Charles Humphrey cached version 23/07/2018 01:45:21 en The Chinese Communist Party takes a line from the Catholic Church <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>The notion of an end to corruption under the current system of government is a logical impossibility. Corruption is riven into the fabric of Chinese society.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p>Since I began my immersion in Chinese society over three years ago, I have come to think that if I was to compare the Communist Party of China to another organization with a global presence it would be to the Catholic Church. Both have opaque, complicated hierarchies, both base themselves on a fall-and-redemption narrative and both claim to follow the teachings of men with serious facial hair, but in fact seem to directly contradict their recorded teachings, in deed if not in word. </p> <p>Most importantly, both of them are massive organizations that are locked into the same logic that underpins the actions of all bloated, hierarchical entities: self-perpetuation above all else. No surprise then that Hu Jintao's recent address to the National People's Congress took a page directly from the Catholic Church. Hu made an attempt at addressing the problem of corruption in the Chinese government that was as brave and effective as the efforts of the Catholic Church to address the problems of sexual abuse. </p> <p>Hu's solution was basically to do nothing, to change none of the conditions that lead to corruption, to enact no policies or institutions to combat corruption but instead to appeal to the self-discipline and honesty of corrupt government officials themselves. Hu stated, with his characteristically sober face that the solution to corruption is that, “Leading officials, especially high-ranking officials, must ... exercise strict self-discipline and strengthen education and supervision over their families and their staff; and they should never seek any privilege.” </p> <p>Yes, that’s right, all of you people (possibly including Hu and certainly including Wen) who have built your entire careers and positions on corruption and backroom dealing – stop, just stop. Hu clearly learned from the Catholic Church who's own policy towards corruption (of a more carnal nature) is similarly to say in effect, “we're not going to punish you for abusing children, we're not going to prevent you from being around children, we know you've been abusing children for a great part of your lives, but let’s just call it a day and stop abusing children, okay?” </p> <p>Hu's exhortation to his universally corrupt comrades is likely to have as much impact on the day to day business of Party members for the next five years as the Catholic Church's policies towards sex offenders in the clergy has had in the past fifty. The logical consequences for China's continued stability do not bode well. </p> <p>The problem is much more serious than the average outside observer can understand. The notion of an end to corruption under the current system of government is a logical impossibility. Corruption is riven into the fabric of Chinese society. One's success, even at the low levels of society, is entirely dependent on one's skill in building “guangxi”, which is technically a term meaning “relationship” but might as well be translated directly to “corruption” when we translate the down-to-earth meaning behind the euphemism. China faces a problem in what one could call “trickle-down corruption,” and once one understands how Chinese society operates the problem, as well as the impossibility of solving it without massive political upheaval, is obvious. </p> <p>In China we have a government with absolute power and no accountability. Given these two conditions, one's ability to function on good terms with such a government is dependent on one's ability to placate those members of government who have power over one's activities or goals. The size of the cohort one has to placate depends on the scale of one's activities. A large company may have to be on good terms with the tax office, the administration responsible for renewing business licenses, the environmental protection authorities, relevant sector administrations on the high end and then your local police, tax collector, safety inspector etc., on the lower end. </p> <p>Even a simple shop owner has to worry about the chengguan (by-law enforcement), local tax official, health inspector and so on. Every one of these “relationships” involves the need for some kind of palm-greasing. Anyone who operates a business in China must placate all the officials with responsibility over the domain of their activities. This is not handled in the way that one understands government oversight in the west where there are clear rules which must not be broken by both parties, checks for abuse of power and an open appeal system. There is no discussion, no clear rules, no appeal. A