Archive for the ‘Whose World Order?’ Category

A new post for Whose World Order?, drawing on some of my more interesting experiences here in Shanghai. I am constantly surprised at how similar the Chinese and American outlooks are. Hopefully in the longer term this bodes well and does not augur conflict.

Shanghai View: Reading Orwell in Shanghai

Date: 10th March 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: 1984Jane AustenOrwellShanghaiChina

I am sometimes asked at my institute to interview prospective employees, to assess their level of English. It is usually a pretty depressing experience, as most of these young Chinese speak excellent English (certainly infinitely better than my Mandarin). After starting off with some getting to know you questions, I try to dig into something substantive that they are interested in. Recently I decided to ask them all what books they had read and liked in English.

The position that was being recruited for was an administrator’s role, and those (mostly young women) interviewing for it were English language or literature graduates. When confronted with the question what book they liked most, Jane Austen scored the most, with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility most common (one girl had to whip out her ipad mid-interview to tell me the name of her favourite – “Sense and Sensibility”). William Faulkner’s short story A Rose for Emily did well, and a girl who had done French language and literature at University was a fan of Hugo’s Notres Dame de Paris(the Hunchback of Notre Dame in English). All pretty standard stuff and probably course texts chosen by nervous job interviewees who wanted to say the right thing.

A couple were a bit more revelatory – one girl who had done her dissertation at University on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby said she liked the book because of the parallels she saw in the “American dream” and the new “Shanghai dream.” One of the few males said that he was a fan of Moby Dick because of the idea of an everlasting chase to beat the enemy, a situation he empathized with. But even these were tempered reactions, and I was very surprised to learn that the girl who had studied Fitzgerald had not read any other books by the author. A lack of inquisitiveness that is surprisingly common amongst some students I come across.

But then, at the end, a friend asked if I could interview her daughter as well, so she could practice her English. Sure thing, I said, and did the same questions I had before. This time, she launched off into telling me that Orwell was her favorite writer and in particular 1984 and Animal Farm. Why? Well, the book, she said, had a lot to teach us. In particular, she thought that it could show the Communist Party how it might try to improve itself and its image in the world. The lessons that could be learned from 1984 could help the Party show the world that Communism does not have to be that bad.

Now of course this girl did not have anything to lose in her interview and so was less inhibited. But it was an interesting perspective that highlights something I have touched on before – the patriotism that stirs within many young Chinese. Even a book which might be seen as damning for China (I recently re-read it while on a long car journey across China’s restive Xinjiang province and certainly saw some parallels) is seen by some of China’s youth as another opportunity for their great country to do better. They are fundamentally part of the system and proud of it, seeing a country before them in which one can reasonably talk about an aspiration to a “Shanghai dream” being a reality. These are by no means cock-eyed optimists, but instead young people with outlooks that to me seem very similar to those of youth in the United States or Europe. Does this mean that the system as it is will simply continue into perpetuity? Not necessarily, as, in parallel to this growing desire to aspire, there is clearly a growing desire to reform – just at a Chinese pace, rather than something pushed from the outside. At least, let us hope it is going in this direction, as otherwise dystopian visions similar to 1984 or Brave New World that were painted in subversive best seller The Prosperous Time: China 2013 last year might come to pass.

A new post over at Whose World Order?, this time looking at what I feel is a rather overheated speculation about the implications of the current revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East for China. I might be writing more on this subject later in the week, and would appreciate any other’s thoughts and views.

Shanghai View: Jasmine Tea Revolutions?

Date: 25th February 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: EgyptJasmine RevolutionLibyaTunisiaChina

A lot has been made of the implications for China of the current wave of revolutionary zeal in North Africa and the Middle East. From Shanghai, however, much of this seems overplayed; I have found few colleagues or friends who genuinely believe that this means much of anything for China. There are sporadic protests one hears about – the Shanghai one was very small – and in Beijing I understood that it was hard to tell how many actual protesters showed up in Wangfujing.

