Friday, March 27, 2009

Quality Control, Self Respect, Social Mobility and Other Useless Things

I am often asked what I think of China and I rarely answer this question with any specificity since I suspect most people just want an answer that will make them feel good about themselves and/or their country.

The conversations go something like this:

Me: 你好(Johannah, please translate) Please, take me to...
Taxi Driver: Ooh, your Chinese is great (it clearly isn't great, by the way).

Me: No, no, no - I can only speak simple Chinese.

Taxi Driver: What country are you from?

Me: I am an Alien.

Taxi Driver: Oh, you are very humorous.

Me: You don't believe me? Ok, I am a gypsy (stole this one from a Swiss friend 10 years ago - sadly only a few Chinese seem to get the implications of the term Ji(1)bu(3)sai(4)ren(2) )

Taxi Driver: Oh, you are very humorous.

Me: OK, I am American from NY

Taxi Driver: Oh, America is a great country... (1) it's the most-developed, richest country in the world. It's number 1 (2) it's the most powerful (militarily) country in the world. It's number 1 (3) Oh, I have a cousin in Lula-lula, Washington, do you know him (ok, they don't ask me if I know him - just kidding), it's number 1

Me: It's OK.
Taxi Driver: What do you think of China?

Me: It has it's good points and bad points, like any country...

At times drivers will push me harder to criticize their country, sometimes they will start criticizing it themselves and still others will list for me what they see as the strengths of this particular municipality.

Those who criticize China, are the most interesting. This is a relatively new phenomenon. 10 years ago, Chinese people were far less likely to criticize their local or national government in front of foreigners, now it seems that they feel free to do so - the resulting conversations often surprise me.
One taxi driver told me that in America people can own guns and they don't kill each other (very interesting - since many Chinese still have the idea that America is country of terrifying gang violence and arbitrary murder). "Americans are Christians" he said "and their religion keeps them from killing each other." (I didn't mention the fact that Christianity doesn't stop Americans from aborting a few thousand children a day) The same driver told me that if guns were legal in China, Chinese people would just start killing all their bosses - I believe his implication was the government.

In another conversation, a taxi driver went on to tell me that Chinese people behave like they have no education (or culture). They don't know how to act - a fact that he felt was demonstrated by the way they walk into traffic with no regard for their own safety or that of others.

I have had several of these unsolicited conversations over the past few months with taxi drivers and others. This is one way in which China has noticeably changed. People are not only free to praise their country but they feel more comfortable criticizing it in a way that would have led to their imprisonment and perhaps worse just a few decades ago.

That is not to say that there isn't a great deal of blind nationalism here. There is and if a Chinese citizen causes his country to lose face in a very public way - it is likely that he or she will suffer for it.

Another change that I have found fascinating is the way Chinese people have adopted foriegn foods. In the past, and still in the states, many Chinese people (especially the older generation) are bound by culinary arrogance. In their minds Chinese food is the best there is. Why waste your time trying anything else?

However, in China today things have changed. Foreign food (even if its only KFC, McDonald's and Pizza Hut) is no longer an exotic curiosity, it’s become a normal part of the Chinese diet, not just reserved for the young but accepted by every age group. It fascinates me that KFC isn't really considered a foreign anymore - in much the same way that pasta is not really considered Italian by Americans. How many of us have grown up eating spaghetti and meat sauce and never thought of it as foreign?

Clothing styles have also shift in a more "western" direction - though with Japan and Korea providing much of the cultural influence, It seems unfair to call it "western."

These changes aside, there are three general criticisms of China that I constantly find myself coming back to.

For one thing, almost everything here is produced with very little regard for quality control. The newest buildings are aging rapidly. Brand new street lights are rusting away. Cars that look new sound like they have two broken axels. This can be overwhelming at times.

I live on the 22nd floor of a 23 story apartment building. The view across the Yalu is lovely and the space is decent - but there are some really annoying problems that reflect this lack of attention to quality. For one thing - the windows will never be washed (unless I risk my life hanging out one of them) - but more importantly - several of them are broken and are constantly filled with moisture. These windows are just a few years old. For this reason, the walls under my windows are covered with mold.
Chinese bathrooms are generally designed without bathtubs or shower stalls (probably to keep the costs of construction low). This means every time you bathe your entire bathroom serves as a shower.

