Selling Self-Help

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In Legend of the Dragonslayer Sword (《倚天屠龙 记》), a well-known kung fu romance set in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), protagonist Zhang Wuji is an average young man without good looks, talent, or great virtue. That is, until he accidentally gets hold of a secret book that teaches a rare, invincible form of kung fu. After five years of surreptitious practice, he goes on to defeat countless foes, becomes a leader, wins the love of beautiful women, and retires at the early age of just 22. The secret book was quite the find for young Zhang, and the myth of the magical book that solves all of your problems still persists today. In Beijing Book Plaza on Xidan Street, the biggest bookstore in China, the bestseller shelves are stocked almost entirely with self-help tomes to make you better, stronger, richer, and happier. More importantly though, they focus on people—how to convince people, manipulate them, deal with serpent-like colleagues, and improve your own personal charm, but all of these books still hearken back to the halcyon days of magic books—complete with images of authorities above suspicion.

US President Barack Obama’s smile adorns Learn How to Give Enthusiastic Speeches like Barack Obama; one series of books teaching communications skills has the word “FBI” in large letters on their cover, because, obviously, FBI agents are the best at brainwashing; Tim Roth pensively studies your face on Read Minds by Microexpressions, followed by the subtitle, “See through people, read their minds in the blink of an eye, and defeat your social opponents”; Margaret Thatcher sternly looks down on you from Speeches Given in the World’s Most Famous Universities that Will Affect Your Whole Life. Of course, if you’re not in the market for success, a few steps away from these Machiavellian captains of politics and industry is the benevolent Monk
Xingyun (星云法师), rolling his Buddhist beads on To Live Is to Let Go (《活着就是放下》). Beware, however, because if you linger by the self-help book shelves for too long, men in black suits strolling idly around will detect your desperation and come and ask you: “Do you want a part-time job? I’m from Amway.”

With over one third of university graduates jobless when they graduate and the Gini coefficient that indicates the income inequality reaching as high as 0.74 in 2014, there are millions of Chinese young people looking for fast solutions to their bleak future, and, seemingly, self-help books are an important outlet.

The Chinese name for “self-help book” is 心灵鸡 汤, or “chicken soup for the soul”, which obviously is adopted from the well-known book series under the
same name by Jack Canfield and Mark Hanson in the 1990s, whose translations were incredibly well-received in China. Today, “chicken soup” has developed into many subgenres: motivational “chicken soup”, women’s “chicken soup”, and trauma “chicken soup”.

“I read a lot of self-help books when I graduated from university,” says Peng Hui, a 32-year-old IT worker. “I was young then and needed motivation to work extra hard for a better life, and those books really worked. For a few days I really thought I became a better person. But it was just an illusion. The morals they preach—to keep a positive attitude, to socialize skillfully and build your network, and excel with others—are all infallible. It’s just that I would always go back to my old self.”

Just like the name “chicken soup” implies, self-help books for Chinese readers are largely imported and have been from the very beginning. The first in the self-help canon in China, and arguably the most influential of them all, was How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. The book was first translated in 1938, but drew little attention at the time. Chinese people didn’t really discover their vast appetite for self-help books until a new version of the book appeared in 1986, under the title The Human Weakness (《人性的弱点》). On the cover it even boasted to be “the second bestseller in the publishing history of mankind” (the first presumably being the Bible). The sensationalist title, together with a new hunger for success created off of the back of the Reform and Opening Up, meant that by the early 1990s the book had become a huge success. For the next three decades, Dale Carnegie’s charismatic smile has been ubiquitous in Chinese bookstores, and his books remain the No. 1 bestseller of the genre on Dangdang.com, China’s biggest online bookstore. He is frequently referred to as “the greatest spiritual mentor of the 20th century” in Chinese media, and his books, for better or worse, have even helped shape the image of the United States in Chinese people’s minds. In Introduction to the Human Weakness, a Chinese book dedicated to Carnegie in 2010, one of the chapters was entitled, “Other than the Statue of Liberty, Dale Carnegie is the symbol of the United States.”

The Human Weakness didn’t just whet the appetite for self-help books in China, it also became part of a very special tradition in the Chinese publishing industry: plagiarism, perhaps better qualified as misattribution for cultural expediency. Compared to its earlier version, the 1986 version was actually largely adapted and rewritten by the translator to cater to Chinese people’s tastes and ways of thinking. Although there have been numerous versions of Chinese books claiming the authorship of Dale Carnegie, most of them, just like the 1986 version, were entirely made up by Chinese authors—almost all
without permission. For example, a new version of The Human Weakness in 2013 includes a new chapter—which is a lot of work for someone who died in 1955. The chapter, entitled “From Carnegie to women who are about to be wives”, preaches in the Confucian manner, “Be your husband’s most faithful listener. Be his disciple. Do not interfere with his work. Your life is held in his hand.” All-in-all, it’s not too inspiring a message for ambitious young women.

The Chinese saying goes, “scriptures recited by a foreign monk are more credible.” (外来的和尚好念 经。) The same goes with the Chinese self-help book market. Because of the Western origins, a self-help book written by a Western writer is more likely to be trusted. Therefore, it is common for a book written by a Chinese author to try its best to look like it has been translated from the desk of an industrialist or spiritual mentor from abroad. This is an easy trick to pull and relies on buyers not really paying much attention. A popular book called Willpower, for example, claims to be written by an American writer named something along the lines of “Feldo” (no surname), and its spine reads, “The psychological training that is taken by the elite professionals around the world! Ways to high efficiency that will set you apart from 99 percent of people! Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and J.K. Rowling are all ultimate benefiters of Willpower!” To make it look more authentically “Western”, all the inspiring stories in the book are set in America with the language adopted to a style that sounds translated— and, of course, all the buzzwords are bilingual. So, the Chinese part looks English and the English words look Chinglish. For example, it describes “quitters” as “halfway leavers” in English and as “those who get off the bus halfway” in Chinese. It’s all just a tad confusing.

And Willpower is not the most ridiculous book making absurd boasts about Western fame. Possessiveness (actually trying to mean“self-control”), a book written by Chinese author Gao Yuan, claims itself to be “the most popular self-management course of Harvard Business School’s MBA program”. Another book, Mind Control: How to Convince People with Good Logic, written by Chinese author Gao De, hilariously boasts: “The think tank of the White House, FBI, and the world’s top ten listed companies are all studying this book in secret!”

“Chinese” self-help books are seldom better. You can often find the byline sporting the term “editor and writer” (编著), as one person. It looks like the author also edited the book, but, actually, it’s a furtive, futile way to cover up the fact that the book has serious copyright issues. The books themselves are often examples of the very worst kind of hackery. “If the byline is ‘editor and writer’, it means the author didn’t really write the book themselves, but rather made use of various sources without crediting them, writing the book based solely on a lot of plagiarism,” says Hu Xinting, an editor of women’s self-help books at Hubei People’s Press. “Because most decent writers are above writing such things, they are usually written by mediocre writers, and the pay is very
low too—usually 70 RMB per thousand words, 100 RMB at most.”

Publishers being jerks is nothing new in the industry, even for the very successful; Monk Yancan (延参法师), the first Buddhist bestseller writer in China, revealed the reason for his productivity to Southern People Weekly: “Before I became famous, I wrote books at a very low price, but now I’m paid by publishers half a year before I start to write a book. I can write eight books in a year, and half a million copies of each can be sold. But it’s not me who wants to write that much. It’s because the publishers press me really hard, and I have to talk all this big talk about life.”

“Just a few years ago, these books were very prevalent and made a lot of money. However, now their heyday is already gone,” says Hu Xinting. “Because they are barely original, readers gradually grow tired of the books because they seem to tell similar stories. Also, digital reading, print publishing’s biggest rival, has grown rapidly. In the past few years, numerous ‘chicken soup’ accounts have appeared on Weibo and WeChat; their content is much better than the books, and they are free.”

Weibo and WeChat provide another kind of “chicken soup”. Instead of motivation and confidence, they offer a haven with religion and spiritual powers. If you search for “仁波切” (Rinpoche, Reincarnated Lamas) on Weibo, the results yields 141 verified users. These sages, however, do not even bother sounding Tibetan. For example, a typical Weibo post from “Tashi活佛”, or “Living Buddha Tashi”, goes: “Everyone worries and makes mistakes. Don’t complain, or hate, or be angered. Be peaceful about everything so that you have room for the Buddha in your heart.” Not particularly original or insightful stuff, and in most cases, the Weibo of these grand, honorific Buddhists look exactly like any other self-help book except for a healthy smattering of all sorts of Buddhist lingo and supposedly magical Tibetan spells.

The reality is that these “chicken soups” are not hearty stews able to solve genuine problems, but bland consommés that leave you hungrier than when you
started. And, the young people who once embraced these questionable self-help values are starting to realize that optimism and comforting words are not worth the paper they’re printed on. “The target readers for self-help books are young people,” says Hu Xinting. “We don’t target readers over 35. People usually naturally grow out of them after they learn from some real-life experience.” But, perhaps there is help in the form of anti-self-help, or “anti-chicken soup” online. One popular account says, “Why do you feel you are common? Because you are common, really.” Perhaps, having entered the “age of individuality” only a few decades ago, Chinese self-help readers are finally realizing that the main person they are helping by buying self-help books is not so much themselves but the inspired publishers who keep churning them out and counting all the cash.

