Greeted as Liberators

I recall it as being Sunday, March 17, 2003, that the administrative liaison called all six foreign English teachers to a meeting in one of our on-campus apartments, but it might have been Monday, since I also remember that the visit was precipitated by President George W. Bush’s 48-hour “High Noon” ultimatum for the Hussein family to leave Iraq or face invasion. There were six of us: three Americans, two Australians, and a Canadian, and for most of us it was our first year in China. A Chinese English teacher provided translation:

“You may have heard that your president” – the Australians and the Canadian immediately bristled – “has announced the United States will invade Iraq on Wednesday. We would like you to not go outside once the war begins. If you have any shopping to do, you can give us a list and we’ll get it for you.”

All of us had been at the school, a private K-12 headed by a former provincial deputy education minister that catered to cadre children, for little more than one semester. It was ostensibly modeled after Eton, or so they kept telling us, but as far as I could tell the similarities stopped at “expensive boarding school.” I had been in China for a total of five months, all in Urumqi save 24 hours in Beijing registering at the consulate and getting fleeced by an “art student.”

“First of all, three of us aren’t Americans,” said one of the Australians. “He’s not our president.” We had fair warning this discussion might happen, and decided to tease out exactly what the school was thinking. “Why don’t you want us to go out?”

“Well, it could be dangerous.”

“Why?” The answer was, after some deflection, basically “Muslims.” We refused to promise we wouldn’t leave campus, arguing that we weren’t going to hide in the school and that besides, we didn’t feel any threat. Eventually the administrator gave up on trying to hold us there, though they’d try again later when news of SARS belatedly reached the school. The fact was that every time we went out, we were often approached by Han and Uyghurs who were intrigued by foreigners or wanted to practice their English. And most of the Uyghurs, in my experience from 2002-2005, tended to view Westerners as a closer cousin than the Han. I heard more than once that “at least Americans believe in one God,” as opposed to the Han alternatives of atheistic Communism and overlapping polytheisms of Daoism, Buddhism, and traditional Chinese spirituality. I sometimes heard cruder, more dubious and flat-out racist theories as well, but the common denominator is that they could speak to a Westerner with less fear of getting in trouble. Reluctant and afraid to speak about religion, ethnic discrimination, politics or history with their Han Chinese neighbors, colleagues, and classmates, a fair number of Uyghur students, teachers, and professionals sought out Westerners to serve as sympathetic ears. In 2004, when pro-American feelings seemed to peak among the Uyghurs I met, a man in his 50s who loved to talk politics proclaimed in what seemed all seriousness “after Afghanistan and Iraq, George Bush will come to liberate us.”

While China’s version of affirmative action allowed Uyghurs to have more children and enter university with lower test scores, unspoken rules resulted in disadvantages in other arenas. One friend vented when, at university job fair, he was told “no minorities” before he even sat down. Another engaged in civil disobedience by inviting us to his home in Kashgar, where we only found out we had overstayed the number of days foreign house guests were allowed when all three of us were pulled into the police station. They took a long statement from him – who we were, where we met, what we did, where we would usually hang out, why we were here – and had him place his thumbprint and signature at the end while our passports were faxed to the head office for review. We chewed him out afterwards; we would never have come, or at least overstayed, if we knew it would get his family in trouble with the authorities. “My family decides who gets to stay in our home,” he said. Late one night at Fubar, an expat pub opened by friends near the center of town (now closed), with loud music blaring, a young Chinese woman at our table stood up, raised her glass and yelled “Fuck the Communist Party!” and proceeded to condemn half the Politboro Standing Committee. The young Uyghur man sitting next to her immediately stood up, raised his glass, and starting yelling “I love the Communist Party! I am a patriot! Long live the Party!” with panicked fear on his face. I don’t know if he ever went back to that bar again.

My Han friends and students, on the other hand, sometimes appeared incredibly disconnected from the Uyghur society around them. An entire university class of Han students (my English classes at the university level were almost entirely segregated, with Han students receiving better facilities and textbooks) didn’t know the Uyghur word for banmian (laghman), the staple noodle dish, the equivalent of going to UC San Diego and never learning the word “burrito.” I have lost count of how many times I heard a Han Chinese person express befuddlement at the idea that Uyghurs did not eat pork, and several occasions when someone was pressured to eat pork or drink alcohol by a superior within their company who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Han high school students eagerly took myself and another teacher on a tour of the city, only to refuse to join us in entering the Uyghur quarter south of the city center, and hastily beat a retreat looking genuinely scared, and I knew a few adults who were frightened as well, even on major streets in broad daylight. One Han professor became a drinking buddy, introduced by a Singaporean teacher who worked hard to serve as cultural interpreter. One boozy night in 2005, at his apartment, the professor asked me “Aren’t you afraid of the Uyghurs? You’re an American, they’re Muslim. They hate you.” Frustrated that for nearly three years both sides had been frank with me but never with one another, and thinking we were now drinking buddies who could tell it like it is, I looked him in the eye and said “No, they don’t hate me. They hate you.”

He went quiet. We left soon after, and my Singaporean friend said I had been way too harsh.

“Friends are honest with each other,” I argued. “He’s a smart guy, I didn’t say anything he doesn’t know.”

“Yes, he knows it, and you and I know it, but you can’t say it to his face. It’s too much.”

