Thursday, December 31, 2009

Word of the Day: Naked Wedding

One of the hot Chinese words of 2009 is 裸婚 luo (3) hun (1) or "Naked Wedding".

At first glance it sounds like walking down the aisle in your birthday suit, but in China it means tying the knot without the requisites of a lavish banquet, an apartment, car or diamond ring -- just a 9RMB ($1.32) wedding certificate.

An increasing number of young people, but particularly young Chinese men feel hopeless at ever getting married because of their lowly-paying jobs; women tell them not to propose unless they already own an apartment which is practically impossible for someone earning an average wage. However, in some cases, parents will scrape together everything they have in order for their son to have better marriage prospects.

This has led to the ongoing debate about astronomical housing prices thanks to greedy real estate developers and the government not doing enough to ensure a proper supply of housing that people can afford within their lifetimes.

It also reveals how materialistic women can be, though some of the fairer sex are willing to be "half naked" ... but only if the man owned his own home.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fact of the Day: $35 Billion Gone

China's National Audit Office says 234.7 billion yuan (about $35 billion) in government money was misused or embezzled in the first 11 months of this year.

After the 4 trillion yuan stimulus package was announced last November to keep the economy from tanking, many China analysts already began speculating that a good chunk of that would be embezzled and now the accounting has been done to prove it.

The agency surveyed nearly 100,000 government departments and state-owned companies, resulting in 67 senior officials and 164 others handed over to judicial authorities. About 1,000 are facing disciplinary action.

In addition to money embezzled by officials, some 16.3 billion yuan was wasted in the same period.

It was probably wasted on the billions of yuan in coupons to stimulate domestic demand, or rather local demand. Many areas printed coupons to get people to travel in the region or buy goods, but to little effect.

"Despite some improvement, embezzlement, waste of money and false fiscal reporting still existed in central departments," Liu Jiayi, the country's auditor said at a press conference Monday.

Where did all that public money go? It could partially explain the over 30 million cars that were purchased in China this year, making it the world's No. 1 auto manufacturer and consumer; or the housing bubble in China; but also maybe the most expensive flat in Hong Kong that was sold for HK$439 million ($57 million) to a mainland Chinese buyer? Or the spending sprees in buying foreclosed homes in the United States?

This $35 billion may only be the tip of the iceberg, as this was money misused in central government departments. What about provincial ones?

While embezzlement is not new, the scale is quite high.

And surely right now Chinese citizens are both resigned but also infuriated by this audit.

There are no checks and balances to ensure taxpayers' money is used properly and this is not discovered until after the fact.

The government must crack down harder on corruption and embezzlement because its argument that the Communist Party of China is the country's only legitimate ruler is wearing thinner...

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Senseless Execution

A Briton who has a history of mental illness and is delusional has been put to death by lethal injection by the Chinese authorities today despite last-minute pleas from his family and the British government.

Akmal Shaikh is the first European citizen to be executed in China in 50 years.

Of Pakistani descent, Shaikh was arrested in September 2007 for being in possession of 4 kilograms of heroin in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. People who tried to campaign for his release said he was mentally ill and was exploited by a criminal gang into carrying the drugs. They duped him by saying that he would become a singing sensation if he went to China.

His trial last year was only half an hour long and under the 1997 Criminal Code, a mental patient who is unable to recognize or control his own misconduct does not bear criminal responsibility; in other words, the person will not be handed a punishment. The defendant will be put under the care of a guardian or medical facility. If the mental patient is partially able to understand his crime, the punishment will be reduced.

However, during the trial, the fact that Shaikh is mentally ill was not brought up in court at all. Against the advice of his lawyers, Shaikh was allowed to speak in court and apparently babbled on incoherently that the court officials laughed at him. That also did not result in granting him a medical evaluation to determine his mental capacity.

Just days before his execution, two of his cousins flew to Urumqi to see him, and to tell him he was to be sentenced to death, and then they came to Beijing to plea to the central government to spare his life. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke to Premier Wen Jiabao about the case, but the pleas did nothing. The Chinese government claimed that it was following the rule of law and that the Supreme Court had already handed its final decision and nothing more could be done.

Why has the government chosen to ignore this crucial fact that would have led to him being released?

Instead it prefers to reiterate that he smuggled in 4kg of heroin, 80 times over the allowed amount, that he committed a crime, pure and simple.

But what about other previous cases, like Deng Yujiao, the waitress who killed a man out of self defense and later in court it was revealed she was mentally unstable? In the end she was given a reprieve from the death sentence.

Or what about the Shanghai cop killer Yang Jia who was at least evaluated for his mental capacity before executing him?

While Shaikh committed a serious offense, he did not murder anyone. 

The UK government has already criticized the verdict and execution, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown saying, "I condemn the execution of Akmal Shaikh in the strongest terms, and am appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted," in a statement issued by the British Foreign Office. "I am particularly concerned that no mental health assessment was undertaken."

Meanwhile China reacted in defiance. "Nobody has the right to speak ill of China's judicial sovereignty," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. "We express our strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition over the groundless British accusations."

China can make whatever judgments it wants as long as it properly follows its own legal procedures.

If it doesn't even abide by its own rule of law, how can China be considered just?

Monday, December 28, 2009

What Comes Around, Goes Around

It's a good gig being a senior Chinese official, even if you make a mistake. Even big ones.

Remember last fall when there were reports of children being sickened after drinking powdered milk laced with melamine to artificially boost protein levels? In the end at least six children died, and over 300,000 suffered from kidney problems.

The director of the Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, Li Changjiang resigned September 22 last year after the milk scandal shocked the country, and its people are still not confident in buying Chinese milk products.

However, on Sunday it was announced that Li has a new post -- deputy director of the working team to crack down on pornography and illegal publications.

He apparently already began his new job late last week in launching an anti-porn campaign in Jiangsu Province.

One wonders if he has done enough penance after one of the worst scandals to hit China only over a year ago.

Or perhaps his bosses think he can't do much more further damage with pornography unless he himself is in a video...

It could happen.

Eighty-six-year-old Indian politician Narayan Dutt Tiwari was forced to resign the other day after a video surfaced allegedly of him with three women in bed.

The clip of this alleged sex romp has become India's most-watched YouTube video...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Various Shades of Expatriatism

After living in Beijing for almost three years, it's been quite a change in seeing how I have adapted to the city, learned more of the language and culture and adjusted to the work situation... or not.

But it's also interesting to see how other young expats are dealing with the same situation.

There are some who studied Chinese before coming here and are quite fluent reading, writing and speaking, but perhaps because of their relatively young age they don't get paid well for being able to do good translations that don't need further editing by a "foreign expert". It's strange, considering they are capable of doing the job of two people you'd think they'd be better commensurated.

Then there are those people like myself who know some Chinese, enough to get around, and have studied Chinese history and so that we understand nuances in news stories or announcements in how they are worded, or can have dinner conversations almost completely in Mandarin. We are just as comfortable in Chinese restaurants as western ones, and seeing a pig's head for sale at the butcher doesn't phase us, and instead fascinates us. Really -- I did see one yesterday, complete with shiny beady eyes...

Further down the chain are those expatriates who either hindered by the language or have no appreciation for things Chinese choose to live as they would back in their home countries. All their friends are foreigners, all their interactions are in English with a smattering of Chinese here and there, take taxis and hardly eat at Chinese restaurants. They also tend to hang around bars after work or on the weekends to pass the time.

Over a year ago after work, I got a call from an English girl on my cellphone, asking me to tell the waitress that she wanted a bowl of rice. Apparently she couldn't communicate this to her and wasn't about to make the effort to learn the proper tones either.

It was so strange to get a phone call like that -- how hard can it be to say mifan (米饭)?

And then there are those young people who have just graduated and don't really know what they want to do, so they come to China to find a job and usually end up teaching English regardless if they are qualified or not. One colleague remarked to me that these people are at the bottom of the expat food chain in China mostly because of their inability to do anything else.

Now because of the fallout from the global financial crisis, we are seeing more young people come to China, but also more seniors, whose pensions lost a good chunk of their value. These gray-haired former executives, teachers and so on are starting to arrive here in droves to find work. It's strange seeing these highly experienced people starting their careers again and then having to adjust to living in China and learning the language.

However, we all need to survive somehow. But starting over again in China is no easy feat and requires lots of energy, patience and most of all openness. Or they aren't really an expat.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Trying to Silence Dissent

Christmas is not marked as a public holiday in China, though there are lots of decorations and shopping malls using it as an excuse to have sales, while restaurants hope the festive atmosphere will bring in more customers.

But the Chinese government specifically chose this day to come out with a verdict of human rights activist Liu Xiaobo's trial that only started on Wednesday.

While most of the western world is busy getting ready for Christmas, China decided to take this opportunity to try one of its most prominent dissidents after holding him in custody for over a year without a charge.

Two days after a trial that only lasted two hours, Liu has been sentenced to 11 years in prison for inciting subversion of the state.

