23 November 2012

Spolia with Chinese Characteristics

I cannot say what caught my eye first. There was something unusual about the size of the exposed bricks; equally, there was something familiar about the color. I started tutoring a student in an office on jiefang lu that she borrowed for the purpose on Sundays while she was in Nanjing. I took my camera on the second visit to document the repurposed pieces of the Nanjing city wall.
Modern utilities drilled into historic bricks

I don't think that the businesses nor residents very much benefited from living in 600 year old embossed bricks. The condition of the buildings is in a fairly low state of maintenance, but that is common for structures built during the Mao era. I have seen this construction method practiced before in Nanjing. Mortar is laid over a brick core to give an impression of uniformity.
Exposed bricks
 On one wall for some confounding reason, brick fascia were then laid atop the mortar to give the impression of a brick wall!
The residents don't have much incentive to put much money into maintaining these structures since they have no legal title to them and are subject to eviction whenever the government might decide to follow through on any development plans. For 600 year old bricks, there is probably no rush. In the meantime, the bricks undergo whatever the residents decide they want to do to get on with their lives, seemingly indifferent their buildings' origins.
My best guess is that these structures were built some time after 1954 when it became fashionable to demolish the remnants of old China in order to help develop new China. Sources of accurate information are hard to come by. I don't want to speculate too much about the motives. Peter Hessler in Country Driving taught me that there is not even a university scholar anywhere in the world who specializes in the Great Wall. All the work is done as secondary research or by volunteer researchers. It ought to not come as any surprise, therefore, that there is little published about the other great Chinese walls.
Hessler also recounts the feelings of remorse among villagers who demolished a fortified gate in the same era to reuse the stones in other projects. Their regrets came about when they considered not what they had done to their legacy but that they didn't have a tourist attraction to exploit. (Country Driving p146)
Old, new, and reused
Typical maker's stamps
There have been many efforts to make better use of the Nanjng city walls as an urban asset. A
section new Zhonghuamen was recently opened for walking along the topside.
Another section has been rebuilt, Yuejiang Lou Park. It's not at all clear what the present construction represents. It is not a rebuilding although I can find no evidence to show what condition the wall was in before 2011.
The signs on the wall hint to this effect.

It is evident that the original Ming wall was located in this part of the city. The wall rebuilding involved both original bricks along with modern replicas in a similar style.
An subtle acknowledgement of the reconstruction
Similarly stamped bricks, 2001

A second style of modern brick

Markings left from the pug mill extrusion
Sloppy mortar joints with original brick

White surfaces likely due to historic use of lime mortar

Yifeng Men at one entrance of Yuejiang Lou Park

Spalling likely exacerbated by incorrect mortar

Additional bricks were used in the reconstruction to supplement the originals as they were incorporated into the new design and functions, the upper pedestrian walkway as well as public toilets.
Archway windows in public toilet addition.

Even sloppier mortar repair

Juncture showing new and old brickwork and mortar joints

Entrance to the promenade up from the public toilets, blocked by a rusty gate

Subsidence above the public toilets near the juncture between old and new construction

Woody plants frequently establish roots in joints

Masons reusing common red bricks
It's frustrating to witness the level of deterioration on this section of wall. The sloppy and irresponsible repairs as well as the lack of invasive plant removal suggest that the monies obtained from entrance fees are being siphoned off and not adequately spent on any sort of routine maintenance, especially since Chinese masons are generally quite capable and the Chinese are experienced wallbuilders. The Nanjing city wall in spite of its importance to the reputation and history of the former imperial capital suffers from neglect due to a common problem that plagues most Chinese buildings: monies are spent on construction and the subsequent fanfare, but little concern is paid to ongoing maintenance.
And yet while gradual and irreversible deterioration is an acceptable norm, symbolic damage demands an immediate and public apology. Zhonghuamen is an impressive Ming relic as it still shows much of the original, defensive triple gateway arrangement. Its ramparts have been recently restored to pedestrian traffic and two impressive archways have been rebuilt to bridge the massive ruptures that were cut into both sides of the defensive gate arrangement. This makes the claim by the Nanjing preservation bureau quite risible because the constant stream of heavy vehicular traffic around the gate does far more damage than any one Italian sportscar. As for the tire treads on the surface, the 80,000 RMB user fee would more than clean up any of the rubber marks. The outrage has much less to do with concern over a cultural artifact than class resentment regarding a status symbol that only the plutocrats can ever aspire to own.

25 October 2012

Citron verdâtre

This promotional advertising panel explains a little bit as to why it's so difficult to find limes in the PRC and why even upscale bars that try to appeal to western tastes and standards regardless put lemons in every drink.

24 October 2012

Diaoyudao shi womende!

It must have been a very strong breeze that propelled this scaffolding bracket from a construction site near the Zhujiang metro station...

to float across an alleyway...

and then land atop this Japanese brand automobile,
  where it struck squarely in the middle of the sunroof.

19 August 2012

Tatouage Chinois en Anglais

"Hey, what does your tattoo say, babe?"

 Because anything in an exotic language or artsy script is tattooable, universally, it seems.