 

Charm Offensive: Chen Guangbiao & Yuan Longping

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China’s attempts at soft power have been unsuccessful in the extreme, but away from the halls of Chinese government (albeit not too far), there are Chinese people changing the world on their very own. The rise of the Chinese individual in the past few decades has taken the world by storm, and we decided to profile six influential people—masters of science, business, and the environment—that are changing the way the planet views China.

charm-offensive

CHEN GUANGBIAO 陈光标: CHINA’S CLOWN PRINCE

Chen-Guangbiao

Name: Chen Guangbiao

Affiliations: China Zhi Gong Party, Jiangsu Huangpu Renewable Resources

Known for: Recycling construction materials, flamboyant philanthropy, earthquake rescue, interest in buying American newspapers

Education: MBA, Nanjing University; BA in Medicine, Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Founding China’s largest construction waste company

Chen Guangbiao is one of the world’s great eccentric multimillionaires. In fact, he is probably the world’s great eccentric multimillionaire— his philanthropic efforts stealing headlines everywhere from Ningbo to New York. Indeed The Washington Post dubbed him “the most interesting man in China”. His business card alone lists him as the, wait for it: “Most Influential Person of China”, “Most Charismatic Philanthropist in China”, “China Moral Leader”, “Most Well-Known Beloved Chinese Role Model”, and more.

He made his fortune (all 750 million USD of it, according to the Associated Press) off the back of China’s building boom by founding Jiangsu Huangpu Renewable Resources, a company that recycles construction waste. Previously, he made a tidy sum by patenting and selling a somewhat questionable medical product, the “New Century Family CT Scan”, a device which has been described as a “low-radiation ear acupuncture point illness probing and curing apparatus”. Chen claims the device can determine the sex of an unborn child; however, one of Chen’s assistants has since revealed that only Chen was actually able to use the machine.

It is not just his wealth that has found him fame, but rather a bizarre mix of very public philanthropy, laudable humanitarian acts, and a litany of mind-boggling publicity stunts. He first captured the public imagination during the tragic Sichuan earthquake in 2008—providing extensive equipment and aid to help with the rescue and actually physically rescuing bodies from the rubble. It was widely reported that he helped up to 200 people to safety and personally saved 11 lives.

In early 2014, Chen announced that he was forming a group of investors to negotiate the purchase of The New York Times, which caused the paper’s share price to rise 4.5 percent. The owners speedily said it was not for sale, and Chen was widely ridiculed for even attempting to try. Not that that slowed him down; weeks later he proclaimed that he would simply buy The Wall Street Journal instead, raising eyebrows by stating that he was a good fit to for the newspaper because, as he put it: “I am good at working with Jews.” Other stunts have included handing out cans of free “fresh air” in a bid to bring attention to Beijing’s poor air quality. Chen can also often be found peppering his numerous press conferences with spur of the moment sing-a-longs to various songs, his favorites being the self-penned “My Chinese Dream”, and Michael Jackson’s “We are the World”.

The patriotic Chen is often portrayed as bit of a clown, but his commitment to philanthropy is strong. In 2010 he attended a charity dinner with Warren
Buffet and Bill Gates where he pledged to donate his entire fortune to charity. After the meal he said China needed, “at least ten more Chen Guangbiaos,
and that is enough…So far, no other billionaire has reached my level of charitability.” However, his style of his giving does not always win him fans;
one senior aid-worker described it as “violent philanthropy”, as he has a tendency to create as much publicity as possible, often standing for photo opportunities in front of vast walls of cash.

Clown or not, one thing that Chen certainly is, is entertaining, not to mention seemingly dedicated to good works. The naysayers will, of course, say that his giving is over-hyped, the mere tip of the iceberg to his wealth and that he only does so for fame and to massage a considerable ego. Well, this might be true, but there are certainly many worse things in the world than attention-seeking philanthropists – CARLOS OTTERY

YUAN LONGPING 袁隆平: FAMINE FIGHTER

Yuan-Longping

Name: Yuan Longping

Affiliations: China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Center

Known for: Breeding high-yield hybrid rice to end hunger worldwide

Education: Agriculture, Southwest College of Agriculture (Now Southwest University in Chongqing)

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Worked as chief consultant of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • Led hybrid rice research, developing new varieties to improve output
  • Trained agriculture personnel from across the world

In October, 84-year-old Yuan Longping received a group of experts in his rice field. With his thin build, plain blue-striped shirt, wrinkled face darkened by sun, and his Hunan dialect, Yuan could easily be mistaken for an ordinary rice farmer. He is, in fact, one of China’s most accomplished scientists. A road, a high-tech development zone, a college, a publicly-traded company worth 105 million RMB, and even an asteroid all bear his name.

In Yuan’s Super Hybrid Rice Base in Hongxing Village, Hunan Province, experts found that the field is able to yield a record-breaking 15.4 tons per hectare. At his age, Yuan has survived and experienced all the major turmoil of China’s recent history, but it was the Great Chinese Famine from 1959 to 1961 that led him to his lifetime devotion to feed the world. It’s known that by cross breeding varieties of a crop, the resulting hybrid may grow faster, resist stress better, and yield more than its predecessors. But, rice is a self-pollinating plant which led to the longstanding assumption that a hybrid variety was simply not possible. However, in the 1960s and 1970s, Yuan and his team achieved the impossible: the discovery and cultivation of the sterility trait in rice, thus allowing cross-pollination.

The first hybrid rice varieties were released in China in 1974, and now hybrid rice crops make up more than half of all of the rice produced in the country, all producing yields unimaginable in previous years. According to the International Rice Research Institute, China’s rice production averaged around 6.6 tons per hectare in 2009, well above the world average of 4.2 tons. Within three decades, China transformed from a starving nation to a nation with reliable food security.

But, Yuan’s contribution didn’t stop at China. His research has helped to provide a robust food source in high famine risk areas. Starting in 1991, Yuan worked with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization as its chief consultant to share his expertise with world’s major rice-producing countries. Over the years, the institute, under his direction, trained over 500 researchers and technicians from over 30 countries. By 2011, hybrid rice was also grown by farmers in Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, the United States, and the Philippines.

Revered as the “Father of Hybrid Rice”, Yuan is a national hero, with innumerable awards and honors and countless government titles. But, he still lives in a two-floor brick house in a village with his family, spending most of his time in the field. He smokes a lot, even jokingly claiming that his scientific findings dictate that it prevents SARS and Alzheimer’s. He also loves a good mahjong game with his students and journalists who come for an interview. This humble man has done so much to relieve the scourge of world hunger, and should be—quite apart from the antics of Chen Guangbiao or the social Darwinism of Jack Ma—a role model for future generations of world changers. - LIU JUE (刘珏)

Charm Offensive: Wu Changhua and Wang Jianlin

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China’s attempts at soft power have been unsuccessful in the extreme, but away from the halls of Chinese government (albeit not too far), there are Chinese people changing the world on their very own. The rise of the Chinese individual in the past few decades has taken the world by storm, and we decided to profile six influential people—masters of science, business, and the environment—that are changing the way the planet views China.

charm-offensive

WU CHANGHUA 吴昌华:CHINA’S CLIMATE CHANGER

 wu changhuaName: Wu Changhua

Affiliations Climate Group

Known For: Fighting climate change

Education: Environmental Policy, University of Maryland,; Law Degree, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Notable Accomplishments: 

  • Greater China Director, Climate Group
  • Twenty years as an environmental and development policy analyst
  • Consultation with the World Bank, UNEP, and UNDP
  • Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council of Climate Change

“We need to look at how to constructively work together, basically to change the world,” says Wu Changhua, the face of fighting climate change in China—a nation widely considered one of the world’s largest carbon emitters. Climate change is the most trying and complex crisis of our age, and Wu Changhua knows the most important fact about combating climate change: it’s going to be hard work. She has more than 20 years of experience in the field, has spoken and worked with the World Economic Forum, appeared on numerous domestic and international media outlets including The New York Times and the BBC’s HARDtalk, and sits on environmental councils around the world.

Despite reports of a worsening environment in China and the very visible effects in cities like Beijing, Wu is by no means defeatist. Indeed, she knows that China is in a unique position to set the stage for the battle on climate change. “China sets a good example, in terms of literally integrating all key elements in how we are going to grow our economy. Rather than saying, ‘You know, it’s a burden, we have to pay higher prices,’ or whatever, countries like China are saying, ‘Hey, yeah, this is an opportunity. This is how we’re going to grow our economy.’”

She also has little time for the nitpicking between nations that sometimes seem to overshadow the battle for the planet. When asked whether or not developing or developed nations need to take charge on climate change, she said, “This question you have asked remains to be a sort of clichéd debate—developed countries versus developing countries…The developing countries, we either follow suit, repeating their mistakes, the wrongdoing, or take our own personal way.”

It is this middle way that makes Wu and the Climate Group’s opinions so valid for China, believing in both a developed and developing solution and a marriage between government and the market. “You cannot leave everything to the market, so government has a very critical role to play—set the rules, set the caps, and the standards to guide and regulate the market…It cannot be either or, it has to be the two together.”

Wu plies her trade with the Climate Group, an international non-profit to promote clean technologies and strategies to businesses and governments. And, in China, with Wu at the helm, this group has some truly amazing ambitions, some of which are already showing promise and paying dividends, including carbon trading, which will become the world’s biggest carbon trading market in 2016 and coal caps in 2020. “On one side, we are capping the total consumption of coal, and on the other side we are improving economy-wide efficiency as much as we can, so we don’t consume too much. In the meantime, we are investing in alternative energy to substitute for coal,” Wu says. “I think the foundations are already set on the ground.”

While Wu doesn’t have the monetary or political influence of the others on this list, as the world nears the precipice, her influence on China’s climate real politick is going to have profound, lasting influence on the future of the planet. – TYLER RONEY

 

WANG JIANLIN 王健林:  THE MONOPOLY MAN

wang jianlinName: Wang Jianlin

Affiliations: Dalian Wanda Group, People’s Liberation Army

Known For: Real Estate magnate, film and theater industrialist

Education: Liaoning University

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Former richest man in China
  • Opening the Oriental Movie Metropolis
  • Nine million square meters of property investments

He bought US theater brand AMC; owns 75 department stores, 51 hotels, 86 theaters, and 45 KTV plazas; bought a Picasso worth over 28 million USD as well as a private jet and a Sunseeker yacht (owning a 92 percent stake in the manufacturer); and his company holds over nine million square meters of property investments. This is China’s monopoly man, Wang Jianlin, a Chinese real estate mogul second to none.

