At Bloomberg: Bear Bile Brouhaha

Bear bile. Before last week, I don’t think that I’d ever had a conversation about the substance – much less written about it. But that was before I heard about Guizhentang, a Chinese pharmaceutical firm that extracts the substance from the gall bladders of 470 bears that it keeps at its Fujian farm. The extraction process is anything but pleasant (unpleasant video, here), and that’s one reason – really, the main reason – that Chinese netizens have been up in arms since the company announced it was going for an IPO back on February 1. The resulting discussion touches on China’s nascent animal rights movement (a subject I covered, once before, for Foreign Policy in 2010), and the evolving role of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Chinese culture. This week, my column over at Bloomberg World View covers this debate, and you can read it here.

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When you’re done with my column, I urge you to head over to That’s Shanghai to read Tricia Wang‘s extraordinarily good “Dumplings for Sale,” a meticulously reported and moving account of a migrant family that sets up a small business selling dumplings from a cart in a suburban Shanghai neighborhood. I can’t recommend it enough.

Jeremy Lin and the question of race.

On Valentine’s Day the washed-up American boxer Floyd Mayweather logged into twitter to announce: “Jeremy Lin is a good player but all the hype is because he’s Asian. Black players do what he does every night and don’t get the same praise.” To put it lightly, the tweet was not received well by US commentators, with many holding it up as an example of attention-seeking race-baiting.

To be honest, however, that was not my first reaction. Rather, I was struck by how well it fit into China’s two-week old dialogue on Lin and race. That dialogue mostly takes place on twitter-like microblogs, but in the last few days it’s started to move onto some influential editorial pages here. It’s my experience that Americans unfamiliar with the frank manner in which Chinese talk about race can be taken aback by it; and, indeed, the current Chinese dialogue on Lin and race can be squirm-worthy for many Americans. But it’s also very important, and very worthwhile, if you’re at all interested in how China views itself, and the world.

So, without further ado, my current column for Bloomberg World View: Basketball-Crazy China Ponders Meaning of Jeremy Lin’s Race.

As it happens, I’m not the only person thinking about Jeremy Lin and race today. James Fallows has an interesting post up at the Atlantic in which he disputes that creeping tendency of some to ascribe Lin’s success to being Asian. It’s worth noting, I think, that Fallows’ position is one that’s increasingly popular in China, as Chinese take note that the only difference between them and American-raised Lin is that … he’s American raised. I recommend the piece!

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Finally, and totally unrelated, I wanted to note how fond I am of Lucinda Williams’ newly released cover of Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.” The recorded version is on the new tribute/benefit record, “Chimes of Freedom.” If you want to sample before you buy, there’s a marvelous live version over on youtube that I just can’t get enough of. So great.

 

The Labor Activist Who Just Can’t Do It Without His iPhone. [Updated, with a response to critics.]

OR “Is Mike Daisey Actually a Guerilla Marketer in the Employ of Apple?”

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Late last week activists delivered 250,000 signatures demanding that Apple improve working conditions for workers employed by its Chinese manufacturers. One of those petitions, organized by change.org, specifically cited the American radio program, This American Life, and a segment that it aired on January 6, Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory. Mike Daisey, if you’ve never heard the program, is an American storyteller who, in the course of the segment, recounts his travels to Shenzhen and the gates of Apple’s major contractor, Foxconn. The picture he paints is not pretty (nor is it, I believe, accurate much less journalism – but that’s for another time) and as a result Daisey has become – in very short order – the de facto spokesman for iPhone users wanting to feel better about their next iPhone purchase.

A few weeks after Daisey’s piece ran, the New York Times ran articles of its own (needless to say, far more rigorous than Daisey’s ‘story’). But Mike Daisey is the one who got the ball rolling on the bourgeois outrage, and it’s no exaggeration to say that without Mike Daisey, there probably wouldn’t be 250,000 signatures sitting next to someone’s desk at Apple.