The professor didn’t invite me drinking again, and I left Xinjiang not long after. By then, any fondness I heard from Uyghurs in Xinjiang for Bush was dissipating as images of the ongoing violence in Iraq piled up in the media and, perhaps more importantly, as China and the U.S. aligned on many elements of the “War on Terror”. China embraced WoT rhetoric in its campaigns against real and imagined separatism in Xinjiang. The fact that Uyghur prisoners in Guantanamo Bay were not handed over to the P.R.C. showed there was still daylight between the two countries’ perspectives on Xinjiang, but after that I never heard of anyone entertaining the idea of America swooping in to liberate Xinjiang. At the time, I thought the man who told me Bush was going for a trifecta with Xinjiang was delusional; now I think he might not have meant it as a genuine prediction, but a wish that it was true, that someone was coming, or maybe just that I would understand how he felt. That someone would listen.

Pro wrestling as American soft power so why not Jerry Springer?

In a piece this week on the Foreign Policy website, Justin D. Martin looks at the surprising popularity of pro wrestling in the Middle East.

Qatar is a conservative, Wahhabi-leaning country where alcohol consumption is illegal for citizens and Internet filters block pornography. Violent media content, however, is widely consumed and seemingly uncontested — a trend that permeates the broader Arab world. While sexual media is censored — the WWE show in Doha featured none of the dancing women seen at other venues — images of combat are ubiquitous.

I’m not a psychologist, and there are many reasons why that is, but it doesn’t take Siggy Freud to wonder at a possible casual link between repression of sex and a celebration of violence.

Makes me wonder though about whether pro wrestling — especially the American export version — might have a market in China.  People like fake things here.  People also like watching foreigners doing funny things.

But why not take the idea to its logical conclusion.  People might buy tickets to watch American pro wrestlers fake beat the crap out of each other, but at the end of the match it’s just hulking juicehead behemoths in masks and spandex.  It’s American sure, but is it America?

My feeling is if you’re going to go that route why not just say fuck it:  EMBRACE the stereotype.  Syndicate old episodes of the Jerry Springer or Steve Wilkos show on CCTV.

People would eat. that. shit. up.  Fat Foreigners Fighting would be the biggest show in CCTV history.  Get Li Yong and Yang Rui to provide color commentary and you would have empty streets each week at broadcast time.  Hell, it might be the most effective anti-America propaganda CCTV has shown in years, because God knows they could use some help right now in that department.

Willing to Pay – On the Cost of Living in China

In December of last year I made a statement that startled the students enrolled in my Chinese economic development course: that prices overall in China were high relative to prices of goods in the United States. They were surprised because the consumption choices of American college students studying abroad in China often do not go far beyond that of an inexpensive bowl of noodles, a few Qingdao beers on a Friday night, and a bagful of knock-off brand name clothing from the Silk Market.  But the rising Chinese consumer, whose consumption habits require much more than food and clothing, faces a very different basket of consumer goods, and most of those goods are sold at high prices.

To illustrate, here’s a quick look at the prices of housing, airfare, medicine, and cars in China.

The cozy 100 square foot classroom in which I made the above statement is located 15 kilometers from Beijing’s central business district, and if sold on the real estate market today it would list at 80,000 USD. By extension, the modest American 1000 square foot detached home with a yard would sell in Beijing for more than 800,000 USD. What’s more, the property bought in China comes only with a 70 year lease and limited to zero rights to the ground the property lies on. China’s high housing prices are far from a new story, but the outside observer and the Chinese home buyer is consistently befuddled at the persistence of these high prices.

Last month I looked into purchasing a roundtrip flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand from Kunming. The pre-tax cost of the discounted ticket was a surprising 1200 RMB ($190) but the tax burden of the international flight was an additional 2000 RMB taking the total cost of the two hour flight to over $500. The Chinese economy has the fastest growing demand for flights worldwide and an ever-expanding fleet but the consumer continues to face high prices in part due to a few state owned airlines being able to control prices through a regulatory framework that eliminates competition.

In most parts of the world, when the patent for a prescription or OTC drug expires, the price the patent holding pharmaceutical can charge drops drastically given the entry of generic competitors who have the opportunity to legally produce and market the drug under its generic name. In China, however, according to a colleague in the sales department of Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical arm, the retail price of off patent, non-essential drugs does not experience a drop after the patent expires and generic producers rush in. In fact, where the US producer usually immediately drops the product line due to the inability to reap large profits from the drug, the former patent holder in China will tend to raise the price! Why? The Chinese consumer by and large doesn’t trust generics given the reputation for substandard drug producers to use shoddy, carcinogenic inputs.

To give a fourth example, last month I was talking to a friend about purchasing a Volkswagen Tiguan, the inexpensive sister to the high-end Volkswagen Touareg SUV – both models are seen in ubiquity on the streets of any major Chinese city. That friend quickly discouraged me from pursuing the Tiguan SUV (which sells at around $25,000 in the US but retails at around $35,000 in China) because on top of the high cost, car dealers, who collude across a city market to control prices, will charge an extra premium of up to $10,000 for cars that are in high demand! He said I’m better off buying a cheaper KIA or Nissan SUV (which are also seen in ubiquity on the streets). In an environment of perfect competition, the automobile consumer can bargain down the price of a car sale with a dealer, but in China the consumer is held hostage.

These high prices persist for a variety of factors, but the golden thread tying these four examples together and keeping prices high is simply that the Chinese consumer is willing to pay the exorbitant price offered for these goods.