 Forbes estimates his net worth at over 13.2 billion USD, and today he is looked at reverentially as an example of modern entrepreneurship at its finest. But, this property mogul turned power broker began as a humble soldier. Born in 1954 in Sichuan Province, he joined up in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, under hardships he once described as “unimaginable”. But, in many ways, he was following in the family footsteps, joining the military at 15 like his father—who fought for Mao during the Long March. Sadly, the military offered Wang little respite, and he claims to have marched 1,200 kilometers in two months, lacking food and warm clothing.

However, the military is where Wang supposedly gathered his contacts to build his empire. In 1978, he was chosen for the military academy in Dalian, no doubt a wealth of comfort compared to his time in Inner Mongolia. But it wasn’t until 1988 that Wang began his journey to both international influence and mindboggling wealth. It began small, as the general manager of the Xigang Housing Development Corporation. Back then, China’s backward financial system didn’t provide much in the way of speculative property investment. Purchases were made pretty much only from state-owned realtors, and banks were far from forthcoming with funds for real estate investment. Wang found himself building a residential project in Dalian’s Nansha District that brought him profits of over two million RMB. That was just the beginning; with this hard-won fortune, Wang went on to build his Wanda Group empire.

Wanda is now bigger than ever, growing faster and stronger every year. Wealth along with military and political connections are all well and good, but Wang, who keeps a stringent work ethic that mirrors his military days, has his sights set on influence and power. China has, it must be said, a soft power problem, a problem the central authorities seem to make worse with each and every attempt, but Wang is taking matters into his own hands. China has called the “cultural industry” a “pillar industry” and Wang is on his very own—very expensive—charm offensive.

The Oriental Movie Metropolis, set in Qingdao, was bankrolled by the Wanda Group and cost a whopping investment of 8.2 billion USD (including a theme park), and the unveiling was visited by Hollywood celebs such as Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio. His idea of the Chinese “cultural industry” is a full frontal assault on Hollywood. And, it just might work. This is merely an example of Wang’s far-reaching ambitions, with his hands in everything from football to charity. He has bought his way into the rest of the world—from properties in New York and London to skyscrapers in Spain—but Wang’s final legacy may turn out to be bringing China to the rest of the world. – T.R.

 

Jack Ma and Hu Shuli are changing internet trading and journalism. Stay tuned for profiles on Chen Guangbiao and Yuan Longping.

 

Charm Offensive: Hu Shuli & Jack Ma

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China’s attempts at soft power have been unsuccessful in the extreme, but away from the halls of Chinese government (albeit not too far), there are Chinese people changing the world on their very own. The rise of the Chinese individual in the past few decades has taken the world by storm, and we decided to profile six influential people—masters of science, business, and the environment—that are changing the way the planet views China.

charm-offensive

 HU SHULI 胡舒立: CHINA’S SUPER HACK

hu-shuliName: Hu Shuli
AffiliationsCaixin Century Weekly Magazine
Known for: Outstanding news reporting on business, finance, and public affairs
Education: Journalism, Renmin University
Notable Accomplishments:

  • Objective and in-depth investigative reporting that initiates social change
  • Dean of the School of Communication and Design at Sun Yat-sen University
  • Recipient of the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award

Hu Shuli is famed as “the most dangerous woman in China” according to Bloomberg Bussinessweek while The Washington Post described her as China’s “avenging angel”. One of her colleagues, upon meeting her for the first time, equated her to “a female Godfather”. This 1.58-meter-tall, now 61-year-old, woman has the power to move industries, even influence government policies, but she is no crime boss of the Chinese underground nor a female vigilante in disguise. She has, in fact, achieved her power with excellent journalism in one of the world’s largest and fastest-evolving economies.

Founder and former editor-in-chief of Caijing, a bi-weekly business and finance magazine branded as “independent, original, and unique”, Hu is a muckraker who sent tremors through the exchange industry. Her exposure of the unfair trading practices by over 20 companies in 2000 ultimately led to the implementation of a series of new regulations and a more transparent industry. Caijing soon took off as one of the few credible media sources in the country. Hu’s reporting only became bolder.

Hu also stepped outside the world of business into the sphere of public affairs. During the SARS breakout in 2003, Hu ran a series of stories on the fights against the epidemic, discussing local government’s incompetence and the flawed national disease control system. During the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Caijing focused on the schoolchildren who became victims of the poorly built school buildings as much as the earthquake itself, criticizing the malpractice of the local authorities.

“If it’s not absolutely forbidden, we do it,” Hu said. In China’s unique journalism environment, such statements are adventurous to say the least. But Hu has almost always kept her magazine away from criticism from above by demonstrating that her intentions are to help with social reform. But in 2009, tension grew in Caijing’s parent company, SEEC Media Group, when Hu insisted on continuing with her bold reporting style. They demanded all articles be approved by the group before publishing, and a number of her themes were deemed too sensitive to cover.

“With these critical reports, we’ve also had tremendous stress, including that from certain interest groups, but I feel that it is the media’s right to criticize, and the public’s right to know is greater than any interest groups’ self-proclaimed ‘historical duties’.” Hu wrote in her article “Undecided Vision”, one month before she resigned from Caijing in October 2009, “For the future, I hope we, the media, can have more freedom…and carry out our duties with ease.”

But that was hardly the last of Hu. She speedily started a new magazine, Caixin Century Weekly, taking the editorial team who quit with her in an act of defiance. “It’s lucky to be a journalist in China”, said Hu this August after just being handed over the 2014 Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed “Asia’s Noble Prize”, by the Philippines’ president, Benigno Aquino III, adding, “With endless news material and the prospect of really making a difference.” – LIU JUE (刘珏)

 

JACK MA 马云: ALIBABA’S BIGGEST GUN

ma-yunName: Jack Ma
Affiliations: Alibaba, Tmall, Taobao, Alipay, The Nature Conservancy
Known for: Founding the largest online store in the world, philanthropy, officiating mass weddings
Education: BA in English, Hangzhou Teaching Institute
Notable Accomplishments:

  • Founded Alibaba
  • Successful IPO of Alibaba
  • China’s richest man
  • One of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world

Barely five foot tall, with a soft whispering voice and almost chinless to boot, Jack Ma seems to come ready formed as a caricature. Yet, as far as we know at least, the elfish Ma is the richest man in China. Due to his founding of one of the world’s largest internet trading companies, Alibaba, his net worth is a staggering 19.5 billion USD according to the China Rich List from Forbes, which isn’t bad going for an English teacher from Hangzhou. Time magazine has listed him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, and like many a billionaire, he has graced the cover of Forbes magazine. Today Ma is big news, and there isn’t a major magazine or newspaper in the world that hasn’t profiled the diminutive tycoon.

Alibaba is huge, encompassing a wealth of Chinese online platforms including Taobao, Tmall, and Alipay. The Alibaba IPO in September 2014 attested to the company’s success when it became, not simply the biggest IPO of the year, but the biggest in history—the company valued at an eye-watering 230 billion USD. Most analysts had assumed it was worth half that, but like many before them, they had underestimated Jack Ma, and with China’s e-commerce growing fast, Ma is likely to get a lot richer in the near future.

Ma was one of the Internet’s early adopters. The story goes that he typed “China” and “Beer” into an Internet search engine and received so few hits that he was determined to set up a listings for all things Chinese. Just four years later, he was taking his first tenuous steps with Alibaba, with no equipment other than a battered, old desktop computer.

Where many choose titans of industry or ground-breaking politicians as their inspiration, Ma instead goes for the fictional: Forrest Gump. He clearly sees something of himself in the small town character made-good. Shortly before the Alibaba IPO, he told CNBC: “I watched the movie [Forrest Gump] again before I came here. It’s telling me, ‘whatever changes, you are you.’” Time and time again old friends and former colleagues attest to how little Ma has changed—it’s almost like he wants to be frozen in time.

Alibaba, in part at least, got where it is today due to Ma’s aggressive stewardship and ruthless decision making. Despite his charismatic approach and down-to-earth feel, he has a tough side too and is known for making aggressive business decisions. When Alibaba first started, it was Ebay’s China division that held all the chips in the Chinese market, but Ma gambled that Chinese consumers would prefer a platform that charged no fees and stuck with the idea despite the company hemorrhaging cash. It seemed a crazy move at the time, but Ma won out. Ebay’s China division no longer exists. And like many a rich man, he appears to have completely bought into the just world fallacy, reportedly saying: “If you are poor at 35, you deserve it,” which rather writes off a lot of humanity when you think about it.

What’s next for Ma is unclear, but aged 50 and with oodles of cash at his disposal, he can seemingly do anything he likes, and whatever it is, the great and the good will be keeping a close eye on the little guy that made it big. – CARLOS OTTERY

 

Stay tuned for profiles on Wu Changhua, Wang Jianlin, Chen Guangbiao, and Yuan Longping.

An Empty Sea

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China’s trouble in the sea is often relegated to international incidents. However, there is something far more precious than sovereignty and far more valuable than resources that no one is taking responsibility for: the ocean’s ecosystem.

China, responsible for up to one third of the globe’s fishing catch (both aquaculture and wild), is clearly one of the major players in the world’s overfishing problem, with the nation believed to have the second highest number of marine fishing vessels in the world, at least 193,000 within its own maritime zone, or Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and a further 2,100 distant fishing vessels either fishing in other EEZs or on the high seas. Though China is number two in terms of vessels, in terms of tonnage and fishing capacity, it is comfortably the world’s largest fishing nation. And, of course, these are just the known figures.

On June 3, 2014 a Chinese fishing vessel, Yin Yuan, was escorted from the North Pacific back to China as it had been engaged in illegal salmon fishing. It was believed that the vessel was using an illegal high-seas drift net, which can be spread over vast distances. In the very same month Chinese authorities identified 87 small fishing vessels operating illegally off the coast of Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province in a single raid, vessels said to be “The Three Nos”, no registration of fishing vessel, no maintenance check-up, and no permit to fish. On June 17, it was reported that a further fishing vessel was caught with 180 tonnes of squid illegally caught in the Argentinean EEZ. These are just the cases that came to light in just over a few weeks in June 2014.