Anyway, yesterday I had the opportunity to join Daisey (and two other guests) on To the Point with Warren Olney, a terrific LA news talk show on which I sometimes have the honor to appear, to discuss Apple’s labor practices. It was, I think, an interesting conversation (downloadable here), worth hearing in its entirety. But for now I’d like to point my readers to a curious exchange between the host,  Warren Olney, and Mr. Daisey. In it, you’ll note that Mr. Olney would like to know if Mr. Daisey – inspiration for hundreds of thousands of Apple petition signers, still uses Apple products. For those listening at home, cue up to 33:15 in the podcast:

Warren Olney: So Mike Daisey, back to you, our author and performer doing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and also has been to China, have you given up your Apple products? As I recall, the last time we spoke you hadn’t.

Mike Daisey: That’s totally irrelevant to anything we’re actually talking about.

Warren Olney: Why? Isn’t the point here to reach the consumer?

Mike Daisey: If I throw away – because if I throw – if I throw away my devices, I will not be able to interact with the world. I wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation with you. It’s about reforming how the industry fundamentally works.

I am in no position to speak to Mr. Daisey’s particular circumstances, but – and I asked this during the show – couldn’t he have exchanged his iPhone for a land line, instead?

[UPDATE 2/15: I’ve received a few emails from folks writing to say, “Well, yes, but Mike Daisey is very upfront about the fact that he’s a fanboy.” Yes, he is. And that’s why I’d be much more impressed with his moral seriousness if he backed up his moral outrage at worker suicides, workplace accidents, and long hours, with some self-sacrifice. But what, in fact, has Daisey sacrificed in his pursuit of justice for Foxconn’s workers?

It’s really no different for the 250,000 folks who signed petitions that ask Apple, in polite language, to change its practices without threatening to stop using Apple products. It’s a really convenient cake-and-eat-it-too sort of solution to a very bourgeois conundrum: how do I feel good about purchasing expensive products that I know are made in factories? Sign a petition that asks the manufacturer to improve those factories! Then go buy another iPhone feeling like I’ve done my part.]

[Disclosure: I own two iPods, and I feel no guilt about how they were manufactured. I’ve visited factories like the ones in which they were assembled, and I consider the conditions in those facilities to be far superior to the base-line average for Chinese factories, and a good place for young Chinese with minimal educations to start work. And, apparently, so do the thousands who continue to line up for the opportunity to manufacture Apple products in China.]

 

Harmonious Families Inspire Class Warfare

Here in Shanghai, we are finally putting some distance between us and the concluded Chinese New Year. But, in microblogging terms, it feels to me like there’s still a bit of a holiday hangover. Only in the last two days, with all kinds of interesting political news, does one get the sense that things are back to normal in the wild world of Weibo. My Bloomberg World View column for this week reaches back into the Chinese New Year period, however, to a story that I was eager to write since I first heard about it, and – due to some slow news days – received the chance. It concerns the considerable online heat that was generated when Beijing’s leading women’s group modified the criteria it uses for naming model families, to include items that, well, cost a lot of money. Like going on vacation. Or owning 300 books. You can find the piece at Bloomberg World View.

And a quick note on World View. There are five of us World View columnists, each of us doing a weekly piece on issues typically flying beneath the radar of other foreign correspondents in our respective regions. And there’s some absolutely fabulous stuff being written on the site. Two pieces, in particular, from the last week, stick out for me. Why not give them a look?

  • A Bewildering Online Hit, Now Brazil’s Biggest Star,” by Dom Phillips, World View’s columnist in Saõ Paulo, might be the funniest thing I’ve read in 2012 (so far). It concerns a young reality star, Luiza, who is in Canada … well, you just have to read it.
  • India’s Top Newspapers Battle for Hearts and Souls,” by Chandrahas Choudhury, World View’s Columnist in Delhi, is a brilliant and very funny explication of the differences between India’s two most venerable newspapers. It should be noted that Choudhury, a novelist, writes his column with a literary flair to which others (like me) can only aspire.

A lot of thought and work goes into these columns, and I think the above two really prove it. I hope you’ll have a look.