05 August 2012

White Mans' Broadening

Yesterday I was hired to be a caucasian. That was evidently my most sought after qualification for a job that I accepted on short notice for a Saturday. The agent hiring me is somehow involved in advising and facilitating students who want to study abroad. Initially I was asked to present the company's business plan with a PPT address. I hesitated and given that the PPT had not yet been translated from Chinese for me, the agent passively acquiesced. The job took place in Bengbu, Anhui, about an hour by Gaotie from Nanjing South station. The train left at 7 am so that I could be at the appointed location to deliver a 10 minute address at 9 am. It was a very early start of a long day. I had some idea what I would say. I've been tutoring foreign bound Chinese students for many years so I knew that I could translate that experience into something oratorical.
The venue turned out to be in meeting rooms on the third floor of a Citicbank. I was then approached by a young man who acted as though part of the same organization that hired me. He rattled off his Chinese name faster than I could catch and the advised me to call him Jean if his Chinese name was too difficult to say. He asked what I was going to talk about since he would be interpreting for me to the audience. I was a bit disoriented by this since, up until then, I was under the impression that I would be speaking to prospective students with moderately passable English language skills. He agreed but suggested that as a convenience he would repeat my words in Chinese. I proposed that I would elicit from the students some of the reasons that they wanted to study abroad rather than speaking at them for a full 10 minutes. He agreed that such interaction would be appropriate and useful.
There was a slight delay before I was called into the room to deliver my address. I had been imagining that I would be speaking while standing and able to interact as I would do so in a classroom. Instead, three of us were seated behind a very solid desk and on a dais that one finds in every traditional Chinese classroom. I looked out at the attendees and saw not the youthful faces that I was expecting but the faces of those who would be footing the bill for their children's expeditionary ventures, their middleclass parents. I counted only 3 students in the audience out of about 35. This was a very revealing ratio and hinted at the reason why Citicbank was sponsoring this event.
I stuck with the agreed upon plan but mindful of the time horizon I tried stretching out my own introduction, mentioning how I first met mainland Chinese students when I was an undergraduate and how as the conditions in China have changed so have the numbers and nature of overseas studies changed. I only knew graduate students who were sponsored by the central government. Now their children were getting similar advantages but as undergraduates. After being prompted to speak, three students stood in turn and mentioned why they wanted to study abroad. Their answers were surprisingly clear and focussed. I ended my address by mentioning that in my lifetime I was witness to a shift in the kinds of Chinese students that are able in such large numbers to study abroad.
I got a slight hint that I had underspoken according to the schedule, but since I was on stage, I was safe from reproach. I then sat through the next presenter, who appeared from Citibank, delivering her powerpoint, reading along with the same text that appeared on the screen behind and above our heads. I was led out of the next speaker's equally enthralling PPT presentation by Jean who was worried that I felt hot by sitting there and doing nothing. I was struck then by how good Jean was at getting people do what he wanted them to do without explaining his true motives. He wanted me off the stage, I reckoned, because I looked bored or I was depreciating my value as the caucasian in the room and distracting from the salespitch underway.
The next phase of the event for which I was specifically compensated for began soon thereafter. I sat at a table while the other ladies who travelled with me to Bengbu attempted to answer and convince anxious parents about how to navigate through academic application processes, visas, and other proffered services that can enhance a student's admission. I was there to lend some sort of credible appearance, but mainly I was expected to look white. I was especially glad that I had brought along a good book, Hessler's Country Driving, from a man who can, I suspect, empathize with my situation.
Lunch was offered but not worthy of comment and then it was naptime. This amounted to finding a comfortable sleeping position somewhere and getting some shuteye for an hour. The Han Chinese are extremely adept at this. I have witnessed workmen take midday naps on concrete slabs with nothing more than a piece of cardboard for a pillow. While the other three women were able to make the most of the downtime, I struggled to sleep without throwing my cervical vertebrae out of alignment.
After our rest it was 2 pm and time for the second phase of my paid compensation. I was initially told that I would be giving some sort of practice speaking tests similar to IELTS and TOEFL. I offered to bring my IELTS testing materials but before embarking that morning I was told that I didn't need to do anything so formal, that I would be just chatting with students. At the appointed moment for the informal chats, Jean called me into another room and handed me the test forms, essentially shanzhai versions of IELTS speaking tests prompts, and told me to just mark the students on a scale of 1-9.
The first interviewee was a young woman not yet ready for study abroad for several reasons. She was still a few years away from graduation and very confused about how to answer simple questions. In many ways she was a typical girl of her age. She was being told by her mother that she would study abroad to learn accounting because her mother, an accountant, was certain that such a decision was the right thing to do. The young woman, on the other hand, wanted to learn about filmmaking. But she was so convinced that the only way to learn about filmmaking was to attend the Beijing Film Academy and so without the support of her mother, she was resigned to never be able to make films. I pointed out that a young man with a camera had been filming the day's events but she could not make a connection between the handheld camera and her personal goals. I gave her a score and awaited the next interviewee.
I recognized the next student from that morning's session, a bubbly, bright eyed, young woman who had changed her clothes in the interim. She was convinced that studying accounting abroad would ensure herself a bright future. It was fruitless to challenge her conclusions since she was both fairly articulate and her enthusiasm was disarming. But her main argument was that this is what everybody was doing so it was a good idea for her, too.
The third student was a younger man who would be involved in an exchange program in September. I heard him say Massachusetts and I thought I heard him say Medfield. It might be this school, Montrose, which fosters student exchange programs. Massachusetts is ahead of the curve when it comes accommodating middle class Chinese ambitions for their children. Generally Han Chinese look down on private schools as being less meritorious and more susceptible to corruption. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have gradually changed that perception, at least, of overseas schools. He spoke in a very reserved manner and was not able to engage in much of a conversation, but he acted matured and confident to be able to handle a few weeks abroad amongst his peers and to develop international guanxi.
The last student turned out to be the most memorable. I didn't recognize her from that morning but she told a common story. She wanted to continue her studies abroad after graduating from Nanjing University of Finance and Economics. Yes, she, too, wanted to study accounting, having decided that a master's degree from a foreign university would ensure her a bright future. And yet that is where her logic broke down, at least, a foreigner might see it so. I asked about why she felt it was necessary to study something as mundane as accounting in a foreign university. (I didn't even bother to get into the very different accounting standards between China and every other industrialized country.) Was it necessary for her parents to spend so much money when she was already ready trained to find employment? She explained that because it was so hard to get a job in China now, it was necessary to get an advanced degree. But then how does an advanced degree change the circumstances? She laughed, explaining that the Chinese government wants students to earn advanced degrees to reduce pressure on the labor market. It's what everybody is doing, she continued to chuckle at my naivete. Besides she insisted the Chinese economy is booming and all she needed was an advanced degree to ensure a bright future. I repeated my original question: why did she want to study abroad. Her answer stunned me. "To broaden my horizon." Where did that notion come from? Was she not just claiming that the motives were financial and based on job market pressures? Oh, she misspoke. Broadening her horizon was really the second reason. I was not going to get her to change her mind, certainly not in such a short time, but it was not even possible to get her to change how she thought about her rationale. I have encountered his kind of reasoning over and over again. Danwei has posted an essay from a Chinese student living abroad. The same nonsequiturs and logical fallacies are commonplace in Chinese academic writing. It dawned on me a short while afterwards that this young woman had no understanding what it meant to broaden her horizons. She had memorized that phrase and decided that it sounded impressive to toss it about in an admissions interview. To use the phrase: broaden one's horizon is evidently useful in helping Chinese students to remain students and postpone their adulthood as long as possible.

