Monday, May 22, 2006

It's great to be back in Oshkosh

And breathing clean air and enjoying blue skies.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Sounds of the market by the Wall

Have a look and a listen to the market at the entrance to this section of the Great Wall.

The Great Wall

Conference participants went to the Great Wall yesterday, at least that portion that is about 25 miles outside downtown Beijing.

As you can see from these pictures, we weren't the only ones. All those postcard pictures that you see of the Wall in solitary majesty have been overtaken by the realities of market-driven, tourist-based economy.

I don't have time to say much this morning, but I will note that the coming down was harder than the going up. The wall is very steep, and several of us noted that our legs were trembling from the exertion of the walk down.

Listen to this: a strange clash of East and West. Vendors sell souvenirs of all types, including whistles. But don't expect to hear authentic folk tunes.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Silk Market

I made an expedition this morning to Beijing’s Silk Market. I was dreading going, because I had been warned that everything has to be bargained for, that the merchants are very aggressive (and good at getting their price) and that they will slip inferior goods into your bag if you are not careful.

As a rule of thumb, the initial prices that are quoted are roughly double what you should end up paying.

How did I do? Well, here was the haul: five wool-silk shawls, two silk scarves, two silk ties, a pair of silk pajamas, a set of nested purses, a silk blouse and a reversible Chinese-style linen jacket.

I paid about 1,700 yuan, or a little over $200.

I’m pretty sure I got taken. A bad sign: Two of the merchants gave me their cards and invited me to come back and bring my friends.

The Silk Market is a lot more than silk. In the basement the air is heavy with the smell of leather. Wallets, purses, shoes and luggage are everywhere.

One of the upper floors is all fine jewelry.

Lower floors have designer clothes and casual styles. A ride up the escalator takes you to the silk floor. As soon as you start walking down the aisle, all the merchants start calling out in heavily accented English.

“Hello sir.”

“Hello sir, you want suit? Fine silk suit. Ready for you tomorrow.”

Some of the merchants reach out and grab your arm.

“Hello sir. You want scarf? Silk scarf? Pashmina.”

Pashmina is a kind of wool that supposedly comes from the fine hair under the chin of a Himalayan goat. But it is not an officially recognized designation, and really just means wool or cashmere.

“Come here, sir, and I give you best price.”

The merchants, most of them women, use small calculators for bargaining. They punch in a number and show it to you. (That way they don’t have to say prices out loud for other merchants or customers to hear.)

You punch in your price, which should be about 40 percent of the vendor’s.

“Oh, sir, I can’t sell to you for that. I lose money. But how many you want? If you buy three, I can give you best price. I give you morning price. You are my first customer this morning. I give you morning price.”

(That part’s highly unlikely, since it was about noon when I was there.)

The guidebooks say that your best strategy is to bargain as much as you can and then walk away,

“Sir you are very handsome. Come back. I like you. I sell to you.”

That’s how I got the silk pj’s for 50 yuan, about $6.

As the bargaining went on, I think I got better at it.

One of the tricks I wasn’t prepared for was when a vendor would resist giving back my change. Instead she would offer “deals.”

“Take another tie, and I give you a gift to take back for your wife.”

The vendors do this all day along and have a significant advantage over their customers. You start to feel like a fish that’s getting reeled in.

It’s all very disorienting, and it’s easy to forget where the prices started and exactly how you got to the actual transaction price. It’s also easy to forget exactly what price you bargained to.

A vendor may start stuffing merchandise into your bag that you didn’t want and put aside the things you actually want. But the merchants are intent on making a deal and don’t protest when you tell them to give you the right things.

I had been warned about pickpockets, and so I left my wallet in my room and stuffed folded-up currency in my pockets.

This actually turned out to be a pretty good trick. When I was down to my last 600 yuan, I was bargaining for two items that had started at around 850 yuan. I knew that I had 100 yuan in my right pocket and 500 in the left.

