Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Why is Inter-cultural Dating Hard? Watch a Chinese Romantic Comedy

January 8, 2012

I’m not quite sure when I decided to turn this blog into media/cultural commentary, but the inspiration’s been striking me recently so I might as well go with it. I went to see the new Taiwanese romantic comedy “那些年, 我们一起追的女孩” with a friend this weekend. The title literally translates to something like “The Girl We All Pursued All Those Years,” which, admittedly, doesn’t translate well. However, I think it’s a far sight better than “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” the bland English title they decided to go with instead. The movie was already out in Hong Kong when I was there for a Teach For China trip in October, and has only recently made it to the Mainland–as I discovered recently, the version I saw here had already been thoroughly scrubbed of the racy bits.

Censorship-induced indignation aside, the movie is quite funny, and, in my opinion, raises some really interesting questions about contemporary views of romance, relationships, and innocence among young Chinese. I’m going to attempt to breeze through crucial plot elements as quickly as possible to get to the interesting part.

The central story, of high school first love–is an archetype in the popular Chinese youth imagination that a friend (博哥, for loyal readers) emailed me in a tizzy at how simply streaming the trailer from the US made him overflow with nostalgia for his lost youth. The movie follows Ke Jingteng 柯景腾 (called “Keteng), his gang of high school chums, and Shen Jiayi 沈佳宜 the pretty, studious girl that they all simultaneously have crushes on. Near the beginning of the movie, Jiayi forgets her textbook in class and Keteng, a notoriously terrible student, takes the rap for her, stoically accepting her punishment. Their friendship blossoms from this act of chivalry, with Jiayi diligently tutoring Keteng in an attempt to overcome his lack of interest in school. Jiayi spends all of high school thwarting would-be male suitors, and though Keteng is the last of his friends to declare his love for her, on their graduation day, she is unresponsive to him as well.

Added bonus to the movie: A look at some of the weird corporal punishment systems at work in Taiwanese high schools

When the friends graduate high school and go off to separate colleges, Keteng and Jiayi remain close friends, but romantically never make it beyond one awkward date, which of course begins with him asking her if it’s a date.  As the two of them walk balancing along a railroad track, their pseudo-romantic history hangs heavy in the air. “I’m afraid for you to date me,” Jiayi says, “because I’m afraid that I couldn’t live up to the girl in your imagination. I make mistakes sometimes, I have bad breath in the morning and I bicker with my sister. I’m quite ordinary.” Later that afternoon, when the topic of their courtship comes up again, Keteng declares, “Well I never officially asked you out.” Jiayi replies, “would you like to know my answer if you did?” “Don’t tell me,” Keteng retorts, “I haven’t asked you, so you can’t reject me yet.”

Keteng’s immaturity is a consistent theme of the movie, beginning with his poor

"I have morning breath"

grades and frequent disciplinary problems in high school. Emotional frustration spurs him to act out–in a rather unexpected plot twist, he organizes a Fight Club-esque boxing competition in the basement of his college dorm, and when Jiayi catches wind, she is furious with him. They fight, and as he storms off, she calls him 幼稚, “childish,” her chosen flirtatious insult for him while in high school, now a serious judgement of character. After the fight, they don’t speak for two years. They are seniors in college when a big earthquake hits Taibei, where Jiayi is studying. Keteng calls her frantic with worry and, when he finds that she is safe, the conversation turns to their romantic past. He casually asks why they never ended up together, to which she responds, “The most beautiful part of a relationship is the very beginning. Once you’re really together, a lot of the real feeling disappears. So I thought, why not let you chase me a little longer?” They fall back out of touch again, but Keteng seems to have finally overcome some of his 幼稚-ness. He starts working on a novel (granted, not always the most mature of career choices), applying himself for the first time in his life. The next time he hears from Jiayi, though, it is to tell him that she is getting married to someone else. In the last scene, he flashes through their relationship, imagining that if he had overcome his immaturity earlier, he could have made up during their big fight and they might actually have been together. In the end, though, all he can do is wish her well in her new life.

