It's all about China

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MomTo2Boys
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It's all about China

Post by MomTo2Boys » Fri Jan 02, 2015 12:45 am

Hi, guys! So... in another thread, Sophie and Reub both were asking about my time in China (by the way, I live in Japan now).

Reub said:

"Yes please share your insights on China with us. Did you live in a big city and for how long? Is there any pure capitalism going on there? Is the economy totally fake? Do you think that they are due for a real estate/stock market crash?"

My white-as-white-bread American family and I lived in Chengdu, China for a little more than two years. Chengdu is the fourth biggest city in China and its population is roughly 14 million.  In order to get to that population, you would pretty much have to combine New York City (8.4 million), Los Angeles (3.8 million), and Chicago (2.7 million).

The question about capitalism is... tough to answer. In my mind, white-bread-American capitalism is a combination of a company trying to make money in the confines of a society that's sure as hell gonna know if it dumps metric tons of company waste in the nearest river while being watched over by a government that is reasonably free from graft and will freak out if that dumping happens while also operating in a society where everyone has the freedom to take pictures with their cell phones and put them up on Twitter if the rivers turn purple/blue/green, etc.

China is... different.  On one hand, Chinese (and, of course, Japanese) people work a thousand circles around a typical American. Capitalists could find this attractive, of course. A capitalist might be really thrilled by the idea that in China there really aren't weekends and the average worker gets one day off PER MONTH. Also, in China the workers sometimes come from other parts of the country and leave their children behind. This is because in China children tend to be raised by the grandparents, and this is because there are mandatory retirement ages (in the 50s for both men and women though the men are usually allowed to work a bit longer than women), so that there is really no such thing as older workers.

The family relationship in China is one where the husband and wife and child also have the husband's parents living with them in a tiny little apartment. The husband and wife both work, the grandparents were mandatorily retired years ago, and take care of the grandchild. The husband and wife might work where they live or one or both might work in another city altogether tons of miles away. They all might see each other once or twice a year. This is why "golden week" or other such vacation weeks are so incredibly important... it's when families see each other.

Sons are more valued than daughters not because one gender is more prized than another but because sons are usually an aging parent's only hope for a semi-comfortable retirement. When you grow old, you move in with your SON, not your daughter, for your daughter already married some guy and his parents already live with them and there ain't no room for you and even if there were, it's not what's done. If you have no son, you're pretty much screwed, unless you've amassed money, but that doesn't happen for the typical worker in China.

Sure, there is unbelievable wealth in China, but the typical worker doesn't have any of it. Business and moneymaking in China is wrapped in graft, rolled up in intellectual property theft, and includes generous amounts of corporate espionage.  One could argue that it's actually far more capitalistic than what you see in America! Businesses, free from that pesky EPA, can (and will) dump what they wish in the rivers.  Free from labor laws, they can (and will) have workers working 16 hour days with only one day off a month.  Free from any kind of court system that functions, they can (and will) steal intellectual property from any and all without shame or even self-consciousness.  There was an "Apple" store (the fake kind) just down the street from my apartment the whole entire time I lived in Chengdu. It looked and functioned EXACTLY like a real "Apple" store. They had the logo out front, the same shirts worn by the workers inside, the same displays/posters/advertising, the same everything. Anyone would have thought that it was a real Apple store, but it was total fraud from start to finish. And no one cared at all or did anything about it, because in China it was totally normal.

American businesses that moved to China repeatedly had intellectual property theft/corporate espionage committed against them. It's kind of...China's way. China lures the businesses to China, steals all their trade secrets, and then opens up a new business making the exact same things far cheaper using subpar materials. The only businesses that truly seemed to do well after transplanting to China were cheap chain restaurants like McDonald's or KFC because you really can't steal a template for a Big Mac and then make it cheaper another way and have it still sell well. But cars, computers, everything else - my husband and I would just laugh when new American companies would move to China. Wave goodbye to your trade secrets, guys! Prepare to be stolen from, copied, and then undercut.

