Wednesday, January 19, 2011

American Architects Embrace China Market

Contributed by Siyu Wang

According to a recent New York Times article, American architects are rapidly expanding their business in China, which mainly constitutes projects on high-end homes and fancy skyscrapers. As the country experiences rapid development and more Chinese billionaires emerge with handfuls of spare money, China is increasing in its demand for not only substantial mansions but also stylish office buildings. At the moment where Americans become more conservative in spending, architects facing harder client relationships domestically choose to enter the unsaturated market across the globe, and find the environment surprisingly welcoming. With a desire for western aesthetic designs and feeling unconfident of the work of architectural firms within the country, the rich Chinese individuals and corporations are extremely collaborative and appreciate the projects American architects are carrying out.

Is this seeming prosperity a true good sign in China? Whereas rich people are seeking luxurious houses to live in, the constantly rising housing price is depriving millions of middle-class and poor households of the basic needs for shelter. From this perspective, the boost in high-end housing market seems more like a symptom associated with an exacerbation of the disparity between rich and poor. While developed cities in China are duplicating the image of Dubai, there is no doubt that vast rural areas remain undeveloped as well as lacking the most basic infrastructures. In terms of its macro goal and the responsibility of the government, the country does have to zero in on providing affordable houses for low-income families.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

China Bans Skype

Contributed by James (Yuqi) Liu

In the last month of 2010, the Chinese government unexpectedly announced Skype illegal in China. Skype Limited is the Luxemburg-based company that develops and operates the VoIP software Skype, allowing users to make computer-to-computer phone and video calls, and most importantly, computer-to-land line calls.

Since entering the Chinese market in 2007, Skype has maintained a fairly good relationship with the government. For example, it offered to filter out the sensitive words within its chat function as the government intended. It was partly because of this fact that when the Chinese government drove out Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and in the first half of 2010, Google. Skype survived.

However, things changed. Starting from 2000, IP phones started to get in the market, which significantly harmed the potential profitability of the monopolistic telecom firm in China then: China Telecom. Chinese government soon announced IP phones illegal, even after the split of China Telecom into four oligarchic firms. Despite the government’s regulation, many family simply ignored the laws and installed IP phones, with per minute cost only 5%-10% that of normal phones.

Skype, on the other hand, didn’t begin their business in China as IP phone provider. Most users simply used the online video call function to make phone calls with relatives abroad. But it’s convenient IP call function soon attracted the attentions of IP phone providers. They assigned their users a Skype phone number and install an IP phone for them. Then, users could enjoy the cheap Skype phone calls.

Observing the increasingly stronger IP phone market, the only thing left for the government to do it to ban computer-to-land phone calls offered by Skype. Computer-to-computer calls will still be available, but computer-to-land calls will be completely illegal, with the only previously legal Skype phone illegalized.

Of course, there is still a long way to go if the government wants to drive out IP phones, considering the strength of the underground market and difficulty in detecting the use of Skype or other IP phones. After all, the increasingly lower telephone fee has made the Chinese government move against the tide.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Chinese farmer got life for evading road toll

Then the judges got suspended. (What??)

In this legal mystery reminiscent of contemporary black-humor Chinese satirical cinema, Shi Junfeng of Henan Province put on a fake military plate on his truck and evaded over 500,000 USD worth of road toll (military vehicles are exempt from tolls). So he got a fine, and... life imprisonment.

Then, in a dramatic turn of events, his brother showed up with a confession: that he was the mastermind behind all this, and that Shi Junfeng had taken the blame for him. Never dreaming he'd get such a heavy sentence, the brother - here's the best part - had already bribed the police and expected to welcome his brother back home shortly.

With public outcry too loud to stifle - (1) exorbitant tolls (2) murder and rape get less - the judges involved (2 of them, plus a clerk) got suspended "for failing properly to investigate the case".

Next time we'd better not complain when we cross those bridges. To be able to return to and live in the bay is a privilege.

Contributed by Ying Jiang
Sources: NYtimes, BBC news

The Clash of the Titans

Contributed by Ian Chan

Ahead of his official visit to Washington, D.C. tomorrow, President Hu Jintao of the People's Republic of China shed some light on the views of the ruling Communist Party in a series of answers to submitted questions by the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. His answers were broadly compromising and conciliatory, but also reflected a growing assertiveness and alternate opinion that will likely clash with the U.S. position.