Having said all this, it seems clear that central government here is concerned about things. The press has waited until events have clearly reached a critical mass before coverage of a revolution becomes substantial (a sign that editors are waiting to see which way the political winds are blowing before they express a view). Net searches about things related to China and the revolutions remain sensitive (as in they don’t work), and some searches including outgoing US Ambassador Jon Huntsman’s name were sporadically blocked after a video surfaced of him at the protests in Beijing.

The US Embassy has claimed the Ambassador was on his way to a museum and had stopped to have a look around, but the story the video tells is an interesting one. In it, a Chinese member of the crowd shouts at the Ambassador asking him: “You want to see China in chaos, don’t you?” Huntsman, quite prominently wearing a jacket with a US flag emblazoned on it, denies this but quickly leaves as people start shouting at him: “Yes, China has many problems! Reform, livelihoods, morality, faith – our problems are many! But we don’t want to be another Iraq! We don’t want to be another Tunisia! Nor another Egypt! If the nation should descend into chaos, will the US and these reformers put food on the table for our 1.3 billion people? Don’t f****** mess with it!”

This seems quite telling, as it highlights one of the many reasons why it is unlikely that we are going to see a revolution on a similar scale in China. People are too invested in the system and too fearful of what might come instead to rip it all down. Certainly in Shanghai, friends have all talked about the revolutions with heavy unspoken comparisons with China, but no one is planning mass protests in People’s Square. A non-Chinese friend astutely pointed out that unlike the centrally focused autocracies of the Middle East and North Africa, there is no central figure to focus anger on – no Gadaffi or Mubarak to focus attention and anger.

There is an order amongst chaos in China. Things generally work, and while there is an endless volume of angst about corruption in which the poorer members of society suffer disproportionately, heads do roll, giving some sense that accountability does exist (most recently it seems as though the minister for trains has fallen victim). Things aren’t perfect, but people have a sense that through hard work they might be able to elevate themselves, giving them a capacity to aspire to reform the system rather than want to overturn it.



A new post for Whose World Order? over at ECFR, this time looking at a rather irritating event I had had happen to me of late. I am sure most others living in China have experienced this at some point, but this does not detract from the irritation.

Shanghai View: What’s Real?

Date: 17th February 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: BeijingChinaCounterfeiting

Bouncing credit cards are always a humiliation. Being shown up in front of a room full of friends and other random people as someone whose credit is of dubious value never looks good. But imagine this happen to you when you attempt to pick up a tab using currency that you got out of a cash point.

The money had come from an Agricultural Bank cash point at Beijing airport – it was late and I was in a hurry so I didn’t bother to look at it, but just jammed it in my pocket and ran for a taxi. When was the last time you bothered to check the validity of cash you got from a cash point?

It was a few days later when picking up the tab for drinks at a bar that I realised the problem. A bashful waitress came back asking for another form of currency to my dud 100 RMB bill, leading to a tableful of friends ridicule my attempt to palm off fakes. Upon closer inspection I realised that it was indeed not real – the paper was too slick and when you folded the paper the ink rubbed off. Unfortunately for me, it was another couple of days before I realised that I had gotten two in the same batch when I tried to pass another one off to a taxi driver taking me back to the initial scene of the crime at the airport. This was an even more awkward situation as I had no other money on me, leading to a row and a race into the airport to a cashpoint – NOT the one I used before I should add. I shall go curse that one next time I am in Beijing.

This entire incident might have a slightly comical air to it, but I remain 200RMB down out of the experience (about 22 Euro), and baffled by the how the money got there in the first place. Almost every shop, and certainly every bank, in China that I have come across uses money counters which both count the amount of bills and verify their authenticity. That some managed to get inside a cash point suggests an inside job of some sort – and I should add this is not the first time this has happened. A friend of mine in Shanghai had a similar experience with an ICBC cashpoint.

Fake stuff in China is pretty commonplace. Aside from markets everywhere selling knock-off DVDs, clothes, electronic equipment, furniture, and pretty much anything else you can imagine, you periodically get bombarded with emails highlighting fake foods of one sort or another. A Chinese teacher at one point told me not to buy cups and other bits of pottery from guys who sold them on the street as apparently the clay they were using was toxic in some way. In addition, stories of mass contamination like the fake milk scandal of a few years ago are surprisingly common – though more often than not they are at a more local level and thus do not attract the same sort of notoriety. It is often very hard to verify any of this – even the fake objects you buy are not always that far off the real thing, some are made by the same manufacturer but simply without the famous label.