I would argue that the crux of the movie can be summed up in Jiayi’s statement–that the most beautiful part of a relationship is the very beginning, before you get to know a person and learn that they’re not as perfect as you would imagine. The first half of the movie hovers in this phase, packed to the brim with adorable high school-crush cliches. However, as the protagonists grow older, neither is willing to part with this idealized vision. Keteng refuses to risk outright rejection, and Jiayi is too scared to expose her own personal flaws to him. This is where I would argue the movie diverges from the majority of American romantic comedies. In an American romcom, the protagonists would confront one another’s flaws and learn how to love one another, warts and all. In this movie, the protagonists learn from their mistakes too late. As such, their relationship remains in the realm of Chinese high-school folklore, a pure archetype unsullied by the unpleasant details of a real adult relationship.

I’ve written in this blog before about some of the ways in which notions of relationships here can vary greatly from in the US. In my conversations with friends here I’ve become aware of a very different hierarchy of value with respect to different stages of a relationship. A lot of weight is often placed on the courtship phase–in the archetype at least, the boy becomes a close friend as he pursues the girl before finally biaobai 表白-ing, or dramatically expressing his love. Many people disagree with the American notion that one should date, and cross several bases, before feeling certain about one’s emotions. I found the movie fascinating because it deals with, and to some degree challenges, these notions. At the very least it draws a clear link between these romantic ideals and emotional maturity more generally.



June 22, 2011

I was walking back from lunch near the Teach For China office with some colleagues the other day when I was surprised to come across a line of protest graffiti scrawled across the barrier outside a nearby construction site. In my estimation, news coverage of protests and acts of dissent, at least in Western news, seems to be on the rise. It would be hard to read only the New York Times coverage of China and not believe that the country is going to crumble under grassroots protests any day. However, public acts of dissent are still quite rare in Beijing, and I can’t remember ever coming across such a public one as this graffiti. Most of what I could read on the walk back was protesting the results of overconstruction and pollution in Beijing:

楼距太近侵害我们采光权利隐私 | “Constructing buildings too close together invades our natural right to privacy!"


..卫生工程污染环境危害我们的健康!| "Pollution from sanitation projects threaten our health!"

Environmental woes are one of the main driving forces behind the rising frequency of protests in China, and while protests in rural areas are usually dealt with swiftly and harshly, the government has actually by necessity become, in some instances, more responsive to the demands of middle class and urban Chinese. Elizabeth Economy’s statement at this Congressional hearing in DC this spring gives a good summary of the recent trends.

The big Chinese dissident news of the day, though, is of course that Ai Weiwei, the increasingly world-famous artist-turned-activist, was finally released after three months of detention. The New York Times argues that this is a rare instance in which the Chinese government actually caved to international pressure.



From Harvard to the Chinese Internet

June 15, 2011

I have to do my part to make sure that Harvard friends see this: Thomas Friedman’s did a really fun piece this week about Michael Sandel’s “Justice” class which, if you didn’t know it, is a big deal in Asia.  The class, in which Sandel uses the arguments from famous philosophers to frame debate on contemporary moral dilemmas, is infamous at Harvard. Anecdotally I can confirm what Friedman says about the runaway popularity of the class in China; I have several friends who have downloaded and watched lecture videos from the whole class, which have at this point can be downloaded fully subtitled in Chinese. Sandel’s fame in China is, probably, second only to Greg Mankiew, whose intro economics textbook is used, as far as I can tell, almost universally in Chinese universities.

I would like to believe what Friedman suggests about the implications of Sandel’s popularity for the Chinese (and, more broadly, Asian) education system:

Sandel’s popularity in Asia reflects the intersection of three trends. One is the growth of online education, where students anywhere now can gain access to the best professors from everywhere. Another is the craving in Asia for a more creative, discussion-based style of teaching in order to produce more creative, innovative students. And the last is the hunger of young people to engage in moral reasoning and debates, rather than having their education confined to the dry technical aspects of economics, business or engineering.

I think he’s right that, at least in some small scale, Chinese universities are starting to experiment with the possibility of broader-based, interactive learning. The Yuanpei school at Peking University, which has taken the radical step of allowing students to choose their own majors in their second year rather than entering as freshmen into a particular department, is one of the most prominent examples. I know that it was my Chinese friends’ own dissatisfaction at the rigid nature of their university curricula that drove them to find external resources like “Justice.”

National Security After Bin Laden? Spend More on Education

May 4, 2011

Obama and members of his national security team receiving an update on the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden. Source: New York Times

The headlines on May 1 were dominated by breathless announcements of the death of Bin Laden, while nearly every newspaper gave an entire section on May 2 over to an extended description of the harrowing Navy Seal raid, then coverage in the couple of days since has gradually shifted to the question of, “now what? What does this mean for American national security policy?”