China's economy is graft rolled up in a shell game of mirrors. Everyone with money has their hands in someone else's cookie jar. It really is just the way things are in China. Local government guys need bribes and corporations need bribes and the government needs bribes... it's just the way it is.  It's so, SO different from anything in America that the two cannot be compared.  That's why, when people talk about the strength of the yuan vs. the dollar I just laugh.  The dollar is backed up by a country that has a government that is tangible and real. That has survived downturns and is incredibly stable, even in the bad times. The yuan is backed by a government that has no idea what in the world it is doing other than whatever it can to keep the country somewhat stable while still making money. 

On one hand, China hates us.  It thinks we tell everyone what to do and bosses them all around (and they're right), and they already feel like they've been bossed around one time too many and so they want us to leave them the hell alone or at least treat them with huge amounts of respect while also leaving them the hell alone.  On the other hand, there isn't a single person in China who wouldn't cut their own off limbs in order to become an American or even travel to America.  They're busy sending their children to college in America in hopes that they can get a job in America after college in hopes that they can naturalize in hopes they can then send for their parents. Bonus points if it's a son! And we're busy giving a large percentage of Chinese visa applicants visas to America, knowing full well that many of them will steal our corporate/scientific/technological secrets and take them back to China when their visas expire.  It's really lame, but it's the cost of doing business with the Chinese and not closing our borders to them. Don't even get me started on this. We just recently started giving TEN YEAR visas to Chinese applicants! Again, don't get me started on this.

The average Chinese person is incredibly hard working, incredibly nice, very sheltered from what life is like anywhere but in China, very loyal to their country, truly cannot fathom that their country actually controls their internet or news sources in any way, is very loyal to their family, a huge saver of money, very respectful, and coughs/wheezes/sneezes/hacks a lot from the pollution, which they don't even think exists because that's the only way they've lived. They think that anyone on the fringes of society (like those who are trying to point out that the news sources are all controlled by the government or that only what the government WANTS to have on the internet is what's on the internet) is a criminal and a troublemaker, just like the government does.  The government does a wonderful, masterful job controlling the society and molding what the normal Chinese person thinks, says, and does.  And it seems to work for them, all in all.

You cannot even begin to believe how regulated the internet (and, actually, everything) is in China.  Most websites Americans are used to (Facebook, all blogs and news sites, etc.) are banned in China.  I guarantee that at least 75% of all websites you normally go to are banned in China.  I had a VPN while I was there but it was taken down every few days.  China is AMAZING at internet control.  I heard that China has a cyber army (in the millions) that would put our capabilities to utter shame, and this I wholeheartedly believe.  They could never, ever, ever, EVER wage any kind of real war on us (ever), but they sure as hell could hack America within an inch of its life in no time flat. 

The government controls every inch of the monetary system and all businesses in China. If there ends up being any kind of stock market or housing crash, it will be over the government's dead body.  The government is ONLY in power as long as the people don't get really angry at them over something.  The internet control isn't enough, the pollution isn't enough, even the pretty awful inflation isn't enough.  All of it together thus far isn't enough to anger the Chinese people and make them want to rise up against their government.  But I will say this... if anything like 2008 happened in China, the government would be in some serious trouble.  This is because 2008 can happen in America because we're a country that doesn't respond to things like that by rising up against our government.  China?  They wouldn't weather a 2008 well, let me just say. So the government will do EVERYTHING it can not to let anything even remotely like a stock market crash or housing crash happen (or, heaven help them, both simultaneously). And since the government owns all the businesses and controls all the money, I would be very surprised if anything major happened like that in China anytime soon. And I would see gorgeous, high-end new apartment buildings going up in Chengdu all the time... with no one moving into them. But that's just me. I could be wrong.