But fake money from a cashpoint seems a new low and does make you think that something has fundamentally gone wrong with the system. While me getting a few dud bills does not mark the end of the PRC, within these sorts of fissures you do get a sense of some of the problems which China has and which occasionally burst forth.

A brief postscript to this story: I am still stuck with the bills, but the delay checking in at the airport while fighting with the cabbie meant that by the time I got there the flight was full so I was bumped up to first class. Some sort of karma I suppose.


A slightly belated post for Whose World Order? This time looking at the preparations for the Year of the Rabbit. Happy Chinese New Year all!

Shanghai View: Get ready for the Rabbit

Date: 1st February 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: Hu JintaoShanghaiYear Of The RabbitChina

Someone recently told me that with China, you have to add a zero to everything to get the proportions right. Major cities like Beijing or Shanghai are the same, or larger, in population than many European nations. The online population of netizens is now estimated to be around 400 million, more than there are US citizens. Similarly, this time of year, Chunjie (Spring Festival or Chinese New Year), somewhere in the region of 230 million people will make train journeys to get home for the festival. It is a well-worn cliché, but these mind-boggling scales are important to bear in mind when one makes any consideration about why China acts in the way that it does.

Long queues are already forming at train stations and ticket offices as people wait to buy tickets for trains home: in an attempt to stop scalping (which of course still takes place) you can only buy tickets ten days ahead of time, but this means that on days when everyone wants to travel, like clockwork, 10 days out you have a long queue. In Beijing the other day it was reported that all tickets from the city sold out in half an hour. Given the fact that at this time of year everyone tries to get back home to see family (and in Shanghai alone it is estimated there are some 3 million migrant workers), you can imagine how hectic these queues can get. In one incident doing the rounds, an infuriated migrant worker named Chen Weiwei stripped naked and ran into the station controllers office in Jinhua, East Zhejiang, after he waited for 14 hours on two consecutive days to get tickets to go home.

Marketplaces are full of red rabbit stuff. Red is the color of prosperity and happiness, and we are about to enter the year of the rabbit (fyi, we are just leaving the year of the tiger). Strings of faux silk lanterns, chili’s, zodiac characters, large pieces of cardboard with Chinese characters emblazoned on them in gold, and all manner of small red envelopes in which you put money to give to people to say thanks fill market stalls and doorways. The intense red masks the low quality of the items, which I discovered are apparently mass-produced in Guangzhou.

But there is a darker side to this time of year too: friends have told me that they have encountered a growing number of pickpockets. This is common at this time of year as people start to get desperate and realize that they might not have the money to get back home and they do stupid things in an attempt to raise money. It is seen as a great humiliation to not be able to make the family migration for Chinese New Year and as a result there is a usually a spike in petty theft at this time of year as people make one last desperate pitch to raise cash.

Police are also kept busy with an increasing number of drunk drivers. Similar to Christmas time, this time of year is full of heavy drink laden meals resulting in inebriated individuals deciding a drive home is a sensible idea. And of course fireworks become ubiquitous, resulting in invariable fires. In 2009 188 people were killed in explosions related to fireworks at around this time, though this was down on an average of 400 per year between 1986 and 2005.

The authorities are aware of all of this and in response have launched an anti-crime campaign nationally to address these issues, “as the spring festival approaches, mass activities, traffic, fire control and other agencies are adding more security measures for our society.” And while this can be dismissed as the usual government-speak, the CCP is acutely aware of the importance of this holiday to the public. In 2008 when heavy snows brought parts of the rail network to a standstill as people were making their annual pilgrimages home, Premier Wen Jiaobao went to train station platforms in Hunan and Guangzhou to apologize and reassure people that the government was doing as much as it could. Given the bad weather we have already had this year, it is possible that he and Mr Hu will have to do this again this year. The alternative would be the possible wrath of the many thousands who would be directly affected, and the further sympathetic anger expressed by the many millions of others who would scold the government (either openly, online or in conversation amongst each other) for failing to provide adequate services for the public. In Chinese officialdom’s mind, who knows what this might escalate in to?

