Firing your best bullet, and other thoughts on rare earth mania.

A brief list of commodities of which China is a net importer: oil, iron ore, soy beans, wheat, corn, aluminum scrap metal, copper scrap metal, steel scrap metal, recyclable paper stock. That is to say, China lacks sufficient domestic supplies of these resources, and must resort to other countries for supply. Among the leading suppliers of food commodities and scrap metals (which comprise a significant percentage of China’s total production of aluminum and copper and, to a lesser but still important extent, steel) is the United States. Indeed, as China’s economy grows, it’s dependence upon the United States and other exporters for commodities, especially for food and metal (and ores) increases. Below, a chart from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Shanghai Trade office.

Quite often, and understandably, my friends in the China-focused media and academic class tend to lose themselves in the same story and theme. For years, for example, the China-focused media has been tightly focused on the Chinese export story, while giving short shrift to the still considerable volume of exports – especially the commodities that power the Chinese export machine – that the United States and other developed countries send to China. To be sure, the trade deficit between China and the United States grows, but US to China trade also grows, and it’s worth remembering – if the stories about American job losses often don’t – that China is the third largest US export market. And it’s also worth remembering that commodities – agricultural and recyclable – are the two leading US exports to China, by volume. Continue reading

One reason [some US space personnel] won’t collaborate with China on space exploration.

[See Update 2, below for a brief explanation of why I've changed the title of this post from 'One reason the US won't collaborate with China on space exploration,' to its current version.]

I’m a big fan of China’s space program (any space program, really) and nobody cheers louder when it pulls off successful missions. So, needless to say, I was thrilled to learn that China had launched its second lunar probe, Chang’e II, over the weekend. But my excitement was quickly tempered by photos of Chinese farmland littered with solid rocket booster debris that rained down in the aftermath of the launch (image from 163.com via shanghaiist).

Now, I’m no rocket scientist, but I am a space buff – and like any space buff worth his salt, I know that – barring an accident – solid rocket boosters don’t just accidentally fall onto populated areas. Mission designers can predict with certainty where these things fall – thus, NASA’s ability to retrieve the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. In any case, this morning I received an email from an acquaintance who has worked with NASA in the past. With his permission, I quote (anonymously):

[O]ne of two problems here. Either the rocket boosters didn’t burn up in the atmosphere as designed (failure of design) or the mission planners didn’t give a s*** if they landed in a populated area. If the first then you’ve got a program that isn’t capable of something that the US program figured out decades ago. If the second then you’ve got a program that’s willing to sacrifice civilian lives to send up a probe. Either way you’ve got a program that the US can’t work with forgetting even that nat’l security is an issue.

As an addendum, I think it’s worth pointing out that, in the past, the Chinese have launched US satellites from the same facility as Chang’e II, and that one of those launches – in 1996 – resulted in the destruction of large swaths of Xichang. That incident and others that place civilians at risk are among the reasons that the Chinese are building a new launch facility on Hainan Island. Presumably, once operational, that facility’s debris will fall into the ocean.

[UPDATE: In the comments, below, Sean - a frequent commentator - notes:

They do evacuate parts of three provinces that are in the range of the falling rocket boosters and satellite debris. Parts of Guizhou, Sichuan and Jiangxi are where the debris is expected to fall, and in Guizhou alone, around 200 thousand people are evacuated.]

[UPDATE 2: I've received a couple of emails from people suggesting that these sorts of incidents aren't, in fact, the basis for any sort of US gov't space policy. That's true, and I concede that the original title - "One reason why the US won't collaborate with China on space exploration' - was a bit over-the-top. Thus, I've changed it. The person who emailed me the above comment on the Chang'e 2 booster was writing as a knowledgeable individual who had worked with NASA in the past, and his comment reflected the consensus of some of his colleagues - not the US gov't. My apologies if the original title implied otherwise.]

[UPDATE 3: In a very detailed, very interesting comment (4, below), Tom suggests that the images in question show a payload fairing, and not a rocket booster. I've just emailed the person who sent me the email that set off this post, in the first place, to see if there's a response.]

US State Department Inspector General Refers Complaint Against USA Pavilion at Expo 2010 to Secretary of State’s Executive Director.

Shanghai Scrap has viewed documents revealing that last week the US Department of State’s Office of Inspector General [OIG] forwarded a request for investigation into the Department’s stewardship of the USA Pavilion at Expo 2010 to the US Secretary of State’s Executive Director. The complaint requests a “full and fair recounting of the events that transpired … in the US Pavilion process over the last three years.” As reported on Shanghai Scrap, both the State Department and the private organization managing the US pavilion, have refused repeated requests to produce documents related to the pavilion selection process, pavilion fund-raising, and the basic rules governing operation of the pavilion (the “action plan”), among other essential details relating to the oft-troubled US pavilion at Expo 2010. The complaint calls for a transparent review of those documents for the purpose of preventing a repeat of the mistakes made in selecting and managing the 2010 pavilion.

Last year, a concerned US citizen filed a Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request to obtain these documents (including the “action plan” which governs the US pavilion effort). As of January 4, 2010, it has not yet been fulfilled. Continue reading

Lies, Damned Lies, and the US Pavilion at Expo 2010.

