Recycle Rare Earths at Home, with a Screwdriver.

Let’s call this a lesson in avoiding absolutes.

Below, two versions of a component in every hard disk drive. The circled components – the valuable, important components – are magnets of the (capital R, capital E) Rare Earth variety. That is to say, they are magnets manufactured, in part, by adding a dash of the mysterious elements that my colleagues in the media have rendered quasi-mystical, and the Chinese have rendered more valuable via (reportedly, export bans). I show them, in part, to clear up the mystery. So here, dear readers, circled in red, are examples of the rare earth actuator magnets present in pretty much every hard drive on the planet (stay in your seats, please).

I bring them up, also, because, based upon some of the things that have been written about rare earths over the last few months, one might have the impression that the recycling and recovery of rare earths – in part to deal with Chinese export restrictions – is something that requires high-tech. But, of course, based upon the above photo, you can pretty much judge for yourself: the only technology necessary to recover the rare earth magnets in a hard drive (how many hundreds of millions?) is a screw-driver. And that’s precisely how it’s done in one part of Malaysia, where this photo was taken: workers disassemble hard drives, pull out the magnets, and return them to the manufacturers. And the workers do this for roughly US$300/month – a more than sufficient living wage in that region (but not, I’ll admit, for someone who eats organic in San Francisco). Continue reading

Readings from the Waiting Room

I’m out on a long reporting trip right now – which means that I get to spend extended periods of time waiting in hotel rooms for people to call and say that I can come and see them, now. Hard to do much in that situation but read bite-sized blog candy, and that’s what I’ve been doing. So, a few of the things that I’ve enjoyed these last few days:

  • Ever wonder what happens when police officers with little to no training in the firing of weapons, much less in hunting, get to do both? The mighty China Smack provides some insights with this magnificent account of a sort-of boar hunt. I know the US is falling behind China in just about everything these days, but I feel quite confident that an American police officer – especially one from a region where hunting is popular – would have required fewer than 13 shots to prepare the roast.
  • I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Amy Chua mania. I had my say (on the book, no less), and others have had theirs. But I think no response has been quite so apt as Christine H. Tan’s satire, Why Chinese Girlfriends Are Superior. Tan’s post, like Chua’s, has become something of a phenomenon, racking up some 50,000 visits in one recent 12 hour period (my sourcing is impeccable, trust me). It is, indisputably the most popular English-language post in the China blogsphere in some time.
  • Of the so-called news that came out of Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States, nothing struck me as quite so dispiriting as the accounts of American members of Congress whining to the Chinese leader, in a private meeting, about all of the bad things that he’s been doing to them lately. And the best account of that sorry episode comes from the LA Times. Why US congressional leaders would want to present themselves to the Chinese leader as a bunch of complaining supplicants escapes me entirely. I sincerely hope it has nothing to do with John Boehner’s claim that the United States “has a responsibility” to hold “China to account. He may believe that but, problem is, Hu Jintao probably doesn’t.

Relevant to nothing here, but worth posting: 3 AM at an ice cold Chinese scrap yard …

China Southern Got the South China Sea Memo

The other day, in the midst of a long flight on China Southern Airlines, I turned – as I like to do – to the in-flight magazine. Nihao is actually better than most and, after losing myself in a brief essay on the nature of time (I’m not kidding), I flipped to the back, and the maps, where I came across this curious map – and sub-map, in the lower right corner – showing the airline’s domestic Chinese services.

