Life in China

Look. Blue.
Confucius says, “Look! No smog!”

Something completely strange and unheard of has been happening with Beijing’s weather over the past week. The sky has been blue. The first day this happened, I figured it must have been because of a rainstorm the previous day. (Rain often drives the pollution out of the air.) On the second day, I thought maybe some magical weather system was preventing smog buildup. And by the third day, when I had seen as much blue sky in a week as I’d seen the rest of the summer, I realized it had to be the government.

The Olympics are one year away, and Beijing wants to make sure it doesn’t suffer the embarrassment of elite athletes being unable to compete because, well, they can’t breathe. To that end, this weekend the city will be testing laws that keep more than a third of the city’s cars off the road. But already there is absolutely no smog whatsoever, and this leads me to believe they’re doing more than limiting vehicle traffic. In fact, a lot of people have been wondering whether the government is simply shuttering factories or actually playing with the weather.

The timing of the blue skies is fortuitous — coinciding with the activities related to the one-year countdown to the games. I imagine the Beijing government would love to hear a lot more quotes like this one from the captain of the Canadian women’s beach volleyball team, which was in town to try out the Beijing venue: “We heard about pollution fears but looking at the sky today and enjoying this weather, we don’t see any problem. It’s fantastic.” Wow. She should have been here the rest of the summer, when you could actually smell the chemicals in the air.

I don’t know what they’re doing, but I hope they keep it up for the rest of my stay. Previously, the smog was so thick that it obscured my view of trees and buildings 30 feet in front of me. Now, I can see stars at night.

Photo of paper
Most of the news in Beijing today focused on the Olympics, but Page A5 of the Beijing News was fully devoted to product safety. (Note the graphic in the lower right. The duck in the background signifies toys covered in lead paint.)

I’ve been paying attention over the summer to the story about tainted Chinese products, and I think it’s interesting to see how Chinese reporting contrasts with the Western news. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve noticed:

• Chinese stories about tainted food tend to focus on it as a domestic issue, alerting readers to dangers, for example. I think this is completely understandable because it’s what affects readers most. But the stories say the government has been working to address this problem for a long time — “years,” usually. This is kind of strange, because the articles touting the government regulations haven’t been around for a long time, and there obviously is still a problem. So either the government hasn’t been doing such a great job, or these efforts haven’t been considered very important until recently. Hmm.

• When the conflicts with Western countries are mentioned, it’s usually in the context of Chinese efforts to ensure product safety and punish the few bad eggs responsible for problems. Chinese media emphasize that most items coming from China are safe, whereas Western media emphasize that almost everything found to be unsafe has been made in China. In the newspapers here, the incidents involving toothpaste, medicine and the like are sometimes referred to as “alleged,” and the Western media are blamed for sensationalizing the problem. (By the way, I tend to think most of the stories in the U.S. are reasonable, but I also think some of the U.S. reporting reflects a nervousness in America about Chinese growth and our dependence on Chinese products.)

• The Chinese stories frequently are accompanied by a smaller story about some sort of tainted product coming from overseas, almost in the style of an “equal time” policy. This sort of backlash is particularly interesting, I think, in the way it affects American companies. Gregory Gilligan from McDonald’s, who spoke to us earlier this summer, said that since these scandals broke, he’s been spending a significant amount of time reminding Chinese government officials that most of the food McDonald’s uses is made in China.

Sure, I don’t have a statistical analysis of this, and my limited understanding of Chinese allows me to spot only the most obvious product-safety stories in the non-English media. But if you don’t believe me about this, you can see some English-language stories here, here, here and here.

I think this tainted-food story is a perfect microcosm of the workings of the Chinese government. Officials are panicking about the ramifications of these scandals, both in terms of business and global standing, even as they attempt to maintain secrecy and deny the very existence of serious issues. I find it fascinating. Of course, I’d find it even more fascinating if I weren’t so focused on my newfound fear of buying toothpaste.

