Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Working for the Company Off Hours

When you take a taxi, or go to a restaurant or buy something in China, you can get a receipt called fapiao (发票). It's not the regular bill that lists the items you bought or ordered, but a somewhat official looking document with a red printed stamp that only says the total amount of money spent and in most cases it says who the fapiao is addressed to. And if you're feeling lucky, you can scratch off a silver box that's sort of like a lottery. I have never figured out how that worked.

In my last workplace I was allowed to claim taxi fees as long as I handed in fapiao equal to the amount decided in my contract. That meant making sure I got a taxi receipt every time I took a cab.

I had to paste the fapiao onto pieces of paper which made it kind of like a primary school assignment complete with glue stick. Then I filled out a form with signatures and a few days later got the cash back.

In my current office, there are no such reimbursements.

Instead, the company here benefits at the expense of its employees, where they are expected to collect fapiao. I asked one of my colleagues what this was for, but she wouldn't give me a straight answer except that the monetary amount of the fapiao collected would be given back to the company in terms of subsidies or tax deductions, something like that. The mystery continues.

These fapiao could be almost any kind of receipts except for restaurants, and aside from taxi fapiao, had to be addressed to the company's formal name. Up until a month ago, all the Chinese employees were expected to turn in 2,000 yuan ($293) of fapiao -- bear in mind that they only make around 3,000 yuan a month in salary. Now after the Spring Festival, some of them have received slight raises and these days they have to turn in 2,500 yuan in fapiao.

If the government is looking for a way to boost domestic consumption, this is the way to do it. The staff here have to spend their hard-earned money so that their employer can get tax breaks or subsidies.

Those who live with their parents or husbands and wives can get access to their fapiao; those living on their own have to try to get these official receipts from everything they buy, including supermarkets and department stores.

And if employees don't turn in the 2,500 yuan in fapiao, they can't get their full salary.

Apart from the low wages, it sounds like the staff are getting an even shorter end of the stick.

The fapiao are collected so that the government knows the companies in question are paying their taxes, as every fapiao issued costs the company 5 percent in services charges. Which is why companies are reluctant to give them out so easily, and be able to declare less income, and thus less taxes.

Strange accounting methods, but it seems like that's how money goes around in China.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Reality of Depressed Wages

The other day I had lunch with a young colleague Xiao Zhu in her mid-20s with a masters degree.

She had just finished watching woju, the Snail House drama that she found very interesting to watch.

In it, two sisters try to scrape together money to buy an apartment in a fictional Chinese city, supposedly Shanghai. The older one manages to buy a place, but it is far out in the suburbs, so far it is practically in the next province.

Meanwhile the younger pretty sister flirts with an official in the hopes of getting money from him, and they end up having an affair. His wife knows about it, and he reasons that he is not cheating on her because she knows about it.

The ending is tragic. The wife finds out where the mistress lives and discovers she lives in a luxury apartment complete with all the furniture the wife had been hoping to buy, but considered too expensive. She and the pregnant mistress fight, causing the latter to have a miscarriage.

And when the official hears this news on the phone in the car, he has a car accident and dies.

He had fallen in love with his mistress and promised to look after her and her baby by arranging for them to go to the United States complete with a place to live in. However, only one person gets to make a new life, not three.

The true-to-life drama made Xiao Zhu very depressed.

"It's not the farmers who have a hard life now," she said. "It's people like me."

She went on to explain that children born in the post-80s had unrealistic burdens placed on them.

Even though many of them are university educated, they cannot get good-paying jobs. They prefer to be in the city, but renting an apartment can be expensive, leaving them little savings.

While her mother is still working and has a good danwei, or work unit benefits left over from the previous generation, Xiao Zhu is concerned she will have to financially support her father as her parents divorced when she was young.

The odd thing is that her older sister has married well, doing lots of travel; I asked her if she could stay with her older sister to save on rent, but she declined, only saying it was not convenient.

Meanwhile she will have barely enough to support herself. So how can she even afford to buy an apartment? Even if she and her boyfriend get married, they still can't afford a place with their own money.

"Having a home is such an important cultural aspect of a Chinese family," Xiao Zhu said. "If you don't have a home, you don't have a place to live. When you rent, you are constantly moving. This is not a place you call your own home."

This is the dilemma of all young people in China today.

While they are considered the hope of the future, the next generation have too much pressure hoisted on them.

Their salaries are artificially depressed by the government to keep exports low, making it very difficult for them to earn better wages to save enough money for a down payment.

While I tried to encourage Xiao Zhu to focus on her career and that the money would come later, she could only think about never being able to afford an apartment, followed by having to financially look after her aging parents...

Hope isn't enough to lift their spirits from their predicament -- money can solve most of their problems, which is a frustrating message to send to young people who have no hope of earning more in the near future.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Problems? What Problems?

Reporters in China have one of the most dangerous occupations in the country since getting on the wrong side with censors can effectively end your media career.

They have to attend regular "training sessions" which are effectively Marxism lectures stressing how news organizations must prioritize their work in terms of the Party first, the people second.

With that in mind, the government, or rather the Publicity Bureau, better known as the Propaganda Department effectively controls the media in terms of what they can and cannot write. The rumour goes that only phone calls are made to avoid leaving a paper trace, but apparently Liu Shunyan, director of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China recently faxed a list of topics banned from coverage to all major newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

They are:

Yuan revaluation
Corruption and problems in Xinjiang
Corruption and problems in Tibet
Deaths of four children and sickened more than 70 others in Shanxi from hepatitis B vaccines
The difficulties faced by students in finding jobs after graduation
Food safety
The rising price of cooking oil
US criticism of China
High medical fees
Disparity of wealth
Reform of the registration or hukou system
Forecasts of appointments for Communist Party leaders
Expansion of autonomy at universities
The collapse of school buildings in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and delays in reconstruction
The beating death of a steel plant president in Jilin Province
Collusion between police and gangsters in Chongqing
The rising real estate prices and housing shortage
Real estate developers trying to increase land prices

An official at a Chinese newspaper said, "Most of the subjects that people are interested in have been banned. We don't know what to report on."

Really, the topics mentioned above are the ones that the public wants answers to and now the media can't even try to help people find the truth.

With media bans like this one which is considered to be even more extensive than before the 2008 Olympics, combined with Google's ongoing joust with the government, foreign companies frustrated at the lack of progress in penetrating the Chinese market, and people wanting to have the domain name .cn must register in person, has only made things worse for everyone all round.

By further controlling the Internet in China, it will eventually become shut off from the rest of the world and the country will have one big intranet.

The media bans and further Internet controls are just making it harder for people to find the truth in China; but it makes those more determined even more so, who hopefully will be a more powerful force demanding to know what is really going on.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Successful Contact

We can all breathe a sigh of relief now... Reuters managed to track down human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng who is currently at a Buddhist retreat in Wutai mountain, in Shanxi Province.

He is apparently well and did not answer too many questions by cell phone in a strained interview that Reuters hinted he might be under police surveillance.

"I want to live a quiet life for a while," said Gao. Asked if he planned to join his family in the United States, Gao replied, "It's not that easy."

Apparently he had been released half a year ago and went to this mountain retreat.

One of Gao's colleagues, Li Heping, confirmed it was him, though he too could not get much more information from Gao either.

Perhaps some reporters are going to try to confirm his actual location, but in the meantime this ends the curious round about way the government has been dealing with Gao's case that raised international concerns.

It's strange why the government didn't explain where Gao was six months ago, and why he was allowed to go to this mountain retreat or was he forced there?

How long does Gao have to be there and will he return to his law practice in some capacity?  Or has the government succeeded in shutting up one more dissenting voice?

There are more questions than answers. But at least we now know he is alive.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fact of the Day: Car Accident Stats

In my almost three years I am very lucky to say I have yet to be in a car accident, let alone witness a horrific one (knock on wood).

Nevertheless, with over 1,000 new cars on the road in Beijing everyday, one has to wonder how many accidents the city has and then multiply it by the whole country.

As most people only started driving a few years ago, it's almost as if most of them are like teenagers in the West who just got their driver's license.

But in reality most people here either passed the test or they paid someone to do it for them.