Despite recent regulatory efforts, local governments in China and officials employed therein continue to take advantage of public funds to purchase things like cars, airline tickets, and houses. I posit that the aggregate purchasing power of this cohort, who cares little about the high cost of the transaction by facing a soft budget constraint, is able to prop up prices high above a fair market level. Thus the car dealer when faced with two customers, the average Chinese household and the government official, will consistently sell to the government official at the high price unless the Chinese household chooses the pay arbitrary premium. Last year an audit was performed at a government unit that a close friend works for, and he revealed to me that his employer had in its fixed assets inventory a fleet of 72 cars, but only 35 could be accounted for. The rest were in the personal unchecked use of government employees and their relatives. Extend this example across the tens of thousands of government units in China and a powerful and elite buying force with nearly unlimited funds at their backing emerges.  No wonder car dealers continue to collude and charge premiums on sales.

Generally speaking, every Chinese male is required by social norms to own a home and hopefully an automobile before getting married. Said simply, the demands of society can create a high demand for high priced items of which consumers have little choice but to purchase if they want to gain upward mobility. So with such high demand, are new goods flooding the market to meet this demand?

Observers, especially foreign ones, can, given the scale of new (and often empty) housing developments and the massive traffic jams, can easily be confused that markets are at equilibrium or perhaps even saturated.  To provide analogy, my American students often make the erroneous generalization that all Chinese people eat out at restaurants all the time because the thousands of restaurants in Beijing are usually packed at dinner time. But a city with nearly 20 million of people would require more than 100,000 restaurants to feed more than half of the population. Beijing has a lot of places to eat, but not that many.

Extending this to the real estate sector, let’s assume that, by and large, households are only buying newly built high-rise homes and that these developments are exclusively built in the cities.  Assuming half of China’s households are settled in urban areas and making another liberal assumption that newly built luxury housing complexes make up 50% of urban housing. These assumptions come together say that despite the feeling by urbanites that new housing is going up everywhere only 25% of the population can be supplied with new housing despite the high demand for new housing. High demand and low supply means high prices and that’s certainly what we observe. Indeed, Steven McCord, a real estate researcher at Jones Lang LaSalle has calculated that commodity housing built 1995 to date has only accommodated 20% of China’s urban population, a more accurate discovery that loosely fits my back of the envelope analysis above.

It’s simple economics: high aggregate demand and low aggregate supply drives high prices. So what this means is we’ll continue to see more new housing go up in cities especially as the pace of urbanization and rural to urban migration picks up in the next decade.   Extending the example above to cars suggests that traffic jams will never be alleviated.  In other words, what we are seeing now in terms of housing provision and cars on the roads is just the tip of a massive iceberg comparing to what the future may bring assuming the economy chugs along without a major bump or crisis.

So with supply growing to meet demand, won’t the high prices fall?  With soft budgets in government units, a quality control gap, and a dearth of viable investment options outside of buying an apartment prices are likely to remain high.

If determining factors of the four examples above persist, producers will continue to reap high profits, and the government regulator will continue to bring in high tax gains. Sustainable economic development into the future requires China to make a transition to a robust consumer-based economy and a strong welfare state that wisely allocates tax revenues and redistributes income. High incomes to producers and officials who take advantage of taxes to line their pockets (and garages) prove as obstructions to this necessary transition and create an unlevel playing field.

Moving forward, government regulation must increase quality monitoring in all sectors and to drop demand in luxury housing, reformers must increase the provision of low and middle income housing AND widen channels for household saving so that savers look outside of the housing market for investment opportunities.  I’ve never been one to advocate excessive liberalization, but without a reform package that expands private markets, curbs corruption, hardens budgets, and delivers meaningful tax reform, high prices will persist and the Chinese consumer will continue to pay a lot more for less.

Moving the Capital, or, The Unbearable Heaviness of Beijing

Government officials are planning to move the capital of China to Xinyang, a little city in Henan you’ve never heard of! I know this to be true because some guy on Weibo said it a couple of weeks ago. Tea Leaf Nation has a post up about the chatter.

This isn’t particularly new. Wang Ping, a professor at Capital University of Economics and Business, suggested relocating the capital in 1980, and there have been periodic stirrings of discussion ever since, generally following hard on the heels of dust storms, airpocalypses, floods, city-wide traffic jams, and other reminders that good feng-shui or no, there are real downsides to living in a smog basin at the edge of the Gobi Desert whose water table dropped about 10 meters over the past decade and whose post-1949 renovations could be used to teach urban planning courses in Hell. [1. The desire to burn Beijing to the ground and jump up and down on the ashes has at least -5000-years- 600 years of recent history, going back to the Ming, which set up a capital in Nanjing, sacked Khanbaliq, renamed it "Beiping," then changed their minds 30 years later and started building the whole thing over again, except moved a few feet to the left. The Yongle Emperor changed the name of the city back to "Beijing" in 1403 and made it the principal capital of the Ming empire in 1420.
Come to think of it, this goes back even further: the Mongols who started building Khanbaliq/Dadu in 1264 did something of a number on the abandoned Jurchen Jin capital of Zhongdu (which lay more or less where the Xicheng and Fengtai districts of modern Beijing are) when they sacked it in 1215.