Photo of Ad
A typical ad for whitening cream, from the White Perfect line by L’Oreal. My disembodied thumb is included to show just how light the model is.

“Wow, your skin is so white” is not something I’m used to hearing as a compliment, but I get it with some frequency in Beijing.

Many women in China are obsessed with whitening their skin. They carry umbrellas and wear opera-length gloves to protect themselves from the sun. A lot of them even take a page from the Michael Jackson playbook and use chemical whitening creams. Cosmetics counters here devote most of their space to this pursuit, and Western brands have entire lines of whitening products that you don’t see in the U.S. (This is an Asia-wide phenomenon, but the women I met in Thailand somehow didn’t seem as fixated on whiteness as those I know in Beijing.)

It’s not that the women want to look exactly like Europeans; nobody compliments me on my hair or eyes. They just want to be as pale as possible. When I told one of my teachers that European women often try to make themselves darker, she was incredulous. “Really?” she asked. “I thought everyone, everywhere wanted to have whiter skin.”

Coming from America and being white, I’m a little unnerved by people complimenting me on my color. I’m unable to shake the assumption that they lighten their skin because they want to look like white people, and I keep wanting to say that this is wrong. But who am I to define beauty for someone else? I’ve heard the preference for light skin predates recent European colonization, so I really don’t know how much of this is due to racism and the influence of Western media and how much is a long-held belief that whiter skin indicates a higher class, regardless of what one might define as the person’s race.

I doubt I’m the only American who has this gut reaction. Even though I know biases toward lighter skin exist within many U.S. communities and among advertisers, for example, I can’t imagine the society-wide freak-out that would ensue if cosmetics companies promoted these products so blatantly in the U.S. I mean, whitening cream? Seriously?

Here, the main problem is that many creams and tonics are counterfeit and unsafe. An IHT article last year pointed out that “the most effective but risky skin-bleaching agents are often the least expensive, like mercury-based ingredients or hydroquinone,” which causes cancer. So I guess I should be thankful that I’m already at the near-optimal shade of “death warmed over.”

“We held a wake. We stood around a pile of Journals and drank whiskey.” – Wall Street Journal staffer on the news of the deal between Dow Jones and News Corp.

While my former compatriots – and many fellow journalists – are lamenting the death of the Wall Street Journal as we know it, I’m 7,000 miles away, pondering a media system that might as well be in a different universe.

Every once in a while, when Chinese people find out I’m a journalist, they’ll embark on the sort of conversation that makes me look, shifty-eyed, around the room. It starts something like this:

Chinese person: So, I hear you’re a journalist.
Me: Yes. Yes, I am.
Chinese person: Is it really true that in America, journalists can write whatever they want, and they aren’t afraid of the government?
Me: Uhhhhhhh.

I’ve heard this a few times now and have become used to it, but the first time I was asked these questions, I have to admit the conversation made me nervous. I had been here for only a couple of weeks, and I had no idea whether this was the sort of thing one could talk about in public. Of course, it also led to my proudest moment up to that point: explaining libel law in Chinese (degree of difficulty: not yet knowing the words for “libel” or “law”).

Now I know that it’s fine to talk about this in public. People have asked me some interesting things, such as whether the FBI and CIA follow journalists around. I’ve also learned that, in spite of Internet restrictions, some of the people I’ve talked to are using Western media to get their news — and they actually find that exciting.

One woman told me she reads the New York Times and the Washington Post because “they have stories about China that we don’t have here,” such as reporting on tainted Chinese products. She said she started doing this after a high-school-age friend of hers told her that on weekends, for fun, he reads American newspapers.

Of course, I don’t want to give anyone the impression that there is a massive movement of people reading Western news. Most people I talk to don’t seem to care; their response upon hearing that I’m a journalist is simply to say that they’ve heard it’s a stressful job. And when people are jailed for writing essays, or even for questioning the safety of their company’s products, it’s difficult to see how the situation is going to change anytime soon.