Based upon queries of my blog, and queries from US media outlets, it seems that US reporters are finally taking an interest in Expo 2010 and the oft-troubled project to build a US pavilion (Shanghai Scrap reporting on the issue, here). As for the latter topic, the interest is overdue: as of January 4, 2010, the private group authorized by the US State Department to design, fund-raise, and build the US pavilion has not yet finished the fund-raising – despite the fact that the Expo begins in 118 days. In early 2009, the situation was so dire that the Chinese government made high-level appeals to Secretary of State Clinton, who has since undertaken some of the fund-raising herself.

And so, this weekend the New York Times gives us “For Shanghai Fair, a Famous Fund-Raiser Delivers,” in which the authors – Mark Landler and David Barboza – correctly report that Secretary Clinton’s played a crucial role in securing pavilion funding, and thus preventing a major diplomatic rupture with China. At the same time, they document the State Department’s careful vetting of Clinton’s fund-raising role, including its determination that – due to her position – she “could not solicit private donations herself.”

This is a compelling story for those who follow the US pavilion, but it is also a seriously incomplete one – as the reporters who worked on the story surely know. So let’s be clear here: the reason that Clinton had to become involved at all is because the private group authorized to design, build, and fund-raise the pavilion had – by early 2009 – shown themselves to be completely incapable of accomplishing what they’d been authorized to do by the State Department. Continue reading

What ‘New Era?’ Counter-factual Bush Fatigue, and other notes on the Press, Obama, and China.

If you’ve bothered to read, watch, or listen to the post-post-Obama-in-China commentary over the last forty-right hours, you’d be excused for thinking that the Presidential visit had just closed a tumultuous chapter in the history of Sino-US relations. And, in fact, that’s precisely how many observers – a good portion of them glad to have anything and anyone associated with the Bush Administration – swept out of the way, feel. There’s only one problem with this view of the new era in Sino-US relations: under the Bush Administration, especially its second half, the Sino-US relationship improved markedly. In fact, even some of the harshest critics of Bush’s foreign policy adventures will concede – when pressed – that Bush (who visited China four times – more than any other President – and held 19 face-to-face meetings with Hu Jintao) ran, on balance, a sympathetic China policy with Clark Randt, his ambassador. At a minimum, the Chinese media understood and understand it; take, for example, this 2007 China Daily interview with Randt on the occasion of the Strategic Economic Dialogue, and – in its last paragraphs – the list of exchanges and partnerships. Or, for that matter, this January 2009 interview with Randt, in which he uses language not unlike that being wielded by the Obama administration, now. Continue reading

This is not a pipe.

[With apologies to Rene Magritte.]

Not the sexiest topic in the world, but certainly important: on Wednesday, the US Department of Commerce into whether or not to impose anti-dumping and countervailing duties on imports of steel pipes from China. This follows upon the mostly symbolic mid-September imposition of duties on Chinese tire imports, and recent EU duties against the same products.

For reasons that I won’t go into right now, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time in factories that manufacture the sort of pipe in question here, and I’m personally acquainted with some of the factory owners. Though I’ve no interest in excusing the alleged dumping in question here, I think I can offer some limited perspective on why – in fact – the situation is more complex than the one suggested by the aggressive proponents of imposing new duties. In truth, I don’t expect I’m going to hold many of my casual readers with a discussion of seamless pipe dumping, but I do think that – if you’re interested in how greed and a total mis-comprehension/mis-trust of motives can contribute to trade disputes – this is as good an example as any.

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Above, an image of a seamless pipe factory in Qinghuangdao, taken two years ago.

Seamless steel pipe is just what it sounds like: a pipe with no seams suitable for use as a conveyance for high-pressure fluids such as oil and natural gas. To the casual observer, a pipe is a steel pipe; but if you drill for oil, say, you’re going to want every assurance that your pipe is manufactured to certain industry-mandated standards (for example, so that the pipe can handle the threads that may be cut into it at a later date). Continue reading

Resumption of Hostilities: The Scrap is Back! [Updated]

[UPDATED: Not sure how I did it, but somehow I managed to delete this entire post - including the comments - earlier this morning. Thanks to the generous help of an anonymous citizen at NFG World (who read my tweeted cry for help!), the full post has been restored - minus the half-dozen comments that readers had left behind over the last 12 hours or so (sorry about that).]

Back in June, before I placed Shanghai Scrap on a needed hiatus while I dealt with several issues located outside of China, Shanghai Scrap visited – and documented – a northern Chinese plywood factory. Among other notable features of that infernal facility, was the acknowledged news that the several hundred migrant laborers who work within it can expected to contract a fatal illness – most likely, cancer – within two to three years of employment (the full post, with photos, can be found here). That facility is one of many, many dozens of similar plywood facilities in that northern Chinese region, all of which have similar issues. There’s no epidemiological data for this plywood manufacturing region (and the local government would never allow it, anyway), so it’s hard to say what – exactly – is killing workers there. Most likely, though, high concentrations of formaldehyde are the problem (my eyes became inflamed in the plant – a symptom common to people over-exposed to formaldehyde).

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With me during that visit were two academics – an American and a Chinese – and we left the area with the same question: “What can we do?” No surprise, many of the comments to my blog post relating that visit asked the same question. There are no simple answers: the local and provincial governments are supporters of the industry; the attention of environmental groups will only serve to push the industry elsewhere (within China). Continue reading