In my apartment, the drain which is supposed to allow the water that floods the room to flow out, is always clogged and cannot be unclogged for more than a day or two (as far as I have been able to manage). Add to this the fact that the drain was not placed in the lowest part of the bathroom floor so even if works - it's impossible not to end up with a big puddle in the corner of the room which takes days and days to dry and makes the apartment extremely humid, probably feeding the mold.

So you get the picture - sloppy, lazy construction - with no regard for quality.

Now imagine a society where nearly everything operates this way and you will get some idea of what a large part of China is like. Things are chaotic, dirty, and often dysfunctional.

This brings me to the second point - Self respect.

Chinese, like any other ethnic group, are capable of producing high quality goods. Take a look at the newest Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens. For those who are interested in photography, this is one of the highest quality, low-cost lenses in the current Nikon line. Its design may be the most basic, but producing this lens with internal AFS, various lens coatings, etc. requires great precision and a very high level quality control. My copy is stunningly sharp and I am convinced it would perform well with some of the highest resolution MF sensors. This lens is now manufactured in China demonstrating the Chinese ability to produce high quality goods under the right conditions.

The number of high and low-tech products produced in China is constantly growing, even in these tough economic times and quality is ever improving. However, the Chinese people see very few of these high quality goods. They are mostly for export.

This leads to a strange situation in which Chinese-made products that are made for foreign markets are very highly respected, while those sold locally are almost always low quality. This can be seen in many different sectors of the economy - with the result that Chinese companies, by and large, only provide high quality goods and services to foreigners and the very rich.

It’s just simple economics. Foreign markets (in the developed world) are not interested in low quality goods, so in order to make money abroad, standards of quality must be improved. However, in other cases, like the drain in my bathroom - there is an apathy regarding quality of production. Chinese often use the term 差不多就好meaning close is good enough. In my opinion, this demonstrates a clear lack of self respect. Chinese people know to produce quality goods for reasonable prices, but the Chinese consumer doesn't demand quality.

There are of course many criticisms that one might raise against any culture but one of the most glaring faults of contemporary Chinese society is the culture of bribery.

This particular form of corruption is absolutely everywhere. It is so prevalent that it is difficult to convince many Chinese people that there is anything at all wrong with receiving or giving bribes. The wide spread nature of the problem means that social or class mobility is severely limited in China as compared with many other nations.

A consideration of how this phenomenon plays itself out in the education clearly illustrates the problem.

First of all, there is the issue of access to schools - from kindergarten through college. Students from wealthy families go to the best schools - and just to be clear, these are public schools that are supposed to accept students based on residence or merit (or so one would expect in the West).

On one level, this is to be expected. Rich parents can afford to provide the best of tutoring and private schooling to their children and the results reflect this. However, a significant percentage (getting figures on this would be next to impossible) of students bribe there way into school.

Even middle or lower class families will spend tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of RMB throughout a child's academic career to insure acceptance into decent schools and passing (or higher) grades in classes where students are struggling. Those who can afford to give the biggest bribes get the most attention from the best teachers who give the best grades, in many cases, regardless of whether they are deserved. Teaching in China can be a very profitable occupation! Teachers also "force" students to go to tutoring sessions in their homes in order to further supplement their incomes.

It has gotten so bad that identity theft (i.e., completing stealing a persons identity and living as that person) has been reported.

From the BBC:

There has been outrage in China over reports that a police official helped his daughter get into university by stealing another student's identity. The official, Wang Zhengrong, stole the name and ID number of his daughter's classmate, state media reports. The classmate had scored much higher grades in China's national college entrance exam. While Mr Wang's child took her university place, the other girl had to spend a year re-taking the exam. The classmate, Luo Caixia, eventually gained a place at another university. Miss Luo only learned what had happened when she tried to open a bank account and was told there were problems with her personal information.

(For the rest of the article see:

It is hard to imagine how China will ever be the great power it longs to be without addressing this extremely self-destructive aspect of it’s culture.

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