Sunday, January 29, 2012

Misadventures cum adventures

In addition to weathering a bad flu that also affected my vice-principal, I have had one misadventure after another that has kept me from faithfully blogging since about Christmastime. Right now, I am writing from the cozy living room of my sister's apartment in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. It is Spring Festival and the tumultuous Year of the Dragon has commenced sans fireworks in America...though, I was able to let off my first cherry bomb before the sojourn home.


Harbin: "Rooms to rent for fifty cents"

I went to Harbin the week prior to my departure for Spring Festival.

Luckily, Shannon and I, who would be joined by our friend from Heilongjiang Province the next day, found seats on the green train. Our twenty yuan tickets for the two-and-a-half hour ride were for standing room only, but an elderly man pushed me into his seat violently (with a smile), insisting that he was a smoker and therefore standing in the aisle would work well for him. Shannon perched on the edge of a seat filled with students from Ji Da (Jilin University). I sniffled and learned to play the "landlord game" with a deck of cards and three middle-aged men, who viewed me with both admiration and derision.

I called the sinohotel.com people twice to make sure that we could arrive late, as the train from Changchun did not arrive until around midnight. We got there easily enough, but I was beginning to really suffer from a head cold that was part of the aforementioned flu. We popped into a cab and headed away from the station. It was not long before it became clear that the cabbie did not know where to take us. We gave him a small fortune and he disappeared into the night, leaving us at the doorstep of a hotel that had "no room in the inn." We hailed  a second cab that knew where our reservation was, but we found the attendant sleeping behind the check-in counter. Groggily, she reported to us that the room had been given away. We walked out into the frigid night, discovering a hostel and several more hotels that had been battened down for the night. Around 1:30AM we found ourselves in a warm, well-lit Kentucky Fried Chicken. While I went to the bathroom, Shannon tried her Mandarin out on the only two patrons--a pair of students studying for a test. They knew a place where we could stay for forty yuan a night. We walked about forty-five minutes and found it. I might have had a breakdown had we not.

The next morning, I slept till about 10AM. Lu came up from Changchun in the morning, as we should have done, and met us at the hotel. We went to the drugstore and then lunch, before taking a bus to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. This was, in addition to being five degrees colder than the rest of the city, one of the most amazing feats of human ingenuity, creativity, and engineering that I have ever witnessed. I don't have pictures, though, as we decided to do a tubing ride down the hillside and my camera bounced out of my pocket. Apparently, it landed in the bowels of the tube where a subsequent rider found it, but said person failed to turn it in. After the festival, we had a nice dinner and went to bed.

We also visited the famous Russian Orthodox Church, St. Sofia's, which was a gallery of early photographs of Harbin and a concert hall for a decent performance of choral music that had commenced already when we entered. Strange to pay admission to gain entry to a house of worship, but this is officially atheist China.

The sign at the entrance to the haunting premise of Unit 731.
The next day, we went to Unit 713 in the outskirts of Harbin. Certainly, the United States Holocaust Museum displays are more professionally rendered, but--to slip into the superlative again--I have never been to a more haunted place than this. Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and World War II.

There was a diorama of Chinese citizens crucified in a circle and Japanese persecutors watching through binoculars and in gas-masks as a plane with a chemical bomb swooped in to drop its poison. There were meat hooks for human viscera and pictures of the frostbite experiments. There were empty mustard gas bombs that still turn-up unexploded and sicken people. It gave me a better understanding of the deep-seated hatred of the Chinese for the Japanese. That no official acknowledgement of this has come from the Japanese is certainly a tragedy.



Flight Home

I left Changchun on schedule to come home to America for a visit. I flew to Shanghai and then left Shanghai on time, as well. We got to Narita (the Tokyo Airport) twenty minutes late. Air Nippon representatives flagged down the seven people connecting to Newark, NJ, at the end of the ramp as we exited the plane, explaining that we would not be able to make our connection. The Spaniard was rude. The Chinese-American with the New York baseball cap was profane. Three students and I agreed to the detainment for a while, then mutinied, rushed up the stairs, cut the line, and plummeted down the elevator to the gate. The plane was still there, but the door was shut and we watched as it pulled away, as we pleaded for the Continental/United staff to let us on.

