Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Ketchup and Oatmeal in the Shanghai Metro

The H. J. Heinz Company and the Quaker Oats Company are both based in the U.S. Not only do they have roots in neighboring states, Pennsylvania and Ohio respectively, but advertisements for their products are currently neighbors at a Shanghai metro station.

Heinz tomato ketchup advertisement in a Shanghai metro station

Just something to ponder...

If this is not fascinating enough for you, more later. It's been a jam-packed few days in Shanghai, and soon I will be off to another part of China.

Another Day of Great Firewall Fun

Since I last commented here on the challenges of using a VPN to "break through" China's Great Firewall, I would say the situation has generally improved (from my perspective) but occasional problems persist. One question I had was whether any of the problems I was experiencing were specific to my location. On that note, after arriving in Shanghai I noticed a nearly identical pattern of problems to those that had creeped up during my last few days in Changsha.

However, the situation was very different today when I went online at a cafe in Shanghai. I could not use my VPN at all. Otherwise, everything seemed "normal" (for China's censored Internet). Since my experience the past 2 days had been especially unproblematic, I wondered if this new VPN problem was somehow specific to the cafe.

Hours later and now at another location in Shanghai, I am not having any problems. But it does not appear I should place the cafe on any sort of blacklist, which is good because I like their food. A quick look at Twitter makes it clear that others in China experienced VPN difficulties during the same time as me.

So what accounts for today's changes? I've seen some speculation, but I'm not going to even try to make a guess right now. I simply share this to provide a taste of some of the challenges and uncertainty one can face when using (and relying on) a personal VPN in China.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Back in Shanghai

Jing'an Park in Shanghai

My recent trip on high-speed rail brought me to Shanghai. Since arriving, it's been a whirlwind of catching up with friends, meeting new people, and enjoying some of my favorite restaurants--if they're still there. I don't plan to stick around Shanghai for long, so I doubt I will be able to continue my earlier photographic look at Shanghai's diverse areas including Dachang Town (old, less old, and a sidewalk market), southern Hongkou district, northern Jing'an district, and northern Xuhui district. But I have plenty of other posts planned, including more about Changsha--where spending more time than I had planned led to a variety of experiences, discoveries, and insights.

So as always, more is on the way.

Friday, December 7, 2012

On the Rails Again in China

When two months ago I traveled from Shenzhen to Guangzhou, I rode on the fastest class of high-speed rail in China--identified with the letter "G" for long-distance lines or with the letter "C" for lines between nearby cities. When I traveled from Guangzhou to Zhuhai I rode on the slower class of high-speed rail in China--identified with the letter "D". I have also taken many other trips on high-speed rail, such as Beijing to Tianjin, Luoyang to Zhengzhou, and Wuhan to Yueyang on G/C lines and Shenyang to Haerbin, Shangqiu to Xuzhou, and Wenzhou to Xiapu on D lines.

I first revealed my affinity for high-speed rail last year in a guest blog post for James Fallows--"Ride Like You Want to in China". Since then, I have grown to better appreciate the debates over whether it represents a wise investment by the Chinese government and, even if it is, how to resolve problems of safety and corruption. For two related in-depth articles, see "Boss Rail" by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker and "China Advances High-Speed Rail Amid Safety, Corruption Concerns" by Ian Johnson in National Geographic. But regardless of these issues, I have undoubtedly benefitted from high-speed rail. Not only has it enabled me to more quickly and comfortably reach a variety of destinations, but it has encouraged me to see parts of China I may have never visited otherwise.

Yesterday, I continued my high-speed travels and departed Changsha on a D train. As with some other trips, I spotted nearby construction of new high-speed rail lines. In this case, I believe most of what I saw represents what will be the G class Shanghai-Kunming High-Speed Railway. I'll share a few of the photos from yesterday's train ride. Based on the times, they were all taken in the provinces of Jiangxi and Zhejiang. Despite the train window and the train's speed, the photos provide a clear sign of high-speed rail's continued expansion in China, even where "slow" high-speed rail already exists.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Raising the Arm Mario Style

little boy wearing pants with Mario from Mario Bros. in Changsha, China

Like here and here, what appears to be Mario from Mario Bros. can be found--this time on a boy's pants. I noticed that the boy's arm is raised in a manner similar to Mario's. I have no idea whether it is a coincidence or not.

And I leave you with that great mystery to ponder.