With those frightening thoughts, here are the latest statistics from the National Bureau of Statistics:

  • 2008 saw 265,000 traffic accidents across the country, killing 73,000 lives, injuring 305,000, and causing direct property losses of 1.01 billion RMB ($147.919 million).
  • 2009 saw 238,000 car accidents, claiming 68,000 lives, injuring 275,000 and resulting in direct property losses of 910 million RMB ($133.257 million).

Hopefully 2010 will bring those numbers down further...

Friday, March 26, 2010

Almost an Epidemic

On Wednesday The New England Journal of Medicine released a study that shows China topping the world diabetes count, with twice as many people with the disease than originally estimated.

The study said 92.4 million Chinese are afflicted with Type-2 diabetes mostly caused by high-calorie diets and sedentary lifestyles. Earlier studies had thought the number was 43.2 million, while India is projected to have 50.8 million.

Probably the most frightening part of the survey is that most of the people in China do not know they have the disease and have not gotten tested.

"This study shows that the global burden of diabetes is far larger than previously estimated," said David Whiting, a disease tracker with the Brussels-based International Diabetes Federation. "It's a wake-up call for governments and policy-makers to take action on diabetes."

However, one wonders what China will do about the situation in the immediate future, as the country will lose $558 billion of national income due to diabetes and heart disease from 2005 to 2015, the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum said in a 2008 report.

"The aging of the population, urbanization, nutritional changes, and decreasing levels of physical activity, with a consequent epidemic of obesity, have probably contributed to the rapid increase in the diabetes burden in the Chinese population," said Yang Wenjing, head of endocrinology at the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing.

So while doctors agree and are concerned it's a massive problem, what can be done?

Education, education, education.

It's very surprising how the government does not use its own media effectively to educate the public about health care, from what a healthy diet consists of to the benefits of exercise to how they can avoid catching viruses mostly from proper hygiene practices.

And now with diabetes fast becoming an epidemic, it is an ideal opportunity for the government to tell people through the media what diabetes is, what the symptoms are and to be tested that could be subsidized.

With all this education, the government can be promoting preventive medicine, thus cutting down on health care costs for everyone.

A local friend told me that even in Chinese newspapers, there are hardly any public service announcements or articles explaining to people how to maintain healthy lifestyles or tips on healthy eating or exercise.

It is in the government's best interests to have a healthy population, thus a productive population... which could result in even better GDP figures.

Seems pretty obvious that it makes sense to promote healthy lifestyles, don't you?

But it seems political rhetoric is paramount, not people's lives.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Heart-Pounding Health Care

Almost two weeks ago, one of my foreign colleagues, an Indian man in his late 50s, checked into Peking Union Medical College Hospital in Wangfujing complaining of chest pains.

It turned out he had a heart attack and after further tests and examinations, it was found that three of his arteries were blocked, one of them for a long time. The doctors suggested he add stents in his arteries. However, when the doctors performed the procedure, what they originally thought were only 2mm stents needed turned out to be 9mm and the operation took longer than expected so only one artery was opened up.

One of my colleagues went to visit him on the weekend. Most locals consider Peking Union one of the best hospitals in Beijing, but it seemed to be dreary and dirty, as the washrooms had no soap and there was lots of dust in the hallways. Also, the cardiac unit only allowed one visitor per patient. This was reinforced by only giving one pair of slippers to the visitor who had to remove his shoes at the entrance of the unit. My friend asked why this was the policy, but got no better explanation from the nurse than that it would avoid exciting the patient too much. Right.

Nevertheless, he seemed in good spirits and was resting in order to prepare for the second operation, assuming the health insurance company would work things out with the hospital.

It turns out not.

Although he has already paid some 30,000RMB ($4,393) up until now, he must pay 200,000RMB ($29,290) for the second procedure, or at least 100,000RMB up front.

Otherwise the doctor isn't rolling you into the operation room.

While $29,000 is probably relatively inexpensive for a heart procedure, it's a lot of money for people in China to have in their bank accounts, let alone most foreigners here who don't earn that much money. 

The situation makes one quickly realize why there is no domestic consumption in China beyond what average people really need -- because they may need to pay for a 200,000 RMB procedure one day and must save every cent, or mao and jiao for it.

It is also a stark reminder not to ever get seriously sick in China -- a great motivator to exercise regularly and eat right -- and definitely be careful crossing the street.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

New Wheels to Ride In

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the media were transported around in new buses, either from the media centre to the venues, or from the media centre to the media village or hotels scattered around the city.

And now almost two years later this giant fleet of buses are finally being used in the city.

A few weeks ago the bus transport system started replacing a number of aging buses with these new ones. For example the 117 bus I usually take to work used to be a long accordion bus that seemed to groan and feel as if its engine was about to go kaput at any moment.

Now the 117 buses are these former Olympics buses and they run more frequently too so they aren't too packed at any one time. There are less seats than the accordion buses, but there is also room for a wheelchair if and when the public transport system decides it will take the extra minute to load up a disabled person.

While this is all great, why did it take so long to refit these buses? They don't look too much different from the media buses except for adding the coin collection box and electronic card swiping system.

Perhaps it's just good to say better later than never?

Word of the Day: Hacker

With a lot of talk about Google and hacking, it's interesting to note that the word hacker in Chinese is 黑客 hei (1) ke (4) or literally "black guest", and that's basically what hackers do... illegally get into your account or system.

It's neat to find the Chinese characters perfectly describe the word and sound like it in English.

And so for fans of The Matrix, the movie is 黑客帝国, heikediguo or "hacker kingdom".

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Continuing to Take a Virtual Stand

The chess game between Google and the Chinese government continues with the search engine giant making its latest move, saying it isn't pulling out of the country, but its URL suspended and so users are directed to

Despite Google saying that its search results weren't filtered, they may all be listed, but when you try to click on them, as it says, "This page not found". That's because the Chinese government is still actively censoring the results. So basically Google is back where it was before.

This morning the Xinhua News Agency accused Google of politicizing the issue -- censorship -- and reiterated that if Google wanted to continue doing business in China it had to follow Chinese law.

In an editorial called "Google Don't Politicize Yourself", it says that China has continued its reform and opening up policies for three decades and "its stance for keeping the door open remains unchanged."

Which "door" is this editorial referring to? The door to enter China or the door to do business in China?

It goes on to say:

However, regulation on the Internet is a sovereign issue. The Chinese government regulates the Internet according to laws and will improve its regulation step by step according to its own needs. It is a pure internal affair.

Regrettably, Google's recent behaviors show that the company not just aims at expanding business in China, but is playing an active role in exporting culture, value and ideas.

It is unfair for Google to impose its own value and yardsticks on Internet regulation to China, which has its own time-honored tradition, culture and value.

Whenever a company comes into a country, it does export culture, values and ideas. For example, drinking coffee is not a Chinese habit. But this has changed in recent years, as more young Chinese people head to Starbucks for a latte or cappuccino. And with it comes the coffee culture of kicking back, hanging out with friends or sitting in the shop reading a book.

It's very similar with Google.

If China was like almost every other country that basically allows most things to be seen on the Internet, we wouldn't be discussing this issue.

But because the Chinese government has an inherent need to censor online content, its sophisticated filtering system and policing on the Internet make it one of the most controlling ones in the world. The government claims it's to protect children from pornography, but from trying out the search results, it appears to be blocking more than just dirty pictures.

Censorship prevents its own people from getting access to information they not only want but need to know. Nineteen-eighty-nine is only one of them.

It's interesting to see Google make this move as one wonders how many more cards it has left to play before it physically leaves the country, if that is in the contingency plan.

More importantly, this ongoing dispute between Google and China has made foreign companies think twice about doing business here. For example now, companies in hi-tech industries are expected to hand over their technology in order to continue doing business here. Before Chinese people and companies would find ways to steal intellectual property from foreign companies and then build something similar. But now the government is outright demanding that these commodities be given to China.

How is that a level playing field?

The myth of one billion customers in China in the 1980s quickly evaporated; foreign companies here have quickly realized that this is not true. Nevertheless many continue to try to forge their way into the market, and now they are encountering more obstacles put out by the Chinese government which is conducting its own kind of protectionism -- an act it claims it abhors.

Google's stand is admirable its latest one that definitely wins PR points.

"We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision," David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer wrote in a blog post, "though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services."

Loyal Google users here are pleased that the company continues to take a strong stand, and it has even inspired some in Hong Kong to stand up to China when it tries to meddle in the former British colony's affairs.