Wang Haibo is an oceans campaigner who spent several years working as a marine pollution control officer for the Ministry of Environmental Protection but left in frustration at the bureaucracy. He now works for Greenpeace and he puts his fears for the Chinese oceans very succinctly: “Too many vessels, not enough fish,” he says.

Since 1999 China has been committed to zero or minus growth in its fishing catch, but Wang doesn’t sound too confident that this is actually happening. “This is more of a policy structure; they release these items to encourage the fisherman to reduce fishing in the Chinese system, but when you check the database, it is hard to say; the numbers are quite stable. We don’t know if it is really happening or if it’s just data,” says Wang. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) generally separates Chinese data from the rest of the World because it is unsure of the accuracy of the figures, but it is widely believed (by the FAO among others) that China over-reports the catch within its own EEZ due to China’s somewhat archaic state planned quota system, drastically underreporting its distance water catch. Over-reporting in its own territory is problematic as it suggests fish stocks in China’s seas are far higher than they actually are, thus justifying yet more overfishing.

China’s rapid expansion in fishing outside its own waters is party fueled by the fact that fish stocks in its own waters are already perilously low. What were once four of the main species of the South China Sea—the large yellow croaker, the small yellow croaker, the Japanese Spanish mackerel, and eel—are now rapidly disappearing. “These used to be the main seafood for the Chinese, and now they are almost nowhere. There are hardly any left; it would cost you a month’s salary to buy some of these fish…They are looking at extinction now,” says Wang. Once the favored expensive fish reach sufficiently low stocks, other species become the main focus of Chinese fisherman, until these in turn are overfished.

Long-line fishing in particular causes huge damage to marine life. Long-line fishing involves the laying of often thousands upon thousands of hooks over huge distances and, though supposedly targeting a specific catch, such fishing puts a huge number of other species in serious danger. The recent Greenpeace report, “Out of Line” states that 300,000 sea turtles, 160,000 seabirds (mainly albatrosses), and millions of sharks die each year due to long-line fishing. In a world where all but one turtle species, and all but two albatross species, face the threat of extinction, along with 25 percent of shark species, long-lining is perhaps one of the most dangerous types of fishing on the planet.

While Chinese coastal waters are showing a tragic decline in fish stocks, particularly in the Western regionsof the South China Sea, China, which has seen a surge in demand for fish that are not available locally, has maintained its fishing catch with extensive forays into other nation’s EEZs, causing no end of problems. “The Chinese government is giving a lot of subsidies and a lot of fishermen are living on these subsidies. Major Chinese fishing companies are attacking the EEZs of poorer areas, and then they are taking their fish to sell to Europe and America,” says Wang. The amount of fishing Chinese vessels do in other EEZs is unclear. Generally, when a nation allows other vessels to fish in its waters, access agreements are signed, and these are generally published as a matter of public record. China, however, as with so many things, does these deals behind closed doors.

The damage this does to foreign fisheries is considerable, but foreign governments are all-too unconcerned about their own fisheries. When asked why so many of these secret access agreements are signed, Professor Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia, says pointedly: “They do it for the money. What else could it be?” Pauly has conducted extensive studies into the impact of humans on global fisheries. While between 2000 and 2011 China reported to the United Nations that it only takes 368,000 tonnes a year from foreign fisheries, Pauly’s extensive studies indicate this is far higher and is in fact in the region of 4.1 million tonnes of fish every year, worth 11.5 billion USD and from the coastal waters of up to 93 countries. Up to 75 percent of these fish are caught in African waters, an estimated three million tonnes per year, causing extreme damage to local economies. “These fleets compete directly with local artisanal fisheries and undermine the food security of Africans. Combating this problem will involve more democracy and transparency  in the affected countries so that the benefits and losses due to distant water fisheries can be discussed openly,” says Pauly.

The state of the world fisheries is exasperating for everyone, and back in Beijing’s Greenpeace office, Wang tells me what he thinks needs to be done: “The first thing is to reduce vessel numbers and make smaller vessels. The second is to build marine reserves; these are protected areas where there is no fishing not allowed. The [enforcement] is not strong. The local governments don’t have the capacity to guard these areas.” He adds, “Last year [in China] just 1.9 percent of coastal areas were protected. In Brazil this is 17.5 percent of coastal waters.” People like Wang and Pauly continue to put their entire lives into studying, reporting on, and protecting the oceans, but it sometimes feels like they are fighting a losing battle. On being asked about his biggest fears for the oceans, Wang is downcast. “An empty sea,” he says, “an empty sea.”

China’s Gene Dream

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It took 16 years and billions of dollars, but in June, 2000, to great fanfare, the then American President Bill Clinton and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced in a joint statement that the world’s largest ever collaborative biological project had been a resounding success; the Human Genome Project, a rough draft of it at least, had been mapped. As ever, Clinton’s words were dazzling; Crick and Watson, the founding fathers of DNA, were invoked, as were Galileo, and, of course, God. Both Clinton and Blair were also quick to make a very particular point of thanking China for their contribution to the massive ground-breaking project.

Up to this point, the Chinese government had shown little interest in sequencing human genes, and though the Chinese contribution to the Human Genome Project was small (about one percent of the whole), the words of Clinton and Blair were game changers, putting China  firmly on the genomics map. On hearing Clinton’s words, Chinese President Jiang Zemin reportedly set about funding Chinese genomics immediately; the nation was about to embark on a journey that would put them at the very forefront of the world of genomics.

Today BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province in southern China is the largest genetic sequencing center in the world, employing over 4,000 scientists. BGI has mapped the genomes of over 60,000 people, not to mention the first sequencing of an Asian human and an ancient human, as well as the genomes of giant pandas (naturally), rice, cucumbers, pigs, chickens, tigers, fleas, silkworms, lizards, and sea slugs.  If it lives, plant or animal, BGI have either mapped its genome or are on the way to doing so. BGI maps more genomic data than anywhere in the world, by some estimates over 25 percent of all gene data sequenced in the world. The amount of data involved in sequencing just a single human genome is mindboggling, containing over three billion base pairs—a remarkable undertaking. But BGI has very big plans indeed and its Three Million Genomes Project will sequence the DNA of one million people, one million microorganisms, and one million plants and animals. A single BGI supercomputer currently processes 10 terabytes of raw sequencing data every 24 hours.

Whereas it cost billions of dollars and over a decade of work to map a single human genome for the first time, advances in technology mean that today it costs as little as 1,000 USD and takes as little as two hours to map a single human genome. The price is falling fast, with some predicting it may fall to a few hundred dollars. Dealing with big data on such a huge scale causes its own raft of problems, and BGI is partly dealing with these issues by doing something many of its critics thought it would never do: sharing. For instance, for World Hunger Day it made 13 terabytes of rice genome data available to the public. This enables scientists the world over to do their own research, eventually allowing them into the secrets needed to develop strains of rice with higher yields. In 2011 a particular dangerous strain of E. coli, spread throughout Europe killing dozens. BGI were able to take a sample of the bacteria and sequence the bacterial genome, giving the data to the public. Soon researchers throughout the world were publishing reports analyzing the disease and its resistances, which ultimately helped to contain the outbreak. BGI’s openness saved lives.

Dr. Bicheng Yang is BGI’s director of communications and public engagement and has been at the company for nearly six years. She speaks with passion and zeal about BGI’s potential to change the world in a variety of ways: “I think BGI is in the leading group doing genetic sequencing in the world, but I would not say we are the most advanced—that would be a bit bold. Some US and UK groups are also very advanced, and we do a lot of collaboration with them,” she says. Regarding BGI’s rare openness, especially rare for a Chinese company, she explains that to deal with such monumental amounts of information, BGI launched its own online journal, Gigascience an open-data publication to help publish its vast reserves of data.

The scale of the data involved was so huge that they chose to base the journal’s servers in Hong Kong where internet speeds are faster and cheaper. To Yang, Gigascience was an obvious choice: “There are drawbacks if we hold the data. It wastes a lot of time and resources. The idea of launching Gigascience was to accelerate research by releasing the data before the research stage. In the traditional publishing research model, you have to run your tests, do your numbers, write your papers, and then publish, which other researchers then pick up on. Gigascience allows us to publish data before papers, research, and conclusions. That way, other groups can use the data to generate new research and studies.”

Nobody is precisely sure of the full extent of the value of gene sequencing, but the vast majority of the scientific community thinks it could be very far reaching indeed, and key, but not limited to, developments in unlocking the secrets behind human evolution, resolving world famines, increasing IQs, curing hereditary diseases, and increasing life spans; to the layman, this is the stuff of miracles.

In the spring of 2013, BGI announced it was establishing a partnership with a Middle Eastern biotech firm to introduce a non-invasive fetal trisomy (NIFTY). The NIFTY test detects fetal chromosomal abnormalities using fetal DNA in the maternal blood to detect Down’s Syndrome with an accuracy of 99.9 percent at as early as 12 weeks of pregnancy. This is the first time non-invasive tests have been possible at such an early stage.

The scale of BGI’s international collaboration, much like BGI itself, is huge. They are working in the Philippines to develop new rice crops, doing projects in Mexico on maize, teaching scientists in Nairobi how to use their sophisticated sequencing machines, and perhaps one of the biggest feathers in the their cap is the close work they started with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in September 2012. A memoriam of understanding was signed, which will focus on agricultural organisms, infectious diseases, and crops in Africa. It is hoped to achieve the goal of significantly reducing poverty and/or improving health in the developing world. The scope of BGI’S plans sometimes seem almost too audacious. “The future development is first related to personal healthcare. Genomics sequencing technology has been more and more applied in the clinical field o f hereditary disease testing, so we can better prevent some birth defects. Also, we can better predict or diagnose cancers and diseases such as diabetes and obesity. In maybe five to 10 years, we can use technology to better predict and develop personalized treatments for those diseases,” says Yang.