And, below, a close-up of the circled area:

Those who follow these sorts of things know that sovereignty over the “Islands of [the] South China Sea” is fiercely contested between China and the other countries that border them. It’s a touchy, touchy issue, a source of military build-ups and diplomatic spats and, in the case of China at least, the belief that if you claim sovereignty often and loudly enough, you get sovereignty. With this in mind, I’ll point out that – in my experience – airlines aren’t often in the habit of including maps of politically sensitive areas to which they don’t fly in their inflight magazines. At a minimum, it’s a potent reminder of just how potent (and ubiquitous, in some quarters) this issue has become. And China Southern, I’d dare say, got the memo. Next: checking Malaysian Air’s inflight for its treatment of the disputed Spratlys. Stay tuned …

A Brief Note on Chinese Lame Ducks

The other morning/night, on Warren Olney’s “To the Point,” New York Times’  diplomatic correspondent Mark Landler suggested that Hu Jintao had entered the “lame duck” period of his Presidency. I was on the show with Landler (podcast here), and I respectfully corrected his use of the term, then – and I’d like to correct it, once again, now, in large part because I’ve seen and heard several additional “lame duck” references to Hu over the last couple of days.

So, just to be clear: the use of lame duck, by Landler in regard to Hu, and to politicians in other circumstances, typically suggests that the politician’s influence is on the wane due to an imminent succession or election. In Democratic countries, it’s a genuine phenomenon, based upon the idea that power is derived from the people, and the people are now interested in someone else. But it’s a tenuous concept, at best, when applied to authoritarian systems, and especially relationship-based systems such as China’s. In China, unlike in a democratic country, power tends to accrue to leaders over the course of their tenure, in large part because they are developing, and deepening, the relationships that keep them in power, and allow them to govern. So, for example, of the many narrative threads that apply to Hu Jintao’s tenure and power, perhaps none if more important than his development of a power base that allowed him to wrest power from his predecessor, Jiang Zemin. Unlike prior Chinese Presidents and CCP secretaries, Hu assumed power in 2002 without the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission; he would have to wait until 2004 before he could muster enough institutional pressure to wrest that from Predecessor Jiang. And he would have to patiently bide his time, waiting until 2006, before unleashing a massive corruption investigation that effectively gutted Jiang’s power base in Shanghai.

No doubt, Hu faces occasional challenges to his authority. But I think it’s indisputable that the man has more power – and a wider power base in the party – in 2011 than he did when he assumed national leadership in 2002. The notion of a lame duck – that power declines upon election – just doesn’t apply here. I wish some analysts would stop wishing that it would.

And that’s all. I’m traveling, intensely, and barring a life-affirming inspiration, I plan to keep quiet.

Instant (Noodle) Inflation

How hot is inflation running in China? Fast enough that store clerks at my local convenience store don’t bother to replace the computer-generated price tags for instant noodles at a nearby convenience store. They just cross them out and write in the new (substantially higher) ones. Below, three impromptu price hikes on three well-known brands of instant noodles – low, medium, and “premium” priced.

[UPDATE: Though the size of the increase is obvious, the value – for those outside of China – is not. So, for you folks, keep in mind that the conversion rate this morning is US$1 = RMB 6.61. And that means the value of the cheapest brand, up top, has gone from US$.41, to US$.45. The rest of the math, dear reader, is up to you.]

For those outside of China, you may be asking: why instant noodles?

Well. I once had an argument with a friend from Beijing about what, truly, is China’s modern staple food: the instant noodle, or the bowl of rice. We couldn’t come to agreement on that question, though we did, in time, agree that the disposable paper instant noodle bowl is a far more apt symbol of Chinese job security in the 21st century, than the iron rice bowl of Mao’s day (ie, today’s modern Chinese job seeker wants a disposable instant noodle bowl to sustain his/her family until the next disposable instant noodle bowl[®]). Point being: Chinese people eat lots of instant noodles, and thus the Party has long taken a keen interest in keeping the price of instant noodles stable. Thus, in 2007, in a country where price-fixing is as common as instant noodles, and mostly tolerated, the powerful National Development and Reform Commission went after instant noodle manufactures for, yes, price fixing (an excellent WSJ report on that episode here). Chinese inflation was running hot in 2007, and it’s running even hotter now and, as a result, it’s time to smack around the instant noodle makers again. This time, though, it’s the retailers doing the smacking: French hypermarket operator Carrefour is in the midst of a stare down with the Mainland’s most popular instant noodle manufacturer over price hikes due to rising raw material costs.