“I don’t have much money left,” I said. “How about if I give you what I have in this pocket? I’ll give you 500 yuan if I have that much.”

We struck a deal, which is how I got a silk blouse and a linen jacket for about $85.

Thinking back, I realize that if I had only 400 yuan in my pocket I probably could have done the deal at that price.

DaVinci in Beijing

A story in the China Daily reports that the DaVinci Code premiered last night in Beijing, about an hour before the official opening in Cannes.

The film opening apparently reflects the recognition by film companies of the size and economic significance of the Chinese market.

China is a big place

That statement seems obvious, but it’s important to keep in mind before coming to any conclusions about the nature of the country.

The scene outside the hotel continues to amaze me, as thousands of cars and bicycles stream by every hour. Everything seems very focused and orderly. It’s overwhelming and daunting.

But a walk through the neighborhood provides another perspective. In the Xidan market, Beijingers shop for clothes, CDs, food. They are dressed in the latest Western styles, and they are relaxed and enjoying themselves.

A mile or so to the east is Tiannamen, and there the Chinese tourists swarm through the square, following their tour guides, who carry colored pennants aloft to keep their charges together.

Over dinner last night, three of us had a lively discussion about the nature of China and its future. An Austrian made it clear that he appreciated the orderliness of the society and argued that the people were not nearly as docile as he had expected.

A Swede was closer to my point of view, questioning the amount of control that the government exerted and wondering how much official scrutiny the conference participants are getting. He’s pretty sure the hotel rooms are bugged.

He is off to Shanghai when the conference closes. By all accounts Shanghai is a far more colorful place, playing the role of Manhattan to Beijing’s D.C.

Skin color

As incomes rise in China, more and more money is being spent on beauty products, and a popular category consists of skin lightening creams.

Our tour guide to the Forbidden City on Monday told us that Chinese women are very concerned about skin color, which explains why they are often seen carrying umbrellas.

White skin is the ideal. According to the tour guide, many Chinese women are afraid of getting tanned, for fear that their husbands will find them unattractive. “If they come home with a tan,” she said, “their husbands will say, ‘You’re black.’”

The American and European in our group laughed and explained how Westerners spend their money at the tanning salon.

Sand and smog

The air quality in this city is incredibly bad. It’s hard not to question the idea of the summer Olympics being played here in 2008, although I guess the venues will be on the outskirts of the city where perhaps the air will be less dense.

Part of the problem is smog, but a lot of it is sand. When the air conditioning comes on in the ballroom where the conference is held, you can taste the sand in your mouth.

Arrests near Tiananmen Square

I saw the local police arresting a group of people near Tiananmen Square (shown above). They were middle age, and their clothing indicated middle class. My guess is they are members of the banned religious sect Falun Gong.

One woman resisted, and the police officer took her by the nape of her neck and gave her a couple of shakes before pushing her into the back of a police van.

Another officer filmed the arrest with a handheld video camera.

This was a rare disruption to the extremely orderly nature of this city.

WMEC Presentation

Here's a copy of my PowerPoint presentation.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Network outage

I wasn't able to post last evening because of a network outage in the hotel.

At first I was paranoid, and thought I was being targeted in some way. But that does not appear to be the case.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Opening Ceremony

This was the scene of the opening of the 7th World Media Economics Conference.

Dragon TV

Hear what Xu Wei, president of Dragon TV had to say about how traditional media companies in China need to react in the face of competition from new media.

(The beginning of this file is a little hard to follow, but it's worth listening to to get an authentic Chinese perspective.)

Contradictory views on censorship

I met a participant at the 7th World Media Economics Conference and got a taste of the Chinese people's contradictory views on censorship.

This person told me that the Chinese government has been blocking hotmail accounts for the last several weeks. To check e-mail, the person had to telephone a relative who lives in another Chinese speaking region and have the relative retrieve recent messages.

Naturally this person was annoyed and expressed much happiness at the government's control of Internet communications.