small business owner either pays the tax collector his bribe or finds his taxes hopelessly in arrears, loses his license and his business to someone (possibly related to the tax collector) who <em>is</em> willing to bribe appropriately. </p> <p>The potential for this state of affairs to engender the desperation that leads to violence was illustrated spectacularly when <a href="">a Hunan man by the name of Liu Zhuiheng detonated a bomb</a> in the Changsha city tax bureau after losing the store he had spent his life savings renting to corrupt tax officials who claimed he owed ten years worth of taxes in arrears on the store he had just opened. &nbsp;</p> <p>Not only do business owners face these challenges, but even day to day affairs like putting children through school can require exorbitant bribes from parents. One couple in Beijing bemoaned the fact that they had to pay one hundred thousand RMB (~$15K) just to ensure their children could get onto the list for students who wanted to attend a particularly good school in their district. </p> <p>The trickle down cause and consequences of such a state of affairs is clear. If there are high “black” costs to doing business, everyone in China needs to find ever-growing sources of income to pay bribes and buy gifts (which are usually resold) and dinners. Chinese people need to run just to stay still the way the society is currently operating. Having poor cash flow means endangering the network of relationship/corruption that sustain the fabric of one's life. And so people that otherwise would have been decent, honest and scrupulous are placed in a situation where they have no option but to use whatever little power they have in order either to extract bribes or con the foolish so that they have enough liquidity to fund their own bribe-paying. </p> <p>The consequences for the hopes of a reduction in corruption at the highest levels of Chinese government are obvious in this analysis. Anyone who stops taking bribes will be unable to sustain their own corruption costs and therefore fall very quickly and dramatically from favour. That this happened to Bo Xilai, a man well-known for his fight against corruption, indicates that the narrative being fed to the world and Chinese people about Bo's story is more than likely to be a complete fabrication. Bo inevitably engaged in corruption. Everyone does. That he incurred the wrath of the Party to such an extent that his wife was tried for murder (whether she actually committed the murder or not is irrelevant) and his sex life and personal faults were put on display in a clear case of character assassination indicates to me that he was probably making genuine efforts to change the rules of the game. </p> <p>In any case, one shouldn't expect too much from the next generation of leaders. The institutional structure of Chinese government forbids that any of its members reduce their level of corruption one iota if they are to remain in power. This is how the logic goes in Chinese society - “if I don't do it, then I'll lose my place to someone else who will.” This is not an exercise in self-justification but a cold reality of living under a system where accountability is considered a “western” ideology that has no place in “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”. </p> <p>The endgame for a government which is locked into ever-growing corruption is clear. It is this author's expectation that China will eventually collapse into a kind of failed state in the not-too-distant future. Under the current system, those who rise to the top will be those who can out-corrupt their fellow Party officials to fund their own corruption expenses in furthering their career. </p> <p>The result for the flow of wealth and benefit to the majority of Chinese is obvious. The government structure of China dictates that whatever new wealth does come into the country will be funnelled upwards at an ever faster and ever more disproportionate rate as the cost of maintaining relationships inflates along with GDP. The inevitable result will be ever-growing social unrest, disillusionment with the dominant narrative of Chinese society and eventually either social revolt or complete social collapse. </p> <p>When this happens, China's place in the global economy will be sufficient that its collapse may well bring about the greatest economic crisis in human history. It is best that the world put pressure on the regime to change as a condition for further integration and acceptance. The consequences of allowing China to assume the role it is stepping into without the necessary political reforms to ensure long-term stability will be disastrous for the people of China and the rest of the world.