Relations between the two biggest economies of the world have been rough in 2010. China's reluctance to rein in North Korea's increasingly erratic and militant regime; U.S. sale of arms to Taiwan; China's unwillingness to revalue the Yuan, its domestic currency; and the second round of quantitative easing initiated by the Federal Reserve. It is on this economic front that the real clash is likely to happen between the leaders in their closed-door talks in the coming week, but other issues such as human rights and political reform will probably be raised in private.

China's argument against the Fed's actions reflects a general sentiment among the developing world that the inflationary efforts by the central bank is artificially devaluing the U.S. dollar and exporting inflation to other countries, often developing ones, that are experiencing increased money flows. The American argument against China's currency policy (or manipulation) points toward the cheapness of its exports that distort international trade surpluses and deficits. The U.S. economy, desperately in need of a boost, is trying to double its exports in the near future but will be hard pressed if cheap Chinese goods continue to flood the market. Many economists attribute China's increasing inflationary pressures on the undervalued currency.

But the real meat in President Hu's comments come in his not so subtle remarks against the international financial and currency system. "The current international currency system is the product of the past," he said, directly attacking the Dollar-dominated system that the world currently operates in and which the PRC government is an active participant. China's central bank is the largest holder of U.S. Treasury bonds that are all denominated in the Dollar. Moreover, President Hu highlighted the success of recent moves to allow Yuan trading in offshore sites such as Hong Kong and stated his hope that the Yuan will one day be an international reserve currency.

Whatever the rhetoric is from China, it is unlikely that there will be a substantial move by the central bank to try to replace the Dollar with the Yuan as the global currency. China itself is too much involved with the success and stability of the Dollar to want to change the system as it is. Moreover, the Yuan is not a freely traded currency, and only available for international settlement through Hong Kong, though a vibrant market, is limited in scope. Until China's currency is freely traded on the market and available for international transactions, there is little chance that either the central bank will pursue expansion, or investors/traders will be interested in trading in Yuan. The Dollar dominated system looks like it will stay for the foreseeable future.

Since President Obama's conciliatory tone toward China, coupled with a humbling visit in 2009, has produced little warming of relations or change of policy, many political pundits and politicians on both sides of the aisle have been clamoring for the President to confront China on more fronts directly. The issue of human rights and democracy has been noticeably missing in the President's statements concerning China, and unlike the Clintoninan era where American officials often lectured their Chinese counterparts on economic and social policy, officials these days often avoid confrontational remarks and aim to compromise on all fronts. Given the President's need for a public boost and broadly intepreting China's reluctance to change, it may be Obama's best shot if he is seen in public to emphasis human rights and democracy and press the Chinese President for substantive reforms in the political system. Reformers, who seem to be led by the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, have been noticeably silenced in the past year on the issues of reform, as hardliners including President Hu and the military have dominated public appearances and the media. Although the President's attitude and statements are unlikely to change much at the top, it may be seen by activists on both sides of the Pacific as a rally to action and progress.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

China's Military: More Control and More of a Role?

Contributed by Autumn Carter

In a Time article last week, Fareed Zakaria took a look back at the tensing of U.S.-China relations over the past few years. His piece focused on the political relations between the two current regimes and used the angle to frame the nations' bilateral military relations.

Zakaria asserted,
"Over the past two years, China has dealt with the Obama Administration in a puzzling manner. Barack Obama came into office talking about the importance of great-power relationships and the supreme importance of strategic ties with China. He traveled to China and marked the trip by accommodating the Chinese in various symbolic ways. Despite all this, China has been distinctly combative toward Obama."
While it is true that President Obama did make official statements about building the relationship between the U.S. and China, and while he did make a major visit to China early on in his term, his administration's approach to China has also been muddled with contradictory words and actions. In the same breath, administration officials could be heard assuring the Chinese that buying the dollar was not a gamble but also supporting the imposition of broad tariffs on Chinese imports into America. One can certainly argue that there have been confusing diplomatic gestures on both sides of the ocean.

But ultimately, Zakaria does not really seem to doubt that the CCP is moving more towards political cooperation with the U.S. and away from hostility towards the U.S. Zakaria does pose the question of whether the Chinese military has that same stance towards the U.S. military. He argues that as the Chinese military has become a stronger player within China, its influence may begin to bleed more into relations with the U.S. And the major fear put forth is that the CCP might be in the process of loosing control of the military, and he for support he offered the following, "During his recent trip to China, when meeting with President Hu Jintao, Gates mentioned the Chinese military's test of its new stealth fighter. Hu appeared not to know about the test flight."