But later as we talked about current economic conditions in China, particularly the huge gap between rich and poor, this person told me that the Chinese government was right to control the press.

Beijing apparently is sitting on a huge real estate bubble that the government is planning to burst. But instead of allowing "free market" reporting about overinvestment in real estate, the government would rather handle the situation by putting out broad hints through Chinese newspapers.

These hints are in the form of articles suggesting that local residents wait a few months before purchasing property. Recent headlines include these:

Property outlook turns doubtful
Rising prices see owners become a 'housing slave'
Irrational exuberance in Beijing's housing market

The conference participant defended this approach, saying that the Western style reporting would set off a panic, driving prices sharply lower and causing deep losses.

The Chinese approach was better, I was told, because it gave people a clear signal of what to expect and plenty of warning to prepare for the coming bubble bursting.

China and immigration

The president is sending troops to the border and stirring up lots of discussion and debate.

One thing I haven't seen lately is an examination of the role of China in stimulating northward immigration of Mexicans.

Many Americans are unaware that the Mexican manufacturing sector has been badly hurt by jobs moving to China to take advantage of extremely low-wage labor.

It's just another way to show that our world is increasingly complicated and interconnected.

Best of times, worst of times

Chinese newspaper circulation has hit a total of 1.2 billion, I learned today. But, as in the United States, newspaper executives are deeply pessimistic about the future.

Wu Haimin, president of the Beijing Times, told the 7th World Media Economcis Conference on Tuesday that his country's newspaper industry is in a decline that "cannot be reversed."

In many industries what's happening in China is a precursor to what will be happening to Western industries in a few years' time.

But not all of China's media leaders are as pessimistic as Wu. Jin Zhiwei, a senior researcher in the marketing department of CCTC, gave an impassioned speech in which he painted a more positive picture for mainstream media, although he called on journalists to adopt a new definition of news because "the traditional definition of journalism is out of date."

In his definition, news is something that attracts mass attention and can arouse recipients to action. In the United States, journalists generally adopt a more dispassionate attitude and say they do not attempt to exert direct influence.

That's part of the code of objectivity, but many nonjournalists (and some journalists) view such detachment as a fiction.

Overall, after listening to a dozen Chinese media officials, I was struck by how much their views are similar to those that prevail in the United States. The media industry is certainly in a turmoil, and while the best minds are able to describe the dynamics of the situation, no one is coming forward with solutions.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The "China price"

The concept of the China price is a technique that U.S. retailers and manufacturers use to browbeat their suppliers into more favorable terms. It signifies a rock-bottom rate that can only be achieved by going to China and making use of its huge and low-cost workforce.

China is a highly competitive place, and that can be seen in the aggressiveness of street vendors. They are extremely persistent (to the point where you almost need to push them out of your way), but they also are extremely competitive.

The 30 postcards I bought for $6 on the inside of the Forbidden City, which I though was a pretty good price, could be had on the outside for 60 cents.

Everytime I said "no," a vendor would either lower the price or offer more postcards.


As this photo demonstrates, the Chinese are well on their way to developing a new dialect of English. It gets its meaning across--but combines phrases that native speakers would never use together because of their conflicting nuance or redundancy.

Beijing Today, an English-language tabloid, runs a column that focuses on examples of Chinglish and provides suggested revisions.

But the prevalence of Chinglish, particularly in outdoor advertising and official signage, makes you wonder whether such efforts will be successful.

It's probably also worth noting that the number of Chinese speakers of English is likely to grow dramatically over the coming decades, and the way they speak the lanaguage could end up being quite influential in a globalized context.

Although English proficiency is relatively rare, there appears to be a broad-based recognition here that English proficiency will be a key factor in how individuals fare in their careers.

The (Not So ) Forbidden City

The Forbidden City, once closed to all but members of the imperial family and court, is now a major tourist attraction.