While the Chinese government has stated in black in white what the rules are, it's hard not to support Google in its bid to push for greater freedom in Chinese cyberspace.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sandy Precautions

The sandstorm subsided yesterday, but it came back again this morning, though not as severe as Saturday when the sky was yellow.

Today the sky looked overcast, but slightly fuzzy which is why I dug out a surgical mask to wear to work.

At the bus stop only a few people wore masks, and one woman had a bright fuchsia veil wrapped around her head to protect her from the sand. Several people put hands over their mouths in a feeble attempt to protect their mouths and noses from getting sand in them.

The current sandstorm has covered 16 Chinese provinces, originating from Mongolia and has spread down to Taiwan, Japan, and now South Korea.

On Saturday the pollution was so bad in the Chinese capital that the Beijing Meteorological Bureau ranked the air quality at level 5 which is the most hazardous pollution level.

Today it wasn't so bad, but still pretty nasty out there.

The sandstorms have also gone as far south as Hong Kong which recorded its worst pollution levels today, ranging from 450 to 500, when a reading of 100 is already considered bad.

With Beijing, at least there is some wind, but in Hong Kong, residents there are stuck breathing the smog-filled air.

While I haven't seen sandstorms of this magnitude in the almost three years I have lived here, they are a sure sign that the Chinese government's battle against desertification isn't very effective. While the government likes to boast about how many trees it has planted every year, there are not enough efforts made to fight deforestation and drought.

Southwest China is suffering its worst drought in 40 years and some are blaming it on the local governments' desire for short term monetary gains by selling forests to foresters who leave hillsides bare. While there are efforts to replant trees, they aren't growing properly or have roots deep enough to hold the land together. And will anyone be punished for leaving millions of people without enough water to sustain themselves, let alone their crops?

In the meantime we may another day of sand blowing in Beijing before it subsides. We hope.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Where is Gao Zhisheng?

Where is Gao Zhisheng?

If anyone knows, please let us know.

He's a self-taught human rights lawyer, who in 2001 was named by the Ministry of Justice as one of China's top 10 lawyers.

But since February 4, 2009 he has "disappeared" and the Chinese government will not explain where he is.

In between the stubborn silence there are bits of conflicting reports from the authorities who either don't have their stories straight or wish to put human rights groups and journalists on a wild goose chase.

Last September they told his brother he was "missing", which was meant to mean that he was dead or badly beaten he couldn't be shown in public; another said Gao was where he should be -- in Urumqi working, but none of his family members have heard from him in Xinjiang. And most recently Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said that Gao has been charged with subversion without going into detail.

Jerome Cohen, a China law expert and part of Gao's international pro bono legal team has co-written an op-ed demanding the Chinese government show Gao to prove his existence.

Perhaps, given the Chinese government's flagrant disregard of its own law, a call for his release seems pointless. So, we instead also ask the government to do something much easier — produce Mr. Gao to an impartial observer, such as an official from the United Nations or the International Committee of the Red Cross, to verify his well-being, provide details of Mr. Gao's alleged conviction for "subversion," and provide family access.

What has Gao done? Yes he has ruffled feathers, but he is doing according to Chinese law. He has stood up for the rights of migrant workers and even Falun Gong members. He is only doing it because he sees people's rights infringed upon and uses the law to help them.

What did he get in return? He was interrogated by the police, beaten and tortured. He wrote the account and published it, talking about being sexually assaulted, including toothpicks in his genitals and electric shocks.

His family has suffered too. His teenage daughter was so mentally distraught having police following her everywhere that she couldn't even bear going to school anymore.

That's when his wife had enough. Without Gao's knowledge, she took their two children and they made a perilous escape out of the country through Thailand to the United States where they are now.

A month after that Gao disappeared.

So where is he?

Journalists have been told flat out not to ask about him anymore.

The other day after several questions about Gao, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, "I will not answer you," adding "so I hope you will give up such efforts."

The wrong words to say to dogged reporters.

The questions will continue.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Strange Sight

Last night when I was lying in bed I could have sworn I heard heavy rain outside, as we have had a few light showers and I thought perhaps the big one had arrived.

But this morning I pulled back the curtains, and the sky was yellow.

Yes, yellow.

It turns out a big sand storm from Inner Mongolia had blown into Beijing and coated everything with a thin layer of fine sand.

Before I came to Beijing I had heard of these sand storms, but never really experienced it before as more trees had been planted to cut down on desertification.

However, waking up to a yellow sky seemed ominous.

A friend of mine remarked that seeing the sky made him wonder if that's the scenery he'd see if he was waking up on Mars.


Walking outside late morning it was very windy and you could taste sand in your mouth. How appetizing.

But later in the afternoon the sand blowing had subsided and the skies cleared up.

Wonder what tomorrow will look like...

Friday, March 19, 2010

sweet healthy options

Around my office there aren't many healthy food options around, as in serving whole wheat noodles or brown rice. There is a Subway nearby, but despite the few times I have tried the subs filled with deli meat, lettuce, tomatoes and a special sauce, the taste isn't that appetizing.

There are a few places I like to go to, including one that serves "cross the bridge noodles" or 过桥米线 (guoqiao mixian), and a Vietnamese restaurant where I have beef pho and spring rolls. Or for Cantonese fare, I hit Herbal Cafe for their eight-hour simmering soups and wonton noodles or other dishes with a bowl of rice.

So it was refreshing to find out that there's a frozen yogurt place that just opened up last week near our office and just across from Shin Kong Place.

It's called Milk Inn or Maiqi Gongfang, a bright red place that has two floors. Walking in, you just think the small space is the shop, but actually there's marble steps at the back leading to a spacious seating area upstairs.

Right now you can only get the milk-flavoured yogurt and can choose from two sizes, medium or large. If there are only two sizes, why not call them small and large?

The medium cup is 15RMB, the large 20RMB, not including toppings which are 2RMB for one, and 5RMB for three.

This is where customers can either go healthy all the way or indulge, as the toppings range from cookies and gummi bears to mixed nuts and fruits like cantaloupe, pineapple and strawberry.

And yes -- I was good. I tried a medium cup with chopped mango, raspberries and blueberries. Blueberries are an uncommon sight here, as they are quite expensive in western grocery stores so it was a treat to have them in my dessert treat.

I headed upstairs which featured white chairs, tables and floor, and settled into my frozen yogurt.

The yogurt is produced in China from the company's own ranch in Hohot, Inner Mongolia. That ensures quality control and the yogurt has that tangy after taste that's just a touch tart. The frozen yogurt isn't rock hard but not creamy either, which is fine. The chopped mango made the yogurt a bit sweeter and it was great having frozen blueberries and raspberries in it, just like home.

This place will definitely be busy in the summer, a great healthy way to cool down in the humid heat.

Milk Inn
Blue Castle Building
No. 3 Xidawang Road
Chaoyang District
8599 7329

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Not Quite Uzbek

Last Friday two friends and I headed to an Uzbek restaurant south of Sanlitun, in between the Tuanjiehu and Hujialou stations. It's called Shash and the dining experience was more than we expected.

The restaurant can be hard to find, but luckily it's next to the Saint Angel Hotel otherwise we'd be lost in a maze of apartment blocks tucked away from the Third Ring Road. The restaurant has an impressive building facade, made with brick with an intricate design that has an Arabic influence.

Then inside you walk into a cavernous two-storey place, complete with a stage and an upstairs dining/viewing area, like dinner theatre complete with balconies held up with fake columns verging on gaudiness.

The strange thing is that for a Friday night the place was not very busy, the first floor practically empty, and then upstairs a few private rooms taken. The waitress explained that the non-smoking area was next to the private rooms, but the patrons of the private rooms usually smoke, so she suggested we sit in the smoking area on the other side of the room. Huh? Why not put the smoking area with the private rooms?

Nevertheless we sit down with a good view looking down at the stage and admire the ceiling which again has an intricate Arabic star design in colours that seem fanciful in purple, turquoise, white, yellow and gold.

The menu is quite extensive and it turns out Uzbek cuisine is very similar to Xinjiang and Shash also happens to be a halal restaurant.

The food is... OK, the Uzbek dumplings had very thick skins -- this isn't Din Tai Fung -- and the kebabs, both lamb and fish are alright, nothing you can't get anywhere else. However, the pumpkin baozi, or giant steamed buns, but were actually like dumplings were pretty good.

