Tag Archives: china

Nothing is Real: Some Thoughts on China’s Housing Bubble

My body and I have drawn two conclusions from a couple of weeks of traveling through southwest China and eating copious amounts of tongue-numbingly spicy food: China’s public bathrooms have (very marginally) improved, but the urban planning has not. (I had a lot of time to think about urban planning while utilizing those public bathrooms, due to the aforementioned spicy food). Provincial capitals like Kunming and Changsha were expansive last time I visited a few years ago; the cities have only grown larger since, sprawling further and further from what used to be the city center. Thirty-story apartment buildings sit stacked in neat rows, stretching for miles in every direction, as though they were stamped there by a bureaucrat over-using the copy-paste function on his computer. Huge new tracts of former farmland on the outskirts of the city have been razed and flattened in preparation for further expansion. It takes an hour to drive from one side of the city to the other not because of bad traffic but because there are tens of millions of housing units, spaced far apart, that take up an incredible amount of physical space. It should be obvious to any observer that these cities have way more housing units than people. People may be living in houses in the city center, or they may be living in houses on the outskirts of town, but they can’t be living in both.

For a number of years, fears of a Chinese housing bubble rested on “ghost cities”: brand-new cities, built on local government debt and backroom deals, rising from nothing in the middle of nowhere and devoid of people. Developers were building with no regard for demand, so apartment blocks would sit unbought, unwanted, and slowly crumbling into oblivion. Excess housing stock is a problem in some places, but it pales in comparison to a related, and possibly more sinister issue. Vacant homes sit empty, but they have already been purchased as a second, third, or fourth home. Unwanted and unused are not synonyms in a country with no property taxes, an economy driven by real estate, negative real returns on regular bank deposits, and a volatile stock market.

Housing demand is insatiable not because people want to live in houses, but because they want to own houses. As I wrote about last year in Hebei (the New Jersey of China, if you will), even working class families purchase multiple houses. (If you trust the advice of a real estate company’s blog, a single family should buy six homes to feel financially stable: one to live in, one for each set of parents to live in, two for their children’s future use, and one to rent out.) Up to 25 percent of all housing in China is owned but not occupied as of 2015, a rate far higher than in other countries around the world. In China, housing is simply money that you can sometimes live in. There is no tax on holding property, so unused housing can sit there and increase in value. When you earn more money, you want to store it away in a place that is relatively safe and will earn high rates of return, which it seems, in China, means buying houses that nobody lives in but might come in handy later when your children can’t afford to buy one or you need to get a lump sum of cash to send your child to school in the United States.

We tend to think of bank deposits as safe and real estate investment as risky. Such a view, however, is built on the premise that the government will protect our money and that in the long term, interest rates will gradually create a small but stable return. Neither of those is obvious in China. Without much political trust in the banking system (controlled and operated by the state), why would a citizen choose to put their money in an invisible, liquid asset rather than an actual tower of concrete and steel? A fixed asset is more reliable in the minds of many Chinese citizens because it literally cannot be moved or disappeared with one stroke of a pen. After decades of real estate investment, from officials with hundreds of off-the-books apartments to single families saving up to buy a second or third home so their children can be socially eligible to marry, enough people’s assets are in the form of housing that housing has become a de facto banking system.

With so many people’s wealth tied up in the housing market, the ultimate fear is that housing prices will decline. If housing is a bank, allowing housing prices to drop is equivalent to banks losing money and all of their customers taking a hit. It would presage deflationary pressure and financial instability, if not a crisis, for housing prices to take a hit, so the government has to implicitly guarantee that they will not decline. The policy options for corralling an overheated market are somewhat constrained by the simple fact that allowing housing prices to decline, even if they are wildly overvalued, would presage large-scale financial instability. And if you haven’t heard by now, the Chinese government is not a big fan of instability, nor are they looking for massive deflation. Continue reading

China’s Overseas NGO Law: Further Philosophical Thoughts

A few weeks ago, I wrote about trying to understand China’s perspective on the recently-passed Overseas NGO Activity Management Law in Foreign Affairs. I mostly talked about practical consequences, but the law raises further, more philosophical questions — the kind of questions that no editor in their right mind will allow to be casually introduced in a 1,200 word article. And thus God invented the follow-up blog post.