According to The Dui Hua Foundation, this is the longest sentence handed down since the crime was established in the 1997 reform of the criminal law.

Liu's crime?

While he did participate in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and was jailed for that, this time it was the 53-year-old's hand in co-authoring Charter 08, a magna carta calling for multi-party elections, and guaranteeing human rights, freedom of expression and religion. Originally some 300 of China's top intellectuals signed it and now there are over 10,000 signatures.

However anything related to Charter 08 are blocked on the Internet and there was a complete news blackout of his trial in state media, though many Chinese I know were very concerned about his case. Some 400 people showed up in front of the courthouse, and some even offered to go to jail with Liu.

The verdict is a very strong signal to anyone that if they dare try to subvert the government in any way, they too can face over a decade in jail. It's one of those "kill the chicken to scare the monkeys" tactics.

Many western diplomats in Beijing tried to attend the hearing, but were shut out of the courtroom; Liu's wife Liu Xia wasn't even allowed in either, claiming she was a witness.

As a result many western diplomats are critical of the trial, as it doesn't look like it was conducted according to the rule of law.

Ironically, a statement from the First Intermediate People's Court of Beijing Municipality said, "The court had strictly followed the legal procedures in this case and fully protected Liu's litigation rights. The trial was open go the public. Two lawyers defended Liu at the trial and his family were present."

Is anyone supposed to believe that?

China doesn't seem to care what others think, considering this to be its own internal affair.

Now the debate is over whether Liu will have to serve the entire sentence or not.

He probably will not be interested in trading his freedom for exile, as he seems very determined to be in China fighting for people's rights.

The Chinese government are using him as a scapegoat for Charter 08, but many others see him as a fighter and his work and unshakeable belief in a better China will not be forgotten.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Heated Blame Game

After the Copenhagen climate change summit, Ed Miliband, the British climate change and energy secretary was quoted in an article in the Guardian, accusing China of causing the downfall of the Copenhagen Accord.

China immediately went into self-defense mode and claimed that it was a good deal for all.

However, on December 22, the Guardian published a first-hand account of what really did happen during the negotiations.

In it environmental activist Mark Lynas details how China refused to budge at all on its targets for two weeks and then towards the end of the summit, proceeded to bully other nations to drop their pledges on their respective targets too. China made them take out any kind of binding targets from the accord and drop the 1.5 degree Celsius target.

According to Lynas, President Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. "How can you ask my country to go extinct?" demanded Nasheed.

The Chinese feigned great offense and the number stayed, but around language that was hardly binding or significant.

Why did China do this?

The Middle Kingdom played a political game that made US President Barack Obama look bad for not doing enough about climate change when in fact he was desperately talking up a storm with as many people as he could, and promising $100 billion in aid to developing countries to help them with climate change -- but with a catch -- that there would have to be international monitoring.

China didn't want developed countries to have binding targets because eventually that would mean developing countries like itself would have to be subjected to targets too. It also vehemently rejected any kind of international monitoring, as it would be "an offense to its sovereignty."

In reality China does not want others to see what is really going on beyond the numerous windmills and solar heaters it already has. The country has a massive environmental disaster on its hands, its air, land and water practically destroyed in the name of economic development. China is hardly interested in getting more flak with its already dismal human rights record.

A Chinese colleague and I talked about this article and I moaned that China didn't care about humankind.

She wryly replied, "Look at how it treats its own people."

Concerned about how Copenhagen would turn out too, she was disappointed to see China was not willing to do more.

She explained that while the Chinese government looked like it cared about the environment with all its green projects, it really wasn't interested in climate change or saving the world.

All the government is really interested in is self-preservation.

It does not care if small island nations like the Maldives are going to be submerged or that the polar ice caps are melting at an even faster rate.

All China wants to do is ensure economic growth which means stability so that the Communist Party will continue to have its mandate to rule. It wants to continue the myth that everyone in China can be rich. But how rich is rich? And at what expense?

This selfishness is obscene.

Countries around the world gathered at Copenhagen to earnestly hammer out a deal -- a deal to save the world from itself.

Every country was willing to bargain to a certain extent but with the main aim of committing to lowering greenhouse gas emissions to cool off global warming a bit so that we would have more time to figure out how else to save the planet.

But not China.

This shows its slogans like "One World, One Dream", and "A Harmonious Society" are meaningless words.

Doesn't the government realize that if there is no Earth left, there will be no Communist Party of China either?

Something's gotta give. The planet has given more than its share.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avoiding the Issue

I just watched an interesting documentary called The World's Largest Shopping Mall, about a massive development twice the size of the Mall of America in Minnesota in Dongguan, Guandong Province.

The short film is filled with images of a practically dead mall complete with a canal and gondolas a la Venice. There are only 12 tenants in there and the main investors, a state-owned enterprise, is determined to keep the mall open and even hiring Ted deSwart, a mall consultant to figure out how to get customers in the door.

The guy who started the whole project, a hometown boy called Alex Hu obviously didn't do his market research and threw money into creating a monument as a symbol of his legacy.

But what he's left behind is a shell that was supposed to house consumer ecstasy. Dongguan is not exactly Beijing or Shanghai -- it's an industrial town in south China where many factories are located, meaning most of the people living there cannot afford to buy anything in this fancy mall.

Meanwhile a number of high-speed railway trains being built now. There used to be a slow train running between Beijing and Tianjin. Last year a new one was built that only takes 30 minutes. However, not everyone can afford to ride it. A second-class ticket costs 58RMB ($8.50), but a hard seat on a slow train on the same route costs 11RMB ($1.61).

China is spending billions of renminbi on high-tech infrastructure that people cannot afford or not willing to pay for. While it is good that the country is investing in the future, what is the point of building all these things that will be left mostly unused?

As many outsiders have said before, China should be investing in its people -- and that means providing a better social safety net, from a well-run health care system that does not gouge its users, children get access to education regardless of their financial situation, and seniors get a decent pension as they can't depend on their adult children to look after them as they live far away.

Instead it chooses to showcase to the world and to its own people that is has the most modern trail transport system or the biggest mall in the world -- only to be empty or under utilized.

What is the point of that? This hollow rhetoric that is short-lived.

This shallowness shows China will do anything for face. The government recently announced that by the end of next year, China's GDP per capita will reach $4,000. Nine years ago it projected its GDP per capita should reach $3,000 by 2020. Talk about an astronomical rise.

But figures aren't everything, as some Chinese people are now complaining online that the figure of $4,000 does not accurately represent the majority of people in China, especially not those in the rural areas. It definitely shows there is a small number of outrageously wealthy people while the rest are mostly scraping by.

While the government wants its people will be proud of China's achievements, the population isn't blindly crowing about them either.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Motivating the Future

There is a young woman in her early 20s in my office who sits at her desk all day and is on 开心网 (kaixin wang), or the Chinese equivalent of Facebook, chatting with friends online and occasionally picking up the phone for a lively gabfest.

She buys things on Taobao (淘宝), the Chinese version of eBay that are delivered to her in the office, and is constantly checking her makeup or her hair.

Xiao Zhao doesn't do much work everyday; and the work she does do is less than acceptable. I ask her to clarify or to explain what she wrote, but she either repeats what she has already written or gives half-hearted answers that hardly help resolve the situation.

This is ironic considering for the written exam as part of the job application, she apparently aced it.

At our company, local employees' salaries are determined partially by work performance and are given salaries of different amounts ranked A, B and C. Xiao Zhao regularly gets rated C, the lowest wage, but she doesn't seem to care, not showing any ambition or  hard work ethic in a bid to improve her standing.

She is happy to continue doing basically nothing, get paid for it and if she wishes, can eat a practically inedible dinner at the company's expense too.

Meanwhile she is sharing an apartment with another colleague, who cannot stand Xiao Zhao's lack of respect for cleanliness. This coworker complained that Xiao Zhao had no concept of cooperation which was strange, as during college, everyone had to live in dormitories and that meant six to eight people in a room.

And now with only three more months to the end of the lease, Xiao Zhao suddenly announced she wants to move out of the apartment the two are sharing so that she can live with a boyfriend who she only recently started seeing. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

Sadly she is probably the majority of young people today, the post-80s generation, the only child in the family who has been coddled, as even not very wealthy families manage to spoil their kid.

These young people mostly go through life with no specific long-term goals in mind, except perhaps to get married and have an apartment paid for by their parents.

This aimlessness will not bode well for China's future. If a large percentage of the next generation are not self-motivated or interested in their work, this could lead to a massive drop in productivity, thus affecting China's gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

In the west, young people are encouraged by their parents and peers to get summer jobs to earn spending money or to save for university. They quickly learn that earning money is not easy, and of course getting a post-secondary degree is vital to getting a decent job.

This financial lesson is non-existent in China, where many children are used to parents handing out money -- and it seems more so when the parents are divorced. Also many parents from lower income levels are pleased that their child quits school and works to help pay for the family's expenses. It's strange considering the stereotype is that Chinese put a strong emphasis on education.

