gentle reminder from the folks at tencent

Like many population questions in China, the actual population of We Chat users is guestimated but unconfirmed. According to its app page, We Chat boasts over 300 million users or the population of the United States and growing. In news reports, the population has been posted at 200 million users.

Throughout this trip to the US, I have maintained my links with Shenzhen friends via We Chat. This makes me one of a fast growing — what? — group? Community? Chinese speaking chatty Kathies? If it were a country, the We Chat app population would be the 6th most populous country in the world (population clock). The app would have 2/3 the population of the United States, 1/6 the population of India, and 1/7 the population of China. And here’s the rub: the We Chat population is mediated by one company in Shenzhen.

All this information came to a head because yesterday the We Chat Product Team at Tencent gently reminded me and over  that:

Recently, the message that “We Chat will charge its users” has circulated on weibo. This is malicious gossip. We ask everyone not to believe these rumors. The We Chat Product Team states that it will not charge users, more we are currently developing new functions, hoping that We Chat will be more user-friendly and more fun.

近期在微博上流传的“微信要对用户收费”,纯属有人恶意造谣,请大家不要相信谣言。微信产品团队表示,微信绝不会对用户收费,并称正在开发下一版本的新功能,希望可以让微信更好用,也更好玩。

The team sent the message to me via the We Chat app. I also receive news casts via We Chat. Each message includes a main article with a large image, and three small articles with a thumbnail. Headlines du moment are:

  1. A Bali Plane with 101 passengers sinks into the sea;
  2. Xi Jinping will see American Secretary of State, John Kerry, the Americans call the North Korean question the key issue;
  3. The husband of a Shanghai woman with Avian flu catches it, however its still not clear if people can transmit the disease to each other;
  4. Geng Yanbo was selected Mayor of Taiyuan City, Shandong, he was once known unofficially as “the Mayor who builds cities”.

Now We Chat has a smaller population than Microsoftlandia, which has boasted 750 million users worldwide. However, unlike Mircrosoft, We Chat as actual access to every user through their phones. Mine chimes and I know I have received a message. Moreover, this app is being used to feed me information and news. Thus, today, I’m wondering what it means that (a) I received this message while traveling in the States — indeed, these few weeks We Chat has my primary form of communication with Chinese friends, and (b) given the number of users, the message is itself news — in other words, We Chat has a “private” line to its 300 million users that sidesteps Government oversight.

what is the price of a human life?

If my friends are to be believed, doctors occupy the same hated position in China that lawyers occupy in the United States; they are the white-collar workers who represent all that is wrong with the system.

Indeed, the similarities between stereotypes are striking: Chinese doctors are said to be only working for money; if you go to a public doctor, you can expect substandard care, and; the purpose of medicine is to keep you in the system, paying for unnecessary tests and medicines. Good doctors are few; they work against a system that is stacked against them, and the common people suffer for the greed of the majority of bad doctors. Similarly, not a few Americans hold the same ideas, albeit about lawyers. Private attorneys are only in it for the money; if you have a public attorney you can expect to lose your case, and; the purpose of legal advice is to keep you in the system, paying for unnecessary hours and court appearance. Good lawyers are few; they work against a system that is stacked against them, and the common people suffer for the greed of the majority of bad doctors.

Not unsurprisingly, there are all sorts of Chinese doctor shows — both for entertainment and self-help, just as there all sorts of US American lawyer shows and call-in programs. A popular trope in both countries is the renegade who addresses the injustice of the system, dispensing healthcare and legal aid without thought for his or her personal gain. In these shows, lives are at stake and doctors and lawyers save the day in happy endings and loose the day in tragedies. Likewise, an assortment of hacks lurk in these programs and take advantage of unsuspecting or desperate folk, who have nowhere else to turn. Moreover,there is generally an implied moral entitlement: good characters should receive top medical care in China or the very best representation (in the US).

Interestingly, the contempt that common Chinese and ordinary Americans feel for their doctors and lawyers, respectively, is directly related to the fact that (unlike other white-collar workers), doctors and lawyers represent the highest political values in their country. The purpose of government in China, for example, is to provide for the wellbeing of the population. This care includes healthy food, affordable homes, and timely medical care. Indeed, it is remarkable the outrage and press coverage that these three issues consistently generate in the Chinese press, online, and now through weixin (Tencent’s We Chat app).  In the US, we hold our government accountable to protect our rights, both from each other and against corporations. In China, doctors are the last line of defence in securing wellbeing. Likewise, in the US, we turn to lawyers to secure our rights. And yes, those who break the law and get away with it repeatedly show up in the headlines, while taking on the legal system and calls for particular uses there of can turn mere pundits into talk show personalities and ordinary people into national heroes.

Speculation du jour: Chinese doctors and US American lawyers have been cast as villians and heroes in national dramas because neither system is providing the “good life” for its people. In China, wellbeing is the highest value and doctors exist to maintain this wellbeing. In the US, fairness is the highest value and lawyers exist to ensure a level playing field. However, in both countries, those in most need of healthcare or legal aid are most likely not to receive it. Moreover, Chinese doctors often can’t provide adequete healthcare without bankrupting patients, just as UA lawyers can’t provide decent representation without bankrupting clients. In both cases, systemic breakdowns break ordinary lives. Nevertheless, public anger has not (yet) led for widespread calls to change either the Chinese or American systems, but rather nasty jokes about and threats against doctors and lawyers, respectively.

