20 December 2006

can't resist

the proof is in the pudding,
and the pudding is burnt.

17 December 2006

Not a comunist state...

One of the interesting things about China is that it is not in anyway a Communist state. But the whole of the world does not seem to have noticed. It is a one party state. Maybe there is a proper word for that, but I do not know it. There are lots of misnomers out there. In the west we call ourselves a democracy. We are not we are a collection of republics. I remember reading a quote once from a founder of the USA that they chose a republican model because they did not believe that a democracy could work. However, they were wrong. They should just ask the Swiss. They have a working democracy. Though the Swiss complain that it is too much effort.

Back to China. The people of china know it is not a Communist state, so do the academics, so does the communist party. But no one seems willing to admit that it has happened. I described it to the communist party member (I think) I had lunch with this analogy. They (the Chinese) are like a bunch of penguins. No one wants to be the first to jump. I will now add the following: They saw what happened to the last lot. There are seals out there. One day they will all have to jump together.

So if China is not a Communist state, what is it? This next hypothesis is just an initial observation. In the world of China there used to be two main groups. The emperor and the mandarins. In the world of the ROC, this was replaced by a coalition of warlords and other sundry groups, such as the communists to form a democracy. When that fell apart the democratic forces (though they were still mostly warlord forces) retreated to Taiwan or joined the Communists. It was the latter that really did in the KMT. Within the communists, a new group of mandarins slowly infiltrated the organisation. Or the member mutated into mandarins, I am not sure on this one. The communists lost power with the removal of the gang of four. China is now one giant public service. I was completely reminded of an organisation here in Australia. When I first started working, I worked for Telecom Australia. This was an engineer run public service department. It had the engineering equivalents of fat cats, the Chief State Engineer. The organisation was a collection of powerful public service fiefdoms. Within each fiefdom were other fiefdom. Politics was rampant and internal politics ruled the roost.

The China of today is like this Telecom Australia of old. There is one giant party. Within the part at the top level are the central power groups. Most obviously the most powerful one is headed by the current president. Then there are the regional leaders. The one in the headlines who recently lost power was the head of Shanghai. He could not escape the fate of the head of the head of Beijing. Then there are the heads of the cities, and so on down to the local villages.

There is a constant power flux between these groups. For example, in many places the local officials may take a loose view of the one child policy. Money starts at the top, and usually does not reach the bottom in any significant way. In one place they told the the locals had made their own secondary road with their own money as they needed to be able to get their goods to market.

One thing that is difficult to tell in this is the role of the military. They are invisible to one such as me. However, they have a role. The question must be, how independent are the generals? Would they take action on their own as they would say in Thailand or Fiji? They must be complicit.

Before I head off into the final section, I will add two stories I have from my travels in China.

In 1999 I traveled from Shanghai to Xian and then Beijing. Two weeks before I arrived I saw the riots outside the American Embassy on the TV, as a result of the US air force bombing the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia. Every where I went I would be asked, say 10 times a day, Are you American? to which I would reply no, I am an Australian. People would smile and life was OK. In Xian, I met an American man who was living in Taipei. When asked about being an American, he would reply, yes. There would then ensue a discussion. (His Chinese was much better than mine.) In the end ever discussion he had the others would end up accepting his point of view. I will go into this in more detail another time. But what is important here is that I learned that the ordinary people in China generally do not believe or trust their leadership.

The second story is one I heard of a movie maker and the comments that he made. This happened on my last trip to China, just finished in 2006. I have hard this sentiment else where. These are not his words, it is my paraphrasing of comments made by several people. To get ahead in China you have to be on the side of the Communist party. You will be locked out of the system if you are not. So everyone is saying this... things are getting better, generally we are better off. So we will agree to go along with the system for now. It is delivering the goods. It is far from perfect. But we do not want to descend back into civil war. We do not want to be shot. We are not really happy, we have not yet crossed that line.

So where is all of this heading, how will China advance into the future. Here are some possible scenarios:

The scenario I like is a difficult one. There is this little island called Taiwan, that contains a democratic government. One interesting thing to note is that all of the people in this argument think that that other Hakka person, San Yet Sen is a great hero and hold him in almost god like status. They all agree that the first republic, formed in 1912, was a great time and a wonderful new beginning. So they should resurrect the long lost Sun Yet Sen. There should be a reverse takeover. In the past Scotland did a friendly takeover of England with King James I of England. Taiwan should take over China. If the communists are as serious about the reintegration of Taiwan being their number one priority as they say, they will readily accept. (ha!) Elections would be held and China will become a democracy. Of course there are a million details that would need to be take into account. But it is a doable.