Diversity of Growth in China's Metropolitan Areas

The Brookings Institution recently published its report "Global MetroMonitor 2012: Slowdown, Recovery, and Interdependence". Instead of examining country-wide economic measures, it focuses on metropolitan areas. Why? Because The Brooking Institution believes:
...the economy is not organized at the super-regional or national levels, but rather in the cities and metropolitan areas that make distinctive contributions to global growth and prosperity. now, more than ever, it is essential to examine growth patterns in these places. Because metropolitan areas concentrate national and global population and output, understanding their dynamics crucially informs the broader macroeconomic picture. And grim national outlooks miss the variable performance of metropolitan areas and the clues it provides to the sources of growth and recovery. Some metropolitan economies, in contrast to their countries, defied the slowdown trend with accelerating growth in 2012 or recovered to pre-recession levels.
At least at the moment, I don't plan to share any deep thoughts on the overall report. Instead, I'll just pull out some parts of the report pertaining to China that caught my attention and also comment on a related post on The Economist.

The report especially delves into China in a section titled "The diversity of economic performance of the Chinese metropolitan areas":
The different paths among metro areas worldwide reflect the diversity of growth patterns not only across countries, but also within them, particularly in large urbanizing nations like China...

Nearly one half (22) of major Chinese metropolitan areas grew faster than the national GDP per capita and 25 metro areas expanded their jobs more than the national average. For example, Xiamen, located on the southern coast of China, ranked highest on the 2012 index of economic performance among Chinese metropolitan areas, surpassing national averages on both GDP per capita and employment growth. Aided by large foreign investments, Xiamen’s manufacturing sector output grew more than 9 percent from 2011 to 2012, driving its strong performance.

By contrast, Beijing underperformed China’s GDP per capita growth rate in 2012. the capital city of China saw GDP per capita increase by 2.3 percent, much lower than the nation. Local/non-market services in Beijing delivered over one-third of metro output growth over the past year, and half of new jobs created between 2011 and 2012. The large size of local/non-market services might be a cause of concern for Beijing in the future. As a recent Chinese provincial government study shows, the large size of Beijing’s municipal government led to a drop in its efficiency.
The differences between Xiamen, Beijing, and, as described later in this section, Haerbin seem relevant to understanding China's economic growth. And I have little doubt China's metro areas are much more economically diverse than America's. However, I dont' see how pointing out that nearly half of the Chinese cities had numbers above the national average adds anything meaningful to claims of diversity. Imagine that the numbers of 6 cities in China for some measurement were 59, 59, 59, 61, 61, and 61. Half of the cities are above the average (60). Now imagine if the numbers were 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 210. Only one of cities is above the average (again 60), yet there is more diversity in these numbers than the previous. I could go on with other examples, but my only point is that the number of examples above an average says rather little about the diversity of a set of numbers and often nothing about whether it is more or less diverse than another set.

In an example where China's economic diversity is particularly clear, Macau earned the top spot in the report's economic performance index for the world:
Since its transfer to China, Macau’s economy has developed rapidly, averaging 12.5 percent annual GDP per capita growth and 7.7 percent annual employment growth from 2002 to 2007. The rapid growth of disposable income among Chinese urbanites over the last decade helped drive this growth trend. Gaming is Macau’s main industry, and since the opening of the industry to new investors in 2002, its output doubled and employment grew by 45 percent from 2002 to 2007.
Macau's gambling industry is unique in China, and the difference in its economy from other Chinese cities is somewhat symbolized by the border that separates it from mainland China. As the report later notes, Macau's ability to maintain its strong economic growth likely depends on it diversifying from its current reliance on gaming and tourism.

The Graphic Detail blog on The Economist shared its own visual representation of the "World's fastest and slowest growing metropolitan economies" based on the data provided by Brookings. You can see it here. The top five cities in its two categories jumped out at me:

"Real GDP per person":
  • Hefei
  • Baotou
  • Changchun
  • Anshan
  • Dalian
  • Hangzhou
  • Hefei
  • Ningbo
  • Changsha
  • Shenzhen
All of the cities are in China. The list is personally interesting since I am in Changsha at the moment and have visited all of the other cities except for Baotou and Anshan. More digging into the data or other analyses would be useful in understanding these rankings, though. For example, if a city's population dropped, an increase in Real GDP per person could found even if the Real GDP were static or falling. This city's economic "growth" would be rather different from a city that had a rise in Real GDP per person while also increasing its population.

