Blog Hiatus Until April 13; the Scrap will be back.

I’m in the midst of a deadline blitz. And then some travel. So, rather than press the issue (or, unless something really good comes along), I’m going to pause the blogging (and most of the tweeting) until April 13 (or, as we say around the office: the ‘Scrap will be back).

Before I go, though, I humbly offer a few reading recommendations.

  • Few China-related stories are more popular, and recur more often, than accounts of how American electronic wastes such as old computers and monitors are ‘dumped’ in developing countries. It’s a visually gripping story, and easy to do. But the problem is that the situation has long been far more complicated than what’s been depicted in stories such as 60 Minutes’ now notorious ‘Following the Trail of Toxic E-Waste.‘ Alas, many reporters, in a rush to get the visually arresting story (computers on fire!), miss the one that Robin Ingenthron tells in “Why We Should Send Our Electronic Waste to China and Africa.” Robin isn’t a journalist – he’s a professional recycler, and exporter of old equipment to developing countries (and blogger), where it’s refurbished and repaired for the second-hand market. His is a perspective that’s been long ignored (by 60 Minutes, among others – they interviewed him and then did the other story), and well worth reading for needed balance. Below, an image taken (by me) at a Malaysian facility where Robin sends his monitors.

  • There’s been lots of talk about bad China journalism this past week. So let’s take a look at a really good piece of China journalism: John Garnaut’s “Show them the money, old China,” a riveting, meticulously reported account of the connections between organized crime and the Party in Chongqing. As Garnaut (whom I think is one the best correspondents working in China today) notes, the story describes “the alchemy of power in China today and a signal as to where the country may be heading.” However, a Shanghai friend who read the story writes that he disagrees that there’s anything new here: “Yes, it reminds me of 30’s KMT.” A story well worth your time.
  • There are few blogs I like quite so much as Paul French’s China Rhyming, and few posts I like quite so much as “Shanghai’s Smokestacks – See ’em While you can.” There’s really no nothing more that I can say about that particular work of blogging perfection – except that it takes place in one of my favorite (disappearing) sections of Shanghai.
  • I’ve long wished that there were more in-depth profiles of the Chinese entrepreneurs who’ve shaped so much of China’s last two decades. And I’ve long been keenly aware that those sorts of profiles are very, very hard to do, in large part because those entrepreneurs are rarely willing to grant access to foreign reporters (in particular). So it was really a treat to read Gady Epstein’s recent cover story for last week’s issue of Forbes, Alibaba’s Jack Ma Fights Back to Win Trust. It’s hard enough to get access to entrepreneurs of Ma’s stature in good times; that Epstein did it during a downturn in the company’s fortunes is all the more remarkable. A great piece; I learned a lot.
  • And finally, I’d be absolutely remiss (on so many levels, trust me) if I didn’t mention Christine H. Tan’s ‘How to Dump A Chinese Girlfriend” at her Shanghai Shiok! blog. Once in a while you encounter something and say, “You know, I’ve simply never read anything quite like that before.” Tan’s post belongs in that category.

See you in a week and half …

The Bureau Chief’s Wife Doth Not Protest In Chinese.

A couple of quick points regarding the brouhaha over last week’s New York Times’ story suggesting that China is censoring the use of the word ‘protest’ – both English and Chinese – in phone conversations. My post debunking this odd anecdote can be found here; it’s generated far more attention – and emails, phone calls, and DMs – than I ever expected. Some have questioned whether the issue is really so important.

Well, from my perspective it is: insofar as the New York Times’ China correspondents hold the most important and influential foreign media jobs in China, their stories, standards, successes and failures, reflect on all foreign media in China. And, for better or worse, this ‘protest’ story does, too: from now on, it will be one more example for foreign media detractors to use as proof that “foreign media lie/make stuff up.” But forget the China-centric viewpoint: a very large percentage of the visits – and correspondence – generated by that post are from American with little interest in China, but a great deal of skepticism about the credibility and intentions of the American media. As someone with a personal interest in the credibility of American media, I have two (hopefully) last points that I’d like to make on this issue that I haven’t seen covered elsewhere.

  1. The NYT story claims that the anecdote in question – an anecdote about a phone line purposely being disconnected when a speaker said “The lady doth protest -” – was verified by translating the same phrase into Chinese and generating the same result. But there’s a problem with this claim: Chinese doesn’t really have a 1:1 equivalent for ‘protest’ as it’s used interchangeably in English. Brendan O’Kane, the highly regarded Beijing translator and writer (and tweeter) emailed me on this point over the weekend: “the Chinese translation of that line does not use “示威,” “抗议,” “游行,” or any other words meaning “protest.” For that matter, any would-be activist discussing a protest would almost certainly not use the word either; they’d probably use “运动,” which is so common that it would render any hypothetical automated scanning system more or less inoperable.” Even if you don’t know Chinese, I think Brendan’s point is obvious and powerful: the one-to-one translation that the NYT claims that it did, is not really possible as a practical matter. And that’s a big, big problem. Continue reading

Fact-checking the New York Times’ China Coverage [UPDATED]

[UPDATED at end of post.]

On Monday, the New York Times ran a story on the tightening of internet controls in China that included this anecdote in the lede:

BEIJING — If anyone wonders whether the Chinese government has tightened its grip on electronic communications since protests began engulfing the Arab world, Shakespeare may prove instructive.

A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancée over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.

He spoke English, but another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence.

Here at Shanghai Scrap, we believe in the strictest journalistic standards, and so, for the moment, neglecting the New York Times reporting standards (censorship stories in CHINA led by anecdotes about foreigners quoting Shakespeare over the phone), we would now like to report the results of our STRICTLY controlled study of whether or not quoting Shakespeare over mobile phones in China results in a loss of connection.