On the subject of more recent depredations: Wang Jun's book 城记, now available in English as Beijing Record: A Physical and Political History of Planning Modern Beijing, is a great read for anyone interested in a history of some of the completely avoidable things that were done to Beijing after 1949. The sketches of the rejected Liang Sicheng/Chen Zhanxiang proposal -- which would have kept the city walls as a public park -- will break your heart. The only scrap of comfort is that things could always have been way worse. ]

Baidupedia says a group of 479 National People’s Congress delegates submitted a proposal to move the capital in March 2006, about a month before a sandstorm that dumped 330,000 tons of sand on the city overnight — but there doesn’t seem to be any record of this, and people don’t submit proposals to the NPC here on Earth One. If it did exist, the proposal would have been one of 5,030 submitted for discussion that year, alongside proposals recommending more attractive Xinwen Lianbo anchors, body-weight limits for government officials, and a requirement that foreigners marrying Chinese nationals be able to guarantee the cost of a return ticket to China in the event of a divorce.
In April 2006, the economist Hu Xingdou sent a proposal to the central government, the State Council, and the NPC urging that the capital be relocated to central China or the region south of the Yangtze. Action was swiftly not taken. Two years later, Hu co-authored the Report on the Relocation of China’s Capital with Qin Fazhan. The report recommended a “one country, three capitals” strategy with Beijing as the cultural and technological capital of the nation, Shanghai as the economic capital, and some new city as the actual capital capital. Hu and Qin concluded that the Nanyang Basin in Henan and Hubei provinces would be the only sensible place to build a new capital; other commentators have suggested Xi’an, Luoyang, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Nanjing, Zhengzhou, Lanzhou, Wuhan, Linxi, Xiangyang, Liaocheng, Kaifeng, Chengdu, Hanzhong, Haikou, Yueyang, Xinyang, Changsha, Jingmen, and Anyang, the last capital of the Shang dynasty, as more suitable locations than Beijing.

Meanwhile, the Beijing urban planning office cannot even be arsed to move to the east Sixth Ring Road.

Not that there wouldn’t be recent precedent for a move. The Republic of China bounced back and fourth between four capitals (Nanjing to Beijing to Nanjing to Wuhan to Nanjing to Chongqing and back to Nanjing) during its brief stay on the mainland, and for 21 blissful years, Beijing — laying low and going by the name Beiping — was out of the limelight. When I read the Tea Leaf Nation post, I thought immediately of this passage from Qian Zhongshu’s novella Cat (猫), a very thinly veiled roman a clef about the intellectuals who made the city their home during that time:

…For in those last years before the war, Beiping — the Northern capital scorned by Tang Ruoshi, Xie Zaihang, and other literary worthies of the Ming and Qing dynasties as Peking, lowliest and filthiest of all cities — had become generally recognized as the most cultured, most beautiful city in all of China. Even the dust that lay three feet thick over Beiping on windless days had taken on the hue and fragrance of antiquity, as if it held the last traces of the Mongol, Ming, and Qing dynasties, and museums in the younger European and American countries sent specialists to collect vials of it for display. After the capital was moved south, Beiping lost the political function it had so long served, and became — in the way of all useless and outmoded things — a curiosity, an item of historical value.
Take a dilapidated junk shop, call it a venerable antique store, and without the slightest change in the facts of the matter you will effect a marvelous transformation in the mind of the customer. Imagine the wretched embarrassment of having to pick through junk shops for cheap items! How different from the wealth, the zeal, the discernment of antique lovers! In the same way, people who would never stoop to visiting a junk shop now came to browse curios, and people who had had no choice but to browse junk shops now found themselves elevated to the dignity of antiquarians. Those living in Beiping could now count themselves worldly and cultured, could look down their noses at friends from Nanking or Shanghai as if the mere fact of their residence conferred rank and status. To claim that Shanghai or Nanking could produce art or culture would have been as ridiculous as averring that the hands, feet, and gut were capable of independent thought.
The discovery of “Peking Man” at Zhoukoudian was further demonstration of the superiority of Beiping residents. Peking Man, in his day, had been the most advanced of all monkeys; so, today, was Beiping Man the most cultured of Chinese. The newspapers of the day heralded the rise of the “Peking Set,” and the local intellectuals traced their spiritual lineage back to Peking Man — which was why they never called themselves the “Beiping Set,” even though the name of the city had changed. The Peking Set were Southerners, almost to a man, and they were as proud of their newfound home as ever any Jews were of their adoptive countries. It was very nearly the only thing they ever spoke of. Since moving to Beiping, too, Mrs. Li’s athlete’s foot had cleared up — an unexpected side-benefit of living in the cultural center of the nation.

So will the Chinese government actually move the capital, as Some Guy on Weibo says? Hey, from your lips to the NDRC’s ears — but I wouldn’t hold my breath. Not any more than I usually do in Beijing, anyway.

In Praise of @BeijingAir

[beforeafter]June 19, 2009June 22, 2009[/beforeafter]

June 19, 2009 (left) and June 22, 2009 (right). Images courtesy of ChinaAirDaily – they need new photographers in Beijing and other cities!

There’s talk over at ChinaFile that the air quality issue has reached a tipping point as a public health crisis in China, and it’s worth taking a moment to remember that the US Embassy played a major role in increasing awareness – possibly one of the State Department’s most effective public diplomacy moves in years, albeit unintentionally. According to a 2009 State Department cable released by Wikileaks back in 2011:

At the request of the Ministry of ForeignAffairs (MFA), ESTH Off and MED Off met on July 7 with Mr. WANG Shuai of MFA’s Office of U.S. Affairs to respond to MFA’s concerns about recent publicity in international and local press surrounding an air quality monitor installed on the Embassy compound. MFA registered complaints on behalf of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau (EPB) and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP), saying that making this data (which in their view”conflicts” with “official” data posted by the Beijing EPB) available to the general public through an Embassy-operated Twitter site has caused “confusion” and undesirable “social consequences”among the Chinese public. MFA asked Post to consider either limiting access to the air quality data only to American citizens,or otherwise identify a suitable compromise.