</p><div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> China </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> International politics </div> </div> </div> China Civil society Culture Democracy and government Economics International politics Charles Humphrey Sat, 24 Nov 2012 19:27:25 +0000 Charles Humphrey 69503 at Comic sign of social change? <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Chinese stand-up Zhou Libo blurs the line between comedy and political critique, discussing political taboos and poking fun at the Communist Party. How long will the government turn a blind eye? </div> </div> </div> <p>A round-faced Shanghainese man is speaking on television. There is nothing unusual about this, except that what he is saying, most of which I can't begin to grasp, has my normally sober girlfriend in stitches. She remains in this condition for most of the duration of the show. I try to get her to translate bits and pieces but it's no use, she's in such hysterics that I can't get a word in edgewise. This may not seem unusual to anyone who does not know Chinese television or my girlfriend but to me this is something astonishing, and a development which deserves greater attention since it may represent early signs of political change in the normally paranoid country.</p> <p>The man speaking represents a new phenomenon in Chinese television, Mr Zhou's Live Show, featuring Shanghai comedian Zhou Libo. Since dropping the Shanghainese dialect that he used prior to 2010, Zhou's show has become one of the most widely-watched programs in China, topping Spring Festival ratings in 2010 and garnering a horde of fanatical devotees, even among TV-phobes like my girlfriend. What fascinates Chinese across the country about Zhou, beyond his quirky delivery and razor wit is the inflammatory content of his stand up routine. Zhou routinely discusses even the most taboo political and social topics with an incisive humour which breaks ingrained social taboos so violently that many audience members remain stunned, unsure if they are being tested for political loyalty.</p> <p>Zhou doesn't hesitate to make favourable comparisons between Japanese and Chinese, ridiculing his own people's shortcomings in social niceties and praising Japanese manners. Surprisingly, the crowd laughs, and no one is shot, despite the fact that according to the official doctrine, the Japanese are the embodiment of evil, a point which is relentlessly driven home by the prolific nationalistic war-dramas featuring Japanese atrocities amidst Chinese heroism which normally dominate Chinese airwaves. The joke in China is that at any moment of the day, anywhere in China, there are Japanese people being killed on television.</p> <p>Zhou has poked fun at the intelligence of Chinese Communist Party (CPC) members, ruthlessly attacked the Chinese education system, deflated growing Chinese nationalism, criticized the complicated tax system and repeatedly denounced official corruption and Party stupidity. A classic example is Zhou's joke about the CPC entrance exams, giving examples of obscure and nonsensical questions and saying “only abnormal people with abnormal minds could pass this exam!” and comparing government officials to people who haven't eaten in three days left alone all night to guard a dumpling shop, suggesting that corruption is almost inevitable under the current system.</p> <p>Not only does Zhou make such belittling comments about the normally untouchable ruling party, but he quotes facts and figures that undermine the rosy socioeconomic picture that has been elevated to the status of dogma by the official media. The most notable case was Zhou's tactless discussion of the gap between gross and per-capita GDP figures which have China ranked second and ninety fifth in the world respectively. While many audience members laugh, the majority look uncomfortable, waiting for the police to shut things down or afraid that the camera might catch them endorsing his statements. Zhou's power seems to stem from the way he artfully blurs the line between comedy and political critique.</p> <p>Zhou fanatic Zhao says she watches Zhou because “even though he is a comedian I feel as though he is waking up everybody. There is so much hidden information, false information in China, and he is clarifying it, telling us what is the real truth.” It is unclear to outsiders and most Chinese how it is exactly that Zhou has managed to get away with making such normally forbidden statements on national television. While China has opened up economically, it still remains the case that saying the wrong thing in public can damage a career, land you in prison or worse. Whatever the underlying factors are, amidst the recent overbearing crackdown on calls for a Middle-East style “Jasmine Revolution” in China, including detention of famous artist and outspoken critic of the government Ai Weiwei, Zhou's comedy and its tolerance by the powers that be provide a small glimmer of hope that serious political and social change may be peeking over the horizon in China. To those who live here, Chinese and expat alike, it is about time.