Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Cultural Revolution on Wall Street

by Larry Mongoss, guest blogger

I figured I had either heard of, or conceived in my own imagination, every possible way one might think about the current financial crisis. Thus my surprise and delight, while watching Charlie Rose, to hear David Faber of CNBC compare it to China’s Cultural Revolution.

Well, in all fairness to Mr. Faber he didn’t actually mention the Cultural Revolution, and probably would be baffled by the comparison, but he said something that really resonated. For a CNBC special on the financial meltdown called House of Cards he had been talking to many people. Lots were mad, he said, but also said that both the victims on Main Street and the culprits on Wall Street must carry some of the blame for what happened. Without borrowers willing to take on houses beyond their means the bubble would not have been there to pop in the first place. Or more thematically, given the name of the special, the cards would not have been stacked so high.

And that brings me back to the Cultural Revolution. The borrowers and the Wall Street bankers believed in the miracle, that prosperity will yield prosperity. Somewhere in the excitement, common sense went out the door. It is human nature to get caught up in the moment, and this time the factions, instead of fighting amongst themselves, were all pulling together till the cards began to topple.

So if the bankers and the borrowers where different Red Guard factions, then who was Mao? That one is pretty easy, and he is one of the featured speakers in the special. Even today, Alan Greenspan basically says he could not have taken any action to make this adjustment less painful. It is kind of funny to hear him say that. If you ever chewed bubble gum as a kid, and can remember back to that time, you can probably see the bubble forming in front of you. Some of those bubbles were amazing: huge, round, perfect. Others did not look so good: lopsided, weak and just plain ugly. When I saw that things were not working out I would suck the air out, and chew some more. Some of my friends, however, would simply blow hard and force the bubble to pop. Apparently Mr. Greenspan was like them.

Getting past Mao to the Gang of Four is a little bit more of a stretch, but Mr. Bernanke certainly seems like he ought to be included. Then, given Mr. Geitner’s much awaited, and astonishingly underwhelming, announcement of his plans, or lack thereof, I have to add him to the roster. Rounding that out with Mr. Paulson and Mr. Summers seems to make sense, though I wouldn’t care to hazard a guess as to which of them is Jiang Qing. They are, it seems, unhappy allies in this boondoggle we find ourselves in.

Ridiculous and absurd you say? Though that is true, there may actually be something in the comparison beyond what is, hopefully, a bit of comic relief in the face of so much dour news. And that is what happens next.

The end of the Cultural Revolution marked the beginning of China’s emergence as world economic power. A very important ingredient in that spectacular rise has been the development of businesses, activities and really just ways of doing things that simply did not exist before. This has been done in the face of a large and well established bureaucracy that, at first glance, should have doused any attempt of the country to lift itself.

A similar situation exists in America today. Too big to fail is something that people might have said about the Chinese Communist Party, but in America it is banks, car companies and insurers that get the tagline. The number of entrenched interests in America is substantial, and they are guided by very powerful people. So the challenge is similar to that faced by China in the 80s, to keep all that from standing in the way of progress. This is always difficult, but has become much more so as the very existence of many of yesterday’s most powerful institutions is threatened.

Can Barack Obama, through reason and persuasion, accomplish what Deng Xiaoping did through concentrated power? It seems unlikely, but I am ever hopeful. So I will watch the drama on Wall Street and Main Street as well as in Washington unfold with that picture in my mind.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Valentine's Madness in Shanghai

by Maple Xu

[in translation]

On Valentine's Day, Shanghai went mad! No parking available at squares, restaurants or karaokes; to eat out one had to wait in a long line; streets were unbearably jammed by cars.

Strangely, since the financial crisis began, it seems my countrymen's consumption power has been growing intensely. In the past years on Valentine's Day, at most the price of roses went up and Western-style restaurants got more customers. This year, the old and the young all came out to join in the merry-making. Even Chinese-style restaurants had long lines. Movie theaters were explosively filled. Rose prices surged from 2 yuan to 15 yuan a stem; people still grabbed them like a free-lunch, buying 99 stems at a time.