… In August 2008 the Embassy began posting corresponding “real time” air quality index (AQI) numbers,which are generated according to definitions set by the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to an Embassy-managed Twitter site ( on an hourly basis. While the initiative originally was primarily geared toward informing the Embassy community about levels of pollution in immediate proximity to the compound, consular “no double standard” requirements prompted Post to create the Twitter site as a user-friendly platform so that private American citizens residing and traveling in Beijing are also able to access the data.

…local and international press coverage spiked after Time Magazine published a story online about the Embassy’s air monitor on June 19. Since June 19, the site’s number of “followers” has increased from approximately 400 to the current total of 2500+, with at least 75 percent of the new followers being Chinese (judging from the screen names used). Additional press articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, China Daily, and other outlets, with major local online forums like ablaze with Chinese “netizens”commenting on this issue.

Twitter was blocked on June 1 2009 in the follow-up to the June 4 anniversary, then Liu Xiaobo was arrested on June 23 for releasing Charter 08 six months earlier, and then to top it all off the Urumqi Riots started on July 5. On July 7, China shut down local Twitter clone Fanfou as well as others. Sina Weibo launched in August 2009 after China put a lid on Xinjiang and cut off its Internet, giving it a big head start over its major rivals Sohu, Netease, and Tencent, who didn’t launch microblogging until the following year.

But @BeijingAir had enough Chinese followers and struck such a chord in a Chinese public afraid for the health and mistrustful of government data, and as soon as Sina launched the US embassy numbers were being hoisted over the firewall. China began promising to upgrade reporting to include PM2.5 nanoparticles, which it previously didn’t measure.

Chart courtesy of, on the job since 2007.

With the latest “air-pocalypse” in Beijing, it’s not just expats but everyone talking about air purifiers the way that teen-age boys talk about cars. PM2.5 is basic vocabulary and a key fashion choice is whether to go with a knitted cloth mask (don’t), 3M N90 disposable mask (reliable, cheap, ugly) or the Respro masks that make you look like Bane from Dark Knight Rises (Expensive, less data on effectiveness). Now you can buy Spaceballs-style cans of air! As recently as last June, government officials were complaining that @BeijingAir was unscientific and unlawful, which is not completely unfounded but no longer tenable. It’s going take years to clean up the air, and @BeijingAir didn’t create the issue so much as give people information in plain English (literally) that they could use to articulate what they already knew. But that’s actually pretty cool.

Bonus: Check out, courtesy of Frederic Blanc-Brude of the EDHEC-Risk Institute, offering a nifty chart and open data on AQI levels in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Chengdu.

25 Essential China Survival Apps

We loved the list of tips and tricks for living in Beijing that Kaiser Kuo wrote on Quora.  We agree with them all (especially the last one).  Not being able to top such comprehensive and impassioned advice, we thought we’d go a different route.  Since we (YJ excluded) confess to occasionally both whining AND bitching, we’ve come to rely on a few simple hacks to avoid unnecessary bad China days.  

Which ones did we miss? Leave us a comment and let us know your top survival apps!

Language Skills

The indispensable dictionary app. The free included dictionary is pretty good, while for more heavy-duty purposes, serious language learners (or “grownups,” as Brendan calls them) can purchase add-ons including dictionaries, optical character recognition, flashcards, and more. The ABC Chinese-English dictionary is particularly useful, and more advanced users will find the Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian (现代汉语规范词典) indispensable.
Homepage Android iOS

Waygo Visual Translator
Too lazy and/or stupid to learn Chinese? Or perhaps you just want to be able to order a meal without having to learn the world’s dumbest writing system first? Waygo Visual Translator has got your back: the free app offers remarkably good OCR for menus and street signs. Point your iPhone at a menu and get an instantaneous (and mostly pretty accurate) translation of dish names. Brendan used to recommend that anyone coming to China pick up a copy of James D. McCawley’s The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters; Waygo renders that excellent book more or less obsolete. So this is what living in the future is going to be like!
Homepage iOS

Xiaoma Hanzi (小马词典)
A nice little character study app that lets you quiz yourself on the pronunciation and meaning of random characters and search by stroke order, though not as comprehensive as Pleco.
Homepage Android

Sogou Pinyin Input (搜狗手机输入法)
China’s most ubiquitous pinyin input software, developed by internet giant Sohu (also good for watching American TV shows, see below), Sogou Pinyin keeps up with the latest memes, brands and names, so when you enter a pinyin string more often than not the first one is the right one. Also not bad: Google Pinyin.
Homepage Android iOS

Shopping & Eating

Taobao (淘宝)
Russian MIGs and everything else made by the hand of man, plus rent-a-boyfriends.
Homepage Android iOS

Etao (一淘)
Great for comparison shopping across e-commerce sites in China and abroad (including
Homepage Android iOS

Alipay (支付宝钱包)
Want that MIG? This is how you pay for it.
Homepage Android iOS

Dazhong Dianping (大众点评)
Find restaurants by location, cuisine, price, or user reviews.
Homepage Android iOS

MTime (时光电影)
Find movie theaters and showtimes in your area.
Homepage Android iOS

Wochacha (我查查)
Scan barcodes on books, food, or other stuff and compare prices at supermarkets in your area and e-commerce sites.
Homepage Android iOS


Sina Weibo (新浪微博)
Keep your finger on the pulse of China’s netizens, follow the latest celebrity gossip, and if you’re really lucky, become popular enough that people notice when you’re banned. There’s also Tencent Weibo, but we’ve never met someone who intentionally posts anything there.
Homepage Android iOS

