Spence
Chinese Lessons, Pomfret
China: Fragile Superpower, Shirk
The Tian**men Papers, Liang, Nathan & Link
All 4 books by Peter Hessler (especially River Town)
China goes West, Backaler
China’s Second Continent, French
Age of Ambition, Osnos

Chinese Anthropology:
Chinese Modernity and the Individual Psyche, Kipnis
Social Connections in China, Gold
Anxious Wealth, Osburg (“real,” on the ground stories/experiences)
Chen Village, Chan (why I decided to study Chinese Anthro)
Gifts, Favors, and Banquettes, Yang (my favorite book on China)
Elite China, Lu
From the Soil, Fei
China’s Emerging Middle Class, Li

Other Social Sciency Stuff:
Golden Arches East, Watson
The Geography of Thought, Nisbett
Sacred High City, Sacred Low City, Heine (my FIU MA advisor)
You gotta have Wa, Whiting (baseball in Japan, a fun read)
Globalisation and Japanese Organizational culture, Mitchell
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn (social science theory)
The Constitution of Society, Giddens (social science theory)
Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk (Thailand), McDaniel
Impact of China’s Rise on the Mekong Region, Santasombat

You might also want to be listening to the Sincia Podcast (Supchina). Also, if these guys at Sinica and Caixin would put their business podcast on iTunes, I’d recommend that one too.

Fiction and US History (really the only things I make time for other than research and family are Triathlon training, the NBA, US history, Crime fiction, Chocolate, and documentaries):
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, Larsson
Anything by John Le Carre
The Monuments Men, Edsel
Lost in Shangri-la, Zuckoff
Unbroken, Hillenbrand
Team of Rivals, Goodwin
The Book of Basketball, Simmons
EVERYTHING! by David McCullough
Anything by Malcom Gladwell
Anything by Michael Lewis
Anything by Joseph J. Ellis
Alexander Hamilton, Chernow

ALL Documentaries by Ken Burns (new Vietnam doc coming out this summer)

Awfully Chocolate (dessert shop from Singapore, used to be in SZ, now 3 stores in HK and also GZ).

Current Summer Reading List (heavy on SEA):
Chinese Society in Thailand, Skinner (classic)
Chinese Encounters in Southeast Asia, Nyiri & Tan
The Overseas Chinese of Southeast Asia, Rae and Witzel
New Asian Emperors, Haley, Haley & Tan
Unlocking Leadership in Thailand, Roongrernsuke & Liefooghe
The Way Thais Lead, Persons
China’s Disruptors, Tse
Global Body shopping, Xiang

What’s the Difference Between a Duck? (AKA: Nonessentialized Chinenessness)

What’s the Difference Between a Duck?

When I was a kid my dad used to always joke around and ask me this question. We’d be in the car or at dinner and he’d get serious and look me in the eyes and then say, without any hint of a smile, “What’s the difference between a duck?” For years I never said anything other than, “A duck and what else?” and he’d just repeat the question with a big smile on his face until I just gave up frustrated. When I was a teenager I realized that there was no wrong answer—and there was no right answer either—and any answer would stop the annoying questioning.

I was reminded of this question as I had the opportunity to listen to a sales professional from Taiwan speak to a group of businessmen and educators about working in China last week. He’s a well educated professional and has done business in Shenzhen for a number of years. In his presentation he made a point that I’d never heard from a Chinese before, and it got me thinking. He said, “Foreigners have a racial/cultural excuse when they want to get out of something or want to say no to something here in China. We (Taiwanese) don’t have that option. We’re expected to be Chinese, just like they are.”

This reminded me of the experiences of an ABC (American Born Chinese) woman that I knew that worked in here in Shenzhen about twenty years ago. She was born and raised in a Chinese immigrant family in the US and went to a PAC 10 school on an athletic scholarship. though ethnically Chinese, she was, in her own words, “more American than Chinese.” She came to China with an MBA and was fluent in Mandarin. She had a good job (title) and was excited to be here, the land of her ancestors. She originally hoped that this would be a real educational experience for her—she would learn about her family and China and she expected to learn to love her Chinese ancestry.