Sigh.

tea time stories

Old Sui makes starkly whimsical woodblock prints the old fashioned modernist way — by hand, alone, and in a studio that is open to friends who drop by for tea and chats. He has collected over 1,000 teapots that when individually shelved and arranged seem oddly menacing. Not a first mind. At first, one sees artistry in the smooth lines and soft glow of each pot. However, as Old Sui opens a drawer to show part of the collection, and then another, and then says that the majority of the collection is elsewhere, the care and time necessary to make and care for a teapot gives way to numbers games and ranking; here are 50+ teapots, here are several dozens, the top  twenty or so have been displayed on a shelf that stretches around the room.

And the rest?

In a room at home.

I know the feeling of insatiable desire. I also enjoy aesthetic displays of objects. But. I am not a collector. Learning that Old Sui has set aside a room for private delectation? The intimacy of this knowledge startles me and my eye settles on a teapot crafted in black clay with flecks of golden sand. Continue reading

mama troll

The Mandarin expression for internet trolling — visiting sites, but not actually participating — is scuba diving or 潜水. Last night, I heard it used in the context of parental supervision. Apparently, there are mothers who have requested that their children give them their qq, we chat, and other social networking account passwords so that they can supervise them. The person describing the mother in question joked she was as “mama troll (潜水妈妈)”.

When I mentioned that I found this behavior highly disturbing, my friends responded that yes, it was a bit excessive, but what could you do? Children are an extension of their mothers, and if I didn’t understand this cultural root, I couldn’t understand Chinese mothers.

What’s more, another friend added, many of these mothers have nothing to do. They sit around and worry about who their husbands may or may not be seeing. They chat with friends and imagine all sorts of situations that their daughters might encounter. The most worrisome problem would be young love, especially because young love adversely affected grade point averages.

I then did another of my highly selective surveys, where I told this story to friends and cab drivers and the odd waitress to get their take. I asked if they thought it possible that a mother would go to such extremes? The 100% answer: yes. Most agreed that this kind of supervision was excessive. However, they pointed out that many mothers worry about their children, especially their daughters and so the concern was natural. Others remembered that when they were younger, their friends’ mothers might read their diaries for similar reasons.

I then asked why didn’t the children just sign up for another email or we chat account? Here the responses varied — maybe the children lived at home and their mothers paid for their cell phone and internet access; maybe the children always did what their mother asked them to do, and; maybe it was just easier to put up with the intrusive supervision than it was to set up independent accounts.

After all, another friend pointed out, as long as a child is living with her mother, her options are limited because sometimes teachers will request parents to increase supervision over a child. “It’s a conspiracy,” she then said half jokingly, “Teachers and mothers work together to make sure that children do what they should.”

dec 2012: more hukou rumors

According to a knowledgeable friend, Shenzhen’s latest census results indicate that the city’s population has breached 17 million. However, the number of residents with hukou remains between 2 and 3 million. In other words, although the population continues to grow and despite liberalizing hukou regulations, nevertheless, the hukou population has remained relatively static.

What’s going on?

Another at the table said that although the regulations had been liberalized, nevertheless, applications had bottle-necked at different ministries and offices. The common denominator seems to be that its not enough to have fulfilled the requirements, but one must somehow exceed those requirements, offering something that will enhance Shenzhen’s statistical profile.

This rumor echoed similar rumors that I have heard about education. Although Shenzhen schools are required to admit waidi (outside) students in their cachment area, nevertheless, schools often refuse to admit these students unless they are incredibly talented and likely to produce results. Importantly, people emphasize that its not possible simply to buy one’s way into a school because teachers’ salaries and school rankings are at stake — no one wants to waste their time on students who will drag down class and school averages.

The general point seems to be that simply having money isn’t enough to buy one’s way into Shenzhen; one must also add cultural value to get in with the in crowd.

in the aftermath of housing reform (房改)

Much of what I know about Shenzhen, I know through hearsay. How much might be confirmed through other sources — people, reports, maps, or books, for example — is a methodological question. Sometimes I can track down confirmation, other times I can’t. What I do know, however, is that most folks are willing to talk about other people’s affairs, even when not willing to disclose anything about themselves. The other day, I heard a story about the Baoping Community compound and here’s how it goes:

Built in the area around the train station and then moving north parallel to the train tracks, the earliest residences for Shenzhen cadres were small, danwei compounds. In 1980ish, the Xili Industry and Trade Enterprise bought land rights from Caiwuwei Village and built a small compound along what became Heping Road, just east of the railway. Xili went out of business and Shenzhen Travel took over the compound. However, Shenzhen began privatizing danwei houses in 1988, a full ten years before the rest of the country. Thus, China Travel employees who had housing in the residential area were able to purchase their benefit housing (福利房) at cost.

Sometime after privatization, the residential compound was renamed, Baoping. Old and small, the residential compound is no longer upscale housing. Instead, most of the homes are shared rentals (合租), in which each bedroom is rented out and then the kitchen, bathroom, and living spaces are shared. Continue reading

Apparently, no one is clean…

Shenzhen seems engaged in a classical turn, not simply in terms of neo-confucian efforts to remake the citizenry into folks who know and are happy in their place, but also to shrug off the possibility that any official might be clean. “They’re all corrupt; it’s tradition [speaker’s emphasis],” I was told. The inevitability of official corruption was demonstrated with a phrase from the late Qing: 三年清知府,十万雪花银, which means “after three years in office, even a clean magistrate will have accumulated 100,000 taels of silver”.