WeChat (微信)
Hot on the heels of Weibo, Tencent’s annointed successor to the omnipresent QQ Instant Messenger features an impressive array of ways to waste time chatting with your friends.
Homepage Android iOS


xiamiXiami (虾米)
Streaming music service, keeps up with China, UK, Billboard charts and searchable for that song you’ve got to hear right now. Also lets you save 50 songs on your phone for offline playback. Click the album cover and follow along on the lyrics (they’re not available for every song though, its hit or miss).
Homepage Android iOS

doubanfmDouban FM (豆瓣FM)
Internet radio station like Pandora. Develops a personalized station based on your favorites, also saves your latest favorites to the phone for offline playback. Particularly interesting are theme stations like those tailor for 80后 and 90后 generation listeners, playing nostalgic classics from their childhoods as well as new music popular with their peers.
Homepage Android iOS


Youku (优酷)
Youku devoured their rival Tudou last year and has an impressive collection of legal, HD films and TV shows from around the world, plus a whole lot of other films and TV shows that may not be quite as legal or high-quality.
Homepage Android iOS

Sohu Video (搜狐视频)
Need to see Mad Men, Dexter, Homeland, Breaking Bad, or Big Bang Theory? Sohu licenses some of the US megahits that Chinese viewers really dig.
Homepage Android iOS

iQiyi (爱奇艺)
Baidu’s online video platform offers a number of films and TV shows not available on Sohu or Youku.
Homepage Android iOS

funshionFunshion (风行)
I’ve not used Funshion yet, but I hear good things, and they have Downton Abbey – good start.
Homepage Android iOS

Kascend (开迅视频)
Great for searching across multiple video platforms.
Homepage Android iOS

Flvshow (视频飞搜)
A good rule of thumb is to never download Android apps from outside the Android app store unless its directly from the official company website (like the Xiami links above), but this app came pre-installed on a nano PC I bought and its a pretty good aggregator of all the video sites, like Kascend. Download at your own risk – the link below is from phone manufacturer Meizu’s app store:

CNTV CBox (国网络电视台Cbox)
CNTV is CCTV’s online arm, and the CBox app lets you watch CCTV stations live – good for catching that NBA game on CCTV-5.
Homepage Android iOS


Find and reserve air and rail tickets, hotel rooms, and travel packages.
Homepage Android iOS

UMeTrip (航旅纵横)
Track flight departures, arrivals and delays at mainland China airports.
Homepage Android iOS

Yidao Yongche (易到用车)
Stuck in Guomao and have dinner plans near Sanlitun? Fees average about 2-3 times the cost of a cab, but this GPS-based pay-as-you-go car service is great for those times when you really need to get somewhere but can’t count on a taxi being available.
Homepage Android iOS


全国空气污染指数 (National Air Pollution Index)
Check the PM 2.5 levels before you leave the house so you know whether to pack your filter mask/gas mask/stay in and cry.
Homepage Android iOS

Conversion Apps
Americans in particular need help learning to think about distance and weight the way most humans do, so an app like ConvertPad for Android or Converter Plus for iOS.

Helpful Tips

  • Want 3G but don’t know which Chinese carrier to use? If you use AT&T or T-Mobile (WCDMA), you need China Unicom. If you use Verizon (EV-DO), you need China Telecom. You can only use China Mobile’s local flavor of 3G if you buy a phone from China Mobile, because its a homegrown standard that hasn’t caught on globally. 4G? Not here yet.
  • Don’t use HiMarket or other Chinese app store versions of apps on an Android device with a SIM card or your personal info.
  • Guess what? English names of apps, movies, TV shows, companies, etc. are either translated or phoneticized, so if you want to find Hobo with a Shotgun, pop the English into Baidu (Android and iOS apps available) and usually it’ll spit back the Chinese name (持枪流浪汉), and maybe even links to watch.


Blue Devils on the Silk Road

Ministry of Education Preliminarily Approved Since December 2012.

Ministry of Education Preliminarily Approved Since December 2012.

The Duke Chronicle has reported that Duke Kunshan University, a joint venture university between Duke University, Wuhan University, and the city of Kunshan (connected to nearby Suzhou and farther Shanghai by high-speed rail),  has stalled due to communication and funding problems, the fifth delay in three years since Duke made its first agreement with Kunshan authorities in 2010. Although construction had begun by mid-2011 (in 2009, Duke announced the campus would open in Fall 2011), Duke didn’t suspect anything was amiss until early 2012 and didn’t find out that the developer, Kunshan Science, Technology and Education Park, was hiring unskilled workers and lowballed cost projections, leading to corner-cutting. Now they aim for a Spring 2014 launch.

Much of the campus’ construction has been plagued by information failings and lost or simply ignored requests. Communication between contractors and designers—sometimes between 40 and 50 different groups—was poorly managed, and there was no Chinese government team specifically charged with managing K-STEP’s progress on DKU, said Duke project manager Dudley Willis.

Duke committed $5.5 million toward design and construction oversight for the project in 2010. The money pays for several private American-based firms, including Gensler, Syska Hennessy Group, Thornton Tomasetti and Jones Lange Lasalle. The latter firm currently has five on-site people—up from three in earlier years. The firms identified problems but did not have the authority to effect change. Although Duke officials visited the campus every two or three months, there was no representative on the ground in China consistently through the first few years of construction.