Part of the difficulty of interpreting the law is that there is good reason to be deeply conflicted about foreign NGO activity anywhere in the world. Overseas NGOs made major contributions to China’s development; in part due to their success, foreign NGOs such as the Global Fund have now rerouted much of their development aid to poorer, less-developed nations. China has become both a recipient of foreign assistance and a provider, as more Chinese NGOs are going abroad. Lifting China’s status as an equal global player was part of the motivation of the law: as Peking University’s Jin Jinping argues, Chinese groups operating abroad “face the restraint of local laws in the countries where they are operating.” Overseas groups in China, therefore, should do the same. By codifying the rules of NGO activity, the overseas NGO law tells foreign NGOs: if they want to operate in China, they have to play by China’s rules.

This is an inevitable stage of NGO development across national borders and political systems. The Catholic priest and radical writer Ivan Illich famously argued in 1968 that all volunteer activity abroad was to “pretentiously impose” a foreign set of values on a country. Volunteers should focus on problems within their own societies, rather than go elsewhere. Regardless of a volunteer’s intentions—and why he titled his argument “To Hell with Good Intentions”—Western volunteers abroad are “salesmen for a delusive ballet in the ideas of democracy, equal opportunity and free enterprise.” (In this framing, China’s push for its NGOs to go abroad is its own form of the opposite push: selling a delusive ballet in the ideas of non-democracy, hierarchical governance, and state intervention. I call it “Good Intentions with Chinese Characteristics”) Continue reading

In Which I Launch a Righteous Crusade for Justice in the Wanfujing Apple Store, Beijing, China

If you are a foreigner in China who speaks even the slightest bit of Chinese, the first three sentences of every conversation are identical. The simplest poorly pronounced ni hao elicits effusive praise about your intelligence. You assure your conversation partner that your Chinese is, in fact, quite poor; they respond with further praise or genuine disbelief. The first few times I had this interaction, right after I moved to China, I kept messing up halfway through: I could not properly demur because my Chinese was not good enough to understand that I was being complimented on my Chinese.

You swear to yourself that you will not let the constant flurry of undeserved compliments get to your head. Your language skills — amazing! Your ability to use non-fork cutlery — impressive! Your ability to enjoy fresh, delicious local cuisine — without parallel! But it invariably does: what is meant as encouragement seeps into a pervasive sense that your ability to perform basic tasks gives you a path around any and all barriers in your way. We claim to not want to be treated as special, but of course, deep down, we find it hard to refuse. Privilege, like cheap wine at a catered reception, is constantly on offer for no reason except that you happened to show up.

This, I believe, was my state of mind when I set out to for the Beijing Apple Store to fight the paradoxes of modern capitalism filled with the fervor of righteous justice. Read the whole thing on Medium.

Life Under the Dome: The Political Economy of Pollution in China

A subset of my thoughts on pollution in China, particularly about why it’s so hard to fix, is up on Priceonomics.

In short, it’s part of the detritus lingering over a larger pattern of uneven development in China. In Beijing, which has reached a much higher stage of development than its neighboring areas, the desire to cut down on pollution has reached levels both high (top government) and low (a growing sense of frustration and awareness from people who previously thought nothing of it).

And of course there is a gratuitous and strangely specific metaphor about pizza-making establishments. Because China is a land of metaphors, in addition to the pollution.

Praying to He, She, or It in Chinese: How Chinese Third Person Pronouns Avoid (Some) Religious Gender Issues

Like many Jews in America, my family belongs to a Reform synagogue — the most progressive and liberalized of the three major Jewish schools. Every Sunday morning, all of the other Jewish kids in the greater northwestern New Jersey region and I were dragged out of bed by our parents and brought to Hebrew school to learn about Jewish history, language, and culture and to collectively complain about having to get up early on Sunday morning to learn things. One of the most memorable lessons we had dealt with what the idea of God looked like; we were instructed to draw a picture of God. There was, of course, no wrong answer: the student who drew God as an ice cream cone was as correct as the student who copied Botticelli. (NB: Someone did, in fact, draw God as an ice cream cone. I regret to say that it was not me). God was neither male nor female; tall nor short; in our teaching, the teachings and importance of God could not be simplified into a dude with a beard but rather remained an abstract concept to give life meaning and direction.