Yesterday, Jim Dwyer in the New York Times offered one suggestion with his coverage of Capt. Wayne Porter and Col. Mark Mykleby, who are both special strategic assistants to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last month the two military advisors released a white paper through the Woodrow Wilson Center which, in the tradition of George Kennan’s 1947 “long telegram” about Soviet aggression, attempts to redefine a new “strategic narrative” for American defense policy. The document dramatically argues that national security in the age of globalization cannot end simply at the identification and pursuit of threats, but must more holistically encompass domestic prosperity as well:

The term ‘national security’ only entered the foreign policy lexicon after 1947 to reflect the merger of defense and foreign affairs…“national security” has become a trump card, justifying military spending even as the domestic foundations of our national strength are crumbling. “National prosperity and security” reminds us where our true security begins.

In particular, the paper calls for increased investment in three main “investment priorities,” as needed for maintaining American strength and influence:

1. Education: The document clearly and decisively defines education, and the preparation of globally competitive workers, scientists, and leaders, as a matter of national security:

“By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans – the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow – we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future.”

2. “Sustainable Security:” The authors link traditional military measures of national defense with other tools of foreign policy influence, like economic exchange and diplomacy, as equally vital in maintaining America’s position and influence abroad. In a sense, this priority is a summary of “smart power,” a doctrine first coined by foreign policy scholar Joseph Nye, which calls for the effective integration of both military “hard power” and “soft power,” such as cultural and economic influence.

3. Environmental Sustainability: Lastly, it ties environmental sustainability to national security by identifying the protection of natural resources with economic prosperity.

Anyone who has been following the budget debates over the last six months (as I, from my internship on Capitol Hill have) will recognize this rhetoric as very similar to the language which Democrats and their allies have begun to increasingly rely on to justify domestic spending. Increased spending on education and environmental protection have been core planks of the Democratic Party platform for decades; however, I would argue that there has been a major shift in the way that these programs are defended and justified.

The most prominent example, of course, was Obama’s “Win the Future” State of the Union address this year, in which he framed investments in education, infrastructure, and clean energy almost entirely in terms of America’s need to maintain parity with China and other rising powers:

“Our infrastructure used to be the best, but our lead has slipped. South Korean homes now have greater Internet access than we do. Countries in Europe and Russia invest more in their roads and railways than we do. China is building faster trains and newer airports.”

Even Obama’s push for more education funding is framed primarily in terms of international economic competition:

“Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success. But if we want to win the future — if we want innovation to produce jobs in America and not overseas — then we also have to win the race to educate our kids.”

Extensive federal funding for and involvement in public education dates back to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, passed as part of  Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program. At the time, though, improvements in education were justified in a much different way. Johnson argued that the “Great Society” would allow “every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents.” Education, in his vision, was the path to individual achievement, not necessarily to national competitiveness.

Environmental protection in the Great Society was justified not in terms of natural resources and economic viability, but simply out of the need to protect natural beauty:

“We have always prided ourselves on being not only America the strong and America the free, but America the beautiful. Today that beauty is in danger. The water we drink, the food we eat, the very air that we breathe, are threatened with pollution. Our parks are overcrowded, our seashores overburdened. Green fields and dense forests are disappearing.”

Overall, Great Society programs unapologetically sought to reduce socioeconomic and racial inequality in the United States. Johnson called for programs to create “abundance and liberty for all” and to help all Americans “escape from the crushing weight of poverty.”

The confrontation of inequality has almost entirely vanished from the rhetoric that supporters of increased domestic spending, both in and outside of the Administration, use today. In fact, the words “poverty” and “inequality” don’t appear in the last State of the Union once. The partisan in me would argue that, in today’s political climate, where almost any mention of reducing inequality as a goal is branded as “class warfare” and “socialism,” liberals have abandoned the rhetoric entirely in favor of this new narrative focused entirely on national competitiveness.

This new rhetoric had been circulating the liberal community for a while before the Obama Administration picked up on it. Thomas Friedman is particularly fond of using China as a foil to argue for increased domestic spending, as he did in this article I criticized last fall. Fareed Zakariah used the specter of American decline to argue for increased education funding in an article a couple of months ago.  Porter and Mykleby’s white paper may indicate, however, that this new viewpoint is trickling into the military and national security committee as well. If education and sustainability could be successfully case as issues of national security, it would make it much harder for fiscal hawks to oppose them.