For more on rising wages among people who actually work with raw materials (and, presumably, eat instant noodles), see this recent Shanghai Scrap post.

A Partial Defense of Amy Chua, but not her PR agency (and/or strategy).

My initial reaction to Amy Chua’s now-infamous Wall Street Journal piece, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” was to check the author’s bio in search of proof that I hadn’t just read a satire. The accompanying photo of a cross-armed Chua, armed with her duet-ing daughters, placed next to a list of childhood prohibitions (no sleepovers, no play-dates) was Onion-worthy, I thought. Except that it wasn’t: Chua, a Yale Law Professor (I double-checked) is very much for real, and so was her (alas) humor-less, no-fun Wall Street Journal polemic.

I happened to be in the US when the piece ran, and not long after I received an emailed request from a friend in Shanghai to please, if I could, bring back a copy of Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, back with me. So on Tuesday, with some reluctance, I bought a copy, and yesterday, while confined to 18 hours of travel, I decided – having accidentally packed all of my other books into my luggage – to read the first chapter or two. And then, after the first chapter, I realized that I was going to stick with it, because – regardless of what you think of so-called Chinese parenting – it’s a beautifully written, oftentimes funny, humble and modest book about assimilation. That is to say, it has very little in common with the Wall Street Journal piece. Indeed, Chua is quite clear – in the book – that the genesis for the narrative is not a belief that Chinese mothers are superior, but rather an argument between her and her daughter that took place in a Moscow restaurant:

She’s just like me, I thought, compulsively cruel. “You are a terrible daughter,” I said aloud.

“I know – I’m not what you want – I’m not Chinese! I don’t want to be Chinese. Why can’t you get that through your head? I hate the violin! I HATE my life! I HATE you, and I HATE this family! I’m going to take this glass and smash it!”

“Do it,” I dared. Continue reading

Q&A: Marketplace’s Rob Schmitz on covering China, his new blog, and … Minnesota.

Mid-summer 2010 and I was scheduled to have lunch with Jeff Wasserstrom, academic, author, blogger, and all-around good guy. A few days before we met, Jeff emailed to say that he’d like to bring along Rob Schmitz the (then) new Shanghai correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace program (heard on US public radio affiliates). Fine by me, and we met up for (if I recall correctly) Turkish food. In retrospect, though, I wonder if Jeff didn’t have second thoughts: for it didn’t take more than ten minutes before Rob and I figured out that we’re both Minnesotans, and thus Jeff (a Californian with no Minnesota ties) had to sit through two Minnesotans in China, comparing notes for – I must admit – a little while.

Of course, that’s not all we discussed that day.

Rob’s background, and circuitous journey to being a business correspondent in Shanghai started in the Peace Corps in Sichuan with an illustrious class that included two colleagues who would also become important China correspondents (revealed below). Me, I think Rob’s Peace Corps background provides him with a different, richer perspective on China than what’s typically offered by correspondents with no prior relationship to China. In any case, I’ve been meaning to do a Q&A with Rob on this very subject for a long time, and – with the launch of his new Marketplace blog – Chinopoly – and the opening of his twitter account – @marketplacerob –  it seemed like the right time. So, without further ado, an emailed Q&A with Rob Schmitz on China, reporting … and the Minnesota Vikings.

Scrap: How does one go from Peace Corps volunteer to China Bureau Chief for Marketplace?

Schmitz: I’ve met journalists who always knew that this is what they wanted to do with their lives. They wrote for their college paper, they worked the police beat at a tiny newspaper and worked their way up to foreign correspondent. I lacked that sense of direction. I took a long, circuitous route to the profession, and the Peace Corps was a big part of that journey. I’ve always had a single-minded determination to see the world, learn languages, and learn about other cultures. Much of that comes from growing up in rural Minnesota, where I was endlessly fascinated by the natural world. It was pretty much all I had in a town of a couple thousand people. As I grew up, that curiosity evolved into a desire to learn about other cultures, and that, in turn, spurred my interest in journalism. Continue reading