18 June 2012

Fetal Tissue, Pulled Thread

It's not very often that a Chinese English speaker first brings to my attention an international news event from mainland China. She came to my office, having requested an appointment in the late afternoon. The sun was setting as she started telling me about something that had upset her. It didn't take me long to confirm whether this was a blip in the media horizon. I first came across a short API piece posted on NPR.  So a discussion began in which she tried to understand how a public official could do such a terrible act to a pregnant mother. As I listened, I thought back to an essay that another student had been working on with my assistance. Her essay was ostensibly about the pressures on health care in China, but she focussed on the strained relationships between Chinese doctors on their patients. A CNN article from 2011 covers a particular stabbing.
"Doctors are frequently attacked and the professional morale is very low."
After reading her essay's first draft, I asked her to include the notion of professional ethics in the rewrite. The rewrite was better organized but she had failed to include ethics in her analysis. She instead explained the increasing violence against doctors on the shortage of hospitals, on doctors' low pay, on the superstitions of Chinese families, and the practice of using bribes to ensure the highest quality care. All of these elements play a role, but solving any one of them will likely do little to decrease the outright hostility that can erupt between patients and doctors. The factor that is the main cause of the violence directed against them is that Chinese doctors do not abide by their own ethical code of conduct.
Economic development and subsequent disparity have been the main drivers of change in China since the zeitgeist changed from 'serve the people', to the phrase, misattributed or not to Deng Xiaoping, 致富光荣, 'It is glorious to get rich'. He steered the country on a pathway that no longer guaranteed medical care as a right of the people and instead it became another commodity. As a result doctors have gotten very rich along with pharmaceutical salesmen, hospital administrators, and anybody who functions as a gatekeeper between patients and medical treatments.
As the young woman sat in my office, trying to make sense of violence against a woman close to her own age, I drew a diagram of what I perceived to be the three main players in this tragedy: a public official, a doctor, and a patient. In her narrative and in most of the news accounts, there has in fact been little mention of any medical staff's involvement. I asked her the question as to which of the three has the most power. She responded that the public official has all the power. And then my Socratic method kicked in.
"But it was a doctor who performed the abortion, correct?"
"Yes, but if he had not done that, the hospital would have fired him?"
"Ok, and then what would have happened?"
"Another doctor would be told to abort the baby."
"And if he had said no, do you think the hospital would have fired all the doctors?"
A doctor who abuses his skills to perform a procedure on a resisting patient under orders from a third party betrays the most essential ethics of his profession and yet this contradiction doesn't enter into the discussion in China. Her first thought was to see the doctor as just somebody like her, obliged to obey any government official. She felt that his interest in protecting his job prospects trumped his role of protecting his patients. And not surprisingly accounts of the event and its aftermath also fail to mention any doctors by name. We can read about the suspension of family planning officials as though a chemically induced abortion occurred all on its own after the order was given.
A few bureaucrats who are willing to comply with and enforce party guidelines are easily replaced. This could be an opportunity for the members of the medical profession to ask themselves whether they want to hold themselves accountable for not carrying out forced medical procedures. It seems to me that they are the lynchpin in the chain of command and hold the ultimate power if they choose to recognize it. 

