The Guardian on China

This week, The Guardian is running a series of articles about China.  I'm sure this has already been mentioned by other bloggers who are quicker off the mark than I am, but never mind.  I have been a reader of this newspaper for a long time, and although I don't always agree with their viewpoint, I usually find it a good read (and a useful counterpoint to The Economist).  Anyway, you can find all the reports here.

The articles I have read from series (so far at least) seem to be pretty good, and better than a lot of the rubbish that is written about China (some of it in this very same newspaper in the past).

Some of the articles that I have found interesting: Food city (Brit finds some Chinese delicacies a bit hard to stomach), Going for gold (medal factories) A tale of two countries (life as a migrant worker) and Home alone (the problems of the only child).

Worth a read, I think.


Platinum Visa

You hold a British passport and you want to go to China for a day or two. How much will it cost you to get a single entry visa from China Travel Service?

HK$500. Yes, five hundred Hong Kong Dollars (US$65).

Perhaps I'm daft (or naive), but what benefit does a country derive from making it difficult or expensive for people to cross their borders? Queuing up to enter or leave is just plain frustrating, and I really wonder what it achieves. I remember having to wait around an hour to get through passport control the first few times I came into Kai Tak, and I sometimes see long queues for visitors at Chek Lap Kok (though I think they now have a special scheme for regular visitors, and there is a special queue for holders of the ASEAN Business Pass, whatever that is). My worst recent experience was going to Phuket and queuing for around an hour to get in to the country. That'll make me think twice about going back there anytime soon.

Continue reading "Platinum Visa" »


Rubbish

I guess we're all familiar with the way that newspapers in Europe and North America report the success of China in various sectors.

The Guardian has a very strange story about recycling in China. The headline is "The UK's new rubbish dump: China", which gives you a flavour of the piece.

Commercially, the logic seems hard to fault. Containers full of garments, electronic goods and all manner of Chinese exports arrive in the UK. Rather than being returned empty, they are filled with rubbish for processing and recycling. Chinese companies employ people to sort through the rubbish, and then re-process whatever they can.

As you would expect, there is a certain amount of 'spin' on this story:

Western plastic companies are setting up in China, but some of the poorest people are employed to sort and recycle the plastic. "Plastic is now one of the biggest industries in Guangdong province, but much of the work is being done by migrant labour earning a pittance," said Martin Baker, of Greenpeace China.

"I would say that Britain is dumping its rubbish in the name of recycling. It is not responsible recycling that is being done. It is reprocessing, but the methods being used are still mostly rudimentary. There are some good factories, but on the whole it is small scale, done in backstreets with little environmental standards. People are burning plastic, sorting it by hand, the water gets polluted and it goes back into the rivers," he said.

However, read a bit further and you discover that this trade is having a positive impact:

This insatiable demand for the world's rubbish, he said, has actually boosted the British market for plastic recyclers, raising the price and making it far more worthwhile for councils to collect and not dump it in landfill. Partly because of this, more than half of all British local authorities now offer plastic recycling.

[..]

Andrew Simmons of the Peterborough-based waste charity Recoup buys millions of plastic bottles from UK councils, bales them up, and sells them to a reprocessor who then sells them on to Europe or, increasingly, to China. He rejected claims that Britain was dumping its rubbish on China and said that the environmental cost of sending bottles thousands of miles was negligible compared with making "virgin" plastic bottles from oil.

Indeed. Even if some of the Chinese companies are cutting corners, the story seems to be that more recycling is being done at a lower cost.

Of course, some British companies are losing out as a result. However, this could easily have been written in a positive way rather than the usual stuff about cheap labour, poor environmental standards and general scare-mongering.


Uh?

From the Sunday Times, in a report on the FA Cup Final:

It was not a good day for the romance of the Cup. Devalued by clubs more interested in the filthy lucre to be obtained from the Champions League, the tournament needs no-contests like this one like Canton needs another Chinese restaurant.

Canton? Who calls it Canton these days? Writers from British newspapers who are trying to be clever, I suppose. Would it be churlish to point out there is probably not a single restaurant in Guangzhou that would describe itself as 'Chinese'?


Just like a Travel Inn

There was an interesting piece in the Sunday Morning Post this week about conditions in Guangdong factories.  This story seems to have originated with comments from the boss of Ultimo (a lingerie company in the UK), claiming that conditions in the dormitories at factories producing her company's products were similar to that of a 'Travel Inn' (budget motels in the UK).  This was followed up by the Daily Record (a Scottish newspaper), which published a story about the low wages and poor conditions for workers in the factory, and the SMP picked it up.

The Daily Record illustrated the story with photographs (reprinted in the SMP) from the factory and a Travel Inn showing that this comparison might not be entirely accurate.  I can only assume that Ms Mone was probably shown (and possibly stayed in) a room for visitors or Hong Kong staff.  These are often described as 'dormitories' but they are very different from the accomodation provided for the workers.  They probably won't be luxurious, but they will have aircon, en-suite bathrooms and privacy.  As usual, one rule for the rich and another for the poor! 

However, I think she is probably correct to say that this factory (which I have never visited, by the way) is better than most.  Western companies do normally visit the factories and check on the conditions, and may insist on improvements before they start to place orders. Nevertheless, this is one of those stories that won't go away.  The basic facts are:

  • Workers in China are paid much less than their equivalents in Europe or the USA. 
  • Factory conditions are often not so good. 
  • Workers are asked to do overtime (or may be given no choice). 

