China Speed will be backpacking in Kashgar, and will likely not post for the next ten days. After I get back I hope to have a great deal of material for the blog though.
I appreciate all of the positive feedback on the Chinese legal words cheatsheet. I can't promise I will get to the pinyin right away, but in the meantime I'd like to point out a couple of resources for those who are learning Chinese.
There is a fantastic computer dictionary out there called Wenlin. It has a bigger database than most dictionaries and it has a scroll-over feature. This means you can paste a chinese language document into it and it will look up words as you go. It can become a crutch, but it is very helpful when reading complex legal documents. I have no business relationship with Wenlin, but I'd like one...Wenlin, if you're out there, let's talk.
A good friend of mine devised a system for learning the characters that is the best I have heard. He studied linguistics at Yale and then studied International Affairs at Peking University. He also studied Chinese at the Monterrey Institute of International Studies. His system for learning characters can be found right...about...here.
As I leave Qingdao, and the fast friends I met in a short time, I am once again overcome by the feeling that America and China’s differences are only superficial in nature. If it weren’t for a few quirks in political history, an American president who died before his time, a Communist leader who won an improbable war, we would have been allies long ago. It is easy to forget that after the regrettable tragedies of WWII we supported China becoming a member of the United Nations; we hoped China would be the economic and political leader of asia, not Japan.
Chinese and American cultural differences are only superficial. We both believe that our own cultures are important for the world, though China relies on its five thousand years of history while America believes in modernity as its own gift to mankind. China and America both believe that friendship, family, and economy will trump cultural differences. We are both informal cultures, we will roll up our sleeves to find solutions rather than use cultural formalism to excuse our distinctions. After fifty years of polemics on both sides of the ocean, it is easy for us to forget. But after only a few years, we have already closed many gaps that appeared during the last half century. I can only hope that politics, nationalism, and the fight for natural resources will not triumph over cultural similarities.
While preparing for a Chinese legal exam, I translated the fifty most common legal words into Chinese. For anyone studying Chinese and has an interest in law, it might be a good start.
Now for the inner lawyer in me to shine through, I must offer a waiver. I translated the words from a Chinese legal dictionary and then double checked them with another general dictionary. An accomplished Chinese attorney then made corrections. However, I would wholeheartedly not recommend using this list to draft the contract for your billion dollar joint venture or your Chinese marriage license.
Let me know if this sort of document is helpful. I also have a more comprehensive list in the works.
Yesterday, as I was going for a cup of coffee in the Wincon conference room, I ran into a reporter and her cameraman. They were from Qingdao TV; apparently they regularly interview lawyers from Wincon on legal issues. They asked if they could interview me on how America protects migrant workers. She was undeterred by the fact that her subject, me, knew nothing of migrant workers in America (perhaps she had studied the journalistic style of Hannity & Colmes). I gathered that the program was doing a expose on migrant workers in Qingdao; she wanted me to tell the people of Shandong Province how much better the American system of protecting migrant workers is.
I was conflicted about doing the interview. It seemed unethical to pretend to talk as if I knew about the migrant workers in America. While I could speak in broad terms that there are government programs, NGOs and church groups that help the farmhands from Central and South America, I have no real sense of whether or not the organizations do much good. I also knew that I would be publicized as a “Foreign Legal Expert”, no matter how much I tried to convince her that I am just a snot-nosed law student. Because of my title, what I said, in spite all evidence to the contrary, would have credibility.
Additionally, she clearly hoped that I would say that the American system works perfectly. She seemed disappointed when I said that migrant worker’s lives in America were very difficult as well, and that they weren’t always able to use the legal system to recover lost wages or be compensated for injuries. She asked me to do repeated takes, and I know that she will edit it to make it appear that I said that Migrant workers in America are much better protected than those in China. That much is probably true.
However, I consented to the interview because I knew that the program was going to be used to advocate for better protection of migrant workers in China. Migrant workers in China, all 150 million of them (give or take ten million), live difficult, grueling lives. It is often said that China must solve their problems, lest it face more unrest and ultimately revolution. Therefore, the opportunity to help their cause seemed like a moment in which I should, as my Constitutional Law Professor would say, “rise above principal.”
In the end, I don’t know if I made the right decision. Given the chance to help Chinese migrant workers, even in a very small way, I chose to take it. But the question of whether the ends justify the means is a classic dilemma. It seems as though these problems are highlighted when you are representing an entire nation with your every move. I often feel, as I’m sure many westerners do while in China, that every time I walk out the door I am representing my nation in everything I do. Every time I screw up, get angry, or generally make a fool of myself I am leaving impressions about not just about me but about America.
I've added a photo section to China Speed. While I would love to claim credit for the photography, a friend, Matt Chester, took the vast majority of the photos. They were taken in Beijing, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In spite of all the photos being taken in Asia, not a single two-fingered peace sign will be found in any of them.
As a Westerner in China, there is one question I am asked more than any other: How can I improve my English? The question is asked almost suspiciously, as if I know the silver bullet to English studies, and if I would just reveal the secret I will transform their broken phrases to something that Bronte or Dickens might approve of. Many are crestfallen when I echo the words that must have been repeated to them dozens of times before: practice, practice, and more practice.