We ordered a rice pilaf which was quite delicious, with beef and tomato mixed with rice with raisins and a kind of white bean, very similar to a Xinjiang dish. The Greek salad was a small serving with small cubes of feta, cucumber, tomato and black pitted olives. There was also an appetizer of roasted eggplant topped with finely diced garlic, a slice of tomato garnished with chopped parsley.

By the time we started eating the "Uzbek culture show" began with live music generated from two guys, one having his scraggly hair pulled back into a small ponytail. They didn't really perform Uzbek music because some of them were Chinese songs a la Teresa Teng.

But then the lights dimmed and lively music came on... and a bellydancer came out -- with a candelabra with lit candles -- on her head.

She jiggled and wiggled her body to the music without letting her head move. People from the private rooms came out to watch the spectacle of flesh-baring costumes. It didn't seem quite Uzbek to me.

That was not all, as another woman came out doing more bellydancing, this time thankfully minus the candles.

The Chinese men were either oggling at the dancers or filming it on their cellphones; Chinese women recorded it as well, probably wondering if they could copy the moves to spice up things in the bedroom.

It was such a strange choice of entertainment, jarring with our expectations that we quickly left the restaurant -- or fled -- during the musical interlude before the dancers came back again.

My friend calls it the "Uzbek Hooters place" and I have to agree.

10 Xiangjun Beili, 4th alley next to Saint Angel Hotel
Chaoyang District
5190 7230

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gripe of the Day: Smoky Elevators

This morning I got into the elevator to go to the gym and there was the distinct smell of cigarette smoke.

Although there is a sign in elevators here that have a diagonal line going through a cigarette and "No Smoking" in Chinese and English, I've seen men walk in with a lit cigarette in hand as they ride up or down. They aren't puffing on it, but in a confined space, the smell is bad enough.

Can they not butt out before going into an elevator? Do they really have to have a white stick in their hands or mouths every waking moment?

Obviously the "No Smoking" signs are a passive deterrent in China where most people think they are above the rules or that rules are meant to be broken.

So why not install smoke detectors inside elevators, just like the toilets in airplanes?

That way when someone walks into an elevator with a lit cigarette, the smoke detector goes off and that immediately stops the elevator. Then the accused can turn beet red and everyone else can stare at them in anger because no one will be able to get out until the elevator is manually started up again.

Pretty soon no one will bring a lit cigarette into an elevator and we can all breathe a relatively clean sigh of relief.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Brand Worship Continues

Every year China celebrates World Consumer Rights Day on March 15. There are lots of stories in the news about Chinese customers who have been swindled or didn't get what they paid for.

Usually the focus is on domestically-made goods, which everyone knows aren't high quality, but in an effort to feel more righteous, foreign brands were targeted this year.

After a two-month inspection by the Zhejiang Administration of Industry and Commerce (ZJAIC), the quality of imported goods from 30 internationally-recognized brands including Versace and Hermes were found to be below regulation standards.

ZJAIC's inspection found that for example, Versus jeans, Zara trousers, and Hugo Boss trousers were found to have problems with colour fastness; Versus jeans and Versace trousers had problems with low-fibre content; Verri jeans had excessive formaldehyde and Daniel Hechter and Hugo Boss trousers didn't meet the national standard pH value of between 4.0 and 7.5.

Then the report says some of these clothes retail for tens of thousands of renminbi, with Hermes trousers for 7,000RMB ($1,025).

It's a lesson to show slaves to brand names that these clothes can be dangerous not only for your health, but also your wallet.

"We want foreign brands to know we will conduct an equal level of monitoring on foreign products, and not just give the green light as we did in the past," said Ye Jianhua, spokesman for ZJAIC.

Interestingly there were no checks on where the fabrics came from... any guesses?

Yu Mingyang, professor of brand marketing at Shanghai Jiaotong University believes international brand names will have tarnished images as a result of the "poor quality".

"It is high time foreign brands stepped out of the shrines of worship and I believe in three to five years time, foreign brands will be less popular in China," he said.

While international name brands create an aura of prestige for the customer, it is up to the consumer to decide if they want to buy into that or not.

And judging by the amount of fakes available in the markets here, the worship of brand names isn't going to end anytime soon. The real stuff are tangible tokens of success, to show others they have arrived.

In the meantime, shouldn't China focus more on the quality of its own domestic goods? Perhaps there are too many complaints to mention in one report...

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Innovation Gap

Chinese parents put a lot of pressure on their only child to perform well academically because good grades means higher chances of getting into a good university. If they manage to pass the gaokao (高考) or college entrance exam, then four years of study, it's the pressure of finding a job.

The New York Times recently held a discussion about the employment situation, particularly for fresh university graduates. Entitled "Educated and Fearing the Future in China", five China experts were asked to give their own reasons why these young people were having a tough time breaking into the work force.

The five gave a range of reasons, from the problems of getting a hukou or household registration in big cities, as university students who study in major cities are entitled to a hukou, but it is difficult to get; a greater demand for manual labour than brains and not enough vocational schools; more job opportunities in less developed areas than major cities; and universities not giving graduates the skills and knowledge they need in the real world.

I can most associate with the last reason since I have been working with young people, many of them fresh grads on a daily basis for almost three years.

As Professor Yasheng Huang of political economy and international management at Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts School of Technology says:

The Chinese educational system is terrible at producing workers with innovative skills for the Chinese economy. It produces people who memorize existing facts rather than discovering new facts; who fish for existing solutions rather than coming up with new ones; who execute orders rather than inventing new ways of doing things. In other words they do not solve problems for their employers.

It's this skill of critical thinking which is not taught in universities, or most young people do not inherently have. In my line of work it is important for people to look critically at things and question them, and then find the answers to these questions.

However, many of these young people take everything they read as is and don't even stop to question anything or consider other perspectives on the topic or issue. When you point out other possibilities or concerns, this is a revelation to them, but this unfortunately doesn't turn on the light bulb to further develop their critical thinking skills in the near future.

This quick acceptance of the way things are has been ingrained since they were born and through the school system. Students are expected to obey and not question anything. Then when they get to work, they are again expected to follow their bosses orders. However, once in a while these superiors will throw them a problem they themselves can't answer and expect their underlings to solve it. That's when they are thrown into a tizzy and start dredging up things that were done before.

Another is the surprising laziness of many young people I have encountered. While they are not the majority, there are a good many who don't seem to have any kind of work ethic and expect to be able to tag along instead of complete what was assigned to them. There have been many instances where I have had to chastise young staff about paying more attention to detail and being more on the ball -- many times over. I feel like a parent or a teacher having to tell them the rules of the game of life, when their own parents should have instilled a kind of work ethic in them years ago.

So for people to think all Chinese are industrious is not true, especially the younger generation.

But that's also partly because they see how the world is mostly run by guanxi or relationships based on who you know rather than merit. That leaves them with either a strong sense of determination to make it their own way, or in most cases, a sense of hopelessness.

It is this generation that is most worrying, as in about two decades from now they will start leading the country's companies, start their own businesses or have civil service careers. This lack of ambition will reflect poorly on China and in turn lead to an unproductive country.

If today's leaders want a brighter future, putting an end to corruption would show its young people that getting an education, academic or vocational is worth something, and reforming the hukou system to make it easier for people to transfer around China so they can start working towards a better life.

Then last but not least, promoting freer thinking or at least critical thinking will bring about innovation and productivity. If President Hu Jintao is calling for more innovation, it has to start from the beginning.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Picture of the Day: Snow Again

This morning I woke up and thought it was overcast, the sky looking ominously gray.

However, when I pulled back the curtains, it was snowing! In the middle of March!

We had a short dump of the white stuff on March 8 and meteorologists had thought that was the last snowfall. Not.

I had to venture out to get my hair cut and get groceries and bundled up in my winter coat and boots. Luckily traffic was pretty light and not many people taking buses either.

I returned home before the snow stopped, around 4:30pm. The snow didn't stick to the ground, but there's a dirty slush on the sidewalks making it slippery and many giant puddles have formed on the streets as Beijing doesn't have a good sewer system to drain water.

Tonight it will be minus 2 degrees, which means some of the slush will freeze, but come tomorrow it's supposed to be a balmy 6 degrees.

Wake me up when spring is here...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Desperate for a Story

There's one more day before the two sessions, (两会) liang hui end tomorrow.