My 2 Cents on the “China vs. Egypt” Debate (part 2)

March 29, 2011

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, but the last time I wrote a full post it was about one of the main reasons why, in my estimation, we shouldn’t be too optimistic that the sort of wide-scale social unrest which has rocked the Middle East in the last two months could inspire significant political change in China in the near future. Specifically I argued that, although localized protests, particularly in impoverished and rural areas, have increased dramatically, the regime thus far has successfully co-opted the growing middle class which has benefitted the most from three decades of economic growth. Even in a society with what may be the fastest-growing income gap in the world, people remain satisfied with the material improvements in their own lives and optimistic for the future.

If domestic satisfaction with Communist Party rule is one half of the story that must be examined, than the other half is the government’s response to unrest. While we have certainly been hearing a lot about police states in the news in the last few weeks, I believe that the situation on the ground in China is significantly different from in any of the Middle Eastern states. On one hand, the government’s paranoid and disproportionate responses to protest have certainly fueled more resentment. On the other hand, I believe that the Chinese public security apparatus is significantly more sophisticated than the one in Egypt, or probably in any country, and has proved amazingly adept at stifling the growth of a national protest movement.

Elizabeth Economy from the Council on Foreign Relations testified a few weeks ago at the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission and spoke specifically about the upswing in violent but localized peasant protests in rural China—of which there have been more than 100,000 a year in recent years. When questioned about the government response, however, she concluded that the Chinese government has been uniquely adept at stopping revolts at the source and stemming their spread. Public security forces, she argued, proactively identify potential “centers” of organization around which dissatisfied citizens gather and stamp them out early. Localized protests are met with an overwhelming show of force that prevents any possibility of their spread to a neighboring county. The result, then, is that small, localized centers of unrest fizzle out before they can connect with one another and form a broader movement.

The role of Facebook and Twitter in the Middle East uprisings has, inevitably, drawn attention toward Internet controls in China as well. Foreigners often think of the “Great Fire Wall” as a bloated but static barrier, blocking off vast swathes of content but infinitely vulnerable to small, innovative circumventions by enterprising young people. My trusty VPN hasn’t failed me yet, at least, during my trips to China. However, the online security apparatus is in fact much more complex than that. I recently listened to a recording of a panel last year at the Brookings Institute on the role of the Internet in US-China relations. During the panel, Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis Defense Group Director James Mulvenon argued that the government has exceeded the expectations of many in its ability to adapt to new technologies and use them to monitor and limit internet protests. The scale of the Chinese government’s suppressive efforts, as well as its surprising flexibility, seems to me to differ sharply from conditions in Egypt and Tunisia, where vibrant online dissent communities were allowed to grow unchecked.

Advocates of political reform in China are quick to point out that the CCP’s bureaucracy has become calcified, that entrenched, corrupt bureaucrats are too distanced from their subjects to address cries for reform. I think that this image is true in many respects, and government unresponsiveness is certainly one of the main causes for domestic unrest. But we need to pay equal attention to—and perhaps need to be more afraid of—the other side of the Chinese government, which has proven itself to be adaptable and flexible. This same government has proven itself capable of identifying challenges quickly, and diverting large amounts of resources to attack—and crush—those challenges.

My 2 Cents on the “China vs. Egypt” debate (part 1)

March 6, 2011

The new favorite pastime of the Chinese blogger community has become, in the last few weeks, to compare China to Egypt and Tunisia. It’s certainly a topic that’s been heavy in my mind the last couple of weeks, and it’s been fascinating to read just how widely the analysis seems to vary, and to defy easy summary.

I was lucky to attend a hearing hosted by the Congressional US-China Economic and Security Review Commission held a hearing a couple of weeks ago which highlighted to me, more than I had previously aware, of just how much domestic anger is bubbling under the surface in some parts of the country. Small, localized demonstrations or protests, or “mass incidents,” as the government calls them, have been ballooning in number over the past decade, and already number over 100,000 every year. Elizabeth Economy from the Council on Foreign Relations gave a vivid example:

“In one case in July 2010 for example, officials in Gangkou, Jiangxi Province, offered to relocate villagers away from a heavily polluted site that had sickened them but provided only minimal compensation. When police beat two female petitioners into a coma, thousands of angry citizens used bricks and stones to smash windows and overturn police cars”

Events often start as small personal grievances, inspired by public health hazards due to environmental pollution, by forced evictions, by unfair labor practices, by official corruption, or any of the other dozen serious complaints of China’s underprivileged. Ham-handed management by the police can easily turn one family’s protest into a village-wide riot. Without a doubt, then, public dissatisfaction is growing, and is leading a disenfranchised population, with no open or transparent way to redress grievances against the government, to act out violently.