It would be a leap to argue that this one instance proves that President Hu's administration is losing control of its geopolitical relations. But there is definitely a question of what role China's military will play in shaping the tone of discourse between China and the U.S. as both nations consider military implications in their short- and long-term bilateral strategies.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Case for Western and "Chinese" Upbringing

Contributed by Ian Chan

In a recent controversial column by Amy Chua in the Wall Street Journal, the author laid out the case for a particular brand of parenting she terms the "Chinese" way. The term Chinese here refers not to the particular geographic location of modern day China, nor the ethnicity of the Chinese people, but of a mindset of parenthood that contains a long laundry list of "don't"s and a continuous measure of success in very narrow terms. For example, she listed her ability to restrain her children from sleepovers, participating in plays, and never taking anything but an A as an acceptable grade as evidence of the success of her children.

While I was brought up and still live in a household that probably resembles that of Ms. Chua, I nevertheless was affected equally by four years of high school education in a New England Prep School that emphasized liberal education philosophies and advanced individualism. And now I am at Stanford, the process of educating me in the "Western" way has continued and my development has been, is, and always will be a constant struggle between these two schools of parenting.

I personally think that, without bias of course, that my blend of education has given me the best opportunities and achievements that not only I am proud of, but my family is proud of and society recognizes. It is not merely by chance that I have landed myself multiple awards following my matriculating at Choate Rosemary Hall and graduating with honors, and it is definitely not by chance that I have been elected, selected, and chosen to lead many activities here at Stanford.

Before one criticizes me for my self-laudatory remarks, consider the reasons I believe I succeeded and the points I agree and disagree with Ms. Chua. First, I definitely agree that a strict regiment of work and discipline is vitally important for a child's development. As a student going through the rigorous rote memorization educational system in Hong Kong, every day was planned out for me in accordance to the classes I needed to face (a good dozen at any one time) and excel in them. If I was showing weakness in a particular area, I was not given a choice to drop but to dig deeper and master what I did not know. Failure was an option, yes, but only after all resources have been utilized and I have tried my absolute hardest. This resilient attitude has brought me many wonders and have led me through more than one trough in my life where I probably would have given up. Looking around at my classmates who have been brought up in the most permissive households, too often I see a self-defeatist attitude that adversity is merely evidence of inadequacy and therefore forfeit is the only option. Although I believe we are all born with different talents and expertise, I also believe that without trying the hardest and utilizing all resources at my disposal, I will merely be beating down myself instead of bravely confronting tasks and knowledge that many before me have easily mastered.

Where I do disagree with Ms. Chua is the way she imposed her own likes and dislikes in the activities and lives of her children. My parents were strict, but they always asked my opinion and preference in determining my priorities. Once I chose my priorities, the same regiment that Ms. Chua applied affected me, but these were priorities that either I enjoyed or deemed necessary for success. A combination of input from the children and external pressure from the parents seem to be the best mode of success in this case. Moreover, I question the motive of the likes of Ms. Chua, who often pride themselves in their rearing of children and claim "bragging rights" in social gatherings. At the end of the day, who's education are we looking after? Who's life is being altered forever?

To answer the above two questions my "Western" education has definitely influenced my thought. Although I believe I have a responsibility to respect my parents and take care of them in their old age (note even this point differs from the majority of Americans who believe that once children leave a household they have little to do with the parents), my parents and I also agree that it is my life that they are investing in and that I should be ultimately responsible for the decisions and successes. Being more than 8,000 miles away from my parents, their reach into my academic, extracurricular, and personal life was limited. Their recognition of this fact led to their belief that their best shot at producing a successful son was to instill in him a sense of responsibility and thirst for success that was intrinsic and beyond eternal pressures. Yes I would be rewarded with the occasional gadget that I always wanted if I did exceptionally well, but no my priorities were never questioned so long as I tried my hardest (often streaming, kicking, bleeding, and coughing along the way), or I did well in them. The liberal education of the New England Prep school culture emphasized individual action and decision. Choose your own curriculum, develop your own senior thesis, start your own community service project, all of these were imperatives that were encouraged and facilitated.