Chinese officials regularly berate foreigners for pressuring them to do too much too fast, complaining that they are still a “developing country” with domestic priorities which are more important than any foreign entanglements. It can be a frustrating perspective to encounter, but at the same time, at this time of year, it is a bit easier to understand what they mean.


A short and slightly journalistic piece for Whose World Order? over at ECFR, based around a conversation I was quite pleased with myself for having on a train in Italy. A fascinating topic I know that others are doing far more complex and interesting work on than this.

Shanghai View: Mr. Wang’s Children

Date: 18th January 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: None

Shanghai View has been on the road for much of the last month, hence the protracted silence. However, during my travels I had the good fortune of travelling through Italy and in particular of going through the Tuscan region near Florence and Pisa. While the slow pace and clear sky is about as far away from China as you can get, Beijing came back to me as I sat on a train from Empoli to Florence and Mr Wang came and sat down next to me.

Mr Wang was originally from a village just outside Xiamen in Southern China. He had moved to Italy almost 10 years ago and though still unable to speak much Italian, he had nevertheless set up shop with a wife and two children and worked in a leather factory near Prato. His son was apparently bilingual, but wanted to move to England to study, while his daughter now lived in China where she was fiercely proud of being Chinese (his characterisation) and had no interest in leaving the country. Typical of Fujianese, Mr Wang came from a large family that had left China to pursue opportunity around the world. He had a sister in Aberdeen, a brother in New Zealand and some others scattered elsewhere that I was not quite able to catch.

He had come to Italy to work, and while he didn’t go into the specifics of how he got there, once there he had clearly worked hard to achieve what he had. He seemed ambivalent about Italy and found there were problems with the locals that he could not understand. While initially bashful, he eventually blurted out that it was because the Italians were resentful of the long hours that the Chinese were willing to put in. This rang true with some stories I have read and heard elsewhere where locals in the textile manufacturing area of Prato have been overwhelmed by the volume of Chinese migrants coming to the city and this has led to tensions. Stories abound in Italy that this is part of a precise strategy by the Chinese government to “get a foothold in Europe,” but going on my conversation with Mr Wang, this seems like an unlikely scenario.

Instead, this phenomenon should be viewed through the prism of human migrations throughout history, as part of which people leave less prosperous areas to reach more prosperous ones. The difference with China is the sheer volumes involved, and the seemingly endless potential for more to come that exists. The issue of the Chinese in Prato is almost half a decade old now, but clearly no resolution has been found and nor is it likely that a tidy one will be. As long as there are Chinese citizens who want to migrate and are willing to take the low paid opportunities offered by Chinese firms in Prato, then this flow will likely continue (with or without government sanction). The same can be said for a vast array of other immigrant communities that are out there and eager to come to Europe or anywhere else.

What struck me as more interesting, however, were the different paths being pursued by Mr. Wang’s two children – one was clearly eager to stay in the West and in fact move to the UK, while the other was staunchly Chinese and had no desire to leave the Middle Kingdom. This dichotomy seems to reflect the reality of an increasingly cosmopolitan and internationalised young China that is torn between a keen interest in the world and a strong sense of national pride. What will be interesting is how the world reacts to this new international Chinese class, and whether it might prove to be the face of future Chinese soft power. What vision are this group going to project of their country in the world as it continues its upward trajectory?


My latest for the ECFR blog looking at the internet in China. This is a fascinating subject for those either side of it, confusing as it is. For example, this site is actually the wrong side at the moment, though for a while it was accessible. I have no idea for the rationale behind either case.

Shanghai View: Welcome back BBC and hello Wikileaks!

Date: 16th December 2010  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Categories: China
Tags: BbcChinaNobel Peace PrizeWikileaks

The Chinese censorship of western news organizations including the BBC around last week’s Nobel peace prize ceremony was not a surprise. More unexpected was the speed with which they were back up and running. Meanwhile, WikiLeaks is easier to access from China than ever before.

