An anniversary and a brief hiatus – returning June 3.

I’m about to begin a rather intensive couple weeks of travel, reporting, and writing. And on top of that, roughly half that time will be spent in a location where my connectivity is going to be very limited (and possibly non-existent – don’t know yet). So,with that in  mind, Shanghai Scrap will be offline until the middle of the first week of June. Please note that I’ll be slow in answering emails during this period, especially if they’ve been sent through the blog contact form. But I will get to them.

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But before I sign off! … yesterday was the 2nd anniversary of this humble blog (celebrations were muted). Sincere thanks to everyone who reads, comments, and emails. And special thanks to the blogs that continue to link to my posts – in particular Danwei, James Fallows, and Shanghaiist. The readership spikes that come off those links are undeniable; more important, each of those spikes is “sticky,” bringing new readers who continue reading. Indeed, over the last year, my readership has grown considerably – largely due to those links. So thanks, folks, for sending your audiences my way.

Finally, this post is the 527th in the brief history of Shanghai Scrap. Compared to some blogs, that’s nothing. But if, two years ago, you’d told me that I’d somehow find the time to post 527 times in 24 months – well, I probably wouldn’t have started a blog. Anyway, for those who care … the top five posts from the last year:

  1. Giant UFO Over Shanghai [To this day, the #1 result for “UFO Shanghai” google searches. Shocking, really, how many people are still looking.]
  2. Scrap Trader Kidnapped, Held for Ransom [The post that launched a thousand radio interviews (well, a dozen). One of my personal favorites.]
  3. The US Expo 2010 Pavilion Totters [#1 comment generator of the year. Resulted in more phone calls and emails than any other post. Some not so nice.]
  4. Why China’s Block of the New York Times Doesn’t Matter (as much as it once did) [#1 post for generating psychotic emails. Seriously.]
  5. Big Dumb Recycling Machine [Twice per week, at least, I receive emails and comments from people wanting to purchase one of these from me. And at least 25% of the prospective buyers are Pakistani. For more on my commercially-minded Pakistani readership, see here.]

Lesson learned? UFOs are more popular than recycling machines, Expo 2010 pavilions, the New York Times, and kidnapped scrap traders. Shouldn’t surprise anyone, I guess. But nice to have everything placed in proper persepctive. Anyway, I’ll be back in early June. I may twitter a bit while out, but 140 characters will be the absolute limit. If you need a China blog fix before then, check out the fine forums listed in the blogroll to the right.

Beijing this, Beijing that … Just who is this [Mister] Beijing, anyway?

I may be in the minority here, but in my experience there’s enough subtlety and disagreement in even the simplest of government policy decisions, in any country, to remove any incentive for blaming said policy decisions on a specific city. For example, whether or not you agree or disagree with Barack Obama’s fiscal stimulus program, you’re not very likely to say – much less, write – something like this:

“Washington views a multi-billion dollar fiscal stimulus as an essential part of any American economic recovery program.”

Why? Because Washington is a big place, where big disagreements take place and – as it happens – there are more than a few people in Washington who don’t agree with that statement. And that brings me to a question that’s troubled me for some time: namely, why do perfectly sane journalists who would never ascribe a policy – controversial or not –  to “Washington” (or “London,” “Rome,” “Tokyo” or “Seoul”) throw caution to the wind and insist upon referring to the Chinese government as “Beijing” – as if it were a monolithic entity [“Beijing is concerned about the declining value of the dollar;” “Beijing is concerned that the US won’t have a pavilion at Expo 2010.” etc etc etc], and not a government town riven by disagreements and factions? I’ve long been annoyed by this lazy practice (while occasionally resorting to it myself), but never quite so much as when I read Francesco Sisci’s absurd “China’s Catholic Moment” in the current issue of First Things (full disclosure: a publication that has been critical of me). Take, for example, this sentence:

Beijing views the Catholic Church as an unambiguously Western embodiment of Christianity, untainted by syncretic confusion and therefore indispensable to the Westernization of China.

Got that? Beijing views the Catholic Church as indispensable to the Westernization of China. All of it. Continue reading

Federation Outpost, Hangzhou Bay

[Second in a special one-day, two-part series on things seen while driving between Ningbo and Shanghai.]

