China Retrospective 2014

TL;DR and Meta – I visited China for the first time. I enjoyed it very much. These are elaborated from notes I took while in China. This is part 3 of a 3 part series on China, concerning impressions about China as a whole. Part 1 concerns my week in Beijing. Part 2 concerns smaller visits to various parts of China.

So, I visited China for the very first time - in essence, looking at my cultural roots. Along the way I have gained some impressions about China, as well as new views on old topics. This blog post summarizes my impressions of my first trip to China.

People. People Everywhere

That was pretty much my first impression of China. And never did it leave my thoughts once. China is really filled with people. It’s people people people everywhere. In the past I had wondered about China’s lack of expansionism. China’s history has always seen China nucleate instead of expand outwards. It was the in the atmosphere of having people everywhere I began to realize one of the reasons for the lack of expansionism. If we take wealth to be the primary reason for expansionism, then capturing the internal market of China alone would be a monumental task. Any expansion outwards would probably not gain the government as much utility as nucleating.

Having a lot of people within an area leads to some implications. Infrastructure in China is huge. Kinda like American-sized everything. You can see and infer that most of the designs were meant for transporting a huge amount of people from point A to point B in the most efficient manner. Everything, from the bank of 8 escalators going up in Nanjing Station to the wide walkways in shopping malls, the design informs the reason for it: keep things moving.

Having a large population also means that keeping public toilets clean is also somewhat of a nightmare - I’ve never actually managed to poop in a Chinese public toilet - it kinda was a bit too disgusting for me. Despite this, the public locations are generally very clean. I took the high speed train a few times in China, and I counted 4 rounds of sweeping and rubbish collection per hour in the train itself. Also, I observed that the public toilets around the West Lake was cleaned about once every hour. The routine makes sense - sweeping and rubbish collection can be concurrently done while the area is being used. Washing toilets is linear process - the toilet has to be shut down for a bit while it’s being cleaned. This causes relatively clean streets and ammenities, but unclean toilets.

Powel, Sheenan and Thomas (2009), Becker, Baudry et al, as well as the likes of Jared Diamond and Matt Ridley have long argued that population density is a major factor in the occurances of innovation. And yet, the Industrial Revolution started in England, not China, despite the fact that the Chinese had been inventing stuff since the earliest of times.

In 1972, economist Mark Elvin came up with a plausible answer. He called it the high level equilibrium trap. In essence, China has so many people, that it was easier to throw people at the problem (you know the old phrase, to throw money at a problem). This caused industries to be efficient enough so that there would be no profit incentives to innovate. I didn’t really buy the premise. After visiting China however, Elvin’s words keep coming back to haunt me. It’s not difficult to see that it’s far cheaper to throw people at the problem than to innovate solutions in China.

Technology

Computers and advanced machinery, however, have made humans quite replaceable. Programmer hours do not scale linearly with the quantity of work produced, nor does it scale linearly with the efficiencies gained. In the age of the knowledge worker, the old way of putting more people on the job to solve a problem is slowly evaporating away, and the Chinese seem to know that.

Here’s a funny annecdote. I was on the subway in Nanjing. At around a station called ruanjian dadao (lit: Software Avenue), a couple of Chinese geeks walked in. You could tell they were probably computer programmers as they fit the stereotype very well. One of them was holding a can of energy drink (of sorts, it’s a Chinese energy drink). Both were bespectacled and for a lack of better words, clumsily dressed. I was standing just in front of the door, and it just happened during that day I was wearing a black Golang t-shirt, complete with the Golang gopher. They saw my shirt, our eyes met, and we nodded at each other silently, acknowledging each other’s presence. This incident stuck in my mind because of the sheer amounts of coincidences (also, why does Nanjing have a station called Software Avenue??)

It wasn’t until I came back to Sydney that I realized that Go is big in China (as is… Erlang). In fact, tech itself is big in China. Everyone everywhere in China uses a smartphone. When I called to make a cancellation, I was instructed to use the website instead, because they no longer used the phone to handle reservations. Heck, even relatively western geeky stuff made its way to the general populace in China. In Shanghai, the lady who sat next to me spent the entire subway journey playing the original 2048 (i.e. the .github.io website) on her phone.

In the west, we see the Chinese as copycats. The truth might be a bit stranger than that. Here’s what I think: the Chinese copy, and mutate a product to fit its population. The mutation to the product is not small mutations (ala Rocket Internet), but big mutations which make the products unrecognizable.

Take WeChat (or Weixin) for example. It’s essentially a WhatsApp clone. Except it does a lot more. It has a follow function to follow friends (remember FriendFeed?), and I have used WeChat to find food (the suggestions were unfortunately all overpriced and really not that great). You could use WeChat to pay for a taxi. I had wanted to try but doing that would require all sorts of verification and government ID and all that, so no thanks.