And, of course, as with anything this size, some people seem to be running a little scared. Despite the fact that most of the science can be typified as “good works”, BGI has been criticized for the sheer size and scale of it partnerships, hiring, purchasing power, business divisions, financial muscle, and data collation. In short, some in the West fear China is fast approaching genomic hegemony.

In 2010 BGI secured a 10-year loan of 1.5 billion USD from state-owned China Development Bank and went on to purchase American genomics hardware firm Complete Genomics for about 118 million dollars, in what was the first ever acquisition o f a US listed public company by a Chinese firm. The move was seen as China gaining the edge in producing and providing its own sequencing machines, when previously they had simply been purchasing them from America. Complete Genomics’ biggest rival, Illumina, were furious at the deal and attempted to block the purchase on the basis that the deal posed a threat to national security. Illumina’s concerns were rejected out of hand, and the deal went ahead. Illumina’s CEO Jay Flatley’s fears seemed jingoistic and he repeatedly told journalists that the purchase would be equivalent to selling China the “formula for Coke”.

He hammered his point home in an interview with Xconomy, “There’s risk they could build very large databases, and get access to the genomes of lots of Americans. They could bring them back to China. There are lots of nefarious ways you could use the information. There are theoretical bad things you could do with those kinds of databases if they aren’t regulated by the law of the United States. So we were concerned about BGI’s affiliation with the Chinese government.” Though it sounded like the sour grapes of a nationalistic businessman soundly beaten, he continued to argue that in China the state has deep influence into all spheres of daily life, and this was bad news when it came to storing so much biometric data.

“It is paranoia,” says Yang. “We bought Complete Genomics for one reason: BGI recognized the power of its technology. Complete Genomics business strategy was not doing what it was supposed to do and this was causing them financial problems, but the technology itself had lots of potential. After buying them we went to try and develop the technology so it could be applied in a larger field.”

There are other areas of BGI work that have caused controversy. Every year high-brow leaning online magazine Edge, which aims to “seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, [and] put them in a room together”, asks its annual question so as to stir debate amongst the intellectuals, scientists, great thinkers, and assorted artists of the day. In 2013 their question was the simple but provocative: “What should we be worried about?”

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, was particularly alarmist, answering, “Chinese Eugenics.” He went on to explain how he believed China had been experimenting with eugenics for 30 years, citing the controversial 1995 Maternal and Infant Health Law, which tried to prevent people with heritable defects from marrying and promoted the scanning of fetal ultrasounds to check for birth defects. Interestingly, Miller was not remotely criticizing eugenics as an idea (if anything he seemed to imply the West should join in), but instead pointing out that BGI with their purchase of Complete Genomics were leaving the West behind, going on suggest that BGI’s ongoing cognition project, a project to which he himself had donated his own DNA, was going to identify alleles within DNA that were predictors of IQ: “[They] will probably be used mostly in China, for China. Potentially, the results would allow all Chinese couples to maximize the intelligence of their offspring by selecting among their own fertilized eggs for the one or two that include the highest likelihood of the highest intelligence,” he said. “This method of ‘pre-implantation embryo selection’ might allow IQ within every Chinese family to increase by five to 15 IQ points per generation. After a couple o f generations, it would be game over for Western global competitiveness.”

Miller was of course theorizing, and offered no hard evidence that BGI were intending to use their cognition project in this way at all. In fact the nature of IQ being in any way a real and valid measure of intelligence is hotly disputed and questioned by any number of scientists. Although, there are many in the scientific community who don’t think using science in this way is problematic at all. Indeed, many see it as positive. Who wouldn’t want babies that were more intelligent, right?

There is no doubt that the scientific community in China is hindered less by ethical concerns than the Western scientific community. Accordingly, some things are pushed through in China, where in the West they are delayed, such as stem cell research. Chris Chang, a visiting scholar at BGI who is working on their cognition project, told The New Yorker when discussing intelligence research: “There are ethical concerns about research in China too…But it is just not the career killing project it would be in the United States.”

Regardless of its ethical implications, BGI believe their cognition project is a potentially influential one. The idea is to compare the DNA of about 2,100 people, all with high IQs (including Miller’s), 1,600 of them taken from a previous study of those with exceptionally high IQs (over 150), against the genomes of thousands of people among the general population. It is hoped that by careful sifting through this DNA, clues will be spotted for what is the genetic basis of intelligence. Many, however, are skeptical. Firstly, it has been pointed out that, for a genetics study, 2,000 or so is an incredibly small sample size—sample sizes of tens of thousands are usually used for studies of this nature. Secondly, many argue that there isn’t very much of a genetic basis for IQs anyway and that intelligence is more likely something acquired. Dr. Yang agrees and doesn’t think the cognition project is going to yield quite the results that some claim: “I don’t think this is feasible or possible; cognition is a very complex issue. A lot of other factors influence this, not just genetics: environment, education all leads to IQ, so I think some of the press exaggerate the future potential outside of this. Cognition is a very small part of what we do.”

Aside from the potential Brave New World aspects of genomics and where it could potentially go, one of the biggest fears regarding BGI, simply, is that it is Chinese. Of course there will always be those that criticize the storage of such vast amounts of human biometric data, but there is something about China itself that makes people nervous. It is true that the Chinese government is able to intrude into the superstructures and structures of society in a way that few other governments can or do, and it would not be unreasonable to think the Chinese authorities do not have at least some influence on BGI. One and half billion dollar loans usually come with a few strings after all. BGI’s relationship with the government has not been an easy one; part of the reason BGI relocated from Beijing to Shenzhen was because the central government was not giving them the support they deserved. On being asked if BGI gets support from the government, Yang said, “Yes, especially the local government. They support us more than the central government. The Shenzhen government gives us lots of support because they understand what we do—maybe other governments don’t.”

In its early days, BGI was non-profit, and later it was affiliated with the Chinese Academy o f Sciences, but, ultimately, they were thrown out and had to set up as a private venture in Shenzhen. It was only their work on the Human Genome project that got them noticed. BGI almost has a slightly bad-boy image in China and has its own way of doing things. It gives scientists vast responsibility from an early age and notably even employs students who “dropped out” or failed to graduate. It’s an image that has permeated the whole company, as if lying on the border town of Shenzhen, so far from the seat of government, they are outliers in some way. Yang certainly takes some small pride in the idea, “Interestingly, in China we are a troublemaker; we have a reputation for not following the rules. In some ways BGI is unique and not a typical Chinese-style organization.”

There is little doubt that, thanks to BGI, in China, genomes are being sequenced at remarkable magnitudes. And, as to the significance of it all? The truth is nobody knows. Designer babies, eugenics, and totalitarian states using all the biometric data in the world for shadowy Orwellian purposes are the nightmares of the fiercest critics of the gene dream. Unlocking the key to who we are, ending disease, feeding the world, and, who knows, perhaps even immortality are the promises of the scientists who dare to believe. But one thing is sure: however it pans out, the bad boys in Shenzhen with a passion for DNA sequencing will have a part to play. We can only hope they play their cards right.

Rocking the boat

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As far back as 25 C.E., ships from China have been trading with the rest of the world on a maritime path of riches and discovery—a time when an ancient nation traded silk, ceramics, and other luxuries to the rest of planet earth. Well, that time is here again, as China prepares to build a new Silk Road—one carrying a lot more than a few copper coins. Xi Jinping announced the formation of a new maritime Silk Road in October of 2013 in Indonesia, and while it is still just a hodgepodge of ideological pipe dreams and commitments, the substantial benefits, alliances, and investments are now making serious waves.

It seems odd that Qinzhou (钦州) in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region—compared to the massive might of the cities, financial interests, and even nations invested in the creation of the maritime Silk Road—with a population just under a million, could play such an important role. Before the notion of the “maritime Silk Road” reared its head, the city struggled. When the port was first being built in the 1950s, it was funded by the local people, not the central government, with locals donating things like rice and eggs. The port mainly traded with Vietnam, but it brought little relief to the struggling city. What’s more, no one was really interested in claiming it; sometimes the city belonged to Guangxi, sometimes Guangdong— neither wanted it on their roster. There were not many jobs in town, and young people mostly worked in neighboring Guangdong Province.

But, with the new maritime Silk Road on the way, things are changing. Over a billion dollars is being spent on an industrial park there—for scale, that’s about 10 flights for Shenzhou VI. This massive influx of cash is having a knock-on effect on the local economy, which will see new industries such as biotechnology, IT, and even food processing. Qinzhou is up to the task; just a few years ago, the port city could not even handle one million tonnes, but today it’s running more than 60 million. People are flowing back, and the government is dealing with a sudden influx of industrial projects. Qinzhou is now included in China’s ambitious high-speed railway plan which will run all the way to Vietnam and even Singapore. All because of a grand, opaque idea for a maritime Silk Road.

“The three portal cities in Guangxi—Qinzhou, Beihai and Fangchenggang—have now all been includedinto the Beibu Gulf Port Corporation,” explains Zhu Nian, professor of Ocean Trade in Qinzhou University, himself a Qinzhou local who has stood witness to the city’s drastic transformation. “China’s coastal cities have relied on exports for many years, and just a few years ago, the export trade hit a wall. Also, China imposed a lot of limitations on exporting crude materials, which used to make our major exports. As a result, now the new port is mainly engaged in imports. Our major imports include coal from Vietnam, petrol from Malacca and the Middle East, and ore from Australia; all will provide fuel and materials to the gigantic plants in Qinzhou and neighboring provinces.”

Of course, China isn’t putting all of this money into Beibu Gulf without a partner; the matter of building a maritime Silk Road, obviously, isn’t a matter of paving the sea. Rather, it’s a question of investment and cooperation. For that, one must look far beyond China’s borders from the small industrial port city of Qinzhou to Kuantan in Malaysia. Far from its industrial sister in China, Kuantan is a tropical paradise with beautiful white sand beaches, gorgeous waterfalls, and tourists around every corner. About 25 miles north of this tropical heaven is Kuantan port—another stop on China’s maritime Silk Road. Malaysia has been China’s biggest trade partner in Southeast Asia since 2008. In 2013, with the maritime Silk Road underway, China’s exports to Malaysia grew 25.8 percent compared to the previous year, and the two countries’ bilateral trade went over 100 billion USD for the first time.

