Chinese History

Under New Management — Chinese Corporate Management Is Changing Fast

Gold splash censer from China First Capital blog post

“Five years ago, all I had to worry about was producing enough to earn a small profit. Now I spend time dealing with employment issues, environmental regulations, tax policies, trying to increase market share and staying ahead of competitors. The pressure is much worse. ”

Welcome to the suddenly changed and increasingly pressured world of Chinese corporate management. 

This comment comes from the boss of a large, integrated chemical factory in Shandong. He and I were talking recently. He is still a relatively young guy of around 40. But, in his 15 year career as first an engineer, then a manager and finally as factory boss, he has seen the purpose, methods, scope, goals and responsibilities of Chinese management change from top to bottom. 

Like much else in China, company management has undergone a lifetime’s worth of change in a matter of a few years. It’s a byproduct of larger forces at work in China’s economy – the withdrawal of direct state planning and control, the ascendancy of the private sector, China’s entry to the WTO and the opening of China’s markets to imports, the rise of a vibrant consumer market. All of these have made planning and decision-making far more intricate and the stakes far higher for Chinese corporate managers, both in state-owned and private companies. 

In the case of my friend in Shandong, he is working for a company majority owned by the state. In theory, that should make his management tasks far easier. In most cases, the Chinese government – whether at national, provincial or local level – is a very lenient shareholder. In fact, they would appear to the ideal owner for any manager who is looking for easy ride. 

In China as elsewhere, when the state is the owner, no one is really in charge. The Chinese government is not looking for dividends. Most profits stay inside the company.  

Here’s the paradox that Chinese managers all live with: as undemanding as the Chinese government is as a shareholder, they are increasingly demanding as a regulator and law-maker. That is a big reason why corporate management has gotten so much more complex in China. In a short space of time, China has gone from a more laissez-faire stance to one with strict environmental, tax and labor laws that rival those of the US and Western Europe. 

True, these tougher regulations are not yet universally applied or enforced. But, any Chinese manager who chooses to act in total disregard of these rules will eventually find himself in deep, deep trouble. Take labor laws. China continues to introduce new forms of workplace protection that give important new rights to hired staff and restrict the prerogatives of management. Any Chinese with a complaint over pay or conditions can complain directly to the Laodong Ju, or Labor Bureau, a quasi-state body that enforces labor laws. 

The process is not without its hiccups. Management can still intimidate and threaten workers who seek redress. But, the system does work. 

Example: a friend of mine worked for several years as a salesperson for an electronics company based in Shenzhen. She was paid part in commission. She did her job well. For months, then years, the boss held back the commission payments, claiming cash flow problems. This is old style China management: don’t pay, offer excuses. This boss assumed he could continue indefinitely with this trickery, in part because the general view is that female workers in China are more easily cowed or mollified. 

Instead, my friend quit without warning,  went right to the Labor Bureau, which made one call to her ex-boss. No investigation. Just a phone call and a stern warning from the Labor Bureau. My friend got her money – about $20,000 in total – within a week. The boss will now have a much harder time doing what he’s always done – pad his own take-home by cheating workers out of what they are entitled to. Tyrannizing workers is no longer a workable HR strategy for a Chinese management team. 

New environmental rules are, if anything,  even more disruptive of old lax ways of managing business in China. Managers who choose to improve margins by ignoring pollution standards are risking an early unpaid retirement. Example: a client of ours is the leading environmentally-friendly paper manufacturer in Shandong. Two years ago, he had 29 competitors in Shandong. Today, he has only three. 

The other 26 were shut down, virtually overnight, for violating environmental standards. The managers at those factories, most of which were around for many years, now likely understand better than most how much the craft of management has changed in China.  

Elsewhere in Shandong, my friend the chemical company boss, is now making another decision that was unimaginable when he began his career: he is working on a plan for a management buyout of the factory. The business is now 65%-owned by a large local coal mine, which in turn, is owned by the provincial government. 

The buy-out plan is still in its early stages. To succeed, he’ll need to persuade several levels of government – no one is quite sure how many – and also take over some significant liabilities, including debts of about $15mn.  It’s not clear if the current management will need to put up cash to buy the government’s controlling stake, or if, as preferred, they can pay in installments, using cash from the business. 

Servicing debt and having most of one’s wealth tied up in illiquid shares of one’s company are other adaptations now being learned by Chinese management. Each year, their working lives grow harder, more pressured and, for the more talented and nimble ones, far more financially rewarding.  Stride-for-stride with the modernization of China’s economy, Chinese corporate managers have gotten better faster than anywhere else, ever.


Bad Policy, Bad Advice and Bad Reporting from the US on Dollar-Renminbi Exchange Rate

Yaozhou bowl in China First Capital blog post
I don’t know the direction of the dollar-renmibi exchange rate. But, I do know most of the American press, led by the
New York Times and Washington Post, got snowed by the announcement last weekend that China would introduce new “flexibility” in its exchange rate.

The immediate media reaction – and that of the Obama administration – was one of hosannas and smug approval. The tone of most coverage was along the lines, “the Chinese have finally seen the error in their mercantilist ways and will now allow their currency to appreciate strongly against the dollar, leading to a new golden age of manufacturing employment in the US.”

A week has gone by and the renminbi has appreciated by exactly 0.5%.  So, a $100 item made in China that previously cost Rmb682 will now cost an importer Rmb685, or $100.50. Factory managers in the US may be waiting for awhile yet before the flood of orders arrives from China.  The President’s union buddies will also not soon see much of an uptick in their membership rolls.

For those without short-term memory impairment, this is, of course, the second time in two months that US press and the Obama administration loudly predicted the imminent upward revaluation of the renminbi. In April, a flurry of reporting, loudest and strongest from the New York Times,  announced the Chinese government was at last ready to accede to US demands and let the renminbi rise.

