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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.

Crisis seen from the Sinosphere (II)

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

From the post left unfinished last week. Some of the main arguments read (or heard) in China Crisis discussions:

The Time

Economies don’t grow indefinitely.  Low cycles follow high cycles and after 30 years it is about time. China cannot break the laws of economics, so the recession must necessarily come in the next X years. The country hasn’t prepared itself politically and psicologically to face this period. In the end, we are sure to have trouble.

Of course, this argument is of little value without the X, and many proponents of a time limit have failed in the past. This is the field of technical analysts and other mystical thinkers. Mythology also plays a role:  In Chinese history, cataclysms mark the end of a cycle. An earthquake preceded this crisis, and a solar eclipse is coming in July, the dynasty has lost its virtue. These arguments tend to work better with a bit of hindsight.

The Markets

The World’s economies are interdependent today. China’s economy is largely dependent on exports and FDI. The weight of these external factors in China’s growth has been much discussed, but regardless of the exact numbers, few doubt that it is a significant motor of the economy. External motors failing, China turns to internal ones: investment and consumption. Today, strong public investment, mostly in infrastructure and energy, is making up for the loss. Click to continue »

Blog credibility thread: Chinablogs

Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Ever since I opened this blog the problem of credibility has been in the back of my mind. These days, the comments of a tenacious part-time troll, as well as some recent events that shook the Chinosphere have brought back the subject to the top of my agenda.

It is well known that Chinablogs* (defined as blogs about China in English) are only a tiny part of the Chinese internet, and their readership is insignificant compared to their Chinese counterparts. But it would be a mistake to dismiss them as irrelevant. For some time already, especially after last year’s  events - Tibet revolts and the Olympic torch saga were a turning point -  readers from all sides have questioned the media’s impartiality regarding Chinese politics. Just or not, the fact is that these accusations have cast a doubt, and many have turned to blogs to try to find an independent point of view.

Some things make me suspect that the influence of Chinablogs in shaping the World opinion about China is more significant than their size might suggest. The famous #cde affair, where a well known entrepreneur and blogger in China caused the RMB/dollar exchange to move after a post on his blog, forcing the Chinese government to issue an official notice, confirmed this idea. Also, the world media are sending some of their best writers to China, not to become correspondents as used to be the case, but to open a blog and speak about what they  see outside their window - among other things.  Blog sceptics might want to look at this Boston Globe article to see just how influential blogs can become.

And here is where my question comes in: what legitimates  Chinabloggers to give opinions about this country, its politics, economy and other fields that affect the well being of billions of people?  Where does our credibility lie? Are we misrepresenting ourselves as experts in China without any serious basis? Click to continue »

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

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Today I am starting my review section with one of the books on Chinese economy that has impressed me most in the last year, “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics”, by MIT professor Huang Yasheng. It is a book that clearly stands out from the recent China books, and it might be destined to become one of the big references in the field.

There is no shortage of good China books in the last years. Many are written from a business perspective, by people with first hand experience who will tell you exactly how things are done here. Others look at the available economic data and build interesting theories to explain them. Few go deeper than this, to look into the heart of the matter: the politics behind the Chinese economy.

The problem is:  it is so difficult to obtain reliable information on Chinese policy that most efforts in this field turn into circular arguments over the same limited data. Professor Huang breaks the circle by going back to the sources and questioning directly all the mainstream assumptions, leaving many of them upside down. The situation in China requires this approach, as he says in the preface:

In studies of American economy, scholars may debate about the effects of, say, “Reagan tax cuts”. In studies of the Chinese economy, the more relevant question would be, “Did the government cut taxes in the first place?

By going back to the archives of what, in his own words is “some of the world’s most medieval record keeping”, Huang Yasheng is able to come up with a whole new picture of Chinese economic policy in the last three decades. This book is the result of painstaking archival research into rarely examined files, such as a “22 volumes compilation of internal bank documents” or the archives of the Ministry of Agriculture.

A qualitative leap from the classic tea leave reading, and one that deserves some careful consideration, even if the conclusions drawn will not be to the taste of every reader. Click to continue »

Chinese FDI in Barcelona. This is the end.

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

I have a bunch of friends back in Spain who are always quick to send me the juiciest China news coming up over there, and to supervise that I’m fulfilling my duties as a bridge blogger.

This time I have received a couple of links from Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo where there is evidence of at least two different Chinese industries that continue their cheerful expansion to the West in spite of the World Crisis: These are the industries of Shady Barber Shops and Mahjong Gambling Dens. Fourteen of them have been closed down in a recent police raid in Barcelona.