Over the weekend I finally went round-trip over the two-year-old Hangzhou Bay Bridge. For readers who don’t follow Chinese infrastructure with the same enthusiasm as I do: the Hangzhou Bay Bridge is the world’s longest (35 km/22 mi) trans-oceanic bridge (a nice Discovery Channel short on the bridge’s construction, here), and a marvel of modern engineering. It’s also a jarring experience, riding above choppy seas on a bridge that – depending upon whether or not you obey the speed limits – should take half-an-hour to cross. And this weekend it was kind of spooky due the thick haze that hovered over Hangzhou Bay, reducing visibility to 1 km, roughly.

So it was all the more dramatic when, half-way across the span, a boom crane emerged from the haze, and resolved itself into a future service area – including a hotel and restaurant – built in the shape of a flying gull. Some 17 km/11 miles out to sea. I had my camera handy, and despite the fact that we were traveling at a serious clip, I managed to pull off a few in-focus shots of this future outpost. It’s really something; click on the thumbnails for enlargements.

There happened to be a burning car by the side of the road on the way back from Ningbo.

Monday afternoon, while riding back to Shanghai from Ningbo, I noticed a dark column of smoke rising in the distance. As we drove closer, it became apparent that the source of the smoke was in the middle of the highway. Traffic quickly backed up, but it didn’t stall entirely, and as we crawled forward with it, I watched as the gray column was swallowed by several ominous puffs of black smoke that – I suspect – were explosions. Still, traffic continued forward, and after five minutes I could see bright orange flames emerging from the back windows off an automobile parked on the shoulder. At 100 meters, I readied my camera, and in doing so nearly missed a tall, wan, balding man walking in the opposite direction the car with an overcoat slung over his forearm, and a briefcase in his right hand. I can’t say for sure that he was the driver, but I’m pretty sure of it: the pyrotechnics, and the man, were both on the elevated highway, with no exits for quite some distance, and no other cars were stopped in the area. In any case, he was a striking figure: nothing about him suggested that he’d just lost his car to flames. If anything, he looked like a man in search of a taxi after a particularly rough day at work. And he certainly didn’t look like someone who had left something – or someone – in that car (a cold blooded fellow if he did).

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Anyway, as we approached the wreck, traffic came to a near standstill while people readied their mobile phone cameras. Then, as they – and we – drove up beside it, traffic accelerated, presumably to avoid being caught in another explosion. And that explains the slight blur to the photo, and off-center framing.

In the course of the ten minutes or so that elapsed from the time I first saw the smoke, to the image, no emergency service vehicles arrived on the scene – despite the fact that a hospital is located directly across from the accident scene (note the red cross on the other side of the fence in the photo). Beyond that, I’m having a hard time coming up with any kind of public-minded justification for this post.

A final note. The guy walking away from the burning car without a care in the world – I swear that I saw that in a movie, once. But for the life of me, I can’t remember the movie. So – first person with a satisfactory answer (as opposed to a correct one – because I’m not sure that there is a correct one) receives a download of Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ for You.” Email via the Contact Form, or just leave a comment below.

[MAY 21: Despite a valiant effort by Jen Ambrose (and two emailers), Joel Martinsen wins the Blue Öyster Cult download. Had I seen “Waiting to Exhale,” the result might have been different.]

Why can’t the US find $61 million for an Expo 2010 pavilion? A primer.

At the moment, there ‘s almost no reason to believe that the United State will occupy a stand-alone pavilion when Expo 2010 opens in Shanghai on May 1, 2010. And though this doesn’t seem to be a matter of much concern in the United States, it is a matter of intense concern in Shanghai, and in Beijing, with powerful voices beginning to suggest that the US will suffer real and lasting commercial consequences in China if it doesn’t use the next 348 days to rescue its floundering pavilion effort.

Over the last several weeks, as I’ve published various stories and blog posts on this subject, one question continues to come up: namely, why wouldn’t US companies with Chinese operations rush to become sponsors of a project likely to be visited by upwards of 70 million Chinese citizens during Expo 2010’s six-month run?