China has had trouble in the past sealing a deal in the South China Sea for foreign port use, so this port and the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park that comes along with it is a major step forward in China’s goal to recreate the maritime Silk Road of history and legend. On that note, things have not exactly gone swimmingly for China in Southeast Asia this year—what with the widely-reported anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam and the ever-present worries with certain ASEAN nations. But, this Silk Road may be a way to calm the waters. It’s, arguably, not about politics or sovereignty, and it’s not even about influence; it’s about money. With China’s exports dropping, China desperately needs the new Silk Road to deal with its surplus.

It’s been hard going, but other nations are working with China to help build the “diamond decade” in Southeast Asia, from Cambodia to Burma. But, it’s important to remember that China’s ancient maritime Silk Road touched everywhere from India to Africa and Xi’s maritime Silk Road has no intention of being left behind. Indeed, China released a map of what it hopes the new maritime Silk Road will look like— and even if the billions China is investing in this project come to nothing—it is still an impressive symbol of modern trade and China’s dream to be at the center of it. The easternmost part of this new maritime Silk Road begins in Fuzhou—which signed a deal with the China Africa Development Fund and the China Development Bank to put up 10 billion RMB. After that, the road winds its way through a smattering of Chinese cities, onto Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Then, the path shoots to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, linking the Pacific and Indian oceans. This is the end of the line for Asia as the maritime path leads to Nairobi in Kenya, and from Kenya through the Middle East to Athens, fittingly ending in Venice— where it meets China’s new Silk Road over land. For now, China’s new maritime Silk Road is a bit of a mystery. Is it government idealism and propaganda or is it a way to build alliances in the ASEAN? Is it a moneymaker for China or a bottomless money pit of pointless port investment? At the moment, it seems like all of these things and more, but time will tell if China can, once again like Admiral Zheng of old, connect East and West in a new and exciting way.

Additional research by Ginger Huang (黄原竟)

China Rules the Waves

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China’s effect on the oceans of planet Earth has been ubiquitous, permeating every part of the deep blue sea in Asia and beyond. As the nation has grown to become an economic powerhouse, the consequences for the wet part of the world have been staggering. In some cases, China has helped develop the waterways and shipping lanes of Asia, making them safe for traffic and spearheading economic development for nations that badly need the trade; of course, China itself benefits from this as well—cementing trade superiority in the region to build that oh-so-important multipolar world. However, the impact China has had has not been wholly positive. Indeed, the impact China’s fishing— particularly long-line fishing—has had on the Asian ecosystem has been catastrophic, and, as the need for seafood shows no sign of slowing down, China is going to need to find a way to balance its voracious need for the life of the sea with sustainable fishing. Many are causing the problems, but if China truly hopes to rule the waves, it’ll need to be in the vanguard of fixing it. Quite apart from the economic success and the environmental horrors it brings, is the subject of science and exploration. Here, China is somewhat in the lead. In 2012, China dove to depths of 7,000 meters in an amazing craft designed to explore and study the basement of the world; other deep sea submersibles are in the works, including one that can dive 11,000 meters—deeper than the human race has ever gone before. Be it ocean economics, ecological disaster, or scientific exploration, China’s new role in the sea is a bold new frontier, and China is fast realizing that, despite providing incredible bounty and treasure, the sea also demands care and attention. INFOGRPHIC_1 INFOGRPHIC_2 INFOGRPHIC_3 INFOGRPHIC_4

Go Out, New China, And Grow Old

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As the poor run for the big urban centers and the rich run for the relative peace and economic boom of second and third tier cities, there is yet another option in the modern migratory patterns of the Chinese people: escape. China’s rapid development has led to a massive increase in the number of Chinese leaving the motherland to seek their fortune abroad—a truer, broader sense of China’s government scheme in 1999 called the Go Out Policy, encouraging China’s wealth and influence expand beyond its borders. This modern exodus takes many forms, from living the high life in a tax haven to mining for gold in Ghana and from US students to Portuguese professionals, but as China continues to grow in both wealth and population, it is sure to become even more diverse and complex.

“I always wanted to study or travel abroad, to see the world, experience different cultures, but life was fairly good and stable in Beijing, so for many years I didn’t have the motivation and courage to take any action,” says Penelope Xu, who currently works with the Department of Health and Human Services in Hobart in Tasmania, Australia. “Compared to Beijing, life here is much more relaxing…traffic is not bad, air is clean, food is safe, the mountains, forests, beaches, and the city itself are all beautiful.”

Many in Penelope’s generation are opting out of the Chinese dream for a variety of reasons, be it competition, health care, or family pressure. Going from student to citizen is no easy task, involving a number of economic and social barriers. “It wasn’t easy,” says Penelope, “Australian immigration policy is getting tighter and tighter. Students who want to get permanent residency visa here need a really high IELTS score, also the qualification necessary has to be a degree on the immigration skill list, and age needs to be within certain range.” Penelope adds, “I know many of my classmates who wanted to stay but couldn’t due to different reasons.” While it may be difficult to get citizenship—or a job, for that matter—after graduation, many countries are embracing the influx of Chinese students (and their parents’ cash); Australia, for example, has begun accepting the much dreaded Chinese gaokao as an application credential.

Becoming a student-turned-citizen is difficult, requiring a high level of skill and is an option open to very few in China’s highly competitive yet still largely undeveloped society. As such, parents try the best they can to give their kids a headstart. On the famous Hurun Report this year, it was noted that some are starting as early as sending their kids to secondary school in countries like the US, UK, Australia, and Canada in the hope of eventually gaining citizenship. Those interviewed by Hurun had an annual income over 10 million RMB—which would come in handy as the boarding schools they send their children to cost upwards of 16,000 USD a term. At over 32,000 USD a year, that’s an extremely hopeful investment in a foreign passport.

Of course, for those who have the money, there are always ways to citizenship. Rather than hoping one’s child gets citizenship via being a student, the wealthy can always buy their citizenship via residence permits, and China is the key consumer in this market: Portugal offers residence permits for 500,000 Euros and 248 out of a total 318 applications came from China; in the US, the EB-5 fast-track visa will cost investments of over 500,000 to one million USD and 10 jobs, with applications from Chinese rising from 270 in 2007 to 2,969 in 2011; if you’re a bit skint, try buying property in Greece (if you dare) for 250,000 Euros of property tied residency permit, the very first of which went to a Chinese man on August 8 last year.

But, college, secondary schools, and massive wealth aren’t the only options; there is, in some places, a cheaper—however less ethical—way to get that coveted foreign passport. Birth tourism is a burgeoning industry for Chinese parents who want their kids to grow up in America and other countries with similar immigration laws. For the right price (often around 16,000 to 30,000 USD depending on the services provided), expectant mothers can take advantage of the 14th amendment to the US constitution that says children born on US soil are US citizens. Not only that, but these mothers will have excellent care for the right price, often including Chinese speaking doctors and hotel services.

In April of this year, CCTV ran a story about the unexpected boom in birth tourism for expectant Chinese mothers; approximately 4,200 Chinese women gave birth in the US in 2008, jumping to over 10,000 by 2012. Then, there is a little island in the Western Pacific called Saipan a little over a 120 miles north of Guam that is part of the United States commonwealth and, therefore, US soil. Births on that island, just 19 kilometers long, have been falling, but births to ethnic Chinese were up 175 percent between 2010 and 2012. “Maternity traffic” has become an important part of the local economy. There are about 30 countries in the world that grant citizenship upon birth, with Canada and America the most popular for Chinese, but few countries look kindly on this path to citizenship. However, it’s not really possible to prevent pregnant women from traveling just to drop their baby on another soil—but that doesn’t mean people don’t try. The governor of Saipan sent 20 Chinese moms packing in under four months, meaning their babies were to be born in China. This gamble is even worse domestically, with birth tourism fiercely controlled in China’s Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, where three women were arrested and fined for attempts at birth tourism this year.

However, China’s mass migration into the nations of the world has not come without costs or horrors. Perhaps the most harrowing of these occurs in countries like Ghana, where poor, illegal Chinese migrants mine for gold in the dark, wet wilderness of Africa, resulting in environmental pollution, fights over mining plots, and destruction of local economies. Ghana’s reaction, however, has caused serious anti-Chinese sentiment—where attacks, sexual assault, and immigration raids are part of life. The same can be said of Zambia’s copper mines and the Chinese businesses that see attacks and even murders. Many other countries, even those such as New Zealand, are making new policies to crack down on Chinese immigrants as they try to deal with this often relatively small but politically sensitive influx of Chinese immigrants. The growing pains will likely intensify in coming years, but China is growing and spreading into the outside world to spend and diversify its wealth like never before. And that, perhaps, is where China will truly change the future.

*This is Part III of “China on the Move”. Read Part I here, and Part II here.

FEELING LUCKY?

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Go to any casino in the world and they are there by the bucket load, dozens upon dozens of seemingly inscrutable Chinese men sitting behind ever increasing or decreasing stacks of chips, coolly throwing them down on whatever numbers feel lucky at the time. The stereotypical Chinese affinity for gambling is not exactly fiction; it gave rise to a colossal, thriving three trillion RMB industry. Anytime, there is a national festival, communal gathering, or even funeral wake, the chance for a little low or high stakes gambling is taken: most often it’s to the distinctive clack of plastic mahjong tiles that can be heard pretty much anywhere across the country; commonly, it is to any number of card games, from baccarat to cow-cow; sometimes it’s on races between 100,000 dollar pigeons; and occasionally it’s to something even more niche like cock-fighting, or odder still, to the fighting of tiny insects such as crickets. In China, if a bet can be made, it will be made.

