cultural economics 101: how do you find reliable workers in shenzhen?

The expression “a friend is a means of getting something done (一个朋友一条路)” is a concise description of the Shenzhen labor market. It is, of course, also a description of “relationship-ology (关系学), the social art of making full use of one’s relatives, friends and acquaintances. Given the importance of relationships to getting things done in China generally and Shenzhen specifically, relationship-ology manifests in some ugly ways. Nepotism is classic relationship-ology as is the art of making friends through wining, dining and bribing. Nevertheless, having friends help get things done isn’t as coldly instrumental as it sounds. Continue reading

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.


early edition vs weibo: who are you reading on the way to work?

Successful monopolies not only dominate an industry sector, but also provide enough diversity within their fiefdom to create the illusion of choice and competing views. Take, for example, the Shenzhen News Publishing Group, Ltd. (深圳报业集团发行有限公司), which was formed in 2002 through the merger of Shenzhen Special Zone News Group and the Shenzhen Commercial News Society. Today, the Group publishes ten newspapers and five journals, owns a book publishing house, and operates the city’s largest news website (深圳新闻网).

The Group has identified four primary news audiences. Shenzhen Daily (深圳日报) offers a Party-centric take on news of the city, country, and world and its audience is self-identified through their (actual or aspired) level of integration into the Municipal apparatus. Shenzhen Commercial News (深圳商报) provides daily reportage on the economy and investors, businessmen, and white collar workers constitute its intended audience. Shenzhen Nightly News (深圳晚报) is a comprehensive newspaper aimed at blue collar workers and ordinary people, who are interested in gossip, local happenings, and a concise reiteration of who’s in charge. Jing Bao (晶报) seems aimed at Generation 80, who are interested in hip takes on the news, more arts reportage, and have slightly “new social movement” impulses, including interests in environmentalism, social justice, and healthy yoga lifestyles.

What happens when new social media challenge that monopoly? Insight comes from how the Shenzhen News Publishing Group has targeted morning commuters on the Shenzhen subway.

During the Shenzhen morning commute, subway riders read Subway 8 a.m., read weibo, or space out; few actually talk to each other or watch the incessant advertising broadcasts on the LED screens (four to a car so that everyone can watch). Shenzhen News Publishing prints Subway 8 a.m. (地铁早8点) under its Shenzhen Metropolitan (深圳都市报) brand and distributes it to commuters on their way to work. The free newspaper unabashedly rehashes news in the most provocative ways, foregoing either analysis or background, reproducing in paper form the weibo experience. In yesterday’s edition, for example, the drought in Lijiang is covered in 91 characters, with a picture three times the size of the text area. Likewise, a 131 character report on Shenzhen’s heatwave was sensationalized with an over-saturated image of a human silhouette against an azure sky and white cloud. In a more explicit weibo reference, a story about a drunken subway rider who used a fire extinguisher to smash a window and then attacked the subway worker who tried to stop him included four surveillance coverage photos, a brief description of what had happened, and a report of weibo cries for human flesh. What’s more, Subway 8 a.m. does not include political news; this isn’t a newspaper, but a collection of sensationalist stories, sports coverage, and gossip.

The differences between Subway 8 a.m. and weibo are also instructive because they remind us that although the weibo and Subway 8 a.m. provide the same content, nevertheless the form of reporting is critical both to a reader’s experience and  (as yet) to capitalist experience, indicating why the Shenzhen Publishing Group has decided to publish a free gossip rag. On the one hand, from a reader’s perspective, Subway 8 a.m. comes in paper form with all the advantages thereof: bigger characters for easy reading, space for somewhat longer stories so that readers can choose between weibo-shorts and more detailed reports on why your child is always coughing or services for wishing neidi mothers, “Happy Mother’s Day!” Consequently, Subway 8 a.m. appeals to those of us who are tired of backlit spaces or enjoy the feel of newsprint or may even want to read an article that will occupy our imaginations for longer than it takes to ride from the Window of the World to the OCT station. On the other hand, from a business perspective, Subway 8 a.m. includes space for advertising. The early edition’s front page includes the masthead, one headline, and two half-page advertisements. Consequently, in between the front-page and the back-page gossip (“We no longer believe in love” was the title of the article on Zhang Yimou’s decision to sign with CCA and split with Zhang Weiping’s Beijing New Pictures (北京新画面影业公司) and yes it was a report on a weibo report!) are 22 pages filled with advertisements that look suspiciously like weibo stories — compelling pictures and seductive blurbs, such as: luxurious homes on the subway line.

Point du jour: the Shenzhen News Publishing Group has met the weibo challenge to its monopoly over local news (and sports and entertainment and society) coverage by becoming a print edition of weibo plus. Like weibo, Subway 8 a.m. is free-of-charge and content-lite, plus easy to read characters, plus slightly longer stories, and plus plus: advertising and info-stories.