Unfortunately for her, the opposite happened. She was frustrated that she was expected to play a very specific (and for her, limiting) role—one that she did not fully understand. Being seen as a (local) Chinese woman, meant that she was expected to be, “less than the men.” She told me that she had more education and more work experience than most people in her company but she was seen as not only a junior employee but a woman as well—meaning she was even less than the junior men. She was explicitly told that she was supposed to dress “pretty” (according to local standards) and that she should keep her head down and fit in, rather than stay to stand out and try to get ahead. As an athletic, rather tall, culturally American, educated woman, playing this role was too tall a request and eventually proved to be impossible for her.

She told me that she “understood the words” that were being spoken to her, but she “didn’t get the hints” behind them. She looked and sounded “Chinese” and so was expected to play the role that she physically resembled. But she didn’t fully understand her part, and the more she learned the less she agreed with the expectations being placed upon her. She eventually left China and got a job working for a US company (in the states) and an interlocutor between Chinese and American businesses.

The Taiwanese professional that I heard speak this last week had a similar point to make. He “looks” the part and so is supposed to play the role. Those that don’t look the part, foreigners, are given great leeway (read: allowed to bumble though negotiation protocols that Chinese are expected to know). It’s just assumed that foreigners don’t know what’s going on and so get a pass.

For me at this time, this highlights a scale of Chinese and foreignness—it’s isn’t as simple as you are or you’re not Chinese. Ditto being or not being foreign—although this is a bit harder “not to be.” I have a buddy from the States that went to college here and has lived most of his adult life since age 18 in China. It’s been decades for him in China and he consciously recognizes that returning to the West is a “foreign” experience for him. While he’s occidental and will never be considered “Chinese” by the locals here, he himself feels more comfortable here in China.

So what is the difference between a duck, or in this case, a Chinese? Culture isn’t a racial, or ethnic, or even geographic distinction—those it’s often used colloquially as such. It’s learned set of behaviors and ideals that are specific to a time and space. “He’s Chinese,” or “She’s Hong Kongnese,” or “He’s an ABC” point to location, a nationality or an ethnicity as the defining cultural markers that are often generalized across a large spectrum of people with a similar attribute. But this is not only essentializing but problematic to recognizing cultural differences and understanding how these differences in affect understandings and behavior.

To see how this might look in another context, think about claiming that Americans all have something culturally generalizable and significant in common other than a common nationality—though even that would likely be understood differently. Generalizing third generation immigrant Cubans living in Miami, Bill Simmons from Boston, my ranching-family from Wyoming, multi-generation Mormons in Arizona, Japanese immigrants living in San Francisco, or someone of African-American descent in Atlanta would certainly be too general and/or completely inaccurate to give any real understanding of culture in America.

China needs to be understood in a similar way to the diversity in the US or the EU—a collection of very different small countries and groups rather than a singular cultural and historic monolith. Chinese working in the company (where I’m conducting research) are from more than 12 difference provinces and speak 7 different “native” languages before their common-use language, Mandarin. Some are urbanites with educated parents, some are from (much) smaller hometowns, and some are first generation college grads from large east-coast cities. Within the employee pool there are stark generational differences, with some being graduates of the best colleges in the country and some who were forced to skip years of school due to politics. Of course there are economic differences as well—significantly influencing how life in Shenzhen (the highest per capita GDP city in China), as well as rapidly developing China, is understood and experienced.

Back to the Taiwan professional, he finished with a final thought about economic development and how it’s changing the cultural habits of urban professionals in China today. He said that drinking and eating out are popular here because there isn’t yet a culture of other social activities. For the most part, he said, the middle class in Shenzhen don’t yet go to NBA games with buddies. They don’t go biking or running with neighbors. They don’t golf on weekends with their professional counterparts. Classes, church groups, home improvement projects or yard work are just not part of most urban lifestyles in China. While these types of activities are increasing as disposable income rises, they’re not yet anywhere near the norm. But food and drink are relatively cheap, are available everywhere, are extremely convenient and require no special training, have been culturally acceptable for generations, and can accommodate any size group or type of group.