For all readers who have experience working on projects in China, I’ll give you a moment for the déjà vu to pass. Credit where credit is due, though, since Duke is sticking to its guns about not only facilities, but having unrestricted internet on campus. Construction apparently wasn’t the only cause of delay, since the Ministry of Education didn’t even give DKU preliminary approval until December 2012, and the quickest they expect final approval is the end of 2013, cutting it a bit close for a Spring 2014 first semester.

DKU will initially roll out a Master of Management Studies (MMS) from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and a Master of Science in Global Health through the Duke Global Health Institute for mainland students. Duke no doubt expects these top-shelf credentials in business and bio sciences, targeted at élite professional mainlanders, will make the entire operation profitable. It’s possible, however, that Duke’s biggest battle yet will be with its own faculty, who will submit course recommendations this month. Notice the precious usage of “unique” and “special” here:

In planning courses, the committee is on familiar ground in some respects but also will meet unique challenges as a consequence of the campus’ location in China, Robisheaux said. The committee will emphasize quality, aiming to make every course offered at DKU similar in difficulty and subject matter to those offered on the Durham campus. The Faculty Committee on Courses is following its usual procedures to approve courses while applying them to the special circumstance of DKU.

Two Duke faculty also raised concerns about the project and problems faced by other “Anglo-Saxon universities” (one of them is a German professor) in 2011, when the Duke Chronicle also urged administrators to “get the faculty on board.” It’s true that elite universities in Beijing and Shanghai enjoy much greater freedom of access to information, online and offline. I don’t know if Wuhan, though in the top-tier, has the clout of a Renmin, Peking, or Tsinghua, which boast the highest number of graduates in the 18th Communist Party Central Committee [ZH]. Duke was originally partnered with Shanghai Jiaotong University, which is higher in the lists than Wuhan both in Party bigshot alumni and overall school rankings.

Meanwhile, NYU Shanghai’s inaugural class of mainland and international undergraduates begins this fall. Their institutional partner is East China Normal University, which ranks way below Jiaotong or Wuhan, but then again the host city government is Shanghai/Pudong, which has a bit more weight to throw at these problems than Kunshan – not to mention that I bet NYU has a thriving MBA alumni program in Shanghai, whereas Duke alums are thin on the ground in Kunshan. Stanford, meanwhile, opened its program on Beijing University’s campus last spring. Duke took the hard road choosing to build an entire campus in a location comparatively deprived of wealthy elites – we’ll see if it pays off. It’ll be interesting to see, particularly with NYU and Duke’s mixed student bodies, how they navigate Chinese and American student’s differing expectations not only about curriculum, but for dormitories, student services, and off-campus activities. Which group’s norms will be the standard?

Passengers booted off of KLM plane

Anyone who has flown to or from China knows the drill.  Flight attendants on international carriers are often very…particular about following the safety guidelines.  Many upwardly mobile Chinese tend to believe that rules are for other people.  Hilarity often ensues.

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines confirmed Friday that one of its aircraft traveling from Beijing to Amsterdam was suspended from taking off after six Chinese passengers quarreled with flight attendants on Wednesday.

The Netherlands airline told the Global Times Friday that “there was an incident with Chinese passengers on board and that the aircraft returned to the gate,” but refused to reveal more details on the incident.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China was not available for comment by Friday due to the week-long Spring Festival holidays.

Six passengers, all in first class, were late for boarding and refused to wear their seat belts as well as turn off their mobile phones when the aircraft was preparing to take off from the Beijing Capital International Airport for Schiphol Airport, the Beijing-based The Mirror reported on Thursday.

A passenger on board surnamed Lin said in the report that he heard a fierce quarrel and a middle-aged female passenger speaking rudely and threatening to take photos and expose the photos online.

The report said the captain of the flight refused to take off until the passengers were taken away by airport security.

For some, the problem is unfamiliarity with the basic protocols of air travel.* And there’s always going to be a few people who, regardless of nationality, are just assholes.**  I flew back from Kunming this week and as soon as the wheels hit the tarmac in Beijing, the flight attendants were running around playing “whack-a-mole” with passengers who assumed that since the plane was not in a death spiral it was safe to get up and open the overhead bins.  I thought I saw one attendant actually tackle a dude.  And this wasn’t a language issue.  This was Hainan Airlines (one of my favorites) and Chinese passengers.

On Weibo, few are buying the “language barrier” excuse.  Most of the comments are deriding the KLM passengers who were removed from a plane, complaining that such boorish behavior is a loss of face for other Chinese travelers.  Others speculated that they must be members of a corrupt official family.  Still more lamented that money rarely seems to buy good manners among the 暴发户 baofahu, the Chinese term for the nouveau riche.

That said, in a lot of these cases language barriers do make the situation worse.  There are several unpleasant things that recur every year: my annual prostate exam, renewing my visa, and at least once every twelve months willingly placing myself in the surly and sometimes openly hostile embrace of United Airlines.

Say what you will about Chinese carriers, most of the staff speak a foreign language.  They might not speak it well, but they have functional communication skills in important topics like “coffee or tea?” “would you like a newspaper?” and “sit down, sir before your pink wheelie suitcase falls out of the bin and gives somebody a concussion.”   (Okay, I made the last one up but you get the idea.)

