Monday, October 30, 2006

friendship, peace, cooperation and development

Beijing is hosting the third ministerial meeting of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum in a couple of days time. The streets are already being decorated with pictures of Sahara sunsets and Chinese lanterns (a rather strange juxtaposition).

Beijing road decorated for summit

A jetta (also a popular car model in Africa) parked next to one of the billboards welcoming the African summit attendees

I don't think I've seen so much effort for one summit, perhaps reflecting that this time China is entertaining in the role of patron.
China's involvement in Africa is relatively recent but they are now investing heavily into the continent which they see as a key future market for Chinese products, a chance to build valuable voting partnerships in the UN and a source of bargain priced resources (especially from African regimes the West won't deal with - Mugabe doesn't consider China a 'very special friend' for nothing).
While the West is still looking at China as the economic opportunity, China is building up the African continent with infrastructure, anti-corruption campaigns and training future African leaders alongside future Chinese government cadres - simultaneously contributing to economic development while also ensuring Chinese businesses have the best possible operating conditions.
People's Daily Online article about the Summit here.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

electronic tickets are go

China is now issuing electronic tickets for domestic flights. I traveled with one last week and had a bit of an issue at the security gate when I handed over just my boarding pass and passport instead of the usual passport, boarding pass and ticket;

Security officer: ticket please
Me: I have an electronic ticket
Security officer: I need your ticket
Me: Yes, but it's an electronic ticket (showing email print out of flight details)
Security officer: but where's your ticket?
Security officer's colleague shouting across from the next desk: It's an electronic ticket!
Security officer motions to another colleague, "She doesn't have a ticket"
Me: I have an electronic ticket!
Colleague calls over supervisor,
Me: It's an electronic ticket!
Supervisor grunts and motions me through.

Now, wouldn't you expect an airport security officer to know about electronic tickets? It was all ok in the end as at least I knew I was in the right but what if I wasn't used to air travel procedures? Or wasn't used to electronic tickets? How confusing would that all be? I could perhaps be wondering if the travel agent or the airline had ripped me off somehow... how would I know whose word to take on this?

Illustrates in a small way how even sensible improvements can cause disruption, doubt and distrust - you just can't bank on everyone, even those whose should, to know what's going on. Now apply that to implementing a rebranding, a new look for packaging or a new service procedure and imagine the fun that could be - people thinking sellers are trying to pass off fakes, sales people not sure of the new system, misinformation abounding. Fun all round. Changes are inevitable as the systems and standards here improve but change shouldn't be undertaken lightly.

Friday, October 27, 2006

order, order

China is in flux when it comes to behaviour, some people think its ok to drive down the middle of the road, others know different. Some people will be queuing while others will completely ignore the queue, genuinely unaware of what the protocol is. There's yet to be an established standard of behaviour.

Japan is probably the absolute opposite, everything is prescribed and explained. No ambiguity is allowed and definition and instructions rule.

Wondering where to stop to allow vehicles to pass? Well, just look for the sign. Wondering where to stand when queuing for a public pay phone? Look for the sign (no photo for that, sorry, but in case you're wondering its about a meter back at a 45 degree angle away from the platform edge).

There's nothing left to chance:

No need to worry about where to stand when waiting for your train, your carriage door will be marked out for you.

And wondering what to do if a woman next to you is being sexually harassed? Follow the instructions on the anti-sexual harassment poster. Well, I assume they are explaining how to intervene (though it also does look like it's explaining how to join in). Either way, there's a guide for everything so there need never be any ambiguity, doubt or confusion.

How does this sort of prescription affect people? If you introduce a new category or product into this market for the first time perhaps your first task is not just selling benefits or affinity but also removing ambiguity about usage and occasion?

blocked again

Once again I find myself on the wrong side of the Chinese censors. Blogspot has been blocked again in China, so if I look for my blog or any other on blogspot I get the above message. It's only been a matter of months since the site was unblocked but these things tend to fluctuate as the Chinese government often uses a let-out-the-reigns-pull-in-the reigns approach to new liberties whether civil or economic. Blogger obviously failed its trial period. As it happens fairly soon after Blogger became accessible a Chinese professor alerted Chinese netizens to an excretable blog written by an expat teacher about his sexual conquests of female Chinese students from his English class, sparking a web-wide hunt. As this was a Blogger blog I personally wonder if this is connected with Blogger's return to web pariah status.

But obviously, you can still post on blogger, you just can't read the blogs themselves- a strange sort of compromise you often find here, a sort of third way that suits the ultimate agenda (no reading) while giving concessions (you can still blog, just not to a Chinese audience).

Thursday, October 26, 2006

China? Oh yes, I was in prison there for a while

Just back from seeing Sidney Rittenberg, author of The man who stayed behind, speak at the Bookworm Cafe in Beijing. Mr Rittenberg was posted to China with the US Army towards the end of WW2 and fell in love with the language, people and country. He stayed on after his honorable discharge from the Army to work as a translator for the Communist press and even for Mao himself, then moving to famine relief work in the North West of the country. That is, until Joseph Stalin personally wrote to Mao naming him as the leader of an international spy ring based in China. 6 years in solitary confinement followed, with Mr Rittenberg continuing to protest his innocence. Released eventually after Stalin's death he stayed on in China resuming his charity work. He met and married a local Chinese girl and became involved in the Cultural revolution or rather 'The Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution' ("Nothing to do with the proletariat, actually anti-cultural rather than cultural but it was Great"). His involvement landed him back in prison and back in solitary for another ten years, separated from his wife and children with no access to the outside world. Eventually with the demise of the 'Gang of Four' he was released and reunited with his wife and family (who had refused to disown him as many family members had had to during those years). A couple of years later he moved back to the US to consult on China for government and business. It's quite some story, and one even more amazing when told with a wry repartee that sat somewhere between Bob Hope and Noel Coward "They [his interrogators] would accuse me of being this international spy ringleader, I'd point out I only an insignificant American, not at all the big shot. They would tell me there was no need to be modest". Also quite something to hear about first hand about Mao, "compassionate and caring but then also extremely cruel", and the evils of the engineered class-struggles of the past. Listening to him, it did all seem a world away - the expats that constituted the audience tonight were largely young western language students with a canny eye on the market and foreign company executives. I wondered how many of the audience would stay on for another revolution and risk prison for China? (Myself included here, I hasten to add). Another sign that China now represents economic not ideological frontiers.