But the education should not only be in the classroom, but also in life survival skills. That way people China will have fewer people like Xiao Zhao and move the country further on the path towards a developed nation.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Fallout from Copenhagen

What happened in the end with Copenhagen?

Depending on who you talk to it was either a compromise, or disappointing or progressive.

China hailed the outcome of the UN climate change summit after a nonbinding deal was reached on Sunday. The Copenhagen Accord sets a goal of jointly mobilizing $100 billion-a-year climate aid for developing countries by 2020, but no specific targets for industrialized nations.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said there were "positive results" from the conference, successfully maintaining the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility."

But there were no firm targets for mid- or long-term reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. "The blame for the failure mostly lies with the rich industrialized world, countries which have the largest historic responsibility for causing the problem. In particular, the US failed to take any real leadership and dragged the talks down," Greenpeace said in a statement.

At first US President Barack Obama didn't send an earnest signal in showing his willingness to deal with climate change. Earlier he decided to show up in Copenhagen at the beginning of the conference when other world leaders were not there. And then he changed his mind and came towards the end. China got criticism that Premier Wen Jiabao was attending and not President Hu Jintao, believing that Hu is the one who calls the shots. However Wen is the one who is more knowlegable and interested in environmental issues.

While China promised to cut 40 to 45 percent of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP at 2005 levels, this is misleading. In fact this means the country will probably emit twice as much carbon dioxide by 2020 -- 14.2 billion tonnes versus 7.3 billion tonnes if growth remains at 8 percent. However, during the entire two weeks the Middle Kingdom stood its ground and even expected developed countries to fund technologies to China when it holds some $2 trillion in US reserves.

China was also strongly opposed to international monitoring of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, as it believes these are internal affairs and besides, as a developing nation it is not legally bound to these reduction targets. To protest the US demand of monitoring, Premier Wen walked out of the talks and sent another official to complete negotiations with Obama. The US President tried again to meet privately with Wen; when the appointed time came, Obama apparently walked into a four-nation meeting that included China, India, Brazil and South Africa, but there was no seat for him.

It was a strange gaffe but Obama was cool about it and tried to engage the four countries in a productive discussion that led to an agreement of the aid package and pledges to cut emissions.

Many were annoyed at China for not being willing to do more, or be subjected to international monitoring. And it seems Obama's strategy of quiet diplomacy with China last month didn't do enough for Copenhagen.

Despite the blame game, all the nations seemed protectionist, acting more concerned about short term economic growth than the future of the planet.

"This accord is not legally binding. It's a political statement," Nnimmo Bassey, chair of Friends of the Earth International was quoted in the Guardian as saying. "This is a disaster for the poor nations -- the urgency of climate change was not really considered."

Dame Barbara Stocking, Oxfam's chief executive agreed. "World leaders in Copenhagen seem to have forgotten that they were not negotiating numbers, they were negotiating lives," she said.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Wrapping Up a Tasty Dish

Yesterday I enlisted a Beijing friend of mine to teach me and a friend how to make jiaozi, or dumplings. It's a typical northern Chinese food that is usually made at home. Some families do this once a week, but particularly during Chinese New Year or Chun Jie, where eating dumplings when the clock strikes midnight on Chinese New Year is considered good luck.

I like eating jiaozi at our company canteen, where they dish them out by the vat every few minutes. Everyone it seems, wants to eat it and if you don't get there early enough, they're all gone.

I quickly gained a new appreciation for jiaozi after making them.

First the skin: In a big bowl with flour, we added a pinch of salt and and egg white. Then we added a bit of water, mixing it slowly and then adding more water until it wasn't too wet, but relatively easy to knead. We kneaded it for a few minutes and then put it in a bowl and covered it with cloth or plastic.

Next the filling: We bought 1kg of ground pork that had a bit of fat in it. We didn't use a blender to make it smooth, but instead put the meat on a chopping board and using a big cleaver, chopped down the meat even further. It required a lot of wrist action otherwise your arm got tired.

Then we defosted some shelled prawns, deveined them and added a bit of salt and some Chinese cooking wine to them.

After, we made scrambled eggs using six eggs, on low heat, constantly breaking it up as we only wanted small pieces.

We let that cool while we chopped lots of chives into small pieces. We also used a few inches of the white part of the leek and sliced them thinly lengthwise and then chopped them up again into small pieces.

Everything except the prawns were mixed together, along with a pinch of white pepper, salt, chicken essence, some sesame oil, olive oil, and Chinese cooking wine. They had to be mixed in one direction... we were not given the explanation why.

My friend then checked our concoctions by first smelling them, and then even dipped her finger into the raw mixture and putting it in her mouth! My other friend and I shrieked with horror. "I knew you would react like that," she said with a laugh. We were not amused.

Preparing the skin: Now the dough was ready. It was kneaded a few times again before cutting it in half, and then half again, using one-quarter to work with first.

The dough was hand rolled into a long snake about two inches thick and then cut into 1.5 inch pieces. These were then hand flattened and lightly covered in flour.

Then using a small rolling pin, each slice was rolled once on the edge, and then shifted around to roll the next part and repeated, so that the middle is slightly thicker than the edge.

Finally the wrapping: Taking a piece of shrimp and laying it in the middle of the skin, we then spooned a bit of the meat mixture on top and tried to lay it flat. Then we took the two opposite ends together and sealed them, which formed a fat triangle. Then the bottom end was sealed and then pressed a few more times before it was done. My Beijing friend joked that we would find out whose dumplings would explode if they weren't sealed properly so I pressed on mine a few extra times just to make sure.

We were starving by the time we finished the first batch.

Cooking the jiaozi: In a big pot of boiling water with a bit of salt, put the dumplings in, sliding them in along the edge of the pot to avoid getting a back splash. Then using the back of the spoon we stirred it a few times, waiting for it to boil again. Then when it was bubbling fiercely again we added a small bowl of cold water and waited for it to boil again before adding more cold water. We added water twice because our skins were a bit thicker than say store-bought pre-made jiaozi.

After letting it boil for a minute or two longer they were scooped up and ready to be eaten!

And after spending five hours from buying ingredients to making them, every bite was delicious, dipped in vinegar and a bit of soy sauce. A few of the dumplings we made looked a bit sketchy according to our Beijing friend, who suggested another way of cooking them.

In a flat pan with a bit of oil, the jiaozi were placed upright and left sitting there on low heat. After a few minutes she added a small bowl of flour mixed with water. Then putting the cover on, she said we would let it cook until all the liquid had evaporated, which took about 10 minutes.

The end result were jiaozi that were fried on the bottom, but steamed on top, complete with a thin fried layer around the pan that was crispy.

We made one more batch of dough to use up the rest of the meat mixture, which yielded about 40 jiaozi, so in total we made about 80 of them. I took the remaining ones home, froze them on trays before putting them in a bag so they wouldn't stick together.

For first timers we weren't quite efficient, but towards the end we got better and more confident in wrapping the jiaozi.

However, it makes you wonder why restaurants price dishes of jiaozi so cheap? My Beijing friend says it's because they have machines that make the dough, but still, wrapping them is a labour-intensive process.

We will probably make them again, and it was a nice way to pass the afternoon practicing our Mandarin and learning how northerners make one of their favourite dishes. But we were completely wiped out by the evening, having worked so hard for our food!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Picture of the Day: Monetary Dreams

The other day I walked down Dawanglu, towards Shin Kong Place, a fancy upscale mall. But next to it was this strange set up for Christmas.

It was a crude reproduction of a Disney-like castle complete with a prince dancing with either Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty in front surrounded by Christmas trees.

And on the castle in red Chinese characters it says "hua mao zhong xin" or "Prosperous Trade Center".

Perhaps they are hoping that with such a fairytale set up, economic dreams may come true.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Less Entertaining Options

These last two weeks the Chinese government is tightening its control over the Internet even further.

There has been an ongoing campaign to shut down pornography sites, those that are deemed "too yellow" in reference to imperial times when emperors were entitled to frolic with as many concubines as he wished.

And related to that crackdown are websites that offer free downloads of movies, television shows and music.

Young people are most annoyed by this, not necessarily cutting off the availability of porn material, but access to western television shows, movies and materials they can't get in China.

They are so used to being able to access things free or for a very small price that it has put a massive dent into their entertainment activities. Many like downloading movies at work and watching them after work or at home, or adding songs to their iPods and MP3 players.

One could look at this and say that perhaps China is now finally owning up to its blatant disregard of the copyright issue and is now forcing its people to pay royalties or fees for things they have scammed for free for a while.

Or it could be that the government is finding more ways of cutting off people from the outside world.

And in the last few days the government has announced that no one can have personal websites. If people want to register domain names, they must use a company name to do so, which means showing a company license.

This has also led to hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who either have blogs or want to share their love of a certain hobby, or non-profits who want to engage with others socially cannot do so. It also affects those who have small businesses selling products or services on the Chinese version of eBay called Taobao who won't be able to effectively market themselves anymore.