The fallout of this event is still determining its own course. My first reaction to hearing about this story was: Why does this one case matter so much more than the other routine, and numerous instances of violence against the poor? The Marxist in me is the main source of my cynicism. It would not surprise me to hear an apologist for this practice point out how the family is the cause of their own suffering and that law must be obeyed by saying:
"Of course, if the family had just paid the 40,000 yuan fine, they could have had a second baby." 
Is this recent and broad discussion in some way connected to the greater awareness of the Chen Guangcheng legal efforts in rural Shandong? Is it evidence of the power of Weibo and a few visuals to drive home what is easier to ponder as an abstraction? Or is it a signal that the Party or a faction wants to modify the one child policy? (I doubt the last.)

Tom at Seeing Red in China has his own interpretation and also wonders as to why now this event has catalyzed the public discussion. He cites medical professionals who also feel that they are better off keeping their jobs than doing what they think is right. For those who want to see some of the images that started this all and learn how glorious it is to get rich by working in the Chinese medical field, here is a link.

24 May 2012

Just what the Doctoroff ordered

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So much is written about China today for the typical western capitalist who mainly wants to know just enough about the Middle Kingdom in order to exploit its growing middle class of consumers that it can be a challenge to separate the hot air from the hard sell. The increasing volume of this kind of writing demands that it be considered its own genre. It is, therefore, often interesting to take note of the development and form of this increasingly pervasive literary phenomenon.
Tom Doctoroff, whose looks and career path might be the model for Don Draper, if Don Draper had gone red and dared to work for the Commies, likes to write books while he is not trying to convince western consumer brand merchants how to make lots more money selling in mainland Chinese. And when he is not pitching ad campaigns to marketing execs who are itching to get a piece of the Middle class Chinese pie, he is writing articles to promote his books and, by extension, himself.
A recent piece that he managed to get positioned in Forbes looks and reads like a powerpoint presentation that was quickly reworked by the journalist/contributor/columnist/freelancer, Kenneth Rapoza, to meet an impending deadline. I suppose I ought to cut him some slack. He covers Brazil, Russia, India, AND China. That has to be exhausting while based in New York City.
*Look, the article even retains the 10 bullet points from the original PPT! Which is double cool if the writer is paid by the column inch.But to Doctoroff's credit, it is so much more convincing to get somebody else to spout a salespitch on the pages of a prestigious publication than to directly shill on assorted media outlets. Or as they say in the  boardrooms: Booyeah ^5! I bet incidental product placement never felt so good.
After Rapoza makes note of how the market insiders play off the blips and flips of composite shares, he goes through the list of Doctoroff's factlets and morsels of wisdom based on his stint in China, the purpose of which is mainly to continue to persuade potentially wary international brands to set up shop in China and consequently to seek out the services of his advertising agency.
The 10 points that he ticks off are vague platitudes that seldom put Doctoroff into a corner that he won't have to weasel his way out later. In the first example, we are told:
Myth No. 1: Popular anger means the party’s power is weakening
The communist party, despite its heavy hand, “has street cred.” Unless growth collapses, citizens will grudgingly support national leaders. The Chinese people crave order. Stability is the platform on which progress will continually be built. In the future, a more Singaporian model may take hold but one thing is certain, the future of China’s political system will not be made in Americaor Europe.
Singaporian?  How far into the future is Doctoroff willing to assert that mainland China may imitate the high end retail mecca, education hub, and tax haven that Singapore represents? But he boldly avers that it won't be similar to models from two other areas. (Singapore is a parliamentary republic with a legal system based on English common law.) Because everybody knows that to build on something it only needs to be stable and well understood, maybe. After his first insight, we learn that Beijing is creating a pathway to the world wide web with Chinese characteristics.
Myth No. 4: The internet will revolutionize China
The internet is changing China and mostly for the good, but revolution is too strong a word.  China’s digital era remains uniquely Chinese. Beijing allows for a blank canvas of self expression and material gratification, but retains the veto power to control public discourse as it did when it threatened to shut down the Sina Weibo microblogging service over theories about the political dramas surrounding politician Bo Xilai and later with Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng. Internet users may grumble, but they’re not ready to rumble.
But the online revolutionaries will still be eager to buy diamond tennis bracelets and Heineken in cans. Doctoroff assures his intended readers of marketplace stability by so narrowing defining revolution. In spite of how the internet has revolutionized every other society through greater access to information, news media, business connectivity, and so forth, Doctoroff is certain that the PTB in Beijing are still ready to crackdown if anything starts smelling of jasmine tea.
Myth No. 5: The Chinese market is too much like Europe 
(Is this a myth that he just pulled out of his ass so he can shoot it down as a talkingpoint?) The rest of the quote is:
China is as unified a country as is the U.S., despite its wide geographical and political differences. The challenges of unifying distribution networks, sales channels, retail presence and sourcing standards “remain monumental”.  But it is operational hurdles that make China a Balkanized economy, not cultural or political differences.
So China is unified (in some undefined sense of the word) in spite of it political differences but the political differences are not what make China Balkanized. So does he really mean to say that it is a myth that China is too much like the former Yugoslavia? But how does he explain how the monumental challenges of unifying (but isn't China already unified?) all the necessary operational elements that international retailers want in a large, say, common market with a single currency, which China is not too much like, have come about? Could they possibly have been put in place and maintained by provincial level politicians, you know, due to differing political motives?