That time, the press articles were timed to coincide with a visit by the US Secretary of Treasury, Timothy Geithner, to Beijing. He was there, if the Administration and its media allies were to be believed, to talk tough and get the Chinese to fall in line with American wishes. Discernible results? Zero.

This time around, the reporting coincides with the G-20 Summit meeting in Toronto, where we are told, President Obama will use his intelligence and oratorical brilliance to persuade Chinese leader Hu Jintao to do his part for the sagging US economy. Likely results? We’ll see, but the signs are that China will continue to make policy decisions with its own interests to the fore.

There is much both wrong and economically illiterate about all this US pressure to revalue the renminbi. Start with the fact the Chinese currency is not significantly undervalued. Yes, it is tied to the dollar. So are many other currencies with which the US trades, including Mexico, Taiwan, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, Saudi Arabia. The renminbi’s formal peg with the dollar ended in July 2005. It is true that the renminbi, if it were fully convertible and freely floating, would likely appreciate against the dollar. But, by enough to really make an impact on US manufacturing employment? Hardly.

The biggest benefit to China of letting the renminbi rise against the dollar would be to lower the renminbi cost of China’s huge imports of oil, iron ore and other core dollar-denominated raw materials. Weighing against this would be falling margins at many of China’s exporters, which would ultimately have an impact on manufacturing employment.

Creating and maintaining jobs is a paramount concern for a country whose labor force grows by millions every year, and where there is no “social safety net” as in the US.  Fact: every year, six million more Chinese join the migrant labor force, according to recent report by China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission.

It’s a mistake shared by many Americans that at the current exchange rate, China is some kind of low-cost paradise for people with dollars. I live here. Prices here are not low. In fact, most things in China, with exception of fresh vegetables and public transportation, are either on par with US prices or higher.

Most fruit is generally more expensive here, even at the proletarian outdoor market where I do a lot of my shopping. Same goes for beef, chicken and most everything else you fill up a supermarket cart with. Gas, automobiles, computers, TVs, brand-name products are all higher in China than in the US.

I’m writing this in my local Starbucks in Shenzhen. And while this is hardly a perfect bellwether, the cheapest cup of regular brewed coffee here costs Rmb 15, or $2.20. A cappuccino? Rmb 25, or $3.65.  The place is jammed, as it always is, from noon to midnight. Not a seat in the house. Starbucks has over 350 stores in China and growing fast.

Not that long ago, the renminbi was pegged at 8.2 to the dollar. Has this 17% appreciation done anything to impact the decline of manufacturing employment in the US, a decline that began over 30 years ago? No. Will another 17% appreciation of the dollar reverse this trend? I very much doubt it.  Instead, what will likely happen is prices for many products in the US will rise sharply, since so much of what America likes buying is made here.  This will lead to higher unemployment, lower growth and hit hardest the poorer Americans President Obama claims to champion.

Make no mistake: if Chinese prices rise, this will not create huge new opportunities either for US manufacturers to reconquer the domestic market or allow lower wage countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria, India, the Dominican Republic or Peru to increase dramatically their exports to the US. Those countries can’t now, nor will they ever in my view, manufacture products to match the quality at the same price of those made in China, even if the cost of Chinese made products rises 15%-20% or more.

True, an economics professor’s models would argue otherwise, and President Obama is surrounded by economics professors. The models are plain wrong. Some textile imports from places other than China will rise. Not much else.

So, the real world result of the “strong renminbi” policy: greater economic hardship in the US.  But, won’t ordinary Chinese benefit from lower import prices? Perhaps a little, but not in any way that will create the desired outcome of much higher manufacturing employment and exports in the US. Maybe the Washington state apples and cherries in my supermarket will become a little cheaper, and become only twice as expensive as they are in the US. Again, not overly likely.

China’s current currency policy has its benefits and drawbacks. The benefit is mainly greater predictability for exporters, which has been somewhat helpful during the economic crisis of the last two years in China’s largest export markets of the US and Europe. Even with the stable exchange rate, a lot of exporters in China went bankrupt over this period, because of a collapse in orders from the US and Europe.

The biggest drawback of current exchange rate policy: $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves accumulated to soak up all the dollars still pouring into the country. This money is not being put to any direct productive use to improve China’s economy. A higher renminbi will not alter that calculus much, if at all.

I’m troubled in many ways by the direction of American international financial policy. The Obama Administration finds it far easier to scapegoat China’s exchange rate than put their focus on the deepest source of American economic malaise: runaway spending and budget deficits in Washington, with the inevitability of large tax increases to follow.

It’s not likely to happen, but here’s what I’d most like to see is the next time the US media starts braying for a higher renminbi. Chinese newspapers respond with articles, quoting unnamed Chinese government officials,  pleading with the Obama Administration to cut spending, deficits and taxes, and so put more money in the pockets of American consumers. They will certainly choose to spend some of this cash on Chinese-made products and so help boost employment, wages and living standards across China.

As panaceas go, this one would be a lot more effective and all-around helpful than anything the American government and its media allies are peddling.

Train Travel in China Retains Its Special Magic

for train

Finally, I’ve found an aspect of modern-day China that has changed little, if at all, from my first time in China almost 30 years ago as a graduate student. Long-distance train travel.

As I write this, I’m occupying a hard-to-come by seat in the dining car of a Beijing-Shenzhen train that left the capital about 30 hours ago. I boarded the train in Ganzhou, a lovely small city in southern Jiangxi, a six hour train trip to Shenzhen.

It was not my plan to take the train. I got to Ganzhou on the plane, and expected to return to Shenzhen the same way. But, the tickets on today’s one daily flight were all sold out, so I rushed with little time to spare to the Ganzhou train station.  A helpful policeman let me slip through a locked door. I joined a mobile throng of other passengers boarding in Ganzhou, during the train’s ten minute stopover.

