VPN Woes in Mainland China

I’ve had some problems updating my blog this past week due to faulty VPN connections.

When my VPN – a Virtual Private Network, for those of you who may not know – doesn’t work, it feels as though I’ve been cut off from the outside world. While I obviously have internet access here in China, it is heavily censored and monitored. China’s Great Firewall  keeps people inside of the mainland from accessing some of the world’s most popular websites, such as Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, The New York Times, most foreign online banking websites and blogging platforms. Controversial phrases (think: Tiananmen Square 1989) are also censored, blocking websites that may include those phrases in articles or headlines.

Yes, I can still use the internet here without a VPN. But it’s such a poor example of the internet, compared to what can be accessed in countries that do not impose heavy censorship. And while the Chinese internet itself is massive, it’s mostly inaccessible for people who cannot read and comprehend Chinese characters. Continue reading “VPN Woes in Mainland China”

China News: Stalin Collected Mao Zedong’s “Excrement” To Determine Trustworthiness

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In what may be the most bizarre article I’ve read involving Mao Zedong, today the BBC reports that Joseph Stalin literally ordered his aides to collect the Chinese leader’s shit in order to analyze it and uncover covert information about him.

What. The. Hell.

This information reportedly comes from Soviet agent Igor Atamanenko, who was interviewed by the BBC. The notoriously ruthless – and paranoid – leader of the former Soviet Union allegedly created the project in order to obtain the stool samples of foreign leaders and use it to construct “psychological portraits”.

From the article:

“That’s why our specialists came up with the most extravagant ways of extracting information about a person.”

Mr. Atamanenko says it was Stalin’s henchman Lavrenti Beria who was put in charge of the secret laboratory.

When I contacted Mr. Atamanenko, he told me what the Soviet scientists had been looking for in faeces.

“For example, if they detected high levels of amino acid Tryptophan,” he explained, “they concluded that person was calm and approachable.

“But a lack of potassium in poo was seen as a sign of a nervous disposition and someone with insomnia.”

The article reports that Soviet spies collected excrement from Mao during his 1949 trip to Moscow, where he was “plied with food and drink” for 10 days. In what could hardly be a surprise, Russia’s Federal Security Service refused to comment on the story.

The article didn’t include any information about the results of Mao’s “analysis”.

Again.

What. The. Hell.

 

Shanghai’s Beautifully Deceptive Blue Sky

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A blue sky overlooking Shanghai’s West Nanjing Road on January 19

After what feels like weeks of rain and the thickening encroachment of grey, choking smog that usually signals the onslaught of winter in China, today Shanghai has been rewarded with a practically azure-colored sky.

This is a shot of West Nanjing Road, a popular pedestrian street leading to People’s Square, the center of downtown Shanghai. From this angle the World Financial Center ( commonly known among expats here as the “bottle-cap opener building”) and the Shanghai Tower, Pudong’s defining – and tallest – skyscraper. Both of these buildings are part of the city’s now iconic skyline on The Bund, one of Shanghai’s prime tourist attractions.

I typically gauge the city’s level of smog by the visibility of those skyscrapers. If I can clearly see the buildings, as I can today, I figure it’s a good day. There are some days – yesterday morning, in fact – when the air pollution is so thick that both of the buildings are almost completely obscured. On those days, I have to squint to make out any faded sign of the mammoth Shanghai Tower.

It’s a beautiful day today. But, is it a clean day? My Air Quality Index application tells me I shouldn’t trust my eyes. Despite the lovely facade, there is still apparently an unhealthy level of PM 2.5 in the air today. As I’ve already written, particulate matter 2.5 – a byproduct of exhaust fumes and burning fossil fuels – has been linked with various health disorders, including respiratory diseases and blood clots.

An AQI under 50 is categorized as a “healthy” level of PM 2.5. Anything above 100 is considered “unhealthy.” The most concerning category, between 301-500, is “hazardous.”

I’m pretty sure my entire winter in Jinan, Shandong last year consisted of “hazardous” days. Those aren’t as common in Shanghai.

 

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Blue skies can be deceptive.