And that's all, at least for now. If this has left you feeling data hungry, in addition to the report, several possibly relevant appendices can be found here. Or if this talk of economics has you desiring something more spiritual, photos of Chinese temples at the the economic performance index's top performer, Macau, can be found here.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Another Changsha Bachelor in a Red Bra

Is the young man I saw last week the only bachelor in Changsha, China, to celebrate his upcoming marriage by parading around in a red bra? After tonight I can now answer that question with a definitive "no".

bachelor in Changsha with a painted face and wearing red women's underwear, a red hat, and Chinese flags

The bachelor in the above photo varied the style by wearing a red hat with a symbol for good luck in his marriage, Chinese flags on his back, oranges in his bra, and an attached large carrot. He also carried a portable speaker on his back which allowed him to more loudly proclaim his thoughts. Like the other bachelor, he had a group of comrades supporting his endeavor--one of whom insisted he hold his carrot for this photo. He was attracting a number of onlookers, but at least at this moment, he was not handing out candies or cigarettes.

I'd be curious to know whether the flags most reflect his patriotism, a desire to reduce the chance of interference from anyone who might consider his actions objectionable, or something else. Whatever the case, it's fascinating to see so much "color" being openly displayed in Changsha.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Smoking in China, From Restaurants to Primary Schools

In an earlier post I highlighted a Chinese bachelor celebrating his upcoming marriage. Although his red bra was unusual, it was not surprising to seem him offering free cigarrettes to people. Sharing cigarettes is common in a variety of social settings and smoking is a regular part of life for many in China. According to findings reported by Gallup in February of this year:
Three in 10 Chinese said they smoke regularly (25%) or occasionally (5%), according to Gallup surveys conducted shortly after China's ban on smoking in public places took effect last May. This translates to roughly 320 million adults -- or more than the entire population of the United States -- and underscores the potential health crisis China faces as it tries to reduce an estimated 1 million smoking-related deaths each year in its country.
The results are especially striking when broken down by sex. 57% of men compared to 3% of women* say they smoke--a difference easy to believe based on casual observations of smoking behavior in China. But in part because the results reflect self-reported behavior, I would not be surprised if they underestimate the true number of smokers.

The harm smoking causes has not gone unnoticed in China. However, one could question the efforts to reduce smoking. For example, as reported in the Voice of America there are signs recent smoking bans would not win a prize for effectiveness:
... Angela Merriam of the Beijing-based China Policy organization says the new smoking ban is not being consistently enforced.

“The ban on smoking in public spaces is completely ineffective. For example, I have a student who did an informal survey of just over 60 establishments in China. Of those polled, almost 70 percent said they permit smoking. And while 80 percent had heard of the regulations, only 12 percent of people in the restaurants had heard of a fine for a violation of the regulation.”
Smoking break in Changsha (previously shared here)
Although I am not at all convinced the bans have been "completely ineffective", Merriam's informal survey feels roughly consistent with what I have seen in some Chinese cities. But I have also had the impression that the number of people smoking in public places is not as large as it was several years ago. Nonetheless, seeing people smoking in "no smoking" restaurants, hotel lobbies, and other public spaces remains part of a regular day for me. It is even not uncommon to see ashtrays within sight of no-smoking signs. Staff at one hotel told me they gave up trying to tell guests to stop smoking in the lobby and brought ashtrays out in a pragmatic move to avoid messes of cigarettes and ashes.

In addition to typical concerns regarding smoking, another health issue is a factor due to something else common in China: fake products. Several years ago, Te-Ping Chen in a fascinating article on Slate described the rather profitable production of fake cigarettes in Yunxiao county, Fujian province:
Ringed by thickly forested mountains, illicit cigarette factories dot the countryside, carved deeply into caves, high into the hills, and even buried beneath the earth. By one tally, some 200 operations are hidden in Yunxiao, a southwestern Fujian county about twice the area of New York City. Over the last 10 years, production of counterfeit cigarettes has soared in China, jumping eightfold since 1997 to an unprecedented 400 billion cigarettes a year—enough to supply every U.S. smoker with 460 packs a year. Once famed for its bright yellow loquat fruit, Yunxiao is the trade's heartland, the source of half of China's counterfeit production.