But my time here has reaffirmed for me that — despite Paris Hilton coverage and job cuts and, yes, even despite Rupert Murdoch –- the craft of journalism is still crucial to the fabric of democracy. And, hey, at least I’m not trying to ply said craft as a Chinese citizen. There’s always that.

View of toiletA couple of alert readers have mentioned their interest in China’s toilet culture. As always, I aim to please, so here you go. (My apologies to those of you who already are familiar with Asian and African toileting methods. Apparently the beloved “squat pot” possesses a certain novelty – and a strange, mesmerizing power – for many.)

Many Chinese bathrooms, particularly those in public places, don’t have fixtures you sit on. They have fixtures you squat over. Sometimes these have flushing capabilities. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they have toilet paper, but usually they don’t. Sometimes they are in stalls with doors. Sometimes … well, you get the idea.

As this recent Wall Street Journal article points out, China is aiming to spiff up its public toilets before the Olympics. This includes installing toilets that won’t make Westerners cry. But, more importantly, it includes making sure public restrooms are clean and have things such as toilet paper and sinks. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t seem to have a clear photo of the average squat pot, so I have provided you with one from my dorm’s public bathroom. (The one in my room has a Western toilet.) The photo is a view of what you would see upon entering the stall. No toilet paper is provided.

As far as I’m concerned, squat pots themselves aren’t problematic. I avoid them because I’m not used to navigating them. If you’ve grown up using this style of toilet, it’s obviously not an issue. In fact, I can see how people who are used to squat pots would be horrified at having their skin touch the seat of a toilet.

The problem is that there usually isn’t toilet paper. Even if there is, sewage systems in many countries can’t handle it, and you have to put it in a basket. This, combined with the lack of strong flushing, means things often smell. And as for the lack of doors, well, I’ve never actually used one of those types. I’ve been told people sometimes bring in umbrellas to give themselves some privacy, but that opening up an umbrella in the middle of a line of people who don’t have umbrellas just makes everyone stare at you. All in all, I’m in favor of promoting toilet culture, but I’m mainly in favor of privacy and good hygiene.

For those intrepid souls eager to learn how to use a squat pot, this site has some helpful, albeit graphic, words of wisdom.

Menu ItemsJules: What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: Well, a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it le Big-Mac.

Around much of the world, the line from “Pulp Fiction” holds true: A Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac. But not in China. In China, a Big Mac is a 巨无霸, or jù wú bà, which I think would literally translate to something along the lines of “Great Feudal Warlord.” McDonald’s itself is 麦当劳, or mài dāng láo, which obviously sounds like McDonald’s but translates to the meaningless “Wheat Facing Labor.”

Recently, my program received a visit from Gregory Gilligan, the head of government relations for McDonald’s here, who discussed a few more issues the company faces in translating a quintessentially American business into a completely different cultural framework. Among the highlights:

• Unlike in the U.S., it’s not possible to do much business in China without government approval. So it’s crucial to use government ideas and catchphrases in pitching business plans. Currently, promoting a “harmonious society” is key. This is true even with dealing with China’s NGOs, which, of course, aren’t truly independent from the government. (Some people call them “gongos” — governmental non-governmental organizations.)

• China’s one-child policy is having a vast effect on business, including foreign companies. The country’s pampered kids already have changed the way marketers approach and cater to consumers. But most interesting to me was the assertion that all these only children seem to be having a tough time with business cultures that emphasize teamwork. That could be a problem as companies like McDonald’s hire and train local executives.

By the way, in honor of Mr. Gilligan’s visit, I went to McDonald’s to check out their Chinese menu. They don’t have pig ears or anything shocking on there. They have pork sandwiches, cups of corn and some strange neon-colored-beverage-ice-cream things that I was scared to try. But their offerings were, on the whole, similar to those in the U.S. I had a crispy chicken sandwich, fries, a Coke and a pie. The chicken sandwich was made out of dark meat rather than white, which was a surprise, and it was quite spicy. The fries were as one would expect. But the pie. The pie was worth the effort.