“Gambling is illegal in China” is something you hear a lot. You can hear tales of how Chairman Mao came to power and immediately banned anything and everything that was decadent and Western, from books and dancing right through to prostitution and, of course, gambling. But the well-trod notion that gambling in China is illegal is not quite true. There is, in fact, a successful 300 billion RMB industry that is completely legal and even administered by the government, except they don’t call it gambling; instead a variety of euphemisms are employed, such as “colorful tickets” (彩票) or—on occasion and somewhat amusingly—“competitive guessing” (博彩). The China Welfare Lottery (中国福利彩票) and the China Sports Lottery (中国体育彩票) started in 1987 and 1989 respectively, and both allow Chinese punters to gamble on a number of different games including national and provincial lotteries, quick draw bingo type games, as well as scratch cards, and even sports. The lotteries are big news and due to a series of innovations, they have been growing by anywhere between 25 and 35 percent a year since their inception.

One rainy night, my friend Paul from Hebei and I visit a China Sports Lottery “bookies” for a bit of a flutter in Beijing’s Xizhimen area. On the way to the betting shop, Paul, who thinks such betting is pointless, gives me his views on the Chinese lotteries. “They are just a way for the government to steal money from the poor who want to make a lot of money fast. No rich guys would play these games. It’s a waste of time,” he says. The betting shop in many ways echoes a British bookie from 20 years ago, albeit a very low rent version. Thick plumes of cigarette smoke hang in the air and empty beer bottles are dotted around the shop. A gaggle of middle-aged Chinese men sit huddled in the corner. They are studying a complex grid on a whiteboard where the numbers for the last few weeks’ lotteries have been hastily jotted down. On the board, a line is drawn through the numbers and it seems to form a zigzag pattern, as it almost inevitably would. If you didn’t give it much thought you could mistakenly think these zigzags form an identifiable and predictable pattern, and many of the men in the shop have methods and techniques for calculating the numbers. As Paul says, “These guys think they are working for the numbers. If they win they think it is because they deserved it.” It’s all bunkum, of course; the numbers are completely random and therefore unpredictable.

The shop is run by a woman in her late 30s and her son, who was apparently helping out. Though the boy looks about eight years old, Mike Wang is actually 13. His family moved to Beijing from Shanxi to run the betting shop. They get a set wage, and if they sell over a certain amount they get a healthy commission. Mike’s father was a welder, and his mother worked in insurance and sold Amway products on the side, but they thought they would have a better chance running a betting shop in Beijing. That was eight years ago, and the shop seems to be flourishing. Though just 13 years old, Mike, wearing a pair of bright yellow Nike football boots, seems intelligent and tells me it is his ambition to be an elite soldier. Very familiar with the betting shop itself, he eagerly helps me score my lottery slip and shows me how to play the game. For the draw, there are 33 numbers and a bonus ball, so I have to pick six numbers and a bonus and then hope they come up.

It’s 2 RMB a go and I decide to buy five lines to increase my chances. On rollover weeks, where nobody has picked the numbers in the previous week, the prizes can be fantastically huge. If the lottery rolls over for several weeks, the amounts can go up to hundreds and hundreds of millions of RMB. Mike helps me pick some of the numbers, seemingly at random, and I ask him if he thinks the numbers are predictable. “Who knows? It is impossible to tell,” he says. “We get two main types of guys in here. Some, like you guys, just quickly pick the numbers. The other guys think they can work out what numbers are going to come up and take longer picking the numbers. But they all seem to win the same amount as each other.”

It turns out the draw for the lottery is not until the next day, so we buy a few instant scratch cards to see if we can win there and then. The scratch cards themselves have colorful names such as, “Digging the Golden Beans”, “Winning the Sky Battle”, “Unlimited 7 Fun”, and “Ten Times Good Luck”. The cards are five or 10 RMB a piece. Each game feels slightly different, but they, of course, are not. In some, you have to get a set of arrows pointing in the same direction, others you need three lines of fruit in a row, and with some you need matching types of sky rockets to win. They are fun to play and there is a distinct adrenaline rush as you manically scratch the silver covering off the symbols underneath.

Suddenly Paul screams, “Dude, I just won 10 bucks.” Though the ticket itself actually cost 10 RMB, it feels like a victory of sorts and we go on to buy several more tickets. For someone who thinks gambling is a waste of his time, Paul enjoyed buying the tickets and orders more and more. The shop is full so we furiously scratch the cards outside, but Mike is on hand and only too happy to ferry our tickets and money to and from the shop as he explains how each game works. I spend 100 RMB on tickets, but “win” about 50 RMB on cards themselves. Mike tells me that the payout is about 65 percent on the scratch cards, so I’m well under the win average. This thought alone makes me think it is worth buying more.

Why the Chinese have a particular penchant for gambling is unclear, though betting can be traced back to at least the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BCE-256 BCE), possibly earlier, where there are records of liubo (六博), a game of chance, as well as cock fighting and horse racing. The nation is deeply steeped in its Confucian culture, yet Confucius himself didn’t have much positive to say about the pastime, seeing gambling as wasteful, a moral ill, and something that could lead to social disorder. Professor Desmond Lam of the University of Macau has written extensively about Chinese gambling, “They [Chinese gamblers] are more serious. Some studies find that Chinese casino-goers gamble more as a form of investment. They also take high risk bets that are way above the minimum betting amount,” he says. “They do gamble much more and more avidly. It is difficult to explain this phenomenon in a sentence, but I would group the reasons into external, for example high income disparity, and low or negative real interest rates, versus internal, that is the high illusion of control, risk seeking, social norms, etc.”

Lam has written extensively about this “the illusion of control”, essentially it’s the idea that people feel they can control the outcome of games (even those requiring no skill) in some way. Oddly, this “illusion of control” partly comes from the fact that many Chinese believe they have less, not more, control over their lives than Westerners. Chinese have what Lam calls a very high “external locus of control”, meaning that they believe lots of other factors outside of themselves that have a big impact on their ultimate fate, and this external locus can be underpinned by numerous things such as superstition, luck, destiny, and folk beliefs. Accordingly, larges sets of rituals and bizarre beliefs are often developed to add to their luck, which they believe needs to be built up. This “luck” is then deployed at the gaming table. Such rituals can take myriad forms such as the wearing of red underwear, not touching a gambler’s shoulders during gaming, avoiding monks and nuns, the blowing of cards, and even various feng shui elements, like not going through the doors of gaming establishments that face certain directions; perhaps the oddest edict of the bunch is that female gamblers are more likely to find success when they are on their period.

Lam also believes there is a subtle difference in the way Chinese society perceives gambling as a whole, and he suggests that, where in the West casino gambling is seen as entertainment, many Chinese see it as a form of investment. Perceived differences are particularly strong with problem gamblers, “Many see ‘small bets’ as okay, and it is fun to gamble during festive seasons like Chinese New Year. It is also common for adults to let kids play a few rounds. Sometimes, it is seen to be for good luck,” says Lam. “A person who cannot control his or her gambling activities is recognized as someone who cannot control his or her own behavior. This person is considered a morally bad person but in the Western perspective this person is ‘mentally’ sick…Most Chinese don’t report their gambling problems because of face issues. Only the big cases (i.e. leading to the embezzlement of funds) get reported in Chinese media.”

There are some disagreements as to the motivations behind the Chinese government’s involvement in gambling; and there have been tentative attempts to introduce wider legalized gambling such as horse racing or even casinos on the Chinese mainland, but so far none have ever gotten off the ground. Some argue that the establishment of lotteries is simply a way for corrupt officials and others to line their pockets, others see it is an effective way to raise money for good causes, but most commonly it seems to be believed that it is a way for the government to get a strong regulatory grip on what could otherwise easily become a widespread problem. Lam certainly takes this view: “I think legalizing gambling in China is a way to take gambling away from the underground and to manage illegal activities better. This is a common reason in many other countries too.” He adds, “The main reason is to redirect the wealth gained in underground gambling activities into legal means and use the wealth to better the lives of the society as a whole.” Although, he sees the lotteries as continuing to grow, he does not think legal gambling will extend beyond the lotteries in the short term: “It will take a while for this to happen. I don’t see the possibility of legalizing casino gambling on the mainland any time soon. It will be hard to control the social ills if it happens, and I don’t think the central government can effectively do so.”

One of the quirks of China’s legal gambling system is that although it’s strictly administered by China’s Ministry of Finance and effectively a nationalized industry, the day to day running of its various games are all completely outsourced to third parties. The Beijing Sports Lottery for example, despite taking in vast sums of money, only has 13 permanent members of staff. These third parties aggressively seek capital in any way they can. All of this has led to the somewhat bizarre situation whereby you can effectively buy shares in China’s national state lottery on the New York-based NASDAQ. Chinese Sports Lottery betting website 500.com has the largest market share online in China and launched an IPO in November 2013. The prospect of investing on a New York stock exchange in a Chinese state-run online gambling network was an odd one, but, to many, it also looked like too much of a winning bet to pass up, and sure enough it was. The IPO went off with a bang and shares opened at 20 USD, barely four months later they peaked at a healthy 56 USD in March 2014—currently standing just shy of the 40 USD mark. The Chinese lottery, it seems, offers strong returns by any standard.

For a nation that loves to bet so much, the country’s betting industry is in an odd space. Illegal or not, China’s over 3,000 years of gambling history is not going to end anytime soon. Governments the world over are only too happy to deride any number of vices, yet simultaneously tax them to the nth degree to fill national coffers, and a little (or large) flutter has long been part of that equation. With the casinos of Macau and the horse riding in Hong Kong, in time it will become clear if legal gambling on the Chinese mainland will extend beyond the, for now, narrow confines of its welfare and sports lotteries. Although, with three trillion RMB at stake, who would bet against it? Gambling, in modern China at least, may have only just begun.

THE OTHER CHINESE DREAM

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It’s a story oft told: in a 30-year period, upward of 250 million Chinese rural residents flooded into the cities to seek better lives, thousands upon thousands of Chinese villages were left empty but for the elderly and grandchildren, the generation in between having left to seek a better fortune. And these economic migrants were not afraid to get their hands dirty either: road sweepers, construction workers, security guards, prostitutes, and waitresses; they would do anything, whatever needed to be done, as long as it gave them the chance for a brighter future.

