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译不达意: Language Drama in 2 Acts

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Here is my first short story in Chinese. The title is “Lost in Translation”, and it illustrates the potential consequences of bad mandarin pronunciation. If you don’t read Chinese I left a little summary in comments, or else use G Translator to get the enhanced experience [1].

UPDATE: I have reposted this on Tianya to give it some air time among Chinese readers. By now the post has stabilized at around 3000 reads and 50 comments, I don’t think it will go much further. It was a nice experiment in Chinese BBS propagation, I will analyze the results soon.

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译不达意

帮助迷失于中文中的老外找回爱之路

卖抠是我的好朋友。我们在美国老家是小学同班。虽然好几年没见面,但是我们的关系还是很密切。所以上个星期收到他的求救信让我很惊讶。他居然在中国! 还说他一个人无友可靠!

我马上回邮请他来上海我家住几天,看看能不能帮助他。

他写的让我太诧异了。更奇怪的是,居然我发现他会中文。我迫不及待的要他说这是怎么一回事。他说一年前,在我们美国的老家,因为那个金融风暴他的公司倒闭了。他失业了不知道该怎么办,有一天在路上看到了一个广告说“学会中文掌握未来!”就决定了报名上中文课。谁想到卖抠爱上了他的老师曹晓琳,一个来自江西的留学生。不到三个月他们就谈了恋爱。 Click to continue »


NOTES:
  1. that is, you will be lost in the translation of Lost in Translation []

The Expo is coming to Shanghai!

Friday, March 19th, 2010

I visited an Expo for the first time as a kid, when my school took all my class together to Seville ’92. Spain was living a crazy year, the Olympics where happening at the same time that Summer, and the Expo was designed to be one of the largest ever. Like now in China, there was some debate about the corruption and the money squandered, and people didn’t really know what the show was all about.

In many ways, that first Expo was very similar to the one China is doing now. Spain had to prove something,  it had passed its own 改革开放 (reform and opening) in the late 70s with the transition to democracy. Then it went on to  join the European Union in the 80s, and by 1992 it was finally starting to look like a developed country. The old pessimistic phrases “Spain is different” and “Europe starts behind the Pyrenees” felt already like something from the past.

Granted, the Reform here has “Chinese characteristics”, and massive population of China needs more time than Spain to complete the Development.  But overall, there is a clear parallelism between Spain 92 and China 2008-2010, and that is one of the reasons I am so excited about the Expo. It was great stuff in 92, and I have some cool memories of chunks of icebergs in the Chile pavilion, or an outdoor temperature control system that was unseen at the time. Click to continue »

Keep your War out of our Internet

Wednesday, March 10th, 2010

no-a-la-guerra (1)The case of Google’s new approach to China is moving slower than expected, but I have the feeling that we may see something happen pretty soon. After the New Year, the Double Meetings are almost over and the Chinese government will probably want to have this cleared before the next big item in the agenda, the Shanghai EXPO. If we are going to see an end to the Google case, my money is on March/April.

And really, the sooner we close this the better. The media are getting bored of the wait, and they are filling it with a wave of horror stories about cyberwar, all of which may be hurting Google, hurting US-China relations, and generally insulting the intelligence of netizens.

There have been reports of all kinds regarding the cyberwars, from the crazy wingnut ones to the relatively relaxed. All follow in the line of a completely muddled Google message and subsequent speech by Hillary Clinton. This article by the the “liberal” Wapo was one of the first to come out, and right from the opening paragraph it sets the mood for all the other cyberwar press that followed. Click to continue »

Sex and Conservatives in China

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Sexy_Costumes_Classic_Officer_Fr_RU888501_7496

It looks like Charles over at the new China Divide blog has found a new source of clicks to revive the China blogging scene: debating the crackdown on pornography in China.

While I don’t usually support any kind of censorship, I have to say I couldn’t care less for the cause of porn in China. From what I have seen, sex peddlers are the most disgraceful, spammy, virus-ridden and generally useless sites of the internet, and they distract netizens from doing more important things like reading my blog. You can be sure that you won’t find me in the ranks of the protesters when those websites get banned.

There is however a more important problem with banning porn, and it is that the definition of the Chinese authorities goes way further than what we usually understand as pornography. It applies to some wonderful works of art, including films such as An Lee’s Lust and Caution, or this great TV serial and book by Liu Liu. It is used to marginalize some excellent artists like Tang Wei, and in general it contributes to further stifle the creativity of the Chinese literary and artistic scene.

To be sure, many times the banning of “unhealthy” content is just an excuse to get rid of dissidents or to justify protectionist policies. But generally speaking, when Chinese authorities act against porn it is out of a genuine ethical concern. And here is where I see a more interesting angle to the discussion, linking up to the question I asked last year in the post about TV serials and communist ethics: why are the commies so prudish?

From my experience living in various communist and ex-communist countries, I conclude that this is not a strictly Chinese phenomenon. In fact, it is not even a communist phenomenon, but rather a common characteristic of conservative people everywhere. I maintain that the reason why erotic content is banned in China is just that the CCP is an extremely conservative organization, and as all conservatives everywhere they abhor public displays of sex, even if in private they might think nothing of going to the brothel 5 times a week.