These are the two articles, one very recent, one from last year:

In recent months local residents of the districts of Eixample, Sants-Montjuïc, Gràcia, Horta-Guinardó and Sant Martí, had brought to the police their suspicions that many hairdressers opened recently by Chinese citizens were something more than to cut and dye hair.

Yes, how perspicacious. I never knew of these things  during the three years I lived in Barcelona. For linguistic reasons I had quite a few friends in the Chinese migrant community over there and I frequented the Chinese areas of the city. As far as I know these FDIs must be very recent.

Anyway, so much for the Chinese hairdressers’ expansion. Although gambling and prostitution are not among the Rights that this blogs stands for,  I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for those Chinese that see their  business seized by the police. Something must have gone wrong with their otherwise perfectly profitable business model. Perhaps they didn’t remember to “glocalize instead of globalize”. Perhaps the local police superintendent is not keen on Asian chicks, or maybe they chose the wrong hand to oil. Who knows.

The New Iceland?

Since we are at it, and on a completely different subject, check out below this scary chart of Spanish unemployment that newspaper El Correo published this week. Two little thoughts:

First, I am seriously afraid that Spain is going to turn into the next Iceland. The growth of these last years was so based on the real estate bubble that troubles could be smelled all the way from China. Am I going to turn into a poor immigrant in Shanghai working my ass off to send money back to homecountry? It would be an interesting role reversal, after all the Chinese I met doing exactly that in Barcelona. Oh well, it was  inevitable at some point, I guess, I just never imagined it could come so soon.

Second, as an engineer I note again how numbers and charts are powerful tools of manipulation. The chart below  goes so high on the Y axis that it almost needs logarithmic scales to fit in the paper. A mere problem of the units chosen, of course… or of the number of copies the newspaper wishes to sell.

Inversely, it would be very easy to make this graph look flatter with a more harmonious  objective in mind… CCTV, take note, you might consider hiring a specialist like me to re-engineer your charts and numbers for harmonious results. But then, what do they care, they simply would not publish the negative charts.

(yes, it is CCTVbashing week this week)

paro11

Chаrter 08: Why it should be called Wang

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

When I started my article about the Chrter 08 last month I couldn’t help wondering if it was well worth the effort. Most of the English speaking blogs and media had been very quiet about this issue, and in China nobody seemed to know anything about it.  Two weeks after the Charter’s publication, I thought perhaps that was all we were going to hear of it.

I am pleased to see after all that the Chrter 08, in spite of the weaknesses I noted, is indeed slowly “flying into 2009″. From the English language blogs, it has since got more attention, with featured posts by Xujun Eberlein, Peking Duck, FM, and now also ESWN. Most importantly, in the Chinese speaking circles it is slowly gaining momentum, as is proven by the fact that the government is getting nervous and has closed down the whole site bullog.

ESWN and the CSM have written about this rather optimistically in my opinion. CSM quotes :

Zhang says more than 300,000 websites now link to the charter, and it’s being discussed on blogs, QQ groups, and other chat rooms. “It’s impossible to block information in society now,” he says.

I am afraid this statement has yet to be proved. Like ESWN’s Roland Soong notes, this number 300,000 is taken from the number of Google.com results. It is a relatively large number and it indicates that the subject has become popular in the Chinese internet forums.  But little more than that. Of these results, only 1/3 come from mainland China, and 100,000 is attained easily by many of the hot topics coming up regularly on Chinese BBS (see ChinaSMACK).

The fact is that Chrter 08 is still an unknown movement in mainland China. Out of 5 local friends I asked, all with university degrees and fluent English, even today only one of them had heard the term (but knew no details). As for the majority of Chinese who live out of the cities and don’t use the internet, there is no way they can have heard about it. I don’t know who is the “peasant” that CSM mentions as a signer, but until I get  some tangible evidence otherwise, I maintain that China doesn’t know about the Charter.

This is a very important point because, of the difficult path that Chrter 08 will need to run to achieve its goals, the first unavoidable condition is to become known to the public by beating the censors at their own game. As I said in my previous posts, the government has done an impressive job of silencing Chrter 08, but it is a sign of hope to see it little by little creeping back into the mainstream.