Now, as China grows in the mind’s eye in the United States, I know more and more Americans who are beginning to study Chinese. Friends, family, and classmates are all beginning their studies. The Washington Post this past weekend even had a front page story on the new push for Chinese language classes in America. Unfortunately, sometimes I get the impression that students beginning to study Chinese think of it as a silver bullet of a different kind, that somehow their roads will be paved with gold if they know Chinese. They hear of the riches to be made in the world’s biggest market, and so they begin to study Chinese, thinking that it will guarantee success in their careers. But I worry that it is a little naive to expect knowledge of language to carry them into professional success.
I am hesitant to be wet blanket on language studies. I truly believe that the study of Chinese, as with any other language, is intrinsically valuable. And I enjoy my time studying Chinese. It is a fascinating, frustrating language. My countless hours creating flashcards and fumbling with the tones was the closest I ever came to learning to play a musical instrument. My first successful conversation with a fruit vendor in Shanghai yielded confidence as well as bananas. Additionally, beyond its intrinsic value, Chinese provides the ability to delve far deeper into Chinese culture, society, and history. But if it is not coupled with a skill set, it is unlikely to provide much professional success.
The problem with this thinking simple: With the exception of English teachers abroad, all careers require a knowledge and skill base beyond that of language (and I think many English teachers abroad could use some additional training as well). My knowledge of English does not qualify me to do much of anything in America. It is naive to expect that knowledge of Chinese will qualify you in China.
The second problem is that the Chinese have been studying English for far longer than Americans have been studying Chinese. A native speaker will always speak better Chinese than someone who picks it up later in life. If their English is better than your Chinese, and all else is equal, than your added value to a company is nominal (especially considering that they can pay a Chinese person far less than an American).
This is not to say that Chinese will not be highly useful in one’s career. But it must be paired with another skill. Knowledge of business, law, shipping, logistics, or just about anything else will benefit from knowledge of Chinese. Knowledge of Chinese is a great foundation. But professional training, education, and ability are the marketable skills one brings to the world’s biggest market, and will ultimately dictate success or failure. Therefore, as Chairman Mao said, 好好学习，天天向上！
As I read Will The Boat Sink The Water, I grew more and more envious of the authors for their insight into Chinese culture. The authors, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, delve deeper into the plight of the Chinese peasant in modern times than perhaps anyone has before. And as someone who has studied and published on rural issues in China, I am jealous of the clarity the authors are able to describe their struggle.
The book was highly controversial in China when it was first published in 2003. Originally written in Chinese under the title of Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha (A Survey of China’s Peasants), it was translated and republished under the name of Will The Boat Sink The Water?, a reference to an old Confucian saying. In the month before being banned it sold 150,000 copies. It then sold ten million pirated copies.
The book is organized into a series of stories on how local officials in rural China have grown in stature in the reform period, and as a result are modern day feudal lords. The first chapters tells the story of Ding Zuoming, who was tortured and killed after demanding an audit of the local officials use of village funds. The next tells the story of Zhang Village, where the local official murders four villagers in cold blood who also demanded an account of government expenditures.
The stories are tragic, and one is struck by the fact that these are likely not isolated incidents. Interspersed in the suspenseful telling of these tales (the authors have a penchant for foreshadowing), are clear, detailed accounts of the history and political structure of rural China. The book will not be mistaken for an academic text; it is too clear and concise for that. Charmingly, it regularly cites wikipedia as a source. But the lack of academic jargon should not be mistaken for a lack of accuracy.
In the most striking section, the authors describe why the peasant’s lives have gotten so much worse in the last thirty years, even while urban dwellers are enjoying unprecedented wealth. One of the principle problems is the growth of bureaucracy. In 1979 there were a little over two million people on the government payroll. By 1997, there were eight million Chinese government officials. These numbers closely follow the layoffs of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). As the SOEs laid off more and more people, the government, especially at the lower levels, hired more and more officials. It has created the ironic trend that, even as China privatizes, the government increases in size. And in order to pay for the bigger government, taxes increase.
Aside from the layoffs, another reason for the expansion of government is structural. In the eighties, the communes were disbanded and converted into townships. This change caused the 56,000 communes to expand into 92,000 townships. Not only did this create more government organizations, but it also increased the autonomy of the local government. The townships are now able to control their own finances. Whereas before communes were centralized, the townships now control their own taxes, fees, fines, and “voluntary” donations. The result is an enormous increase in the percentage of peasant’s already meager income being eaten up by government costs.
These taxes are rarely put to use for the common good. Officials always seem to have the best homes in the village. Lavish dinner parties are regularly thrown at the people’s expense. But even the projects ostensibly intended to help the villagers rarely are effective, in fact they often exacerbate the problems. In Anfeng village, in an effort to comply with the central government’s “Eliminate Blind Spots” campaign, project after project failed. The first, a rubber factory, resulted in a loss of six million Yuan. The next, a zinc-processing plant, resulted in a 1.5 million Yuan loss. These loans will have to be repaid by the local villagers. Yet officials are fearful to report these failures to higher powers, even if it might result in tax relief and other aid for the peasants. But if they report the losses it will spell the end of their political career, so they remain silent. The result is that the local governments, in spite of the proliferation of taxes and fines, are deep in debt.