As it turned out, Narita was wonderful. The airline put us in a hotel with tiny, very highly-equipped rooms and there was a spa. We all slept in after a great, authentic Japanese dinner.

Pagoda in Narita-san. Learn more.
The next morning we met the Chinese-American Cornell student and the URI student, who was returning from a month-long visit to her boyfriend and walked into downtown, touristy Narita. We bought some bean cakes and went to a huge, famous Buddhist temple, capping it off with a lunch of unagi (or eel).


It was pure magic to watch as the restaurant workers sat at a long table, plucking writhing eels from a bucket, pinning their heads to the table, and then chopping them up while they were still alive. They de-boned them and, like Gaul, divided them in three parts before piercing them with skewers and handing them off to the cooks, who would grill them before throwing the finished, delectable product into bento boxes of rice. We hurried back to the hotel and got to our plane in plenty of time, learning that ANA or Air Nippon had failed to re-book us for the next day after Continental (United) denied us the ability to board our original flight.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Fen and maoed

The coins in China are called jiao, but their nickname is Mao, for the late Great Helmsman despite that his mug only appears on the paper currency. One-hundredth of one RenMinBi (RMB) is called a fen. There are no coins of this tiny denomination any longer. The "mao" is equivalent to the dime.

A nickel is five cents and a dime is ten cents. The expression "nickel and dimed" is similar to the expression "death by a thousand paper cuts."

In her book, Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich moved from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, taking the cheapest lodgings available and accepting work as a waitress, hotel maid, house cleaner, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart salesperson.

When I return to Changchun in February, I will spend the remainder of the 29-day month and March living on as little money as I can, scrupulously reporting to all of you on this experiment. I will not embed as either a fu wu yuan (service personnel) or as an ai yi (housecleaner), nor would my employer, employment or the Chinese Foreign Affairs bureau allow it. My language ability limits my ability to communicate with the truly poor, but I will do my best to share with you about how the other half lives in China.

I will do things that really poor people and Third World denizens do, like hang out my clothes. (Watch this video of a couple people in New York decrying the clothesline and then see this ABC News story about a "poor woman" who left 2 million to the Salvation Army.) You can expect more on the mechanics of this experiment in the future. Here is a little economic overview that helps set the stage.

Challenges Ahead

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), in a recent staff report, describe the challenges and realities thus:
Focus. The consultation examined the macroeconomic outlook, the potential for a property price bubble, the risks to the banking system, and the policy measures underpinning the 12th Five-Year Plan. The mission drew on the work of the FSAP—to connect financial sector reform to macroeconomic rebalancing—and of the spillover team—to trace out the international implications of rebalancing in China.

Macroeconomic Policies. The ongoing withdrawal of monetary stimulus is fully appropriate but a greater weight should be given to the use of higher interest rates and nominal appreciation in tightening monetary conditions. A continued steady decline in the fiscal deficit is also warranted, accompanied by a reorienting of tax and expenditure policies to support consumption.

Risks. The main near-term domestic risks to the outlook are from higher-than-expected inflation (most likely from domestic food supply shocks), a property bubble that inflates and then bursts, or a decline in credit quality linked to the post-crisis expansion in lending.

Rebalancing. There has been much progress on a number of fronts and the 12th Five-Year Plan lays out a comprehensive strategy to advance the transformation of China’s growth model. To achieve these goals, a range of measures will be needed including improvements in the social safety net, policies to raise household income, a liberalization of the financial system, a stronger currency, and increases in the costs of various factors of production. A successful rebalancing, with policy changes on all these fronts, will generate positive spillovers to the global economy.

Financial Liberalization. Financial reform holds significant promise in contributing to the needed transformation of the Chinese economy. Over the horizon of the 12th Five-Year Plan, reforms should seek to secure a more modern framework for monetary management, improve supervision and regulation, deepen the channels for financial intermediation, transition to market-determined deposit and loan rates, and open the capital account. In all of this, a stronger renminbi will be an important complement.
Understanding the 12th Five-Year Plan will also be part of my assignment.