Basically this is the strangling of democratization of the Internet in China; it cannot be used to find other like-minded people or to swap recipes or share one's pictures online anymore, or rant about their grievances they have with the authorities. Chinese cyberspace is only for those who are entitled to the privilege of using it.

Anger is only going to boil over if people can't complain or communicate online, their last outlet to vent their frustrations.

Some people in Beijing must really be paranoid about the Internet...

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pedaling a Dumb Idea

When I first visited Beijing in 1985, I distinctly remember a lot of bicycles on the streets. And most of the time you heard bells ringing instead of the annoying car honks you hear now.

Although there are fewer bikes on the roads today, many of them are electric, very quiet, and go relatively fast. You can pedal them to recharge the battery, or plug it into a socket for a couple of hours.

For those who can't afford a car, but want a convenient way to get around, an electric bike is the next best thing.

However, some 40 million electric bicycle owners and producers in China were up in arms last week when the government decided to reclassify them as electric motor vehicles, which would have meant hundreds of thousands of people having to get licenses and insurance -- as of next month.

The Standardization Administration said earlier this month that electric bikes that weighed over 40 kilograms and could reach speeds over 20km/h would be classified as motor vehicles. There was no specific reason given, but one could read this was a way for the government to immediately earn more money and also kill this industry which is greener than cars, not to mention much cheaper too.

After the notice went out, an engineering professor who was an avid e-biker, explained to one media outlet that it was virtually impossible to make an electric bicycle lighter than 40kg.

The new regulation would have affected millions of electric bike owners and in turn would have severely impacted the industry which has more than 2,400 factories and thousands of employees. The China Bicycles Association had also drafted a letter to the industry body asking them to relax the restrictions.

But in an about face, the Standardization Administration has decided to suspend some requirements that could that would have restricted the use and production of electric bikes.

This means that this reclassification exercise may happen at a later date, or not at all.

The fact that the government body came up with this idea in the first place is absurd, without proper consultation, and making it effective almost immediately is ridiculous.

Do they not understand that people on low incomes need this mode of transport to get around, be it in the cities or rural areas? And as I said earlier, they are an excellent green option to gas guzzlers. And besides, isn't the government concerned about keeping the economy humming instead of killing off an entire industry because of bureaucracy?

An official in the Standardization Administration is either going to be "reshuffled" somewhere else or the central government will "strengthen supervision" of this department... stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Making Sacrifices for Frivolity

I don't know how I missed this announcement at the beginning of the month, but the National Stadium, which was the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies for last year's Olympics will soon become a winter wonderland complete with fake snow.

From December 19, visitors at the Bird's Nest can spend 120RMB to ski, snowboard and play with artificial snow.

This is the latest venture in trying to keep the giant stadium from falling into the red. Originally just after the Olympics, the glow from hosting the international event was still see on visitors excited to see where Usain Bolt showed the world (including myself) why he was the fastest man in the world, and where director Zhang Yimou presented his memorable opening ceremony.

But now those hordes of people have come and gone and the Olympic memories have faded and the stadium has been left mostly unused. It's been used a few times since, with a concert featuring Jackie Chan, the staging of Turandot, and even race-car driving.

All these one-off events are not enough to keep the 90,000-seat stadium occupied year round.

So now they've come up with a fake snow scene. What's going to happen in the summer?

This short-term thinking just shows how little foresight officials have if they don't have long-term goals. Hosting the Olympics is one thing, but keeping a stadium occupied (and properly maintained) forever is another.

Also, now that snow machines must be working overtime now to build these snow slopes in the stadium, where is all this water going to come from?

Beijing is a parched city as it is and now it wants to create an artificial snow heap for fun?

Currently the south-north water diversion project is a mega one that will cost more than the Three Gorges Dam, with the first phase already costing 255 billion RMB and will relocate some 440,000 people. Water from the Yangtze River will be diverted into a canal to go up north to Beijing and other northern areas.

The thousands of people being relocated are bitter as their financial compensation isn't much, nor is the relocation better than where they live now. Scientists and engineers also question the viability of this project, as it may result in future environmental damage yet to be seen.

So can someone explain again why Beijing's National Stadium will be spending its precious natural resources to make fake snow to cover 20,000 square metres?

Filling a stadium with visitors is one thing, but wasting water for frivolity when it can be used for other more necessary things is a flagrant disregard for addressing the ever-increasing income gap.

It's ironic that over 60 years ago this government had originally presented a platform for social equality and now some have more entitlements than others.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Fact of the Day: 4 Million cars in Beijing

Any day now Beijing will have its 4 millionth car on its streets.

On Sunday the number of cars was 3.99 million, according to the municipal traffic management bureau. And with about 2,000 new cars on the roads each day, the total will top 4 million by this weekend.

"Compared with other metropolises in the world, the growth of vehicles in Beijing is dramatic," said Guo Jifu, a researcher with the Beijing Municipal Communication Research Center.

He said it took the capital 48 years to make the number of cars grow from 2,300 in 1949 to its first 1 million in 1997. The second million came in six and a half years, the third in three years and nine months, and now the fourth million in only two years and seven months.

Meanwhile it took Tokyo 12 years to jump from 3 million to 4 million, Guo observed.

Is this supposed to be some badge of honour for Beijing to carry, to have pride in having so many cars in the city?

In fact it is an embarrassing result of city planners not having the foresight to build good public transportation routes and real estate developments around them. Now the use of cars in Beijing is more frequent than other big cities in the world. The daily traveling distance of a car here is 45km, while in Tokyo it's 19km and 30km in London, said Guo.

"The cars in the cities overseas are mostly used in the outskirts, but in Beijing they mainly run in the urban areas. That's why they have better traffic conditions than Beijing even though they have many more cars," he said.

Hopefully this magic number of 4 million will make city officials wake up and realize that they had better do some better planning -- and that doesn't mean more roads -- to keep car usage down. At this rate Beijing's roads will soon become parking lots despite the municipal government's measure after the Olympics last year to take 20 percent of the cars off the roads Monday to Friday.

What's the point of having a car if you're just sitting in traffic all day and wasting fossil fuels? If China wants to be seen as being more green, why not be the world leader in setting up a network of electricity-charging stations and promote the sales of electric cars?

Maybe then people would take China more seriously in its pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Controlling the Message

When US President Barack Obama visited Beijing last month, the White House chose for him to do an interview with one Chinese publication. They specifically did not choose the usual state media like CCTV or China Daily.

Instead Obama had a quick 10-minute chat with Southern Weekend (南方周末), a progressive newspaper based in Guangdong which is best known for its investigative pieces about corruption and social problems that seem to fly under the radar of censors mostly because of its geographic distance from Beijing.

However, when the interview with Obama was scheduled to be published on November 19, Southern Weekend subscribers got their copies with the pages ripped out (last-minute censoring). Apparently those were the first batch printed. The second batch for newsstands featured blank white boxes, called 开天窗, kai tian chuang or "blank window" as a hint that censorship was involved.

Apparently the interview request with Southern Weekend was made by the White House and approved by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then the US side arranged it directly with the weekly paper. However, when propaganda officials got wind of it they were angry, restricting the questions and then further slashed the transcript of the interview just hours before it was to go to press.

So editors of the paper resorted to showing their hands were tied with the blank windows.

"Everyone in the Chinese media knows about the tradition of opening a blank window, leaving a big blank space on the page to indicate that something has been censored," said the editor of another publication. "Whether that was the intention of the ad, it was certainly read that way."

The story could not be found on the paper's website either.

And now the editor-in-chief Xiang Xi who conducted the interview with Obama has been demoted and a new editor from the Southern Daily has replaced him. Xiang is still there, but is now the No. 2 guy.

While Xiang has not commented on his situation, it does send a strong signal that getting an exclusive interview with the president of a country that promotes freedom of the press doesn't pay dividends.

This is just another chilling reminder of how the Hu Jintao/Wen Jiabao leadership is tightening its control over the media even further. It also shows how uncoordinated the different minstries are and that the propaganda department trumps all.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Skating in a Wintery Wonderland

Ever since I saw people skating on the lakes at Houhai two years ago I wanted to skate outdoors too.

But global warming prevented me from doing it last year, at it never really got cold enough for it to be safe to skate there.

This year temperatures haven't really dropped, hovering around 6 degrees Celsius during the day the last few weeks.

So yesterday I did the second best thing, which was to head to the skating rink with a few friends.

We headed to Solana Mall (蓝色港湾), next to Chaoyang Park on the west side. And at the back of the open-concept mall, up on the the first floor is the All Star Ice Rink, a decent 800 square meter area opened by 1999 Asian Games figure skating champion Wang Rui and Li Ning, of the sportswear fame and most recently lit the torch at the Beijing Games.