Why then, do conservatives tend to have this particular attitude in common towards sex? And in particular, why are communist regimes, all of which abolished religion, at the forefront of sex related puritanism?

The Red Conservatives

First of all, I want to add here a definition of conservatives, just to avoid having the whole discussion turn around the meaning of a word. Like most political terms, this one can have different meanings in different places. The meaning I use for this post is one that I think is most intuitive and understood internationally. From the Encyclopedia Britannica:

Political attitude or ideology denoting a preference for institutions and practices that have evolved historically and are thus manifestations of continuity and stability. It was first expressed in the modern era through the works of Edmund Burke in reaction to the French Revolution, which Burke believed tarnished its ideals through its excesses. Conservatives believe that the implementation of change should be minimal and gradual; they appreciate history and are more realistic than idealistic.

In the case of communist countries like China it is always complicated to use the normal political terms of conservative/progressive, or right/left. The reason is that during 1949-1978 the paradigm was changed, and the old conservatives were exterminated. As a consequence, a  “new country” was created from zero, so for the purpose of Chinese political life, the “institutions and practices that have evolved historically” only count as defined in the history of the Communist Party. And the conservatives in China tend to be communist.

This phenomenon is hardly unique. It follows the logic of revolutionary movements everywhere obtaining mainstream power: their focus suddenly shifts from “changing the world” to “maintaining the status quo”, and conservative mindsets normally take control.

It is hardly necessary to explain this to anyone who has lived in China, but I have the feeling that some Americans still find it strange to call a communist regime “conservative”. If you think all this is just intellectual blabber, you are missing the point. The supporters of the CCP are genuinely conservative people and they behave exactly as you would expect from a conservative elsewhere.

From my conversations with some passionate young men in the CCP, and my long chats in the internet-less nights of North Korea, I have a reasonable understanding of what moves those convinced “communists”: they dislike foreign influence and they attach an absurd importance to nationality and ethnicity; they are averse to anything that sounds like free thinking or questioning of the old ideas; they like to marry traditional girls, pretty by the old canons, who don’t wear mini-skirts or speak too much in public; they don’t like homosexual people and they are quick to call “whore” when a girl behaves exactly like many men do.

The tragedy is that these conservative people will never be able to connect with their counterparts in America, because both sides are still bound by their own religious and Cold War rethoric. Someone should invent a party with the slogan like: Conservatives of the World, unite!

A soup of political terms

I am going to have to cut this here for today, because my new blogging policies don’t let me do more than 1000 words per post. We will continue in the next one, but before I finish I want to mention the very interesting problem of political terms in China.

Due to the reversal of paradigms mentioned above, there is still a good deal of confusion in the West about which English words should be used to name the different ideologies in a communist country. I am no scholar in Chinese politics, but from the books I have read on the subject (including academic works like Victor Shih’s) I get the impression that the terms are not standardized. The only book I have seen that attempts to do a taxonomy is the little manual: “What does China Think” by Mark Leonard.

I am hoping that someone will lend me a hand here and point me to some other resource where I can look this up. In the meantime, from what I remember of that book and my own initiative, the main denominations go as below:

Old Left: Hardliners in the CPP who want to revive Maoism. Contrary to the West, these lefties are actually very conservative people.

Old Right: Admirers of Taiwan and the KMT, practically invisible in the mainland today. I never met one, so not sure if they are conservative characters or not. I assume many members of the FLG would respond to this description.

New Left: Politicians like the Prime Minister Wen, who push for more social policies, equal distribution of the wealth, etc, within the rule of the CCP. The mindset is still conservative, but less than the Old Left.

New Right: Politicians, thinkers and some business sharks inspired in Deng Xiaoping’s “get rich first” who want to give priority to the coastal regions and build a ruthless capitalist system. They don’t have any mindset because they are too busy getting rich first, and they don’t care about political ideology as long as their cats catch mice.

Right Left: This is my own dysfunctional term to include people like Xu Zhiyong or Liu Xiaobo, as well as some within the CCP who call for political reform, democracy and civil rights. Many of them are not dissidents, but just brave party members who dare to raise their voice. These are the only ones that respond to the idea I have of “progressive” mindset.

What do you think of this terminology?

NOTE: This list is not meant to be taken as reference, but rather to invite participation, please do propose any term you want, or point me to some good read about modern Chinese politics. For those who came here to find some sex, please come back tomorrow when I will continue with the main subject of the post and I will attach SEXUALLY EXPLICIT IMAGES of Chinese. Have a nice day.

Google: Don’t Make that Mistake

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

evil_googleLooking back to what I wrote last week I realize that, in my effort to keep a cool head and analyze the events, I forgot to say a very important thing: I Respect Google. I have never had any doubt of the non-business nature of their decision, and, in spite of our poll’s results, I am convinced it was based on the personal, ethical and political convictions of the company’s leaders.