Things have been tense in China since the decision to award Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize. These tensions reached something of an apex last Friday with the actual awards ceremony, as China went into full attack mode against the decision by the committee to award the prize to an individual who is incarcerated in China.

In China itself, however, one could be mistaken for not noticing that this was all going on. While everyone seemed to have heard about it (and I encountered a couple of tense meetings in which it came up), the story was blocked from the airwaves and netwaves. In particular, the BBC and CNN came under heavy assault as they broadcast stories about the event and the Chinese reaction. A friend working for CNN in Beijing reported they were experiencing trouble with their systems, and the channel kept getting blacked out whenever stories came up about events in Oslo. The BBC came under heavy online attack, with all of its sites blocked.

The BBC is now, however, back. As of Monday, the sites were accessible again, though there was no explanation or reasoning offered why they had been pulled or why they returned. This is not the first time the BBC has experienced this: prior to the Olympic games it was blocked, and since then there have been sporadic issues. For example, after the Xinjiang riots last year, the internet and television were sporadically blocked. When Hilary Clinton gave a particularly sensitive speech on web freedom, I recall watching in Beijing as my screen went black.

What is intriguing about this most recent instance is the rapidity with which the BBC has been unblocked. It appears that three days is ample punishment in the PRC’s mind. I am uncertain about whether this is the product of behind-the-scenes lobbying, but would be unsurprised to hear that the change was a pleasant surprise to everyone at the BBC as well. This is the most perplexing thing about being the wrong side of the Great Firewall: it is totally erratic and uncertain. No-one really knows what is blocked and why; there is no apparent rationale to the blocks.

Internally, people tend to be quite exasperated about blockages to the net. One student told me during the troubles with Google earlier in the year that he liked Google because it was less censored and had less advertising. The Chinese equivalent, Baidu, he said, was useless as you had to skip about 10 pages of search results before you got beyond the advertising. However most people, when confronted with blocked pages, tend to operate on the assumption that the site in question was doing something illegal and that therefore they should not be surprised that it is blocked.

Recently released Wikileaks cables have given us some hints about how Chinese media censorship operates. One cable suggested that a Politboro member was behind the attack on Google earlier in the year. Others point to possible motivations. While internet censorship is a nuisance in China, it has had the effect of blocking the Chinese system to foreign companies allowing local ones to flourish.  It struck me as somewhat ironic that the BBC was blocked the same week that Youkou and Dangdang (Chinese versions of Youtube and Amazon) listed on the NYSE to spectacular openings. Youkou at least has profited from the fact that YouTube is blocked in China.

Oddly, the WikiLeaks site, which is usually blocked here, appears at the moment to be open to the public in China. I have had little difficulties for the last two weeks reading what is emerging, whereas before the cable dump the site was only accessible through virtual private networks or proxy servers. Maybe the Chinese government has decided that it actually rather enjoys the embarrassment that US diplomacy is undergoing at the moment and has decided to not shield its public from it, or maybe Wikileaks is now switching servers so rapidly that the PRC monitors are not able to keep up. I would venture, however, that no-one would really be able to answer this question.

A new post over at Whose World Order?, the new blog I contribute to for my new organization, the European Council on Foreign Relations. As I have mentioned before, this is going to be a relatively regular feature, so any ideas for it would be warmly welcomed. Thanks, as ever, to Sue Anne for pics.

Shanghai View: A day at the Races

Date: 29th November 2010  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Categories: China
Tags: ChinaGermanyShanghai

This weekend, German street car racing came to Shanghai. It was not the first time that it had taken place, but it was a surreal experience to see a chunk of Shanghai transformed, at least in part, into a racetrack screaming branding in German daubed with large yellow posters advertising Deutsche Post.

The race was the culmination of the DTM year of racing, and was the 1st race of the season outside Europe and in Asia. When asked why they did these races here, the common consensus amongst the organisers spoken to was that they saw this as a huge potential market and that anything to raise their profile in it was a good thing. But the market is still in its infancy here. To give a sense of numbers, some 5,000 showed up for the final days race, while an average European race attracts 80,000. However, as the vast Chinese consumer market grows it is likely that the market for those seeking high-end cars and the fine tuning equipment and parts to turn them into racers is also likely to grow and both Audi and Mercedes Benz (and the army of smaller parts companies) want to guarantee they have a share of that.