</p><div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> China </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> </div> </div> China Civil society Democracy and government china Charles Humphrey Tue, 05 Jul 2011 13:42:43 +0000 Charles Humphrey 60300 at China’s housing bubble <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Economists be damned, when the country that is being touted as the future of global capitalism is building entire cities that nobody can afford to occupy, we need to pause and work out what’s going on </div> </div> </div> <p>Emptiness. Neat little rows of nicely arranged Eastern Bloc Pomo apartments, a series of small boxes stacked slightly off center, breaking the monotony of the old cinderblock structures that dominate the skyline of Xiaguan, Dali Old Town's modern urban counterpart, hanging on the northern end of Yunnan, China's Lake Erhai. &nbsp;They are newish, only beginning to show the inevitable rust-stains and concrete cracks that are the hallmark of over-hasty Chinese construction. &nbsp;The seaside apartment units with their manicured lawns, floor-to-ceiling windows and 3 Million RMB price tags are, with few exceptions, completely empty. &nbsp;They are but one of the countless new Chinese ghost towns. &nbsp;And the reality they capture should make us all stop and think for a moment about the madness that continues to masquerade as logic in our system of social organization.</p><p>Dali is a tourist's paradise. &nbsp;The old walled city sits wedged between snow-capped mountains which embrace it from the north, west and south, and a large lake which feeds its abundant fields to the east. &nbsp;It was once a quaint historic folk-town, populated by multi-ethnic natives and the occasional wandering hippie-traveller seeking both contact with a fabled Chinese past and a chance to smoke the abundant and cheap cannabis that is a nuisance to local farmers.&nbsp;</p><p>With time, the growth of affluent Chinese able to travel and the migration of laowai, or &lsquo;foreigners&rsquo; into China for work, travel and study, Dali has slowly morphed into an uneasy cross between the facade and fantasy of Disneyworld and the lust and lunacy of Amsterdam. &nbsp;On one street you can see Han (China's majority ethnic group) tour-guides parading around in traditional Bai (a Chinese ethnic minority) costumes, giving the history of the streets and temples. &nbsp;They tell the tales of several-hundred year old shrines and traditional stone streets housing antique stores and art galleries. &nbsp;All the while the audience remains clueless as to the fact that most of these sites were built within the past ten years. &nbsp;The tour guides are telling fairy tales and the Chinese tourists remain unfazed, distracted by a glimpse of a laowai having a coffee in one of the many cafes that have popped up to feed foreign demand.&nbsp;</p><p>On a neighbouring street, if one looks sufficiently foreign and male, one will be propositioned by various innocent-looking old ladies and housewives dressed in traditional clothing asking &ldquo;smoka the ganja?&rdquo; or &ldquo;beautiful, sexy love, beautiful mama.&rdquo; &nbsp;Go a few more streets down and various rooms full of couches, lit by red lights and populated by bored-looking women knitting and filing their nails look out onto the cobblestone alleyways, marked by signs warning minors from entering the innocuous looking abodes. &nbsp;According to taste, you can curl up on some Indian-style cushions in a darkly lit room full of young dreadlocked men and women who take turns sharing obscure music and taking bong hits while keeping an eye out for inadequately-bribed police, or else wander further up the road to have a nice cup of local coffee and authentic German pastries that rival even the best that can be found in Beijing. &nbsp;Ask any local and you will hear how year upon year Dali's streets are more and more choked with half-baked foreigners and the Chinese who more often than not stop to gawk and point shamelessly at them.</p><p>It would seem to hold that Dali should be a real-estate developer's dream. The steady stream of affluent Chinese and foreigners, both young and old looking for cheap sun, sea, mountains, dope, KTV and prostitutes fulfill the sacred supply/demand formula that should make Dali a real-estate boomtown. &nbsp;And yet, something has gone wrong, logic has become so twisted here that there are thousands of empty units dominating the landscape in a relatively unpopulated area. &nbsp;Along neighbouring Xiaguan's seafront there are huge swathes of white-and-wood trim apartment units protected by an unnecessary gate-guard. &nbsp;Despite the rumour that Chinese superstar Fan Bing Bing bought one of the RMB 3M+ units, they remain empty and show early signs of decay. &nbsp;Further down the road there is an even larger and more family-oriented development