I suspect my countrymen are having the fin-de-siecle anxiety, smashing the pot that has already cracked. Why wait for inflation, why not indulge in flowers and wine now and buy that one-time happiness. But most of my friends think this is because Chinese have bank deposits; in addition, people are irritated by the American financial crisis, so they spend just to show you they can spend.

In this year's Spring Festival Gala, Zhao Benshan (note: a famous skit and sitcom actor) had a stage speech "we are not short of money; give me whatever is good." Now people around me often say "not short of money!"

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Talking in Chongqing

1. With a taxi driver

(at the stop)

Driver (impatiently): Hurry! Hurry!

Me: Why, isn't this a designated stop…

Driver: Don't be loquacious! Don't get me fined!

Chongqing taxi

(on the road )

Me: Shifu, you seem to be in a bad mood.

Driver (upset): I just got fined! The police fined me for tailgating his car! But there was a private car between me and him. What the fuck! Why did he skip the private car but take on a taxi? Some sort of revenge?

Me: Didn't you reason with him?

Driver: What's the use! They don't care!

(a moment later)

Me: Shifu, did your situation improve a bit after last year's strike?

Driver: What improved? The taxi company did nothing, didn't reduce a penny of our "share-payment."

My sister: So it's only the government pays you each an extra 50 yuan a day…

Driver: 50 yuan per car. 25 yuan each driver. But the company imposes on us more restrictions after the strike. You dare do anything, 200 yuan fine! 300 yuan fine! Who can afford those?

Me: Don't you have a Taxi Association now? Wouldn't it do something for you?

Driver: Do a fart! That association is led by the Party.

Me: But it wasn't supposed to be an official organization…

Driver: Are you Chinese? Any organization has to accept the Party's leadership.

Me: But I heard that Bo Xilai (note: the Party Secretary of Chongqing) handled the strike pretty well last year…

Driver: Bo Xilai is not going to stay. He's leaving soon. Our situation won't change.

Me: Oh yeah? How do you know he's leaving?

My sister: He has been in Chongqing for less than a year.

Driver: Word is spreading around. Then again, even if Bo Xilai has a good idea, he's not the one to implement it. So it's just not going to be implemented. (Suddenly) You work for the government, wouldn't you know more than I do?

Me: Oh no, I'm just a tourist returned home for a visit from somewhere else.

My sister (suddenly): Shifu, you've passed our destination!

Driver (stopping and laughing): Hah hah! Sorry, I had too much fun chatting with you.

2. With a migrant worker

(image from http://hsb.hsw.cn)

(Mrs. Leng, 45, is a housekeeper working in the neighborhood where my parents live)

Me: When did you come to Chongqing?

Mrs. Leng: March 2001. (Counting with fingers) Aiya, 8 years already!

Me: So you left the countryside then?

Mrs. Leng: No, I went to Guangzhou first. I worked in a shoe factory for about half a year.

Me: What made you leave Guangzhou?

Mrs. Leng: I missed my two children too much … The factory gave us two weeks vacation because its suppliers were backlogged. I returned home and didn't want to go there again. Chongqing is close enough to home.

Me: Are your children with you now?

Mrs Leng: No, they are in schools at home in Dazu. But I can go see them on holidays, and they come to stay with us in the summer.

Me: What does your husband do?

Mrs. Leng: He works as a freelance installer and transporter for an electronic appliance distributor. He gets paid on each job, because it's a better deal than being a staff worker on fixed-salary.

Me: What happened to your land in the countryside?

Mrs Leng: We gave it to a relative to farm.

Me: Does he pay you for using it?

Mrs Leng: No, he doesn't pay anything. We just don't want the land to go fallow. He's doing very well with it. He is richer than us now. People who stayed on the land are doing better than us migrant workers now.