The event itself was apparently organized in part by Ye Jingzi, the daughter of Marshal Ye Jianying, a veteran of the Long March and founder of the PLA, who was recently featured in the FT as a rising “princeling”. She was running around the racecourse and at the end was amongst those doling out the prizes. Also present was a Vice Mayor, who provided a stamp of officialdom to the event, though frankly did not seem that impressed by the whole thing.

Prior to the race, some of the team organizers were complaining about the track and its difficulties. Since the course ran through the middle of new Shanghai, during the evenings prior to the race the roads had been left open to the public bringing dirt onto the roads that made it harder for the drivers to get good grip.

But this aside, it was clear that this was an important race. The teams had all brought out their main sponsors to the course, partly doubtless because this was the final of the season, but also since this was China and everything Chinese is of course elevated to a different level. For German manufacturers like those selling car parts getting in early and with good contacts into the Chinese markets is essential. Cars remain an industry that foreigners can only invest in if they establish a joint venture with a Chinese firm; something that alarms people concerned with the tech transfer issues involved. It also puts competitors like General Motors and Volkswagen (VW) in the odd position of both having joint ventures with the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC). So they are working with a partner who is also helping their competition, as well as producing separate SAIC cars for the same market. None of this, it should be added, has detracted from making VW a fortune in the Chinese market. Audi, a VW firm, is the car most frequently used by Chinese officials and according to figures released in late October for the year prior, the company’s profits from two joint ventures in China was a whopping €513 million, more than double the €231 million made the year before. According to the WSJ, in 2009, VW sold 1.4 million units, up from 1.02 million the year before, placing it atop the scoreboard of vehicle sales in China.

In the end it was a British driver who won the race, and a Scottish driver who won the overall competition. Chinese driver Congfu Cheng, while playing with home-field advantage, was only able to place 15th. Still, I was led to understand that this is not the last time a race will take place in China and I am sure in the future, Chinese drivers will also become a growing presence on the DTM scoreboard.

Pictures courtesy of Sue Anne Tay, who has some more on her blog


A new blog “Whose World Order?” that I am contributing to as part of my new European organization, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). This is going to a pretty regular feature for the immediate future and will be short insights into life here in China. Any thoughts or ideas on things to look into warmly welcomed.

Shanghai View: China’s generation gap

Date: 19th November 2010  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Categories: China
Tags: Chairman MaoChinaHu Jintao

I do a bit of teaching here in Shanghai, and during a recent class a student asked whether she could tell a story to the group to hear people’s thoughts and reactions to it.

The student had seen a couple of Americans at the post office, trying to mail what looked like a large sculpture of Chairman Mao. On closer inspection she noticed that it was in fact a stool. The student’s question to the class was whether her reaction to seeing the stool was strange – she had thought it somehow inappropriate and disrespectful that the great leader’s image was being used in this way. She mentioned that the workers in the post office had found it equally disrespectful, while the American’s did not seem to notice.

The reaction in class was mixed (some were offended, others found it amusing, most didn’t care), but almost immediately came back to the conclusion that the real problem was that the younger generations – “the 80s children” as one older chap characterised it – had no sense of history. But wait, said the student who had first asked the question, “I am an 80s child!”

This highlighted an interesting contradiction that is often skipped over when talking about the next generation in China: that younger Chinese are thought to have no sense of either history or knowledge. In reality, they are often amongst the most aggressive defenders of a deep sense of Chinese nationhood. The generation gap in terms of who remembers what and how strongly they feel about it seems sometimes to be reversed here.

Of course this is not a perfect social experiment: no one was able to satisfactorily answer whether they would have reacted in the same way if it was a Chinese person who was mailing the stool. But before moving on to something else, I pried a bit more into the student’s feelings about this – specifically about whether she would have been as offended if it had been a sculpture of Hu Jintao’s head. She seemed unsure, and the rest of the class was simply amused.