Against exceptionalism: here’s what a housing start really looks like (one for the Minnesotans).

My long-time readers are aware, I think (perhaps too aware) that I spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating (and sometimes writing about) the life and fate of my home state, Minnesota (population, 5.3 million). And that mental phenomenon, in part (there were other reasons), explains why, yesterday morning, I was atop a hotel in Foshan (population, 3.3 million) a rapidly developing Chinese city (what Chinese city isn’t rapidly developing) that most Minnesotans have never heard of, looking at data on Minnesota housing starts. For those who don’t follow this sort of thing, a housing start is simply a housing unit on which construction has begun in a given period. So, according to the US government data that I was looking at, there were exactly 709 housing starts in Minnesota in September.

Then I turned around, looked out the window, and saw many more than 709 starts happening 33-floors below. As well as a shopping mall to dwarf any but the Mall of America, a new “financial park,” lots of commercial real estate … and this is just one neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Far more intensive construction was going on closer to the city core. And, in the course of the 16 days that I’ve spent up, down, and sideways in Guangdong this month, I’ve seen dozens of projects just like these, often much bigger (photos taken of the right and left-handed views of the same project).

None of this comes as a surprise to anyone who spends any time in China – even fleetingly. It is the stuff of daily life. But back in the US, and back home, in Minnesota, especially, I can’t help but get the sense that there’s an almost purposeful denial that what’s happened, and is happening in China is fleeting; that, in some shape or form, everything will go back to normal and sooner or later Minnesota will have more housing starts than China (or, at least, Foshan), again. We just need to cut taxes. Or spend more on K-12 education. Pick your favorite solution to the current economic malaise, whatever that may be, and it’ll set things back to 1985, again.

At a minimum, over the course of several trips to the US this year, I’ve gotten the unerring sense that otherwise intelligent people are too ready to blame the current economic downturn on partisan factors having to do with Minnesota/North America, without pausing to consider that, just perhaps, there’s something (many somethings) happening in cities they’ve never heard of, changing the living standards of Minnesotans, permanently; that much of what’s happening to Minnesota’s economy has nothing to do with Minnesota.  This sort of economic and political narcissism (“our problems are only our own creation”) isn’t going to lead to a very nice place. At some point, you’re going to have to admit that there is, in fact, something to that competition beyond their lower salaries.

Anyway, dear Minnesotans, that’s what 2.5 weeks in Guangdong (and 9 years in China), and a bunch of Census Bureau stats, led me to ponder.

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

Bye-Bye, Best Buy (China): You had it coming. [UPDATED]

[23 Feb: Multiple updates to be found at the end of the post!]

Late last week the Chinese media started reporting rumors that Best Buy, North America’s dominant electronics retailer, was planning to shut down its branded stores in China. Rumors like that don’t start from nothing – the company’s stores have been empty for years, and rumors have circulated about all kinds of management problems. Still, that didn’t prevent the company from formally denying the closure rumors yesterday … and then shutting them down today, Tuesday. An image of Best Buy’s flagship store, shut down and locked up, around 4:00 this afternoon.

So what went wrong? 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

More on stolen iPhones at Best Buy Shanghai (Xujiahui): the Gangster Factor

Late last week I posted in regard to a bizarre encounter I had with a ‘freelance’ salesman/thief attempting to sell stolen iPhones inside of the Best Buy located in Shanghai’s Xujiahui neighborhood. In response, over the weekend I received several comments, two phone calls, and one email suggesting that the man who approached me is part of a wider gang problem in Shanghai that has plagued retailers in addition to Best Buy. See, for example, anonymous comment #8 [attributed to Marketing Manager] on my original post, and this excerpt from an email received overnight (the author requested that it be published without attribution):

We do not represent Best Buy, but we do represent a company in a similar position and let me tell you that keeping these guys out of the store borders on impossible.  The people selling this stuff in the store are gangsters and they intimidate and they have connections.  The staff are afraid and with good reason.  The issue is much bigger than just Best Buy.  In most cities, the police are absolutely no help at all.

This is credible information, and makes complete sense in light of what I saw last week: the staff of the Best Buy store could see precisely what was happening, and made no move to interfere. Store management, when I told them what was happening, expressed zero interest in interfering. And, let’s be honest here, it’s no secret that illegal commercial activity occurs all over Xujiahui (just take a look at the hawkers working the entries to the Xujiahui subway station) without any interference from the police (ie, full acceptance by the police).

What I don’t know – and I’d love to know – is whether or not gangs actively target foreign-owned retailers, knowing that they lack the resources and connections that Chinese businesses have, to deal with them. It’s a widely accepted fact of commercial life in China that foreign businesses have to comply with laws that Chinese businesses regularly ignore (politely, overlook). Perhaps this is one more expression of that widespread competitive disadvantage.

[UPDATE 11/29:

I was in the neighborhood this evening around 6:30, so I stopped into the store and rode the escalator to the third floor. It was definitely gangster free. In their place were relaxed, low-key sales staff eager to help me find a mobile.]

Get Your Used (stolen?) iPhones at Best Buy Shanghai (Xujiahui, 3rd floor)

Just in time for the Thanksgiving holiday shopping rush I come across evidence that at least one high-profile US-based entry into China’s cut-throat, price-sensitive retail market isn’t working out exactly as planned. I’m talking about Best Buy, North America’s largest electronics retailer. Three years ago they entered the Chinese market with plans to counter China’s aggressive sales culture with a low-key, service-oriented sales method (I wrote about these plans in early 2008 for MinnPost). They might have succeeded – but I’ll leave that question for another time. Tonight I’d like to talk about where they’ve clearly failed: security. Continue reading

Pawlenty in Shanghai

I’ve been busy with a number of projects over the last two weeks, but perhaps none hits closer to home – quite literally – than my coverage of Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty’s current (for 36 more hours) trade mission to China (continuing onto Japan). I usually don’t post links to my Minnesota-oriented China coverage, but in this case I will, for two reasons. First, because Governor Pawlenty is now a national figure in the Republican Party and, as a result, what he thinks about China is important. And second, because Minnesota has long been a US leader in building bridges to China (the University of Minnesota has been engaging in students exchanges with China since 1914!), and how it relates to China is worth considering, and perhaps emulating.

My first dispatch, from Friday, presents the case that – in an age of slow to no growth US states – Minnesota businesses need to grow via exports, especially to Asia. That dispatch is here. The second dispatch includes excerpts from a lengthy exclusive interview that I conducted with Governor Pawlenty on the topic of China and US competitiveness on Sunday. Whether you agree with him or not, he’s speaking about China in a way that few national-level politicians have yet attempted, and I think that fact – in itself – is interesting. You can decide whether your agree or not, by reading here.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that my Pawlenty trade mission pieces have been publishedy b MinnPost, the online newspaper of the Twin Cities. It’s a relatively new outfit, but in its few years of existence it has not only proven itself a worthy counterpart and rival to its fossilized print predecessors, but also a brave and respectful voice that respects the intelligence of its readers. Put differently: no other Minnesota media outlet – print or otherwise – bothered to cover Pawlenty’s trade mission in any form. MinnPost, to its everlasting credit, not only covered it, but allowed me to do so in two lengthy pieces that – I hope – give readers a deeper understanding of the issues than the 600-word bite sized summaries so typical in contemporary newspapers. Viva MinnPost!