Political parables: talking around the censors

Perhaps one of the quintessentially Chinese qualities is making best of the worst. (Hey, you kind of learn after 5000 years of trying and still not finding one stable system of self-governance!). So, the Chinese part of me got to thinking this week that the upside of all the media censorship (which feels tighter, judging by regular interruptions to my Gmail access, with Xi at the helm) is the political humor. Cultural-linguistically, we Chinese have always been fond of riddles, metaphors, and parables. We don’t like to say what we mean directly. In “New China” (since 1949), that fondness for dressing up literal meaning has been reinforced by Big Brother listening to everything we say.

Photo credit: Kim Jong Ill Looking At Things blog

Lately, there have been many “political parables” – little stories that can pass off as children’s tales or other kinds of jokes – circulating on Weibo and Weixin. The velocity with which they get forwarded around and readers’ comments to them give me a glimpse into what my countrymen and -women think about the current state of domestic and international affairs.

One popular Weibo writer I’ve been following is purportedly Choi from Pyongyang. I want to say he writes satire – a kind of text version of the website Kim Jong Il Looking at Things – but sometimes his adulatory comments on “highest commander Kim” and all the authentic (-looking) photos of North Korea that he posts make me wonder if he isn’t a Chinese-fluent North Korean agent living somewhere secret. I’ll translate here a recent posting, which brought on >1000 comments from Chinese readers and 1500+ forwards:

A 6-year-old boy likes to throw rocks at birds, but he never gets them. His neighbor Big Brother Park taught him how to aim and he got the bird, just like the adults can. The boy was very happy but the villagers started to worry that they would get hit with his rocks. So they had a meeting about locking up the little boy in a dark room. Big Brother Park quickly raised his hand in support. But every adult knows that the baddest person around isn’t the boy, but that guy Park. My story is finished.

Maybe a Western audience wouldn’t think twice about this story, but 2500+ Chinese readers got the point. The blogger is talking about China, North Korea, and the UN/international community. While a few comments laud Pyongyang Choi for his creative writing, most Chinese readers comment by extending the parable:

They’re all bad birds… (Bravo for going nuclear, and down with Western imperialism?)

Big Brother Park is a bad egg indeed, two-faced…The little boy is also bad, never thinking about moving forward but always going against the tide, trying to take the village hostage, lying everyday. Why doesn’t he learn from his neighbor in the south but always taking lessons from that brother in the east? (We have a pro-West liberal on our hands it seems. This guy admonishes China and North Korea, and looks up to South Korea).

That’s because Big Brother Park later learned that the little boy is psychotic. He’s afraid it’ll infect all the other little kids. (China’s afraid of North Korea’s brand of conservative madness spreading to radical conservatives in China).

Just a sampling of the three reader comments above gives you an idea of the spectrum of political opinions among Chinese netizens. Skimming through the 1000+ comments, I have to say a significant portion seem to be “pro-China.” Readers aren’t naive, they know it’s a dirty game in international relations. But at least they’re sympathetic to the quandary their Big Brother Park is in…

Choice political humor and Chinese people’s assessment of domestic politics to come…


What is “middle class” in China?

The article “What Is Middle Class in Manhattan?” in the New York Times took me back to my thoughts on the middle class in China last year. Maybe China is kind of like a blown up version of the Manhattan portrayed in the NYT article, in the sense that nominal income alone won’t tell you much about how someone lives, what their values are, and how their life will turn out, because rapid inflation, especially in real estate prices, have thrown everything out of whack.

This argument below taken from the NYT article almost echoes exactly my thoughts on China, based on extensive travels to China’s mega-cities, suburbs, townships, counties, and even villages in 2012.

An intriguing definition of what helps a person gain entry to the Manhattan middle class was ventured by Jonathan Bowles, the executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, who issued an in-depth report in 2009 that examined the city’s changing class dynamics. “Understanding who is middle class, in New York, but especially Manhattan, is all about when you got into the real estate market,” he said. “If you bought an apartment prior to 2000, or have long been in a rent-stabilized apartment, you could probably be a teacher in Manhattan and be solidly middle class. But if you bought or started renting in a market-rate apartment over the last 5 or 10 years, you could probably be a management consultant and barely have any savings.”

