China

Democracy, Meritocracy and corruption

Watching the U.S. election and the Chinese transition of power, my friend John has come up with the second guest post to share with us on this blog.

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Democracy, Meritocracy and corruption.

Watching the elections in the U.S. and the transition of power in China, it crystallized the thought I had for a while about the current government structure in China and how they compared to the Western democracies.

My understanding of the U.S. government is rudimentary. My understanding of the Chinese government even less. So my observations and analysis are based on information that could be readily obtained from the West. Nevertheless, many experts have done a lot worse over the years. One in particular, Gordon Chang, have been predicting the coming collapse of China since 2001! In fact, he thought China would go down by 2011! Yet, in spite of his records, he still is publishing in Major publications.

I believe that the China model of selecting leaders could have the potential to be far superior to the way the West selects them.

Let me first lay out my understanding of how the Chinese government works. The Chinese government is based on patronage. Officials enter the system of government either recruited from top colleges due to their outstanding performances, or, equally likely, they enter government services by their heritage. Their parents were also communist officials. Once they are in the system, their boss decide where they will go. If they perform well(or if they also have connections from higher up), they rapidly move up. While there are many considerations for a candidate to move up, competency is a major component for moving up. It is based on performance like in a corporation.

So one can think of this as performance based with heavy legacy considerations. Even for those with legacy, rising to the top requires competence. There are many people with fairly ordinary background which were elevated to the top due to their performance. For example, Shen Yueyue, one of the handful of the “sixth generation” leaders, has the following bio from one of the U.S. government reports

“Although she began her career as a shop assistant, she later earned a degree in mathematics and rose to prominence as Vice-Secretary of the Communist Youth League in her native Ningbo. She served as Deputy Secretary and Secretary of the Zhejiang Youth League from 1986 to 1993 and attended the Central Party School in 1996. When she was appointed Vice-Secretary of the Anhui Party Committee in 2001, she was 44 years of age. Long affiliated with the CCYL, she is thought to be aligned with Hu Jintao’s Tuanpai faction.”

She was a shop keeper when she started out! and she may rise to the very top of the Chinese power structure. But she was not someone who was just a community organizer or a junior senator with little achievement to show for. She took various posts in the government and gave an outstanding performance. That is how she moved up. That is how all others moved up.

So, we have a system where some of the people are recruited and promoted based strictly on merit, others are brought in through family background, but at the end, still promoted based on merit as they compete with other princelings for a spot towards the top. The higher they climb, the  more competitive it gets, even if it were just all the princelings competing with each other. In fact, the princelings are not the only ones made it to the top.  If you read the bios, there are many who rise to the top without a pedigree. The current leader, Hu Jintao is one of those. Most likely, he got to the top based on his performance. Near the top, the people are not only capable, they are also seasoned at what they do as they gained various experience.

In the West, we have a case where a man is elected and re-elected to be the president of the United States, yet, by the account of Bill Clinton, someone who had served as a president himself, this person is an “amateur”. Further, he was picked not because of the achievements that he has made, but because he can talk, and a large swath of the population identifies with him.

I am not saying democracy is a failure. It has served this country well over the years. However, democracy succeeds and fails based on the quality of the constituents. Without a quality constituency, the structures of the government matters little. Just take a look at Liberia to see how democracy is working. Liberia was founded by some ex-slaves from the United States. Liberia and the U.S. share very similar governments structures, constitutions and even down to the design of their flags. Yet, unlike the U.S., Liberia is in shambles. The latest CIA report indicated that the per capita GDP is $500. One of the lowest in the world.

There are many arguments against the China meritocracy model. Some say that the endemic corruption represents a failure in their system. Some pointed to the incident with Bo Xilai and the discovery of billions belonging to the current leader Wen Jiaboa as proof that the very top is rotten. Others are says that the Chinese system is not inclusive, that they should promote more women and minorities( yes, there are minorities in China just as there are in the U.,S.). Still others say that the past represented the low hanging fruit and the performance of the past will never be repeated again.

