Personal Note: “You’ve got to do.”

During the four years that I’ve kept this blog, I’ve been reluctant to offer too many insights into my life away from my laptop. This is for many reasons, not least of which I’m pretty sure that the folks who come here for the China blogging don’t come here for, say, blogging about what podcast I might’ve listened to on the flight to Guangzhou. But, you know, one of the great surprises of blogging and tweeting – for me at least – are the friendships, the relationships, that I’ve developed with readers. I can really say, looking back, that my life away from the laptop was enhanced, considerably, by this platform. Who would’ve guessed?

My grandmother, Betty Zeman, never quite understood blogging, or twitter, for that matter. But that’s just a matter of timing: if she’d been born a few decades later, she would’ve been a social networking maven, if ever there was one. She was just that kind of lady.

Betty died on Wednesday morning, age 89. I really miss her, and so do the many friends of mine who got to know her over the years. It came down to this: you couldn’t hang out with me in Minnesota, without hanging out with Betty. And nobody ever seemed to mind. She was – and she’d approve of these phrases – a tremendous piece of work, a character of the first-rate variety. Continue reading

Unnatural Selection: Missing Girls, Abortion, and the Perversion of Choice

A few years ago, while visiting a small, prosperous city a few hours from Changsha, in China’s Hunan Province, I paused outside of a primary school to snap a photo of grandparents eagerly awaiting the afternoon bell and the grandchildren who would emerge from the school gate. A few minutes later, when that bell rang, a flood of boys emerged, enough to convince me and several other companions that we had happened upon a boy’s school. It was only later, over lunch, that we were told that, in fact, the school was co-ed.

Mara Hvistendahl describes a similar experience in her important new book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. One afternoon, in the county of Suining, in Northern Jiangsu Province, she watches as a disproportionate number of boys emerge from a co-ed school. The difference in our experiences is that Mara has the data to explain the phenomenon: in 2007, shortly before her visit to Suining, she reports in Unnatural Selection that there were 152 boys born for every 100 girls in the county. The naturally occurring ratio is 105 boys to 100 girls (and anything over 107 boys is biologically impossible).

For as long as I’ve been in China, a range of causes have been posited for this dangerous imbalance, none of which is more popular among foreigners than female infanticide. Hvistendahl, a reporter to her bones (she is now a Beijing-based Asia correspondent for Science), dismisses such theories as condescending, at best, and instead digs into the data and reveals a far more compelling and disturbing explanation: gender imbalance is a byproduct of economic development. As a nation grows more wealthy, more and more people have access to the tools – ultrasound machines and elective abortion – necessary to choose boys over girls.

Mara is a very good friend of mine (we even attended the same high school), and I had the privilege of chatting with her about this book while she was in the process of reporting and writing it. That was interesting: I remember, quite clearly, when she started encountering data suggesting that abortion rights groups in the West were consciously downplaying the role of elective abortion in creating skewed sex ratios in China and other countries (including – and this is critical – countries populated by Caucasians).

Mara is adamantly in favor of abortion rights, and I could see she was uncomfortable with this data. And yet, to her everlasting credit as a journalist, she followed the story, anyway, and, along the way, uncovered important material regarding how population control activists in the West were critical to promoting abortion in Asia – and even in pushing along research into the sex determination techniques that ultimately yielded sex selective abortion.

When I asked Mara if she’d be willing to do a Shanghai Scrap Q&A (this will be her second; the first, on the topic of Chinese computer hackers, is still relevant, and still available here), I told her that I’d like to cover the material related to abortion and population control. Characteristically, she didn’t hesitate. Continue reading

Millinocket, Maine v. China’s Global Times (and its sketchiest editorialist) [UPDATED!]

[UPDATED 25 June: Okay, turns out that the update below needs an update. The Global Times site was, an emailer tells me, undergoing an upgrade, and links to some content were broken in the process – including links to Mattimore’s pieces. They are now restored.]

[UPDATE 13 June: The Global Times editorials referenced in this blog post have all been deleted from the Global Times website. However, cached versions remain, and I’ve added links to those versions where possible. The fact that the Global Times would delete this editorial, and others by Patrick Mattimore says much about their veracity and quality. Put differently, it takes a real whopper to get yourself deleted from the Global Times, let me tell you.]

On Monday, the English language edition of China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper, daily circulation of 1.5 million, had this to say about Millinocket, Maine, population 5000, and its high school (Stearns), enrollment 200: [UPDATE 13 June: a cached version of this now deleted editorial is available HERE.]

Stearns is a run-of-the-mill high school and doesn’t appear on any “best high school lists.”

The school building is over 40 years old. The school has only one Advanced Placement class and the school maps date from the Cold War era.

Millinocket is isolated. The closest mall and movie theater is one hour away. The town gets 93 inches of snow per year. Millinocket has about 5,000 residents but has experienced increasingly hard times since its paper mill filed for bankruptcy eight years ago. There were about 700 students at the high school in the 1970s. Today there are about 200?and the biggest kick for kids is hanging out in a supermarket parking lot.

Context: Millinocket, Maine has an active international students program in its public schools and, over the last year, it’s been covered by several media outlets, including the AP and the New York Times (indeed, the Global Times story lifts language, unattributed, from the Times’ story). The Global Times editorial argues that Chinese parents are better off sending their children to elite Chinese schools, rather them to international programs like the one in Millinocket, Maine – especially if they want their children to attend elite American colleges. It’s the kind of thing that the Global Times, once described by James Fallows as “the pro-Communist Fox News of China“, likes to run, especially when – as in the case of this editorial – it’s written by an American.

In any case, it struck me as patently unfair that a subsidized newspaper, circulation 1.5 million, would pick on a small town in Maine, population 5000, without giving that small town the opportunity to respond. So, Monday night, I wrote to the Town Manager of Millinocket and offered Shanghai Scrap as a forum for him to respond to the editorial in any way he liked. He wrote back and, soon after, so did the Superintendent of Millinocket’s schools. I’ll post their complete responses, in a moment. But first, a brief word about the author of the Global Times editorial, American Patrick Mattimore. Continue reading

Don’t Trust the UN with Your Recycling (rates).

Every week I receive at least one query asking me for pointers on finding statistics regarding how much China recycles on an annual basis. And, for the most part, my answer is the same: check Google, or check the trade publications. For example, a simple google search will reveal that China generated and recycled around 90 million metric tons of iron and steel scrap in 2010a volume greater than the steel produced in all but two countries (China and Japan). And if you’re lucky enough to have a subscription to Scrap Magazine, or Recycling International, you would’ve learned, in the Jan/Feb issues of both magazines, respectively, that China generated and recycled 2.32 million metric tons of its own – not imported! – aluminum in 2009 – a volume greater than the total steel manufactured in all but two countries (China and Russia). Below, an image taken at a large-scale, highly efficient aluminum scrap processing operation in South China (by me).

So one would reason, I think, that if an organization – say, the United Nations Environmental Programme – were interested in conducting a study to determine the worldwide recycling rates of all of the metals on the periodic table, that organization would want to get some Chinese experts – industry, government, trade associations – in on the preparation. And that’s precisely what the United Nations Environment Programme claimed to do when, two weeks ago, it released a study claiming to show global rates of recycling for metals. The report is downloadable, and it includes this very simple explanation of its methodology: Continue reading