On a Saturday afternoon it was busy, not too packed; the sidelines were mostly filled with parents watching their kids learning to skate with instructors or with friends. For 50RMB ($7.32) you can get free skate rentals and skate as much as you want for an hour and a half. There are also small lockers to rent for 1RMB to store your shoes, bags and coats.

The skates themselves are nothing to write home about. For some reason, even the women's skates are black, the mens' skates are like figure skates which my friends thought was weird. When laced up the skates weren't particularly comfortable, but we're not buying skates anytime soon. Next time I'll wear thicker socks.

Not having skated in a while, I was a bit anxious stepping out onto the ice at first. It took a while for me to get used to skating -- pushing off and then gliding -- and by the time an hour flew by I was in my element again.

On the whole the kids weren't obnoxious and minded everyone else on the ice, except for one boy who apparently cut right into my friend who had to swerve to avoid him. Another friend whose Chinese was good went over to try to tell the kid that was dangerous, but he just laughed and skated away.

Nevertheless, we had a good workout. When we walked out of the mall, it was already dark and the mall was lit up with perhaps thousands of LED lights, creating a wintery wonderland with a festive spirit.

Although my thighs are still tired from skating, I'm looking forward to skating again soon -- outdoors.

All Star Ice Rink
1/F, Solana Lifestyle Shopping Park
6 Chaoyang Gongyuan Lu
Chaoyang District
5905 6328

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Red China Far from Green

While the negotiations and discussions are happening in Copenhagen to determine how the world will save itself, it seems many people in China are completely obtuse when it comes to environmental protection and how they can do their bit to help out.

In Beijing I see many people, but in particular young people who have no idea how they can make a small but accumulated contribution in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

On the sidewalks and streets are numerous cigarette butts. They are particularly abundant near bus stops, where half lit cigarettes are carelessly thrown away without even bothering to stamp them out. And when men of all ages buy a pack of cigarettes, they tear off the cellophane and wrapping and drop them on the ground as they walk. There is no thought to holding onto their garbage and looking for the nearest garbage can.

The same goes for outdoor food vendors, especially those selling chaur, or barbecued skewers of meat, or mala tang, that cook balls of meat or seafood, tofu, and the like on bamboo skewers in spicy hot soups. Those things are consumed by these carts and the used sticks thoughtlessly left behind.

No one thinks to have a garbage can nearby; the thought is, well someone else is going to clean it up anyway. The next day the poor street cleaners have to deal with the mess. They should be paid even more to have to deal with picking up after selfish people.

At work we use water dispensers as tap water is not potable. A man comes in everyday with a giant load of water barrels to stock our office up and takes away the empty ones. This all costs money. I have someone come in once a week to deliver a water barrel to my place for 19RMB ($2.78) for 19 litres. So imagine an office with about 10 water dispensers, each using more than one barrel a day. That adds up.

Yesterday I watched in horror as I saw a young woman in our office fill up her little humidifier with water from the water dispenser. Is she too lazy to go a few steps away to the washroom to fill it up? Or does she think purified water is better for her skin?

And now that it's winter, restaurants have to spend more money to heat up the place, thus keeping the doors closed to keep the heat in. However, some patrons will walk in and leave the doors wide open without a thought that perhaps the customers inside may be freezing and also to help conserve the heat? Didn't their parents teach them that wasting energy was wasting money?

Another observation is seeing many cars idling -- most of them government cars -- whether it's for the air conditioning in the summer or heat in the winter. Can they not park the car, turn off the gas and wait inside a building? Or is their boss is too much of a pansy not to suffer through a bit of chill when they start the car again? These people are not only wasting taxpayers' money, but also precious fossil fuels.

Most of these crazy action are due to ignorance. The government is not doing enough in educating its people on how they can protect the environment. An easy first step is teaching people on how to separate their garbage and recycle it or compost it if their buildings have those facilities. Also the government needs to setup infrastructure in order for people to recycle and compost. Marking public garbage cans with recyclable and non-recyclable labels doesn't help because to most people they look the same and don't bother to dispose of things properly.

In many other countries like Japan, there are separate garbage disposal units for different types of waste and the public is educated on how to use it. This could easily be implemented in China. If the government established the proper recycling infrastructure where those people collecting cans, bottles and cardboard boxes can send them to government-sanctioned collection sites and be paid properly this could be a way of creating employment.

Right now these collectors are paid very little which explains why so many of them ride bicycles hauling gigantic mounds of bottles, cardboard boxes, and styrofoam. If the government is giving out so many subsidies for people to buy cars and pollute the environment, why not balance it by giving those helping China green the environment more financial support too?

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Dragon Roars

Many developed countries are taken aback by China's tough stance at the UN Climate Change summit in Copenhagen. It is demanding countries like the United States and Europe to cut their emissions targets further, and to handover technology to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries.

China's chief negotiator Xie Zhenhua was quite blunt about the west's "unambitious and deceptive" emissions targets. "Given the fact that developed countries have done nothing but empty talk, they have no right to make further requests," he said Monday.

His sharp tone might be compounded by the fact that he was refused admission into the conference three times despite having the proper badges. Or do all Chinese look the same to westerners?

At the same time Su Wei, China's No. 2 negotiator, dismissed the US' $10 billion a year contribution to a fund to help developing countries from 2010.

"This $10 billion, if divided by the world population, it is less than $2 per person," he said, adding it was not even enough to buy a cup of coffee in Copenhagen or a coffin in poor regions in the world. "Climate change is a matter of life and death," he said.

However, China is the country with over $2 trillion in reserves... surely it can afford to buy the green technology.

All this posturing and strong language may be part of China's strategy to either push developed nations to really do more than they are offering now, or to show the world how it has the power to push previously strong nations into obeying China's wishes.

Perhaps the Chinese negotiators are playing to a domestic audience to prove China's rise; or they are setting up for Premier Wen Jiabao's appearance at the climate change summit where he will address the delegates and prepare them for more stern words.

One can only wait and see.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Finally Moving Forward

It has been a year and two days since China's top dissident Liu Xiaobo was taken away by police. But exactly a year later on Tuesday he was formally charged with inciting subversion, probably related to his co-authoring Charter 08, a manifesto urging political reform.

"The public security organs feel the procuratorate should charge him and have recommended that they do so," said Shang Baojun, Liu's lawyer on Wednesday. He said the recommended charge was "inciting subversion of state power", a charge usually brought against those who voice opposition to the government.

Liu is a writer and former university professor at Beijing Normal University who was jailed for being involved in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 and even sent to a labour camp.

But that did not deter him from voicing his strong dissatisfaction with the government.

Charter 08 is an online petition that has been signed by over 10,000 people, including intellectuals, writers and dissidents. It calls for a multi-party system that includes the Communist Party as well as human rights protection.

Despite governments, rights groups, and well known figures such as Lech Walesa, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie calling for Liu's release, he still remains hidden in an undisclosed location. His wife Liu Xia has only been able to see him once, in March.

Now that formal charges have been filed to the Beijing Municipal Procuratorate, Liu's case will now finally move forward, his lawyer says. "This is an important step in the process," he said.

What is most crucial now is that the procuratorate or prosecutor must follow everything to the law. Not that the authorities have been doing everything correctly. For example, does it really take 365 days of illegal detention to figure out if someone like Liu is worth charging?

With the state meddling in law cases, they are especially interested in this one. When one is charged with inciting subversion of state power, it's very hard to prove innocence, particularly with Liu's previous activist record.

Nevertheless, it is important for people like him to challenge the system, to gain public awareness for his cause and hopefully inspire others to be brave and fight for what is rightfully belongs to them.

They can only try.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Test of Goodwill

For the next two weeks the world is watching to see if there really will be a concerted global effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions around the world and stop climate change from destroying the planet we live in.

Over a week before the conference in Copenhagen, China announced that it would cut 40 to 45 percent of emissions per GDP by 2020. While it sounds like big numbers, an article in the South China Morning Post says the world's most populous nation is already on track to meet these targets.

It says from 1990 to 2005, the Chinese mainland reduced its carbon intensity by 44 percent without external pressures or special measures. The data shows it was 5.16 tonnes of carbon dioxide per $1,000 of GDP growth in 1990 to 2.87 tonnes in 2005. Thus energy intensity, the amount of energy used per GDP growth fell by 47 percent.

However, as the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, shouldn't China at least take on the moral responsibility of doing more to save the planet? Maybe then they could ensure that the Chinese civilization would continue for at least another 5,000 years (if it really did start 5,000 years ago).

But Xie Zhenhua, chief negotiator of the Chinese delegation to Copenhagen said on Monday that China will not be raising its targets during the conference.

"We have done what we should do and what we are supposed to do," said Xie. He explained that China has reduced 47 percent of its carbon dioxide per unit of GDP in the past 15 years, and the country will stick to its commitment of 40 to 45 percent reduction in emissions in the next 10 years.

At the same time China is hoping for a successful outcome of the summit.

Li Gao, a division director with the National Development and Reform Commission climate change department, said China will "help bring about a meaningful result and try to make the summit successful".