Mr Rittenberg is now working on a new book, a self-help guide based his philosophical training and his own mental techniques developed to help him survive in solitary. Apparently inspired by the number of times he is asked about this in the US. Now there must be a zeitgeist point to made about Americans feeling like they're in solitary confinement, or a need for more mental toughness today or existential angst or some such but you figure it out, it's late and I'm off to bed.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

reversing the view 2

Now and again I try to share some views of the West from a Chinese perspective in an attempt to balance things out here. This one comes thanks to the Library of Unwritten books, a UK project where anyone can submit an idea for a book they would like to publish. This one is written by Ming-He Yang who proposes a book about 'Real British Life' for Chinese readers who are interested in learning about life in the West. In this book she would explain some cultural differences based on her own experience of moving from China to England in the late 80s. Here she covers the key topics of tea, pubs and historical homes;

"I didn't even know what a bar was til a colleague said "Oh we will go out for a drink". I found it very strange. The pub is like a teahouse in China. ... people sitting around talking..."

"And afternoon tea! When you are first invited to go to an English family they say 'Come to our home for afternoon tea. But oh! It's so heavy! It's not only tea."

"Chinese like modern houses very, very much but here they keep the original. If it is one hundred, two hundred years old, people are proud of it, but the Chinese are not. They like everything new and modern."

Pretty good benchmarks for cultural segmentation to be honest, alcoholic/non-alcoholic key social space, tea consumption and old/new home preference. I can feel a plannerish Venn Diagram coming on...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

anything national left?

Internet horribly slow today and I can't even link so instead here's edited highlights from a New Weekly article, via, questioning the reality of China's so-called national characteristics. Particularly interesting as Chinese identity is often presented as unwavering and monolithic ...

National Day, National Pastime, National Flavor...
by Xiao Feng / New Weekly

National Day: National Day has become a travel holiday. The solemn national consciousness of the past has been replaced by joyful consumerism. Using the long holiday for travel or shopping is the main theme of the day. If parades and putting up banners were patriotic in the past, then active consumption is patriotism today.

National Cuisine: The cuisine that Chinese culture has marketed to the world is how to eat differently. People have suggested setting up an International Eating Committee. "When you've sung your part, I take the stage" is what food is like today; no one can speak for a "National Cuisine." If you really want to find one, then perhaps hotpot is one national dish. But children and youth might rather suggest to you McDonald's or KFC.

National Medicine: National medicine, or zhong yao, is not the medicine of China, but rather the medicine of the mean. Essentially, illness is anything taken to excess. "Halls of national medicine" have started up chain stores. The resistance of Chinese medicine to standardization has caused it to be spurned by the international pharmaceutical world, and it has become a mark of wandering outsider doctors. Today, old Chinese doctors plaster ads throughout every street and alley advertising special sex cures.

National Performance: In the past it was the Spring Festival Evening Show, when 900 million of the billion citizens were watching. Now, the Show has dropped to a program for peasants (and our peasant brothers don't necessarily watch). When the three Super Girls PKed, they snatched up a majority of Chinese eyeballs.

National Flavor: Chinese flavor is not hanging up a few strings of hot peppers in the doorway; it's not the four treasures of the studio; it's not the four great inventions - none of these. The core of Chinese flavor is not readily expressed by these dead ideas. "What it is" is hard to say. I only know that cultural heritage isn't a day's work; it should be one generation teaching the next through example rather than preaching. If the previous generation themselves didn't amount to much, then what attraction is there to Chinese flavor?

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Density 2: Japan

Talked before about density as a characteristic of Asian cities, previously using Hong Kong as an example. Though this post's title might sound like some dodgy straight-to-DVD Asian-ish action film it's just me trying to prove my point again, this time using Tokyo.
While Hong Kong's density is a sort of jostling crowdedness, Tokyo's density is a sort of concentration of maximum content into the smallest possible space. This applies particularly to people and information;

view of Shibuya district

destination guides at a station

map of Tokyo's railway lines and their stations

Dense travel structure even. Unbelievable amount of stations in Tokyo, tightly packed destinations.

Advertising is particularly compacted too. More information the better when you have the trapped attention of the concentrated (though perhaps not concentrating) Tokyo commuter, it would seem.

What effect does this concentration of content have on people? Perhaps sets up an expectation and reliance on it but also necessitates a relief from it? Japan is the home to Zen after all...

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

back from hols

Back from Japan and catching up with work so just a wee post of a vending machine and one of those lost-in-translation-celebrity-ad-only-for-Japan for you here. This one featuring Tommy Lee Jones advertising a Japanese coffee brand called 'Boss'. I can't help but feel he's a dubious advocate for coffee - he looks like needs one but also as if he may have had one too many already. Or maybe he's just a good boss? And Boss, what a great name for a coffee eh? Masculine, work-orientated and aspirational all in one go, a brand name to make those 6am commutes on the Yamanote line seem worthwhile.