Friday, December 28, 2012


Does Living in China Drain Your Claus-o-Meter?

Christmas kind of snuck up on me this year, my annual participation in SantaCon notwithstanding. One of the things that I've always liked about living in Beijing is the lack of Christmas hype. Sure, malls and residential compounds in the expat sections of town festoon themselves with some lights and a little bit of holiday regalia, but it's nothing like it is back home in the US. So long as you're not in a Starbucks or a big mall, you don’t hear Christmas music. There's nobody to buy gifts for, no family drama to fret over and no social pressure to show up at holiday parties. In effect, Christmas is "celebrated" here kind of like Cinco de Mayo in the US: As an excuse to party.

I wrote extensively about this back in 2008 when I was still in a bit of cultural shell-shock, and while everything that I said back then still holds true, now there's one caveat: I just don’t get jazzed up for the season anymore.

I think that I may have reached the point where I've been separated from Christmas long enough that the "Christmas Spirit" has been drained from me. It just doesn’t exist here, which is probably why Santa Claus doesn’t visit.

This year I actually found myself getting annoyed at the "Merry Christmas" text/WeChat/WhatsApp messages from westerners and the "Merry Xmas" messages from my Chinese friends. I felt like yelling, "Hey! 1) I'm not a Christian and 2) I'm not in a place that even recognizes the holiday. It's a regular work day here!"

Of course I always appreciate the thoughts of my far-flung friends who send me their good wishes, but they feel more meaningful to me when they come on random days all throughout the year. (Which they do, I am very happy to say- I have amazing friends!) On Christmas itself I kept wishing that there was a function on Facebook and on my SMS and messaging programs that would've let me block the Christmas messages.

Even during my first 2 years in Beijing when I was nominally observing Christmas as a cultural phenomenon, it was always in the context of people who didn’t have the holiday themselves and served more as a touchstone to my origins than a holiday in any sense of the word. (During my next 2 years I was with living with a Russian woman, and they don’t have Christmas.)

After 5 Christmases in China it feels like I'm not a part of it anymore, and that makes me feel like I don’t really want anything to do with it. I don’t even want to think about it.

It could be that this "de-Christmas-izing" is symptomatic of something larger. Sometimes I feel like there's been a foundational shift in my cultural identity. Whether it's my worldview (which is much larger now), my political stances (which are much more pro-business and free-market yet even more socially liberal than they used to be) or my utter lack of homesickness, there is definitely something different about me compared to when I was living back in Boston.

In my core I'm the same person that I've always been. As my friends who have visited me here have all agreed, I'm not different, I'm just more me than I ever had the chance to be back home. But even if I haven’t changed inside, what I respond to and what seems important and affirming to me most definitely has. I'm not sure of I can get back to the old feelings that I used to have about this season.

And I'm not sure that I want to.

Friday, December 21, 2012

US Blood for Chinese Oil

How the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have set the stage for a possible "Chinese caliphate"

Reuters has a report today about Exxon's divesture from Iraq's southern oil fields and how China's state-owned CNPC is the top-bidder for the drilling rights that they're abandoning.

China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) has emerged as the frontrunner to take over Iraq's West Qurna-1 oilfield from Exxon Mobil, a move that would diminish Western oil influence in Iraq a decade after the U.S.-led invasion.

This has HUGE implications, in addition to the reasons laid out in the story. The most important, immediate concern is the effect that this move will have on the status of Kurdistan and the very viability of Iraq as a unified state.

China's stealthy advance in Iraq, supported by piles of cash, has already given it a formidable position in prized southern oilfields, and through Chinese oil company Sinopec , its reach has extended into the northern Kurdish region… Kurdistan has upset Baghdad by signing deals directly with oil majors such as Exxon and Chevron, providing lucrative service contracts and better operating conditions than in Iraq's south… With oil majors now shifting their focus northward to sign deals with Kurdistan and away from Iraq's southern oilfields, leaders on both sides are warning of the risks that the dispute could slide into an ethnic war.

That sounds pretty bad.

(An aside: Though it would most likely lead to war, there is an argument to be made that a stable, independent, peaceful, democratic Kurdistan would be a boon to the region. Turkey would have to settle a lot of internal issues for that to happen, however. And the Kurds in Syria might have something to say about it, too. But I digress…)

Even if a new sectarian war is averted it still doesn’t look good. The oil that Chinese state-owned companies pump out of the ground doesn’t flow into the global market like oil pumped by Exxon or Shell. It goes straight back to China. That means when China secures oil rights, it actually secures them. China will be the world's #1 consumer of oil very soon, and they're not looking to share. That's a radically different macro-economic philosophy than what has dominated the world for the last 60+ years.

