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There’s a new documentary on YouTube on the extreme demographic shifts that have been happening in China over the past few decades. In short it’s about the how China became the world’s factory and how in many ways it’s now suffering from its own economic success now that wages are no longer nearly as cheap as they were even a decade ago and new competitors jump in to fill the demand at the bottom end. I’ve seen effects of this first hand in Vietnam over the past several months.

I love a well-made piece on China and it’s hard not to sympathize with and like the main character. The area I feel like the documentary could have done better though, is technology. Technological change offers a lot of risk to Chinese migrant workers (automation, robotics, etc) and it also offers a lot of promise—new opportunities, ways to repair the environmental damage brought by China’s rapid industrialization and things we can’t even see at present. I think that the effects of technology will ultimately overwhelm the longer-term predictions of the film, though it’s impossible to say whether the net effect will be a positive or not.

4/5, worth a watch.


Teach in Taiwan or Teach in China?

Probably the second most common question I get emailed from readers of this site is this:

“I’m from the US/Canada, I’ve just graduated and I want to teach English abroad and I want to learn some Chinese. Should I teach in Taiwan or teach in China?”

With my experience of having grown up in North America and then spent most of my adult life in Taiwan and then China, teaching in and later running an EFL school, I definitely have some opinions. But there are a lot of factors involved in making a decision about where to live for a year or more of your life and Taiwan and China both have their pluses. Also remember that the situation for foreign teachers has been changing fairly quickly, especially in mainland China.

What are your goals?

The best place for you depends on what you’re looking for…

Learning Chinese

If your main goal is learning Chinese, then I can unequivocally recommend China, preferably the northeast.

Why? Well there are several factors that make learning Chinese in Taiwan harder. First of all, people there speak more English and they expect to speak more English with you if you’re white, black or anyone who doesn’t look like a Chinese speaker. Secondly, it’s not even clear if Mandarin is the primary language of Taiwan yet. A lot of people speak Hokkien (also known as Taiwanese or Minnanhua) as a first language. Finally, a lot of the people who speak very little English are older and also more comfortable speaking Taiwanese instead of Mandarin. The issue or regional dialects also comes up in southern China, but in the northeast, pretty much everybody is a native Mandarin speaker.

A related issue is the accent. I know from personal experience that the accent and dialect considered “standard” in Taiwan is hard for a lot of mainland Chinese to understand. This is problem since the vast, vast majority of Mandarin speakers are from mainland China. On the other hand, if you speak in an accent similarly to what’s on TV in China, you’ll be understood on both sides of the strait. Finally, the Chinese characters used in Taiwan are traditional characters, or fántǐzì (繁體字), whereas China and Singapore use simplified characters, or jiāntǐzì (简体字). This means that even if your Chinese study in Taiwan is successful, you may find yourself unable to understand simple words like “car” or “from” when you go to China.

This said, you can learn Chinese in Taiwan (or even back home) if you’re willing to work hard. Another minor plus in Taiwan is that there’s more interesting media to learn from. China has been catching up in that regard, though.

Quality of Life

Here, once again it’s no contest. Taiwan is amongst the best places to live on the entire planet. Life in general is convenient. The island is covered with 7–11s, and you can not only pay your bills there but you can pick up stuff you buy on the internet, too! The government has done an excellent job in terms of public transportation. Taxes are low. There’s universal health care that’s both top-notch and affordable! People are nice. I don’t just say that. I actually lost my wallet on a bus once and the driver found my student ID, called my school, got my number and returned it to me! I can’t even imagine that happening in China. The air quality in Taiwan may not thrill some of us used to pristine Rocky Mountain air, but it’s not too bad.

In China, there are also a lot of people that will be nice to foreigners they befriend. Unfortunately there are a lot more who will see you as an opportunity. I was never scammed in 7 years in Taiwan, but I got ripped off several times in my first week living in China! A lot of restaurants have 2 sets of menus… regular ones, and bilingual ones with higher prices! Racism and nationalism are also significant issues.

While there’s a lot of ignorant stereotyping in Taiwan of the “Can you use chopsticks?” variety, I’ve seen more cases of outright hatred here in China… especially towards the Japanese. Sometimes it works out in the foreigner’s favor, and sometimes it doesn’t. Since the concepts of race and nationality are often conflated, it can also make for some unpleasant situations for foreigners of Chinese decent (i.e. “ABCs”, “CBCs”, etc..). I don’t want to make it sound all bad, though. I really do like living in China. It’s just that it requires a thick skin. I’d say that you also need to have a bit more social awareness. You can do just about anything and do okay in Taiwan. In China, it’s easier to piss people off.

One plus for China is prices. As long as you don’t get ripped off, a lot of things can be had for half the price they would cost in Taiwan. Things that usually get all kinds of sin taxes, such as beer or cigarettes are insanely cheap in China! Less than half a US dollar for a beer at a local restaurant is common. A pack of smokes can be bought for about $1.20.

Salaries

This is a factor that has changed a lot in the last few years. When I got to Taiwan, English teaching salaries were two or three times as high as in China. Now, though… you can probably earn more in first-tier Chinese cities. In Taiwan, the salary for new teachers seems to stay around 600NT/hour, which is about 20USD/hour. In Beijing or Shanghai, the average is about 150RBM/hour which is about 24USD. Private classes usually start around 200RMB or 32USD per hour. I have friends making over 300RMB/hour. Housing prices have risen to about the same levels as Taipei, but everything else is cheaper. Purely in terms of money, China is now a far, far better choice. That’s not how it was a few years ago.