However, many scholars and journalists point out that China differs from Egypt in one fundamental capacity: the Chinese government’s uncompromising pursuit of economic growth has raised the living standard of vast sectors of the population and garnered overall allegiance from the all-important growing middle class. Egypt’s economy has grown significantly over the last ten years as well. However, as Evan Osnos summarizes,

“Egypt and Tunisia were vulnerable to unrest not because their economies were ailing, but precisely because their economies had improved in recent years, which only accentuated how far the economic gains were outpacing political liberalization.”

Egypt and Tunisia’s middle class turned against the government because “rising expectations” outstripped the ability of a growing (though increasingly corrupt—not so different from China) economy to deliver on those expectations. Consider a series of public opinion surveys conducted in Egypt by Gallup in the years before the revolution, which found that levels of “life satisfaction and optimism” in Egypt were as low as those in the truly stagnating Palestine. Young people and the middle class, particularly those who expected to do well, were disappointed with their share of the economic growth.

Certainly the economic situation in China is quite different. Economic growth there has been not simply strong, but mind-blowingly fast, and without a doubt has raised the living standards of a vast percentage of the population in the last several decades. What is perhaps more important, though, is that the population as a whole perceives that increasing economic prosperity is widespread and is meeting an increasing number of their needs. Harvard Sociologist Martin Whyte, who testified at the same hearing, shared the results of a fascinating public opinion survey on perceptions of economic inequality in China. His research found that, while a majority of people in China recognize the widening income gap (now the largest of any low to middle-income country in the world), they tend to attribute prosperity differences to differences in talent and effort, and remain optimistic about their own chance to get ahead eventually. Even Chinese who have garnered only modest economic gains in recent years trust that their lives, too, will continue to get better under the current regime.

My understanding is that these factors—public satisfaction over domestic, particularly economic, conditions—make up one half of the debate over continued domestic stability in China. I’ve managed to fill up more space already than I intended to, so the other half—government success at maintaining domestic control—will have to wait for another post.

Official Backlash Against the Child Beggar Campaign?

February 22, 2011

I learned today that the popular internet (in particular, microblog) campaign to track down and rescue kidnapped child beggars–which I wrote about last week–has suddenly started receiving an increasingly negative portrayal in the Chinese media and from some portions of the online community. Chinageeks gives the whole story, in particular a rebuttal to the prominent Global Times editorial which criticizes the campaign

So what’s going on? A couple things. First, there’s the natural, contrarian reaction that some people often have when something becomes popular overnight. But the bigger theme, I think, plays out pretty clearly in the Global Times article I quoted from above. The government — and its army of media spin artists — have realized the dangerous precedent this campaign sets. People are completely circumventing all State authority and addressing a social problem directly. I think someone up top realized that while it may be good in this case, that’s not a model for social change that the government can afford to let become popular. They can’t just shut down the campaign, of course …but they can chip away at it in the media, raising doubts.

It’s more than a little tragic that this spontaneous, grassroots campaign, even though it emerged to address a social issue with almost no political implications whatsoever, is nonetheless being targeted as a political threat simply because it represents a conduit for social organization outside of the government. This seems to me to be a harder-lined position than the government has taken on an issue of this size in a while. I’m definitely going to keep following this story and the reactions to it as it develops.

Using Chinese Twitter to Combat Human Rights Abuses

February 10, 2011

A really inspirational story has been all over the Chinese media and generated some buzz in the China blog sphere the last couple of days. Amid the continued uproar over human rights abuses in China, the issue of human trafficking rarely gets much foreign press. A Chinese NGO called Baobeihuijia 宝贝回家 (literally, “Baby Come Home”), has been working for several years to confront the grievous and ongoing problem of human trafficking in China. The organization owns a website which posts photographs of missing children and tries to help parents to reconnect with them. China Geeks reported today about a really cool development in this movement:

Yu Jianrong, a Beijing man, set up a Sina Weibo account and asked people to do something simple: take photos of child beggars, and send them to him to be republished in his feed…. Yu Jianrong’s microblog has accrued nearly 95,000 followers, with no signs of slowing down2.