I cannot see how a product like WeChat can work in Australia or US. We’re used to having different apps do different things. WeChat is kinda like a Frankenstein monster of apps - from what I could recall, it even has a QR code scanner (what for I have no clue). Does this imply that app designers in China are kinda shite? Not really. It just means that the people of China have different preferences than us.

The People

Speaking of the people of China, during my trip to China, I was continually impressed by the people there. Yes, it’s true that the older generation still spits everywhere, but it was the younger generation that impressed me quite a bit. Specifically, the amount of knowledge the people have. A hotel receptionist impressed me when she mentioned the story of the marriage a Chinese princess called Hang Lipo to the Malaccan Sultan. While in Malay myths the marriage of Hang Lipo to the sultan is a Big Deal (because in part it confers legitimacy to the Malay “empire”), there was no actual historical record of said “princess”. And the Chinese did keep very meticulous records in extreme detail (for example, what colour the Emperor’s poop was).

What was interesting however, was that the Malaccan myth was a very small part of all the myths of the world, and yet she knew the story (we were both derisive over that story). Later over tea, we compared notes on various other myths. It was a bit interesting that her knowledge spanned from the smallest Albanian myths to the stories of the Dreamtime of local aborginal people. She even accurately mentioned that the indegenous people in Australia are not one tribe, but thousands of tribes.

Lest you think it was an isolated incident, I have been repeatedly impressed by the locals and their knowledge of the greater world. For example, I had a taxi driver discuss the design of nuclear power plants in broad strokes. In my notes I had written “[taxi driver] talking about why heavy water is used”. Of course it later transpired that he had actually graduated with a degree in Physics, but chose taxi driving as a career because he will, in his own words, “make more money to survive the city”. I too recall the waitress who spent her time explaining the chemical reactions that causes food to go brown.

Or the couple in Luoyang selling me “fried yoghurt” who took the time to explain how they built their own anti-griddle. They even tried to explain bits of it in English (although I am quite sure they mixed up the words for Oxygen and Nitrogen, unless liquid oxygen was really used, which uh, I don’t think is plausible). Which leads to another thing I noted - at least in Beijing and Shanghai, the younger generation understood English quite well, but don’t speak it well. Kinda like me with Mandarin.

Virtually every younger person I talked to (I didn’t get much of an opportunity to talk to the older people) had a lot of knowledge, and some in widely diverging fields ranging from history to probability to world politics. The words “worldly guy” and “worldly girl” repeatedly appears in my notes - my only regret was that I didn’t bother with their names or a real rapport.

Political Attitude

Given that people in China whom I have met are quite worldly, you’d think they would take some interest in their local politics. I couldn’t be more wrong. By and large, the Chinese people whom I have interacted with are generally politically aware - I’d say much more than the average American* I know it's non-sequitor but hey every political op-ed I've read is full of non-sequitors . They know that their web is censored. They know that their government isn’t “open” (by western definition and standards). The thing is, they don’t really care.

There is an old, rather racist phrase that reads like a variation this: “Chinese people are Jews of the Orient”, in the sense that Chinese people are motivated mainly by profits and money. Which is sadly kinda true about the political attitude amongst the people whom I had conversations with. The people I talked with generally have that attitude. They don’t really care who’s running the country, they care that their rice bowls are filled.

Combining that attitude with the Chinese culture and you get a weird mix of things. For example, there is a high amount of political slactivism in China. I use the words “slacktivism” because it’s really just that. The Internet culture of the Chinese has led to messageboards filled with political rants and commentary, even on topics the West assumes that is being censored in China (for example, I randomly found a thread dissing Mao Zedong with over a thousand comments). But that’s really the extent of it.

Not that it isn’t causing effects. In fact corruption is heavily tackled by commoners (i.e. non party affiliated people) on the Internet, and it’s known to have brought down many a corrupt official. Heck, in China they even know about their Internet access being censored and monitored. There is even a derogatory term online for anyone perceived to be astroturfing on behalf of the Chinese government - they’re called the “Five Cent Party” (五毛党).

But as mentioned, it’s slacktivism. At dinner I asked a lady and her boyfriend what if people were more interested in being politically active. The answer was not so surprising - they join the Party. This allows them to vote, giving them a political voice.

By way of studying game theory and voting systems, I had sorta already knew this was the case - that democracy actually kinda does exist in modern day China, just not for the masses, but it’s available to those who express an interest in making informed votes. It is in fact the complete opposite of Australia’s electoral system, where voting is compulsory for the population. The way I think of it in China is as such: voting is compulsory for those interested in having a political say. There is a barrier to entry (i.e. joining the Party), so only people who is really truly interested in having a political say can vote.