And besides the proposals delegates bring up, ranging from the repetitious in terms of suggesting things that have already been made into law to the strange, like making divorce harder to decrease divorce numbers, there isn't much drama or action going on in the Great Hall of the People.

The media find it hard enough as it is to constantly pan the gigantic room that is mostly filled with men with desperate comb-overs and ultra-conservative dress.

So the next best thing cameramen and photographers find are women from ethnic minorities who are forced to wear elaborate but colourful costumes. These people only get attention for their fashions, not for who they are or their proposals. It reinforces the belief that the National People's Congress is a show.

And even better are shots and stories of attractive women who are either participating in the event or covering it.

The Chinese media seem to zoom in on attractive delegates and to avoid being too sexist, talk about these women's accomplishments and proposals.

At the same time they talk about stunning-looking reporters who ask questions at the massive press conferences or more recently about a female assistant from the Xinhua News Agency using her good looks and physically manhandling delegates to do on-the-spot interviews.

Is this what the two sessions have been reduced to? Over a week of coverage based on superficial looks and the media talking about its own colleagues covering the event?

It only shows how monotonous these lawmaking sessions are and how desperate the media are in finding stories.

If everyone weren't so tight-lipped about everything and just learn to talk about nothing, then at least the media would have something.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Personifying China's Unhappiness

Wang Xiaodong (王小东) is a complex character. The man in his mid-50s has dishevelled hair, and his left hand is in a fist as he holds a microphone with his right hand. As people ask him questions, he becomes more and more animated, his voice becomes louder and stronger, with a defiant tone.

He is of the co-authors of China is Unhappy 中国不高兴, a best-selling book that came out a year ago in March 2009. In it several writers contribute essays talking about things like the overseas protests during the Olympic torch relay, the west's assertions that China is polluting the world, and how the west is unwilling to give key technology to China to develop further.

Wang probably felt he should be in a defensive mode, as he was in a room full of foreign journalists and boldly claimed they write lies.


"Western media are less reliable now," he said. "When I was 10, 11 years old, I would listen to the BBC and VOA. We were taking a risk at the time because it was illegal to listen to foreign media. But to us we were listening to enemy radio stations.

"The reason we took the risk is because we believed their reporting was truthful and objective," he recalls. "But later when we grew up we realized they lied quite often."

It is this ingrained belief that has spurred Wang to think that foreign reporters either do not know China or are not doing their jobs properly.

"This especially happened in 2008 and 2009 during the Xinjiang and Tibet riots," Wang said. "The foreign media published fake information and pictures, where a Han person was beaten by a Uighur terrorist but it was captioned the other way around."

He adds that he personally experienced being misreported when he was interviewed by the BBC.

"I said 'I hope China can build an army to defeat anyone anywhere in the world', but this was translated and published as 'conquer anyone in the world'," Wang told his audience. "There is a difference between 'defeat' and 'conquer', as 'conquer' can mean taking land and enslaving others. The reporter was implying I wanted to start war.

"A friend saw the article and asked me, 'Did you say this?' and I said yes but it was translated wrong. He said, 'If you did, you should be 30 years younger.'"

Wang also contends the west is very ignorant about China and the foreign media should help them understand the country better, not reinforce their misunderstanding.

However, he doesn't give suggestions on how foreign journalists can increase their understanding of China and didn't have much to say when these overseas reporters explained that they were barred by the government from going to places like Tibet and Kashgar to see firsthand what is going on. He only said that he could not answer for the Chinese government even though he wished they could see for themselves the truth.

Nevertheless he finds it irresponsible of foreign media to not print the truth. "Some foreign journalists tell me that what was published was not what they wrote, that it was changed by an editor," Wang recalled. "Whoever is responsible is not good. Not only are they losing the trust of the Chinese people, but also making the world a more dangerous place."

He also blames foreign reporters for painting two pictures of the Chinese. The first is that the Chinese people hate their government and love western democracy. The second is that Chinese people are like Nazis in that they are nationalistic and love war. To him, these two pictures are a contradiction, and both don't reflect at all what Chinese people think and believe in.

Wang's voice rises when he talks about the Xinjiang riots last July. He again charged that foreign reports were untrue, with some media outlets later adding corrections of apologies in misreporting. He doesn't understand that though journalists strive to get the facts right, sometimes they are not available to them at deadline, or because of short deadlines will miss out on things.

"We call Uighurs terrorists," he declared, "while the foreign media call them freedom fighters. What the foreign reporters said started off as peaceful protests were not true. They were violent all along -- they even took children and killing them and hung their corpses on meat hooks," he said. "You didn't see these pictures published. The number of Han people killed may be even higher than what the government said," Wang insisted.

This sounded like a conspiracy theory. Someone asked how he knew all this and he responded that his aunt and her family live in Urumqi as well as some friends who told him these things. One wonders where they got that information from.

A book he talked a lot about is called Chine-Afrique, written by three European journalists, athough it is mistranslated as China's Africa in English.

Apparently this book is near impossible to find in China according to Wang which has led some to believe the government has banned the tome.

But Wang defends it, saying China has done a lot of big projects in Africa that people need to know about. "In fact China should worry about foreigners not reading the book," he said. The last line of the book, Wang paraphrases is that "Africa was derailed from humankind and China brought it back to life."

Wang admits not all the projects China is involved in in Africa are humanitarian. "They are done by Chinese companies for their own profits under the leadership of invisible hands," he said cryptically. The audience laughed.

Western countries haven't done the hard work that China has in helping to build the African continent, Wang says, like for example construct a mobile communication system in Ethiopia, with Chinese engineers willing to withstand the heat and tough conditions, while western ones chickened out.

He says China is different from the United States. "The US says everyone should learn from them, but China believes it has the right to be different," Wang says. "In Chinese history, there was a belief that Chinese civilization was the best and everyone else should learn from China's political system. Either become civilized or be savages was the slogan," he explained.

But today, Wang says, no one thinks China's system is good. "If people thought it was the best system they would tell others to follow us.

However at the same time, Wang believes China should take greater leadership in the world when it has a better political system. "It should be better than the west," he proclaimed. "When we achieve that then we can be like the US today, telling others to follow us, but not with the system we have now."

In another twist, Wang is in favour of democracy in its western sense, from rule of law to freedom of the press and freedom of speech as well as elections.

Wang sounds like a first generation product of the Communist Party of China. He doesn't think Chinese media is too biased but also would like his government to invest less in US dollars and treasuries and put the money back into Chinese infrastructure. He has idealistic views of what China should be, but has no proper road map on how to get there. While there was no discussion of domestic issues, he didn't seem to want to admit, particularly with the two riots that there was anything wrong with China's domestic policies with regards to minorities.

He claims China is unhappy because foreign countries are picking on his homeland, but he does not understand that criticism is healthy -- it is what can lead to progress and fulfilling the demands of the people. Wang is simultaneously arrogant and proud, insecure and humble. Just like China. 

The question now is, is every other person in China just like Wang?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Addendum to The Dangers of Truth

Zhang Hong was the deputy editor in chief of the Economic Observer website who was sacked from his job this week for his major part in an editorial that was published on March 1. Here is the English translation with the original Chinese below.

I Am a Moderate Adviser

By Zhang Hong

After the 13 newspapers jointly published the editorial "Request for Representatives at the Two Meetings to Hasten Reform of the Household Registration System," major repercussions ensued, and there were a great many conjectures about the back story behind the appearance of this editorial. As a party involved, I think it is necessary to discuss the context of this event through the appropriate media that is able to report on it. Some have commented that this event should go down in media history, I myself don't believe it's that significant but I want to write an explanation out of my sense of duty to readers.

The original plan for the joint editorial was hatched last year when the Economic Observer joined the Guardian newspaper in a joint editorial on climate change that was published by 56 media outlets. At the time I was responsible for communicating with the Guardian, discussing and translating the joint editorial, and developed a fairly deep understanding of the entire process. Afterward the idea sprung up of whether we could publish a similar type of editorial domestically.

The suggestion to use the household registration issue as a focal point came from another colleague. In choosing this as the topic, it's important to understand that hukou reform has already seen breakthroughs on many fronts, many cities are speeding it up, and Premier Wen Jiabao and high level central government officials have stated their position on this item of reform on many public occasions. We believed that publishing an editorial on this topic would be in line with the direction of Chinese government reforms and with the broad public interest, and that the risks were not too great. Some foreign news agencies have said that the order for this may have come down from high levels of government, but in fact it was not at all like that. This was the product of a few editors working behind closed doors, but the stir it created went beyond our initial expectations.