Me: Really? Then don't you want to return to your land?

Mrs. Leng: Not at all. Farm labor is a lot harder than urban jobs. I can't imagine going back to the hard labor again. We've become lazier, spoiled by city life. But if I had stayed at home I wouldn't do worse than anyone! Even in the bad times I managed our land and pigs well.

Me: How many people have left your village to the cities?

Mrs. Leng: Most the young people.

Me: Is any land left unfarmed now?

Mrs. Leng: Yes, mostly the unfertile areas. Our land is very fertile. Some families who have money hire others to farm their land.

Me: I heard that the government no longer allows an urban resident registration to change to a rural one.

Mrs. Leng: That's true. Now the land is much more valuable. We wouldn't want to change our registrations to urban. We wouldn't want to give away our land.

Me: I heard that Chongqing is experimenting with unifying urban and rural registrations.

Mrs. Leng: But our registrations don't belong to Chongqing.

Me: Ah. Do you make enough in the city?

Mrs. Leng: We are just getting by…didn't manage to save any money in the past year. My daughter mistakenly left out three questions in the high school entrance exam last summer, so her score was lower than the admission-line for first-rate schools. We had to pay 9000 yuan to get her into such a school. For her meals alone we are paying the school 450 yuan a month…

Me: Public school?

Mrs. Leng: Yes. Then my father-in-law was killed walking near his village by a hit-and-run motorcycle, and we spent over 10,000 yuan for his funeral. The police still haven't found the motorist. Where do you go to find such a person? It was dark in the night…

Just before the Spring Festival my husband got into fight with another man and we had to pay for that man's medical cost…

Me: How did he get into a fight?

Mrs. Leng: He had never gotten into a fight with anyone before! He was attending several jobs that day and couldn't finish one of them. He told the customer he would forego the payment because he didn't have the time to finish it.

Me: A city guy?

Mrs. Leng: Yes. But the guy yelled at him, "Are you the country pumpkin looking for fists?" My husband dared back, "Just try me then!" So the guy hit him on the left eye and he hit back…

Me: Who's bigger?

Mrs. Leng: My husband. I became really scared afterward. He could have beaten that guy really badly! Fortunately that man's wife was also there and she grabbed my husband's arm tightly, so he only got in a few kicks.

Me: Were you there?

Mrs. Leng: No. I went to the police station after my husband called me. The other guy's wife accused my husband, "The migrant worker lacks culture!" I wanted to say, Who are you? Even my very cultured boss doesn't look down at us migrant workers.

Me: What did the police do?

Mrs. Leng: The police officer said, "I see you are evenly uncultured." The police ordered them to pay our medical cost and we pay their medical cost. Each family ended up paying a similar amount.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A bit more on Charter 08 and the Great Firewall

Ian Lamont at The Industry Standard contacted me last week (I'm visiting China) asking my opinion on what role the Internet has played in Charter 08's spread, and whether the Charter will present a serious challenge to the government of the PRC. Here's my response:

About websites filtering in general, James Fallows provided by far the clearest explanation of how China's "great firewall" works. You can find an entire chapter in his new book Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China devoted to this topic.

As far as I know, for internet savvy people, it is not that hard to get around the "great firewall" - there are many ways to do it. As an example, my blog is blocked here in China, still I can use Google's translation feature to view it completely. This is to say, for anyone in China who wants to access particular information, there is a way to find it with a bit extra work or cost. As such, I have the impression that the purpose of the filtering is more to discourage the general population than to completely block information. And so far it has worked exactly to that effect, because most people don't like to go through that extra trouble.

About Charter 08 in particular, I've found at least one Chinese language website hosted on a sever in the US can be accessed from within China, see https://knol.google.com/k/-/08/3jhi1zdzvxj3f/9#. This site can easily be Googled using either Chinese or English keywords. If you read Chinese, you can see the comments on that site by mainland Chinese are mixed: there are supporting voices and there are doubts and criticism.