I do not like the way it has been done, but it sure takes some guts for a CEO to defy the World order, whatever the company’s IPO said. My own site has been victim of censorship, and I was quick to blame Google when they helped censor initiatives like Charter 08,  so it is only fair that I praise them now. Search Engine Manipulation (SEM) is the worst kind of censorship, because it leads the user to believe that the information contained in search results is a fair sample of the World’s views. It was very difficult for Google to justify that behaviour, and it is good news that they stop being part of it. Bravo.

And yet, there are important reasons why Google has been putting up with the Chinese system for 4 years, and as far as I can see, all of those reasons are still there today. By leaving China on a whim, Google sends the message that all that work was just a big mistake. Worse still, by slamming the door on the way out, Google creates trouble for itself, for the Chinese netizens, and for the World internet community.

By any standard, Google’s statement last week is a disaster. It has all the sins that a company announcement can have, not only from the PR perspective, but also from plain common sense. It is insultingly self-righteous, it fails to provide a clear reason for the decision, and it does not offer evidence for any of the accusations. Worse still, it sends an ultimatum to the government of China, revealing a thirst of political power that is very disturbing in a corporation.

Brazen cartoon on the China Daily

Brazen cartoon on China Daily (WSJ)

The primary colors in Google’s logo and its simple slogan “don’t be evil” suggest a world of fairy tales where Good and Evil are clearly defined, and one can live following the Google path, righteously pointing out to others that they are in the wrong. Life is unfortunately more complex, and only very simple people can believe that God is always on their side.

Intentions and Nature of Google

I liked yesterday’s article by Rebecca Mackinnon because it rejected the idiotic debate about the purity of motive of Google’s leaders. On the other hand, I found it a bit too optimistic regarding the role of Google and the World internet community today. 

Google is no more or less evil than most corporations. The difference is it has a developed a unique business model that requires large amounts of trust and goodwill, and it has done a great job of promoting it up to now. To the point that in the online community, it has managed to reverse the classic roles, turning the radical hacktivists into CEO-huggers. Click to continue »

What is going on with Google (2): consequences

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

images_thumb[11]Following the previous post about Google and China, here are my reflections regarding the foreseeable consequences of all this. First of all, an important clarification: I don’t think fighting against censorship is bad. Censorship in China is very real, it is a disgrace not only for activists but for most honest Chinese, and it only serves the purpose of self-preservation of the CCP.

Having said this, in the previous post I criticized Google for this decision because I think the form is wrong, and the method chosen for this fight is wrong, and more importantly: the Leader of this fight should not be a corporation, much less a Western corporation going solo into politics.

On the other hand, if it was a pure business calculation I think it is wrong as well,  in the long term it does not make business sense, and the growing Chinese market is likely to live much longer than any goodwill earned for this.

The more I look at the message, the more it looks like a mistake, a young idealist Googler that has escaped the supervision of his boss. What authority does this blog really have to speak for the company? the message is legit, as commentators have proven below.

In any case, here are some consequences I foresee, again in fast bullet points:

  • The way the message has been drafted, chances for Google.cn to remain are slim. It will be very difficult for Google to step back from this, the whole tech World is going nuts about it. On the other hand, it is even more difficult for the Chinese authorities: even if they were willing to accept Google’s conditions (which they are not) they could never allow a Western company to publicly force their policies. Unless there is some kind of recanting, Google.cn is doomed.
  • The Chinese authorities can do more than forcing Google.cn out. If things go sour they are also very likely to GFW block* the whole Google.com, in which case the situation would be even worse than pre-Google.cn in 2006. Google could totally disappear from China and say goodbye to a fast growing 20% of the World’s internet users. This includes the phones and any other Google product.
  • I maintain that the decision is BAD in business because consumers have very bad memories, and the goodwill gained in one day, however massive, does not last. How many companies go bust for accusations of child labor? In a few months nobody will remember this move, and Google will find itself down 20% potential market and with nothing in exchange.
  • Baidu is going to go up even more, and some other Western opportunists as well.  The search service of Baidu is demonstrably worse than Google, and the Chinese internet users will be the first victims of an impoverished service. The already noted Divide between China and the West will be further increased, and this can only be bad for the Chinese, and bad for Human Rights, and bad for the World.
  • Regarding the bigger political picture, all this is unlikely to have any effect on American or Chinese policies unless there are many more Western companies that join Google. But no other company is going to join a crusade to bring goodwill to Google, and the move will just leave superficial scars in the CCPs internet reputation, which they will be able to heal in no time with some little doses of nationalist balm.
  • Regarding the stock market, the media has noted that Google is down 1.77%, but that is not significant in a day when the whole Nasdaq was down 1.35%. Note that Baidu fell 3.51% after my yesterday’s post, and probably the impact on Google will be seen today when the market opens. I am quite happy that I got rid of my Bs yesterday to buy some Gs, and today I am getting rid of the Gs again to get back the Bs. This has to be a winner move!

*Note: Servers outside of China (google.com) get blocked by the GFW, servers within China get bullied by the Nanny. Two completely different processes with a similar result. More here.