United Airlines? Chinese passengers are lucky if even two of the cabin crew speak their language.  Or any language other than English.  The route to and from Beijing must be a primo gig because the crew is always a senior group of hardened and jaded attendants.  You imagine if you met one out on the town, she’d be croaking through her menthol smoke about how she once made out with Neil Young.***

On my last flight on United, there were the usual shenanigans with people ignoring the rules.  I know this pisses off the attendants but the response was hardly a soft power win for the USA.  One attendant asked a passenger to put his seat back up.**** When he didn’t understand her, she — how predictable was this? — just talked louder and slower.  Then she started threatening him.  All the while the dude was looking around to see if anybody could tell him why the women with the horrible bottle dye job was screeching in his general direction.  Finally another passenger — a Laowai — translated for him and he complied.

So it goes both ways.  I have a hunch that the level of entitlement among passengers in the first class cabin on a flight from Beijing to Europe ranks somewhere between “God” and “The guy who has pictures of a naked Xi Jinping holding a goat.”  It’s the same impulse that causes drivers here to speed up when approaching a cross walk. (If pedestrians don’t want to be hit by a car, then why don’t they just stop being poor and buy their own car?) At the same time, international airlines, American carriers in particular, can do a better job about staffing their planes with more people who can communicate across cultural and language barriers.


* h/t @MissXQ

**Why can’t this be the first line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

*** YJ once found half of a worm in her salad on a United flight. When she showed it to the flight attendant the response was “that sometimes happens.” After fuming silently for a few minutes, YJ turns to me and says, “Don’t ever bitch to me about ‘Chinese service standards’ again.”

**** By the way, one of my ALL TIME pet peeves — the compulsive recliner. I can’t even speak rationally about this.

Chinese IT Startups: Get Rectified!

In my time following China’s IT sector, I’ve a lot of unfortunate English names for Chinese IT start-ups. TechInAsia a while back reported on a new carpooling site called, which is fine in Pinyin but given this list of real businesses I’ve seen over the years, I end up reading it with a jaundiced eye:

Thankfully, we here at are ready to help. With  our combined 15+ years in China IT, 20+ years in PR and marketing, and 50+ years in China, we can help you choose an English name for your company that won’t make your foreign investors snicker like third graders and then awkwardly try to avoid explaining the joke. Operators are standing by.

Playing the Meritocracy Game


A Shengguan Tu Board.

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs has dueling articles by Eric X. Li and Huang Yasheng titled “The Life of The Party” and “Democratize or Die”, respectively arguing for the CCP’s enlightened non-democratic meritocracy and its imminent destruction if it fails to implement democracy. Both have their fair points as well as their strawmen and sleight-of-hand, and others have effectively critiqued Li and his Canadian tag-team partner, Daniel A. Bell, for a flawed definition of “meritocracy.” While Bell and Li have avoided claiming this meritocratic process is the latest in a long historical tradition, the connection is implied when the mechanisms Li describes, from the national college entrance exams to the various level of bureaucratic rankings and evaluations, are so similar to the the imperial keju system, which Professor Mark Elliott argued in the New York Times was hardly “meritocratic”. He pointed out what mattered was family connections and money. In fact, this was so common it was a board game – Imperial China’s answer to Monopoly.

In a class on “Gaming in Libraries” (yup, that’s a thing now), I had to build a basic web game using MIT’s Scratch platform (most librarians aren’t programmers – yet). Years ago, in Richard Smith’s China’s Cultural Heritage, I had read about a Chinese board game called Shengguan Tu (升官圖), or “Promoting the Officials,” where players assume the of an aspiring mandarin, moving through the imperial examinations and through the bureaucracy, eventually rising to the “Da Nei” or inner sanctum Grand Secretariat in the imperial household. Along the way, players pay “donations” to higher ranked players in each department.

There are few English sources on Shengguan Tu, and almost no Chinese sources online (1). The best source I’ve found is Carole Morgan’s article on the game in Journal of the American Oriental Society in 2004 (subscription/paywall access), which draws on the work of gaming ethnographer Stewart Culin and a pamphlet published in Taiwan in the 1980s, whose author Cai Ce admitted he wasn’t clear on the rules either. Some highlights from her article (and Carole, drop me an email if you read this):

  • The game has existed in some form since the Tang Dynasty, when a precursor was invented by a Henan official named Li He 李郃.
  • There’s alot of variety, with versions alternating between square and round boards, tops and dice, and varying numbers of bureaus and positions.
  • Rules on movement and payment vary, but the dice/tops always have four possibilities: dé 德 (virtue), cái 才 (talent), gōng 功 (ability), and zāng 赃 (bribery, general skullduggery). Depending on your current post, any of these could be either beneficial or disastrous for your career.
  • Shengguan Tu and its ancestors, including Daoist versions where you climbed through the ranks of the heavenly bureaucracy, were gambling games.
  • One legend says Ji Yun, an editor of the Qing Dynasty encyclopedia Siku Quanshu, stayed up late gambling with his friends and showed up late to an appointment with a pissed-off Emperor Qianlong. To wiggle out of trouble, Ji told the emperor he was up late studying government administration and as proof showed him the game board. If that’s not true, it ought to be.

I picked up a cheap kid’s version of the game on Taobao and built the game below – it still has some bugs in the payment system, there aren’t clear rules on the amount of payment except once you’re in the Grand Secretariat, and the board I bought had typos – I think I caught all of them. Most of the title translations come from Charles O. Hucker’s Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China, and in a few places I fudged it. I wouldn’t call the online version fun (with some VC money I could make it awesome, I swear) but playing the real thing with family for pocket money isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon during the Chinese New Year holidays. It’s no mahjong, though.

Learn more about this project


  1. The now dead websites and, available in the Internet Archive, were among the few sites about the game. A Baidupedia entry has some information about the game as well.

Post Navigation