Changing China Archives

May 14, 2009

The Upside to an Economic Downturn

Upon my January return trip to Guangdong, the world’s factory floor, I surmised that the unusually clear skies could have been the upside to the worldwide economic downturn that has shuttered many of China’s factories. Now there seems to be evidence that this could be true:


To get to the bottom of the question, I totaled pollution indices from the Ministry of Environmental Protection for 8 cities comparing the global financial crisis (which I chose somewhat arbitrarily as starting September 2008 through March 2009) against the figures from the year before. Except for a rise in air pollution in December, the numbers are all lower than they were last year.

Given the special air-clean up measures in Beijing around the Olympics that had nothing to do with the economic slowdown, I excluded Beijing from the calculations. Instead I focused mostly on southern cities: Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shantou, Zhanjiang (all in Guangdong), Hangzhou, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Datong.

There are a number of complications. For one, clearing skies could be due to anything from tougher environmental enforcement to changing weather patterns. The government statistics may also be subject to fiddling, as a report by a former PiAer suggests. There’s also the possibility that a downturn could cause more pollution, if increased cost pressure on factories caused them to turn off costly emissions-scrubbers.

But it makes sense that a downturn could clear the skies, and I wouldn’t be the only to make such a claim. The China Daily reported that the downturn had cleaned China’s air and water. Another China Daily article reported:

Wu Changhua, greater China director of London-based Climate Group said last year saw fewer emissions as most of manufacturers reduced production in the wake of fewer orders.

Lest the China Daily be the final word on the matter, Charlie McElwee of the China Environmental Law blog wrote: “A portion of these gains are no doubt attributable to the economic downturn which kicked in in the 4th quarter of last year.”

If this analysis is correct, it means the crisis that’s making so many investors see red is also helping many over here finally see a little blue.

August 6, 2009

Why Michael Jackson's Bigger in China

Besides the fact that it was my second to last night in China, today was an otherwise unexceptional Wednesday night in Guangzhou in the Baijia Supermarket on Tianhe Beilu where I was browsing with David. Yet as I walked down aisles of clothing and video games, I noticed a large video screen playing a footage of a Michael Jackson concert. I stopped in the aisle, losing myself in his outrageously gold outfit and over the top stage performance. As “Smooth Criminal” wound to a close and the dancers completed their logic-defying anti-gravity lean, I suddenly heard a subtle gasp from behind me. I turned around to see that I was now surrounded by a crowd of Chinese patrons that had gathered to watch the concert, blocking the aisle, if not with their bodies then with their idled shopping carts. The growing crowd spanned middle-aged parents and elementary school children. As I stood watching, I expected the crowd to disperse after the first song ended, but the crowd persisted through another song and then another.

During his lifetime, Michael Jackson made a single, brief trip to China (to visit the children: “我难以抗拒他们对我的吸引” ), and played a total of zero concerts here. But his music set hold in a nation at just the very moment when radio and television made foreign music available—and at a time when listening to such pop music was finally no longer considered a bourgeoise conceit liable to bring denouncement.

His impact on China is large and surely larger than inspiring a generation of security guards to wear black dress shoes with white socks, as one blog suggests. His tabloid-tainted decline was largely overlooked, while his songs like “Heal the World” and his humanitarian work touched a generation. Jackson and his cassette tapes came at the time to remind a billion people that art and music could serve interests other than state propaganda—that music and dancing could be delectably indulgent and apolitical.

Upon his death, newspaper stands here were covered overnight with special issues and magazines devoted to Jackson, while the bootleg DVD vendors on the street—who had always tended to have a Michael Jackson DVD or two on hand—upped their supply in number and range. Newspapers and blogs exploded with editorials explaining that Jackson represented a Chinese era.

I had first learned of Maike Jiekexun’s death when I awoke to a text message a Chinese friend had sent me in the middle of the night. Over a month later and 2,000 kilometers further south, the crowd gathering around the video screen at the grocery store echoed exactly how much the King of Pop meant to the Middle Kingdom.

September 11, 2010

Unhappy China

NPR ran a story today questioning whether China’s happy. It also mentioned one Jiangsu town that’s experimenting with a Bhutan-style government-mandated happiness program. The results aren’t convincing so far:


But the article equivocates on how happy China really is:

Survey results on happiness in China seem to be entirely contradictory. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey found that 87 percent of Chinese people surveyed were satisfied with the way things were going in their country, making it the most satisfied country by far out of all they surveyed.

But a European Union survey ranked China 128th out of 150 countries in terms of happiness. And one recent survey of 50,000 college students showed a surprising level of gloom.

But the surveys aren’t contradictory at all. China is extremely satisfied with its economic progress and growing power, but these are opinions about the state of the nation.

Surveys of individual happiness—how happy are you?—are much more dismal. In terms of happiness, China ranks near Nigeria and Indonesia—and below Iran.

(Based on the 2007 World Gallup Poll on life satisfaction.)

The NPR story is a lot like the best-selling book Unhappy China (中国不高兴), which confuses happiness in the title with success in international politics. According to this Time article about the book, the book is mostly a freedom-fry-style (or freedom-cucumber-style?) nationalist rant against the French for meeting with the Dalai, protests at the Olympic torch relay, and calls for China to reign in its pollution. (Still number one in the “smoke of progress!”)

Most of my Chinese friends tell me that China is facing a social crisis of happiness, where people feel they can’t trust each other, materialism is clouding out true happiness, and capitalism brings out an ever more dog-eat-dog unease. It’s disappointing to see NPR confusing happiness with satisfaction with the state of the nation.