To me, the saga of Bo Xilai shows that the system works. You see, after decades of explosive growth, there are huge dislocation amongst the Chinese today. Many are dissatisfied with their lives and long for a simpler life of the Mao era, especially for many who either have forgotten how bad those years were, or were too young to know first hand. So in a democracy, Bo would still be in power representing these people. It is his base of power. The corruption of the party members also create more people who are not happy. The fact that the system can purge him represent a triumph of the reform ideas over the group that wanted to go back to the past.

While it is true that it is easier to start off growth from a low base, it is never the less very tough to change a large system going in a different direction. The Chinese joined the WTO  in 2001. While there are many ways to shield competition and favor the state sector, it still represented a major jolt to the system. Many of the decrepit state firms were going to be put out of business. Millions would lose their jobs. Imagine Detroit, in the seventies and eighties, with the Japanese invasion in full swing, sign a treaty to open the city to more competition from Japan instead of smashing Hondas in front of reporters. China joining WTO was a far-sighted decision that entails a great deal of pain. Something that the West would have a hard time executing.  Many China hands pointed out the big problems that China is facing today. I would argue that the problems that China faced twenty years ago were much more severe compared to the ones they face today. The fact that they managed to navigate through so many crisis which might sink a lesser government says something about the quality of the people running the show there.

Finally, we come to the issue of corruption. There is no doubt in my mind that every single one of the leadership is on the take. However, there is corruption, then there is corruption. In China, things get done even in face of corruption. The right decisions are made by the leadership to move the country forward. Contrast this with the corruption in India, where the Common Wealth Games, an event that is a small fraction of the Olympics, was badly mishandled. In fact, many of the foreign contractors, who were brought in to help save the day, were not paid when they sent the bill. That is right, the government stiffed these guys. Something unimaginable either in the U.S. or in China. You can think of corruption as integral to the functioning of the Chinese system. In the private sector, the motivating force for someone to climb the corporate ladder is to be rewarded financially. If you are a stock boy at Waltmart, you are making $10 an hour. If you become a CEO of WaltMart, you make tens of millions a year. If you are highly capable and have a good shot at becoming the CEO of a company, making millions, why would you want to join the government? In China, apparently, you join the government because you can make a lot of money through corruption. This brings in more capable people who would otherwise stay in the private sector. As long as there is work to keep the corruption in check and a system to promote based on one’s performance, corruption should not impact progress. Each of the top leaders making a couple of billion here and there over a decade does not damage an economy which produced 11 Trillion a year.

In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew instituted a system of salaries to the people running for public office based on their private sector pay. If you are a surgeon and wanted to run for an office, the office will pay you what an average surgeon would make. This way, you are not losing out financially if you wanted to serve the country. I think that corruption in China serves a similar goal.

In summary, I think that the Chinese way of selecting their leaders potentially are far superior to the way the U.S. select ours. They promote more competent people and give them the operational experience to succeed as they arrive at the top. Much like a corporation. Where as in a democracy, the leaders are as good as the constituents.

Being in China

After almost 10 years of flowing around the world like a tiny seed of dandelion, I have recently come back to the places where I was born: China.

China, as we all know, is an odd place. It’s a country that could easily polarize the crowd: either you like it or hate it. Talking about modern China of course. The first impression that came into my mind was how the hell a country with such magnitude could transform itself so much in so little time. It is simply insane. The city I am staying now, Changsha, used to have a cozy little population of 1 million people (including all the peasants around the actual city), where you could still find lots of wooden houses connected by the narrow streets of granite, where people would go to work on their bicycles, and the tallest building was the railway station. But now, it is a massive jungle of 6 million souls with big-ass roads radiating into every corner of the city with heavy congestion, and high-rise buildings spawning everywhere. What else but a sheer torrential creation of wealth! Such epic speed would simply make the the German efforts in the 19th century look laughable. Needless to mention the marcoeconomic data, everything emerged out of nothing in just one single generation. I used to sneer at average Chinese’s petty obsession with money, accusing them of short-sighted and impetuous. But now it all makes sense. Situating onto such a flooding tide in an unprecedented velocity and scale, it is too hard not to focus on the money, on the grabbing, on the stuff you could touch right in front of you. That is the zeitgeist of China.