The point isn’t that there are problems with China, or that this Taiwanese professional’s and the ABC’s experiences are standard. Rather that there are likely as many definitions of Chineseness as there are Chinese. Many MBA types might exasperatedly exclaim, “Well what the hell’s the use in knowing that everyone different?! What can we generalize and apply across people and industries and cities? My answer? Difference. Each experience will be as unique as the people participating. Don’t overly generalize urban Chinese or the Chinese experience. Don’t assume that your experience in Beijing will be repeated in Guangzhou.

I realize that this isn’t a new concept. I actually wrote about this years ago—the generational and regional differences in China. But I think that it’s still true, despite the standardization of education, the increasing control of the media and the seeming globalization (Westernization) of Chinese cities. There is much localization of neoliberalism that makes for unique adaptations to globalism. Diversity may not “look” the same here as it does in the West, but that doesn’t make it any less of a reality in Chinese businesses.

Post Script: As I’m typing this blog up in a local Starbucks, there is a saleswoman pitching some electronics and her company to a client from a phone company in Zhejiang. The guy has just arrived in SZ and has been waiting for her here for about 1/2 an hour. They’re sitting in the seats right next to mine, him next to me and she across the table from us. They are talking about parts and standards and markets. About 15 minutes into the conversation, she pauses for effect and says, “The truth is that foreigners think differently and have different expectations than we do.” At this comment, Chinese guy on the other side of me, studying for some US graduate exam, and I both look up at her and I catch her eye, right as she continues to say, “Foreigners just don’t think the same way that we do.” And while I’m looking right at her, with a kind of surprised smile on my face, she says in Chinese to me, without skipping a beat, “Excuse me for that“ (buhaoyisi, 不好意思). In Chinese I say to her, “No need to apologize” (Buyongkeqi, 不用客气). She smiles and then just continues right on with the sales pitch to her client about how we think differently and how that makes our markets different. At this, the Chinese student laughs and smirks. The sales lady talks for another 20 minutes and then, despite me trying to start a conversation with her on her way out, she doesn’t make eye contact with me and continues with her client; and I’m left without the follow up questions that I was hoping to get.

5 Years Later…Back Home in Shenzhen.

After a few years in school, being back in Shenzhen, where I lived for almost a decade, has been an enjoyable readjustment. I moved back into our own home in Futian and now conduct PhD research in an office very close to where my own office was a few years back. My routine hasn’t change that much. But Shenzhen has.

A couple of general observations.

First, the pollution seems to be much less than it was before. There have been, so far these last two weeks, multiple days of clear blue skies. Streets seem to be cleaner and less covered with trash. To me this is major. As people are actively planning career moves away from Beijing because of pollution (Doing Business in China: Pollution puts a Chokehold on Business Owners) this is a positive for Southern China—which I’ve always claimed was better for Business than Northern China anyway (further from Beijing and it’s controlling govt, closer to HK and it’s legal rights and int’l connections, longer history of development and capitalism, a “freer” attitude, int’l business history, etc.). Of course this decrease in pollution can be seen as either a victory for govt regulations and clean-up efforts, or a sign of the slowing down of the economy and the shift of manufacturing away from Guangdong Province. It’s probably some of each. Either way, it’s cleaner.

Second, in the last ten years the subway in Shenzhen has grown from 2 lines with about 20+ stops to 10 lines with more than 200 stops. I’ve had some personal history with the subway that wasn’t all that positive, but I have to admit that it’s quite convenient now. I use it every day that it rains–which is a couple days a week right now–when I’m not on a bike.