Minimum Wage in China

As some of you may know, I was on the board of Burlington, Vermont' Peace & Justice Center when they were rolling out the first major livable wage study in the nation. Understanding wages will be one topic that I discuss here. Is "Communism with Chinese characteristics" just a cynical and authoritarian version of Western capitalism? As we approach the November changes expected when seven of nine politburo members step down, how will the economic system here adapt to insure that the Revolution continues (i.e. continuous reform and opening) and that the people are served by their government instead of the people serving their government?

The average minimum wage for most the People's Republic of China rose by 21.7% by the end of September 2011, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security reported. The city of Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong, guaranteed the highest minimum wage of 1,320 yuan ($207; £130) a month. Beijing offered the best hourly rate of 13 yuan ($2). (See BBC News.)

The cost of living for expatriates, though, is higher in Beijing than in the Big Apple. Housing in China is widely viewed as out-of-control. There are scores of empty tenements and shopping malls, though, and about half of the population is still rural. Half of these people still live on a dollar a day, depending on how you calculate it.



The Wealth Gap

As in United States, the income gap in China is a source of national embarrassment. Michele Geraci at Zhejiang University explained it well in a well-researched piece printed in China Daily last February. As my own country wrestles with the issues raised by Occupy Wall Street, questions of income disparity are front-and-center around the world.

As fascinating to me, though, is the ancient culture of China and people's sense of their own place in the world. The disgusting displays of wealth here shock me. Are the majority of the proletariat ("proles," for short), pacified or comfortable with the Moutai drinking class? If so, why? This blog will continue to talk about fur coats and green coats; Hummers and bikes; corn meal and caviar.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

China's National Winter Games in Changchun?

Xinhua, the Chinese national paper, reports on Monday:

A total of 12 foreign referees will officiate in the 12th Chinese National Winter Games which is scheduled to start in northeast China's Jilin Province on Tuesday.
"Most of the domestic judges are from northeast China and Beijing, where winter sports are well developed, so we hope these overseas referees can help ensure fair play at the upcoming games," Wang Fuhai, an official with the organising committee, told Xinhua on Monday.
These overseas recruits, who are from Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Norway, Russia and South Korea, will all work on ice, officiating in speed skating, short-track speed skating, figure skating and ice hockey.
The National Winter Games will conclude on Jan. 13th.
Today is Tuesday, but none of my web searches and none of my Chinese friends can find any information about these competitions here in my city. There is another Xinhua story from December 28th:

While the organizing committee puts the final touches on the event, athletes are carefully devising their strategies as they aim for medals and national titles.
The ten-day tournament will cover 14 events, including speed skating - both long and short track, figure skating and so on. A total of 115 gold medals will be on offer, the most ever. The local Jilin delegation will participate in three events.
The organizers have rebuilt the facilities, and they have 32 snow making machines in case the natural fall is not strong enough to provide top competitive conditions. The event also aims to set new records in being economically frugal.
The opening ceremony will be held on Jan 3, showcasing northern hospitality from a region dominated by winter sports culture.
 I want more information. Can you help? My boss wants hockey tickets.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Year-End Appeal to All Readers


Dear Friends,
I wanted to let you know of this initiative by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests to conserve 5,800+ acres of land at the Balsams. As a supporter of this project and an opponent of Northern Pass, it is very exciting to know that this could happen very soon because it extinguishes a proposed right-of way that may otherwise be granted to Northern Pass.
If $850,000 is donated by January 15th, the Forest Society will purchase conservation restrictions on most of the undeveloped parts of the property. As you can see, bringing this project to completion will require a substantial financial effort on the part of the Society, its friends, and others who care about this spectacular landscape. I am supporting this effort, and hope that you will also consider a generous gift.
There are several ways to make a gift:
1. Through the web at this link:
2, By mailing a check to:
Forest Society-Balsams Project
54 Portsmouth Street
Concord, NH 03301

3. To make a stock gift, please contact Cheryl Lee Bozek at Cambridge Trust at 603-369-5055

4. To make a pledge, please contact Susanne Kibler-Hacker at 603-224-9945 x 314 or skh@forestsociety.org

You can track the progress of this project at this link: http://savethebalsamslandscape.blogspot.com/

Many thanks!

Alexander Lee