Moreover, we decided to use the two meetings [of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference currently taking place in Beijing] as the timeframe for publication in order to express the media's wish to participate in China's overall reform. To put it bluntly, I've lived for 36 years, but never known which representatives were chosen by me, who are able to seek justice on my behalf. I think many people might also have similar views. As part of the media, we hope that the voices of the masses can make themselves heard among the representatives who "represent public opinion." This is a moderate stance, but it is the type of thing that before was rarely expressed directly in the media.

The entire household registration reform plan had four steps, with the joint editorial as the focus.

The first step: On Jan. 26, the Economic Observer Online posted a survey on household registration reform, with a call for submissions and a special topic page, and at the same time we invited two other Web sites to participate. The first paragraph of the joint editorial, "China has endured the bitterness of its household registration system for so long! We hold that individuals are born free, born possessing the right to move freely!" first appeared as part of the online call for people to participate in our survey. Our online survey was well-received, with more than 3,500 people participating, which was quite unusual for a Web site on the scale of the Economic Observer Online.

The second step: On Feb. 22 we promoted a special section in the newspaper titled "Angry Hukou." This special section mainly featured the difficulties people face due to the current household registration system and experts were invited to participate in the discussion. This special section already created some impact.

The third step was the climax: Putting out the joint editorial on March 1, in time for the two meetings. Our work on inviting other media to participate with us was somewhat affected by the Lunar New Year. Originally we expected that more than 20 media organizations might participate, but the actual number of participants was somewhat smaller than expected. The first draft of this editorial was written by a colleague, and I received a draft for revision on Feb. 7. I made major revisions and the final version that appeared in the paper was largely the same as this draft. On Feb 9., after I sent the revised version to my colleague, he suggested some revisions in accordance with provisions of the [Chinese] constitution, and we made some further slight changes in wording based on feedback from other media organizations. I understand the article was quite stimulating, but it's the style that I have always embraced- commentary should be incisive. Since we had decided to publish the joint editorial on March 1, after the papers were printed, the major Web sites only posted the joint editorial on the morning of March 1, and the Economic Observer Online also promoted the editorial as the top story that day. The editorial went out, and that's how we set the prairie on fire.

The fourth step was the conclusion. According to our plan, we would write at least two articles following the publication of the joint editorial. One was our own news story about the joint editorial, and the other was an explanation of the whole drafting process behind the editorial. I myself wrote another commentary in the afternoon entitled "Media is Not Only a Witness: Why We Released the Joint Editorial," which we posted online. At the same time, we also published another article, "The 13-media Joint Editorial on Household Registration Reform Inspires Heated Discussion". However, the planned article about the editorial drafting process wasn't run due to some problems, which is the sole regret in our entire plan.

After the joint editorial was published, the reactions to it went far beyond what we initially anticipated, so to speak. We expected it would get some response, but we didn't think it would be so great. It actually echoes an old Chinese saying, "In a world without heroes, ordinary people can make a name for themselves." I don't dare to take credit for the work of others, but at the same time I am not willing to put the blame on someone else, so I removed all the names of both media and individuals who participated in the editorial, leaving only the name of myself who has nothing to lose. As a matter of fact, every reader understands that the reason why this joint editorial has attracted such widespread attention is not because the media is so powerful, but because it shows the fervent anxiety of the people's expectations!

After this incident, I was punished accordingly; other colleagues and media partners also felt repercussions. I feel a sense of guilt whenever I think about it. This can't be blamed on the newspapers, because they are confronted by forces that cannot be resisted, and when we act we must always consider that there are many others whose livelihoods must be protected. Here I would like to thank the folks who have worked hard together with me.

My father's generation endured so much hardship because of the household registration system, many of my friends and even the next generation still suffers greatly because of this system―struggling endlessly with nowhere to turn with their complaints. I'm not an expert, I do not propose a complete plan for reform, but I have a firm conviction that legislation that disregards the dignity and freedom of the people will ultimately land on the rubbish heap of history. I hope that this system will ultimately be abolished. When the time comes I believe that many people will burst into tears from happiness and run around spreading the news. As a media person, I can only do my utmost to fulfill my duties and obligations, and each of us should also assume our respective duties and obligations.

I am a moderate adviser, who has inadvertently stirred up a great controversy, and the development of circumstances has gone beyond my expectations. In the end I hope everyone will remember this. I am now an independent commentator. I just hope that these words may allow everyone to have a full understanding of this event. Thank you for your feedback, whether supportive or critical.

2010/03/09 18:20:59

















Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Dangers of Truth

A few days before the National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) or 两会 "two sessions" began earlier this week, an interesting editorial was published in 13 newspapers across the country.

It called for a serious reform of the hukou system or household registration system. It is this antiquated system which is preventing major social progress in China, as those who migrate to the cities cannot get access to medical, education or employment benefits as these are all tied to their hukou in their hometown.

Migrant workers, formerly farmers, have been living in cities for more than 20 years and some have children born in these metropolises, but even their brood are still considered rural residents. It is these migrant workers who have literally built these cities and produced all the goods we buy today, and yet they are not given equal access to the same social benefits as urban residents.

The system has had a long history and for more on the background you can read it in this Asia Times Online article that dates back to 2007; ironically the three-year-old story still resonates today which means the government has not earnestly tried to change the hukou system. During Premier Wen Jiabao's work report a few days ago, he did not mention anything about reforms to the hukou system which means things are pretty much staying the same.

How can a socialist government boast having a "harmonious society" if people are not allowed to get what they have worked so hard for?

This is basically the gist of the editorial, saying that the registration system unfairly restricts the rights of the Chinese people to seek better lives outside their hometowns. "We believe in people born to be free and people possessing the right to migrate freely," the editorial said. "Abolishing this policy would enable the coming generations to enjoy the rights of freedom, democracy and equality endowed in the Constitution."

The simultaneous publication in 13 newspapers was a rare but strong statement to the government. But it quickly retaliated.

Hours after the editorial was posted, it mysteriously disappeared from Internet sites and now the apparent ring leader who initiated the editorial has been sacked from his job.

Zhang Hong, deputy editor in chief of the website of the Economic Observer was forced out of his job. He would not speak to The New York Times on Tuesday, but in a letter leaked to select media, Zhang wrote that after the editorial was published, "I was punished accordingly; other colleagues and media partners also felt repercussions." He added that the editorial had been "the product of a few editors working behind closed doors, only the impact it stirred up went beyond our first expectation."

Did Zhang, 36, know what could happen? He probably did and was prepared for it.

He now sees himself as an independent commentator and hopes to rejoin the Economic Observer at a later date.

In the meantime one cannot help but admire those who stick out their necks speaking the truth and knowing they will be punished severely.

As for the government, these small voices are pointing out the hypocrises they see; if you fix them, there will be no complaints. These people are not against the government -- they love their country and only want to see it become better.

Is that too much to ask of their government?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Fact of the Day: 500,000 Single Women in Beijing

Apparently Beijing has 500,000 "leftover women" or 女 (sheng4 nu3), single women over 30.

Experts say these women prefer their careers and single lives over marriage and family, showing an individual streak.

However, these shengnu also get a bad rap, as they are often nicknamed the "3S women": single, seventies (born in the 1970s) and stuck.

Stuck? Who says they're in a rut?

It's these singletons who are blazing trails with their careers, better at most jobs than men, thanks to their good communication skills and attention to detail, according to Pan Suiming, a sexologist at Renmin University.

And on the whole these career women are pretty satisfied with their lives.

"I enjoy my single life very much. I can't think of anything a marriage could bring me other than companionship," said 32-year-old Yan Yao. "Good companionship is hard to find."

However, she admits feeling remorse for not fulfilling traditional Chinese values. "I feel guilty for my parents, who desperately want grandchildren, but I won't sacrifice my life for their needs," said Yan.

Others accuse these "leftover women" for being "kidults", unwilling to take on responsibilities that come with a family.

"I'm an only child. I have little idea of how to take care of a family. It's scary to think about how I would have to consider my family before I make any decisions," said Li Qing, 30.