It was a stroke of good luck. This is the first time I’ve been on a long-distance train in China in a decade. The few times I get to take the train these days it’s always on the new high-speed rail lines that connect more and more of the big cities in China. For example, the new high-speed trains connecting Guangzhou and Shenzhen, as well as Shanghai and Hangzhou,  have airline type seats, no proper dining car, and large antiseptic toilets. These trains travel at around 200mph on specially-designed and newly-laid tracks.

The traditional long-distance trains, by contrast, rumble along at about one-quarter that speed, on rail lines that often were first carved through China by the British, in the 19th century. The toilets are cramped and consist of a perch above a four-inch diameter hole in the floor.

Then and now, most of the cars of the train are what are called “yingwo”, (硬卧)meaning “hard berth”. Each “yingwo” car has 45 narrow bunks, stacked three-high. At the end of each car is a furnace with boiling water for tea.

It was mid-afternoon.  Passengers in the “yingwo” cars were mainly lounging around, or snoozing in their bunks. The sound inside was as I remembered it: of quiet conversation punctuated by the occasional “snap” of a watermelon seed being cracked open.

There was one first class “ruanwo” (软卧) or “soft sleeper” car, as there was when I was took a train from Guangzhou to Beijing in 1981. It was fully occupied by passengers who had boarded the day  before in Beijing. I walked by slowly, remembering that first trip – the snuggly warmth of the cotton duvet, and the anti-macassars on the back of the seats.

The soft sleeper car has lost none of its special allure for me. In the years since that first train trip in China, I’ve traveled on Mediterranean yachts, private jets and first-class trains across Europe. But, they just don’t compare to the “soft sleeper” car in China, There is no other transport quite as cozy and rejuvenating.

The dining car has twelve tables a meter long, each of which sits 4 people, shoulder-to-shoulder. Food prices, at around Rmb35 per serving,  are certainly a lot higher than when I first started riding the rail in China in 1981. Back then, you could eat a whole meal and get change back from a one yuan note.

The food isn’t quite as good as I remember it. It was all pre-cooked and served lukewarm. But, it still remains one of the world’s singular travel experiences, dining on proper cuisine at a proper table, as a train trundles gently through China.

Ticket prices remain a bargain. The fare for the six-hour trip from Ganzhou to Shenzhen: Rmb75 ($11). That is about one-tenth the price of the one-way air ticket. The plane is obviously much faster. But, the total time, door-to-door, is not all that different, once you factor in the trip to and from the airport, the 90 minutes spent checking in and waiting for flight departure, and the hour flying time.

Today’s train is right on schedule.  That too, hasn’t changed much. For generations, trains were the primary form of long-distance travel in China, and the trains tracks were the principal meridians along which the country’s population flowed.

These days, long-distance trains are losing out to planes and private cars. But, for me, the chance today to ride the train is a precious and vivid reminder of my own first days in China, and the awesome changes China has undergone during that time.

The most noticeable change on the train, compared to 30 years ago, are staff uniforms. Conductors wear snappy form-fitting dark blue uniforms. In 1981,  train staff and passengers of both sexes mainly wore green and blue Mao jackets.

Back then, railroad workers had a reputation for being rather curt and uninterested in passengers’ comfort. On that front too, not all that much has changed, judging from this one trip. Passengers, for the most part, are treated with a mix of lethargy, disdain and mild despotism.  Trains are perhaps the last place in China where the proletariat still does any dictating.

The Sweet Smell of Success — One Chinese County’s Dominant Role in Global Garlic Industry

Ming dynasty bowl from China First Capital blog post

Anyone who has enjoyed Chinese food in China will discover, by aroma as well as by taste, that garlic is the most widely-used flavoring agent of all, after salt. It’s detectable – in fact visible – in just about every stir-fried or stewed dish, in such large quantities to leave most outsiders breathless. Which, of course, is just as well. 

A simple stir-fried dish will often have 3-4 whole cloves of chopped or sliced garlic. Many dishes have far more. One of my favorites, Lazi Jiding, is a Sichuan dish of small chunks of chicken, chili peppers, and often several heads’ worth of garlic cloves all deep-fried together.

Garlic turns up everywhere, at all times of the day. This morning at the breakfast buffet of the hotel where I was staying in Fujian, there was a dish of simple stir-fried cabbage that had at least 25 cloves of garlic in it. I stopped counting long enough to spoon some onto my plate, and move onto the next garlic-laced Chinese breakfast treat.  

I lived a lot in Italy,  the other country famed for its use of garlic. There, adding more than one clove to a dish is usually considered excessive, even uncouth. You will likely eat more garlic in a day in China than a month spent eating in Italy. 

In the US, garlic has become a far more common part of the diet than when I was a child.  I began noticing several years ago that all the garlic I bought in LA was imported from China. That always struck me as odd, since very little fresh food is imported from China, and California has a town, Gilroy, that’s famed as one of the world’s largest producers of garlic. 

The Made-in-China garlic I’ve bought is always fresh, crisp and cheap – usually no more than a dollar a pound. I never figured out how anyone could make any money shipping it from so far and selling it for so cheap. 

I assumed that the US’s ever-increasing appetite for garlic was emptying China of its favorite flavoring. Since moving to China, however, I’ve seen that wasn’t the case, that there was more than enough to satisfy China’s far larger appetite. So, then my question became: where is all this garlic being produced? From all the garlic in circulation, you’d think half of China’s arable land must be used to cultivate it. Yet, I’ve never seen any in the ground. I’ve asked friends, farmers, chefs, but never got a clear answer to where all this garlic was coming from. 

Now I know at least one place. Jinxiang County in Shandong Province is the largest garlic-producing area in China. This little-known area in Shandong’s southwest corner is not far from Qufu, Confucius’s birthplace. Jinxiang  is also now one of the centers of worldwide commodity speculation. The price of Jinxiang-grown garlic has spiked recently, rising more than fifty-fold from its low a year ago. As the China Daily reports, “Garlic trading has created a handful of new millionaires overnight in Jinxiang county.” 