The work of Chen and Wu makes it clear how difficult a task it will be for the government to reform the countryside. But it is a sign that the Chinese are taking an interest in the issues of the countryside. In spite of the book being banned, almost every Chinese person I spoke to was aware of the book. And for the Chinese to be concerned about these issues will do far more good than foreigners such as myself.
This book made me aware of the limitations foreign academics face in China. Aside from the government limitations, no matter the degree of concern, the amount of education, or the good intentions, it will always be more difficult for foreigners to comprehend the problems of China, much less be able to effect change. And this is obvious in much of the foreign scholarship on Chinese political issues. While there are a few good scholars out there, many hide their ignorance of the issues behind academic jargon and complicated theory. Will The Boat Sink The Water does not use any advanced political theory or academic language. Because it doesn’t need to. Instead, it simply speaks the truth about the nine hundred million peasants in China today.
Recently, the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler Matt Gross visited Beijing. While I’ve enjoyed his columns in the past, his article on his time spent in Beijing reads like another whiny tourist complaining of the crowded joys of Beijing. In his opening sentences, he laments:
The Gate of Heavenly Peace, I thought as I elbowed my way through, must be someone’s sick idea of irony. Far from being a portal of transcendent calm, the red-brick gate guarded by Mao’s larger-than-life portrait is one of the densest, most chaotic public spaces this side of Piazza San Marco — and far less pleasant on a humid Wednesday in Beijing.
Everyone has had the Bad China Days that the author describes. Sadly, he didn't have the chance to expand on his travels in Beijing, and seemed to only enjoy China when he was escaping from it--such as in Western bars and spas (He did, much to his credit, take full advantage of the Chinese food).
Walking through the streets near Qianmen and Wang Fu Jing yesterday, I realized my attraction to Beijing (and to a greater extent China). Beijing is a chaotic, overcrowded, hot, dirty, smelly place. On a good day. I can't even say it has to do with the culture, people, religion, language, or business opportunities, though they all fascinate and challenge me. Instead, my fascination stems from the sense of history unfurling.
As I’ve said before, China often reminds me of various moments in time. At the moment, perhaps inspired by HBO’s Deadwood, China reminds me of the American west circa 1850. As the Americans who moved out west to pan for gold or otherwise start new lives, in China today people have the freedom to start businesses and change their lives. They are simply starting businesses. Making fortunes. Losing fortunes. And though present-day China is chaotic and often tragic, it is also an amazing time to be in China. I worry that is what the Frugal Traveler, and by extension his readers, may have missed.
Normally I enjoy long train rides in China. The rhythmic movements, the slow changes in landscape, and the long, meandering conversations makes me appreciate the fact that I am traveling, rather than arriving. However, a recent trip from Qingdao to Beijing pushed my patience to the limit.
I was fortunate to get on the train, a berth in the hard-sleeper car no less. The upcoming Tsingdao Beer Festival made finding a ticket all but impossible, luckly a coworker has excellent guanxi-I think he asked the head of the Qingdao train station. However, faced with the environs on this particular car I was ready to find refuge in the smoke of the hard seats or the sterile confines of an airplane. Forty ten-year-old children were in the cabin. A retired “peanut researcher” (I never found out what that meant) made his gastrointestinal difficulties known with impressive rhythm. And a Chinese man, after asking me what religion I was, replied that his religion was Communism. He also informed me that sixty percent of American government officials were members of the Skull & Bones Society, and Bush was the Chief. He said it was obvious, just look on the internet. He made me swear that I was not a part of the American government before he would divulge such information.
The children were the focus of my journey. There were eighty-eight of them total. They were touring the country for five days in one large group. As you can imagine, their teachers were tired and happy to have a foreigner entertain them for a few hours. After posing for photos and signing autographs, the children took turns peppering me with questions. At first it was the standard questions- Where am I from, do I like basketball, why is my nose big, etc. But after just a few minutes into our conversation, several children brought up Japan. And how much they hated them. The Nanjing Massacre was frequently mentioned, and I was asked my opinion of the Japanese.
These kids are ten years old. Where are they getting the messages of hate? Yet it is certainly not isolated to children, the middle class, or the region. My bosses, who are well-educated, well-traveled people, speak regularly about how much they detest the Japanese. They proudly boast that of the eighteen cars owned by members of the office, none of them are Japanese. Some years ago, when I was teaching in Chongqing, a nine year old girl hand-painted me a sign for my classroom: Dogs and Japanese Stay Out.
There is little question that the Japanese have not done enough to recognize the terrors of World War II. But that was over sixty years ago. For China to be so entrenched in the past that ten year olds have it on their minds is a dangerous prospect. Racial hatred can allow them to be led by their noses in fits of nationalism. When responding to the swarm of kids on my opinion on the Japanese, I didn’t dare reproach them for their blatant racism. But if they are not corrected now, when they are ten, what will happen when they are thirty?