And in describing his astute observations of the particularities of the Chinese consumer we get this nugget:
Myth No. 6: The Chinese consumer is inscrutable
 Women want to reconcile achievement and traditional feminine grace and therefore prefer to buy diamonds that sparkle, but don’t have too much bling. 
 Yeah, that's totally right. Chinese women want the diamonds that sparkle. They certainly don't want the diamonds that don't sparkle and they must have just the right amount of bling. Say, around 10 bling per carat. And as for the men and their bling quotient, we learn in the rest of the myth's knockdown:
Men want to show they’ve clawed their way to the top without showing off so prefer an Audi or BMW to a Maserati. Once foreigners appreciate China’s unique characteristics, their tastes become easier to understand.
Because the only way to explain why more Chinese men buy an Audi, or BMW, instead of an equally affordable Maserati is that only those brands have the unique characteristics that Chinese drivers want. Don't you get that, foreigners?
Other myths are equally vapid and stand for easily knocked down strawmen.
Myth No. 8: China Inc. will kill U.S. jobs
Doctoroff can assert this with some degree of impunity because he is only talking about the future of job killing by China Inc. The US jobs that were moved from North America to be filled mainly by Chinese peasant women willing to work under sweatshop conditions so that corporate balance sheets and executive bonuses could go stratospheric, those jobs were roundly killed and buried in the past. But killing still might bother the few remaining corporate decisionmakers who aren't complete sociopaths. Some of them might have misgivings about China's militarism and how it might affect profit loss statements. Doctoroff is the charmer with a homespun folksiness that he might have learned from a Booth School of Business seminar on feigned rustic sincerity.
Myth No. 9: China will be the lone world superpower
China does not inspire hearts and minds like America does.  American dignity for the common good touches hearts. China is chauvinistic by comparison. In ways large and small, its instinct to narrowly defend its self interest is off putting and isolating. China will be an economic power, but not a culture or political power. There will be more than one tiger on this mountain, and the other will be the good ole U.S. of A.
Doctoroff could have mentioned the efforts by Beijing's Politburo to launch a softpower campaign and how its effectiveness has been negated by the overall lack of appeal for authoritarian regimes. Beijing had big hopes on bankrolling a film that they were convinced would get an Oscar due to the undeniable tragedy of its theme. When the film failed to entice moviegoers to the cinema or to garner an Oscar nomination, the response was in some quarters to insist that it was proof of antiChinese bias in western media.
There is an odd theme in the last three of Doctoroff's myths. He is constantly assuaging that his readership has nothing to fear from a wealthier China with a stronger industrial base and a strong desire to acquire more things to kill citizens of other countries with. Lastly he points out:
Myth No. 10:  China is militarily aggressive
China is ramping up its military, but will never use it to challenge the U.S. or invade its neighbors.  For a credible analysis of China’s modern fighting force, scour Pentagon briefs. But to get a sense of Beijing’s pacifist instincts, come for a visit. The Chinese shield themselves from danger, both real and imagined. This is not a culture itching for war.
Given how incredibly wrong this last statement is, I think it is not so much that Doctoroff is in slick salesman mode, using glib euphemisms to pepper his pitch. He (as much as Rapoza equally buys into these memes) sees China in the same light that many neocon hawks regard US imperialist actions as blameless regardless of the negative results. It's the kind of thinking that can allow Bush 43 to declare himself a wartime president but never admit that he was the aggressor in those wars, or as he put it himself so succinctly:
"I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we're really talking about peace."
This last myth also contains one of the few examples when Doctoroff is unqualified in limiting his pronouncements about China. He says never will China use it military to challenge the USA or invade it neighbors. Never can mean two things when it is used by salesmen. It can mean not until he, at least, is dead, or more typically, not until after he has moved on to a higher paying job. We can all hope Mr. Doctoroff enjoys a long life, but we can still have reason to doubt his credibility. It was only only 1979 that Beijing saw fit to punish the nation of Vietnam in retaliation for ousting the Khmer Rouge, China's ally at the time. (On a personal note, if there were ever an argument to be made for using military force to oust a foreign regime, I think this is a strong one.) Tensions have continued with occasional border incursions, occupation of disputed territory, and very renewed tensions accompanying Chinese increase in naval capacity over the Spratly Islands. As many right thinking thinkers who claim citizenship from the good ole USA, it is not considered aggression when the nation is bad. So attacks against Vietnam by China can be overlooked just as the USA can define terrorism down whenever it seems to promote the US foreign policy agenda.
Yet it is still harder to reconcile Doctoroff's claim of Beijing's pacifist tendencies with the country's history of territorial expansion and border incursions. It's not at all useful to visit the Forbidden City to get a sense of this because that is precisely not where the evidence of Beijing unpacificistic actions are occurring. Even if some want to ignore what Beijing does against Vietnam, it's harder to ignore its bellicosity when it bumps up against putative US allies like Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and other Asian nations regarding the Spratly islands. The BBC has produced the most eyecatching map that reveals the extent of Beijing's desire to avoid war close to home soil by extending a really broad shield as far from the mainland coast as possible.
One possible interpretations of Doctoroff's myth busting strategy is that he simply does not want anybody to look behind the curtain of the all powerful Oz. Much of salesmanship is helping potential customers to forget about what they ought to be mindful of. The audience for his books, and his well placed interviews, and articles are those brand name executive marketers who have yet to infiltrate the mainland Chinese brand awareness. The more they don't know plays into Doctoroff's strategy of reassuring them that he above all other admen knows everything that needs to be known about the Chinese consumer. Doctoroff is on a roll with his latest literary oeuvre and if he manages to win over even one high end brand that he can represent in mainland China, then his job skills and sales acumen speak for themselves.  

