“Who likes Chinese art?”

There’s this Cantonese restaurant out in Shanghai’s Putuo District where my friend G., a Shanghai school teacher, and I used to go for dinner on a semi-regular basis. It’s one of those massive places you only find in China – maybe 200 – 300 tables spread out over the entire third floor of an office building. At the far end, against the wall which hides the kitchen, is a stage, and toward the end of the dinner rush – say, around 8:00 PM – a gravelly-voiced MC with slicked-back hair and a red satin coat gets up to introduce the entertainment. It’s been a while since I was last there (and frankly I can’t say that the joint still exists), but I remember two acts, in particular: the second to last is always a traditional song-and-dance number, featuring attractive young women in their early twenties at the oldest, who danced their steps with the precision of new students. And following that, and most important (to the restaurant and its patrons), is the art auction.

I thought of that restaurant, and those art auctions, when, on Friday, the New York Times ran a very interesting and overlooked piece on the record-breaking prices paid for middling-to-poor Chinese artworks at Christie’s on September 14 and 15. According to the Times, Chinese bidders – sometimes bidding through Hong Kong dealers – bid up some work of art tens and even hundreds of times Christie’s estimates. For example, a dubious vase from the Qianglong reign, estimated at US$2000 – US$3000, sold for $550,000; other pieces went for similarly inflated values.

At the opening of the piece, the author, Souren Melikian, posits two possible explanations for these prices, first suggesting that they are an indicator of a buoyant economic mood in China, and then – with arched brow – offering this: “What is most remarkable is the part played by new bidders unfamiliar with the finer nuances of the art they are chasing and the traditional hierarchy of aesthetic values.” Continue reading

E-waste – There’s an app for that.

My first piece for Foreign Policy, “E-waste – there’s an app for that” is now live. It covers a couple of different issues, including the growing tide of Chinese generated e-waste, and the rather limp response to the problem by Apple and other consumer electronics companies (especially as compared to the efforts they make in their home markets).

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Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve been thinking and writing about this issue for a long time. However, I really have to thank the visionary Mihela Hladin of Greennovate in Shanghai for getting me to think about the responsibilities/irresponsibilities of consumer electronics companies in China. She’s been on the case for a long time, and Greennovate’s terrific new MaGiC initiative [Made Green in China] is the proof. As the website notes, it is nothing less than “Greennovate’s initiative to challenge the traditional mindsets locked into the label, ‘Made in China’.” I’ll have more to say about it soon.

Ghosts of the Machines – OR – Just where do all of those Chinese PCs go to die, anyway?

On August 28, Science, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, ran a news item regarding ongoing studies of the health effects caused by environmentally unsound processing of e-waste (PCs, monitors, printers, etc) in south China [subscriber only]. in part, the opening paragraph reads:

China has been accepting vast quantities of discarded televisions, computers, printers, and other equipment from abroad since the early 1990s. E-waste processing, a burgeoning cabin industry in coastal parts of China, may end up dwarfing other examples of contamination, scientists argued at a symposium … Since 2000, the central government has prohibited importation of e-waste, and a law passed last year requires e-waste processors to register with local governments and take steps to control pollution.

A couple of factual errors aside (it’s hardly a “burgeoning” industry, and the import prohibition actually came in 2001), there’s nothing new in here that hasn’t been reported in hundreds, if not thousands of news stories and investigative reports over the last two decades.

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And that’s fine, to an extent: the world’s technology consumers should know the environmental and health costs of recycling their throwaways. But there’s a problem with the Science story, and those like it: they insist on blaming China’s e-waste problems on foreigners, and thus deflect attention away from the fact that Chinese e-waste is the fastest growing and largest component of the waste stream arriving in South China (and, especially, into Guiyu, the notorious e-waste processing hub). And, in doing so, publications like Science provide cover to the Chinese government officials, and the Western and Chinese consumer electronics companies who have – collectively – failed to do much of anything about the problem (for example, in 2008 Dell’s Chinese “take-back” program brought in 2800 old computers). I bring up this issue – yet again – due to a curiously candid story that ran in Friday’s Shanghai Daily. Continue reading

Culture Sample: what Americans might learn from Chinese health care.

Roughly half-way down the list of things that expats in china are most often asked by folks back home is some variation of “what’s the health care system like?” I’ve visited enough Chinese hospitals and clinics to provide the answer that everyone kind of expects (“cheap” [for an expat], chaotic, highly efficient, not to ‘western’ standards) but I’ve never really been able to put my finger on what – precisely – it is that makes Chinese hospitals such culturally foreign experiences for expats (two of my favorite China bloggers might have had more success, here and here). And, conversely, what makes American hospitals so foreign to Chinese.

Part of the problem, I think, is that I’ve always thought about this in terms of health care systems. But what I’ve realized over the last few weeks (due to events I’ll describe) I really should have been thinking about health care cultures.

Let me explain. Continue reading

Resumption of Hostilities: The Scrap is Back! [Updated]

[UPDATED: Not sure how I did it, but somehow I managed to delete this entire post – including the comments – earlier this morning. Thanks to the generous help of an anonymous citizen at NFG World (who read my tweeted cry for help!), the full post has been restored – minus the half-dozen comments that readers had left behind over the last 12 hours or so (sorry about that).]

Back in June, before I placed Shanghai Scrap on a needed hiatus while I dealt with several issues located outside of China, Shanghai Scrap visited – and documented – a northern Chinese plywood factory. Among other notable features of that infernal facility, was the acknowledged news that the several hundred migrant laborers who work within it can expected to contract a fatal illness – most likely, cancer – within two to three years of employment (the full post, with photos, can be found here). That facility is one of many, many dozens of similar plywood facilities in that northern Chinese region, all of which have similar issues. There’s no epidemiological data for this plywood manufacturing region (and the local government would never allow it, anyway), so it’s hard to say what – exactly – is killing workers there. Most likely, though, high concentrations of formaldehyde are the problem (my eyes became inflamed in the plant – a symptom common to people over-exposed to formaldehyde).

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With me during that visit were two academics – an American and a Chinese – and we left the area with the same question: “What can we do?” No surprise, many of the comments to my blog post relating that visit asked the same question. There are no simple answers: the local and provincial governments are supporters of the industry; the attention of environmental groups will only serve to push the industry elsewhere (within China). Continue reading