I don’t think of one system as better than the other - all systems have their flaws and their advantages. I can see why the system works for China - the population is huge, for one. Bringing on full American-style democracy would not be a good idea, in my opinion. But hey, what do I know right?

I should probably stop writing about the political situation in China. I really look forward to visiting China again, and I don’t want my water tables checked, nor do I want to be invited to drink tea* If this confused you, it confused me too, until a friend explained that to get one's "water tables checked" (查水表) or to be "invited to drink tea" is China's Internet slang for being arrested/investigated for posting "unharmonious" content on the Internet .

Surveillance and Security

In Nanjing, I witnessed an event of public disorderliness (probably alcohol induced). I was in the middle of a tall escalator on the way up and out of Nanjing station. I heard a commotion at the bottom of the escalator, so I turned my head to have a look at what’s going on. It was a man who was making a scene, loudly scolding everyone. Then I exited the escalator. I went about doing my thing, and when the (presumably) drunkard reached the top of the escalator, he made another scene - this time with police officers. There were four policemen, who after they had enough of the drunkard’s verbal abuse, simply lifted the man - each officer carrying a limb, and put the drunk guy in a police golfcart, and sat on him to shut him up.

What’s the amazing thing? When I exited the escalator, there were no police officers at the exit. Not five minutes later, the (presumably) drunk man was in a golf cart, carted by the local police. The police had responded within an escalator’s ride (it was a fairly long escalator to be fair). It was either a very fast response time, or constant surveillance was in place.

The answer is the latter. Now, I must mention that the police officers I have encountered in China are extremely friendly, even if they have rather weird habits (like smoking while on duty - that one kinda blew my mind a bit) and are kinda gruff and offputting (spitting everywhere). I had a police officer in Luoyang who explained to me when was the best time to capture a picture of the Longmen Grottoes, and how he had come in the wee hours of the morning to enjoy the first light over the river.

Another point of interest in my trip to China is security. If you think the TSA in America is nuts, try having to have your backpack scanned at every subway station. I wear a Pebble watch, which I had set to Sydney time instead of Beijing time. At almost every checkpoint, I’d be pat down, and a security personnel will ask if the thing I have on the wrist is a watch, and why is it not in Beijing time. Towards the end of the trip, I had wisened up, and didn’t carry a backpack nor did I wear my watch.

I asked a friend the reason for the ridiculous amounts of checkpoints, and the answer, rather unsurprisingly was… TERRORISM. A few years back, there were not many security check points. A few well-publicized events of Xinjiang terrorists attacking later, security checkpoints were deployed everywhere - at every subway station, and every place of notable interest.

Stereotype

It would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I had some difficulties with some cognitive biases. Especially with stereotyping a particular ethnicity - the Xinjiang/Hui people in particular. I am not a fan of their religion (or any religion for that matter). And they appear to have caused a lot of hassle in subway stations and places of historical interest that inconvenienced me quite a bit.

In Shanghai, just outside Yuyuan Garden, I caught a Xinjiang man (the hat is a giveaway) with his hand in my pocket. I grabbed his hand and loudly tutted at him and walked away quickly. The ironic thing was the night before, I was advised to stay away from groups on Xinjiang people because it would be more than likely I’d get pickpocketed. Confirmation bias about Xinjiang people as a group of troublemakers set in.

Events like this inform my stereotype of a particular group of people, and I try to actively account for that. In fact, my entire trip to China has been one big wrestle with some cognitive biases I have.

For example, I used to think that China was a relatively backward country. They’re not, but the Gini coefficient is quite high though, which would account for the perception that China is backwards. I am also aware because my perception is thus framed, the expectations were low, and hence many things exceed expectations.

But perhaps the biggest mental hurdle for me was the fact that I constantly had to judge by double standards. I learned pretty quick that in China, if I were to judge the actions of people based on the standards I am used to (standards of not spitting on the ground for example), I was going to have a miserable time. The solution was simple - judge the actions based on their standards instead. Which is easier said than done, to be honest. A lot of mental gymnastics needed to be done to achieve that.

Being conscious about cognitive biases did lead to some interesting and albeit dangerous thoughts though. For example, what if there is a statistical justification for stereotyping? I did some back of the envelop calculations for statistical justification, taking into account fictionalized base rates (because data is hard to come by). It does lead to some serious thinking about ethics and the like.

Culture

I think having a concept of a shared historical past culture with the Chinese people as a whole did help a lot. It’s often said that East-Asiatic cultures are more collectivistic than individualistic. And I think this is the first time I’ve experienced it in a long time (the other time I experienced it was my first time in Japan).