All this is undoubtedly true, but the reality is that pay and conditions in these factories are very attractive compared to other 'opportunities' available to manual workers in China.  The dormitories may not be luxurious, but they are probably not much worse than the homes the workers will have left behind to come and work in the factory.  Also, they normally stay their for only a few years and can earn enough in that time to live quite well when they do return home. 

It also needs to be put into context. Conditions in Hong Kong factories 40 or 50 years ago would probably have been worse, and during the Industrial Revolution in Britain life was very tough for the working classes.  In fact, let's be honest - working in a factory is not normally a particularly pleasant experience anywhere, and those of us who work in offices have it easy.  So when journalists or activists (or just about anyone) from 'Western' countries visit factories in China, it's really no surprise that they are 'horrified' by what they see.  You have to wonder whether they have ever been to a factory in the UK!

This story is covered in more detail in the excellent Asian Labour News, which tries to put these things into perspective and separate fact from fiction.  Stephen hasn't yet followed up on this story, but in the past he has met with management and visited factories to check for himself after similar stories were published in US or UK newspapers, and often found out that there was much more (or less) to the story than it first appeared.

Continue reading "Just like a Travel Inn" »


Don't lose your passport in China!

Ron has a very interesting post about the dangers of losing your passport in China. This time it wasn't him that had the problem, but apparently something similar did happen to him a long time ago, so he was happy to help out.

The SCMP has published a few horror stories about people who have lost both their passport and Hong Kong ID card in Shenzen and been stranded there for several days. It's obviously not a good thing to have happen!


2 + 2 = 9

Interesting to see how stories bounce around various blogs picking up steam along the way regardless of whether there is much truth in them. Adam at Brainysmurf admits that he made comments about France's military exercises with China based on a rather misleading story from Reuters without checking all the facts. What Reuters did was connect the exercises with the elections in Taiwan, and mention that the French government disapproved of the Taiwan referendum and is keen to build business links with China. Add in a comment about the cheese-eating surrender monkeys and there's your comment piece.

Never mind that there was widespread condemnation of the Taiwan referendum from world leaders including George Bush. Never mind that it is inconceivable that France would do anything to help China invade Taiwan. Never mind that these exercises took place nearly 800 miles from Taiwan. Never mind that if this was meant to influence the result of the Taiwan election this rather obscure story would be big news in Taiwan (which it apparently isn't). No, why let any of that get in the way of a good conspiracy theory.

I don't think that anyone else who picked up the same report and took its line about Taiwan at face value has (so far) offered any apologies for their comments. So full credit for Adam for admitting that he got it wrong!

Update: the BBC has a more balanced story on this, quoting a Taiwan government spokesman:

"If this week's planned exercises are as large as those China held in 1996 they will clearly amount to an attempt to intimidate Taiwan's voters," Joseph Wu, deputy secretary general to Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian, told BBC News Online.

However, obviously there is quite a difference between what happened in 1996 and what is happening today.


Letter of the week

One of my favourite features of the SCMP used to be the idiotic letters they often published. Sometimes just plain barmy (Simon Patkin), sometimes meaningless drivel. Nowadays they seem to have cut back on this, and I have to rely on blogs for that kind of thing. Or the letters column of China Daily.

This letter, from someone in Singapore about '1 Country, 2 Systems' is a gem. Muddled thinking and insults for anyone who doesn't agree with the official party line.

Szeto Wah in his mid-seventies is a Christian, probably indoctrinated about the evils of communism by the Church, and hence a distaste and dislike for PRC. [...] What is so reprehensible about China putting Martin Lee and Szeto Wah under sedition law or treason? Would it not be that Singapore is anti-communist and China is communist?

Maybe it would not. It never ceases to amaze me that the socialist republic of Singapore is perceived as being a bastion of free enterprise when the government controls so much of the economy. At least China is moving in the opposite direction by selling off many state-owned firms.

It's an interesting argument that the democrats are against China because they fear communism. Does that imply that China has plans to introduce communism in Hong Kong? As I said, muddled thinking.

Wait - there's more stupidity:

Finally, it was easy to drum up '10%' of the populace to come out if the population was some six million. Out of the '500,000' how many were the curious and unintentional shoppers and people going about their normal daily activities.

Making comments like that got Tsang Yok-sing (the ex-leader of the DAB) in hot water. Hundreds of thousands of people queued up for several hours just to join the march, and when even the police say that there were 500,000 people taking part the chances are that there actually substantially more than that. Anyone who thinks that the people gave up a public holiday to walk (or stand) in the hot sun for several hours just for fun is very obviously deluding themselves. Or perhaps that's what China Daily is all about.


Tricky

Here's a cautionary tale about what can happen when rich businessmen start shuffling the pack.

Li Ka Shing's Hutchison Whampoa sold one company it owned (Hutchison Global Crossing) to another company it controls (Vanda) in return for new shares, and then sold the shares at a discount to the market price.

This caused the share price of Vanda to jump from HK$1.11 to HK$1.52 after the first part of the deal was done, and then fall back to HK$1.05 after the shares were sold at a discount. Hutchison made a profit because the new shares were issued at HK$0.80 and sold at HK$0.90, but what about those investors who thought they were on to a good thing buying Vanda shares between HK$1.11 and HK$1.52?

Riding on the coat tails of someone like Li Ka Shing is obviously a risky business.