Year End Edition (2): The Chinese Decade

Monday, January 4th, 2010

tiget The Tiger is coming to the surface. The New decade has already come in the West, and in China we are again in this no man’s land between the Solar and the Lunar New Year, between the Bull and the Tiger. It is time to look back and see where we stand.

In World politics time is measured in decades, and many will call the 00s the decade of China. It is just a simplification, these 10 years are nothing but part of a longer process started in 78, and probably still ongoing for another decade more. And yet, if we have to choose one event that marked the decade in World politics, like the end of the Cold War marked the 90s, the rise of China is the most reasonable choice. No other event is likely to be be more decisive in the history of the World.

In the first post of this Year End edition we proved that, within the general growing trend of the decade, 2008 was a peak for China’s presence in the World media, and 2009 has gone back to relatively normal levels. This peak cannot hide the general trend: that China is growing inexorably to become a World superpower and that it is already changing the power balance of humanity.

Measuring the Chinese decade

If we have to chose one single parameter to measure this rise, it is the economy that can give us the best clue. There is no point in going to the decimals when analyzing decade trends, so the calculation is simple: China has grown roughly 7% faster than Western countries in the last decade, and all seems to indicate that this will continue into the 10s.

The calculation* is straightforward:  1.07^10 = 2

At a rate of 7% differential a year, the size of China’s economy relative to the Western economies is doubling every decade. Today most estimates of GDP place China between 1/4 and 1/2 of the USA economy, depending if it is measured in nominal GDP or in PPP. This means that, if nothing else changes in the next decade, Chinese economy will be the biggest in the World anytime between 2020 and 2030.

The consequences of this calculation are enormous, and they are already operating today. That is because in politics we behave like in the stock market: decisions are made taking into account the foreseeable future rather than the present. China is already displacing the EU in World politics, even if it is a fraction of the European economy, even if it doesn’t want to be the protagonist. The media and the politicians are betting on the future value of China.

The Question of the Decade

Of course, nothing guarantees that the growth patterns of the 00s will continue in the 10s. There is one important school of thought that insists on the unsustainability of the Chinese system. They mention corruption, growing inequality, lack of civil rights and a civil society, repression of creativity and free market, the inability to build World class brands and a financial system in disarray, among other problems, to justify their prediction that sooner or later the Chinese economy is bound to crumble.

Those of us who live and work in China know that these problems are serious and very real, and that somewhere down the line there is bound to be a serious readjustment. And yet, the same predictions have been made regularly almost every year in the last three decades, and the collapse has not materialized.

The real question of this decade is When?

Will the Chinese economy stop growing before or after it has become a superpower as large as the USA? Will the Chinese seriously demand more rights and liberties before or after China has become a developed country? Will the economic and political readjustments be done progressively with the new generation of Chinese leaders, or will there be a dangerous explosion in this decade?

We don’t have the answers to this today, and you should not believe any China expert who claims to have them. All we can do is frame the question above, and watch out for early signs to answer it in the coming years.

There is however one statement we can make today. Looking at the World, it is obvious that many important players are already betting on the rise of China, and this view is gathering more support every year. As we have seen above, to the extent that the majority in the World believes in the superpower scenario, China is ALREADY a superpower. The political power comes years in advance of the GDP, and the new World order is already a fact today.

Photo: Eric Risberg

*This is an engineer’s calculation, the nightmare of any serious mathematician. And yet, most bridges we do are still standing, and when we speak of decade trends anything more accurate than this is a joke.

Did China wreck the Copenhagen deal?

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

The summit of Copenhagen has inspired some hot debate on the media, for the most part more related to international politics than to climate change. Some spectacular pieces like Mark Lynas’ on the Guardian have been followed by more moderate opinions, like those appeared on Danwei and Inside Out, trying to understand the roles of China and US in this affair.

But of all I have read on the subject, the best information around is still to be found on the Shanghai Scrap blog. He reminds us that climate change is not and cannot be the first priority for the government and the people of China today. It is an "uptown" concern, completely foreign to those who are still worrying whether their drinking water contains lead, or whether they will need a gas mask to breathe the Beijing air tomorrow.

But back to the question: Did China really wreck the Copenhagen deal? In other words, was there really a deal ready to be signed and China unexpectedly rejected it, ruining the heroic efforts of the Western World led by president Obama?

What the hell happened in Copenhagen

Have you noticed that, when there is something really important in stake, governments organize summits as small as possible to get a meaningful deal, and only reluctantly they accept new participants in the G groups? The climate summits are just the opposite, everyone is invited, carbon footprint and all, the more the merrier. The World has become so multilateral today… especially when multilateralism is in our own interest.

Climate change is always a great subject for politicking, because the success in the negotiations or the problems arising from the failures will not be felt during the political life of the protagonists. It is one of those subjects where the only real measure of success is the perception of the home public immediately after the meeting. And clever politicians don’t let the opportunity pass to fabricate a good story.

For the Obama administration the objective of the negotiations can be summarized as: ensuring a deal is signed sufficiently meaningless to cause little problems with the industrial lobbies, and sufficiently powerful that the climate change enthusiasts are satisfied. Since this is obviously impossible, there is a plan B: ensure that whatever happens, it is somebody else’s fault. This is where China makes an excellent partner.