It seems Deng got it alright after all. He well knew that by teasing the basic instinct of mankind with a relatively free market the progress would be must faster than one could imagine. With couple thousand years of agrarian-oriented drilling, few Chinese got what it takes to out-stand the mass for his own comprehension of what’s on earth under the heaven. 99% of the people are bothered by their petty little business of how to get gold and lead the glamorous materialistic life like my neighbor, leaving the rest 1% caring about how to fool the 99% gullible for more gold. In other words, modern Chinese are die-hard collectivists who are credulous and timid yet care a lot about signalling within the crowd. Everybody here would only think of what’s right visible in front of their eyes, while lacking the interest to seek the ideas and concepts behind the pragmatic actions. So once we got a kick-ass leader who happened also to be a not-so-shallow thinker, introducing some heretic idea like communism, capitalism, commercialism, everyone else would just wholeheartedly flock to follow without really understanding what that means and the consequences would be. All they could see is communism suck because we are poor and hungry, free market rocks because I see my neighbor got rich and so can I. Essentially, I have to admit we are a people with very high IQ but sucks at philosophizing and conceptualizing reality. The Confucian drilling must have contributed to this particular ethnic trait of the Chinese. But this is also the biggest advantage we got in keeping everything in one piece still after such drastic societal changes. Sometimes I wonder if Whites could get some sense of pragmatism from the Chinese and the Chinese get some sense of speculative thinking from the White people, things could have been much smoother for both sides. But I am no Romanticist, and I read Brave New World. Shit’s gonna hit the fan anyway.

The good thing about this country is that there is full of opportunity for the gold-rush, provided that you got the guts and the wits. Life could be super sweet like the 19th American west combined with smartphones and automatic-geared automobiles. But it’s never going to be a place for novel epiphany and philosophy. If you don’t have it yet, you are never going to get it in China. And that also means the chances that you would find someone who would not despise you because you do not care about signaling, signaling, and signaling with money and networking are quite hopelessly slim. This reminds me of my jungle days in Laos. Just get the damn data, then I’d tap some sleazy backpacking girls at the Mekong river border. For those who want to make a fortunate, either just for the sake of being rich or other higher objectives, China is your place.

Chinese nepotism: grab the money and GO!

Sailer was mentioning in an early article how Indian elite class are using their own power and status to help their children. I wasn’t surprised at all. Nepotism comes with the notion of kinship, the basic sense of collectivism that has been shared since the dawn of civilization by nearly all groups of people. Protestantism was the only one weird enough to break this lock, which lays the foundation for the arrival of modern economics, where the notion of kinship has been completely tossed away and ridiculed. But in reality, nepotism survives and remains strong among most of the population in the world. The nepotism in China is probably even worse than in India.

It’s just another basic social instinct of people, like ethnocentrism. You can’t blame the parents who are using their own power and status to foster the growth of their blood. After all, this is the ultimate biological mission of living beings (to most of people). Were I or you in the similar situation, things would not have been much different. But most likely we are not in those positions. And most of us would just lament how unfair it is and how unjust those spoiled ones get it all. Look at Bo Guagua, that spoiled son of the dark lord Bo Xilai and his cold-blooded murderer wife, he belongs to the lucky ones who have it all. Attending the most prestigious boarding school in London, then Oxford, then couldn’t keep up with the study and have to “be arranged” to transfer to Harvard, it would be silly to listen to his dad’s claim that his baby boy got it all figured out by himself with some mysterious scholarship. Most of Bo’s corruption money would probably go through this little dude, even after Bo got flagged and jailed. He has a good life and will probably keep having a good life somewhere in the west, long after people forget about his pretentious dad in China.

Bo Guagua: "What was I studying again? Does it matter?"