In the interest of answering that important question, and explaining why the authorized US pavilion team has raised only $2.8 million of a $61 million budget,  I’ve prepared this short primer on the various issues and reasons inhibiting – if not outright preventing – US companies from contributing money to what would appear to be the premier international PR event of 2010. In assembling this post, I’ve drawn upon conversations and emails with individuals connected with US corporations operating in China, many of whom have been directly solicited for pavilion contributions, or attended pavilion-related events. Most of these individuals have spoken or written to me off-record, out of concern that negative comments about the US pavilion effort might invite negative consequences, if not outright retaliation, from various quarters.

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Broadly speaking, there are two issues. The first concerns US government restrictions on funding international expo pavilions; the second is broadly related to issues that have arisen with the US State Department, and its chosen entity to fund-raise, design, build, and operate a US pavilion. The first I’ll deal with briefly; the second will require more space. Continue reading

Take Y/Our Vitamins!

On Friday afternoon I arrived at the registration desk for an international conference being held over the weekend in Ningbo (by car, roughly three hours southeast of Shanghai). The attendant checked my name off the attendee list, handed me my delegate badge, a tote bag containing a directory of attendees, a bound copy of the conference presentations, several magazines – and the vial of six vitamins pictured below:

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“It is because of the H1N1 flu,” the attendant told me. “You should take two every day.”

I must’ve made a face of some kind, because she pursed her lips, tightened her brow, and added: “It’s the government’s suggestion, and we think it’s a good one. But it is up to you. We give you the choice.”

As it happens, attendance at this conference was negatively impacted by the H1N1 scare, and so I suppose it’s understandable that the organizers would want to reassure their still sizable number of attendees (roughly 300, I’m told). Whether vitamins will make a difference – I’ll leave that to the physicians.

Anyway, I post this item as a curiosity, but also as a contrast to my experiences in China during the SARS epidemic of 2003. Then, unlike now, the government was heavily criticized (and rightly so) for its delayed, anemic response to a very real health crisis, and its subsequent effort cover it up (the epidemic, and the anemic response, that is). The response to H1N1 couldn’t be much different, and for those who find the H1N1 objectionable/too cautious/ridiculous, I humbly suggest that it can’t be fully appreciated (much less, writtenabout) without the context of what happened in 2003. Mistakes were made, and now – for better or worse – they’re being avoided, and perhaps (it seems obvious to me, at least), over-compensated for.

Blunt talk from China on the US Expo 2010 pavilion.

[Additional Expo related articles and posts here, here, here, and here. More to come in the days and weeks ahead.]

Quite a bit of discussion on Shanghai Scrap, and elsewhere, on whether or not US interests are served by building a pavilion for Shanghai’s Expo 2010. That’s good: Americans need to be thinking seriously about this issue. So far, however, the Shanghai and Beijing governments have been unusually reticent about why they think the US should attend (beyond general statements that the US will “regret” it we don’t), and that’s given the debate a bit of an incomplete feel. Thus, I was quite interested to learn of a May 7 editorial on this very subject which appeared in the influential state-owned China Youth Daily, and People’s Daily. So far as I’ve been able to determine, an official English translation hasn’t yet appeared, but thanks to the (heretofore unknown to me) Watching America site, we have an unofficial one, here. Chinese, or English, the editorial does not mince words:

The lack of enthusiasm in America has something to do with its national traditions. American has traditionally pursued isolationism and is only concerned with itself rather than the outside world. Even though things changed after the second world war, on the whole, Americans still believe devoutly that “all politics are local,” and the congressmen only care about things that affect their own district. Naturally they do not approve of allocating money for this exposition.

I’ve spent a not insignificant amount of time reporting on the US Expo pavilion, and in my experience, the argument against usually goes something like this: the US already has a significant commercial and cultural presence in Shanghai, and in China, and with so much going on in the world – and in the US – isn’t there a better place to spend the US$61 million that the current, troubled US pavilion team is trying to raise? An unrelated argument, but one that is taken seriously in various quarters (including, some quarters of the US State Department) is that the US would be merely be “feeding the Chinese propaganda machine” if it builds a stand-alone Expo pavilion. Continue reading