Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Expats' Gala

Also known as the "Charming Chongqing New Year's Ball" which officially invited as many locally resident foreigners as could be invited. All in all, maybe fifty attended. In a city of 5 million, and a municipality of almost 40 million, that isn't terribly great attendance. But it's not bad when considering, as I was later told, that there are only about 150 foreigners who live long term in this city, and maybe 2,000 at any given time (including tourists, business-people, temp workers).

We filed into the entry hall of the River Rose Hotel for registration, past a pair of odd photographs hung upon the wall. One was a picture of Mao Zedong dancing with some woman, and the next photo was of Dubya and Laura Bush also dancing the night away. I wonder if the hotel realizes how offended Bush would be by that comparison? For that matter, I'm surprised that more Chinese aren't offended that their beloved mass-murdering forefather is being compared to the US joke-in-chief.

The hall where the foreigners ball was to be held was a lovely impression of former colonialist glory. The center of the room was filled with a dance floor and stage quite similar to the opening scene in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'. Surrounding that, leathery grottoes set back against the walls were filled mostly with the local elite, with European or Indian faces sprinkled lightly over the top.

Paul, our most recent teacher, introduced me to the man who the local government had called in to consult on this ball, among many other projects, a Mr. Felt. Mr. Felt was an older Swedish man with an 'Ian McDonald'ish look to him. Very experienced, very much inside the loop as a consultant to both the government and to foreign businesses looking to do business in China. We all settled down with some wine and waited for the show to begin.

The show itself was fairly predictable, if you've seen a Chinese variety show on TV. Shadow-puppetry was accompanied by ear-piercing sound effects (birds chirping, roosters crowing, wolves howling); a 'ceremonial' champagne pyramid was made into a royal sticky mess, but I hardly saw the entertainment value in it; a Taiwanese singer, Theresa Tang, sang as couples danced away in the semi-gloom. I deduce that the government was afraid the dances (at least three separate occasions that evening) would not be attended, so professional dancers were sent out onto the dance floor dressed much better than most of the guests--tuxedo for the man, flowing dress and gossamer silk drapes hanging from the arms--and flitted about like overdressed pixies. The wife of the consul of Cambodia was brought in to cut some cake, along with some local bureaucrats and foreign businessmen. Perhaps the highlight of the program, however, was the Sichuan Opera-style performer who could change masks across his face faster than you can blink. Unfortunately, being seated in one of the back corners, I couldn't see his performance very well, even with strategically sited TV screens around.

More interesting for me than any part of the planned program, was the conversation back in my corner. Who better to ask about Chongqing's current business climate, than one of the men in the center of it all?

Chongqing, it seems, is not a good place for foreign investment or business to locate itself. Although labor shortages (you wouldn't think to hear about those in a land of 1.3 billion people, would you?), density of competitors, and rising salaries on the eastern and southern coasts of China are making those regions less glamorous to the world's metacorporations for purposes of outsourcing, Chongqing hasn't really done much more than create a facade of propaganda in order to present itself as a viable alternative.

These things I was told:
(A) The local government (and thus business climate) is as incestuous and corrupt as any in China. Middle-level bureaucrats drive BMWs which they shouldn't be able to afford on their official salaries even if they saved up money for all their lives. The PSB (Public Security Bureau, i.e. China's KGB) has a stake in one of my school's direct competitors, for example. I suddenly could understand why we have so much difficulty finding good marketing opportunities, especially in public areas.

(B) These bureaucrats are "hostile from top to bottom" to foreign businesses which are seen as being "too honest [for the local government kleptocrats] to trust". Singaporean, Taiwanese, and HK companies, in any case get slightly better treatment. Other foreigners should just forget about opening companies that try to sell to the local market. Only factories for export and services targeted to the local government have a reasonable chance of profiting at the moment.

(C) In the days of true Chinese communism, Chengdu was considered the 'administrative center' of the region, and Chongqing was considered the 'production center'. As a result, there is a remaining lack of administrative capability in Chongqing. Local bureaucrats have little sense of how to make Chongqing an attractive business destination, other than proclaiming it from the rooftops, spending money on lavish celebrations in its honor, and building more highways and skyscrapers through its center. Xi'an, for example has set up a development zone in partnership with the EU in which European businesses will receive years' worth of tax freedom. Similar partnerships are lacking in Chongqing, because the local bureaucrats apparently believe that the onus of development should be put on incoming companies (and in the meantime, they can pocket the money that Beijing has sent for the very purpose of such development).

