Friday, November 19, 2010

Qihan Li: Tech Watch

Starting from this week’s column, I will introduce up and coming or already popular but somewhat unknown websites and companies from China and America with similar backgrounds or business models to you, the readers, so that you will have a better grasp of the latest trends.  For this week, I will introduce the flash-deal websites that sell products at discounted prices for a short period of time. Companies with such business models like Livingsocial and Vipshop have exploded in both China and America over the past few years and both companies represent a larger trend in their respective nations.

There have been serious rumors around the web that Amazon will invest 100 million dollars in LivingSocial to expand their share of the special-deals and coupons market.  LivingSocial primarily focuses on discounted experiences for bars, salons, and various forms of entertainment in the local area, and the discounts range from 50-80%.  You have probably seen its applications like Visual Bookshelf on Facebook. Due to the economies of scale, it has rapidly expanded to nearly 90 markets and it directly works with local businesses.  They get a share of the businesses’ revenues, and the discounts indirectly advertise the business. Despite fierce competition from large websites like Groupon as well as another 180 smaller websites, LivingSocial has been projected to rapidly expand in America.

In China, one-deal-a-day websites are generally not as popular as websites that combine the traditional e-commerce model with limited time and huge discounts.  One example is Vipshop, which recently raised 20 million dollars from venture capital firms DCM and Sequoia.  Vipshop sells middle-tier brand-name clothes and accessories to cities in China and directly works with both international and domestic retailers to increase the discounts.  What separates it apart from competitors may be its wide variety of products and its secured and trustworthy retail chain. Chinese customers always have to worry about fake products, but Vipshop generally eliminates such concerns with its 7-day return policy and the guarantee of China United Insurance. Vipshop has set its eyes on the growing middle-class to increase its sales and offers valuable opportunities to foreign brands to enter the Chinese market. However, with the flash-sale market rapidly expanding, Vipshop has to continue to innovate to stay at the forefront.

Sources: Sina, Venturebeat, Wall Street Journal, Wikipedia. 

Sunday, November 14, 2010

U.S., China, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Contributed by Ian Chan

President Obama's trip to Asia following the recent midterm elections highlighted the likelihood that the remaining two years of Obama's current term of office may be dominated by foreign policy as he wrestles domestically with a divided Congress. Many have labeled Obama the so-called "Pacific" President, with his Indonesian upbringing and birth in Hawaii, but the label also extends beyond the biography of the President. The label signals an emphasis in U.S. policy toward Asia and away from its traditional focus in Europe and more recently in the Middle East. Sure, European nations will still remain allies and the enormous stake the U.S. has in the Middle East has not diminished, but Obama and his Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have signalled clearly their intention to heavily engage emerging Asian nations as their economic and geopolitical power rises in the 21st century.

The emphasis on Asia has much to do with the "rise of the rest", as Fareed Zakaria put it in his book "The Post-American World", the U.S. not only should want to, but needs to change its attitude toward emerging markets and their national governments as the post-WWII Washington consensus has slowly disintegrated. In particular, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will play a vital role in the ways the U.S. can seek to further its interests in the region without directly clashing with China. ASEAN is mainly an economic forum that facilitates trade and dialogue between member countries, and as a bloc it often negotiates with bigger economies such as China, Japan, South Korea, and the U.S. If the U.S. chooses to be more engaged and pull ASEAN closer, it can act as a powerful check against a rising China that would no doubt seek to dominate the region. It is in ASEAN's interest to maintain their non-aligned status and play the powers off each other in order to get the best deal.

This strategy by ASEAN is reminiscent of the world before 1989. Then, countries such as India were famous in their non-alignment to either the Soviet Union or the United States, despite heavy lobbying, and in turn India was able to reap benefits from both blocs. This mindset is in play in a country no other than Obama's childhood home, Indonesia. A few days before Obama's visit, a high-level Chinese delegation concluded a massive deal with the Indonesian government to invest in badly needed infrastructure. The timing of the package, and the substance of it, clearly shows that while Indonesia is clearly not a Chinese ally or puppet, it sees the benefit of Chinese economic assistance and the void that creates for the U.S. Obama's response was not to match the Chinese package, but to strengthen ties with the Indonesian people by recalling childhood memories, interacting with local culture, and using Indonesian phrases in his speeches. His charm and warmness; however, may not be enough to pull ASEAN countries firmly into the American fold in the new multilateral world. Will this new kind of diplomacy kick off a new Cold War? At this moment, there is no clear sign that the world is turning back to a biploar world, but rather increasingly a multi-polar world where different countries all have an opinion and seek to compromise on all issues. The G-20 is a powerful example of this new way of doing business, and it seems that President Obama, given his character and policy preferences, is well suited for this new world order.

Sources: New York Times, "The Post-American World" by Fareed Zakaria

Will Gap (the fashion brand) succeed in China?