Third, when I lived here before bikes in the city were illegal. Now? You can’t get out your front gate without tipping over rows of public bikes—Mobike, Bluegogo, ofo, etc. There are literally tens of thousands of bikes parked on the streets—and thousands more moving through the streets at all times of the day. With a swipe of your phone and about 1RMB per ride, you can grab a bike off of any street curb and leave it at any other curb. fullsizeoutput_3a35They’re everywhere. Right now it’s “cool,” “new,” and trendy—not to mention convenient! Not sure how long it will last though. We’ll see what happens in 8-12 months when all these bikes start breaking down and rusting out; piling up on corners and against trees and buildings. There are already alleys that I pass when I jog in the AMs where I see piles of broken bikes. But there is real optimism as the smartest of these bike companies have already eliminated parking frames, tubes in the tires, chains, and other removable and breakable parts. Fewer things to break or steal means more use and fewer repairs. And of course, they’re selling advertising space on the bikes as well.

Fourth, to paraphrase Fletch, “Awww. Come on, guys. It’s so simple. Maybe you need a refresher course. It’s all WeChat now days!” WeChat: all day, every day, until the sun goes out. On their bikes, while they do taiqi or run in the park, while driving, on dates, while eating, while talking on the phone to others—everyone seems to be using WeChat. It has become the norm for a billion people. It’s increasing a culture of atomization—as if Chinese citizens were not already atomized enough in cities (living next to others but without any connection to the people around them). Ironically, foreigners seem to be using even more than Chinese!

The obsession with WeChat is understandable, because it’s SOOOOoooo efficient and convenient. You can do almost everything on WeChat—pay utility bills, pay for groceries, rent a bike, buy movie tix, chat, watch movies, use it as a facebook/snapchat equivalent, order coffee/flowers/books, order take-out food, check your bank balance, “see” a doctor, read the news, translate documents, park you car, take/edit/share photos, lock doors, monitor your kids at school, use maps, shop online, etc. It’s every single app on your US iPhone in one single app. That means there’re only one password and one bank account and one interface to EVERYTHING in your life. Every store you go into asks, “Cash or WeChat.” WeChat has replaced credit cards and is quickly replacing cash (except for in the subway). It’s amazing, and more than 1 billion people are using it everyday, all day long. As China grows, WeChat will too.

Of course, it’s also very scary.

The same company that has built WeChat (Tencent) is also working with the govt on China’s social credit system (Sesame). The govt is tapping into this digital resource to expand the enforcement of it’s new (started just last year) personal income tax. Not just everything you pay for, but everywhere you go, everyone you talk to, and everything you search for is recorded in one place. What could go wrong with that?!

Fifth, the censorship is more extensive, but seems to be somewhat random. Sometimes my school email works, but most of the time it doesn’t. Ditto, but even more so for Gmail. Once or twice a week I can pull gmail. And google maps worked great last Sunday night but never before or since. A VPN works well, but that means that emails are not synced across devices—a pain, but better than not getting emails at all.

I think that there is a real conflict in the hearts of Chinese people about this censorship. A good friend said to me last night, “There is only good news in China. Nothing bad. Only ‘China government blah blah blah.’ It’s really developed and convenient now but we don’t know any of the real news. We have lots of TV and internet but we really don’t know anything about China.”

She’s right. It’s amazing how much news about China is blocked in here. Articles that are blocked that I’m linking to this AM include some foreign comments about China’s One Belt One road (OBOR) development in Thailand/Mekong region (Reuters), a questions about the slowdown of the Chinese service economy (Financial Times), all of the WSJ, Bloomberg, the NYT, as well as access to many scholarly document services. The entire Google universe is also blocked—maps, groups, email, search (but not google drive!?). Of course Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are all blocked as well.

Sixth, while the economic numbers are not bad, there seem to be a worsening case of under employment here. Younger people in “my” office are talking about how glad they are to have a job.

For the first time in the PRC’s history millions of students that have been competing educationally since before first grade have now graduated. The result of that intense decades-long competition is highly qualified students going to relatively poor quality universities and increasingly getting degrees in fields that are not necessarily employable. China needs lawyers, engineers, accountants, computer technicians, and other technical people. And they can’t produce enough of those. And as they try to copy/compete with the West they’re also starting to produce increasingly more history, philosophy, and area studies majors. The result is massive under employment in China right now–even for technical grads like engineers. Increased rates of college admissions and graduation combined with inadequate schools have produce too many poor quality graduates. Student with less-than int’l standard degrees can’t find full employment even in a good economy. Add to this the reality that economy has indeed slowed down (regardless of what the govt says) and what you get is coffee from 20-somethings with MA’s and foot massages from 20-somethings with BA’s.