No, I would never, ever, ever, EVER invest in ANYTHING in China, if that's anyone's question. You have to understand that China is only about outward appearances.  If someone really important came to Chengdu, for example, Chengdu's government would shut off the factories. Poof - instant blue skies!  And they would have to know about the visit a year or two in advance, so they could plan where the important person's motorcade was going, so they could paint just the buildings along the motorcade's path.  Buildings one block away would be untouched - buildings along the motorcade path would look sparkling new (on the front - the backs wouldn't be painted, either). Of course, the motorcade would never deviate from the set path.  The person visiting would never dream of asking and, of course, the Chinese would never let them even if they asked.  Then they would have to know exactly which businesses would be visited so the whole building could be remodeled and the workers could be handpicked for that particular day. Nope, I wouldn't invest in anything in China.  But that's just me. 

I have painted a pretty awful picture, but I haven't meant to.  It's just that America and China are so different.  China doesn't really care that it steals intellectual property - it wouldn't even call it stealing. It thinks that if it can end up with intellectual property through its hard work/skill/wit then it deserves to be able to make money off of it, just like you do. Why should you make all the money?  It wouldn't care that it controls the internet - so what? So the average Chinese person can't go on the internet and read lies. Isn't that a good thing? It also hasn't bombed anyone in Iraq or Pakistan, it would say to you, like warmongering Americans.  Schoolchildren aren't shot in Chinese schools like they are in American schools.  Chinese aren't fat like Americans. There's far less drug use in China since drug use is punishable by death... etc.  It's just that America and China are just so... different.  :)

_____________

[EDIT:] Oh, and by the way, that fake Apple store I talked about? I speak passable Chinese, so I went in to the store one day just to talk to the workers and try to feel them out about their (fake) store. And you know what? They all genuinely believed that their store was a real Apple store. Truly and genuinely, they believed it. Without a doubt in my mind, every last one of them thought that they were working for a real Apple store and were real Apple employees.  It's just all so very... China.
Last edited by MomTo2Boys on Fri Jan 02, 2015 1:04 am, edited 1 time in total.
(Trying hard to not screw up handling the money that my husband has traded untold life-hours to earn...)
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Re: It's all about China

Post by flyingpylon » Fri Jan 02, 2015 5:21 am

Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective... very interesting.
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Re: It's all about China

Post by dualstow » Fri Jan 02, 2015 6:31 am

Thanks, Mom.

Last night, when I opened up my Kindle which has a half year free of the Washington Post, I saw a disturbing article on tiger farms in China. I peeked at the BBC news and the top story was that gmail is blocked again in China, just as it was when I was visiting my in-laws.  My wife's -- she's Chinese -- story of the week was that she was talking to her friend from another part of the country. That friend said that in middle school, parents bribed teachers so that their kids could be seated near the front. And this was in a public school!

I have read articles about how the United States was the intellectual property rip-off king of the world in its early days. Back then, it was British textiles. So, I don't think there is something inherently cheaty about China. They're just going through their ugly period of industrialization, obscene materialism and conspicuous consumption, and hustling. I do wonder, though, if they're going to get through it the way western countries have. There's no telling, but it's going to be a rough ride as far as I can see.
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Re: It's all about China

Post by barrett » Fri Jan 02, 2015 6:45 am

MT2B, What a terrific and thorough post. My Chinese wife and I often discuss cultural differences and you have covered some of the reasons that she made her way to the US in the first place. But I also think you have hit on some things that my wife just expects that I surely already know, which is a real help. I have been to China a couple of times (1984 & 2008) and speak some Chinese but I can sure use some help in getting the big picture straight in my head.

A couple of books on China that I loved:

1) Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China's Other Billion
2) Iron and Silk

Both are from visiting American perspectives but in each case the author spent a similar amount of time in China (I think between one and two years). Just fascinating stuff.

Something that my wife always says is that Chinese people treat ME well because I am a foreigner but that they treat one another terribly. Specifically that when she is in China or dealing with other Chinese people here in the US, she is dealt with in a very cold, calculating manner. Fortunately, there are obvious exceptions to this but she always says the claim that "Chinese people are very nice" is just not very true... at least from her perspective.