of which nine out of ten units show no sign of life. &nbsp;Its empty streets and unused parks feel like film sets from apocalyptic zombie flicks like <em>I Am Legend</em>. Further to the west, heading towards the sea, is a literal ghost town of brand-new &lsquo;traditional&rsquo; buildings meant to house a hundred some commercial units with second-floor apartments. &nbsp;Save for a bank and a derelict KTV box, it too remains still as death, with the untended plants taking their slow revenge on the hubristic interference of human greed. &nbsp;To the south, even the presence of the large, picturesque campus of Dali University failed to draw sufficient interest to fill the hundreds of units which resemble American suburban homes with large living rooms and small front gardens. &nbsp;They too, lie empty and have begun to show signs of deterioration.</p><p>Dali, home of the third highest growth in real-estate prices after Beijing and Shanghai, is by no means unique in the landscape of Chinese real-estate. Travel one hundred fifty kilometres south-east of Beijing and you'll come to the town of Teda, an ultra-modern cityscape with wide streets arranged in a grid, tall, elegantly designed skyscrapers and immaculate glass and steel business parks. The streets are mostly empty, with no more than three or four cars immediately visible at any moment in an area that physically resembles Toronto's King and Bay. &nbsp;The buildings stand silent and empty, with only the occasional struggling business visible at the ground level. The same apocalyptic film-set feeling dominates, exaggerated further by the sheer scale of the emptiness contained in the impressive structures which dominate Teda.</p><p><img src="" alt="New South China Mall" width="256" height="192" /></p><p class="image-caption">Milowent. New South China Mall Down Empty Hall.</p><p class="image-caption">Wikimedia Commons</p><p>Visit the southern city of Dongguan and you can see the world's largest and emptiest mall, where 2303 of 2350 retail units remain unoccupied since the mall's opening in 2005. &nbsp;And yet amidst so much emptiness, so much wasted manpower and material, every major cityscape in China is covered in a forest of cranes, every empty lot is home to tent-dwelling migrant construction workers. &nbsp;One gets so used to the sound of clanking hammers that silence leaves the mind stunned. &nbsp;In every small town like Dali, even in the most backward rural villages you can wake to the sound of jackhammers and go to sleep to the sound of bricks being dumped to build newer, bigger houses. &nbsp;The madness continues as the Chinese are kept content, fed on the exaggerated growth figures provided by the government and bought into by foreign investors. &nbsp;The invincibility of the Chinese economy has become an article of faith amongst Chinese of all ages and geographic locations. Even as a housing surplus is staring everyone in the face, Chinese parents put relentless pressure on grown-up children to buy housing quickly, convinced as they are that real-estate prices will continue to rise even amidst such rampant overpricing and obvious surplus. &nbsp;The best estimate calculated from electricity-usage figures puts the surplus at housing for two hundred million people. &nbsp;And it looks as if it will continue to grow. China's housing market and economy reflect perhaps the greatest historical example to date of the so-called&nbsp;&lsquo;reflexivity&rsquo; problem of markets and perception in general.</p><p>Economists living secure in the confines of offices in New York, London, Paris and Toronto continue to provide promising outlooks on the sustainability of this mad-science experiment we use to organize our lives and call &lsquo;the global financial economy.&rsquo; &nbsp;Without being one of those initiated into the mysteries of the arcane alchemy of finance economics, I know well enough that the mercurial social entity known only as &lsquo;The Economy&rsquo; has been kept alive by Chinese money. &nbsp;Now that China is high on the influx of capital streaming into its coffers, I begin to wonder what will come next. &nbsp;If the American economy was brought to its knees by people who actually lived in houses being unable to meet the financial burden of their purchases, how are we to feel when the new bedrock of the global economy is a land replete with literal ghost-cities, ghost-neighbourhoods and ghost-malls? As North American economies continue to sputter, while Europeans are collectively engaged in a frantic bailing-effort to keep their ship afloat, what will we do when the last Big Bet of the global economy turns out to be a Big Bluff? &nbsp;Economists be damned, when the country that is being touted as the future of global capitalism is building entire cities that nobody can afford to occupy, while the vast majority of its downtrodden inhabitants continue to struggle to make rent in the already-crumbling units built ten years ago, we finally have to wonder if it&rsquo;s time we all put down the kool-aid, take a breath and decide how to deal with the mother of a socio-economic hangover that is coming sooner or later.