While 500,000 may seem like a lot of single women in the Chinese capital, there will be more, according to Li Yinhe, another sexologist and professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who is outspoken about women and gay issues.

"About 25 percent of European households are single; China still has room to catch up at 11 percent," she said. Li also predicts the number of "leftover women" might decline in the long term as there will be many more men to choose from due to the imbalance in the sex ratio in China.

With a greater number of suitors to choose from this can only benefit women even more.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Politicizing the Games

Apparently it is imperative that Chinese Olympic champions thank their country for their medals.

Zhou Yang, who won gold in the women's 1500-metre short track speed skating event at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games only mentioned her parents when talking to the media.

In Vancouver, the 18 year old said she hoped the achievement would better the lives of her unemployed parents. Her hopes were actually realised a few days after her win, when the local government of Zhou's hometown of Changchun in Jilin Province gave her parents a 94 square-meter apartment worth about 300,000RMB ($43,950).

"There is nothing wrong to thank your parents, but firstly you should thank the motherland. You should put your motherland before your parents," Yu Zaiqing, deputy director of the State General Sports Administration said in a group discussion of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).

He also called for an emphasis on sportsmen's moral education.

First of all, Yu is nitpicking about Zhou's comments. If and when you win a gold medal at your debut at the Olympic Games, you tend to be ecstatic and sometimes you can be at a loss for words to describe utter elation.

For Zhou, her gut reaction was probably to think of her parents and how she hoped her win could better support them financially as before the Olympics she was only making 500RMB ($73.24) a month.

Is it so wrong of her to talk about her parents? After all, they were the ones who made her existence possible for China to win gold.

Perhaps if she didn't make so little money she would of course thank China for her training.

And if it's so important for Chinese athletes to thank the motherland first, then instruct them to do so.

Why put a political downer on such a wonderful achievement?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Private Viewing

Many foreigners spend their evenings or weekends watching DVDs. Personally I try to get out of the house as much as I can, but especially during the cold winter months, watching movies periodically in the comfort of your home is fun, or catching up on your favourite TV shows, courtesy of the fake DVDs available in a number of stores in Beijing.

Of course buying fake DVDs can be a hit-or-miss adventure, with some discs that can skip or is a bad quality because it was shot in the theatre, or can be almost as good as the real thing.

Last night my friend and I decided to hit the DVD shop before dinner, and we usually go to the one next to The Village in Sanlitun. It's stocked with the latest English films as well as box sets of TV series.

But when we walked in, it looked strange -- there didn't seem to be as many movie titles on the shelves as before -- now all spaced out -- and they all seemed to be Chinese flicks.

Then we realized that the National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress (NPPCC) are being held in Beijing these few days and the store didn't want trouble from the police.

That's when we asked one of the staff for English movies and she started leading us out of the store and into a maze of hallways that led into the bowels of the building.

Finally she pushed a door open and it revealed a small room that was packed -- filled with foreigners and locals looking at stacks and stacks of fake DVDs on three walls of the room.

"So that's where everyone is," my friend said, laughing hysterically for a few seconds, confusing the customers in the room. He told me that during the Beijing Olympics, the store had had a similar set up.

The discs in packaging were all crammed onto shelves and it would take a lot of patience to just go through the entire collection unless you were looking for the latest movies, which were prominently displayed.

A few minutes later the crush of customers streamed out and we grabbed a few films and walked out too.

Keeping customers happy and keeping the cash register ringing without getting into trouble is proof the Chinese are a pragmatic bunch.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Reading Between the Lines

Premier Wen Jiabao delievered his annual work report to the Third Session of the 11th National People's Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday.

He warned that 2010 will be a critical but complicated year for China's economic development.

"This is a crucial year for the country to continue fighting against the global financial crisis while maintaining a steady and comparatively fast economic development, and accelerating the transformation of economic growth pattern," Wen said. "Although the development environment this year may be better than last year, we still face a very complicated situation."

That's because although China had a 4 trillion yuan ($585 billion) stimulus package that came into effect at the beginning of 2009 meant for infrastructure construction, a good chunk of that money was actually funneled into the real estate market which led to skyrocketing housing prices. Oh, and a good many cars were bought too.

Also, China's economy is very dependent on exports, at around 40 percent which is considered extremely high relative to other countries. Last year the government made no efforts to wean itself from the export sector and restructure its industries; instead it continued production even to the point of subsidizing it which resulted in overcapacity and dumping products in other countries. No wonder it is facing so many tariffs from other countries now, especially the United States.

So despite trying to keep China's economy moving, its government has paid the price in terms of greater social problems, in particular not enough jobs for fresh graduates, the ever-increasing income gap between the rich and poor, and house prices that are so insanely high that even a young couple with a double income cannot even afford an apartment in big cities.

How the government will tackle these main issues will be watched very carefully across the country. Young people today are more educated than ever in the history of the Middle Kingdom; Generation Y people are hard working, but expect decent jobs that pay decent wages. There are now stories of "ant colonies", where many young people live in an apartment that has been further divided into many more rooms because they can't afford an apartment on their own.

They are starting to wonder what the point of having a university education is when they are forced to live in such cramped and desperate conditions because of their low wages.

Meanwhile, Wen's two hour speech was peppered with words like "energetically", "deepen" and "vigorously."

He talked about a wide range of issues, from creating jobs for 9 million people, encouraging domestic consumption, preference policies for farmers, giving small and medium-sized enterprises greater access to credit, making education universal and improving quality, building permanent housing for nomads, reducing green-house gas emissions, continuing international cooperation on climate change, and fighting corruption.

While he mentioned a number of topics, his statements were vague as to how they would each be tackled.

One can't help but observe that Wen seems to make the same speech each year, with the numbers updated. For example, he admits that the Chinese government still "fell short of public expectations", with some officials "divorced from reality and the masses," and are "excessively formalistic and bureaucratic."

Most people would agree with his assessment.

But the premier's solution is to "let the news media fully play their oversight role."

Either he is earnestly inviting the press to freely report the shortcomings of all levels of government, or opening the floodgates, only to shut them later for one reason or another.

What does he really mean?

We will find out in the next few days.

Homeless Chic

This week there is growing fascination for a homeless man who has been nicknamed the "Beggar Prince" or "Brother Sharp" in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province.

The scruffy-looking man in his mid-30s has become popular with Internet users as many think he has great fashion sense... even though he has been photographed wearing women's dresses.

However his rugged looks and wardrobe have captured the imagination of many online.

"Look at him wrinkle his brow... nothing needs to be said... sexy..." was one comment on the Tianyu site.

Another commented, "He doesn't really look like a beggar, more like a vagabond. The quality of this person's tops are all not bad, a down jacket, cotton jacket, even a leather jacket inside, and though they're a bit dirty, they're all in good condition, not the kind that beggars find from the trash."

This discerning down-and-out fashion file has become so popular that young people are now interested in copying his homeless style.

Social workers in Ningbo don't want to reveal his identity for his own safety. "Homeless people are vulnerable. It is incorrect to use them for entertainment purposes," said one worker. Some people have tried to approach him to give him money or help him, but he appeared mentally disturbed.

There are rumours that he is a university graduate who lost his mind after his girlfriend left him, while another is that he used to be in the army in 1997 and now has mental health issues.

It's strange seeing young people so fascinated by a beggar, but then again maybe this publicity will draw more attention to the plight of homeless people and make the public more sympathetic to those less fortunate than themselves.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Still Learning from Lei Feng... Sort of

March 5 marks "Lei Feng's Day", a day to remember the selfless soldier and to encourage others to help those in need.

Originally Lei Zhengxing, from Wangcheng, Hunan Province, Lei died at the tender age of 22 when he was directing a truck as it backed up. A pole struck him on the head. He soon became a role model known for his unswerving devotion to the Chinese Communist Party

There is a tradition of school children taught to do good deeds and keep a "Lei Feng Diary", as his was published after his death and became a best seller.

These days there are examples of kids donating their allowance to help pay for a classmate's medical bills, or learning how to douse fires from firemen.

There are debates about whether learning from Lei Feng needs to be updated with the times, a tacit admission that communism with Chinese characteristics isn't as ardently followed these days as it was 60 years earlier.

The interesting thing is that back in the day, the Chinese thought everyone knew who Lei Feng was. As in the whole world.