"We hope the Copenhagen summit will become a milestone in mitigating global warming, and China has always been playing an active role in the process," said Li. "China will try to do everything possible to make the Copenhagen summit a success and will not end the summit with an empty political declaration."

But Li did not elaborate on what China may do to make the meeting a success.

So what are people and countries supposed to think of China if it says it is unwilling to cut more greenhouse gas emissions because it doesn't want to sacrifice economic development and yet hope for a successful summit?

One can only hope the United States will take a leadership role to cut more than its announced 17 percent target at 2005 levels by 2020 and encourage China to follow suit.

With US President Barack Obama attending the end of the summit, when the real negotiations will be nailed down, it shows he is serious about trying to fulfill his election pledge.

It will also test how successful he is in persuading the Chinese after a visit to China that seemed like he was constrained by Beijing's agenda.

We shall see.

World leaders need to realize they must act now and follow through in good faith to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Otherwise nobody in the future will have an earth to live on anymore.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Lang Lang's Tribute to Chopin

Last night I went to the Egg, or the National Center for the Performing Arts to watch superstar Lang Lang at the piano.

The concert was pretty much sold out, with a number of small children in the audience. Although they were a bit restless at times, on the whole they sat relatively quietly. It was the adults who were behaving badly, many of them trying to sneak pictures of the pianist on their cellphones. Luckily most of them were caught by the attendants with their red laser pens, but many managed to snap a few with the annoying click sounds to boot.

Although Lang has done much to promote China to the world, he hasn't been able to do much in terms of educating the Chinese themselves on how to behave at concerts.

Nevertheless, he was doing major public relations, as people who bought his CDs, including the latest one (what a coincidence), were given a poster of him that he would sign after the concert. Many people bought them but this resulted in people dropping posters and CDs on the floor during the show.

At the start of the performance, the conductor of the China National Symphony Orchestra came out to explain that the concert was celebrating the 200th anniversary of Frederic Chopin's birthday. He also pointed to a bust of the composer that was sitting on the bench of the organ above the stage.

And then a representative from the Polish consulate explained that Poland was so proud to have Chopin, that he was appreciated everywhere around the world. He added that Beijing was the first place to kick off the celebrations that would run all the way through next year, and invited everyone to travel there.

Chopin was a tragic figure, constantly ill and not having much luck with his love life. However, in his short 39 years, the pianist managed to compose a significant body of works that revealed his own style that was technically demanding, and contributed to the development of the mazurka, waltz, nocturne, etude, impromptu and polonaise to name a few.

To start off the program, the orchestra performed Polonaise in A Major that was brisk and percussion, with lots of drums, snare drums, cymbals and triangles.

Then the short Liszt Prelude No. 3 of 13 Symphonic Poems was more subdued before the main event.

The grand piano was rolled out and there was excitement when Lang Lang entered the stage. He was dressed smartly in a suit and shiny black shoes, complete with a slightly punky hairdo.

He performed Chopin's Grande Polonaise Op. 22 that began with a solo displaying much pomp and excited rhythm, his hands flying over the keys delicately deliberately. Gone were the over dramatic body movements, but he was still keen to almost dance with his feet or conduct with his left hand. Perhaps he will be the next Vladimir Ashkenazy, the pianist and conductor?

The intermission again was too short, with tons of people waiting in line for refreshments. I had purposely checked in my water bottle this time to avoid hassles, but later saw a woman giving her daughter a drink from a thermos! Why is security here so inconsistent?

Lang's next and final piece on the program was Chopin's Piano Concert No. 1. Some people in the audience clapped in between movements, and some remarked how he was getting a work out as he wiped his brow with a burgundy handkerchief.

However, that was not enough for the audience and he eagerly performed two encores. When the audience claps, he laps up the adulation, saluting the crowd and orchestra. For his first encore he was about to sit down but waited for louder clapping before finally settling in. He is still the consummate performer, seemingly at ease at the piano and performing in front of audiences and in this case too in front of a number of cameras, including a video camera on stage right next to him.

Perhaps he is maturing and seeing that while his influence has led to many Chinese children learning the piano, he still has to stay in top form, develop his artistry but at the same time make sure he doesn't burn out.

Nevertheless, he continues to wow audiences around the world, and is particularly loved in his home country, China's best ambassador for its soft power.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Obsession of Home

A television drama called Snail House has become very popular in China thanks to its main storyline of following two sisters who have borrowed a lot of money to buy user rights to property, as all land is owned by the state. The younger sister is so desperate to help her older sibling out that she even conducts an affair with a wealthy corrupt official who gives her the money.

The series is so popular because the audience relates to the plight of the sisters trying to buy a home. Everyone seems to be bemoaning the trajectory rise of property prices, making even shoebox-sized apartments out of reach of many. A few years ago flats in Beijing and Shanghai were around 10,000RMB ($1,464) per square meter, but now have doubled. People have to scrape their money together to buy something, and become "mortgage slaves". However, those living in big cities can't even afford to be mortgage slaves, making an average of 3,000RMB ($439) a month.

The traditional Chinese belief of owning a piece of property has led to people changing their values. Some young women insist that their boyfriends buy an apartment as a precondition to tying the knot, resulting in many dumping otherwise solid suitors to marry rich men. A colleague of mine, a fresh graduate, remarked that while she wanted to have her own home, having to pay it off in 70 years was not something she was interested in doing. She said she'd rather travel.

People complain that the wealthy are the property developers, who seem to be designing projects solely for the super rich and there is not enough housing for everyone else. Apparently, as another coworker explained to me, there are two kinds of developers -- private and state-owned. The privately-owned developers believe they are entitled to build homes for the uber wealthy, and say the state-run ones should be making homes for the low-income families... which are mostly located in suburban areas where public transportation is spotty or non-existent. However, state-run developers think they are also entitled to a piece of the big rich pie too.

But what about the ones in between? Like the young people who have university degrees, decent salaries and want to at least own a decent home?

The provincial and municipal governments win big on the taxes they earn from selling the land to developers, but with a growing middle class, why edge them out? In the long run the government can earn other taxes from them too... like consumption... if these people had enough money to spend on things other than their mortgages.

So it seems the finger pointing should end at the government, which should really be regulating which land should be developed for what... and in fact city planning seems to be a weak, if only very short-sighted exercise. It only makes the rich-poor gap wider through geographic location.

Nevertheless, while people continue to moan and groan about the system, it will probably not change anytime soon. But if the government really wants to create a harmonious society, it should have more foresight in planning for an ever-growing middle class that only wants to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Picture of the Day: Toying with Christmas

The festive atmosphere of Christmas has arrived in the Chinese capital even though the communist country doesn't recognize December 25 as a public holiday.

Apartment buildings, restaurants and especially shopping malls have decorated their walls, ceilings, doors and pillars with bells, snowflakes, Santa Clauses and Christmas tree designs. Heck even my gym has snowflakes made of silvery pipe cleaners hanging from the light fixtures.

The Village at Sanlitun already got into the festive spirit by installing a small round ice rink in the piazza, where people can pay 30RMB ($4.40) to rent skates and skate around and around for an hour and a half. Most people would probably tire after an hour, but the price is very reasonable considering it's such a small area. If you want to avoid having too many onlookers staring at your every move, best to skate in the weekday evenings.

The mall also hosted this giant snow globe at the entrance holding a Smart car complete with a mini chalet, Christmas tree and presents.

Is this a hint for people to buy Smart cars for their loved ones? Or it's so cute it's like a toy car?

In any case, it would be even cooler if fake snow was blowing inside the globe.

The Smart car marketers should definitely think about toying with that idea...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Power Shift

On his first trip to the Middle Kingdom, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has landed in hot water with the Chinese government for not coming to China earlier.

In front of both delegations and international media, Premier Wen Jiabao publicly rebuked Harper, saying, "This is your first visit to China and this is the first meeting between the Chinese premier and a Canadian prime minister in almost five years," Wen told Harper through an interpreter. "Five years is too long a time for China-Canada relations and that's why there are comments in the media that your visit is one that should have taken place earlier."

Apparently Harper sat there stone-faced before replying, "I agree with you Premier that five years is a long time. It's also been almost five years since we had yourself or President Hu in our country." Harper then went on to invite Wen or President Hu "in the not too distant future."

The public lecturing was probably the first time ever between heads of state. When Wen refers to Chinese media, he's really referring to the government as all media is state controlled.

But Wen is correct that it has been too long.

When he was leader of the opposition, Harper constantly criticized China for its human rights record, and continued to do that as part of his election platform. This resulted in tepid relations with China. The country imports $1 trillion-worth of goods from overseas each year, and Canada accounts for only 1 percent of that.

And in a big public snub last year, Harper did not take up China's invitation to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

Canada's reputation in China is now hanging by a thread, but thankfully bolstered by the historic contribution of Norman Bethune and the current popularity of smooth bilingual talker Dashan or Mark Roswell.