METHODS: The staff prepared three phrases. A) Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks;” b) “I like Bob Dylan’s protest songs, the most;” and c) “PROTEST PROTEST PROTEST!” The staff also prepared a list of five individuals with phones in China. They are a) a foreign Shanghai entrepreneur; b) a Shanghai school teacher; c) a Beijing-based foreign correspondent; d) a Beijing-based scrap metal entrepreneur; e) a Foshan-based scrap metal entrepreneur. Each individual was called from a Shanghai phone line, and asked to listen to the three phrases, repeated twice.

RESULTS: In all five cases, the connection was sustained and the staff was subjected to varying degrees of bewildered responses:

a) Foreign Shanghai entrepreneur: “Is this about the  upcoming Bob Dylan show?”

b) Shanghai school teacher: “Are you drunk?”

c) Beijing-based foreign correspodent: “I thought that story was bulls*** too.”

d) Beijing-based scrap metal entrepreneur: “I don’t understand.”

e) Foshan-based scrap metal entrepreneur: “What do you want me to say?”

CONCLUSION: The staff of Shanghai Scrap conclude that, a) Foreigners can feel confident that they can quote Shakespeare, in English, when discussing restaurants in China on the phone; b) the New York Times needs to widen its circle of sources on censorship beyond people who quote Shakespeare, in English, when discussing restaurants on the phone. Further study needed on whether or not phones used by New York Times correspondents and assistants are the most reliable means of judging phone censorship in China.

[Addendum: It turns out that my friend Kenneth Tan at Shanghaiist conducted a similar study, with similar results, earlier today. Dr. Tan’s study, here.]

[Addendum 3/24: And the unsuccessful attempts at verifying this episode continue, both among China’s foreign correspondent corps (some distinguished verifiers, here, here, here, and here) and among expatriate, er, civilians (a tiny sample, here, and here) Now, just to be clear: this ludicrous, unverifiable example of ‘censorship’ should not detract from the simple fact that internet controls in China are tightening. That’s a real phenomenon, and one can only wish that, in the future, the New York Times decides to front its stories with the many actual verifiable examples of censorship occurring here (especially as they impact the Chinese, and not expat correspondents).]

UPDATED after the page jump … Continue reading

Chinese Reactions to the Japanese quake

I need to start this brief post by conceding that I’ve long been suspicious and critical of journalistic attempts to size-up ‘the average, ordinary, Chinese.’ China is too big, and too complicated, for such a model to exist. That noted, I think it is possible to get a somewhat representative sense of what’s going on in the heads of its internet users via peeks at its internet forums and oft-raucous microblogging platforms (in the same way that twitter can tell you something about what, say, US internet users are thinking). So, on that basis, let’s just say that the initial reaction has been complex.

To be sure, there was a substantial amount of – there’s no other way to put this – gloating – reflecting the long-standing bitterness that many Chinese still feel toward Japan, dating back to World War II (and which is still cultivated in schools and public society). Though that may be a distinctively Chinese reaction to the tragedy, it is by no means the only, or dominant, one (despite what you may be reading on twitter). Sympathy, condolences, and prayers flow from here, just as they do from other countries. In any case, a few hours after the quake I was asked to do a very quick piece for Foreign Policy on the Chinese reaction, entitled Schadenfreude and Sympathy in Shanghai. Since filing that piece, the essential China Digital Times has done a more comprehensive run-down, here.

I haven’t had much time to see what else is out there on the Chinese reaction, but I did see Max Fisher’s interesting piece on how the quake presents China’s navy with an interesting humanitarian opportunity, to say the least. It’s worth a read.

Finally, a very last minute announcement. This evening (March 13), at 19:00 PM, I’ll join Duncan Hewitt of Newsweek, and Rob Schmitz of Marketplace on the “Committing Journalism: how real is the story?” panel at the The Bookworm Literary Festival in Suzhou. I’m replacing NPR’s Rob Gifford, who has been called to more pressing matters in Japan.

Reprise: Wasted 7/7, from the Motor Breakers to the Sample Room

Last week, in my capacity as a guest-blogger on Jim Fallows’ site at the Atlantic, I wrote a series of seven short blog posts, each accompanied by two photos (except for the last) showing a scene from Asia’s scrap recycling trade. My purpose was two-fold: first, I wanted to give Jim’s readers a peak inside of the often monumental scale of the industry as it’s practiced in Asia; and second, I wanted to challenge the oft-held assumption that people who labor in this industry, especially in the developing world, are exploited. That’s less and less the case, especially in China. For example, the metal sorter in the photo can earn in excess of US$500/month, and have her choice of jobs up and down China’s East Coast – a blessed fate that eludes most recent Chinese college graduates.

In any case, I didn’t do a very good job of linking to the Wasted 7/7 posts from Shanghai Scrap. So, in case you didn’t see them (or want an explanation of what the metal sorter in the photo, above, is actually doing), below are the chapters of 7/7 Wasted, in the order that they were intended to be read. Ideally, they take you on a narrated journey through how and where Asia recycles the developed world’s surplus throwaways, to what it all means. The posts are short, and – I’m told! – visually arresting:

  1. The Motor Breakers of China
  2. The Plastics Shredders of China
  3. The Metal Shredders of Toyota
  4. The Metal Sorters of Shanghai
  5. The Metal Sorters North of Mumbai
  6. The Shipbreakers of China
  7. The Chinese Sample Room

As I note above, they really do have an order to them, an intended narrative, that leads to a concluding argument about just who’s being exploited by the globalized waste recyclables trade. And that conclusion is, in part, one of the arguments that I’ll make in Junkyard Planet, my forthcoming book about the global recycling trade, to be published by Bloomsbury Press in 2013.