As I see it, the 3 phases and 3 main difficulties that the Charter will have to face to grow into a real mass movement are, in this order:

1-To be Known vs.  internet censorship and lack of freedom of speech

2-To be Trusted vs. weaknesses that make it easy to manipulate against

3-To be Loved vs.   lack of a spark, a leader, a name: the material of which Change is made

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Charter Step 1 and the Internet Underworld

We will leave point 3 for a post in the future, supposing we ever get there. For the moment we are still stuck in phase 1, and it is far from clear that the Charter will make it past this point. We know  that the Chinese government  has developed a very sophisticated system to control information on the internet. But how does it work? What are its strengths and weaknesses to oppose the Charter? Following ESWN, I have conducted some research on Google and found the curious results below.

First, as Roland points out, if you search for Chrter 08 in Chinese, Google.cn is sending back this message:

“Some results are not displayed according to local laws, regulations and policies.”

This has made me think that indeed, when it comes to fighting censorship, the Charter has an insurmountable flaw: it is a document. Therefore, its title and content are fixed and it is extremely easy to locate by a bot. Worse even, in this era of internet search engines, nobody has still given the  Charter a better nickname than that easily searchable title 08宪章. Any internet conversation where the Charter comes up, even if the contents are not copied, is sure to attract the Censor’s eye.

It might sound ridiculous at this point, but I’m serious: The Chrter 08 should be named Wang.  Or Zhang or Liu, any other term that is not exclusively related to it and therefore cannot be banned. Two centuries ago, the first Spanish constitution of 1812 was nicknamed by the people “La Pepa”, a popular name for a girl that many intellectuals scorned at the time. Two years later, during the reign of autocrat Fernando VII, this name became extremely useful to dissidents to acclaim the Constitution without risk to their lifes, with the famous slogan “Viva la Pepa!!”

Do you still think this is not relevant? Well, follow me with the next google experiment. If you are in China, try to search Google.cn for sensitive political terms like: Falungong, Tiananmen 89 massacre, Liu Xiaobo, you name it. You might be surprised to find not the message above, but rather a reset connection, which only affects viewers from mainland China and which is easily bypassable with a proxy or VPN.  It looks like this:

So what is that first message that Roland Soong and myself have been obtaining? It is not the political censorship message, but another one with which many Chinese men are acquainted. It is the notice you get when you look for some well defined  terms, like those found in pornography. As an example, I suggest you try a search for the word  “口交”. I will not translate it directly here, but let’s just say it is not a blog job. Run the search, surprised? Try any other “vulgar” word and you will end up with Google’s  Chrter 08 message. This is the first and most basic level of defense in the Great Wall, the porn block !

Pretty annoying for the drafters, I guess. But above all, it is very negative for the transmission of Chrter 08, because by calling it this name, the supporters are giving themselves away directly to the  Censors. And this is before phase  2- direct manipulation- has even kicked in.

So we are back to the basics. Like I already said, this Charter is lacking the popular element, the leadership that succesful movements have had in the past, the brand and name and life that would make a whole people roar “Viva la Pepa!”, or the one that years ago inspired a man to dance with the tanks on Changan Avenue. As it stands, it is the cold work of the intellectuals, and nobody has felt the urge to call it Wang.

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Note on Censorship

Finally, one more thing I cannot leave unmentioned. It is not news for anyone that Google have a deal with the Chinese government to collaborate in the repression of the internet. What is news to me is that Google is so openly censoring the principles by which all decent democratic countries abide, including the most basic of Human Rights. Google should be careful, they are entering a dangerous area, one which can backfire in a not very far future.

One more final test for the shame of the censors: when you run the Charter o8 search on Google.cn and you get the message screen, go to the number 4 item on the list of results. I just did that tonight and I believe I found out the essence of Google’s repression algorithm: “Ban all except the People’s Daily”. Indeed, this is the only way I can imagine that a People’s Daily article comes up as the single result for the search 零八宪章. It is a random PD article that coincidentially contains separate instances of 宪章 and 零八.

What a shame, Google, what a shame. Watch your steps today, lest you might find tomorrow that the people does not forget.

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UPDATE: The results on Google change with time, and this last People’s daily result is not on page 4 anymore. In any case, the search for 零八宪章 on Google.cn gives results that have always one thing in common: they are all from websites controlled by the government, like china.com, cctv, etc.  No results from the thousands of forums and blogs that discussed the issue.

UPDATE2: See this post for a more clear explanation of how the internet censorship works in China and this one for the ways in which Google -and many other search engines- collaborate with the Chinese government. I have learned a lot in the year since I wrote this article, and I know now some of the info contained is not technically correct. I am not updating the text above anymore, so if you are interested in the technical part you should absolutely visit these two posts.