15 March 2012

The Chinese 1%ers and Those Who Fawn over Them

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I think Damien Ma grants Eric X. Li (李世默, Li Shimo. I have no idea where the X. comes from.) far too much credibility with his analysis of his editorial in the NYT.  (Does every venture capitalist get invited to post whatever he wants on the pages of the newspaper of record? Has the old gray lady sunk to the level of the steadily sinking Huffpo?) Even as Ma rightly concludes that Eric Li's ideas are "unformulated and inchoate", he asserts "Li, and other emerging voices like his, deserve to be watched." And I suppose that I can equally assert that an approaching train wreck merits watching, too. But I would only say that in order that we learn how to avoid further trainwrecks, not because there is anything of value in trainwrecks.

I come from a different perspective, having been tasked with teaching composition to young Chinese students whose parents' greatest ambition is to send their progeny abroad to earn a diploma from a western university. I have slogged through so many similarly written essays that I find nothing in the style nor content worthy of comment on other than perhaps to point out that Eric X. Li has managed to parlay his way through a western education without it improving his writing style in any way. His daddy's dream was afterall that his son get a diploma, not strictly get an education.

The lack of logical coherency, the unsupported claims, and the exaggerated sense of importance are fully on display in his essay. As Stanford maintains its mandate to open its doors to privileged offspring of all races, creeds, and private clubs, we witness more the growing similarities between the Chinese 1% with their American prototypes. And just as in the same way that a man who habitually insists on eponymously christening every building he classes up with gilding and mirrors can get a gaggle of reporters to quote him and seem interested, "the Eric" has his own cheerleaders and sycophants who act as though they can comprehend whatever deep thought he pronounces: here, here, and this guy.

I am not going to pick apart Eric Li's essay here. Somebody else at Chroniclinghate with more idle time on his hands than I has already gotten down into that gutter. I never saw much value in redeeming such essays even when I was paid to do so. Just to be clear, the arguments of the essay are far less important than their placement. Acknowledgement by the NYT is what every venture capitalist needs to grease the wheels of China's bureaucratic institutions and sell whatever business plan he and his cronies can cook up. That's for the Chinese readership.

What those without any interest guanxi can gain from this piece is unclear. The essay reads like a piece of satire, intentional or not. There is always doubt in my mind whether conservative thinkers understand when they are the object of satire. Stephen Colbert's viewership, for example,  is full of the types whose ideas and sacred cows he regularly gores, but for them it's all a hoot. So I was pleased that James Fallows tipped me off to this bit of pointed skewering. I suspect that the elder Mr. Li will enjoy learning about yet an example of how much attention his bilingual son gets in the international press. Gan bei!

25 January 2012

Soft Power Blowback

The NYT recently published an essay by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. The odd timing of its appearance is a bit curious. Nye did a round of media appearances to promote his most recent book, The Future of Power, early in 2011. For the man who is given credit for inventing the term, soft power, it seems that the NYT editors are behind the curve. None of this is to suggest that there are any faults with Nye's essay. He is spot on in his interpretation of soft power in today's socio-political discourse and he aptly applies it to China. He doesn't, however, suggest why China is so incompetent with its soft power appeal. I want to suggest that the PRC sabotages its best efforts by its top down approach and by, seemingly, patterning its campaign on Chinese pedagogy.

The modern mandarins are under the impression that they can package and launch an attack of soft power; 'shock and awe' rendered as 'cool and wow'. Nye cites the 2008 Olympic summer games, and the Shanghai expo, but as much as even the central planners want to convince themselves as to how effective the Expo was in promoting brand China, it was much more of a domestic affair. The Chinese attendees learned far more about urban living in the many national pavilions than foreign nationals learned about Chinese methods of crowd control or mascot selection. And yet in spite of spending more money on the 2008 summer games than any other nation has spent, the number of foreign tourists went down during in August, 2008 because of Beijing's desire to predeport all potential troublemakers, even those who had purchased tickets. Nye argues that any gains from hosting the games were undone by the subsequent crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang. Events in those regions might have been juxtaposed in the media at the time, but the situations in these two regions had been longstanding black marks on China's international reputation. Internally what deflated even the proudest of jingoists was the melamine milk contamination and the subsequent revelations that the health warnings and the prosecution of the perpetrators were delayed until after the end of the games. So there was a lot of buck with very little bang and hardly an echo. Other publicity fiascoes can be mentioned, but the pattern is apparent and shows little sign of improvement.