Eds. Note: For those interested in purchasing-power parity, Jacob passes along this timely link to the Economist’s regular Big Mac Index.

Mmm.Before arriving in Beijing, I had heard tales of the pollution here. I was prepared for the worst, and I must say Beijing has delivered. There have, of course, been a few days with blue sky. But on the other days … well, never before have I seen such smog. The photo to the left is the scene from the apartment where I stayed before moving into the dorm. And although the day was indeed a little misty, that is by no means just a nice, romantic fog you see there. Oh, no. Not unless fog has started smelling like smoke. I don’t know exactly what’s in that haze, but I bet it took a few days off my life.

I’m sure most of you have heard that Beijing is going to improve the air for the Olympic Games next year. There are plans to pull more than a million cars off the road (out of about 3 million in the city). Beijing’s pollution also comes from plain old dust, as well as emissions from factories. So plants in other provinces will have to be shut down for the games as well.

I think Beijing’s central government will be able to pull it off, at least for a short amount of time. In the long term, though, they are facing some significant problems. This Guardian article says China is blaming pollution problems for growing social unrest. Considering that some reports are saying pollution causes as many as 750,000 premature deaths a year, such unrest wouldn’t surprise me.

For tourists and expats, pollution seems to be more of an annoyance than a true danger. If you ever head to Beijing for a long period of time, I suggest you bring lots of allergy and cold medicine. If you wear contacts, either leave them behind or get daily disposable ones. (I haven’t had to break out the facemask yet, but you could always try one of those as well.)

So, I’m just starting to look at the China Daily (the state-run English-language newspaper) on a semi-regular basis. China’s media are reporting on “industrial raw materials” found in food, as well as closures of food-processing plants. Today’s story mentions that 180 plants — out of about a million — have been shut down. It doesn’t mention how many have been checked. But perhaps I should avoid eating “flour, candy, pickles, biscuits, black fungus, melon seeds, bean curd and seafood.”

Another story today discusses deaths in China caused by recent storms. This seemed like a normal — albeit sad — story, until I got to the part about 37 people being killed by lightning strikes in eastern China. In less than a week. Now, I know eastern China has a lot of people. And a lot of these people work in open fields. But 37 people being killed by lightning strikes? In a short span of time? I can’t get my mind around it.

Just to keep you updated on the blogging conditions in China: They’re nearly impossible. Access was spotty even before I moved into the dormitory in Beijing, and once I got onto campus, things became even more difficult. Firewalls at Chinese universities are more strict than those in China as a whole, I hear. I’ve been blocked from accessing any blogging services – and from accessing any blogs hosted by those services. The firewall even blocks I Can Has Cheezburger?, which as you can imagine was quite devastating for me. Oh, and of course it blocks my site.

So how do bloggers blog from China? Often, it’s via something called an onion router. Basically, this connects you to a network of foreign servers that in turn connect you to the content you want. The computer you’re connected to is always changing, so Google might show up as Google France one minute and German Google the next. All in all, it’s quite handy, but excruciatingly slow.

If you want to know more about China’s firewall, Human Rights Watch has a good overview.

I’ve been watching a lot of Chinese TV since I arrived here. And I have to say, I’m addicted to one particular soap opera that runs every evening. It’s called “Hong Kong Sisters” and is supposedly meant to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to mainland China. Basically, it follows the lives of two best friends — we’ll call them Hotel Girl and Actress Girl — in Hong Kong over the past decade. As it stands now, Actress Girl has landed a role in a movie and is about to become a starlet. But in the process, she has become a bit of a jerkface, using people and even lying to her best friend, Hotel Girl. Hotel Girl, meanwhile, is … well, she’s working in a hotel. She’s also facing a decision between Hot, Cocky Son of Hotel Owner and Lovable Hotel Employee Boy.

Verdict: awesome.

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