If this deal goes through, China would be the central player in the Iran-Iraq arena. Iran's biggest oil customer? China. Most consistent veto vote against UN sanctions on Iran? China. This would also mark an alignment of business interests across Iran and Iraq that hasn't existed since the days of the Ottoman Empire and will, as a result of these new alignments, give the Shiites much more power in Iran than Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries will be comfortable with. Saudi Arabia is already bristling at Iran's current level of involvement in Iraq and their meddling in Yemen. This could seriously ratchet up regional tensions.

But that's not what really concerns me, because, in the end, the oil business is a business. So long as the wheels are being greased, things will remain relatively stable. (Iran's nuclear ambitions notwithstanding.) And if there's one thing that China's good at, it's laying out the cash to make things work smoothly.

No, what really makes me shudder is when I think about Afghanistan.

Fast-forward 2 years and you'll see China pulling the same game in central Asia. In areas that the US has secured in Afghanistan, Chinese companies will swoop in and buy up mineral rights. It's already happening. There are massive deposits of all sorts of minerals in that country and Chinese companies have no problems dealing with corrupt governments or local warlords. So long as the supply routes are secured ("Thanks, US Army!"), they'll jump right in and make a killing, securing (there's that word again) for themselves tons of gold, copper and other rare earth minerals that the entire world needs.

Once that's done, you'll have what amounts to a China-dominated natural resources market that stretches from the southern Iraqi oil fields, across Iran and through to mines in northeast Afghanastan. Railroads and pipelines will not be far behind (they're already in the planning stages). All of a sudden, China will have a large measure of control over a huge swath of central Asia and the Middle East. And it'll be in large part thanks to a decade of belligerent American steps, including 2 wars and the isolation of Iran. (And as a bonus: In this scenario, US naval dominance in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean wouldn't be as important anymore.)

As ominous as this all sounds, it's important to remember that China isn't necessarily out to dominate anybody. Nor are they trying to push the US out of any particular region for ideological purposes, like the USSR during the Cold War. Instead, China's #1 stated foreign policy goal has always been to make China self-sufficient. In effect, "We will feed ourselves," and "Nobody fucks with us ever again."

But they are our major economic and systemic competitor. The situation now gives them a clear opening to make incredible gains. It has exposed the debacle of the Iraq invasion and botched early years in Afghanistan as not only a massive military, economic and foreign policy blunder, but it has proved to be a geopolitical disaster the likes of which we haven’t seen since Vietnam.

I hope that the Obama team sees a way out of this. Because I don’t.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Cure for A Hangover is to Go Back

It’s been exactly 1 month since I got back from my epic trip across Europe, and while I’ve been remiss in documenting it (an issue which will be remedied in short order), I find that I am just getting over something of an Olympics hangover. Or a life stage hangover. Call it whatever you want, but I’ve been in a bit of a funk these past few weeks.

I finally feel like I’ve snapped out of it, and one of the things that seemed to bring my current attitude problems into focus for me was an article that I read today (which reminded me of this piece and this one as well) about the post-games hangover that London is going through right now and how they're trying to harness all of the great energy that they generated into more great stuff in the future. After throwing an incredibly successful Olympics, and an equally impressive Paralympics, the citizens of the Olde Towne (and Great Britain in general) are scratching their heads and wondering, “Now what?

While I can’t answer that question, and before I get on to my self-indulgent, exhaustive documentation of my entire European excursion, I did want to take a few minutes to write a little love note to the people back in London.

I heard from plenty of people who said that it would be folly to head to a city like London during the Summer Games. The streets would be mobbed. Traffic would be a nightmare. Security would be overbearing and cause massive delays. Prices would be outrageous. The Tube would be jammed beyond hope of use. As we now know, none of these fears came to pass. The Olympics were pulled off smoothly with an aplomb and panache that I honestly did not think would be possible.

I never for a moment believed that anything would be able to top the organizational marvel that had been Beijing 2008. Opening and Closing ceremonies aside (which were a wash, IMHO), after seeing such precision in execution of logistical plans and unwavering enthusiasm from the population, how could crusty old London ever hope to match what the Chinese accomplished? After all, hadn’t they invested billions of dollars in new city-wide transportation and other infrastructure just for a single 16-day event? From new subway lines to a revamped fleet of taxis to the closing of factories Beijing moved heaven and earth (almost literally) to roll out a red carpet that will not soon be forgotten.