The Old Testament of the Bible, however, was written before the women’s suffrage movement and other reformers jumpstarted the still ongoing push for gender equality. It was also written before the volunteers at our community temple drafted the curriculum for Sunday school. Thus, the Bible, whether read as literature or gospel or something in between, contains not only some rather traditional views of gender relations but also plenty of gendered terms relating to reverence and God. In popular culture, the Judeo-Christian God is viewed as an old white man with an impressively long beard who bought some excellent real estate in the clouds before the housing bubble started on Earth. In the text, God is referred to as “he”, “king,” “lord,” and more, all assuming that the higher power is not only omnipotent and omniscient but has exclusively male characteristics.

Around 2008, the Reform Jewish community decided that religion ought to reflect community values of gender equality. Our religious materials were outdated. New prayerbooks were issued, and all references to God as a male were changed: “He” became “You”; the “king” became the “sovereign”; “lord” became “ruler” or “the Eternal,” etc. Some congregants viewed the changes as important manifestations of gender equality, others as awkward, grammatically questionable, surface level changes.

But in Chinese, it turns out, this problem doesn’t exist.

Unbeknownst to many, China not only has Jews – but has had Jewish residents for nearly a thousand years. A handful of Jewish traders came to China via the Silk Road and settled in the ancient Song dynasty capital of Kaifeng, along the Yellow River in north-central Henan Province. Although the community’s original language and records are in Hebrew, over many centuries, dynasties, and floods wore away language as well as many, if not nearly all, of the customs – until the opening up and reform of China starting in the late 1970s gradually led to a renewed interest in Judaism within the community and among Jews abroad. Because no residents of Kaifeng can speak Hebrew and few English, all of the prayers, explanations, and discussions are in Chinese.

For Chinese speakers learning English, one of the most difficult elements of English to remember are gender pronouns. Native Chinese speakers will frequently refer to men as “she” and women as “he”, sometimes mixing the two interchangeably in a conversation. (For example, today, from a friend: “My wife is very smart. He scored the highest on his school exams.”) This is either a language gap or the most extreme form of progressive anti-heteronormativity in existence.

In reality, spoken Chinese does not differentiate between any personal pronouns: he, she, and it are all pronounced tā. The difference comes when they are written. Each of these Chinese characters can be broken down into two parts, one of which represents part of the meaning and one of its sound. The right side of the characters for he and she are both identical: 也. But the left side varies based on the specific person being referred to. Adding the radical meaning ‘female’ (女)creates the character for she (她), while adding the character for ‘man’ (人)results in the character for he (他). (When used in combination in simplified Chinese, the man radical is slightly altered from its standalone form, hence the difference in how it looks). The character for ‘it’ is now written 它 in simplified Chinese but can be written as 牠 in traditional Chinese, composed of the character for ‘cow’ (牛)and referring to any animal or physical “it.”

Thus although spoken Chinese has no need to awkwardly but grammatically correctly include phrases like “he or she,”a speaker of written Chinese still has to deal with this issue when he or she is writing with Chinese characters. In most cases, that is — in other ways, written Chinese has managed to solve this problem. If spoken Chinese avoids the gender problem through brute simplicity – everything is pronounced tā – written Chinese avoids the problem through specificity.

The Chinese translation of ‘he’ when referring to God (上帝)is also pronounced tā, but it is written not as 他, 她,or 牠 but as 祂. As with the other third person singular pronouns, the right side of the character is the same. But the left side is neither male nor female but a radical meaning ‘spirit’ that is also used in words like 神 (meaning deity or divine). Thus, the concept of God translated into Chinese is neither ‘he’ nor ‘she’ nor an ‘it’ referring to any day-to-day object but rather a unique pronoun just for things that cannot be explained by the human world. Even though the character has to specify which third person pronoun is being used, the options are not just man, woman, or thing; the language itself reflects a differentiation between the material world and the spiritual one. When a Jew prays in Chinese, either through reading or speaking out loud, then, the pronouns are only attached to an individual’s conception of God as whatever God is. God is just as much of an ice cream cone as a man.

Of course, the rest of the translated prayers in are peppered with 王(king), 父 (father), and plenty of other references to God as an anthropomorphic masculine being. But as long as we’re not trying to talk about God in human terms, the Chinese language supplies some very helpful gender-neutral but meaning-rich pronouns. Now, instead of Hebrew, all of the Sunday schools in America can turn to teaching Chinese.

New Student Orientation, Chinese Style

The beginning of the new school year is always one of the most fun times of year: wide-eyed, cheery, overwhelmed hordes of young people arrive on campuses around the world and proceed to get in the way of everyone trying to get anywhere on time.