Partly for the reasons given in the Shanghai Scrap posts, and partly because it is not a democracy and it can control the information circulating internally, China is much less worried about the Copenhagen game than Obama. Free of internal pressure and faced with very mild international pressure, Chinese leaders will logically reject any deal that involves a sacrifice for their country. They will also neglect to give a coherent explanation in the language of the international media, offering a great target for post-Copenhagen accusations.

Now, I know Obama’s ambassador is not not an expert in China, but I can’t believe he was so incompetent to ignore the facts above. Obama himself was in China a month ago, and it is impossible that he didn’t know the obvious: that China was never going to sign an agreement forcing her to accept international inspectors with access to virtually every strategic industry, and with the power to expose to the World and to the Chinese public all the weaknesses of the Chinese system.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that China and US position was pre-arranged between Obama and Hu, but I think the American delegation, during and after the visit to China have been more intelligent than what most observers imagine.

Ever since the times of Kyoto, the US was at the head of the evil carbon emitters. Obama had to make a difference with his predecessor, and for the moment he has already worked a miracle: without making any major concession, the US have now become the World Champions of climate change policies.

In the meantime, the EU countries, the only ones that take this climate change thing seriously, are again pushed into the background because of their lack of credible leadership… and Obama, the clever American, has made the most of it for himself and for his country.

And in the meantime, the climate is changing…

One of the funniest accusations I have read in the media after the Copenhagen summit is that China has prevented the developed countries from signing a deal to limit their own emissions. This is so stupid that it could make it into a China Daily headline. How can China prevent the US/EU/Japan from signing a deal among themselves to reduce their own emissions?

No, seriously, if we are going to act against climate change, I would propose: what about reaching an agreement among the developed countries first, like we did for so many things before, and put it into practice even without China?

Yes, I know, to make a carbon reduction effective, all countries should participate. But the same could be said of the GATT/WTO and many other deals at the time, and this didn’t stop us from signing it and push China into it much later. Once the developed World is united, it is always much easier to lobby together for the respect of some standards, or to impose sanctions to non compliant countries.

But why do all that, when it is easy to content the public with less?

Low on the EQ side: the New Philosophy of China

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

51aVuMO1vSL._AA200_ There are some beliefs that, although not originally from China, were embraced so thoroughly by the Chinese that they became part of the local culture. One example is Buddhism, imported from India in ancient times. Another one, I have found out, is the teaching of the modern management gurus, imported from the USA.

It is interesting how analysts of China continue to explain all the  social phenomena with the Confucian tradition, when it seems to me that the Johnsonian and Golemanian thought must be at least as influential nowadays. Walk into any Chinese bookshop or check out the local pirate’s tricycle to see that self-improvement and cheese management titles rule supreme. The glossiest and most liquid books on the front table are the likes of: “Train yourself to start the next Google”, “How I changed myself from a complete idiot to a Fortune 500 CEO”, or “How I built a company that acquired the  company of the idiot in the previous book”.

Now, I have to warn you at this point: the titles mentioned may not be 100% exact, I am illiterate in the field of self-improvement. As a conceited, self-styled free-thinker I cannot help an almost classist repulsion towards those works, and I frown even on the  tricycle that sells them. During my years in the old Europe I happily managed to stay away from the rites of personal productiveness.  But ever since I moved to China, the new philosophy is lurking at every turn of phrase, and all resistance is in vain.

One of the concepts that appears most often in conversation is that of EQ, or emotional intelligence, coined by D.Goleman in his 1995 best-seller. After dozens of Chinese  spin-offs over the years, it has become an everyday expression here. It is not surprising that an idea like EQ should be so popular in the highly competitive Chinese system, where it provides some much needed comfort: don’t worry if you didn’t make it into a top Uni - the books say - because it’s not IQ but EQ that will determine your future. The pair IQ/EQ is also known in Chinese as 智商/情商,(zhishang/qingshang), although I find that the English abbreviation is more commonly used.

Whenever EQ comes up in conversation I like to point out that the concept is unscientific, especially in the loose form in which it is used here. But my wikipedic erudition always fails to impress the locals, and I have seen my EQ summarily analyzed in multiple occasions. The first time this happened to me was during a lunch with my colleague Jia, an otherwise bright engineer, in the first year of my stay in China. I can remember it almost vividly:

- Uln, your Chinese is getting pretty good.
- Thanks -  I ignored it. The comment is standard icebreaker in mandarin.
- You have a very good IQ -  he continued.
- Hm, thanks, you are also not bad.
- Yes, but.
- But? –

He looked me intently in the eye. It must have been the expression called “frank positive emphatic” in page 362 of the emotional book. When the look had been established, he proceeded:

- IQ is not good enough.
- No?
- No, you should watch your EQ.
- You mean, Ah Q, by Luxun?
- No, I mean E-Q.
- So who wrote that one?
- Nobody did.
- It’s  not a book?
- It is many books.
- Is it any good?
- Listen here. EQ is what explains why some people with lower IQ get further in life than others with higher IQ!
- You mean, like guanxi.
- No, like emotional intelligence.
- Ah, I thought…
- Guanxi is just a part of it. EQ is  about your skills to get on in life!
- I see.