Luckily for Chongqing, there is hope on the way. Beijing, finally fed up with local incompetence, sent in a new mayor. This man is known for chopping heads--notably in the port city of Dalian in the northeast, where there were mass resignations and a couple suicides among the top bureaucrats shortly after his arrival--to good result.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Frozen Breath in the Bedroom

On the face of it, the situation could be worse. My toes and face are slowly freezing off, but as long as I curl awkwardly beneath a comforter not made to cover a 6'3 body, the rest of me should be fine.

In China, there is a line of demarcation dividing north and south that is of similar importance to other great and arbitrary historical lines--Mason-Dixon, Maginot, etc. This line more or less follows the sluggish Yellow River as it carries its freight of clay and raw sewage from the interior of the country to the sea. This line determines which cities will receive government-supplied indoor steam-heating, and which of them won't. The heating apparently requires a surge of activity from the many coal power plants, so at no extra cost an insulating blanket of obscures the northern cities of China from the cold skies above (and any spy satellites therein).

Alas, Chongqing--along with Shanghai, Wuhan, Hangzhou, and others--rests below this line, but not quite deep enough into the tropical zones in southern China that it couldn't use such intervention against the fingers of chill that even now claw their way beneath my manifold covers.

I won't be so rude as to suggest, as my roommate did to his girlfriend, that to see one's breath inside one's home was not something that happens in developed countries. I suppose this problem doesn't often occur in many-malled suburbia, but there's no need to be insulting. The Chinese are well known for their spendthrift even many years after they've immigrated to the 'land of opportunity'. They are raised to believe that it is the height of waste to heat one's home if not absolutely necessary. A warm coat and long underwear are a onetime cost, but heat is an ongoing drain on finances.

Perhaps more important for consideration: Frigid living-rooms mean that the energy footprint of even an upper-class Chinese household on a wintry day is only a fraction of that of a US household. In an age where we should all be thinking more clearly about what kind of planet we wish to live in, and what manner of lifestyle might be necessary in order to sustain it in that state, maybe this is a habit worth encouraging, retaining, or adopting. If only I weren't so accustomed to the luxury of lolling about my room in shorts and short-sleeves while sub-Siberian temperatures prevail outside and snowy-winged devils crash frozen to the sidewalks--as often did happen in the town of my birth. Then, I prided myself on waltzing through the falling snow in short-sleeves, only possible because I started and ended my foray engulfed in indoor warmth.

Now, I'll have to content myself with new pastimes: breath-sculpting koalas, kings, and cacti in the air of my bedroom while I hibernate beneath the covers. If doing my part for energy efficiency means remaining torpid and inactive for half the year, who am I to argue?

Monday, January 7, 2008

If You Can't Damn 'The Man'...

...bribe him.

Our school is moving locations in a few weeks. We're only moving a few hundred meters, into a different office building and on a different plaza, but still it is a big change--and hopefully for the better.

There are some problems, though. The 'Fire Council' dictates that all business locations should have two fire exits. Our new school only has one--not counting the main stairway and elevator. Actually, I'm looking around our current location on the fifteenth floor, and I can't find even one route I would consider a fire escape. We do have a central stairway and three elevators, but if the center of the building were on fire, or a floor below us, I'm not sure those would do us much good. The new location at least is only on the third floor, so worst-to-worst you could jump out the window and only expect a couple broken bones rather than being roasted alive for the love of grammar.

I'm required to sign off on all school expenses, so at this point in the narrative, let me backtrack to the moment where I discovered that my Chinese manager had taken these corrupt bureaucrats out to dinner and offered them a large monetary gift. Hmmm. I asked her about this, and she very openly and blatantly said, "Oh, those are just bribes." Just bribes? Yes, just bribes that had even been authorized by the executive VP.

Then she tells me that that's not the end of it. After being paid off, these Fire Dept. guys snidely referred us to the Educational Division which expected another large sum of money from us before the new year (now past) just for the small-potatoes act of allowing us to change our address on our school's license. My poor Chinese manager attempted to bargain them down, but they just threatened to send copious fines our way.

None of this is particularly suprising, if you know how things are done in China, but the incident does underscore my feeling that China is not a country I would particularly wish to invest in. Despite all the enthusiasm about the potential of the Chinese market, as virulent as SARS ever was, the facts beneath the facade are a bit less rosey.