From my latest conversations with people in China, most have not heard about the Charter. Among those I have talked to, only one friend, an educated man who is interested in political issues, knew about it. I think internet blockage is not the sole reason for this. As I have reviewed, and also analyzed by ESWN and Rconversation, the Charter needs more work to appeal to the working class and general population, especially at a time when the Chinese government enjoys high trust and support from a large population who are more sensitive to economic conditions than political issues. In short, so far the Charter is an abstract though sound concept in the ivory tower, without concrete and practical ideas, interesting mostly to a small group of elites.

Part of the above response has been quoted in Ian Lamont's article "Charter 08 exposes flaws in China's 'Great Firewall'."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Comments from Behind the Great Firewall

[I'm still in China. Today I received the following note through the Contact page. Because the Great Firewall prohibited me from viewing or commenting but not posting on my own blog, I'm making a special post for those comments. Discussions are welcome. -- Xujun]

Comments from hsknotes:

I'm in the mainland so I can only access your site through secure-tunnel. (If you know of a better alternative that would allow me to post comments directly in response to post, that would be much appreciated.)

Anyway, here are a few comments I wanted to leave, but couldn't. By the way, I'm an American who is currently living in Beijing working as a translator.

Comment 1:

Does anyone in the English speaking world even know where or what Canton is? What are we from the 70s? Peking, Canton, Chungking fell off the map for English speakers at least 20 years ago at the latest.

As for Charter 08, I don't even know why the government tries to block such things or even takes actions against a few of the signers, the impact and push for that kind of thing is non-existent in China. The rioting in the countryside where the real disquiet and unrest is is so out of sync and out of touch with the rhetoric coming out of the foreign (overseas) intellectual community that it's bizarre. Its more disturbing that the overseas intellectual community still even bothers or thinks that their declarations make any difference.

Comment 2:

Ok. About "awkwardness". I myself work as a translator and also had the experience of reading Chinese literature in translation (and loving a lot of it) before I ever knew any Chinese. Years later when I got around to say, looking at what Howard Goldblatt does to modern Chinese literature in translation, I was frightened. 师傅你越来越幽默 becomes Shifu, You'll do anything for a laugh. What the fuck is that? Was he planning on putting a footnote on the cover?

Ok, back to the point at hand. When you pick a book translated from any language into English there's a certain amount of "local flavor" you can stand without it being 拗眼? Sometimes, when you're translating you feel like you can go pages and translate things freely, because every other word isn't piled with chengyu or beijing slang (Wang Shuo's writing for example). When I translate his work, there is no choice like you have, to think about a phrase. From the first word to the last line of much of his work there's nothing there that cleanly "translates" to english. When people like Goldblatt take Mo Yan or even Wang Shuo and make it clean and "Nobel-worthy" they're essentially rewriting it in nice smooth English of their own creation. That is bad, very, very bad.

Ok, once again back to your issues. You obviously have to choose the "english" phrase as opposed to the "literal" chinese one. The problem here is that you're thinking the "literal" chinese phrase carries some sort of meaning when the truth is that even in chinese, these "stock phrases" are incredibly unimportant. No serious chinese-to-english translator in a million years should ever consider translating "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" into Chinese literally, but Chinese people live under this delusion that chengyu and "phrases" somehow operate differently in their language. They don't, they operate how all these "historical sayings" worked in European languages till about 50 to 100 years ago. Allowing the "chengyu" and other related sayings to be translated "literally" for "effect" or "flavor" when there is no incredible and abiding reason (for example, someone says the "sticks and stones" line and then has rocks thrown at them, but even then a footnote explaining the phrase is well-deserved) is mistake, a giant mistake that ghettoizes, ethnicizes, and just is one whole pile of otherness and things good translations shouldn't get into. Awkwardness, strangeness in "language" is the enemy of any good translator or writer. Your well intentioned search for flavor and "effect" should come across from characters, style, story, etc. Given all that, tons of the translators still feel it's ok to throw in a few "non-translations"/"literals" for effect. To anyone who knows the original language it's almost always an eyesore/embarassment, but to people who don't, its always up for grabs. The point is your readers don't know anything, I could translate 200 pages of "literal" translations of Wang Shuo's hoodlum dialect mixed with slang and refined Chinese and I can guarantee you not a single person would like it. On the other hand, I could pull a Goldblatt and make shit up and that's also horrible. The point is, be very, very careful and never try to "ethnic up" something. Look at Naipaul's comments about the young Indian writers writing in English and doing the whole exoticism shtick. He rightly calls a spade a spade and sees it as horribly crass boutique multicularism gone marketing. Don't do the same with translation, and the literal chengyu translations go scarily close to that. It's why people who know chinese feel so incredibly uncomfortable when they see things like that.