But I didn’t see. That human relations and non-technical skills are essential in one’s career was one obvious thing, that I should check my parameters like a cranky old motor was quite a different one.

- Your IQ is Okay - he insisted -  but you should watch your EQ.
- Like what?
- Like there are open positions in HQ, that would be a good move for your career.
- What?
- A corporate level position is the way to leverage your expat experience .
- But I don’t want to live in Paris!
- You see, that is EQ.

I was beginning to feel a bit annoyed by the philosophy. I weathered another “empathic positive penetrative” while I plotted my counterattack.

- So, why don’t you apply to go to Paris yourself? – I said finally.
- What, me?
- Yes, of course, you have much more experience!
- But I am not an expat!
- So what, it’s not required.
- You know, Uln – he paused slightly - I have my children to take care of.
- There are family packages.
- She would never let me, my in-laws would kill me!
- Hah! –I said victorious - You should watch your EQ!
- But I already do!!

And this time he quickly looked away, forgetting the EQ looks, as if to hide some shameful thought. But too late, I had caught him already. It was my turn to pull the thread.

- Jia?
- Yes?
- You are pretty serious about this EQ, right?
- Er, I … do what I can.
- Building  good connections in the company is a good strategy, right?
- Er..  you might say that.
- Like having a friend in the HQ,  for example, right?
- Huh? No, no, of course I didn’t say that..I wouldn’t…
- Jia?
- Well?
- You have an excellent EQ, Jia, you know that?
- Oh, haha, no, no, thanks, you have an excellent IQ…

Euro-Obama in China

Monday, November 16th, 2009

barack_obama_the_french_sun_king So Obama is in China, and even if he is not my president he is still my favourite president. Here is my first-hand analysis of the visit.

The most important news, surprisingly gone unnoticed by all observers, is that Obama wants to become Euro-bama in Chinese. That is how I read the new spelling of his name in characters, as proposed by the website of the white house :

欧巴马 (oubama) will replace 奥巴马, where 欧 is the Chinese character for Europe, making the name sound in Chinese like Euro-Bama.

Some might say that the new spelling is chosen for greater phonetic similarity, or because it is standard in Taiwan, but when have politicians listened to the linguists? There is a clear political motivation in the naming of Euro-Obama, and I see a bright future in the project.

I think I speak for a large number of Europeans when I say we are very happy to see this plan finally in execution. Mr. Obama, please sweep away all our bunch of incompetent presidents and prime ministers, and become King of the European Union. Then, perhaps, in the next meeting with China you can represent our united interests, instead of having each European tribe sending its little pathetic chief for the CCP to cleverly divide and manipulate a la Sun Tzu.

One of the things I like of being European is that you can be thoroughly unpatriotic against the UE, and nobody cares. Dear commentators of the Washington Post, please do not worry anymore. America is not in decline yet, and it will not be for a long time. Among other reasons because it is needed by European countries that are too incompetent to unite in international politics. And indeed, when the Chinese people see Obama, they see a leader of the West as much as they see a leader of America. Because seen from here, the concepts of West, Europe, America, or Euramerica (欧美)have never been all that distinct.

After this important geostrategic consideration, you can continue to read what else is to read about the visit. Essentially nothing, because no real news have emerged yet, and most journalists and bloggers alike do their best to fill in their columns with China generalities. Apart from the links above, interesting questions are:

  • Will Obama comment on the Human Rights Watch report about black jails and other human rights issues? Of course this will not happen, no more than Hu will elaborate on the new theories of the Liberation of Tibet. But it is interesting for the sake of debating.
  • Perhaps more likely is that he mentions the environment, as this blog suggests. I am pretty sure the two leaders will mention it, actually, a different thing is how much of a commitment will come from the meeting. From the voiceless rest of the World we will be watching to see if the 2 giants finally decide to make a move and quit sending their fumes to our back yard.
  • Finally, a lot of articles out there speak of Obama-mania and make a big deal of the Obamao icon, which has been circulating in China since before the election. My view is that young modern Chinese tend to like Obama, and he is marginally more popular than Bush was. But there is no such thing as the Obamania we saw in Europe, and most people here adopt a cold stance of “wait and see”. The minute 欧 mentions some delicate issue or  meets some old lama, it will take no more than a minute of well phrased CCTV news to wipe the Obamania into thin air.

So already, quit the Obamaos and give me some Eurobamas, we are growing tired of politics over at the other side of this continent.

Mao, Jiang and the importance of Ideals

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

jianguodayeNow that I am in a free internet country, I have taken the chance to look at the CDT website, and I have found this interesting question coming from al Jazira: what would have happened if Mao had lost?

I am not in principle against counterfactual history,  it can be useful in many cases to see the events from a different point of view. It also makes for lively pub conversations and blog comments. But the basic condition for this kind of exercise to make sense is, in my opinion, that the chain of events analyzed had any chance to have actually happened.