In the new age of of the individual when a person armed with a computer and Internet access can start a company, wreck a country, or date someone online, the traditional perimeters of success and measurable achievement are breaking down. One who is not responsible for his own actions and success is surely not going to succeed anymore. The old elite that prized family privileges and small-circle gatherings is falling apart as a new generation of modern citizens with a suave knowledge of new technology demand greater autonomy.

If China, and the "Chinese" mothers that inevitably populate the country and drive its youth not recognize that the 21st century is the century of the individual where the public sector and private sector fall away to a new wave of entrepreneurs and original thought, then China's rise will be limited and temporary. But it seems that many Chinese parents do recognize this fact, as the halls of top-tier high schools, universities in the U.S. and the U.K. are increasingly filled by eager, ambitious students from the mainland ready to embrace an alternative worldview. One hope is that more forums such as FACES can continue to facilitate discussion and breed a new generation of leaders that emphasize individualism and interdependence to create a better world for all.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A review of perspectives on science and research in China

Contributed by Ying Jiang

Many have been impressed by the pace of technology-industrialization in China. The US is especially worried about China's development of clean energy-related fields and superior student test scores in science and math (albeit in just the relatively advanced coastal city of Shanghai). However, the true might of China as a knowledge and technology creator has also been repeatedly called into question, owing to its reputation for lacking a healthy and fair environment for both fundamental research and product-forming processes.

In the latter aspect, Westerners are familiar with the controversial state of affairs regarding intellectual property. As for basic scientific research, unethical behavior too pervades. Scientific fraud committed includes data fabrication, falsification, plagiarism (and splitting of results into different reports, an act that, while not unethical strictly speaking, increases the number of publication at the cost of reducing the scholarly impact, if not integrity, of the researched work). A debate in the Times early this year presented a variety of opinions on R&D in China, ranging from the deeply critical (corruptive, stifling ambience) to the optimistic (support for R&D comes from the top). As the year proceeded, a case of nationwide cheating committed by Zhang Wuben, a nutrition therapist with fraudulent credentials, was massive enough to catch the attention of foreign media. The Times re-opened the topic of Chinese fraud by presenting statistics and examples, and alarming quotes from overseas Chinese students who take fraud to be a social necessity.

It is a known view that those at the policy level could be ultimately responsible for the irresponsible and soul-wrecking activities of scholars. Even if one had respected the scientific spirit and wanted to keep his integrity, he couldn't do so without battling issues to do with survival. This opinion finds proof recently in a Science editorial co-authored by Yigong Shi and Yi Rao The authors describe with candor and denounced with urgency the demeriting manner in which the top bureaucratic agencies assign scientific funding to scientists who gain preferential status through personal relationship building. The article did not hint the existence of other rumored, more sordid aspects of the process, for example, of bureaucrats making the recommendation taking a fraction of the grant money. Should cases of corruption be severe in extent or even exist, saving the scientific culture of China may be tougher yet.

What the Times called an integrity problem the journalist Sam Geall, in an earlier article in the New Humanist, described with more insight and with reference to more fundamental issues concerning the psyche of the Chinese scientific community (or of Chinese people on certain levels): "repeatedly stymied by ideology, superstition, bureaucratic thinking and fear of dissent". With this, one delves into the different realm of knowledge known as the Chinese (or Asian to some great extent) work culture, and whether it's antithetical to scientific achievements - a subject that has surfaced to scrutiny lately. The Asian culture is generally characterized as collectivistic with the stress of an individual to his superiors being an important component of his ties to the society. This results in manners of knowledge-intake - rote-learning, following known texts and procedures - that is undesirable for creative thinking and excellence. The general stress of interpersonal ties in a collectivistic society can also be used to explain intellectual cronyism, a practice seemingly in fundamental contrast to the employment of the scientific method (based on impersonal observation and deduction).

The question is, is there hope? In another Science article on the Asian R&D scene, the authors proposed "8 recommendations" which constitute general policy and education reforms. In general, they believe a new wave of "enlightened politicians and scientific leadership" would be the key to truly start nurturing great scientific talents and institutes in Asia (China of course included). Till then, the West may still hold its pride for a while for being the founder and upholder of the spirit of modern science.

Sources: NYTimes, The New Yorker, The New Humanist, Science