Monday, January 29, 2007

Jade statues, paintings and calligraphy scrolls and other treasures confiscated from corrupt officials went on auction today in Hefei, Anhui province. There is a photo here, which says the items were taken from officials such as the former Anhui vice governor and the former mayor of Fuyang. Whether in a sign of curiousity about the scale of corruption or just continued passion for costly art, nearly 400 people attended (headlines about nabbed officials make for popular reading here). Some objects went for ten times over their original price. Virtually all the proceeds will go to the state treasury, state media said.

In November, an oil painting by Liu Xiaodong sold for a record-breaking $2.7 million. It's so big it's hard to take a picture of it. The painting depicts people displaced by the controversial Three Gorges Dam.

The buyer was Zhang Lan, the 48-year-old founder and chair of the Sichuan restaurant chain South Beauty, auction staff said. Zhang is worth a reported $125 million, tied with others at No. 21 on the Hurun List of the Richest Women in China. Maybe, art watchers say, she will display it in her new restaurant in New York City's Times Square, to be designed by Philippe Starck later this year.

"Unlike trading houses or playing the stock market, trading paintings makes more money and the risk is comparatively lower," said Yang Feixang, a slight man of 38 who has been active in the art market since he was 18. Now the owner of six art galleries in Changchun, in Northeast Jilin Province, Yang comes to Beijing art auctions at least twice a year.

Five years ago, he said, a painting by Fan Zeng, an art professor in Tianjin's Naikai University, was worth $1 million yuan or $128,200. Today, it is worth more than $1.9 million, he said. "But if you invested one million yuan on the stock market five years ago, it’s possible that now you get nothing.”

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Imported wine is the latest fad among middle class Chinese. A well-known Shanghai entrepreneur told the owner of the largest wine distributor in China: "Wine is a really good gift. I can give it to somebody, even a government official, and it's not perceived as a bribe."

But wine making here has a long way to go – a group of Australian wine experts recently toured the country's wineries and concluded they were better off selling bulk wine to China rather than investing in any local wineries. Bulk wine is shipped here, combined with other ingredients and then sold as Chinese bottled wine because there aren't yet enough grape for the Chinese to make their own.

Chinese consumers still drink less than a liter per head of wine each year, while the French drink more than 55 liters per head and Americans consume about 8 liters per head, experts say.

Above, corporate lawyer Yao Yi at a recent wine tasting in Beijing. Below, Robert Cho in the the wine cellar of his high-end restaurant Tiandi Yijia off Tiananmen Square.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Online dating is big in Beijing, with many people saying they like being able to hide behind their computers until they "get to know someone." When online dating organizations host events for members to actually meet in the flesh, most participants are painfully shy. Emcees at this event had to coax many of them onstage to sing or announce their online numbers so that interested partners can later email them. As opposed to going right up to them and saying hello, of course.

Meanwhile (i.e. totally unrelated), the Wall Street Journal has an item on the founders of Google telling reporters at Davos that they think there should be more professional journalists covering world news. A reader writes back, saying Google and Yahoo should think about their China policies.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

When discussing China's myriad challenges with laobaixing, or ordinary Chinese, most eventually circle back to the source of all their problems: too many people.

There is a population clock here.

China now has 137 million Internet users, and is expected to overtake the US in two years, officials said in today's China Daily newspaper, which like all media here is state-owned. The US has 210 million Internet users.


The other night, I went to a poor neighborhood in old Beijing to interview some people who are often not encouraged to talk with the media. It wasn't a big deal: these days we're allegedly allowed to go anywhere, so who knows whether I really needed to be all that careful in the first place, at least in this instance. But I took my ability to slip past for granted.

Coming back to my diplomatic compound, the security guard wanted me to show ID. I refused. I also refused to speak English, since that wasn't the point. I wanted to know why he waved in Caucasians, without ID, but not me. Years ago, Chinese were not allowed in these foreigner compounds, but nowadays Chinese also live and work here.

The guard's non-answer answer - "it's for safety reasons" - infuriated my translator, who was with me. She asked him if he thought foreigners were safe and Chinese people were dangerous. He babbled, then said he had no authority over foreigners, and could only stop Chinese. I asked whether, as a foreigner I could do whatever I pleased in the compound, while my translator had to obey the rules. He babbled some more.