But he is definitely no exception. I ran through a quick check on the family background of the nine comrades that are allegedly the current top decision-makers in China. The findings are so disheartening at first that I feel immediately so ashamed of the idea that I want to keep my Chinese passport. All of those daughters, sons, brothers, and sisters are either studying in the ivy league or working as the big bosses in many state-own enterprises while residing in Hong Kong, Australia, US, etc. Literally no exception (at least not much infiltrated in politics, thank the celestial!). Mao’s fatso grandson was only made a window-dressing general probably out of pity, but those dudes are without doubt using everything they could to help their kids get more money and power, mostly money. The pattern goes probably like this, just like any other Chinese family who have kids, they would send their kids to the west for the best education, with tens of tons of cash to support their hedonistic lifestyle, cars, women(men), and mansions. But the little difference to the major Chinese populace is that they don’t really care if their kids do well in school or not. Mostly they don’t anyway. The point is they would graduate, live there long enough to get a permanent residence if not the citizenship, and then go back to be parachuted on the top position of those gigantic Chinese state-own enterprises or set up a company that expands miraculously fast and successful. In either way, life is set and tuned to be good for those lucky ones.

To give you a concrete idea of what I am talking about. Let’s have a glimpse of the vivid life of Zhu Yunlai, the precious son of the then-premier of China, Zhu Rongji, supposedly the most uncorrupted and beloved Chinese political figure. Yunlai was born in 1957 and had been graduated from the then Meteorology College of Nanjing University with a B.Sc in atmospheric physics in 1981, at the age of 24. He worked as a scientist in the China Meteorological Administration probably until late 80s when he went to University of Wisconsin for a PhD in atmospheric physics. He probably really got the potential of being a good scientist as he did manage to obtain the solid PhD in 1994. Honestly if his story ended up like this I would have much more respect for his dad as an extremely benevolent and honest example of Chinese high profile. He might continue pursuing his academic career and probably would even make a lovable story in the field of atmospheric physics. But that was just my wishful thinking. At the age of 37, as a dude who had dedicated all his adulthood in the field of atmospheric physics, he all of sudden decided it was a damn waste of time and “talent” for him, or he was “decided”. One could only speculate. But what actually happened was as soon as he graduated he got enrolled into a “one-year” Master program in one of the best private Catholic university “DePaul University” in something that is completely different to what he knew before: “accounting“. Not to mention the astronomical figures of the tuition, how the hell did he get qualified to get enrolled in “accounting”, at the age of 37? This first seemed odd. But if you cross-checked his father’s track at that time and his later life encountering, you would find it was a damn belatedly right move that should have been there 15 years ago. Zhu Rongji was ascending like a rocket in early 90s along with the Shanghai clique. In 1993, he was already the damn money lord of all China, the super big boss of the People’s Bank of China. Thanks to Deng, 90’s China has much more intense economic connections to the west than the 80’s. That was probably when the high profiles got frisky in planning the lucrative futures for their kids. Zhu Yunlai must have been under tremendous pressure to give up his beloved science for something that could bring him a way better life (in terms of money of course). I guess the dude finally gave in to his dad just like his dad’s political rivals. Then after 1994 he went through a delicately planned Cinderella storyline: after graduating with a 1-year M.A in accounting he was immediately hired as an accountant by Arthur Andersen, one of those “Big Five” accounting firms in the world. Then after working for only one year he was deemed valuable enough for Credit Suisse to lure him away from Chicago as an “investment consultant”. His life in western multinational corporate might have been better if Beijing didn’t put up a ban on the family members of high profiles to work under foreign companies (guess those damn western capitalists were grabbing too much in China and touched someone’s nerve) in 1998.

Zhu Yunlai: "At least I got a real PhD in atmospheric physics!"

So at the age of 41, with 3 years of experience in the financial sector, a degree of 1-year M.A in accounting, one B.Sc and PhD in atmospheric physics and at least 8 years of experience in the field of atmospheric physics, he went back to Hong Kong and joined the China International Capital Corporation, a state-own financial monster that helps Chinese state-own enterprises’ overseas financing. In just 2 years he ascended to the top circle of the company and in 2004 he was made the CEO. The company enjoys a de-facto monopoly in helping mega state-own enterprises’ overseas initial public offering, and he was named the 15th most influential business leader in Asia by Forbes. He now presumably resides in Hong Kong and possess a green card, with shit loads of money that you and I will never know. So much for a potential atmospheric physicist.

I mean if even the most acclaimed Chinese political figure’s son is like this, there certainly would be no exceptions that their children would be so indulged with money, power and foreign residence, and turn unanimously into a series of spoiled parasites without their own character. Maybe some of those kids could turn out to be kind of a man their father was. But I doubt it’s ever gonna happen with their golden spoon (in contrast, Xi Jingpi was hit to the rock bottom because of his dad and made his way mostly by himself). Things could only get worse. At least Zhu Yunlai got some solid science. Look at Bo Guagua and his generation, all they got is party, women, and booze (as those new nobility gets to fly alone earlier and earlier in their age). Nepotism is not what I am worried about. I am mostly haunted by the reminiscence of the old Chinese tales of A Dou, and Er Shi Zu. That reminds me of a Chinese phrase: 溺愛 (drowning indulgence). I get the idea that their parents just wanna ensure them of endless money, but please not at the expense of the vital leadership of those important sectors of China.

A rendezvous with panache

The Slitty Eye is back. At least I would begin to log in my account and start to write something. This time, about Chinese Politics.

Chinese Politics has never been a glowing treasure chest that fascinates the west, for the people outside of that mysterious place know so little about what really is going on there. No one could figure out what is really going on beyond those emotionless high profile figures that occasionally visit some random countries or make some monotonic speeches. There are only loads of gossips, rumors, speculations, conspiracy theories that revolve around Zhongnanhai, . The Shanghai clique, the League clique, the Princelings… Those terms are possibly the way most exciting terms that are created for Chinese politics. Who cares about the forgetful names and faces in the central politburo anyway?

Long eroded by the show business mentality and leftist dogmas, the western media has never been an avid follower of Chinese politics except for its evil suppression on people’s freedom and equality, and of course, the catnip for western liberals: Tibet. Few really gives a damn on what it is going on with the real decision-makers and how they are trying so hard to put pieces together in this awfully big and messy country. The current government is probably the smartest of all time in managing China as far as I concern.

I often secretly relish the fact that we don’t have the western-style specious jokers in the politics, for I always think politics would be the most serious things on earth as it deals with literally everything. Clowns on the television blurring populist slogans and slurring on each other are not even those leftist ideological founders wished for in the first place.

Anyway, back to Chinese politics. A few days ago, a name that non-Chinese could barely pronounce, “Bo Xilai“, became a viral sensation that simply sweeps over major western media all of sudden. Described as “a charming, charismatic, and outspoken western-alike political figure” and labelled as a Chinese political supernova with his whooping socialist class-conflict campaign in the city of Chongqing, he was “unexpectedly” slashed and expelled from the politburo, stripped out of his official title, and put into a house arrest under a series of political and criminal investigation. Now that is a piece of classic politic news that the western media likes. The best part isn’t over yet. The linkage between Bo’s lawyer wife Gui Kailai and the mythic death of a Brit associated with M16 escalated public interest in Bo’s political death into an even higher level. Most of the articles I read in English about Bo share a sense of sympathy, with more focusing on his flamboyant personality and little on what his lousy politics. The subliminal message is loud and clear: Bo sounds just like our political entertainers, he was a great public entertainer, an outspoken dude with humanity, and most of all, he was trying to fight for the root class of Chongqing! It was a tragedy that he was doomed in the evil and authoritarian Chinese politics. For all they care, Bo could be the crack they always dream for, the Chinese “JFK”. And his wife is called as the Jackie Kennedy of China (though she was virtually unheard of among western media until the shit hits the fan, honestly I think she is more like a cold-blooded money sucking bitch). Bo could be China’s Yeltsin to take down the last major counter force of western liberalism.

I am Da Man!

Of course nobody gives a rat about his hedonistic son‘s hardcore clubbing in London and Beijing with Ferrari and women. Likewise, no one would make the effort to take a second look at how superficial and stupid his political campaigns are made. The dude was probably trying to create a noisy fuzz in Chongqing just to get himself back to Beijing (I bet he watched too much western TV soaps on politics). Thanks to his wife who probably murdered that English dude, he was finally ousted from Chinese politics. No more puppet charlatan in the politburo. This dude should have been born in Czech Republic, or Romania. He might make a big time there with his demagogic gimmicks.

No, I am really the man.

Once again I am glad that China holds probably one of the last bastions of the good old fashion politics. Politics should be about how the jobs are done, not some claptrap clamorous rendezvous with panache. You know who is cool? Hu Jintaois cool, for he has a sense of coolness in playing the political game instead of a drama show. Meritocracy in my view is far more superior than the idea of democracy. I am happy that no one calls his wife the Jackie Kennedy of China, no cone calls him charming and charismatic. The statesmen gotta be cool and smart, not emotional and entertaining. My last consolation about China.

Uighur pickpocket gang

This is, another untold story, of the modern China (I have previously addressed the other untold story: the Wenzhou people).

Any normal Chinese who lives in any of the major cities in China would tell you that such thing is an open secret, an inconvenient truth for the Chinese.

The Uighur are heartless enough to abduct their own kids of 5~10 years old, unanimously ethnically Uighur from the Southern Tarim Basin, smuggle them to the rest of China in the number of hundred and thousand, and force them to become the little pickpockets on the street. I remember 10 years ago while I was still in China the Uighur pickpocket gangs were already widely spread and deeply rooted all over big cities in China, stretching from the hard-core cold-winter Harbin to the subtropical-never-snow Guangzhou. The little kids are usually mistreated, physically abused by the adults so that they could timidly obey to the adults, who usually stay in the shadow to remote control their theft on the street. It’s  an open secret because nobody would want to be bothered with such sensitive issues. People usually chose to ignore them as they are clearly minority on the street, not to mention the pickpockets are usually little kids. Police would never want to make a big deal out of it either. The news media has never (in my memory, never) mentioned the existence of such problems in my city, Changsha, at that time, even though they were everywhere and everyone knew about them. To them, minority crime is always a hot issue that no one would like to touch. At the same time, it has been an incontrovertibly inconvenient truth in China for years. As far as I know, the polices did try to get the kids on the street. But since they were minorities and underage children, they would be soon freed. And the adults are usually off the hook because it’s difficult to get them with solid evidence. Every time the police put the kids on the train to Xinjiang those adults would simply bring them back to other provinces again. It goes on and on, never ending…

I have written an article about my personal experience with the Uighur pickpocket gang many years ago. As much as I am not a big fan of the rabbit-style fertility and religious fanaticism of the Muslim Uighur, I very much sympathize with the misfortune of those children. Today I heard a piece of very inspiring news: 1,332 Xinjiang children rescued from criminals. It seems that Chinese government is gaining confident in bringing the issue out of water to all and publicly admitting its existence and addressing it determinedly subsequently. I remember there was rumor back then that the highly organized Uighur pickpocket gang was somehow related to the Uighur separatists. The profit from such petty crimes must be very lucrative. Oh well, there is every reason to stop them from doing so. Enough said. Just one last suggestion. Instead of giving those kids back to the ignorant Uighur parents who have excessive kids to be abducted and little money to feed them, it’s better to put them for adoption. That’d be a good start to sinicize the Turks.