While the Liberals have had a tradition of cozy relations with China, why do the Conservatives choose to rock the boat?

What's also interesting is following US President Barack Obama's visit to China, he too was muzzled for most of the trip and many critics say he did not achieve much on the trip.

Perhaps China's confidence is growing so much so that it feels it can control world leaders?

Or are other countries finally kowtowing to the Middle Kingdom?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Picture of the Day: Beijing Sunrise

This picture was taken at around 6:50am this morning, just as the sun was emerging from the horizon.

These past two weeks temperatures have been relatively warm, between 6 to 8 degrees Celsius.

Tomorrow the temperature drops to 4 degrees thanks to the wind, but it also thankfully blows some of the pollution away.

Admitting Economic Mistakes

The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) is a national planning body and today one of its officials admitted at a press conference that China has a serious problem of overcapacity.

This comes over a week after the European Chamber of Commerce in Beijing released a report saying overcapacity was hindering China's economic development and creating more pollution.

Xiong Bilin, from the NDRC said the problem of overcapacity had been happening in China for a long time. And although the global financial crisis exacerbated overcapacity, other internal factors such as weak innovation, low international competitiveness, and products were mostly at the low-end of the market. He cited the sectors in steel, cement and glass were particularly affected.

He blamed distorted market information for making it difficult for enterprises to anticipate market demand, resulting in companies blindly making investments.

In order to tackle overcapacity, Xiong said the NDRC would tighten supervision over the steel, cement and glass industries, encourage more mergers and not approve those projects that are purely for increasing capacity.

While the European Chamber suggested some of these actions, it also said that China should increase the costs of electricity and water for industrial use in order to stop pollution and also add value to products.

A reporter brought this up at today's press conference, but Xiong chose not to answer it.

This is an indication that either China has not considered this proposition, or environmental protection is not related to controlling overcapacity.

Sounds like developing the economy at almost any cost is still on the agenda. In the lead-up to Copenhagen, China is going to continue using the excuse that it is a developing country and it has a right to pollute to a certain extent. But now is the perfect opportunity for the country to produce things at a higher quality, and find ways to pollute less into the environment, and still make a profit.

Xiong's excuse of having disorted market information is absurd; in the age of the Internet and so many channels of communication, how could companies have the wrong market information? Pleading ignorance is a weak plea for sympathy. Once the global financial crisis started, we all knew we would be impacted in one way or another.

Hopefully the government will adjust its large-scale industries soon and the public will encourage the government to find more sustainable ways to develop China's economy.

That really is the only solution if China wishes to have a history of another 5,000 years...

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What the Chinese Think

The Lowy Institute China Poll 2009 was released today, its first public opinion poll conducted in the Middle Kingdom.

I have yet to read the entire report, but here are some highlights brought up by one of the authors, Fergus Hanson:

  • With the Copenhagen Summit fast approaching and mixed response over China's aim to decrease emissions by 40-45 percent by 2025, of the nine possible threats to China's security, environmental issues like climate change and water and food shortages topped the list over other issues like the US trying to restrain China's growing influence or the possibility of Japan acquiring nuclear weapons.
  • Fifty percent of Chinese say the US poses a threat to China's security, making it the most threatening of five countries. Forty-five percent said Japan posed a threat, but only one-third (about 34 percent) saw India as a threat; only 21 percent said Russia.
  • Even though half of Chinese adults surveyed said the US posed a threat to China, it was seen as the best of five countries in which to be educated, making the US ahead of the UK, Singapore, Canada and Australia.
  • Last week The Economist wrote that China's "leaders seem more petrified than ever of what might happen if its people were given unfettered access to the thoughts of an American president." It seems the Chinese are quite attracted to Western models of government and values. Sixty-eight percent agreed Australia had attractive values and 57 percent that it had a good political system.
  • When it comes to China-Australia relations, despite Australia inviting Uygur dissident Rebiya Kadeer to the Melbourne Film Festival a few months ago, the Chinese public, for the most part were very positive towards Australia (althought 48 percent agreed Australia was a country suspicious of China).
  • On some issues, younger and better educated Chinese appear to be more nationalistic and fearful than their elders. For example, younger Chinese (18-24 years old) were twice as likely as their elders (55 years old and older) to say the US posed the greatest or second-greatest threat to China's security in the next 10 years -- 60 percent compared with 30 percent. Respondents with a university or college education were more likely to say India and Japan posed a threat than those whose highest level of education was junior secondary school: 43 percent compared with 25 percent for India, and 49 percent compared with 36 percent for Japan.
The last finding is troubling and somewhat ironic. While many young people may not admit it, they do admire the west and wish to go abroad if they had the means. They are the ones on the Internet and learning more about the world online. What this perhaps suggests is that the government has been successful in its education of its younger generations in terms of instilling nationalism; but by the same token it has resulted in unfounded fears that could have dire consequences.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Picture of the Day: Parking Issues

A few months before the Beijing Olympics, it was announced the capital had 3 million cars on its roads.

And now less than a year and a half later, there will soon be 4 million, as some 1,500 new cars join the city's streets everyday. Pretty soon we're going to have gridlock.

One of the big problems drivers here claim is trying to find a parking spot. There aren't automated parking meters on the streets -- instead spots are manned by lowly men and women who have to stand around all day collecting money or at least making sure drivers pay, as some try to drive off without paying a yuan.

In this picture it seems cars can parallel park in any direction, and in the case of this Honda SUV, perpendicular parking is accepted too.

Ah, the Chinese are so pragmatic.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Overcapacity is Not Harmonious

China and the European Union are meeting these two days, and it is hoped that with the newly-elected president of the EU, Van Rompuy, the EU will finally have one voice and figure out its China policy.

Nevertheless, the meeting of the 12th China-EU Summit in Nanjing has had a bit of a rocky start with the EU Chamber of Commerce in Beijing releasing a report late last week claiming that China's industrial overcapacity is sparking trade tensions and raising the risk of bad loans.

According to the study by the chamber and Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, China's 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus package is worsening capacity, especially in steel, aluminum, cement, chemical, refining and wind-power equipment industries.

Basically, in order for China to maintain its economic momentum this past year, it has propped up the above-mentioned industries with subsidies, keeping business as usual even though orders overseas are way down. And because domestic demand for these goods are not high enough, many of these things are dumped in other countries at extremely low prices. Which is why we are seeing so many tariffs being slapped on Chinese-made goods.

"The Chinese stimulus package has poured credit into increasingly questionable projects," the report said, without specifying them. "The global impact can already be felt in the form of growing trade tensions."

It also says that China is the main "victim" of its own overcapacity. The chamber said lower profits means companies lack money to invest in research and development, to create value-added goods. Businesses are also forced to cut costs, leading to slower wage growth and thus less consumption.

"This is a major obstacle on the government's path to become both an innovative and sustainable economy," the report said.

It recommends the Chinese government cut overcapacity by lowering subsidies, raising interest rates to curb easy credit, and investing more in the social security net so people feel more free to spend. It also says costs for utilities like electricity and water should be raised so there will be less wastage and impact on the environment.

However, China will not take any of these recommendations, at least not right away. Currently it is painting itself as a victim of all these tariffs and its people cannot understand why China has good relations with say the United States when they are slapping tariffs on all kinds of Chinese-made goods.

What China should have done a year ago was seriously restructure its economy, especially state-run enterprises, cutting the excess fat, as they are not even as close as productive as privately-run companies, consolidate companies -- do you really need some 40 car manufacturers? And it needs to seriously invest in innovation. We're not talking about making the tiniest computer or developing more games on cell phones, but things that are not yet on the market.

Instead the country is dragging its feet, preferring to just continue on the same path it has always been on and hope that the rest of the economies around the world pick up again so it can continue being the world's factory.

Speaking of which, the Ministry of Commerce has produced a 30-second commercial I saw once today on CNN where the government is trying to promote that China manufactures all kinds of goods, from gadgets to clothing to airplanes. As if we didn't know that already.

It is the perfect illustration of how behind the government is in realizing what is going on outside the country and trying to get a step ahead instead of just trying to keep up.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Making the Case for Two

A professor from a university in Tianjin says the government should revise its family planning policy, and allow couples to have more than one child.

Yuan Xin, a professor with the Population and Development Institute of Nankai University says by adjusting the one-child policy, there will be less of a gender imbalance and more younger people to look after a fast-growing aging population.

Currently, the average gender ratio in China is about 117 to 120 boys for every 100 girls. The world average is about 107 boys for every 100 girls. That means in 20 years there will be 30 million men who will never be able to marry or have children.

In the last few years there have been tweaks to the family planning policy. For example minorities are allowed to have as many children as they wish, which explains why Tibet has a normal gender birth ratio. For Han Chinese, if the first child is born disabled, couples are allowed to try again. In the rural areas, if the first child is a girl, they may try again for a boy. And in the last few years, couples, both of whom are the only child in their family can have two children.