Here's a link to some of what I'm talking about with Naipaul.


(from hsknotes)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

My Hip-Hop Nephew

Doggy is a 15-year-old Chongqing kid, who tells me he's a B-boy ("B" for "breaking"). His English comprehension and pronunciation are surprisingly good, given that he hates school. I asked him how he learned his English, and he said from rap music. He loves 2pac and T.I., and urges me to download their music from Baidu.com, where one can find Chinese translations of the songs as well. His favorites are "Don't Worry," "Life Goes on," and "Dead and Gone." He calls the lyrics "touching."

"Why do you like those songs?" I asked.

"They are more real," he told me. Apparently he views Chinese songs as not real, too much propaganda.

my nephew Doggy

He wears a cool colorful brand jacket and big loose pants with a great number of buckles and pendants; the pants hang low exposing his boxers and the legs flow down over his shoes, inimically American. The ever present baseball cap adorning his head is the source of constant arguments as it so often twists askew. The adults blame him for looking like a loafer, not a middle school student, and he defends himself for just having different fashion taste. As a concession to his aunties and grandparents, he has been keeping his hats straight during my visit.

He refuses to drink the plain boiled water his parents and grandparents exist on. Instead he buys bottles of sweetened ice red tea. If he can't get hold of his favorite drink for more than a day, he becomes visibly agitated. So his mother, a retired government worker, allows him that luxury. And this again causes arguments between family members who love him and have high hopes for him. I keep my mouth shut when they argue.

His mother, my older sister, who never got a college education because of the Cultural Revolution, wants nothing but good grades from him. Doggy, on the other hand, cares mostly about Street Dance. Every afternoon he assiduously practices on the living room floor, too small a space for his 1.83m frame. His mother often complains about his indulgence in hip-hop culture. "Only boys with bad grades like Street Dance," she said. And Doggy rebuts, "You don't understand!"

He constantly worries about growing taller. The taller one gets, the harder to dance well, he said. He sometimes gets leg cramps, and his mother thought he was growing so fast he needed more calcium. I was requested to bring American calcium for him. But Doggy's first question for me was, "Will calcium make me taller?"

It's puzzling to me that he's so tall. Chongqing men are known to be short on average. Perhaps it's because his generation gets better nutrition, perhaps not. One theory my sister has is that he liked to eat chicken, and chicken might have been fed with hormones. But Doggy said four boys in his class are even taller. They might have all eaten hormone-fed chicken then.

He has taken dancing class from Chongqing New Dance Society. There may be over a hundred such hip-hop dance societies in Chongqing, he told me. When I asked whether the government interferes with such organizations, Doggy said, "Of course not! Why should they?" I told him when I was 15 no one was allowed to launch a private organization, not even a math-study group. He looked confused and did not know what I was talking about.

Here are a few photos I took when Doggy was practicing:

In addition to dancing he likes comic books and graphic novels, as long as they are not from Japan. I can’t figure out where the distaste for Japanese things comes from, but made in America is great. He also dabbles in writing and drawing. Here is a sketch of Jackie Chan he did for Bob.