Contributed by Ying Jiang

According to current opinions the answer seems to be no. The reasons come down to the culture and psychology of Chinese fashion consumers: that they are (1) brand and (2) fashion conscious. Therefore foreign luxury brands or middle-range brands who marketted their products as being high-end in China do well (think LV and Haagen Dazs respectively). Lower price-tiered brands, both foreign and local (think H&M and Metersbonwe respectively), that have successfully projected a forward fashion image, also win consumers. Gap, with a moderately known name but non-too-edgy design with relatively expensive prices, is predicted to have a questionable future in China.

Sources: Chinalawblog, Forbes

Monday, November 8, 2010

Obama's Endorsement of India for the UN Security Council & China

Contributed by Belinda Tang 

Obama's recent endorsement of India may be based, at least publicly, in arguments about the growing importance of India in the global arena, but is also clear that the decision has large implications on China, as well, and is at least partly based in trying to send some sort of message to China. China has already expressed many recent doubts about the growing power of other Asian nations and how the US government plans on treating them.

Further, China has always had particularly contentious relations with India because of previous border and power disputes, so this move will be viewed particularly badly by the Chinese government. Combined with the recent endorsement of Japan, too, to join the Security Council, it is not unlikely that Chinese officials view these recommendations and endorsements as a power play against the Chinese government. China obviously views it as important to keep a higher balance of power compared to its other Asian counterparts, and these actions are a hazard towards that goal.

Personally, I understand the need for Obama to make decisions in the best interests of the United States, and if he views the decision to endorse India as one that will help the US, then so be it.  I believe there are certainly going to be repercussions with how China will react to this, however, and Obama should have weighed the consequences of his action more carefully before handing such a strong endorsement. At the point where many experts were saying they were very surprised with the endorsement, one should consider the importance of it, in the first place, and whether it was worth sacrificing some element of Chinese-American relations for.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Conversation with His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Contributed by Ian Chan

It’s not every day that you get to shake the hand of a Nobel Peace Prize winner and be padded down by CIA agents. One such day for me was Thursday, October 22nd, 2010. I had given up going to a Model UN conference to Yale with my new team to attend this event, and I have not regretted it for one second. Meeting the Dalai Lama was and will remain one of the most memorable experiences in my life.

It all started with a very strict security checkpoint in an obscure hotel off El Camino Real. Only 4 people were allowed into the sign-in at any one time, and there were men in suits and sunglasses everywhere staring at people, checking bags and jackets. After I sat down in the courtyard, I saw multiple agents standing beside windows of hotel rooms looking down into the courtyard with binoculars. There was a tense murmur among the crowd as no one really knew what to expect nor did they really know when the Dalai Lama was coming. We were all instructed to keep the event on the down low and to arrive at the premise two hours early. I sat with a group of Stanford students and around me I saw not only students of all years, but also activists distributing information packets about Tibet, journalists, academics from Stanford and the UCs, and Tibetan-Americans. The majority of students were all from mainland China and coming from Hong Kong, it was amusing to see the look of mixed emotions on their face. Some were clearly apprehensive about being seen present at an event where the Dalai Lama is attending. Others were clearly excited to be able to meet a stalwart of peace and dialogue in close quarters. And yet others just had a look of indifference or confusion about them. My guess is that most of these students probably grew up only hearing one side of the story about Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and that story was either incomplete or unsatisfying.

Suddenly sirens burst out and we hear a motorcade pull in a fast pace. After a long silence came His Holiness, with a gait that was at moments grave and serious and at others light and relaxed. He seemed like a grandpa who was clearly physically limited but was bursting with positive energy and conversation. He spoke in careful English to the crowd and beckoned them to move closer to the podium. He greeted the guests in Mandarin, English, and Tibetan. He then proceeded to talk about compassion, international understanding, experiences he had meeting different personalities, and his views on life and interaction. The conflict between his government-in-exile and the Community Party was not mentioned with any particular specifics but he stressed dialogue and willingness to talk as the most important elements in any interactions.

The most fascinating part about meeting His Holiness was not the content of his speech, which of course was respectable and well delivered, but the way he interacted with people and the manner in which he spoke. He joked a great deal both in his greetings and his in answers to questions, and he generally smiled whenever he was speaking. Only when he was in contemplation or listening to a translation would he stop smiling, but that would be a fleeting second. For a man who has been put under massive ridicule and official persecution for most of his lifetime His Holiness was extremely optimistic and energetic about life. Any lesser being would sink into depression or at least adopt a more cynical view on life. The Dalai Lama exhibited none of these emotions. His answers to questions were straightforward and honest. Often he would answer right after the question is asked without much self-censoring, and this straightforwardness gave the audience an impression of a frank and honest man, not fearing what he says is wrong but believing in everything he says. I am not saying that I take everything he says as the established law of the land, but his frankness makes hiding anything harder undoubtedly. And when he didn’t know something, such as when someone asked him how he thought the new leadership in Beijing would deal with him and the Tibet issue, he flatly responded with “I don’t know.” Many would expect him to give some kind of guess but he just said he didn’t know and there was no way we can predict the future. For a man of his stature, this was an admirable admittance of human limitations that one does not find from leaders these days.