...inhaling the knockoff cigarettes may do even more damage than their genuine counterparts. Lab tests show that Chinese counterfeits emit higher levels of dangerous chemicals than brand-name cigarettes: 80 percent more nicotine and 130 percent more carbon monoxide, and they contain impurities that include insect eggs and human feces.
Although many fake cigarettes are sold abroad and continue to be a problem globally (recent examples in the U.S. and the U.K.), the challenges faced by Chinese smokers are particularly high:
The number of counterfeits flooding the domestic market is similarly off the charts. "Each of us has come up with our own strategy to deal with it by now," confided one Beijing smoker who refuses to buy at locations where he doesn't know the owner. On trains, conductors roam the aisles, industriously hawking 75-cent keychain lights that purportedly reveal fake packs.
I have spoken with small-store owners and smokers who employ a variety of their own strategies to ensure they sell or purchase non-counterfeit cigarettes. Sometimes it seems questionable whether their methods are highly reliable. Whatever the case, reducing the numbers of fake cigarettes being produced in China could have an impact both there and abroad.

Despite the already high numbers of smokers and the efforts to reduce smoking, tobacco companies continue to seek more customers in China. Although bans on cigarette advertising exist, tobacco companies work around them, even through their "charitable" acts. Last year, Malcolm Moore in The Telegraph noted some striking examples:
More than 100 primary schools in China are now sponsored by tobacco companies on the hunt for the next generation of smokers, according to antismoking campaigners.

The schools often bear the names of Chinese cigarette brands, such as Zhongnanhai or Liqun, over their gates and in some cases have slogans in the playground.

"Talent comes from hard work – Tobacco helps you become talented," says one slogan, in foot-high gilt letters, on the front of the Sichuan Tobacco Hope Primary School...

"Inside the schools, they often have branded uniforms and distribute cigarette-shaped sweets. Vendors near the school gates usually sell cigarettes one-by-one, rather than in packets," said Mrs Wu.
Moore also mentions that regulating the tobacco industry has proved challenging due to how it is administered by the government and its significant tax contributions.

It seems numerous hurdles must be overcome for smoking to be significantly reduced. In a later post, I will share one of my more rememberable experiences witnessing smoking in a non-smoking area. It relates to an attention-grabbing anti-smoking campaign conducted elsewhere in Asia which could possibly inspire new approaches in China.

*For a possible explanation as to why there are fewer women smokers in China and why the patterns have been "found almost no place else, except for nearby Asian countries such as Japan and Korea", see an article by Susan Rosegrant in the magazine for the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research here.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Early Morning and Late Night Street Snacks in Changsha

Late last night I enjoyed a what was not a Changsha home-cooked meal but what I think could be called a family-cooked street-side snack of fried noodles.

This morning I tried some steamed buns.

But I passed on the regular morning exercises commonly seen in China.

Now for some work.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mario Appears Again in Changsha

I have some stories to share from this weekend. But it's been a long day, so in this light post I will just share an unexpected follow-up to the previous post about Mario at Yunifang. About a 5 to 10 minute walk away from the Yunifang store I visited is a Sanfu clothing store where today yet again I saw what appeared to be the famous Mario character.

young woman having her photograph taken with a Mario mascot in Changsha, China

Why was he there? He (or she if referring to the person inside) didn't say, but he was busy handing out printed advertisements and being photographed with happy passersby.

Even the kids were excited.

young girl with mother standing behind her in Changsha, China

Although some of the youngest seemed not to care at all.

baby away from a Mario mascot in Changsha, China

And that's all I have to say about that.

More, including posts about smoking, college dorms, a fashion show at a spa, technology, etc., will appear later this week.

Mario and Mud at Yunifang

staff at Yunifang posing in costumes including Mario from Mario Bros.

I briefly met the above young workers at 御泥坊 (Yunifang), which sells a variety of skin care products, primarily mud masks, for women and men. They were quite happy to have their photo taken. I noticed the manager also encouraged them, and I don't doubt that's connected to some of them posing with the store's products. Until I checked out its website just now, I knew nothing about Yunifang except what I saw during a quick visit to this store after noticing the costumes. You can see the process Yunifang claims to use in making its mud-based products here. The page is in Chinese, but by clicking on the square tiles at the bottom of the page you can see photos of the various stages.

And now you might know the secret to Mario's glowing skin.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Changsha Bachelor in a Red Bra

Why did I see a young man in tights, red women's underwear, and glowing heart glasses walking down a pedestrian street last night Changsha?

young man wearing red women's underwear and glowing heart glasses in Changsha, China

He was handing out free candy and cigarettes, of course.

For a little more context, he was "celebrating" his upcoming wedding and the end of his bachelorhood. The candies' wrappers pictured a couple being married. Several onlookers said they found this public display to be rather unusual, and a number of passersby captured the moment with their mobile phone cameras. His friends provided enthusiastic encouragement when I asked to take a photo.

Best wishes to him and his future wife. I hope she likes him in red.