This picture shows the imperial garden, near the north entrance. This is the only place in the nearly 180-acre compound where trees were allowed to grow. Everywhere else, as a protective measure for the emperor, the ground was covered over with seven layers of crossbeams, designed to keep any would-be assassin from tunneling into the emperor's palace.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Street scenes

This is the scene on Fuxingmennie Street at 7 p.m. Sunday evening. It reminds me of the K Street corridor in Washington, only on a grander scale. The street has six automobile lanes and two wide bicycle lanes as well as broad sidewalks on both sides. The newer buildings are set back from the road and limited to, maybe, 15 stories.

The street runs as far as the eye can see in both directions, which is quite a way given the flatness of the landscape.

In some ways the mix of people doesn't look all that different from what you might see in an American city. Most are dressed casually, many carry cellphones, a few appear to be homeless.

Obviously bicycles are more in evidence.

There are hutongs (the traditional residential enclaves with narrow streets and low-rise houses built around courtyards) on the east side of the street, while the west seems to be more of a modern business and commercial district.

In Beijing

I landed here Sunday afternoon around 2:30. The weather is hot (85 degrees) and quite dry.

Clearing Customs was a breeze, and the taxi ride in from the airport was fast and cheap. The highways move quickly, and the only hold-up was an accident as we got into downtown.

Everyone has been very friendly and courteous. I was a little surprised that not too many people, even at the hotel's reception desk, speak fluent English (although I am sure there are more English speakers in China than Chinese speakers in the United States)

English is clearly the second language of Beijing. All the highway signs (even the ones warning against mobile phone use or drinking while driving) are in both English and Chinese. English appears in many billboard advertisements as well, although often in nonidiomatic phrases ("No. 1 headquarters site for upstage global companies").

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Oshkosh starts its day cloudy and wet. Highs today are expected to be in the 40s.

The forecast for Beijing over the next week is sunny with highs in the low 80s.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Chinese language

minzu directions in Chinese

The hotel where I am scheduled to stay has kindly posted this image on its Web site, which I can print out and then use to tell a taxi driver where I am going.

I've been trying to learn a little about the Chinese language, although I have no hope of learning enough even to order food or ask for directions.

One thing I have learned is that the common written language is one of the unifying factors for the country, although it is spoken in many different dialects that may be unintelligible to "Chinese speakers."

The chair of my department is from Taiwan, and he has also provided me with some Chinese language notecards with some basic phrases ("Does anyone here speak English?) that I can use in a pinch.

I asked him how Chinese keyboards work. He explained that they are the same as Western keyboards--with the same alphabet. To write in Chinese characters, a Chinese person sounds out the words in English and types in those sounds.

The computer then generates the corresponding Chinese characters.

Chinese characters, I read last night, are phonetic--not pictographs or ideographs as is commonly assumed.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

China's blogosphere

As in so many other areas, China's activity in the blogosphere greatly exceeds what we are used to counting in the West.

According to this report in E-Media Tidbits, there may be 50 million Chinese Weblogs.

By contrast Technorati, generally considered the authority on the blogosphere, says it tracks a total of 37.3 million blogs (including in China), according to David Sifry's May 1 Alert.

Beijing links

Here is the page that Google puts at the top of its search results.

Apprising China

The first thing that you have to try to get your mind around is the size of China. It is simply on a scale that is hard to fathom.

This post is based on what I have been reading in a book called "China, Inc." by Ted C. Fishman. It was published last year by Scribner.

According to Fishman, the offical estimate of China's population is 1.3 billion, which makes it five times more populous than the United States.

But the official estimate could be off by 200 million.

"Put another way, China's uncounted multitude, were it a country on its own, would be the fifth largest in the world."

Get this--China has between 100 and 160 cities with populations of 1 million or more. The United States has nine.

Monday, May 01, 2006

I'm going to China

It's a little hard to believe, but in less than two weeks, I set off for the Middle Kingdom.

I have a visa, and a ticket and an invitation to an academic conference.

Still I find it hard to believe that I am going (and so soon).