Soft power comes in many forms, the least effective of which is when a nation tries so blatantly to promote its agenda, using soft power. Today the most effective modes are the forms that a national government has the least control over such as in the fields of athletics and entertainment. By contrast, Voice of America was once an effective tool of statecraft in many parts of the globe when it was the only form of information that countered state propaganda. Not only has the internet decreased its influence, so too have, to a much greater degree, pirated DVDs of feature Hollywood films, AV porn, and HBO blockbusters. Postings with Chinese subtitles done by volunteers within 24 hours of domestic broadcast can be watched by millions of viewers. HBO's Boardwalk Empire is but one example.
It's possible to cite contrary examples to this premise such as the Apollo program (NASA is one of the most visited websites in the world, ranked 778 according to google statistics.) and the Marshall Plan and certainly those who were effected directly by such efforts will never forget them. In spite of those government directed activities, I think it is fair to say that Kobe Bryant and Lady Gaga are far better for US soft power than Neil Armstrong, or George Marshall ever were. Walt Disney has undoubtedly done more to promote the USA as a force of goodness than any State Department program.
Another example of the Chinese soft power push is through the spread of Confucius Institutes. Their effectiveness is difficult as yet to measure and they are not without their share of controversy. India has refused to allow them. But for every little gain brought about by the Confucius Institutes' good will and ample cashflow, the heavy handed control from Beijing undoes it. A far more effective means of spreading its soft power is Hanban's placement of subsidized Chinese language teachers in diffuse institutes of secondary education.This is still a rather new program with equally difficult to measure results, but that is why, in part, it is called soft power. According to the law of unintended consequences, I can equally foresee it as a vehicle for promulgating the soft power messages of other nations as a result of the many Chinese language teachers who reenter their homeland and reacclimate to their classrooms with firsthand experiences abroad.
Plush toys at the vanguard of soft power offensives

Chinese soft power launches an awkward fashion moment on the diplomatic front!

Getting back to the premise of this posting, I feel that the best way to understand why the soft power push by China fails miserably is to consider the source of their methods, Chinese schools. The role of a teacher in a Mainland Chinese classroom is to enter the students' space, stand at the front of the classroom on an elevated platform, and to speak at the students, who do their best to remain attentive and to be passive vessels of knowledge. The students are expected to study all the information in preparation for regularly scheduled tests. The teachers are explicit as to what information will appear on their tests. Contradictions, inconsistencies, and even the purpose for having to study the material are dutifully ignored by the students who hope to succeed in this system. Chinese educators teach to the test for in China that is the only purpose of teaching. Some voices have questioned this method and yet theirs is the exception that defines the rules. Teachers who fail at getting their students to pass their tests are regarded as failures, themselves, which is why many are not above teaching their students how to cheat on their tests. If enough teachers can turn the process into a profit by selling cheating hardware, then are they to be blamed or the system's emphasis on results over procedures? The money to pay for such devices certainly did not come from the students' working part-time jobs.

The CPC fashions itself as the teachers in this campaign and consequently wants the rest of the globe to behave like good students according to their definition by accepting Chinese culture as strictly defined by the authorities in Beijing. The official curriculum, the setting, and what gets ignored are determined from above. This is a one-way approach with only one acceptable answer to any topic. Continuing this analogy, one can easily enough comprehend its shortcomings. The whole system survives and perpetuates itself only because the colleges entrance exam, gaokao, has such an important role in determining one's success in Chinese society. And if the students don't recognize this fact, the parents anxiously normalize the next generation to the system. But the rest of the world's students and sinophiles are not bound by fear of failing on a test; they do not feel compelled to remain silent in the classroom; nor have they certainly any hesitation to criticize the prescribed curriculum's shortcomings. Progressively as more about China becomes better understood outside China, the students will demand to know even more. Will the teachers lose these students or adjust their pedagogy? As Nye sums up his piece:
The development of soft power need not be a zero sum game. All countries can gain from finding attraction in one anothers’ cultures.
The most positive conclusion that can be drawn from this development is that in the end, the soft power assaults and counterstrikes will benefit all parties, from the front line troops to the civilian populations. For the longer that China engages in its efforts, the more the CPC will be forced to recognize the counterproductivity of its present strategies. It will become more evident to even the most intransigent residents of Zhongnanhai that more can be gained by undoing bad acts than by overspending political capital on soft power with Chinese characteristics. Simply freeing a few well known political prisoners will generate more good will than hosting yet another international sports event. Multiple battles to restore the environment will conquer more than constructing another maglev line. As unthinkable as this idea seems today given the extreme nature of Han Chinese conservatism, geo-political expediency will inevitably prevail. On another front, as more thought is invested in how to effectively teach the Chinese language to foreigners, the improved approaches can have crossover benefits within China's school system. In the past neither the Chinese people nor the rest of the world gained in the slightest whenever the leaders of China closed off the country in both directions. Soft power, on the other hand, breaks down barriers and facilitates communication. It is mutually beneficial for all combatants. And as long as China has the drive and resources for this kind of combat, I cannot complain about the increased fallout of peace, love, and understanding.   

11 January 2012


Tyrell Corporation, Shanghai, Nanjing Lu, Replicant Research Division

Shimato-Dominguez Corporate Headquarters
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...