What I found in China last year is that a couple that each makes RMB 6000 (call it $1000) a month in China living in a small city where their family is from probably had their parents buy them a home years ago (no mortgage), free baby care and housekeeping from their relatives (this could run up to $90k a year if you live in a city like San Francisco and have a legal nanny), a car that they might not have paid for themselves (it’s customary for men’s families to provide all the “hard goods” in ordr to attract a serious girlfriend / wife in this day and age), and other communal / cultural non-monetary subsidies. This couple could spend as little as 10-20% of their income on life necessities and has more room for disposable spending (say on imported cosmetics or relatively “expensive” clothing / accessories) than their wages alone suggest.

Contrast that with elite white collars in Beijing, say at an ad agency, making ~RMB 20-25,000 (~$4000) a month. If they’re not from Beijing they’re probably paying rent to the tune of at least RMB 1000 per person, eating out a lot at overpriced restaurants if their parents haven’t moved from the hometown to come help with babysitting or housekeeping, and the possibility of ever owning a home (heck, even neighborhoods around the 5th Ring Road are considered unaffordable now) in the big city seems very remote. On paper, this tier 1 city office worker should be doing better than the small city worker, but reality is more nuanced than that. After all, the terms “yueguangzu” (zero monthly savings) and “daotie” (reverse subsidy, by parents to kids) didn’t come out of nowhere!

What I learned in rural areas was most interesting. Because many rural residents were allocated land in the land reform process over the last few decades (urban Chinese don’t own the land, even if they buy the apartment it’s just a leasehold), some have done quite well, by selling land early to developers and reinvesting in property, or buying into other small businesses, like taxi licenses (whose prices have gone up 7x in the last 10 years in one small city I visited). I know there are countless cases where land ownership and land sales haven’t worked out fairly for peasants, but given how much coverage these issues get I think it’s fair to point out the other economic reality too. That timing and property or land ownership can make or break one’s class status in China today.

Instead of assessing “class” on the basis of nominal income or people’s place of residence – as most China watches do – I have started thinking about Chinese people as being either part of the new “have’s” camp or the “have’s not” camp. You’d be surprised at who falls into each camp! This partly explains the mystery of why my old neighbors from the village where I was born started asking me to bring back Dolce & Gabana handbags worth a few thousands dollars from overseas in the 1990s and why I, living in Beijing and working an “elite” white collar job, still feel like those luxuries are unaffordable (or incongruous with my middle class values).

That’s the income bit of the “class question” for now. As for values, I think I’ll address that in a separate post. More on this topic to come…

The trouble with taxis in Beijing…

…is that you can never find one!

I used to get annoyed at people who complained about getting taxis in Beijing when I first moved here in late 2009. I was, of course, coming from Singapore and New York, where fares were way high (my average commute in those two cities were $8-10 vs. $3 here) and cabs were hard to find. Try hailing on the corner of 45th and 5th at 6pm on a Friday night! I resorted to crashing other people’s taxis and offering to pay the whole fare many times…

But, this early in 2013 I have noticed that it has become increasingly hard to get any kind of transportation (unless you count the death traps that are public buses and the subway system at rush hour). Here’s a simple summary of my experience:

2009: never had a problem finding taxis

2010: “black cabbies” (not taxis but private individuals making a buck driving a passenger vehicle around town) start entering my phone book. I resort to taking them at 1.5-2x the fare of official taxis.

2011: black cabbies tell me to start booking them in advance, and I often couldn’t get one because they all had regular bookings from commuters

2012: I resort to taking tricycles (aluminum boxes on wheels), also unlicensed and illegal, during rush hours

2013: last week a tricycle driver gave me his business card and said, “Book in advance please”!!!

Instead of getting mad at the cabbies, I’m annoyed at the system. Cab fares have been flat since almost 10 years ago. And what has inflation been in the meantime? If you were a cabbie consistently for the last ten years, your quality of life has deteriorated beyond repair. Agenda Beijing did a great job with back of the envelop calculations on how unprofitable cabbies are.

So, instead of picking up rides cabbies sometimes 1) hide out in a corner until traffic gets better, 2) call it a day and go home, 3) refuse to pick up desperate hailers on the street, 4) or don’t run the meter and see who gives them the best offer.