Yu Jianrong then forwards the photos and information about the child’s last known location to Baobeihuijia, which can help track them down and get them help.

I’m excited about this story for two reasons:

1. Implications for Human Rights in China and the growth of domestic human rights civil society: The US State Department continues to list continued rampant “trafficking in persons” as one of the major blemishes on China’s human rights record which the “government” had “failed to address.” This is a major issue that has been going on for a long time, especially in Xinjiang  Province. Unattended young children are picked up off the street and transported thousands of miles to another province, where they are then pressed into slavery as cheap workers or as beggars. I learned about the practice from a friend of mine who has spent extensive time in Xinjiang. “A van will drive around and find kids, and someone will call out that they’ll go buy ice cream or candy.” Ethnic minority children, such as the Uighurs of Xinjiang, are especially vulnerable because they may not be able to speak Mandarin. “They’ll find themselves in a place with no ability to communicate and no one to contact. Then they’ll be forced to work for free until they can learn enough Mandarin to escape.”

According to C. Custer at ChinaGeeks, 9,165 cases of selling women and 5,900 cases of selling children were reported in 2010. However, public reporting for this tragic practice is often lost among the great media fanfare surrounding more politically charged human rights abuses in China. The lack of political liability around this issue, though, also means that there is a space for Chinese domestic participation without any fear of suppression from the government. I would like to think that this issue represents the emergence of exactly the sort of civil society institutions which foreign human rights and democracy advocates have long been working to foster in China. A domestic community of individuals and organizations has emerged on its own accord to fight on behalf of the victims of these crimes. A space for public activity on human rights abuses already exists in China for issues that are essentially apolitical in nature.

2. Implications for the future of information technology in politics: The growing political presence of internet social media has become everyone’s favorite catch phrase since it was decided that Facebook and Twitter had played a big role in the political upheavals in Tunisa, Egypt, and throughout the Middle East. I hope readers will excuse a sudden spike in the nerdiness level of this post, which is probably at least the result of my having recently read a William Gibson novel. In any case, the way in which technology, in this example, is being used to transcend limitations of space and distance is really exciting. C. Custer explains that child traffickers have, for a long time, been able to “remain relatively anonymous even in the middle of the street when no one was paying attention.” The vast distance which they carried the child away from their home was enough to conceal the crime. Now, however, the internet is being used to pool information about where they encounter these children, creating a public record of the child’s whereabouts and making them easier to locate.

For anyone still in China, you can contribute to this effort by forwarding information and pictures about child beggars you see to C. Custer at China Geeks:

custerc at, or twitter @ChinaGeeks and weibo @ChinaGeeks


Another article on this at the China Media Project:

A New Gig, Michelle Kwan, and Awesome Videos of Cultural Revolution-era China

February 2, 2011

After two months of mailing cover letters, I’ve made my first, rather halting, steps toward actual employment. I’ve relocated to Washington, DC, where I’ve started two internships, one with California Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, and one with a small NGO called the US-China Education Trust. USCET sponsors sponsors scholarships for Chinese students, as well as a series of academic conferences and symposia, mostly in China, about politics, economics, and media.

I’m particularly excited about USCET, which I think will help me to gain more exposure to US-China partnerships and learn more about the different ways to be involved in US-China relations. Julia Chang Bloch, the former ambassador who runs it, seems to be really well connected within the DC diplomatic community–I got to attend a Chinese New Year party she threw last week, and met the second-in-command at the Chinese embassy, and Michelle Kwan!


Me and Michelle Kwan! pwned.



USCET held another cool event last week hosted by the chair of their advisory board, Nicholas Platt, a retired diplomat who went with Nixon on the first trip to China in 1972. He had the foresight to bring a video camera along with him, and took some amazing images of what China was like in the early 70’s. Luckily, some of these were posted online for a similar event he gave at the Asia Society in New York, and you can see them here.

It was all I could do to not completely nerd out while he was showing these; they of course visited all of the major tourist sights–Great Wall, Summer Palace, Hangzhou West Lake, Ming Tombs–but they’re all completely deserted. There’s a great image early on of a neighborhood in the center of Beijing, not far from the Forbidden City, but completely devoid of the massive buildings you’d see there today. It looks like any of the hutongs you’d see in the most run-down parts of Beijing today, complete with people brushing their teeth on the street. Unfortunately, the little clip that the Asia Society put online doesn’t include the most striking image, of Shanghai’s Pudong district. The area, now a massive forest of skyscrapers, was totally deserted when Platt visited, little more than a collection of little fishing huts.