 

 

 

The New York Times Says Bad Management Has Led To “Chaotic Descent” of Chinese Economy

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In an editorial published on January 8th, the New York Times claimed that mismanagement of the Chinese economy has “turned what should have been a benign, natural slowdown into a chaotic descent.”

It seems like foreign and Chinese news sources alike have been publishing daily updates on the Chinese economy for weeks now. Plummeting demands in the manufacturing sector, along with a shaky stock market, has led to a drop in economic growth in the world’s second-largest economy, creating some fear that the shockwaves could impact China’s trading partners as well.

The New York Times’ editorial board wrote that a Chinese recession could have “far-reaching implications because the country has become such a big part of the world economy.”

But the reason I posted this article is because the Times suggested China’s economic slowdown should primarily be blamed on bad management. Corruption and disorganization among the country’s (many) state-owned companies and enterprises, a government-backed stock market bubble, and an inefficient banking system are just some of the reasons China’s economy has begun to falter after its monstrous rise, the Times reports.

The editorial ends with the newspaper advising China’s leaders to “modernize their policies.” I really only find this interesting because every expat I know who has worked for a Chinese company has had similar complaints about their employers’ inefficient — that is almost always the word used — and disorganized styles of management. This includes myself. When I lived in Jinan, I worked for a locally owned language training center that changed its curriculum monthly and was late with salary payments on more than one occasion. It felt like no one knew what the rules were. No one knew what was going on.

But my experience is exactly that – only mine. It obviously cannot stand as an overarching example of management capabilities across the country.

There are plenty of web articles and forums comparing Chinese and western management styles. A 2011 article from The Diplomat, bluntly titled “Why Chinese Make Bad Managers,” claims that Chinese managers equate management with warfare, which is why they are “so singularly bad at it.” (The article was written by a Chinese person.)

“To ease their own violent paranoia, Chinese managers instill and augment violent paranoia in their staff. To maintain absolute control, they will practice divide-and-conquer by constantly changing favourites, spreading innuendoes and rumours and lies, and acting arbitrarily and violently to induce terror,” the writer alleges.

I don’t have enough first-hand experience to be able to comment fairly on that accusation. But if it is true, that kind of management strategy doesn’t exactly seem like it would create a happy and efficient workplace. It actually sounds extremely stressful, and stress in the workplace can severely dampen employee engagement and productivity.

I’m sure plenty of people can, from experience, attest to that.

Shanghai Weekends: A Sea of People

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A never-ending line of people filled the sidewalks leading to The Bund, one of Shanghai’s most popular tourist spots.
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Shanghai’s East Nanjing Road, January 2

Shanghai, with 24 million residents, is the most populated city in China. That’s bigger than the entire population of Taiwan.

This is an accurate image of what the city streets usually look like on weekend days. It can be quite overwhelming.

With Manufacturing Down, China Needs It’s Residents to Buy, Buy, Buy

China’s abundance of cheap labor has often been cited as one of the reasons it has become the manufacturing mecca of the world. The abundance of low-cost goods flooding out of the country, and out into the international market, created an economic boom that has completely transformed the east coast of the massive country.

But with demand for Chinese products falling, the country is desperately trying to increase consumer spending within. What better way to do that than by creating reasons for people to go shopping?

China’s state-run newspaper, The China Daily, reports the country’s non-manufacturing activity (so, it’s economy not related to the manufacturing industry) was quite healthy at the end of 2015  – perhaps this is supposed to be a comfort to counter all of the articles in the international press that have recently focused on China’s “slowing economy.”

“Industries related to household consumption, such as retail, postal and express delivery services, storage and distribution services, as well as Internet software, all expanded due to a holiday and year-end promotion sales boom,” China Daily reported, referring to information provided by the National Bureau of Statistics.

The “holiday and year-end promotions sales boom” the article mentioned must be referring to two year-end “holidays” dedicated solely to shopping. November 11 — commonly noted as 11/11 — is known as Single’s Day in China, and has been transformed into the country’s biggest shopping day of the year by the e-commerce giant Alibaba.