For example, I just got a foot massage in a shop next-door to a Starbucks in downtown Shenzhen. The guy working at the counter in Starbucks has a masters degree, but he’s not the manager, and the girl that gave me a foot massage has a bachelors degree in Japanese. Both of these people spoke very comfortably with me in English. Neither of them are doing what they went to school for; both of them moved to Shenzhen for better opportunities after graduation but neither have been able to find degree-related work in more than a year of searching. The manager at Starbucks is completely frustrated. He doesn’t know what to do or where to go—he can’t afford a car or house (read: can’t get married) on a Starbucks salary. The girl at the foot massage place, on the other hand, isn’t happy about her job, but couldn’t find anything else. She’s happily resigned though; she’s is making like $35 an hour with tips (yes, everything that she touches is below the knees). The money is so good now that she thinks that she’ll continue to do foot massages for a couple more years before she goes to get a job in her major; and she only wants to find a job in Japanese so that she can “find a decent husband” and have face, because “nobody wants to marry a masseur.” I suggested to both of them that they start looking at jobs in other countries since there are so many businesses that are looking for educated Chinese/English (Japanese) speakers outside of China.

It seems that China is still losing its best and brightest because it can’t employ many of them domestically. Add to that most older people that are financially successful are actively moving their family and money out of the country (hence the govt’s limitations on the moment of capital abroad). Students with debt in China is also starting to become increasingly common event as well. Debt, underemployment, unrealistic expectations for marriage (a house and car), and the need to care for aging parents is going to frustrate an increasingly large number of young Chinese.

I was talking with foreigner here and she mentioned that while she’s not working in her major either, she’s making good money and the opportunities and adventure in China are enticing enough that she wants to stay.

Singapore as US Values Partner in SEA?

I had the very enjoyable opportunity to listen to two US Ambassadors to Singapore, Former Ambassador Steven Green who is a UofM alum and long-time resident of the Miami area, and also current Ambassador Wagar who lived/worked in SFL for a number of years prior to being posted to Singapore.  Both were engaging, informed and interesting, not to mention willing to take questions and discuss regional issues concerning China/ASEAN/Singapore. Here are 10 things stood out to me from their more than 2 hours of comments and answers to questions.

First, they are both absolutely pro-business and both see the professional and corporate world as a tangible extension of US foreign policy.  Both were big TPP supporters as well.  This is quite the contrast to the usual social science line that capitalism is THE reason for all the world’s problems.  For these Ambassadors rather, capitalism is THE key to getting massive numbers of people out of poverty and promoting US interests abroad.  And while there certainly are “quibbles about the number of ladders available,” as Amb. Wagar said, Singapore is example A-1 for the case that capitalistic meritocracy is the BEST option for the most number of people.

Second, as democrats (both of them—political appointees of Clinton and Obama respectively) they openly pined for the “efficiencies of authoritarianism.”  I really can’t keep up with most lefties as they switch from the values of a meritocracy to the advantages of unilateral policy decisions in getting things (notably, the Left’s social agenda) done.  While both repeatedly took the relativist approach that “we can’t judge their brand of democracy or human rights” they also reminded us over and over that the US just doesn’t get things done like the Singaporeans do and should really learn a think or two from them.  Now, I don’t doubt that Singapore has done many things successfully that the US could learn from.  But, I really like my leaders (and academic speakers) to be a bit more consistent.  Maybe this was the “gone native” part of the presentation that Ambassador Wagar warned us about?