I couldn’t find a figure for Jinxiang’s total garlic output. But, last year Jinxiang produced 70% of China’s garlic for export, over one million tons last year. That means that Jinxiang produced half all the garlic eaten outside China. At current pace and current export price of around $1,000 a ton, Shandong will export over $1 billion of garlic in next 12 months. 

China has no strong natural advantage in garlic-production. It’s not particularly labor-intensive, nor does it grow best in climate like China’s. Garlic, after all, is a member of the onion family, and so grows pretty well all over the world. Jinxiang must be the world’s leading garlic producer for other reasons that highlight a part of China’s economic strength that is often not emphasized: regions with intensive focus on particular industries (in this case, growing garlic for home and export market)  and a developed infrastructure to move goods quickly and efficiently to market. 

China has one other advantage that helps explain its dominance in global garlic-production. The whole plant can be sold for good money, not just the bulb. Chinese also eat prodigious quantities of the green garlic shoots that grow above ground. This vegetable, called jiu cai (韭菜)in Chinese, is served on its own, as a stir-fried dish, or added to many other staples, including dumplings. Like a skilful butcher carving a hog,  garlic farmers in Jinxiang know how to extract every morsel of profit, and leave nothing to waste. 

I’m determined now to go to Jinxiang. Partly, it’s because I love garlic. But, I also want to see (and smell) this region for myself, how farms are organized, what else is grown or manufactured there. I want to find out more how one place became so big and so successful selling one agricultural product that (unlike, say, tobacco or ginseng) grows just about anywhere. 

My company is lucky enough to have two clients in Shandong. I’ve already worked out how far these companies are from Jinxiang, and will go there at first opportunity.  I’m pretty certain over the last 20 years, to satiate my love of garlic, more of my money has ended up in Jinxiang than just about anywhere else in China.  

Yiwu: China’s Little Known Capital of Commerce

Lacquer box, from China First Capital blog post


What is the most international city in China? Shanghai? Beijing? Surely, it must be Hong Kong? No, the most international city in China is one most people outside China have never heard of: Yiwu, in Zhejiang Province. 

Yiwu is about three hours southwest of Shanghai, with no sites of any importance, and a somewhat rundown city center. Few international tourists will ever set foot there. And yet, at this very moment, there are more foreigners thronging there than anywhere else in China. 

Yiwu, you see, is where the Third World comes to shop. In the last ten years, it’s become the nexus of a large, complicated global trade route, the main supply depot for tens of thousands of shops all across the world. Yiwu’s streets and hotels are filled everyday with thousands of traders from Africa, Russia and the Middle East. They come there to make money, which they do by buying goods by the container load in Yiwu to ship back and sell in their home countries.  

This is petty capitalism on a grand scale: thousands of foreign small businessmen buying from thousands of Yiwu merchants, who rent stalls in the huge market centers spread across the center of Yiwu. At a guess, there must be over 15,000 stalls in these market centers, each staffed by a local, each catering mainly to the foreigners who spend most of their days bargain hunting. 

Mainly, the stuff for sale caters to the taste of this foreign market. Little if any of it would find buyers in US, Western Europe or, increasingly, China itself. Indeed, from what I could tell, more of the world’s hideous clothing ends up for sale in Yiwu than anywhere else. There is enough polyester and other petrochemical-derived materials on display to power the world’s ocean shipping fleet for generations.

Besides clothing, there are a large number of stalls selling other basics of poorer economies, like printed plastic bags, cheap carpets, plastic jewelry, lighting and other house wares. If you wanted to know how people dress and furnish their homes in Isfahan, Aleppo, Izmir, Rostock or Accra, you could get a decent impression by walking through the market centers of Yiwu. 

How and why Yiwu became the center of this multi-billion dollar trade remains a mystery to me. Yiwu has no natural advantages of any kind: it’s far from main transports hubs, hemmed in by mountains, and never developed much of an industrial base. The main export ports of Ningbo and Shanghai are both over three hours away by truck.

Clearly, there was no central government diktat saying Yiwu would be China’s “window on the Third World”. It seems to have happened spontaneously. To accommodate all the foreign traders, basic English is much more widely spoken than anywhere else in China. Even the lady at the ticket booth in the Yiwu bus station can use English to sell a one-way bus ticket to Guangzhou to an African on his way home. 

The English is not always correct. Outside one of the many shops selling sex toys, I saw a sign reading  “Aduit uppiies”. I assume, from the customer base inside, they got the Arabic version correct on the sign. 

By the standards of other successful Chinese cities, Yiwu is more down-and-dirty. There are none of the showpiece infrastructure projects like new expressways and elaborate modern skyscrapers that proliferate in other Chinese cities. While clearly all this trade has made many in Yiwu very rich, the city looks like the China of twenty years ago. Its market stalls are not the kind of place where most Chinese care to shop these days. Chinese, especially urban-dwellers, like well-designed brand-name chain stores with higher-quality merchandise and slick packaging. 

Walking around Yiwu, you get the sense that at least 10% of the population is foreign. Nowhere else in China even comes close. The foreigners are mainly Arabs and Persians, but there are also many Africans and Russians crowding the streets, markets, restaurants and hotels. 

Yiwu has more “foreign food” restaurants than anywhere else in China. Most offer Arab and Turkish food. Indeed, much of downtown Yiwu has the feel of a Middle Eastern bazaar, with clutches of men sitting around smoking hookahs and fingering prayer beads.

You are as likely to hear “Salaam Alekum” as “ni hao” walking the streets of Yiwu. All kinds of services have sprung up in Yiwu to cater to the Middle Easterners. There are halal butchers, coffee shops selling Turkish coffee, manufacturers of the long Arab thawb worn by men. Less delightfully, a Chinese street portrait artist displays drawings of Barack Obama, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Osama Bin-Laden. 