Only in Chinese: Shī Shì Shí Shī Shǐ

Today something really interesting came out of my random internet browsing. I have found a story written in classic Chinese extremely amusing, not because of its content but the way it was delivered. As we know, the Chinese language is based on written characters. The same character might have different pronunciations in different dialects and likewise different characters with different meanings might sound the same, even with the same tone. This makes it impossible to recognize an isolated Chinese character in a conversation without an actual context to indicate which meaning the speaker refers to. This story consists of characters all in one pronunciation (some tones vary) and makes good sense on the paper but sounds absolutely insane if you try to read it…. Here goes the interesting story:

<施氏食獅史>

“石室詩士施氏,嗜獅,誓食十獅。施氏時時適市視獅。十時,適十獅適市。是時,適施氏適市。氏視是十獅,恃矢勢,使是十獅逝世。氏拾是十獅屍,適石室。石室濕,氏使侍拭石室。石室拭,氏始試食是十獅。食時,始識是十獅,實十石獅屍。試釋是事。”

It’s not that difficult to understand this story, even though it’s written in classic Chinese. The story goes like this:

<The story of Mr.Shi eating lions>

“There was a poet named Mr.Shi who lives in a stone den. He liked to eat lions, and vowed to eat ten lions. Therefore Mr. Shi would usually visit the market to look for lions. At 10 o’clock exactly ten lions just arrived at the market. At that very moment, Mr.Shi shot a few arrows from his bow and killed those ten lions. Mr. Shi then brought the ten dead lions back to his stone den. Because the den might be too wet to store the lions. So he ordered his servant to clean and dry the den. After the den was cleaned, Mr.Shi started to try to eat those ten lions. However, only until he was eating the lions he found out that those ten dead lions were actually ten stone lions. Would you try to explain what was happening?”

The story line might sound a bit absurd but it’s clear and most of all, comprehensible. But if you try to read it out loud in Mandarin, well, I suggest you not to, because it would just sound like a lunatic murmuring nonsense. Here is what it would sound like if you read the story out loud (indicated in Pinyin romanization for reading):

<Shī Shì Shí Shī Shǐ>

“Shí Shì Shī Shì Shī Shì, Shì Shī, Shì Shí Shí Shī.Shì Shí Shí Shì Shì Shì Shī. Shí Shí, Shì Shí Shī Shì Shì. Shì Shí, Shì Shī Shì Shì Shì. Shì Shì Shì Shí Shī, Shì Shǐ Shì, Shǐ Shì Shí Shī Shì Shì. Shì Shí Shì Shí Shī Shī, Shì Shí Shì. Shí Shì Shī, Shì Shǐ Shì Shì Shí Shì. Shí Shì Shì, Shì Shǐ Shì Shí Shì Shí Shī. Shí Shí, Shǐ Shí Shì Shí Shī, Shí Shí Shí Shī Shī. Shì Shì Shì Shì.”

Seriously, this is NOT the story you should read out loud to other people. It’s better to read them on the paper.

This story was written by the Chinese linguist Zhao Yuanren (趙元任) in early 20th century to demonstrate that Chinese characters are especially designated for the Chinese language, whose status is irreplaceable. This was an attempt to rebut the ridiculous call for the romanization of Mandarin Chinese in order to abandon the use of Chinese characters at that time. The story serves the purpose well. If someone is seriously considering about learning the language still (assume you don’t get intimidated by this post), please start with the written Chinese first.

The untold story: Wenzhou people, Jews of China

Last night I was chattering with an Italian friend of mine. At some point we were joking about how seriously Chinese worship money nowadays. He then told me an amazing story about some Chinese merchants in Rome:

The story started with his mother involving in a small scale garment business a few years ago. She needed someone to prepare for some special buttons and sew up the label on the clothes. As it’s very small scale, it was hard to find anyone who is willing to do the work. But she somehow found this Chinese family in Rome, who agreed to work for her with a ridiculously cheap price. His mom’s business prospered soon and grew much bigger. The amount of work increased and that Chinese family were also upgrading for a much larger scale of work in association with his mom. A few months ago his mom paid a visit to that Chinese family in Rome. She found out that that family are in fact not doing the work at all. Instead, they outsource all the labor to another Chinese family, who just arrived in Italy and presumably don’t speak Italian (probably not even Mandarin). His mom was amazed at the business mindset of her Chinese partner and went to ask the new family about the price they were offered from the original family. To her surprise, the price they got was not even half the price the she pays to the original family! She was shocked and tried to ask them why they would accept such a low price. At this very moment her Chinese partner stopped her and whispered to her ear to tell her not to reveal the original price between them, for the new family do not even know about it at all!