In all, meeting the Dalai Lama was an experience worth remembering not only because of the peculiar circumstances in which I shook an old man’s hand, but also because of the way he acts, the substance of what he said, and the body of work he represents in pursuit of peace, freedom of expression and religion, rights we in America often take for granted but are not available for a large part of this world.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

China's Human Flesh Search Engine

Contributed by Belinda Tang

In the midst of China's debates over Internet censorship and privacy, one role of Netizens on the internet has been increasingly growing over the past few years. Deemed the "human flesh search engine", a method through which Chinese internet users are able to pinpoint, and oftentimes harass, people who have committed some sort of moral crime. While this started with mostly personal violations that the government could not solve--for example, a cheating spouse, or sexually deviant people--the use of this "human flesh search engine" has since expanded out to include issues that are not as morally black and white. Recently, the search engine was used to harass a young Chinese women who was trying to negotiate between Chinese and Tibetan people, and there have also been cases of people being targeted for being "not patriotic" enough.

With the wide possibilities that this tool creates, it is also, of course, important to take into consideration the wide dangers that the use of this search engine can be used towards. As demonstrated, the people who are becoming targeted by the search engine are becoming more and more subjective, and the harassment that occurs oversteps more and more boundaries. In a world where censorship is often pointed out, the Chinese government has done surprisingly little against this human search engine, as it lacks a politically threatening nature. In fact, some argue that the human flesh search engine actually advances many of the grassroots goals at the heart of Chinese communism. Regardless of the government's role in this, however, it's necessary to discuss the potential repercussions of this kind of moral behavior and persecution.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

World War on China’s Internet

By Qihan Li

While the American public is watching the politicians battle for gubernatorial and Congressional positions, an all-out war is happening on the Chinese internet. Tencent, a company boasting of approximately 1 billion accounts and 200 million active users, and 360 Antivirus, China’s largest free virus protection company, have attacked one another for the past 40 days. The tensions has have escalated into a full-scale war when Tencent today announced that its programs cannot operate on computers installed with 360 Antivirus’ programs.

You may ask: Why do these companies matter?

Tencent operates QQ, China’s most popular instant messenger program and a series of other programs that range from music to internet browser.  Not only does the regular Chinese citizen rely on Tencent’s programs for communication purposes, it has become the destination for entertainment as well as studies.  The company has become one of the most successful internet companies in China over the past decade, and its is ranked by Alexa as the 2nd most visited site in China and 10th most visited in the world.  On the other hand, 360 Antivirus is the new player in the Chinese antivirus industry with only 4 years of existence. However, it currently has 200 million users and its quick ascend has been due to its free strategy and wide range of protection software.  Both are giants in their respective fields so this particular battle may shape the landscape of the future of China’s internet. 

How did we get here?

It started with Tencent releasing a protection software that rivals that of 360’s.  Subsequently, 360 accused Tencent of intruding into the privacies of its users. The battles continued with Tencent uniting several tech giants to criticize 360 for its policies and then 360 releasing a software that disables Tencent advertisement functions. Just over the past day or two, Tencent decided that only one of the two can survive and all of China’s users have to either choose Tencent’s programs or 360’s programs.  

What will happen?

This is an unprecedented move in the history of China’s internet as the future of two large corporations lie in the balance.  The move has been attacked by many people to be completely irresponsible while others defend the move as a form of self-defense. Tencent may have felt that its revenues were seriously threatened by 360’s program and most likely believes that no other program in China can replace QQ while antivirus substitutes can easily be found.  However, such a belief may prove to be dangerous as alternative communication programs fight for the market.  If neither of the companies back off, both companies will come out with a lot less users and one may even disappear.  If one does back off, it may be perceived as weak. While it is unknown at this moment who will win this battle, uninvolved internet companies have a valuable opportunity to enter into the respective markets while the government needs to clearly define the internet boundaries between strategizing and breaking the law and the definition of monopoly.  Despite the uncertainty, what is certain is that hundreds of millions of China’s internet users face a tough decision and ask themselves, “How can such a war break out on my own desktop?”

Sources: Financial Times China, Sina

UN sees China as a Necessary Influence in Sudan and Myanmar Polls

The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked Security Council China to assist the Sudanese and Myanmar polls. He said in a speech given on Tuesday to the Communist Party, "I asked your government's help in assisting the two sides find their way to a peaceful future, recognizing their shared interests." However, though he claims it is necessary, he has neglected Beijing's own human rights record.

Besides its diplomatic engagement in Sudan, China has a significant peacekeeping mission in the country, which could help with implementing the transport and technical support in the voting.
Additionally, China can ensure that Myanmar, it's southern neighbor moves in a positive direction following the military-run government's staging of the country's first elections in two decades on Sunday.

"I see it as an important test. Will the vote perpetuate an untenable status quo? Or will it set the country on course toward a more open, democratic and inclusive political future?" Ban said.

Criticism towards Ban has been directed due to his disregard of raising specific human rights issues to the Chinese leadership. Primarily, critics are dissatisfied with Ban's fail to act upon the case of dissident writer and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Li Xiaobo.

Contributed by Iris Yan