However, most of us foreigners seemed to have missed out on learning about this brave man and an American is trying to rectify the situation.

Leif Rogers, 38, who is a customer service manager in a bank in Liaoning Province has not only raised money for a leukemia-stricken girl and donated books and money to an orphanage, but also translated Lei Feng's diary into English.

He did that in 2007 and today continues to hand out his translation to school kids so they won't forget Lei Feng.

"Whenever a young person stops by my office, I give them a copy of 'The Diaries of Lei Feng' to read," he said.

Yesterday Rogers distributed copies to students at Xiaodong No. 2 primary school in Shenyang, where they were also encouraged to write their own "Lei Feng Diary."

However, Zhao Lixin, the headmaster of the school confessed that it was sometimes difficult to teach children the true spirit of Lei Feng.

"They don't even understand why Lei Feng mended his torn socks again and again. They would just tell you to get a new pair," she said.

Official Sex Symbol

The status symbols of Chinese officials these days?

It's not luxury cars, homes or designer threads.

It's mistresses.

Chinese women know which side of the bread is buttered and if you're pretty and not making enough money to satisfy your material desires, why not be a mistress?

According to the Wuhan Commission for Discipline Inspection, 20 percent of the local officials that were investigated for corruption had mistresses.

Of the 509 corruption and discipline violation cases that included five city-level cadres and 69 directors, the body handed down disciplinary punishment to 608 people, sent 76 to the judicial authorities for more action and recovered 35 million yuan ($5.1 million).

The commission said some officials were addicted to gambling and women, as videos of officials having rendez-vous with their mistresses were uploaded onto the Internet.

"Having mistresses is a thing to be proud of today. Some officials even feel ashamed of not having affairs," said Wang Chunying, a professor of administration at China Foreign Affairs University.

"The mistress scandals reflect the officials' loosening moral qualities, authorities' weak supervision and many holes in the government system," continued Wang. "They won't keep mistresses if the money didn't come so easily."

Recently the chief of a tobacco administration bureau in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region named Han Feng was exposed -- literally -- when his diary was put online, allegedly detailing his escapades with at least six female subordinates and colleagues.

In it he details his daily life, from all the gadgets he buys to the heavy drinking and then his sexual exploits with women. Not to mention he's married and has a son.

Han makes it all look like this is what officials do day-to-day, which if true, completely confirms the public's suspicions, and also drags down officialdom in the mud... or worse than mud.

While Han has been removed from the post and an investigation is underway, and Wuhan says 20 percent of its officials are corrupt, what about the rest of the country? Wouldn't there be similar cases, especially in richer provinces like Jiangsu and Guangdong?

While some of these mistresses might be married, their desire to get their hands on money for a sexual favour or two is not only terribly shallow, but shows that money talks.

And that could explain why young men who want to marry can't find a partner because otherwise eligible women are too busy riding the gravy train.

But the bigger question is -- are these people having safe sex? Currently the government is blaming it on homosexuals and drug users for some 276,000 AIDS cases in China last year, while non-governmental groups say it's as high as 700,000. Perhaps the government should have an in-depth investigation to see if there is a correlation between affairs and AIDS...

Just a thought.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Flying with the Home Team

Yesterday I was one of the 39,000 people expected to depart from Vancouver International Airport or YVR after the Olympics was over.

We were warned to get to the airport at least four hours in advance and so I did, only to find there was hardly a lineup for the Air China flight. After passing through security (the full body scanners haven't been installed yet) and the duty-free shops giving travelers a last chance to snap up Olympics souvenirs, I ended up at the appointed gate to find most of the passengers were from the Chinese team.

I managed to recognize a few of them, including Wang Meng, the triple gold medalist in short track speed skating, Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo who won gold in pairs figure skating, and Wang Bingyu, the skip for the women's curling team who clinched bronze.

They were hard not to notice in their sharp white, red, orange and yellow track suits complete with "China" on the back. And many Chinese travelers didn't lose the opportunity to try to take photographs with these national heroes while waiting at the gate. At first the athletes politely obliged, giving their frozen smiles as people would take turns standing next to them. But after a while, people like Wang Meng were tired of having to pose and scampered off to hide among the rest of the pack.

Many of them had lots of duty-free bags -- filled with Olympics souvenirs -- specifically the mascots. They got long rectangular boxes of the ones featuring one of each mascot, including Quatchi, Sumi and Miga, while a few people got large fuzzy Quatchis or Mukmuks. Perhaps there will be a Quatchi invasion in China...

When we boarded the plane, it seemed like the top Chinese Olympic Committee officials got to sit in business class, while the rest of the contingent including coaches were relegated to economy.

As it turned out I sat right behind the figure skating duo who had specifically come out of retirement for these Games and helped China clinch gold for the first time in the event. And now having reached their goal (or was it a national one?) Zhao, 36 and Shen 31, were retiring for good. During the flight, many Chinese athletes approached them, asking for autographs which they politely signed, but probably would have preferred more time to sleep.

Towards the end of the flight some of the athletes got ready, combing their hair, brushing teeth or changing their slippers into the prescribed Anta sportswear and running shoes to prepare for their close-up.

Once the plane docked at the gate, us non Olympics passengers were asked to step aside so that the athletes could go first and get photographed by the media, but in the end we were ushered out of a different exit. After passport control, they too had to retrieve their luggage with the rest of us and in the end some exited at the same time as me. Some people were at the arrivals area just to photograph the athletes, having been tipped off on the time the flight would arrive.

Ah, the life of a Chinese athlete. Secluded from the public most of the year in training and face intense media exposure during competition, they must feel like they live a strange existence few can even begin to appreciate or understand.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sadly the Party Ends

Today a friend asked me how the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games compare to the Summer Games in Beijing.

While China's event was very well organized and practically every detail thought out and executed almost perfectly, there wasn't much of a festive atmosphere.

The foreigners coming to the Games tried to whoop things up by wearing their nation's colours, waving flags or even crazy costumes. But the Chinese didn't know what to make of these laowai, many seeing non-Chinese people for the first time. Some gawked at the foreign visitors, others taking pictures with them as proof of "foreign devils" being strange creatures.

However, in Vancouver, it was this colourful array of creative fashions and the enthusiasm of the wearers that really made the Winter Olympics successful. Practically everyday the downtown core was a sea of red, people waving flags, carrying banners saying, "Go Canada Go!" or even painting their faces with the Canadian flag.

The Opening Ceremony for the Beijing Games blew its global audience away by the precision and the sheer numbers of people involved. It was later revealed soldiers were used to perform, as only they can withstand the gruelling hours practicing and are expected to work in unison.

But the event in Vancouver was more intimate, very Canadian and featured stars like Bryan Adams, Nelly Furtado, Sarah Mclachlan, Donald Sutherland, and Measha Bruggergosman. There was also a giant mythic bear and aboriginal dances, a snowboarder jumping through the Olympic rings and fireworks.

The Closing Ceremony tonight was probably more memorable. To address the mechanical failure of the fourth column for the Olympic cauldron 17 days earlier, a clown dressed in mechanic's overalls climbed out and put two wires together and the pillar magically came out. Gold medallist Catriona Le May Doan got her chance to light the cauldron again.

There were giant beavers, flying moose and massive Mounties and hockey players. William Shatner talked about being Canadian and so did Michael J Fox. Comedian Catherine O'Hara apologized for being so Canadian, and then singers Ben Heppner, Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrisette, and K-OS were some of the acts adding to the celebrations.

Many Olympics are used as an opportunity for nation-building. For China it was a chance to show the world the rising power that the country has become. It made its citizens proud of the nation, despite privately grumbling about the traffic restrictions and being forced in many cases to stay at home to watch the events on television.

Meanwhile the CEO of Vanoc, John Furlong had hoped the Vancouver Olympics would also be a nation-building exercise, but he might not have expected the public's enthusiasm to be so ardent. People have spontaneously burst into singing Oh Canada at competition venues, on the streets and even on the bus I was riding on. I'll never forget that moment, people singing off-key, but very proud of their identity.

The next few days the party atmosphere will dissipate and Canadians, particularly Vancouverites and British Columbians will find out how much the Games cost. They will probably collectively gasp at the numbers, but perhaps they will remember the good times they had and shrug their shoulders. They may think it was worth the cost, a memory they will never forget and neither will their visitors, pleasantly surprised by the friendliness and enthusiasm of Canadians.