Yes. Alibaba basically created this “holiday” to encourage people to buy things. Because if you’re so unlucky as to be single, you might as well buy yourself a nice present to make up for it.

“Singles’ Day was originally a mock celebration in China for people not in relationships. But Alibaba in 2009 co-opted the event into a consumption-fest for all, featuring steep discounts and other promotions aimed at attracting droves of customers online. Alibaba’s sales data have been closely watched as a gauge of Chinese consumption as economic growth slows,” Reuters reported in November.

As I mentioned in November, Chinese shoppers spent more than $14 billion on Single’s Day. That’s far more than American shoppers spend on Black Friday, a sales promotion that many retailers depend on in order to rake in year-end sales profits.

Single’s Day has gone so well that China invented another retail holiday for barely a month later – “12/12”. December 12 — 12/12 — is supposed to be equivalent to Cyber Monday (although I thought 11/11 was that as well…)

Although 12/12 isn’t quite on the same level as 11/11, I’m assuming the promotion must have accounted for even more of the year-end sales mentioned by China Daily.

It’s funny – the USA and China have both created retail holidays to bolster their service economies. For so long, the USA has used Christmas as an excuse for excess consumption. But Christmas shopping isn’t really a thing in China, which does not have strong ties to the holiday. I wonder what kind of retail holiday the Chinese government (or likely, a company) will create next?

 

 

 

Pronunciation Despair and Chǎo miàn

Language learning should be practical, enjoyable and accessible in order to foster any real development toward the path to fluency.

Am I truly on that path to “fluency”? That’s a little too early to say. What I can say is that, in this present moment, I am certainly not anywhere close to even reaching a conversational level in Mandarin Chinese.

My main problem is one I’ve mentioned before. I keep memorizing (useful) vocabulary words and short phrases, which I thought was a good thing. I usually study my Chinese book when I’m out and about – at a coffee shop, on the metro, on a lunch break at work. Because I’m away from a computer at those times, I often haven’t been listening to the book’s corresponding audio files.

So my pronunciation is still way off. It’s those damn four tones, which I still have a terrible time distinguishing between when I’m listening to Chinese.

Yesterday I reached a fairly obvious conclusion: I need a Chinese teacher.

I thought I would be able to get by using online resources, my Chinese book and through the powers of brute memorization and repetition. But what’s the point of spending so much time on something if the end result (my pronunciation – basically, my powers of communication) isn’t even comprehensible?

That may be why, when recently given a chā (fork) at a local restaurant, the fúwùyuán (waiter) did not immediately understand when I asked for kuàizi (chopsticks) instead.

My pronunciation of basic food words (coincidentally, the subject of week 2, lesson 3) is decent because they happen to be the words I’ve used the most in practice. I can also decipher these words when people speak to me, as well. That may not seem like a big deal, but Chinese speakers tend speak incredibly quickly, and often with a dialect that varies from standard Mandarin.

Using words like shuǐguǒ (fruit – the translation is closer to “water fruit”), shūcài (vegetables), yú (fish), ròu (meat), tang (soup) and, of course the staples miàntiáo and mǐfàn (noodles and rice) is almost becoming second nature.

I’m fairly confident that my pronunciation of chǎo (fried) is correct. This, by the way, is one word Chinese food-eating foreigners may already be familiar with. Do you happen to enjoy eating Chow Mein, the stir fried noodle dish ubiquitous to Chinese restaurants?

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The familiar Chow Mein

Chow Mein (stirfried noodles)= chǎo miàn in pinyin. The pronunication of “chow” and “chao” in this context is almost the same.

So I’ve known how to ask for chǎo miàn or chǎo mǐfàn for quite some time. However, this week I’ve learned the words zhǔ (boiled) and zhēng (steamed), which will be useful for inquiring about where I can find my preferred style of dumpling (my favorite’s are Zhēng but in Shanghai locals seem to favor chǎo ).

I’m not a vegetarian, but if I decide to make that leap I can now tell the world that Wǒ shì yīgè sùshízhě (I am a vegetarian). And yes, the main reason I decided to add that world to my arsenal is definitely because it has “sushi” in it.