China's family planning policy began in the 1970s and the government claims it stopped 400 million births which it proudly says helped slow down the consumption of the world's resources.

But by the same token, the country has been criticized for its cultural preference for males and now it doesn't have a big enough working population to finance the aging one.

Yuan has suggested family planning be loosened in the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) which is in the next two years. However, by around that time, almost every young married couple will be eligible to have two children because those born in the late 1980s and onwards definitely come from one-child families.

So what's the problem?

While parents and the government are trying desperately to push young people to get married and have children, how can couples afford to have babies if they can't even afford an apartment? Property prices are so high now that everyone's savings have to be scraped together to buy a small home. Some young women refuse to marry their supposed beloved if they can't afford an apartment.

The government should be doing more to control property prices (ie cut down on the unscrupulous practices of property developers) so that people are more confident about entering the real estate market and from there they can plan their lives.

If they don't even feel secure about buying a home, how can they even afford to have a child?

As for the 30 million single men... unless the government and society is more open to accepting interracial marriages, they're going to remain bachelors...

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Christmas German Style

Today was the annual Christmas bazaar at the German embassy a few (big) blocks from where I live. I read in a magazine that it is a very popular event and the article advised people to bundle up as they'd have to wait outside for a while to get in!

It started at 11am so I started off just before 10:40am, got on a bus for two stops. But when my bus approached the bus stop, across Dongzhimen Wai Daijie 10 minutes later, there was a massive line snaking down the block where the German embassy was and overflowing onto the next one!

So I stood at the back of the line where the European Union embassy was, and many people lined up behind me. Most of the people were German, as I heard many speaking German, or with Chinese people who could speak German, along with some Canadians and Americans.

After 11am the line slowly started moving and we inched forward every 30 seconds or so -- but literally inching. By the time I arrived at the entrance, it was 11:50am -- an hour waiting to get in.

Everyone had to show their passport and then get a quick sweep of a wand by security guards, open our bags and then were basically allowed in.

There were little booths set up in the courtyard, many selling things like gingerbread cookies and houses, stollen, sausages, pretzels, apple cider, beer, champagne, and a huge selection of cakes and pastries. People could eat hotdogs, bratwurst with potato salad, or roast pig.

But not all were edible -- there were also Christmas cards for sale, advent calendars (OK those involve chocolate), Christmas candles decorated with fir and pine, small wreaths, and jewelry.

Some people played O Tannenbaum on the trumpet, and later a choir in red complete with Santa Claus sang a few Christmas carols in German.

It was a really festive atmosphere, everyone keeping warm drinking cider, children decorating gingerbread cookies, or waving their long balloon swords around.

What was perhaps most interesting was a different kind of lost in translation, as most of the signs or descriptions of products were in German than Chinese and even then it was hard to decipher what exactly they were.

Nevertheless, it was the perfect event for families with kids and people catching up with friends. Isn't that what Christmas is about, anyway?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Fact of the Day: Best Investment of the Year

What is the best-performing asset this year?

Gold? Steel? Copper? Oil?

It's something of a more pungent edible bulbous nature -- garlic.

In some parts of China, garlic prices almost quadrupled to as high as 9 yuan ($1.32) per kilogram since March.

Some think it's because farmers lost money last year with too much garlic on the market, so they decided to scale back by planting less.

Others think that because of the A(H1N1) influenza virus spreading, many believe that eating garlic helps keep people healthy, so an extraordinary amount of garlic is being consumed.

The BBC quoted garlic seller and eater Jiang Haiqu as saying, "Every dish needs garlic and it's a good disinfectant. People who eat it live longer than others."

Guo Dongliang, a garlic seller also said that with the rise of oil prices, transportation costs also contributed to higher prices of garlic.

Some even think there are people hording the white bulbs to intentionally raise prices.

But whatever the theory may be, China produces three-quarters of the world's garlic. So you may eventually have to pay small fortune for a pungent (and healthy) flavour.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Memories Can Betray the Truth

Last night I went to hear author Wang Gang (王刚) talk about his book English, which was released in English in April. It was originally published in Chinese in 2004.

Wang is considered an acclaimed author, born and raised in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

Dressed in a sweater and a long scarf elegantly draped around his neck, Wang apologized to the audience if he sounded sleepy as he had met up with a friend from Xinjiang the night before and they drank heavily so he was hung over. But he spoke poetically in a low voice in Chinese that was immediately translated into English.

His father went to Xinjiang in 1949, met his wife there and Wang was born in 1960. He learned how to play classical music on the flute and started writing stories. "I've lived 22 years in Beijing, but Xinjiang is my home," he says. "I don't dream about Beijing streets, but of my hometown of Urumqi."

However, when he was six years old, the Cultural Revolution began and for him and many of that generation, that decade has marked them in a different way from the generation before him. And his memories of that turbulent and violent period were recorded in the semi-autobiographical novel English.

He points out that those from the older generation write about the Cultural Revolution differently than him and his peers. "They describe it as the bad guys bullying the good people, which is basically them," he said, referring to the older generation. "They felt they were the victims. I on the other hand was six years old. I still felt guilt in my heart. They think to confess is not their business. But I think a child should confess."

When the Cultural Revolution began, Wang's parents were put in jail and he and his older brother wandered the streets as the schools were closed. They didn't have food so they would steal it. Sometimes they were caught and beaten up for it.

He says that the Cultural Revolution in Xinjiang and Beijing were the same -- except in Xinjiang there are Uygurs and 12 other minorities where everyone suffered together.

"I saw people beating up my dad and a Uygur who was a leader," Wang recalls. "Violence may happen to anyone. Everyone beat everyone. Then they all say they are victims. And then they ask, 'Why did it happen?'"

Wang says it was hard for him to remember what happened. "It took me eight years to write the novel [English], waiting for the details in my memory to surface," he said.

"Outside our window at home we could see the Ba Yi Middle School. Everyday I saw children older than me, about 14 or 15-years-old, beating their teachers. One female teacher was beaten to death. They left her body there and her husband came to collect it," he said.

"Not far from our house is the Urumqi River. And I saw a coffin on the bank of the river. It seemed huge in my memory. And I always saw someone kneeling next to the coffin. I never knew who was inside the coffin," he recalled.

Wang shrugs and says they just grew up like that at the time. "I can't helping thinking we were the freaks born during the Cultural Revolution," he said with a smile.

When he was told the Cultural Revolution was over, he wasn't even sure it was over. He said there was about five years of violence, which then calmed down. When he was 11, he learned to play the flute, playing pieces by Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Chopin. He said he was lucky that Mao's wife, Jiang Qing like instruments like this, as it gave an opportunity for poor kids to learn an instrument.

"For some writers, it is important to write about violence," he said. "I want to write like Mozart with tears in my eyes."

An audience member asked him about his reaction to the July 5 riots in Urumqi. In a roundabout way, Wang said he was very shocked, because when he was a child he played and fought with Uygurs, went to their homes to eat their food and knew some of their folk songs. He said he had many Uygur friends, even a next-door neighbour who was the vice mayor of Urumqi. They taught him about all the different trees, how to pick edible mushrooms and made him feel Urumqi was the brightest town in China because of the oil lamps Uygurs lit at night.

However, after the riots erupted, he called his Han Chinese and Uygur friends and heard different versions of what happened. He thought this contrasted with the Cultural Revolution, where everyone suffered together and after the tumultuous decade they lived peacefully together.

"Another friend called the other day from Xinjiang to say that Han Chinese don't eat at Uygur restaurants anymore and Uygurs won't go to Han Chinese residential areas," Wang reported.

He recalled two years ago going to Urumqi where he went to a bar and invited the people there for a round of drinks. Vodka was brought out and more drinking and dancing, together with Uygurs. In the end Uygur college students visiting from Beijing took him home. "Were they the same ones? I'm especially afraid of seeing blood, because of the Cultural Revolution," he said. "I don't want to face bloodshed again."

He sympathizes with many Uygurs who are so poor and work hard, only earning 1,000 RMB ($146.42) a year. "Who would have a peaceful life with 1,000 yuan a year?" he asked. While he hopes to see more of a middle class emerging in Xinjiang, he admits that perhaps material goods will not make them happy, as those in Beijing with what seem like good lives are not happy.

Han Chinese and Uygurs complain to him, he says, but points out the Uygur minority are the weaker group of people.

However, when asked if Wang could speak the Uygur language, he answered in this way:

"After July 5, some journalists interviewed me. They asked, 'If you treat Uygur people as your friends, why can't you speak their language? Why do they speak Chinese?' I was ashamed. It's unfair," he said.

So even while Wang, who was born in Xinjiang, grew up with and knows many Uygurs, believes the Han Chinese and Uygurs on the whole got along with each other. He still does not fundamentally understand the plight of Uygurs who want the freedom to practice their religion and culture and not be subjected to Chinese rule.

An audience member pointed out that Wang has a romanticized view of Xinjiang, and it seems he only wants to remember it that way, than see the brutal reality.