"It's colonialist thinking," my translator said. The only fair policy would be a swipe card for everybody, she argued.

It's hard not to get angry about this sort of thing when it happens so often, but I am trying.

It sort of reminds me of a recent interview where I asked what sort of follow-up occured after a misguided official killed off a needed program, then was forced to restart it again. Was there any belated recognition of the program's merits, I asked? "You ask very American questions," my interviewee said, to my chagrin. Whether the program was beneficial or necessary was irrelevant. All that mattered was that the official's face was temporarily saved by relaunching the program. Now that that need had been met, the program could easily die again.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Zeng Yan, 21, left, and Nie Yuehua, 38, right, making noodles for lunch at the Yunnan Daytop Drug Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Center in Kunming.

Kunming almost didn't get a therapeutic drug treatment center, one of less than a handful in China based on an American model that emphasizes peer to peer interaction and counseling. Its first incarnation as a pilot project died after only nine months.

"Some people didn't like that it was an American model. They wanted to call it 'health recovery family' in Chinese. They didn't even want an English name," said Yang Maobin, the director of the center.

Only in 1998, when provincial officials realized that an international therapeutic community conference would be bringing VIPs to Kunming the following year, did they decide the absence of any therapeutic center might be a problem.

American aid organizations had funded various drug rehabilitation and training efforts in Yunnan, and yet "there was no therapeutic community, no treatment, no rehabilitation going on," Yang recalled.

So officials asked him to start up the pilot project again. Without any money.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Sun Jingxia, 53, is one of hundreds of thousands of nonprofessional, or "barefoot" teachers in China: peasants with little more than a vocational school certificate who help teach their less educated neighbors.

After years of sacrifice, they are now being cast aside in favor of younger, better educated candidates. It's simply the price of reform, some experts say.

But because this is China, a policy to slowly phase out and compensate the barefoot teachers never happened as planned. Instead, corruption has meant that some unqualified teachers have landed the coveted positions people like Sun believe they deserve. She has a stack of awards including this one, from 1984.

One day last fall, lunchtime at a home that cares for the children of prisoners was interrupted by a loud, sharp demand.

"Those who took the dates stand along the wall!" a voice rang out.

Slowly, reluctantly, several children took their places, one by one, below two lines of hand-painted Chinese characters that read, "Now I'm a good kid. When I grow up, I'll be a good adult."

"Is that date tree ours? Are you allowed to pick those dates?" shouted Pan Du, executive director of the Dalian Children's Village.

Fidgeting. Pouting. Silence.

"We have so many children in our family," Pan said. "What is this activity called, taking dates that don't belong to you?"

"Stealing," one child said at last.

"Were our parents sent to prison because of stealing?” Pan said. "The dates are small but the point is big!"

After every last date from a neighbor's tree was pulled from each pocket and laid on a table, the children sat down to turnip soup, shredded potatoes and carrots and a special treat: preserved, salty tofu.

For the last two years, Bi Zuying, 81, has been living in the Baiyun Home for the Elderly in Dalian, in northeast Liaoning province, where the elderly population is growing faster than in Shanghai or Beijing.

Bi doesn't want to burden the three sons and one daughter she raised single-handedly after her husband died 20 years ago. "I don't have to cook, I don't have to clean house ... I don't have to wash clothes," said Bi, who pays $77 a month in rent.

But like the other residents, she admits to a growing lack of filial piety in modern China as children worry more about their paychecks than their parents. Bi still supports two unemployed sons on her small state pension and she has a daughter-in-law who doesn't like her cooking.

At the end of 2005, there were 144 million people in China over 60 years of age, a number officials say is increasing by about 100 million every decade.

In less than 20 years, large parts of China will have to support very aged populations on low average income levels, according to Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. He calls it a "slow motion humanitarian tragedy already underway."
Sorry, have been busy. A few updates.
In a fit of madness, a friend and I threw Thanksgiving dinner for 40. Blame must go to the previous occupant of my apartment. When we asked if Phil & Sarah would host their annual Thanksgiving party in their new siheyuan, they claimed their kitchen was too small. So we bought the turkeys and made almost everything else. In Beijing, cranberry sauce and molasses are not easy to find. Got marshmellows on the third try. There are also three words for sweet potatoes: baishu, ganshu and hongshu, not to be confused with yams, shuyushu. By the end of the evening, it looked like this: