Observations on China

8 12 2009


Free from the internet censorship, here are some reflections looking back.  We really enjoyed our time in China, the people are great, but the government is kooky.  China is nominally a communist country.  First-hand, it seems more like a free market economy with little or no effective oversight run by an oligarchy called the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP.  They are pursing what they call ‘scientific development’ (rampant industrial and economic growth) and yet they still insist on using arcane Communist terminology and imagery in their slogans about peasants, workers, the Revolution, etc.  The peasants and workers are nominally the “true” Chinese, but these days the real Chinese are busy buying name brand clothing, eating junk food, and accumulating as much personal wealth as possible in the bustling urban centers like Shanghai, Beijing, etc.  The country seems to be undergoing a spiritual crisis as they abandon the party lines about “the glory of the workers” for the new ‘God’: money.

The one child policy has reduced the population growth in China, but with the noticeable side effect of the “Little Emperor Syndrome”.  The younger generation in China now consists mostly of only children whose parents are too willing to overindulge their every whims.  We often saw children with atrocious behavior, and their parents would do nothing to discipline their children.  In one silent Buddhist temple full of praying believers, one brat was banging on an antique chest holding religious relics, shouting for his mom to answer his question.  Of course, she smilingly answered his question, but did not reproach him for his inappropriate behavior.  The bus ride to Vietnam had a five-year old child burst into a crying tantrum every ten minutes, who quickly shut-up when his manipulation got him the attention, candy or toy he desired.   We spoke with one teacher who confirmed that many of  the students are spoiled brats, and her boyfriend interjected that the little fiends sometimes even hit the teachers in their tantrums.   Add this to the phenomenon of the internet and game cafes, where Chinese youth (zombies fueled by Redbull and cigarettes) play video games into the wee hours of the morning, and this generation will be interesting to watch as they grow into the leaders of supercharged China.

The state-run television service has one channel in English.  It is a well produced channel that offers news, programs on history, culture and so on (with a bias that is easier to notice once you watch it for a while).  It is not as stiff and blatant with Communist propaganda as one might expect, but there is a bias. On our first night in Beijing, we were shocked to watch a show about a happy new couple who had just found out that the levels of formaldehyde and benzene in their brand new apartment were way above the government safety standards.  The solution? Buy some plants to help clean the air! The show was about the happy new couple finding the right plants to help remove the unsafe levels of benzene and formaldehyde from the air in their new home.  This was on state-run TV.  There was no discussion of why building materials with unsafe levels of toxic chemicals were used in the construction of the interior of residences, if anyone was held accountable for failing to meet government standards, or that the couple should even expect that their new home not be built using sub-standard and unhealthy building materials.  It was a truly free-market solution: buy some plants.

According to the journal Environment International (v35, issue 8, Nov 2009, p 1210-1224) :

More than 65% of the Chinese formaldehyde output is used to produce resins mainly found in wood products — the major source of indoor pollution in China. Although the Chinese government has issued a series of standards to regulate formaldehyde exposure, concentrations in homes, office buildings, workshops, public places, and food often exceed the national standards.

The strange thing we noticed in China, it often appears that there is a complete lack of regulations in many aspects of society.  You often hear in America that China is a communist country, and communism stifles the free market with arcane bureaucracy, red-tape and state control of enterprise and regulations.  In the past, this was true, but times have changed and China is now a rollicking free market economy, often with little or no effective government oversight or regulation.  Do you want to operate an unsafe coal mine, put melamine in your milk to increase profits, use cheap lead-based paint for children’s toys to be sold in the USA under a major brand name, all without any pesky government interference? Then China is the place you want to do business.  Compared to China, at times America seems to be a swamp of red-tape with requirements that you meet certain health and safety standards, environmental protections, etc.  Of course, our products are less likely to physically harm us.  While in China, we heard news stories of illegal (previously closed due to unsafe working conditions) coal mines collapsing and killing workers and a lead factory (residents were told it made something safe) that had poisoned the children in the neighboring community.   These were only the stories that were shown on state-run TV.

My hand shrunk!!!

My hand shrunk!!!

We also noticed that some of the squares in Beijing were crammed with signs for McDonalds, KFC, Nike and so many brands you could hardly see the buildings and there seemed to be an absolute lack of any sign regulations.  In Yangshou, we noticed a luxury resort was closed due to a disagreement by the “joint-venture” owners.  Regardless of what you may hear, unbridled capitalism is alive and kicking in China.

But the internet is heavily censored.  Facebook is banned, as are most blogging sites (they do not want independent reporting, and these allow users to posts photos and videos about protests)  We emailed out text to Amy to get around the censorship for this blog.  Most Chinese youth use proxy servers to get around censors.  The government knows this but it is just quietly allowed.  Chinese youth are hungry for information on the internet.  One law student in a southern city loved watching PBS programs online, and stayed up late into the night talking with Jason about how he imagined China having a two-party democratic system soon.  He responded that he saw one party representing a pro-business platform (like the current CCP) and another that would supported a platform for the interests of the rural working class (farmers, laborers, etc.)  We will see….

Lao highway patrol vehicle

We posted this from Laos, as we were reminded of this previously written entry (yet unpublished while in China) as we noticed the influence of China in northern Laos.  Many of the roads in the north are being built by the Chinese in order to improve the movement of raw materials (rubber and timber) into China to meet their ever-growing demand for resources.  The hills outside the park areas have been cleared to grow rubber trees, and some areas are now teak plantations to provide raw lumber.  We also noted that the highway patrol in northern Laos has fancy new SUVs provided by the Chinese government (it says so on the side in bold Chinese and English text, but not in Lao).




4 responses

8 12 2009

I find your comments about the formaldehdye concentration in the China apartment interesting. Here in the United States we have NO standard at all for residential formaldehyde concentration. If we did surely many of our homes would be above that standard.

California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assesments recommends that the formaldehyde concentration for an 8 hour exposure be 7 ppb or less. Most of use are in are homes that long just to sleep. Yet in the 1990’s the typical home had 14 ppb. A study of CA homes built in 2003 showed that concentration increased to 29 ppb. Then the FEMA trailers came in 2006 at 77 ppb. Then a study in the San Jose Bay area of 2008 & 2009 homes approached 100 ppb. Finally, look at the CDC drywall study and notice that the formaldehyde in those homes (including those with American drywall) had formaldehyde at 79 to 400+ ppb.

Our government does not protect the typical resident either. It is buyer beware and if damaged the cost and difficulty of a product liability lawsuit. I would encourage anyone with any respiratory issues and/or homes built since 2002 to spend $40 to test their living area for formaldehyde. Unfortunately, formaldehyde is everywhere insulation, laminate flooring, fuzzy hangers, yoga mats, furniture, molding, cabinets, underlayment, personal care products, toys etc.

12 12 2009
Jason and Alexa

You make a good point about a lack of regulations even in the USA. We stayed in one hotel in China that was brand new and had such high levels of VOCs in the air it was like walking into a paint booth. We have no idea about precise measurements, but you could just smell it in the air- like we were huffing paint. We did some more internet research, and found interesting additional information about possible problems (and lawsuits) related to drywall used in American homes that was imported from a country that begins with “Ch” and ends with “a.”

9 12 2009

Interesting observations! It’s so crazy how different parts of the same world function!

12 12 2009
Tom the Redhunter

“China is nominally a communist country. First-hand, it seems more like a free market economy with little or no effective oversight run by an oligarchy called the Chinese Communist Party”

That’s about what I had figured. I wonder how tenable this is in the long run. When the party has no ideology other than power, how long before the people start getting ideas of liberty into their heads? Or will they?

“it often appears that there is a complete lack of regulations in many aspects of society.”

Fascinating. The government squashes all political dissent but doesn’t care if you run an unsafe factory or make unsafe products, as long as they aren’t for export to the U.S.

“The one child policy”

With their population, I ‘get’ why they instituted it. But the price has been terrible. Forced abortions, sterilizations, parents killing their baby girls because they prefer males. Terrible.

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