Third, Singapore was seen as THE strategic partner (but not Ally) in the SEA region.  Most advanced air force, best education and economy, most transparent govt, best infrastructure, etc.  But again, I found it more than a little questionable that Singapore’s “un-committed” political position was repeatedly praised as such an advantage to the US. While we certainly avail ourselves of the logistics available in Singapore, that they also facilitate transportation for NK and Iran and others makes me question the on-balance value to US interests of Singaporean neutrality (as opposed to housing logistical services out of the Philippines, for example). Isn’t the ease of mobility for transnationals of questionable intent one of the problems with BKK and Manila?  How is the fact that it’s even easier via Singapore such an advantage?  And of what value has Singapore’s air force and logistical support for the US been in the last year or so as China builds airstrips in the South China Sea (which both ambassadors condemned)?  Exactly none.  Because Singapore is trying to be politically neutral (and is 75% ethnic Chinese) they are actually limited in what they are willing to do (or allow the US to do from their ports).

Fourth, “similar values” make the US and Sing natural partners. What values, you may ask, do the US and Singapore share? Why, transparency, efficiency, education, good governance, racial balancing and business success.  According to the Amb’s, these are traditional values (use you’re own fingers for air quotes) that both the US and Singapore aspire to and these make us natural trade/political partners. When did any of these become national values to either country?  Sure, they’re important business concepts….but national values?  Further, these values that Singapore holds dear were placed in direct contrast to Indonesia and Malaysia (and I think you could add in the rest of ASEAN too) and their endemic corruption and “that’s how it’s done here” acceptance of bribery and cronyism.  I agree that Singapore is indeed THE bastion of transparency in SEA, just about anyone would be compared with there other SEA countries—and this was their point: see how damn impressive Singapore is to pull this off in SEA!? But I’m just not buying that these are values held dear by either country. Or that other countries (Thailand, which means “free country,” or the mostly-christian Philippines, for a couple of counter examples) couldn’t work just as well as “value partners” if that really was the deciding factor in military-logistical decision making in SEA. Now if you just want to talk about business climate/infrastructure, then maybe Singapore does have the upper hand institutionally, but there are other issues to consider that I fear were glossed over too easily.

Fifth, Singapore is a democracy but just not “our” kind of democracy; so those in the US that are a bit squeamish about HR abuses need to relax and stop being so judgmental.  First, aren’t they our partners in values? I guess we should just forget about that whole “Asian Human (alternative) Human Rights issue?  And second, whose claiming they should be a mini-US? Certainly no one at the presentation.  And likely not any US businesses.  Maybe conservative lawmakers would like to see more corresponding actual values between the two countries, but in general, I found this to be a straw man argument to allow for justification of Singapore’s more severe politics and unique ideas about culturally specific “human” rights.  It’s also a convenient way to mock an opponent by attacking a position that doesn’t really exist.  Students won’t call these men on it and business people never want govt involved in the first place. This is likely a line that they’ve been using (successfully) for decades.

Sixth, Singapore has gotten education and public housing and multi-cultural society right!  And the US is basically just too parochial (stupid) to follow their lead.  Oh, what could the US be with just a bit more Authoritarianism behind left-wing social issues?! (Did Thomas Friedman, village idiot, write their talking points?)  While this may indeed be true, the accomplishments on education and what not, and that the US should overhaul it’s educational system, the finer point here is this: “what choices are made” to achieve 1.9% unemployment and almost universal post-high school education?  I often chuckle that those who fault the US education system are products of the same (devaluing themselves and their own education with their comments).  Further, when discussing Asia these same critics are often the ones who also point out how the US educational system is one of, if not THE draw for most Asians to the US. I don’t doubt that there could be MUCH more done to improve the system (K-12 specifically) in the US, but “what choices” are required to do so?  Do you really like China’s system of nationalized curriculum and standardized tests?  How about common core and or NCLB?  If we make some college mandatory for everyone in the US, what does that due to wages?  Political pandering is easy…getting things done either requires a majority vote, a “little more authoritarianism,” or willingness to live with other outcomes.