I like Arab food, and have eaten a lot of it, both in the Middle East in London. Yiwu’s version was actually quite authentic and tasty. Inside the restaurant I went to, the loudspeakers were playing a recitation of the Koran. Arab and African men sat eating their lunch. There are few Arab women to be seen. 

African women, on the other hand, are thick on the ground, fulfilling their reputation as some of the most talented of all the world’s market traders. I spoke to one lady from Ghana, who comes to Yiwu three times a year, and buys enough each time to fill up a 40-foot container – kids and adult clothes, shoes, carpets, blankets. The profit margins are good. After deducting the $2,000 airfare, the $300 for a Chinese visa, food and lodging in China, plus the shipping costs back to Ghana (and the bribes needed to get the goods out of Ghanaian Customs) she still earns a tidy profit on each trip.

Her capitalist Odyssey, repeated thousands of times a week, with containers bound for the world’s most glamourless spots,  is what keeps Yiwu booming. There is nothing petty about the petty traders of Yiwu. 

It’s fair to say that Yiwu has built its wealth, to some extent, on the misfortune of others. The traders who make the long trip to Yiwu do so, mainly because their countries are criminally mismanaged. In these countries of the Middle East and Africa, there are no local manufacturers making goods at a price and quality that can match that of China, even when you factor in the high transport costs to get people and merchandise to and from Yiwu and the bribes and other levies that must be paid to make sure the items reach local store shelves. Prices in Yiwu are not particularly low, more “retail” than “wholesale”. The traders buy in relatively small quantities, meaning Yiwu merchants can charge higher prices and earn fatter margins for themselves.

 This sad and persistent reality of corruption, economic mismanagement and political tyranny in countries of the Middle East and Africa guarantees that Yiwu will continue to thrive for many years. Yiwu’s market economy was built by catering to places with no real market economy of their own.


Shanghai’s New Hongqiao Terminal: What’s Lost is As Important as What’s Gained

Tang horses from China First Capital blog post

Whenever possible on visits to Shanghai, I’ve always chosen to fly into Hongqiao Airport, rather than the larger, newer Pudong Airport. Shanghai is the only major city in China with two major commercial airports, and Hongqiao and Pudong couldn’t be more unalike. Or at least that was the case until a few weeks ago, when the new Hongqiao terminal and runway opened. I just flew in and out of this new building, and while it’s an impressively gleaming facility, I find myself mourning the loss of the old Hongqiao. 

Hongqiao was always a dowdy remnant of a bygone era in China, built over 20 years ago when the western part of Shanghai was still largely farmland. The first time I went to Hongqiao was 1982, to see my friend Fritz off. He was flying on PanAm Airlines to the US, back when there were very few international flights into and out of China. As I remember it, the PanAm 747 came gliding in like a metallic chimera, over the heads of peasants transplanting rice. 

Gradually, the city enveloped the airport and Hongqiao is now one of the few downtown airports in China, a short cab ride to the main business areas in Shanghai about 8 miles away. Its 1980s vintage terminal was also one of my favorite sites in China – a reflection, perhaps, of the fact I rarely get to travel to anywhere very scenic in China, but hop around from booming metropolis to booming metropolis.

The old terminal has a brute, utilitarian ugliness about it, fishhook-shaped, small, cramped and comfortingly ramshackle. It’s so past-its-prime, in fact, it would not be out of place at all in the US, with its outdated urban airports like LAX, Kennedy, LaGuardia, Midway. 

The comparison with Pudong, opened ten years ago 25 miles outside the center of Shanghai, was stark. At Pudong, you whizz along long corridors on motorized walkways, and travel downtown on the world’s only commercial Mag-Lev train. If Pudong is glass and steel, Hongqiao was cement and plastic. 

But, again, all this now belongs to the past tense. The new Hongqiao Terminal is, if anything, more loudly and verbosely modern than Pudong when it opened. I had no idea it was even being built, it’s so far away from the old facility, on what was the back fringe of old Hongqiao. It’s a 20-minute shuttle ride between the two. All domestic flights now operate from the new terminal, and my hunch is that the old terminal will not be standing for very much longer. Civic leaders clearly came to see it as an eyesore, an embarrassingly “Third World” entry-point for a city busily striving to become the world’s next great commercial and financial capital. 

There was a rush to open the new Hongqiao, since next month, the Shanghai Expo opens. The roads leading to the new terminal are still under construction, as is the subway line. Vast expanses of ground in the front and to the sides of the new building are now just barren plots, waiting for parking lots, airport hotels and rental car facilities to populate them. Our cab driver had not been yet to the new terminal and couldn’t find the departures area. 

On entering, the first impression is of a very un-Shanghai-like emptiness. The new terminal must be at least ten times larger and three times taller than the old one. The line of check-in counters stretches for half-a-mile. You get a sense of what Jonah must have felt like entering the whale. Everywhere else in Shanghai is so jam-packed that you are part of a perpetual mob scene, breathing in someone else’s exhaust. Not here. It hints at a Shanghai of the future, a city not defined mainly by its enormous and densely-packed population, but by its modernity, efficiency and polish. 

That’s just it. What’s most special, and worth preserving, about old Hongqiao is that it belongs to the Shanghai that “was”, rather than the China that “will be”.  Even the name itself is a delightful throwback. Hongqiao means “Red Flag”, a name straight out of the Maoist lexicon. 

The old axiom is very apt: “you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you come from”. When Hongqiao’s old terminal goes, so too will the last conspicuous reminder of the Shanghai of thirty years ago, a city,  ever so tentatively, starting down the road of economic reform. 

A tangible part of my own history in China will also disappear. Flying into Shanghai will never be the same.  