For example: it might be interesting to imagine how the world would have been if Hitler was killed in the 1944 assassination attempt, or what would have happened if Mao died before the Great Leap Forward.  In a similar way to an experiment in physics, by isolating later factors, we try to  analyze the effects of their policies up to that point. But there is little interest in analyzing the outcome of impossible or even absurd events, other than for humorous purposes. What if Hitler had suddenly become a pacifist in 1941?

Back to the point: “What if Mao had lost?” This question treats the defeat of Jiang Jie Shi as a mere accident of history,  a question of luck in which the outcome, like Hitler and the bomb, could have been decided by fluke.

But the defeat (or rather the retreat) of Jiang was not the outcome of a single battle. People asking this question forget that Jiang had the power for many years, with all the instruments of the State, the largest part of the population and territory under his control, and military and economic aid from other countries. For years, all the odds were on his side. The opportunity implied in the  question “what if Mao had lost?” was already given to Jiang. And the best answer to the question is:

If Mao had lost, Jiang  lost anyway

There were profound reasons that made Jiang’s system impossible. His ideology-or  lack thereof-was not appealing enough at a moment when China needed a catalyzer for all its unleashed energy. Something was needed to rally the people against the oppression of the foreigners and of the local tyrants, and Jiang was not delivering in any of the two fronts. China needed something to believe in.  If Mao hadn’t been there, another leader would have sold the idea, or other worse ideas, and who knows the frightful regime that might have resulted.

This failure of Jiang to inspire, together with the corruption inherent to his regime, condemned him to impose power by raw force.  A scheme that worked well when he moved over to Taiwan with supporters and soldiers in large number relative to the local population, but it simply could not have worked in mainland China. It would have required a level of organized brutality that only a fanatic could accept.

So Mao won, and then what?

So back to reality: Mao won. He played his cards much better and he won by a mile. Then some years later he proved to be less gifted as a politician than as a revolutionary. Worse still-and this is really his worst sin-he fell in love with himself and with power, and he didn’t have the good sense to listen to capable advisers, nor the dignity to retire when he was still in time. The “70% good/30% bad” judgement passed by Deng was probably too generous, but inevitable: to condemn Mao was to condemn the work of his life. Deng could not do more than he did, and of those who came after him, not a single one had what it takes to even dare touch this question.

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And here is, in my opinion, the heart of the matter: why is Mao still so present in the Chinese psychology? When are we going to move on? The Chairman is not just stuck on a wall, he is imprinted very deeply in the collective mind of the Chinese, and through compulsory education, propaganda and parades like last week’s, he holds to his place and no amount of economic progress can sweep him away.

Here is an example of what I mean : Recently I lent the book “Mao: The Unknown Story”, by Chang Jung -a book that is very critical of Mao- to a Chinese friend. This friend is young, and liberal to the point that he believes Dalai Lama is a good man. And yet, when two weeks later I asked him about the book, I got a  reaction that shocked me. “This woman is not really Chinese” ,  “You cannot understand”, were among the broken phrases that he grumbled. I know this book is surely not the most balanced biography of Mao,  and I was open to accept many of his arguments. But I saw there was no point in discussing further, because somehow we had landed in the territory of hurt feelings.

But the interesting discussion today  is not whether Mao was 70% right or 17.5%. The past is past, and there is no use in digging up the skeletons again, except for specialists in history. The key is the present, and the reason why Mao still holds his place should be searched in the leaders of today.

The answer is simple:  Mao is there because he is still needed. No matter how terrible his failures and how cruel the consequences-and most Chinese know them well-Mao is still the only one that gives some ideological content to the system. He provides the meaning to the colourful parade of  last week, and to the other parade of black suited mummies that is “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”.  And that is the reason why most Chinese are so quick to excuse him: “He was good man used by his wife”, they say, or “it was not his fault, he was senile”.

Ideals are important for a society to believe in itself. In the West we have democracy, human rights, religion, a whole range of them to suit all the sensibilities. As often as not, they are utilized by politicians for their own selfish goals and devoided of any real meaning. But at least they are  ideals, and they give us the illusion that our struggle is worth fighting. I see people discussing Obama or Bush, and whatever the real effect of their policies might be, it is obvious that they give a meaning to politcs in America.

In China, on the contrary, the only ideal since Mao died has been Deng’s “Get Rich”.  Many theories have been published since, filling thick books with party rhetoric, but not a single one of them contained anything  that the people could  believe in, or even understand. Once and again, the actions of the party have shown that above any other consideration, the only important objective is GDP, and the maintenace of the status quo.

There is a serious lack of leadership in the communist party of China, partly due to the internal mechanisms of the party itself . Strictly materialistic objectives are quickly dissapointing,  for those that achieve them as much as for those left behind, and the people naturally turn for inspiration to the only ideals available:  nationalism and Mao. And so it happens that the old  portrait  cannot be taken down, because it is there to cover a hole. The black hole of Chinese politics.