Seventh, China won’t take over the world any time soon. Or ever, actually.  Demographics won’t allow it. They are running out of people. Combine that with their soft power failures and (massive) regional mistrust and you have waking giant that can’t get out of it’s own way. Both Amb’s remarked on how the US was THE destination for education and retirement and rich Chinese because the standard of living, the freedom and “fun” lifestyle, the educational opportunities, etc., All these opportunities exist here and no where else, they proudly chest thumped. My question: how do you get all this freedom AND have a bit more authoritarianism? I don’t know either.

When I asked about the values and keys to Singapores rise, I used the word “authoritarian” and they pushed back specifically on that word.  They instead used words like “forced” and “mandatory” and “constructed” and repeatedly the phrase, “not our style of democracy.”  Their view of the US and Singapore was summed up with this pithy remark (designed to show how stupid the US population is in general in comparison to the more advanced Singaporeans), “In the US, the people don’t trust the government.  In Singapore, the government doesn’t trust the people.”  Standard socialist (democrat) line: Trust me, I’m the government. (At least we supposed to trust you in the off-years when Dem’s are in the Whitehouse, right?  You don’t want to trust the Govt with the GOP in there right?  “Bush lied,” et al.)

Seventh, the most interesting concept they presented was the idea that South Korea and Taiwan are virtually irrelevant to world politics outside of political debates in the US congress concerning US regional strategy.  The Amb’s claimed that both declining regional economic powers with little to no military power but are still strategic to US interests in the region.  Neither provide any special access to other countries/markets (as Singapore does with ASEAN, they claimed). And the two countries have decided to focus on trade with China instead of investment (from the US and other more developed countries).  This choice was, in the Amb’s opinions, the wrong horse to back for long-term growth.

Eighth, Singapore is THE hub for all int’l business in SEA.  Best government, best banking infrastructure, best education, best judicial system, etc. in the region. Better and more stable than any other metropolis in SEA.  And since the demographics of ASEAN are growing (more youth than old people) the future of middle-class Asia is in SEA, NOT China or NEA, whose populations are all getting old.  While I agree with the demographics argument visa vie China and NEA, there is no way that Singapore provides any advantage for entrance into the Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese or Philippine markets that couldn’t be had in spades in those home countries themselves.  Yes, international law is likely to be better upheld in Singapore and so regional offices (that support multiple countries) are likely to be established in Singapore (or Hong Kong), but there is no cultural or linguistic advantage to being in Singapore over Bangkok for these other ASEAN markets. Just like you’re not getting more of the Chinese market in Sichuan by having an office in Beijing (their argument), you’re also not getting more of the Vietnamese market by having an office in Singapore.  Actually, since I’ve done business in each, I would personally argue that yes, you are better off in Sichuan with an office in Beijing than you are in Vietnam with an office in Singapore. Further, that Singapore is less corrupt and more transparent than the rest of SEA is true, but these practices don’t extend beyond the border.  I’ve worked directly with Singaporean owned factories and Singaporean individuals in Vietnam, Thailand and China and they were just as willing to participate in kickbacks and other questionable ethical practices as any other locals.

Ninth, 7 guys with a vision of hard work, transparency, good-governance and education are the keys to Singapore’s success and the wonderful second generation is now carrying the torch forward.  I’m not sure how much of the job of Ambassador is promotion of US business interests into Singapore and the promotion of Singapore to the US business community, but it’s obviously the first or second (promotion of actual US foreign policy being the other) priority.  If that’s their job, then their doing great.  I’m all for making money, getting educated and getting govt out of my life as much as possible, but I’m not sure that promoting the Singaporean model is exactly “my kind of democracy.”  The Amb’s, close personal friends of LKY and his son (Green was one of three Americans invited to LKY’s funeral), were unequivocal in their support for Singapore as THE key to business, logistics, regional military power and the future of US interests in Asia.

Finally, both gentlemen were very polite, willing to talk afterwards and have been more than successful in their respective lives outside of public service (Ambassador Green was the CEO of Samsonite and has donated tens of millions of dollars to FIU—Thank you so much, sir.).  They have more experience than I do in Singapore and in govt. And while I respect their opinions though I obviously don’t agree with, as they stated to me, “the premise of [their] argument” on a number of issues.  But that’s kind of the point of education, isn’t it?!