</p><p>We learned in 2008 that it is not a good thing when a comparatively regulated, historically stable and highly esteemed economy (America) founders. &nbsp;When several European economies recently showed signs of instability, the social consequences were relatively severe, most notably in Greece. &nbsp;In both these examples, the worst case scenarios of massive social unrest were quelled by quick infusions of cash, a great deal of which was bankrolled by China. &nbsp;We should pause to consider the situation we are in now given the flagrant signs of financial lunacy on display in China. If what have traditionally been the economically strongest, relatively socially stable states in this system could only be saved by Chinese money, what will happen if social pressure-cooker China, with no one in sight to bail it out, suffers serious economic and social malaise? &nbsp;China is the back stop, the last hope of the global system, and on the ground it looks far far worse than America ever could. &nbsp;Put notoriously unreliable financial data and doctored social statistics aside. Anyone who has lived here and kept their eyes open can see the cracks are already beginning to show. &nbsp;</p><p>People are angry. &nbsp;Most can't afford the rent on even the most decrepit apartments, illness means costs that crush entire families and corrupt cash-hungry hospitals seem more interested in bleeding families dry than in curing illness. &nbsp;Those unlucky enough to be maimed in unsafe factories and on dangerous construction sites end up dragging themselves along the pavement like dogs, singing, bowing and begging for money. &nbsp;The privileged few drive their cars fast and with little regard for the pedestrian lives they endanger, honking their horns at anything not bigger than them that gets in the way, rules of the road be damned. &nbsp;Housing prices go up&nbsp;while salaries for most remain relatively stable, and all the while&nbsp;people are fed a steady stream of xenophobic, hyper-nationalistic&nbsp;ideas on ubiquitous television screens at home, on public transport,&nbsp;at banks and businesses. &nbsp;</p><p>It seems everywhere you turn you are confronted by screens showing Japanese soldiers committing atrocities, foreign governments insulting China and other people getting rich. Outside &nbsp;China the world celebrates the current life-support system of the sacred &lsquo;Economy&rsquo;; China the Red has become China the Messiah. &nbsp;It is important that the optimistic fantasies that are spewed out on a regular basis by major media outlets and backed up by dreamt-up figures by experts in air-conditioned offices are exposed for what they are: wishful thinking about a severely broken system. &nbsp;The facts on the ground reveal an ugly truth, that China is a ticking time bomb, with consequences that go beyond such trite measures as consumer confidence and GDP growth and threaten to bring out the nasty, violent imbalances that have been allowed to fester unheeded in the holy name of Economy.</p><div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> China </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> International politics </div> </div> </div> China International politics Economics Civil society Charles Humphrey Sun, 12 Jun 2011 14:09:41 +0000 Charles Humphrey 59915 at Charles Humphrey <div class="field field-au-term"> <div class="field-label">Author:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Charles Humphrey </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-au-firstname"> <div class="field-label">First name(s):&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Charles </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-au-surname"> <div class="field-label">Surname:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Humphrey </div> </div> </div> <p>Charles Humphrey has been a China researcher since 2008 and living, working, traveling and writing in and on China since 2009.</p><div class="field field-au-shortbio"> <div class="field-label">One-Line Biography:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Charles Humphrey is a 25 year old Canadian who has lived in Beijing for the past 16 months. He currently teaches English and French at North China Electric Power University, he is a guest lecturer on society and literature at Qinghua University, and a researcher and frequent author on topics relating to China. Mr. Humphrey is currently working to become fluent in Chinese inorder to better understand Chinese culture, as well as the role China plays in the international community. </div> </div> </div> Charles Humphrey Fri, 10 Jun 2011 10:16:33 +0000 Charles Humphrey 59924 at