My wife likes to speak her mind and figured that she would eventually run into trouble with the government if she stayed there. It probably would have happened before (she left for good at age 35) but she was just so darn good at her work - and was essentially a government worker - that she was cut a lot of slack.

When my mother-in-law visited from China in 2008 she couldn't even begin to fathom freedom of speech. Going online and watching some silly youtube political parody was just too damn subversive. The beginning of this clip made her run out of the room:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adc3MSS5Ydc

The mimi jingcha (secret police) might find out, I guess.

Just rambling a bit here but this stuff is really interesting to me. Hopefully Dualstow will weigh in. He's spent some time in that part of the world.

Ah, I am too slow, I see. Dualstow was up earlier than I!
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Re: It's all about China

Post by dualstow » Fri Jan 02, 2015 7:55 am

Well, I spent way more time in Taiwan and have only visited the mainland. There are some similarities (graft, pollution, much of the culture, entrepreneurial spirit) and also huge differences (much more freedom, attitude toward politics, etc). Taiwan graft without the heavy-handed government makes it into a sort of "gangster island". I do love it, though.
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Re: It's all about China

Post by Desert » Fri Jan 02, 2015 9:39 am

What a great post, MomTo2Boys! 

I'm guessing you're finding Japan very different (aside from the ridiculously long working hours).  What part of Japan are you in?
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Re: It's all about China

Post by Mountaineer » Fri Jan 02, 2015 10:14 am

Fascinating post. Thank you!

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Re: It's all about China

Post by Pointedstick » Fri Jan 02, 2015 10:34 am

Absolutely fascinating! Really awesome perspective to have.
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Re: It's all about China

Post by barrett » Fri Jan 02, 2015 12:09 pm

I shared that epic post with my Chinese wife and she concurred right across the board. One thing she added was that from a woman's point of view, if you want to move up in any kind of organization, it's almost obligatory to have sex with the boss. Clearly that goes on in many cultures including here in the US, but her feeling is that people are not necessarily rewarded for their hard work in China. The equivalent for a male worker who wants to advance would be to bribe someone. But women have to do that as well. My wife's youngest sister is now 42 and is still dealing with this crap on a daily basis.
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Re: It's all about China

Post by pugchief » Fri Jan 02, 2015 12:19 pm

Great post and perspective MTTB. Thanks
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Re: It's all about China

Post by sophie » Fri Jan 02, 2015 12:54 pm

This post is priceless!!  Thank you for taking the time to write it, it was so beautifully laid out, and will be so helpful for interpreting news stories about China.

One thing that struck me is that this is exactly how Chinatown in Manhattan operates.  It's THE place to go for illegal knock-offs, pirated DVDs, and cheap junk of all kinds (think: stocking stuffers).  It's a great place to grocery shop because items are ridiculously cheap, which I'm sure is due to major tax & regulatory evasion.  All the stores along Canal Street have fake back walls, behind which are the illegal sale items.  When the police turn up, the back wall is shut and if you happen to be shopping back there, you just have to wait until they open it up again after the cops leave.

So my guess is that the intellectual property theft behavior is cultural, and will probably never change.  It's interesting, though, how things in the business arena are so loosey-goosey, but personal/public lifestyles follow such a strict regimen.  In those same Canal Street shops, you can expect to pay appropriately for traditional art objects from China like jade statues, that really are beautiful.
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Re: It's all about China

Post by Ad Orientem » Fri Jan 02, 2015 5:08 pm

This is one of the best reflections on modern China that I have read. My own take is that China's economy is in many respects the sort of unrestrained Capitalism that we had in the United States prior to the twentieth century. It sounds like China is experiencing it's own "Gilded Age." The one big difference being that we had a semi-democratic system of government, though in the main, it was as corrupt as China's is today.
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