三打两建:ideology in guangdong

Guangdong Party Secretary, Wang Yang has been busy shoring up his position as a reliable, upstanding, and neo-liberal party member.

Since February this year, all of Guangdong has been engaged in “three attacks and two establishments (三打两建)”, a movement that has its own, quite extensive website. The three targets of attack are “illegal monopolization of the market through violence (欺行霸市)”, “manufacturing and selling fake goods (制假售假)”, and “commercial bribery (商业贿赂)”. The two principals to be established are “a system of social trust (社会信用体系)” and “a system of market oversight (市场监管体系)”.

It seems on first glance a call to rationalize highly local systems of production, consumption, and regulation because I have usually seen movement banners in urban villages, rather than in malls, making villagers the target of Guangdong’s current ideological movement. For example, “illegal monopolization of the market through violence” and “commercial bribery” seem to be descriptions of how markets and shops are actually run (with their reputed mafia ties) in villages. Likewise, “manufacturing and selling fake goods” also seems to be located in villages, with low-level investors setting up shanzhai factories in older, under the radar of municipal oversight spaces and then distributing these goods through local outlets. In contrast, the double aim to establish systems of trust and market regulation point to the government’s determination to bring all production, distribution, and consumption under a system of generalized oversight.

Currently, Shenzhen’s villages have all been incorporated into the municipal apparatus and villagers given citizen status. However, to the extent that industrialization in the Pearl River Delta has created rich villages that cultivate loyalty to the collective (or extended family) rather than to the state (as an abstract system), the next step in rural urbanization has become transforming villagers into citizens. Currently, one of the defining characteristics of a citizen in contrast to a villager is that “citizens” position themselves with respect to national laws (shared with strangers), while “villagers” position themselves with respect to traditional values (shared with familiars and intimates).

Point du jour, an important task of Chinese governance has become shifting how the state interpellates rural residents, hailing them as individualized “citizens”, rather than as collectivized “farmers” even when and despite the fact that many villages (such as Xiasha) are investing in symbols of collective identity, and the “urban village” has become a stereotype of Shenzhen cultural identity.

more confucian business ethics: collect the bags!

Roughly twenty years ago, he, his wife, and their son immigrated from China to Southern California. They came to Shenzhen last year to do business with successful college classmates and brought a daughter and a younger son. The older son remained in California. The man was 40 something years of age, and he told me that his wife and son met a friend and business associate at LAX. When the three went to pick up the visitor’s luggage, his wife went to collect the bags. However, because she is a woman, the visitor stopped her and collected the bags instead. The man didn’t say, but I’m assuming the wife and friend engaged in some who-can-hold-onto-the-bags shuffle, with the result that the visitor ended up carrying his own bags. The son waited for the ritual to end and then led his mother and his father’s friend to the car. The son drove them home.

The man told me this story because he wanted to know what I thought; how had the son behaved?

“Based on what I know of American or Chinese cultural norms?” I hedged, thinking that any young man who drove his mother to the airport to pickup a guest was an accommodating son, and that if his parents and their friends wanted to engage in who’s-the-most-polite shuffles, then that really was their business and why not wait for the storm to end. In fact, personally, I sympathized with the son’s position because I am frequently nonplussed when confronted by demonstrations of Chinese courtesy that are also not-so-sutble assertions of dominance.

He explained that afterward his friend had approached him to talk about the matter. The friend worried that the son did “did not understand things (不懂事),” an expression with meanings that range from ‘immature’ through ‘is insensible to the feelings of others’ to ‘has no concept of proper behavior’. The friend had acted out of concern because he worried for his friend’s son future prospects. To declare a college graduate “does not understand things” means that those in positions of power “cannot use him (不能用人)” and thus will not place him in positions of responsibility, thereby foreclosing opportunities for advancement.

At the time, the father had replied that he thought skill (能力) was the most important criteria for promotions. However, when he discussed the issue with another friend, this time the CEO of a small company, he realized that from the point of view of makers and shakers in China, his son in fact “could not be used”. The CEO explained that he had two employees, A and B, who went everywhere with him. The CEO did not have a driver and so A and B took turns driving. When A drove, he made sure to open the CEO’s door for him before getting into the car. When B drove, he immediately sat in the driver’s seat and A, again, opened the CEO’s door before settling himself in the car.

“Now, who should I promote?” the CEO rhetorically asked the man. “Obviously, A is more meticulous/ attentive (更细心) than B. Consequently, he can be trusted, whereas B doesn’t see the big picture.”

The big picture included hierarchy and etiquette, or understanding one’s relationship with another and each time A opened the CEO’s door, he demonstrated his understanding. In contrast, B did his job. On the CEO’s interpretation, it didn’t matter how talented B was. The real problem was that B couldn’t be trusted to treat guests and by extension business colleagues and clients, properly. A could.