It just so happened that I arrived to start my new life in Beijing on 8/8/2008 - Opening Day of the Games. In the months before I moved here, so I’m told by those who were there, there was a mass exodus of locals who fled the city. Some were forced to leave due to a visa crackdown, while others feared the crowds and… well, I’ve never gotten a clear answer on what other things people were afraid of. There seemed to have been a nebulous sentiment that BAD THINGS COULD HAPPEN that affected people here. Not too unlike what the people of London had been feeling over the past year (though for vastly different reasons).

Of course it was all so much paranoia. Beijing in August of 2008 was a joy to behold and having been there for all of it is one of the singularly important and transformative experiences of my life.

How could London possibly compare?

I don’t think that my life will be as altered by London 2012 as it was by Beijing 2008, but that’s an issue of happenstance rather than circumstance. (I’m not in the middle of an inter-continental move or such a drastic life change right now). Experience-wise, though, I struggle to find the words to express just how good a time I had and how thankful I am to the people of the city who made it all happen.

From the moment my girlfriend and I stepped off of the train from Brussels into Kings’ Cross station, it was evident that this would be more than just another fun stop on our trip. Greeters offered us Snickers bars and bottled water while we waited to go through Immigration. Flags were hanging everywhere. People were smiling. The weather was even ideal.

Each day we experienced some form of kindness from somebody and London found a new way to make us happy. Whether it was a surprisingly cheap meal, an uncrowded tourist attraction, a free ice cream after getting off of the commuter train at Wellington station or a helpful volunteer, there was always something good happening to us. We met people who were not only willing to give a couple of hapless tourists directions, but who seemed eager to engage us in pleasant conversation, wondering if we were having a good time or offering tips on how to best experience their city.

London is an amazing metropolis. The museums are overwhelming. The subway is great. The parks are lovely islands in the ancient, scalable urban landscape. There is an abundance of great food to be had… and that’s just scratching the surface. After 10 days there I wanted more. My current employer has an office there and I have found myself glancing at the internal job postings these days, checking to see if a position is opening up in it. Beijing is most definitely my home for now, but I find myself taking flights of fancy lately and if an opportunity ever presented itself to move there I would be hard pressed to turn it down.

In the end, I think that’s the greatest testament to the job that the people of London did last month. They made me, an avowed New Englander (who is almost arrogantly proud of our Revolutionary history) and rabid sinophile, seriously consider uprooting myself to give living there a try.

Good show!

More to come…

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Michigan's Racist Candidate

In case you've missed all of the hoopla, this ad for Pete Hoekstra ran in Michigan during the Super Bowl last week. As you'll see it's beyond obnoxious and worth of all of the vitriol that its caused:

My jaw dropped when I saw this and could not believe that a candidate for national office in the US would think that running something like this was actually a good idea. I'm not from Michigan but I just couldn't hold my tongue in the face of such idiocy. Here's what I blasted off to the erstwhile candidate:

Mr. Hoekstra,
I wanted to add my voice to the many who must be contacting you in regards to the ad that you played during the Super Bowl. It was shameful not only for its borderline (at best)  racism, but also for its criminal oversimplification of America's economic problems.
Even if I were somebody who could overlook the blatant race-baiting, I would still think you a fool because of you assertion that borrowing money from China and "sending" our jobs overseas is somehow the root cause of our current economic crisis. I live in China and I see the reasons why America is in decline every day. It's a shame that America is saddled with politicians like you who campaign on fear and symptoms instead of positivity and real solutions.
Shame on you.
Mike Shaw
Beijing, China

Of course he'll never read this note, but maybe one of his staffers will and maybe it'll at least provoke a thought in his/her head about what the real reasons for America's problems are. But it probably won't.

And that's an even bigger problem. What we face in America today is a political culture that is focused on tactics and message instead of actually presenting arguments to voters. This ad comes straight out of Modern Campaigning 101: Push the people's fear buttons (Yellow people!" "China!" "Debt!" "Unemployment!") then associate the other candidate's name to it. No explanation of the issues is required. No laying out the reasons why the incumbent's policies feed the problems and no presentation of solutions.

It's all so simple. And tragic.

Mr. Hoekstra should come to China and take a ride on one of the new high speed rail lines and then try to envision us building something like that in the US. (Spoiler: We can't.) Then dwell on that for a while. THEN maybe he'll reconsider what the real problems facing America are.