However, there is another newer, smaller story that you don’t hear so much about. As China’s rural poor flood into its largest cities, many of the nation’s richer white-collar workers have become fed up with those same cities and all the problems they offer and have instead decided to sell-up and leave it all behind, dreaming of something quieter, healthier, more utopian perhaps. They go to places like less developed Yunnan or Guangxi to live beneath mountains or beside gently flowing rivers, so they can run hostels, open cafes, make music, sell art, and do whatever necessary to keep them away from the hustle and bustle of the hectic metropolises.

Ren Zhongya and her husband Weng Yanhua are one such couple. They had been living in Wenzhou, Fujian, which (by Chinese standards) is a small city, of just under four million people, but became tired of the city’s relentless drive toward ever more urbanization. Accordingly, they decided to reorient their lives and, after a short stint in Shanghai, moved to the tiny island of Gulangyu, just off Xiamen on China’s east coast and opened a small, quaint coffee shop called 花时间 (Killing Time).

“Wenzhou was just a small place but urbanization was so fast that old things were destroyed suddenly. Like old districts and old houses…I am very sensitive to air and sound. Wenzhou was a fast developing city but had begun to demolish and build on a large scale. It was not an atmosphere I liked,” says Ren. “My husband’s little brother happened to be in the army in Xiamen, and we went there for his wedding. We loved Gulangyu.”

Though Weng was inundated with work as a graphic designer and Ren had become something of a minor celebrity with her work in radio, they didn’t find the city life spiritually satisfying; the city offered no mysticism and, with all its pollution and noise, had become overbearing. And so they felt the urge to return to something simpler. “We opened the coffee shop in 2006 with the money I got from a book I published. We’ve always wanted somewhere with books, music, and an atmosphere that fitted our lifestyle…We live a simple life, away from worldly things such as social status and fame,” she says. Adding, “Also I like the café’s atmosphere. And we both like coffee. At that time, there were no real coffee shops in Gulangyu.”

Of course, the desire to “get away from it all” and to embrace a more idyllic ruritanian existence is nothing new; Thoreau managed to eke out a whole book on his love for the hermitic lifestyle, though for him, like many others, the process proved short-lived. But modern China in particular lends itself to such dreams. The nation’s seemingly unstoppable march to reform and modernization, in many ways, has been an unqualified success. Hundreds of millions have escaped poverty and are leading richer lives, but at the same time it has left many without a space, or the time, to think; many Chinese, particularly the more bohemian types, are desperately yearning for a more fulfilling inner world, as Ren says, “I am more interested in the things that go on inside my mind, such as art and music. We did this so we have more time left for ourselves. We don’t live as hermits; we just want to keep a distance from people but not completely away from people.”

For many of these spiritual migrants their plans are ultimately hampered in some way, and many of them often purport a desire to move back to the cities for some reason or other, perhaps in a bout of sincere Confucianism they feel the urge to go back home to look after their parents. More often than not parental bonding works the other way, and a good education for their children comes top of the list; urban schools are widely perceived as being far better than those in rural areas and they certainly have better resources.

Also, and somewhat ironically, this desire for something quieter often backfires to the extent that these idylls that are sought out soon become busy and those people searching for something quieter feel the urge to escape once more, something that has happened to Ren and Weng themselves; the small island where they looked for peace and calm has become wracked with tourists, and where there used to be just one coffee shop on the island, there are now dozens: “The Gulangyu before fit our dream. It had its own culture and spirit, and it wasn’t cut off from the world. It was able to reach a balance between nature and urbanization. [But now] for a small place, the destruction of urbanization is more apparent.” Ren adds, “We feel like we’ve reached a stage where we want to leave. The destruction is to such a degree that we feel it’s starting to affect our life.”

As the hype, and indeed reality, behind China’s modern economic miracle continues unabated, the outliers that shun materialism will no doubt grow too, and the question will be asked more and more: will China’s remarkable experiment in urbanization leave a space for those that dare to be different?

*This is Part II of “China on the Move”. Read Part I here.

CHINA ON THE MOVE – PART I

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China is a nation transformed: urban landscapes swell to the brim with rural citizens hoping to make their fortune, the newly rich run from the chaos of the metropolitan rat race, and many of the truly wealthy look for solace outside of China’s borders. This change has had its ups and downs, but it cannot be denied that the people of China are migrating en masse and that the consequences of this mass migration are being felt everywhere—even though the true costs may not be felt for decades to come. The key revolution of China this decade has been economic, one in which a society mills freely about the nation and abroad to seek a fortune or future unthought-of in previous generations.

For China’s cities, this means a great deal, chiefly that the rural population are searching for a lifestyle and a fortune in the urban areas where the pay is better, the work safer, and the outlook brighter. The explosion of the middle class has, for some, had the opposite effect, with China’s relatively young and wealthy looking for a less hectic life in the country’s more peaceful (and possibly more lucrative) areas. Some just want to get out of China altogether, and there are options for the super rich and hopeful parents alike to getting on the fast track to a fresh, new passport from a country of their choosing; just a few decades ago, China opened up to the world, and now the world is opening up to China. Chinese society, put simply, is on the move.

Rural Exodus

It is the largest human migration China has ever experienced. The change of political climate and economic policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s opened a door to the city for hundreds of millions of rural residents. Attracted by wages several times higher than what they could earn at home, not to mention the prospect of richer urban lives and everything else cities offer, they could not wait to abandon their “mud bowl”. Firmly stationed on the assembly line, these peasants-turned workers began to create the so-called Chinese miracle, becoming the backbone of economic development, and it never seemed to stop. Over the next 30 years, the ever intensifying trend completely changed the social fabric of the nation.

By 2013, the number of rural migrant workers reached268 million, accounting for nearly one fifth of the entire Chinese population. First found in the factory workshops and construction sites, migrant workers are now employed in every aspect of city life: express delivery, retail, restaurants, hotels, and more, with some going on to become successful entrepreneurs. They are at every street corner in every city selling, repairing, and serving tirelessly. There is no doubt that rural migrant workers can better themselves by moving to the city, but like everywhere else in the world in the history of urbanization, the dramatic social change is not without its problems. Some of these factors—not least of which is the sheer scale—are unique to China.

The already heavily populated urban areas are struggling to meet the needs of the large influx of migrant workers. Beijing, for example, already holds a population of well over 21 million, of which over four million are migrant workers. With an increase of 500,000 new migrants each year, resources are running dangerously low: infrastructure is lagging behind international standards, urban planning is challenged, and quality of life is poor and worsening for many migrant workers.

However, overcrowding tops the list of problems. This February a fire broke out in a “village within the city”—rural areas that slip through the cracks of urbanization where rural residents lost their farmland due to city expansion—in Shanghai Pudong New Area, killing a20-year-old Jiangsu migrant worker and his newly-wed pregnant wife. At the time of the fire, the two-floored brick building, constructed in the 80s, was crammed with25 tenants in small rooms separated by wooden boards. Like the victims, most were migrant workers employed in the local shipyard. The village, called Shanheng, had 3,000 locals and over 10,000 migrant workers living in rooms less than 10 square meters in size. Scattered gas tanks, aging wires, and even electric bikes are a constant threat to these workers’ lives. But rent is as low as 100RMB a month—a migrant worker has to save money where he can.

Such villages are common places for migrant workers to live. In 2010, China Real Estate and Finance published a survey of 404 migrant workers based in Beijing, showing that 63 percent of them live in old bungalows and self-built simple houses in these “villages within the city”, and 72 percent of them had an average living area of less than five square meters per person. In many of these crowded and unsanitary living areas, a bathroom or even running water is a luxury. With an average monthly wage of 2,609 RMB, migrant workers only spend about450 RMB on housing in the hope of taking more money back to their families. Some have even chosen shipping containers, wells and manholes as homes.

Alongside the extremely bad living conditions, environmental pollution also poses a huge threat to the health of the migrant workers. According to “Environment, Health and Migration”, a report completed this March by the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, migrant workers tend to live close to pollution sources in heavily industrialized areas, which are typically where they work. Migrant workers are repeatedly exposed to water, soil and air pollution, leading to deteriorating health. Also, the latest figures from the State Statistics Bureau indicate that only18 percent of migrant workers have health insurance. For most of them, their poverty leaves them entirely unequipped to deal with illness.

Their trials, however, do not end there. The hukou, or household register system, is their final obstacle in being embraced by the city, a hurdle many never overcome. Installed in 1958, hukou are divided into agriculture for rural residents and non-agriculture for urban residents, and attached are very different medical care facilities, insurance plans, and educational opportunities. Disadvantaged rural residents have a hard time meeting the ever changing urban hukou requirements, even if they have lived, worked and paid taxes in the city for decades. Faced with complaints and criticism, the Beijing city government issued urban hukou to three migrant workers at the end of April this year, all of whom were “National Labor Models”—a gesture to show that migrant workers’ contribution to the city will eventually be rewarded. However, three out of over four million is fatuoustokenism and of no comfort whatsoever to the diligent army of migrant workers living on the ramshackle edges of Beijing and other Chinese cities.

Seemingly a group of perpetual outsiders, migrant workers are all-too-often discriminated against, mistreated, and brushed aside without so much as a moment’s notice. In its rush to modernize, China has clearly created a new urban underclass. They are called nongmingong (农民工) or mingong (民工), a name that has increasingly been associated with shabby appearance, boorish manners, poor education, intense physical labor, and an impoverished status—worse still, it’s a term now snobbily used as an insult. To counter such negative connotations, the state-run media began a campaign, which was really a piecemeal effort in semantics, and added “brothers and sisters” after mingong, hoping such a gesture would bridge the gap between rural workers and the city dwellers. But, a simple name change was never going to be enough. If migrant workers are indeed our brothers and sisters, we are pretty shameful siblings.