I’m told there are serious differences between etiquette in state-owned industries, where bureaucratic privilege trumps skill and the private sector, where talented people are more valued than sycophants. Also, it seems that things “are different” in the IT sector, but again, people quickly remind me, that techies are young and often westernized. Westernized, perhaps, but as in Western business culture, Chinese business culture distinguishes between those who give good face and those who do their jobs well; rare is the individual who can both manage people and complete tasks.

Interestingly, although the characters for the Chinese words for CEO (董事长) and “understand things” are different, nevertheless they are homophones, which alerts us to the moral of today’s story. At an airport, there are several rules that apply when greeting Chinese guests:

1. If the guest is older than you — collect the luggage to show your respect;

2. If the guest has a higher rank than you — collect the luggage to show your respect;

3. If the guest is a friend — collect the luggage in order to demonstrate your good will.

There are three possible exceptions to the “collect the luggage” rule for greeting Chinese guests, gender, age, and White ethnicity. A friend would neither expect a friend’s wife to collect luggage, nor would that friend expect an elementary school child to collect luggage. Although if the child grabbed a bag, be sure to laugh happily, muss her hair, and exclaim, “Wow, she really understands things!” And yes, white Americans are forgiven for all sorts of social faux pas that Chinese-Americans are not so that when we go for the bags, we suddenly appear “Chinese”.

But to return to the father’s story. What do we say to a Chinese man, who clearly wants his American son to succeed, knowing that amongst globe-trotting Chinese he will be judged by ancestral values and not those of his hometown, Los Angeles?

Speculation about Shenzhen’s Cultural Industry

Today, I’m following up yesterday’s cultural industry post with a friend’s highly speculative explanation for the apparent decline of the Century Handicraft Plaza. This conversation interests me because it provides a sociological explanation for economic success; the question isn’t what can be known, but rather, in the absence of knowledge, what ought to be assumed. Moreover, the assumption is interestingly at odds with Weber’s puritans, who saw wealth as a sign of God’s blessing. In contrast, my friend sees wealth and economic viability as signs of corruption.

Me: When I went to the Yongfengyuan store in the Handicraft Plaza, I was surprised by the fact that they were selling the same cultural products as last year and that the second floor showroom had been converted to office space. How can this happen to a national level cultural enterprise? Moreover, many of the surrounding shops had closed. So despite architectural renovations, the Plaza seemed abandoned.

Friend: It’s actually not too difficult to figure out. The cultural industry fair is over, so there’s no reason to keep pumping money into the Plaza. Also, Yongfengyuan makes expensive gifts that officials exchange, so the brand has probably been a way of channeling public money into private pockets.  Continue reading

… and it ends with Revelations

Yesterday, I heard a rumor and a comment about that rumor, which have me thinking about the importance and fluidity of “reputation” in the absence of any trusted news media and the concomitant rise of weibo as a news source.

The rumor: because the Municipality overspent its universiade budget, this year small businesses will be taxed excessively in order to make up the difference. Apparently, small businesses have been targeted because they are the most vulnerable to government intervention. Private individuals have already been taxed and cannot be taxed again without causing unrest and large, state and/or foreign owned companies all have governmental connections and (in the case of foreign companies) China’s agreements to uphold its tax laws. In contrast, small business owners only have the government connections that they have made through bribes and schmoozing. Moreover, small business owners tend to swim alone, rather than organizing which means that they have neither collective bargaining power, nor use access to public media to air their grievances. Instead, they complain to friends, who in turn, pass the rumor along over tea and snacks with friends.

The comment: It’s difficult to confirm anything in China because important decisions, or rather, the justifications for important decisions aren’t documented and released into the public sphere because anything that can be written down isn’t the total story. My friend then explained that this is why she no longer reads newspapers for news. Instead, she reads newspapers to get a sense of government winds and reads weibo and blogs for news reports. But, when pressed, she also admitted that she doesn’t completely trust weibo or blogs. Instead, she evaluates (based on her experience) the likelihood of a report being true. And she’s aware that different personal experiences will make some people more or less likely to trust a particular report.  Continue reading

人人网–everybody´s(?!) net

this weekend, a student asked me to join her renrenwang network. i have not been particularly proactive in joining online networks primarily because i spend too much time online as it is. point du jour is that while i was signing up, i discovered that the network included links to the major u.s. colleges and universities, as well as to universities throughout the world. stunning the extent and creativity of these networks. shocking as well the (comparative) extent to which u.s. online networks are not integrating global links.

i know, my reaction makes me sound like an ¨american peasant,¨ but for the past few years i have been increasingly aware how provincial my upbringing and education was. at the time (1983) studying chinese seemed so far outside the norm that my father asked me if studying mandarin would help me succeed negotiating the hong kong stock exchange! and yet somewhen along the line, not only did the world catch up to the internationalism of china, but also surpassed my preparation to live in that new world.

wow. 30 years of reform and opening and it is a whole new world. wow again.