When I visited the Forbidden City, there were security guards outside the gates, standing in a line. Some were uniformed, and some weren’t. Out of curiosity, I asked one of the young men standing guard about the uniforms. It transpired that those uniformed guards are on duty, while those ununiformed guards were youth volunteers.

In Luoyang I witnessed another more interesting form of volunteering. Driving past an intersection, I saw a lady wearing a vest that says “volunteer traffic controller” waving a flag and directing traffic. I asked the taxi driver if this was a common thing, and it turns out yes, it was.

A more cynical version of me would say this was the result of Communist thinking/propaganda. However, thinking about it, this community spirit is really more Confucian in nature than it is Communist in nature. I mean, the South Koreans volunteered their own personal treasury of gold to bail out the government in 1998. Even the “propaganda” posters* I am not sure what to call this, it's not really propaganda in the sense that it doesn't promote the Communist Party, but rather promotes 文明, or a sense of cultured habits in China by the government appeals to traditional Chinese values, which are mostly centered around the family unit and society instead of country or religion (which is far more common in the West).

In fact, I would say the movie Hero accurately describes how I feel about Chinese culture. Caution: A generalization is being made. In general, Chinese culture is all about the Long View. It’s a culture which sees itself existing 10000 years from now. After I came back from China, I had a rewatch of Hero. I disagree quite vehemently with the translation of 天下 to “Our Land”. Visiting China, you get the idea that 天下 is all encompassing, not just a country. If you have a long view of things, even countries become meaningless things. The long term goal makes all short term losses acceptable. It can be pretty unnerving to be exposed to such a culture.

Things I Wasn’t Prepared For In This Trip

I did a lot of homework prior to this trip - even more so than what I usually do. I had an interest in Chinese history (why shouldn’t I, I’m ethnically Chinese, and also, Chinese history is one of the few civilizations if not the only to have a continuous recorded history that goes back more than 5000 years* Well, 5000 years of record keeping is a subject of academic debate, but let's leave it at that ). In fact, I did so much homework on Chinese history, that I forgot to do homework on travel. I was thoroughly misinformed, that you can survive on 500 RMB in Beijing for a week. I was wrong and led to some quite awkward moments with my travel companions regarding money.

Another thing I didn’t do my homework on was the amount of walking required. I am used to walking around the CBD of various cities in the world. China just takes that walking and scales it out. There was so much walking I feel that I should have prepared more - exercised a bit more and stretched my muscles a lot more. Walking from one end of the train station to the other can be rather tiring when you’re carrying a backpack with a laptop in it, especially when the train station is airport sized. Thankfully I brought a pair of great running shoes, but even then I still ended up with blisters on my feet. Bicycles didn’t help much either because it’s still leg work.

Preparation For The Trip

Before I left to China, I did quite a bit of research into the areas I was interested in - mainly the Tang and Song dynasties, and maybe a bit of the Qing dynasty. I was aware of the lore and wanted to supplement my knowledge of the local lores and legends with something more substantial. Here’s a list of things I recommend reading/watching before going to China. Some of these books or media are big and hard to chew through, so take your time with it:

  • China History Podcast - one of the best podcasts out there for Chinese history. And it's in English. It is simply phenomenal. Despite me hating podcasts, I've been hooked on this. I just wish there were text transcriptions instead of godawfully clunky audio podcasts.
  • The Pattern of the Chinese Past - Perhaps one of the most important books I've read on the topic of the historical macroeconomics of China. Reading this gave me an anthropological understanding of the myths and lore I already knew.
  • On Their Own Terms: Science in China, 1550-1900 - This is my first read I have on the topic. It is well researched if a bit dry. Most importantly it explains that China actually DID have a scientific tradition of sorts.
  • Sex, Law, and Society in Late Imperial China - I bought this book by error. I thought it pertained to the Tang dynasty, which was the most open period of all times in China's history - which was the bits of Chinese history I was interested in. This book is about the latter three dynasties: Yuan, Ming and Qing. Nonetheless, I did find this book interesting as well. It's very very well researched, but the way it's written doesn't rub me the right way. It made me feel a bit uneasy at times. I'm curious about the author's book on prostitution markets in ancient Japan, but my brain feels like it needs a cleansing first.
  • China's Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty - I treated this book as light reading, but it isn't. It has a good overview of the Tang dynasty, and it's written in a simple-to-grasp way.
  • Hero - Yes, that movie starring Jet Li. I think it's an important movie because it gives insight to what Chinese culture is really in regards to.
  • 上下五千年 - My dad has this book (or books?). I think I am ready to read it now. It's in Chinese, so it's kinda hard to read. I might get the comic version instead.
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