The new school year for Chinese university students kicked off earlier this month, and banners went up around campus welcoming the new students. Pop-up stalls selling every type of plastic household item imaginable appeared all around in parking lots and along walkways. The window in my office faces one of the main squares of the university campus; from my desk, I had a full view of the new student orientation activities that were about to commence.

At universities in the United States, new student orientation is a time of brightly-colored t-shirts and RAs chanting and screaming until they are hoarse. I remember my own freshman orientation very clearly: Before I had even arrived at my dorm, my RAs were waiting outside screaming my name — they were apparently able to identify me from covertly tracking me down on Facebook — to welcome me to the dorm. I was then informed that my dorm was the best dorm of all time, and that no other dorm could say the same. Over the next week, new student orientation proceeded with an unimaginable number of embarrassing icebreakers and time to learn our respective “dorm chants” about why our dorm was, in fact, superior. Then we were treated to a series of seminars about the dangers of alcohol and sex, soon followed by consumption of alcohol and time for flirting.

Chinese new student orientation, however, turns out to be a bit different than that of US colleges and universities. New student orientation in China is not about learning which dorm is the best and chanting slogans supporting your dorm; instead, Chinese new student orientation is mainly composed of mandatory military training.

The first things that stand out are the sounds: the blaring of patriotic Chinese music, the coordinated stomping of feet, the gruff barking of Chinese military officers. Then the sights: the stiff backs, the swinging arms to and fro, and, of course, the familiar neon pink new student orientation t-shirts emblazoned with “2014.” The chants and slogans are there, but they are not about dorms but national patriotism.

A very poor photograph of a very interesting sight.

A very poor photograph of a very interesting sight.

All incoming university students, regardless of their future endeavors, are required to participate in this military training. High school students participate in similar training at the beginning of the school years as well, although as of yet no word on what color t-shirts they have to wear. National defense education extends down to primary and junior high school as well, although not through full military training. According to the law, national defense education should be part of “related curricula” with potential for incorporation into extracurricular activities.

As these are not future military officers, the goal is not to train students for actual military altercations, as most students probably do not march in unison to attend class. Instead, there are four established aims: promote patriotism, help develop good personal character, shape collectivism, and benefit later learning.

In its current form, the training appears to be mostly focused on instilling discipline. The students have to stand outside all day in the late summer heat, retracing the same steps over and over.

As journalist David Logan wrote last year in The Diplomat, “The goal most commonly cited by both trainers and trainees was the cultivation of self-discipline. The same discipline required to weather early morning drill formations, so the logic goes, will also help students succeed in the classroom and cope with their newfound independence.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Chinese students seem to regard this new student orientation as a nuisance rather than a particularly effective means of disciplinary training. Some students have suggested to me that it is mostly an exercise in standing outside in the heat all day rather than anything actually related to patriotism or the Chinese military. Others have suggested it is an exercise in conformity — forcing everyone to march together in exact unison is perhaps an attempt to “shape collectivism,” as proponents describe it.

The combination of heat, goose-stepping, and hordes of teenagers, of course, has its detractors. This year has been particularly contentious, as a number of incidents have occurred during training. According to the New York Times, five students in Wuhan, one of China’s notoriously hot cities, fainted in the first 20 minutes of training. In Hunan province, more than 40 people were injured after a scuffle broke out during a high school military drill.

There is no way to determine whether this military training helps improve discipline or effectively promotes conformity and collectively-oriented thinking among students. At the end of the day, as with many interactions between individuals and the State here in China, most students appear to grudgingly accept the requirements. Then, as soon as the school year starts, they probably forget everything and anything related to the previous week’s activities.

In this respect, of course, it is similar to new student orientation in the United States.

Obligatory Thoughts on Learning the Chinese Language

Nobody ever said that learning Chinese was easy. Or if they did, they probably said it in Chinese — in which case I would have a lot of trouble understanding them.

I have spent every day over the last two months immersed in learning Chinese, and now I can effectively order food as long as there are pictures and the waiters speak English. I can also ask where the nearest bathroom is, but usually it’s probably better if I don’t because I’m not sure I want to go in there.