I’m not quite sure how long I’m gonna be in DC. The “plan” (to avoid grad school and find something interesting to do instead) is still in its initial stages, and will depend a lot on how these internships go and how long it takes me to find something else from here. The first week has gone well though–look me up if you come to DC!


The End of Microfinance’s Honeymoon

January 17, 2011

ARDY's Fu Xing branch office

I’m a couple of weeks late, I know, in commenting on article in the New York Times about the recent image issues that the microfinance industry has suffered. The article describes how major microfinance lenders, in particular in South Asia and in Latin America, have begun to come under greater public scrutiny, and even resistance, from the media and from political leaders. In the most extreme example of resistance, the government of the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has banned microloans altogether.

…as with other trumpeted development initiatives that have promised to lift hundreds of millions from poverty, microcredit has struggled to turn rhetoric into tangible success.

Done right, these loans have shown promise in allowing some borrowers to build sustainable livelihoods. But it has also become clear that the rapid growth of microcredit — in India some lending firms were growing at 60 percent to 100 percent a year — has made the loans much less effective.

Most borrowers do not appear to be climbing out of poverty, and a sizable minority is getting trapped in a spiral of debt, according to studies and analysts.

…even as the results for borrowers have been mixed, some lenders have minted profits that might make Wall Street bankers envious. For instance, investors in India’s largest microcredit firm, SKS Microfinance, sold shares last year for as much as 95 times what they paid for them a few years earlier.

The article confirms something that we probably should have known all along–that an organization isn’t necessarily doing good for a community just because it labels itself as “microfinance”–rather, effectiveness is inevitably going to vary by organization and each microfinance firm must be evaluated individually in order to determine its effectiveness. In my experience, the Association for the Rural Development of Yilong County is one of the better-run organizations, and its successes carry lessons for both implementing microfinance successfully, and for evaluating the reliability of other organizations.

In the last month of my time in Sichuan ARDY hired an outside software distributor from Nepal to help them install a new data management system–something I’ve blogged about previously here. The two men who came in from Kathmandu to oversee the installation process had been to China several times before to work with other microfinance firms in various parts of the country. When I asked them how ARDY compared to the other Chinese firms they had worked with though, they respondingly responded that ARDY was quite different. Many of the other organizations, it seemed, fell into the same pattern that the article describes as inspiring suspicion. They ran their operations strictly as a business, beholden primarily to the profit motive, and with little concern as to whether their borrowers were really being lifted out of poverty. ARDY, they said, was the only Chinese microfinance distributor they had seen which was really motivated by social goals, and which really worked to change peoples’ economic situations.

As I have discussed previously in this blog, one of ARDY’s really unique characteristics is its organic relationship with the local community. Gao Xiangjun and the other directors all grew up in this community, and have a strong sense of personal dedication to improve it. They know what local inhabitants need and are personally dedicated to providing them with the instructive and material support that they need. However, I was equally impressed by the shrewd business acuity which Gao and her colleagues display in their work. ARDY maintains an incredibly high repayment rate, and reinvests much of its profits from interest back into the organization, such that its lending pool increases each year. How can an organization combine both profit motive and social good?

I think one important element is the need to distinguish profit motive from profit as a performance indicator. ARDY seeks to help local farmers by creating sustainable local enterprises which borrowers will be able to manage and develop themselves. Traditional indicators of business performance, in particular profit, are the best way to determine if borrowers are in fact moving toward financial independence rather than simply accepting handouts. They should also inform the way in which potential microfinance entrepreneurs manage their new enterprises, and ensure that they can eventually turn a profit on their own.

However, in order for these more conventional business practices to be successfully integrated into a community which previously lacked them, they must be combined with an intimate understanding of the community and a willingness to work with borrowers to overcome the greater obstacles that inevitably arise from starting a business in a more extreme environment. When a borrower from ARDY fails to make a payment, a loan officer visits them at their home, and works with them to figure out a strategy for repaying the loan and, hopefully, salvaging their failed business endeavor. Without this sensitivity to local conditions, any organization that treats profit as its bottom line is inevitably going to leave some people behind. Instead, profit motive should inform socially motivated projects, allowing an organziation to meet its social goals within a competitive capitalist environment and with a more efficient use of resources.