A Late Winter Snowstorm in Beijing

Snow painting from China First Capital blog post

I fulfilled a life-long goal today – and I’m now paying the price for it. Since my first visit to Beijing in 1981, I always wanted to see the city during a snowstorm. Today, I got my wish. The snow starting falling this morning, and it’s still coming down, ten hours later, soft, clumpy and slow. I’m now stuck at Beijing’s Capital Airport, waiting out a four-hour snow delay.

Waking early this morning as the snow began to accumulate,  I knew precisely where I wanted to go. I took the articulated #1 bus down Changan Boulevard and got off at Nanchizi. I then wandered around on the eastern edge of the Forbidden City, and was stopped dead in my tracks by just the sort of view I’d long visualized. The snow covered the banks of a narrow, twisting canal leading to the palace’s vermillion bulwarks. The ancient trees were all duffeled by snow, as was a small ancient-style wooden skiff moored to a little dock.

It was a view of Beijing new to me, and yet also somehow deeply familiar. The living landscape mirrored images in traditional Song and Ming Dynasty Chinese landscape paintings I’ve admired for decades. There was the same sense of quiet serenity, of a natural order largely undisturbed by man. While I’ve long since forgotten most of what I once knew about Taoism, the landscape this morning in Beijing seemed a pure expression of the naturalism and stillness that are at the religion’s core.

Now, of course, there is much less of the old, Ming Dynasty Beijing left standing, compared with when I first visited 29 years ago.  All but a few fragments have gone under the wrecking ball.  Turning away from the canal near the Imperial Palace, the scene could no longer be mistaken for a Song Dynasty tableau. Instead, it looked more like Chicago during a snowstorm: lots of slush, and slow-moving automobile traffic.

In other words, Beijing in the snow wasn’t quite as I’d imagined it for all those years. Noticeably absent:  peddlars selling gloves lined with dog-fiur (I had a pair back in 1981) and small handheld coal-fired braziers, crenellated grey-tiled roofs piled with snow, and, most especially, Bactrian camels. Long, slow-moving caravans of Bactrian caravans.

Back at the sixth-story home of a friend, I stared out over a view far more typical of today’s Beijing: an intersection of vaulting bridges and curving exit ramps where two eight-lane roads intersect. Cars moved slower than usual, and there were far fewer of them. Overall, it was the quietest day I can recall in many years in Beijing.

I had a flight to catch tonight back to muggy Shenzhen, and the snowstorm caused the familiar sort of havoc. Most flights at Beijing’s large airport were cancelled.

It’s been a very long and unusually snowy winter in Beijing. Today’s storm was not particularly severe, about six inches or so. Oddly, the temperature stayed well above freezing all day.  The Chinese, I’m told, have a saying that it gets warmer during a snowstorm, and then things turn much colder afterward.

The snow falls on a very different Beijing than the city I first came to all those years ago. Much that was uniquely sublime about the city’s architecture and street-life are gone. But, Beijing is still a very special place, and no big modern city is more wondrously transformed in the snow.

Smart Commentary on China from Washington Post

John Pomfret article Washington Post in China First Capital blog post

From his perch at the Washington Post,  John Pomfret is one of the better-known American journalists writing about China. He is also, coincidentally, one of my oldest and closest friends. I quibble with him often about his take on China, particularly now that I’m living here and he isn’t. He moved back to the US five years ago, and wrote a well received book about China called “Chinese Lessons”.  Quite a lot of it was written in my dining room in LA. 

For a change, I actually agree with the main thrust of one of John’s articles on China. It’s an opinion piece, co-written with his colleague Steve Mufson, published recently in the Post. It’s title: “There’s a new Red Scare. But is China really so scary?” Read it here.

The key insight is that America, in the midst of a deep and long recession,  is undergoing one of its periodic bouts of self-laceration. The widespread anxiety that America is in decline is exacerbated by a sense that China is now better, smarter, faster in many important ways. A lot of this is plain silliness, as John’s article points out. 

America’s problems are home-grown. China’s rise over the last 30 years is overwhelmingly positive, for its own citizens first and foremost, but also for the rest of the world, US included. 

There’s a lot for an American to admire, even envy, about China. Two examples: even while remaking most aspects of its society, the family has retained its primacy in Chinese life, as a source of stability, happiness, and purpose. China also remains the most “kid friendly” country I know, measured by the care and affection lavished on the young Chinese, particularly infants and preschoolers. 

Americans, in the main,  have always had a special fondness for China, regardless of the state of the political relationship between the leaders of the two countries. But, that fondness doesn’t stop many of them from perpetuating simplistic notions about the place. Once, China was seem as hopelessly backward and poverty-stricken. Now, it’s seen as a novice superpower, outmuscling the US across the globe. 

John’s article cites a quote from Sun Tzu, “If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.”

Sino-American Relations – Some Overblown Analysis from the USA

Ge Vase from China First Capital blog post

Is China’s reaction to last week’s announced US arms sale to Taiwan really all that more strident than in the past? Should America be worried? To read some of the recent American news reporting, citing the usual ragbag of US-based “China experts”, you might conclude so.

I don’t buy it. China is not set, contrary to such reports, firmly on a course to antagonize America. It is, however, a great power with legitimate national interests to assert and protect. Sometimes those will clash with America’s national interests. But, the bilateral relationship also has a root system of common goals and shared admiration. 

I also don’t buy the line by American “China experts” about rising Chinese “triumphalism” , due to continued strength of Chinese economy. China’s economy has been outgrowing the US by eight to ten percentage points just about every year for the last 30 years. Same was true in 2009. The only difference: China grew by 8% while the US economy shrunk by over 5%. A similar net result as in the past, but one that highlighted a dramatic lessening of China’s economic dependence on the US. 

Do Chinese officials realize they now can maintain high economic growth without single-minded focus on exports to US, but look to domestic market instead? Yes. But, as you’ve also read, from Premier Wen Jiabao on down, there’s frequent public declarations on all the many problems and inefficiencies in China’s economy. 