First Impressions of Japan

Sunday, October 4th, 2009

First impressions are usually mistaken, but they are also interesting because the eye is alert to any novelty, and the culture clash is rich with ideas. Warning: this post contains sweeping generalizations. Take it for what it is, and if you are serious about understanding Japan you might want to look somewhere else.

I came to Japan quite randomly, I wanted to spend the holidays in a quiet and relaxing place,  and in the week of the Chinese National Day, Japan seemed the only place near enough with the right conditions. I am preparing for the high level HSK later this month, and the plan was to take a few hours a day to practise my characters.

I chose the South of Japan on purpose, with the vague idea that they would probably be a bit more relaxed than in the North, and therefore more suited to my Southern European nature. I soon found out my assumption was wrong.  For one reason, there seems to be no such a thing as “South Japan”. Although this place is clearly in the South, they call it West Japan.  And the character of the people here is diametrically opposed to any notion of latin indulgence I might have harboured.

The cultural shock came right from the first contact. It was the passport controller at the airport of Fukuoka. I had been given the immigration card in the airplane and, like usual, I had quickly filled my “address on destination” box with a lazy “Hotel Nagasaki”. I couldn’t remember the real name of the hotel, and anyway these things are never checked in any reasonable country. In Japan they are.  And that is how I met my second Japanese.

“What did you write in this box?,” said the inspector when I was led to his office, pointing at the place in my card.

“Hotel Nagasaki?” I said.

“There is no hotel by this name”.

“No, no, I didn’t mean it literally,” I explained, “It is short for ‘a hotel in Nagasaki’.”

“Reservation receipt please?”

“Er.. it is in my mailbox, I haven’t printed it out.”

And they took me to a series of offices until they found a place where I could connect to the internet and produce my hostel reservation from hostelworld.  This took about an hour, enough to convince them that I was a dangerous outlier, so the inspector led me to the searching department.

My third Japanese was an older man who did the most meticulous search I have seen in my life, even feeling with his bare fingers all along the sole of my well seasoned travel socks. He searched into every possible hiding place in my bags and my body, except for that precise one that you were just imagining.

All the while, the three of them -my first three Japanese -  treated me with scrupulous respect, constantly smiling, and polite to the point of scary.

One of the things that was shocking in my first dealings in the shops is the “hi!” sound that they emit all the time, to say hello or to hand you something. It comes constantly and accurately, timed like a semiquaver, dressing any human exchange with a singular martial tone.  But the most awe inspiring feature is their absolute, compulsive, anal obsession with cleanliness. This country must be the cleanest place I have seen in the World by a large margin.

I came to this conclusion during lunch in one Western cafe in Nagasaki, were I witnessed some peculiar behaviour. It was raining outside, and every time a new client finished paying his order, the cashier walked around the bar with a clean tissue and bent down to wipe the drops of water left by the client’s shoes. A completely unreasonable action, even for safety purposes, because the other side of the cafe next to the entrance door was permanently wet and left unwiped.

The only explanation, I figured after a while, was that the entrance area was out of the field of vision of the cashier, hidden by the tables. It wasn’t a safety procedure, it was just that she just could not bear the sight of some drops of water on the spotless floor in front of the bar, even if it was almost pure H2O from the immaculate street outside.

I am impressed by this aspect of the Japanese culture, and I wonder how  the thousands of Japanese living in Shanghai cope with the hygiene situation there. I guess this explains why, being by far the largest foreign community in Shanghai, we see so little of them. They must all stick to their Gubei compounds and restaurants and avoid leaving the area unless it is strictly necessary.

The service in the restaurants here is excellent, and the food is prepared with so much care that you actually feel sorry to eat it. The Japanese like things well done, and they manage because, like most Chinese, they are very hard workers. But there is an essential difference in the motivations: Chinese exert themselves for a dream, to buy a car or a better house, or just to avoid being left behind by their fast ecoomy. Japanese already have all those things. Like Westerners, they have little left to dream that can be bought with money.  So it seems that they  work for the sake of work well done, out of a strong sense of duty and perfection.

When I came to Japan, I was prepared to find meticulous people who revere order. I thought it would be somehow similar to Germany, and although that kind of country is not exactly my idea of fun, it definitely fitted the bill for my week of retirement and study. But Japan is not even comparable to Germany. As far as I have seen it goes further in the field of obsession, to an extreme that for a newcomer -a Southern European one, at any rate- feels like borderline pathologic.

I don’t want to judge the character of the different peoples.  Each culture has its own ways, and all is well as long as we get along. I just wonder if the little world of efficiency and perfection that the Japanese have built around them is not but an exhausting illusion, and if, somewhere in the middle of all their productive activity, they find the time to think of what is important and just enjoy. The people I am meeting here-starting from the fourth one- are positive and friendly, and I have no reason to suspect they are not contented.

I have just been speaking with a PhD in electro microscopy who is in Nagasaki for a World congress in the field. He tells me that more than half of the participants are German and Japanese, because these two countries rule in electro microscopy applications. Somehow I am not surprised.

“It is a good thing we have Japanese and Germans,” I told him, “Otherwise we would be in trouble to wipe the dust between the atoms”