01 January 2012

Timberframing in China

Yangzhou is a tourist destination within a day's journey from Nanjing. I had an opportunity to spend a few days in the city last October, 2010. I had wanted to travel there for several reasons, yet it was only by happenstance that I was able to come across some examples of modern Chinese timberframing and am now finally able to post the images that I was able to collect.
There are many very old buildings in Yangzhou, and remnants of old buildings. The difficulty as with much of China is distinguishing the old from the made to look old upgrades. There are to be sure some impressive, extant examples of Yangzhou's past. Ge Yuan is one notable site. This streetscene typifies much of what charm Yangzhou offers.
The paved streets and walls of grey brick give some indication as to the amount of wealth that flowed into Yangzhou at one times. The salt trade, rather the collection of taxes, on the salt trade accounts for most of the wealth that flowed into this once worldly city. From what I saw there is no reminder of this commodity's importance.

The city even had its own perimeter defensive wall yet only this one remaining gate is a testament to that.  Further developments make it impossible to see the extent of the original defenses. The gate has been beautified and rebuilt so much that it is a pale representation of Chinese military architecture.

And because even the oldest parts of Yangzhou are still a very much inhabited, it is possible to walk down its many narrow alleyways and find sights such as this, modern construction pressed up against the old with a mixture of modern amenities and destructive alterations. In all cases of historical relics, it is happenstance in what determines what is preserved and what is lost.

One is just as likely a beautiful gem of detail as a modern metal door as its replacement. This motif does not appear to be Chinese, but I have no experience is such matters and it is doubtful that the present residents can offer much accurate interpretation either.

Within close proximity of the above, one can find examples of much lower quality and preservation. And yet I argue that this architectural example reveals as much history of the place even though its interpretation is equally problematic. It's a mystery that it even remain standing. There is something almost intentionally sloppy with the mortar repairs and even though some attempt was made to afford a decorative elements to the upper corners of the entryway, the mason used a segmented lintel against all sense of utility.
I cannot say for certain whether these two doorways are contemporary, but they exemplify how appearances and methods can vary across time and between craftsmen.

Here is an exposed example of the timberwork of an older building near where much new construction is underway. The roof structure is simple yet elegant. The bottom chord rests on the posts in open mortises, tying the opposing walls together. Two queen posts support a straining beam with a mortice that accepts a king post, which is in turn morticed in a ridge beam. Purlins carry closely spaced splitsawn timbers as rafters. The whole assembly carries interlocking fired tiles set in mortar.
Not far from this original historic building is this structure that attempts to recreate, at least in appearance, what was probably demolished to make room for it construction. It will be used to extend the amount of retail space for the sale of trinkets and travel souvenirs, which line most of the pedestrian venues in old Yangzhou.

Here is a closeup of the modern interpretation of Chinese timberframing. It features the use of rounded timbers and some of the same joinery. There are, however, some changes. While the purlins are carried on the king and queen posts, they do not appear to involve any joinery. As can be seen, the purlins are simply cut flush at the ends and butted together atop the posts. I can only guess that they are toenailed or will be connected with some sort of other metal fasteners.

In this image, it is possible to see a wider gap between the purlins. It is difficult to ascertain what is happening at the ridge line.  The kingpost does not seem to be engaged into the ridgebeam, but instead it is attached to sawn lumber pieces upon which a round ridgebeam rests. This kind of connection seems to not rely on traditional joinery, perhaps as a concession to modern building codes or simple expediency. It is rather high up and out of eyesight.

As another example of expediency, there is this shim where a mortise was cut too deeply into the top of a post for accepting a tiebeam. Every good craftsman knows how to correct his mistakes and this might be evidence of a relearning curve. The timberyard is just a stonesthrow away.

In another concession to modernity these men use an electric chainsaw to cut a raw log flush at one end. Behind them is a stack of partially worked and unfinished timbers.

In the next step, a workman lays out the dimensions of the timber, using a template and ink. Afterwards he uses a single beveled hatchet and planes to smooth the timbers to their final rounded dimensions.

A pile of finished timbers await assembly. A few are marked with a general description of where they are to be placed. 中栋东 means nothing more than "Middle Support East" The bases show the centers marked in ink where an anchor pin will be used to secure them to pedestals. It is possible to see the two interlocking mortises properly cut on the tops of the posts, the deeper one accepting the lower chord onto which the tie beams are placed.
These are the handmade tools used by the man above doing the layout, lying on some raw logs. The horizontal handles seem to be a feature of Chinese planes. Cheaply made planes of bamboo and Vanadium alloy blades of similar design can be bought in retail stores. This plane body was built of a dense tropical wood and had the heft of bronze.
A workman uses a similarly handled plane with one hand holding the near end of his stock and the other end against a backstop. I cannot say whether this awkward stance is considered best practices by the other timber framers. I can say that on most construction sites that I have visited, the workbenches are flimsy pieces fabricated from scrap lumber and constructed to last no longer than the present job. Unsurprisingly, I, therefore, saw no benches on this worksite other than some crudely built brakes and horses.

Back at the new construction site posts rest on their pedestals, not of stone but brick piers with a cement overcoating. This seems like an odd manner of cutting costs since the piers are so close to eye level and the fact that stone is widely used in China and so is readily available and with many workmen who can fabricate it into more traditional pedestals. A stainless steel pin is anchored into the concrete upon which the posts is dropped down.
This historic structure managed to survive demolition.  It is hard to ascertain its original function with many of its surrounding buildings removed and the clear evidence of many alterations. It does though stand as a remarkable survivor, an example of the refinement and craftsmanship of Yangzhou traditional architecture.