Yes, China is getting stronger every year in every respect. But, is the tone now on arms sales to Taiwan really all that different? I don’t see it, and wonder how much others here see it, or whether it’s just the usual conventional US wisdom on China, a cousin of the “China expert” analysis that Chinese economic growth is a fraud, only resulting from cooked gdp numbers. 

China is mainly busy being China, just as America, most of the time is also mainly busy being America.  Both are continental powers with huge populations and vast domestic markets. Both also have a long history of being more inward- than outward-looking, quite patriotic, even occasionally xenophobic.

They often view the world with a similar sense of aloof distrust. There will always be points of friction between the US and China. But, time is gradually wearing down those points of friction, not sharpening them, as much of the US press would have us believe.


Shenzhen’s Place in China’s Long History Mixing Sex and Commerce

Shenzhen night time, from China First Capital blog post

Shenzhen is such a relentless modern city that it’s often hard to discern the influence of 3,000 years of Chinese history and culture. The skyline is so futuristic that it often resembles the home planet of a higher civilization.(See photo above, of the City Center and buildings near CFC’s office). 

But, of course, this is still a part of China, with all its embedded messages and references to a history longer and richer than any other. It just takes a little wisdom to perceive it. I can’t lay claim to any such wisdom. Luckily, though, I have a friend here who has both the historical knowledge and scholar’s temperament to properly put modern Shenzhen into a more classically Chinese context. 

This friend, Zhen Qinan, has had a exemplary career in the financial industry, first as part of the working team formed in 1990 to establish the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, and then as head of a joint venture between four Chinese financial firms and Merrill Lynch, where he worked with leading Chinese companies like Huawei and Taitai Pharmaceutical. 

These days, Qinan is semi-retired. I try to spend time with him whenever I can. He’s warm and thoughtful, and I know now from experience that he’ll offer astoundingly wise insights to even my most mundane questions. How mundane? Over a meal at one of Shenzhen’s better Sichuan places, I commented on how lucky we were to be in a city with so many good restaurants, even by Chinese standards. 

If I had to come up with reasons why, I would settle for the fact Shenzhen is richer than other cities, and has a population drawn from all parts of China. Qinan, however, offered a much richer explanation, rooted in his learning and respect for Chinese history. 

Shenzhen is part of an unbroken tradition, reaching back at least 1,200 years, of commercial centers in China having the best food and also the most beautiful women. So, in their day, the great trading cities along the Grand Canal — Hangzhou, Suzhou, Yangzhou — were particularly renowned as places with the finest and most varied cuisine, and the most desirable women. This reputation has remained largely intact in those cities, even as the commercial locus of China shifted elsewhere. 

The reason then, and the reason now, is the same: in wealthier commercial cities, there’s a heightened appreciation, as well as larger audience, for the pleasures that money can buy. Qinan is from Xian, and to drive home the point, he drew the comparison for me between Shenzhen and his home city.

Xian was always a center of learning and political power, rather than a city with vibrant trade and a large, successful merchant class. As a result, the food, though still quite delicious, has always been a little more basic, less expensive, less intricate, less subtle than that of the trading centers to the east, along the Grand Canal. There’s just not enough money around to support a thriving community of top-quality chefs and restaurants. They migrate to where the money is. 

The same logic, of course, applies to why beautiful women are more prevalent in rich commercial cities in China. Traditionally, beautiful women went to Suzhou, Hangzhou or Yangzhou to find a rich patron to take them as a subsidiary wife. They then produced better-looking children, on average, so creating a virtuous cycle. Let the process run, uninterrupted, for several centuries and the results would be that the cities gained a reputation, probably grounded in fact, for having particularly good-looking ladies. 

To this day, Chinese will always aver that Suzhou has the most beautiful women in the country. I haven’t been to Suzhou in over 25 years, so I can’t say if the reputation is deserved or not. But, I do know that most Chinese believe this to be true of Suzhou, even though, of course, few will have ever been there to see for themselves. 

While concubinage is officially no more in China, there is still a similar process at work in today’s Shenzhen. Concubines are no more. Polygamy is outlawed. Today, the term is 二奶 “er nai”, or “second lady”. It’s analogous to a mistress. Shenzhen, I’m told, has more “er nai” than any other city in China. These tend to be pretty girls in their early 20s who come to Shenzhen from all over China, and often end up clothed, housed, fed and otherwise supported financially by an older, usually married man. Nowhere else in the world (not Paris, Milan, or other centers of mistress culture) have I ever seen so many dreary older men in the company of stunningly beautiful women. 

Shenzhen has more “er nai” both because it’s the richest city in China, and also because there are a lot of men from neighboring Hong Kong who either live or work here, during the week. Part of the standard “expat package” would seem to be taking a Chinese girl as a mistress. I’m told the going rate, in terms of monthly cash stipend, is at least $1,000 a month, with apartment, car and clothing budget extra. That’s about five times more than a woman of similar age can make working in one of Shenzhen’s factories.

One other difference from the China of yore: these women will usually return to their home village with quite a nice nest-egg, marry locally and start a family. This then creates a “job opening”. The man will now find a new “er nai” and so start again the process of clothing, feeding and housing an attractive woman new to Shenzhen.   

Food and sex. They are life’s two most basic drives, as well as the fuel that has kept China’s commercial centers buzzing for well over a thousand years.



To See China Transforming: Go to a Chinese Bookstore

Ming Dynasty Portrait of Emperor

“Go to a Chinese bookstore”. This is my advice to anyone who wants to get a quick, accurate and comprehensible sense of what’s happening, and what’s most remarkable about this almost unfathomably large and complex country. 