Yesterday was a snow day and I was late to teach my morning yoga class. I knew I was screwed as soon as I got onto the street. So I ran into an intersection during a red light and told the cabbie – who was getting ready to refuse before I even got close – I would give him RMB 50 (~$9) for a RMB 20 ride. He agreed.

We chatted and I asked him if a typical RMB 10 (starter fare, short ride) ride is profitable and he said, “If there’s any traffic, not at all!” He seemed embarrassed to take my high offer but did anyway. I told him not to worry about it – we’re all victims of strange policy and inefficient pricing mechanisms in this market!

Smog survival 101: stock up on masks and air filters!

I came to a rude awakening last weekend when Beijing’s air pollution readings shot up to 900 (on a scale of 500!). I used to be one of those “Relax, guys, it’s just Beijing!” people when foreign friends were busy downloading China AQI (US Embassy app with “real” pollution readings, and not the suspiciously low official government readings) and stocking up on masks that filter out PM 2.5 particles. But when a walk outside to and from dinner last Saturday turned two of my friends sick and all my clothes smoky (worse than a night at a Chinese night club pre-smoking ban!), I jumped on the China-air-proofing bandwagon.

For those others among you who are also just preparing to survive the smog, here are the steps to get you started:

1. Download a pollution monitor to your phone
…so you know what you’re really breathing

China Air Quality for Android is available on Google Play and China Air Pollution Index for Apple on iTunes.

2. Buy some basic masks

Taobao has loads of vendors that sell the 3M 8812 model which blocks out 95% of particles according to My Health Beijing. Order now because the recent spike in demand has created backlogged orders for many resellers. Physical drugstores are also out of the masks now so don’t wait until the next pollution spike to get yours! They only cost RMB 15 (~ $2).


Funny story: a friend was in Taiwan traveling over the holidays. Before she left she went to buy some masks. The pharmacist asks her, “Are you going to Beijing?” “Yes, I live there.” “Oh, how many dozen do you want?”

3. Order some nicer masks for long-term use

A friend of mine moved from clean Connecticut to Beijing with his wife and four young children. They were smart enough to order the Totobobo masks, favored by a lot of cyclists, in time for their arrival last year. These are also highly recommended by professionals. The China resellers are pretty much all out of stock, so I ordered mine from the company directly (it looks like they ship from Singapore), which also has a 1-2 week waiting time now.

These run about $23 and you can order additional filters to change into.


4. Buy an air filter for home or office use

As AsiaCracked quotes in their latest post, I haven’t opened my windows for days! Bunny’s cage is smelling a bit stale, but I’d rather smell my pet than the smoky air outside my windows! Fortunately I have a Swedish Blue Air filter which I bought from a friend who was leaving China last year – gotta move that from my family home to my Sanlitun apartment this weekend! IQ Air is also popular here and, as of last night, I still saw models on display at (expensive) Shin Kong mall on Dawanglu (click on the links for reseller information in China). These stand-alone filters are pricey, but the long-term benefits should be worth the $$$. Check out My Health Beijing’s battle of the filters comparison.

Blue Air filter:
blue air

There are lots of air filters on sale now at the Chinese e-commerce websites like Amazon Joyo or Suning, but I really recommend spending the money to buy a reputable one that does heavy duty filtering.

That’s all for now. I’ll update again once I have some more long-term tips for smog survival. Check out Beijinger’s excellent posts on pollution, if you really want to obsess over what you’re breathing!

Oh goodie, a chance to write about one of my favorite topics – love! (Remember those “Dear Q” love agony emails I was receiving in 2009-2010?).

But one can’t very well write about love in China without writing about Marriage and, of course, about Property! So here goes, my take on modern Chinese relationships and what keeps the real estate “bubble” going, published in the January issue of NewsChina (available in print in the US, Canada, and China).


What do Chinese people want?

I write research for an investment company for a living. Because the sector I cover happens to be consumer goods and retail, I obsess over what Chinese people want, in the literal sense. Is it LV, Gucci, or Prada? KFC, Chongqing-style fast food, or fine dining? A new car, a bigger house, or a ticket abroad?

As I traveled around China last year talking to people about their material desires I realized that their intangible wants were more compelling. Here’s what I found on self-actualizing in the pseudo-communist-capitalist state, published in the December 2012 issue of NewsChina.

Copy of NewsChina 2012-12