There goes the story. Of course after the story I was pretending to laugh hard as well about how stingy and greedy those Chinese are. Luckily his mom does not have to directly compete with the Chinese producers (yet), otherwise the whole tone of this joke would be much much bitter. It is always a humiliation for me to hear from such absurd stories about the Chinese, especially from my friends. What’s more humiliating is that all those negative images of Chinese in Europe, are actually largely owing to one specific group of people from China: Wenzhou people.

For those who are not aware of the situation in Europe, the image of Chinese here has been largely corrupted by the invasion of Wenzhou people, especially in the Southern Europe where the regulation and law enforcement are loose (e.g. Spain, Italy, even Romania…). Though lack of official statistics about the number of Wenzhou people in Europe compared to the amount of Chinese in Europe in general, everywhere I go in Europe I could easily spot them on the street and hear about the local complaints about “those Chinese” (UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Spain ….). The both Chinese families in this story, are exactly from this group as well. It is always a big headache for me to deal with those lowly image they left for the Chinese in general.

I must admit normal Chinese is probably not much more decent either. but as soon as I realize most of negative images of the Chinese stem from those stingy gold diggers, I just couldn’t hold myself being neutral on this one.

Most of those Wenzhou people are not directly from the Wenzhou city but numerous counties and villages around Wenzhou. The place is at the southeastern coast of China,  traditionally an important seaport in the imperial China era. Chinese are the most agricultural-drilled people in the world, thus have the strongest affiliation to the land we settle down. The Wenzhou people, on the contrary, live on the most barren and hilly land off the coast, have little agricultural activities and share the least sense of land affiliation (They are the most dedicated merchants in China, so dedicated that we call them copper/money-stinky). They were driven to become full-time traders in and out of China. When mainland China just allowed the private ownership in early 1980s, they were already everywhere in China, blatantly selling counterfeit products of low quality. Their pure thirst for money without ethics left them a very notorious reputation all over China. At some point the term “Wenzhou product” literally equals to “fake and low-quality product” in every city in China. The image of Wenzhou people in China is equivalent to the Merchant of Venice under Shakespeare’s quill. Actually they are called as “the Jews of the Orient” by some westerners. Regardless of others’ disdain, they wouldn’t really care and many of them soon became the first people to get rich in China. Nowadays Wenzhou people in China are always associated with major negative social phenomenon such as real estate bubbles, garlic mania, Puer tea mania in the country. Obnoxious opportunists, that is how a normal Chinese would think of about Wenzhou people.

Apparently when they were exploiting every marketplace within China, their cousins already stared westward at Europe, the affluent Europe, as the place full of gold for them to dig in. Together with the Fujian people, Wenzhou region has one of the highest illegal emigration rate in China. They’d borrow a few thousand euro from all relatives to pay the smuggler to hide underneath the filthy cargo tank for months to reach Europe. Speaking no local language, not even Mandarin, they know they have cousins there who made big money; and that’s all they care.

Anyway, I am not deliberately dissing the Wenzhou people, nor I am exaggerating their deeds. Those people are THE MOST clannish people I’ve seen in China. They stick everything inside the big family, even for financing (they are famous in China for they’d rather turn to family members for financing than the actual bank). They are also the most pious followers in Chinese money worship cult. Sure they are, after all, harmless to the locals as they don’t steal, don’t rob, don’t rape, and don’t suck the welfare (maybe to local small business owners they are quite damaging). But to me, they trashed the image of China even before a European could meet an actual Chinese for a conversation. What they stand for, is exactly all that I loathe about the stereotype of a modern Chinese, money worshiping, unethical, impetuous, no respect for intellectual culture and manners. And that is inexcusably low.