For all of its difficulties, though, learning Chinese has been a surprisingly enjoyable experience. The Chinese language is linguistically fascinating, full of fascinating quirks and logical connections. There are, of course, parts of the language that make no sense; I have been advised by my language teachers multiple times not to argue with the Chinese language because I will invariably lose. (This appears to be a sound line of reasoning, but further research is needed.) Every time you are lost in a sea of strange-looking symbols, heretofore unheard of sounds, and vehement body gestures in your general direction, each element of the language finds a way to piece itself back together. Continue reading

China: Learning to Love Inefficiency

“If you are in China for a week, you think you can write a book about it. If you are in China for a month, you think you can write an article about it. If you are in China for a year, you don’t think you can write anything at all.” — folk saying, date unknown

“What about blogging? Where does that fit in? Hello?” — me, June 2014, about to write a blog post

The reason I chose to come to China is precisely because it is big, complicated, and confusing. In other words, it is a place where I can, and will, learn more than I can imagine. (And also because I love Chinese food, but I assure you that’s secondary.) If you ask people what the most interesting thing happening in China is right now — which I do to every person who is willing to talk to me and/or speaks English — you will get a different answer.

From pollution (a poster standing in the large shopping district of Wangfujing showed a guy wearing a hazmat suit, “If we don’t clean up the environment, soon we will have to dress like astronauts”) to urbanization to corruption (it is not uncommon to find Bentleys parked between Hyundais and rickshaws on the street) to the rapid rise of religion (from Christianity to Islam to Ba’hai) to new territorial disputes to international FDI to internal ethnic tensions, everyone can give a different answer. There are probably even more, but I haven’t spoken to those people yet and/or they don’t speak English. What’s more, it is impossible to isolate any of these fundamental issues as the economic, political, international, and social pictures are all tied together.

When you ask me what I think after five days in China, I’d probably say it’s the Chinese food. But I swear that’s secondary, right?

Yet even if there is still much to digest on the grand scale and humility is the order of the day, from just a short time here it is easy to pick up on a few very micro patterns that give me sufficient reason to write a blog post. One in particular: the incredible inefficiency that pervades everything.

I don’t mean this pejoratively; in fact, if anything it’s the opposite. Chinese people take their time: even for a bustling and crowded metropolis like Beijing, very few people seem to be in a rush. Beijing’s downtown makes Times Square or Wall Street look like a breeding ground of Energizer bunnies and wind-up toys.

Case in point: When we went to go set up our phones and get new Chinese SIM cards, we walked into the store and were handed a menu of options. We quickly identified which one we wanted and how much it cost. And since we were accompanied to by two fluent Chinese speakers, there was no language barrier — all we had to do was buy the phone.

In more efficient places, the whole process would have taken 15-30 minutes at most. We would go to the salesman, he would plug in our information, and give us the SIM card. But not in China. First, we sat down with the salesman and bantered for a few minutes. Then he offered us every possible other option on the menu. Then another salesman came over to talk to him, and then to us, and there was a long back-and-forth three-way conversation between all parties. Then the salesman decided to try to practice English with us. “Thank you, sir.” “Passport, please.” Then both salespeople together started to challenge the language ability of one of our colleagues who speaks Chinese but does not look Chinese, and they began quizzing her with Chinese slang to see if she knew what they were talking about. Then they spent ten minutes trying to figure out how to say “pre-paid phone card” in English. Then he took our information and started to process it, all while bantering with us in broken English, making jokes, and explaining the phone plan in the most roundabout manner possible. Then he started trying to converse with us more in English and pretty much forgetting about actually entering our information. Finally, he finished one of the two SIM cards — and we had to start the process all over again. One and a half hours later, we exited the store with phones and SIM cards in hand.

If I were in a rush, I would have gone insane. If you don’t learn to love inefficiency, it seems, you will face a world of unrelenting frustration. But inefficiency is not the right word in many ways — it’s not a lack of efficiency as much as it the presence of an different, more time-consuming process. Simple things are not merely transactions that can be done as quickly as possible, but are instead processes between people that occupy a different notion of how relationships between people play out. You have to build a structure around the simple transaction for it to work. It should be noted that this has been a huge boon for my ordering of Chinese food: never has indecisiveness between 8 different types of tofu been so warmly tolerated.

The inefficiency extends beyond small interactions. There are also very few schedules of when things need to get done. Buildings will sit half-finished for days, months, or years until all of a sudden they need to be finished and then they are magically taken care of. (Don’t ask me about the structural integrity; I don’t do science.) People walk incredibly slowly on the streets, and I’ve seen fewer than two people walk up an escalator rather than stand. As a friend described it to me, everything occurs on China time — if it’s not meant to happen yet, it won’t happen until the time is right.

Luckily, I’m in no rush — they serve the food so fast anyways, might as well take forever to order it.