Why a bookstore? Well, first, all of us have been to these in our own cities and countries. So, we have a good enough idea of what to expect in a boostore. It’s usually a quiet, not overly well-trafficked location, with people milling around in silence. Even in the larger US chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, there’s always a somnolent feeling about the place, like the paying customers are too few to support the cost of the lease. Sadly, that’s often been the case and Borders, for one, has run into huge financial problems. 

Now, let me take you – at least in words – to the bookstore closest to my home when I’m in Shenzhen. It’s called Shenzhen Book City, and even from the outside doesn’t look like any bookstore I’ve ever seen elsewhere. It’s a seven-story blue-glass tower the size of an office building. A typical big-box two-story Borders looks like some kind of cutesy toy compared to Shenzhen Book City. 

It’s on the city’s main thoroughfare, Shennan Road, and just above ground from a subway station. It’s open from 10am to 10pm daily. Just approaching it, you have the happy feeling of being pulled into a giant vortex of human activity, as big crowds of people quickly move into the store, or head out of it. 

Inside, it’s more crowded and generating a more palpable sense of buzz than the crowd at a baseball game. There are readers everywhere, moving from section to section, floor to floor, or stopped in an aisle deeply concentrating on some book they’ve taken from the shelves. This is a picture of China in the process of continued self-improvement. It’s very inspiring, and bears only the faintest resemblance to any other bookstore I’ve been to, in the 70 of more countries I’ve visited. 

The checkout lines are long, at any hour of the day. There’s a huge staff spread around the place, answering questions, guiding people to the section they’re looking for. Of course, this being China, there are also places to eat – quite a few of them – in the bookstore itself. It’s also more than just a retailer. There are classrooms on the upper floors where people come to take paid classes on all kinds of subjects aimed at self-improvement, like foreign languages, or accounting. 

The Shenzhen Book City, single-handedly, restores my faith that a love of books and the pursuit of intellectual inquiry has not been completely deadened by YouTube, video games and chat rooms. 

Shenzhen has other Book Cities, spread around the city. The others I’ve been to are no less crowded – and my guess, no less successfully financially than the one in my neighborhood, which must be making a small fortune every day. Books aren’t all that cheap in China. They used to be. But, the quality and choice have both improved enormously over the years. Some of the cover art is as good as anything I’ve ever seen. 

Anyone from outside China would have some immediate familiarity on entering the place. It looks like other bookstores, with lots of aisles and bookshelves, grouped in sections by topic,  stacked with books. But, what isn’t going to be familiar is the sheer exuberance of the place. It’s more like a jam-packed department store on Xmas eve than a staid bookstore.  It’s got that same air of  “I’m here to spend money, now”. 

It’s somehow raucous and purposeful at the same time. 

Standing by the entrance one day, a woman approached, seemingly intent on discovering why I was so obviously awestruck by the whole scene.  I couldn’t convince her there was anything worthy of note – as what seemed like thousands of people surged in and out of a book store. As it turned out, she also provided a nice small lesson on the state of Shenzhen’s economy at the moment. Until recently, she’d been working in 外贸, “waimao”, or foreign trade in English. It’s a catch-all term for a lot of the economic activity in Shenzhen until recently, embracing trading, sourcing, import-export. 

With the sudden downturn in the world economy last year, many of the easiest opportunities to make money from foreign trade more or less evaporated, as did many of the small companies that carried out this kind of work. The woman lost her job, and just a short time later, found a new one as a clerk in the bookstore. In other words, she made the transition, quite smoothly by all appearances, from earning a living off exports to earning a living from the domestic economy. 

I wandered some more and found my way to the section selling business, management and career-guidance books. It was particularly jammed with people, heads down, buried in their books, as if cramming for a big exam. In their urgency, their evident hunger to learn, to improve, you could catch a glimpse of just what lies deepest within the remarkable economic transformation of China over the last 30 years. 

It’s all there for the viewing, in an ordinary Shenzhen bookstore. 




A joyful return to China

I’m a very happy man today.  After several weeks in the US, I’m back in China. Nowhere else on this planet more pleases, inspires, awes and  enchants me.  I have a very long – just about life-long, in fact – love affairs with China.  As a boy growing up in the US during the height of the  Cold War, China was remote, closed, secretive, hostile to US foreign policy – and deeply fascinating, to me. More fascinating, in fact, than anywhere or anything else. I can’t entirely explain why. Maybe it was Nixon’s visit in 1972. Or, more likely, my early, and abiding, love of my grandfather’s exquisite Ming and Ching dynasty jade collection, which I’m now very proud to own. (The photo on the left is one of the pieces from my grandfather’s collection, a vase from the Ching Dynasty.)

All I know is that as soon as I got to university in the US, I enrolled in Chinese class, and declared myself a Chinese history major. My first visit to China was 1981, when I arrived as a postgraduate student at Nanjing University.

My intent back then was to devote my life to China – working, living and learning. In fact, my career path took an unexpected course and I ended up in Europe for 15 very happy and rewarding years, many of them spent as a foreign correspondent, traveling to well over 60 countries. From there, I moved on to Los Angeles to run a venture capital firm, and then lead a finance business during its US IPO.  I visited China during these years, but until last year, never had the opportunity to do what I’d long hoped and planned to do – work and live in China.

China First Capital is a culmination of my life’s dreams, hopes, and goals. 

I divide my time now between LA and Shenzhen, maintaining an office and home in each place. I feel intensely fortunate now to be involved in my work in the most important and history-changing development of our time: China’s rapid rise to economic greatness.  This work is deeply meaningful and fulfilling for me, because I have this long and unbreakable bond (in my heart as well as my mind) to this country. China is reassuming its role at the epicenter of world commerce, and everyone in the world, quite literally, benefits from this.

Right now, I have one specific, personal benefit in mind. Just as soon as I shower and unpack, I’m off for a delicious lunch of Sichuan food at a local place where I’ve gotten to know the owners, an extended family from Chongqing.