Another scenario is that China continues on the way that it is. The mandarins have been able to keep the empires running in China for hundreds of years. Each time the empire lasted longer. Perhaps they can keep it on an even keel. However, I think that there is a problem here. With any system like this the problem occurs when the leader are incompetent. It is really hard to remove an incompetent leader at the top of a system bent on keeping them in power. You only have to look at the last 100 years of the Qing dynasty to see how long they can hang onto power. The other problem with this type of government is that the only way out in this situation is civil war. Would the army step in, in a situation like this?

Another scenario is similar to the first. The communists gradually relinquish power and open up the system in an organised manner. There would be steps forward and backwards. I actually think that this is quite likely. It will require a new generation who are unhappy with the old system and want to change it to something better. There are many unhappy people. Generally, their is a tendency for governments to open up and become more transparent as time goes by. But it can be a slow progress. It took the English nearly a thousand years, many civil uprisings and a civil war to go from a feudal dictatorship to a republican monarchy.

Another approach, though extremely unlikely is to take over the communist party from the inside. The membership level of the communist party is very low. A simple branch stacking approach could elect members to the party intent on change. The incumbents would fight back, that is for sure, but it would be very interesting.

03 December 2006

Chinese Economy

This was the third time I visited china. The first was in 1992-1993, the second in 1999 and this time in 2006. China has changed very much in that time.

The first time I was in China, they had only just begun a transition to a market economy. My view back then was that they had just spent 40 years being told by the government all the bad an evil things about capitalism. Then only a few years before, they had been told... "well now you are a capitalists". Chaos ensued as the people tried to behave in all the bad ways mentioned by the communists. There were only pockets of good behaviour and the country was very very poor.

For example: we used to catch the local buses. At the time there were many private mini bus operators as the government run buses were in such a bad state. I think I only saw one new bus in the 30 days I was there, and ironically, this was in Gui Yang where we were stuck the night because the aeroplane could not land in Gui Lin due to fog. The buses, all of them, government and private would lie about their destinations to get you onto the bus. It was an extreme exercise in frustration.

This time in China I traveled on the buses again. I only used the government run buses. There seemed to be intercity private buses, but the intra-city private buses seem to have completely disappeared. All the buses have improved by orders of magnitude. Gone are the attempts to over charge and gone are the lies about destinations. All buses now clearly mark where they are going and there is a clearly marked fee and ticketing system. (well it is better in some places than others.) However, there still appears to be a lower priced market for tickets, but I will talk about how this works later.

In most places in China, there now seem to be two economies and in some places three. First there is the old Chinese economy. Second there is an intermediate level, based on the technology of the last two decades and finally there is a very modern economy. These economies exist side by side, by market segmentation, that is in some cases enforced by government control, and also by physical separation. Some places are much more developed than others, sometimes even in the same city. This separation is also caused simply by the rapid rate of change, and the inability of the economic system to change so quickly as to change all parts of the economy in one short period of time.

The old economy is based on manual labour. Everything is done by hand, though occasionally some additional assistance is gained, by using animals such as horses and donkeys. It is very inefficient and, though people say the Chinese economy is running well, it won't really be until this part of the economy ceases to exist.

The middle economy is based on the the early implementation of the industrial revolution in China. This revolution was really driven by the communist central government. Everyone has the same bicycles, they had the three wheeled trucks and cars. You still see them everywhere. What I found a little surprising is that in some cities there are brand new, modern designed, three wheeled taxies. This is the land of small capitalism. Most people run their own business, say carting goods on their three wheel truck. There are not many medium and small businesses outside the traditional ones like brick making.

Finally China is implementing a modern economy. Technologically they are up there but in other areas they lag. One man I spoke to bemoaned the inability of the Chinese to forward plan and use modern management styles. So you now see modern semi-trailers, shops that look like any shop in the west with prices at the same level as in the west. Only there are more staff as labour in China is cheap.

Price is one of the things that differentiate between the different economies. It also makes it a bit hard to a traveler such as myself. An example that effected me in every day life is the cost of food. In the old economy you can get a meal from 2 yuan to 5 yuan. I was in some places where a bun would only cost 5 fen. These are the list prices. There is a secondary market, for locals, where the prices seem to be lower. In Shang Hai we were at a place that listed the price of a bao dz as 1 yuan. I know some westerns, who could not read Chinese were paying 2. But the locals in front of me in the line were getting three for 1 yuan. Moving into the next economy the price now becomes 10 to 30 yuan for a meal. The food is somewhat better as the quantity and quality have improved. Finally there is a rare but small world of modern eating places. Prices start at say 15 yuan in a place like KFC and go from 20 to 100 yuan in restaurants.

I suppose as time goes by, these older economies are being replaced by the new one. But one thing that slows down the rate of change is the life span of the infrastructure and equipment. So traveling on the roads one will see horses and carts (now very rare in most places) along side bicycles, including the three wheeled variety, three wheeled trucks and their heavy counterparts and finally modern buses, card and semi-trailers. I will write another time about the chaos this causes on the roads.