Of course he'll never do that.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Sky is Falling! Fo' Realz!

Chinese New Year in Beijing is hard to encapsulate in a blog post. Really hard. Thankfully a friend of mine went through the trouble of trying to document last week's arrival of the Year of the Dragon on video for the New York Times:

It's an awesome job by Jonah and his merry band of videographers. The only complaint that I have about it is that he was not able to successfully bend the laws of space and time and actually transport viewers to where we who were lucky enough to be in Beijing were that night.

As I have for the past 3 years I organized a gathering for the local Couchsurfing community and visitors from out of town. The result was a raucous, rollicking bash that climaxed with us joining tens of thousands of people gathered around (and on) frozen Houhai Lake around midnight for a pyrotechnic display like none other. It seemed like everybody in this city if 20 million people was shooting off fireworks at once. The sky above my head was alive with light and the horizon in every direction was sparkling with glittering explosions. The noise was deafening.

I took some video myself on Chinese New Year's Eve 3 years ago. It's nowhere near as good as Jonah's stuff, but I was on a hutong rooftop and you can get an idea of the overwhelming sight of fireworks exploding in every direction all at once:

I would HIGHLY recommend everybody putting "Be in Beijing During Chinese New Year" on their Bucket List. This really puts the 4th of July to shame and, frankly, I wonder why we tolerate such comparatively miniscule displays on our national day. Then again, we in the US have only been around for 230-odd years. The Chinese have been at this for a few thousand. Maybe we'll get the hang of it after another millennium.

Friday, January 20, 2012

China in 10 Minutes or Less

Here's a great video that came out last fall. It's a wonderful overview of what's going on in China, its history and interesting highlights about its culture. I love it.

China's Lack of Cultural Relevance in the West

An interesting column ran in yesterday's New York Times, noting China's "charm offensive" of recent years and their attempts to build up "soft power" that can counterbalance the US in much the same way as their economic, political and military strength. Unfortunately for them it's not working.

"[President] Hu was saying that China was under assault by Western soft power — the ability to produce outcomes through persuasion and attraction rather than coercion or payment — and needed to fight back."

"But for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment… A poll taken in Asia after the Beijing Olympics found that China’s charm offensive had been ineffective."

This piece is very good at explaining the Chinese problem and noting how they've been trying to address it, but it doesn’t get into WHY Chinese cultural influence hasn’t been growing outside of China.

And that's, basically, because a lot of what is produced in China isn’t produced for the West. At all.

Building Confucius Institutes around the world and opening a 24-hour news channel is all well and good, but if cultural production is only being done for internal consumption then nobody outside of your market is going to buy into it.

Take films, for example. There is a prodigious movie industry in China, but other than the occasional crossover hit, such as "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", there really isn’t much that is coming out of China that appeals to Western audiences.

The same runs true for video games, music and TV. While the Chinese are busy gobbling up all of the World of Warcraft, western club dance hits and Prison Break that they can cram into their brains, there's precious little flowing in the other direction. The closest thing to a hit Chinese TV show that we've seen in the west has been Firefly. (And even that only lasted 13 episodes – stupid Fox network.)

And this is a shame, because Chinese culture is quite beautiful and rich. Unfortunately, the creative juices of a majority of the artists in Mainland China are being squashed by the government's need to censor content. The result is a tragic dearth of Chinese cultural products being consumed in the west.

But there are exceptions and proof that art and culture from China can be successful outside of the Middle Kingdom.

The Flowers of War, a recent film starring Christian bale, is a good example of how movies can be made with both a western and Chinese perspective. The film is about 40% in English and showcases a main character (and actor) who doesn’t speak Chinese. The filmmaking is first class and the result is a gorgeous, haunting film that is accessible by both Chinese and western audiences.

I've got some friends who would be really upset if I didn’t mention the Chinese music scene. There are a handful of bands and artists who are doing their best to mix elements of Chinese culture with western musical influences. And they are awesome. Among my favorites are Hanggai from Mongolia, who mix traditional throat singing with hard rock, and my good friend Miss Melody, whose songs combine classical Chinese poetry-inspired lyrics with western electronic beats.

Here's a sample of Hanggai:

And here's the lovely Miss Melody looking all sultry on the streets of Beijing:

I don’t know what the secret formula to getting more Chinese flavor to sprinkle into western culture might be, but with the government here not very permissive when it comes to pushing boundaries, it will be a while before you see any breakout stars from the Mainland start hitting it big in the west. And that's a damn shame.