If you’re planning on a long term stay, it’s possible Taiwan is still better, though. In Taiwan, foreigners can start businesses such as foreign restaurants, clubs or even software companies relatively easily. In China, the only way to avoid having a Chinese partner with 51% control is to set up an extremely expensive Wholly Owned Foreign Enterprise. That’s a reasonable solution if you’re IKEA, but not if you’re starting your own business.

The Internet

This really belongs above under “Quality of Life”, but the internet in China is so fucked up that it deserves its own section. Everything cool since 2004 is blocked. Unless you pony up the money for a VPN, you can’t use Facebook. You can’t use Twitter. You can’t use Blogspot or WordPress. You can’t use YouTube. You can’t even access Google Docs or Dropbox. You can have Gmail, but it’s a bit unreliable (Update: nope, you don’t even get Gmail… hope your hotel reservation wasn’t sent there!) Basically, you’re back in 2003.

The bottom line

  • If you want to learn Chinese, go to China
  • If you want to live the good life, go to Taiwan
  • If you want to make money, go to China
  • If you the best of both worlds, go to China, learn Chinese well and then go to Taiwan to settle down!

If you want a more detailed comparison that also includes Korea and Japan, then check out my mini-guide: A Comparison of English Teaching Markets in Asia

By the time I got onto the train to Kunming, I was exhausted– exhausted from lugging a backpack and two suitcases around the Guangdong Railway station while looking for a bank, exhausted from getting offers for overpriced services, and most of all exhausted from from sleep deprivation. In the end, though, I did manage to get done what needed to be done. I changed my HK dollars to RMB (losing 100HKD to a slight of hand artist first), I made it from Guangdong Railway Station to Guangdong East Station via the subway for 4RMB instead of the 50-100 that taxis kept offering me, I got my ticket and I stayed awake long enough for the train to arrive.

When I was finally able to board the train, it was an immense feeling of relief. I stowed my luggage, climbed up to the top bunk and fell asleep before the train even started moving.

An interesting travel companion

One man I shared a compartment with was particularly out-going. At first after hearing all the r sounds in his Mandarin, I thought he was a northerner or maybe from Kunming on his way home. It wasn’t a terrible guess since he had, in fact, spent the first ten years of his life in Beijing, but after that he’d lived only in Hong Kong. As far as I could tell, his Cantonese was the same as a any other Hong Konger, but he’d never felt the need to alter his “standard” northern Mandarin into the heavily accented HK version. I suppose that’s pretty understandable. Anyway, the guy was full of stories. He told me about a ruthless gold-digger from Guangzhou. He talked about how he got into EFL teaching dispite having questionable English skills himself. Most surprising were his plans for after he got to Kunming.

On Chinese Police

“Be careful about Chinese police,” he told me. “They aren’t like Hong Kong police. You really don’t want to make them angry.”

“Why?” I asked. “What happened?”

“Well, there’s this one time I was on a train. It was a long distance one like the one we’re on now. In one of the compartments, there were four or five off-duty police officers, and they were smoking!!!”

I didn’t understand. “Lots of people smoke on the train,” I answered. “What was so bad about them?”

“There was a no smoking sign! They were police! I went into the room and said, ‘How dare you!!? It is your job to uphold the law and you break it yourselves! Have you no shame?”

“Uhh… what did they do then?”

“They continued smoking! And they spoke to me very coldly and told me to leave.”

“That’s it?” I couldn’t believe this guy. I wouldn’t ever talk to police like that in any country.

His plans for Kunming

“So, what are you going to do after you get to Kunming?” he asked me.

“I’m going to look for a visa-granting Chinese school for foreigners. I’ve got a friend to stay with. How about you?”

“Oh, I’m just traveling. I’m going to get a hotel room and go the supermarket to buy some paper underwear.”

“Paper underwear??!”

“Yes. It is available.”

Today, I found this announcement via Hacker News. Google says their servers were attacked, and that the primary goal was the gmail accounts of rights activists. They said that their security protecting email data wasn’t breached. However, their own investigation revealed that several rights activists email accounts have been routinely accessed by what appear to be third-parties using valid login information. This would suggest that the rights activists’ passwords have been discovered via keyloggers, packet sniffers or some other surveillance at their end.

In response, Google has decided to stop complying with the PRCs filtering regulations.

We launched Google.cn in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results. At the time we made clear that “we will carefully monitor conditions in China, including new laws and other restrictions on our services. If we determine that we are unable to achieve the objectives outlined we will not hesitate to reconsider our approach to China.”

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

David Drummond, SVP, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer: A new approach to China

Related: A Chinese analysis of the situation
Related entry: Google Rejects DOJ Subpoena

Shenzhou 7 launch
China has launched its 3rd manned space flight. As someone who grew up very disappointed in NASA’s failure to live up to the previous generations sky-high expectations, I absolutely love seeing this kind of news. While China is still doing things that the US and USSR did almost 50 years ago, they are making quite a bit of progress. Last year, they sent up a lunar probe (appropriately named Chang’e), and now Shenzhou 7 will include the first extra-vehicular travel of any of non-US/USSR mission. They’ll make it to the moon sooner than people expect. That’s good. China can do more to help kick-start the US space program than advocacy group could.

Here’s a speech by president Hu.

Here’s an interview with the astronauts.

This Chinese mother’s ability to block out her son is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

Related Post: You Can’t Touch this English!

In all honesty one of the factors that has led me to invest so much in Chinese companies is the undervaluation of the RMB. The explosive growth of the middle class and the economy as a whole is the main reason, but currency concerns definitely factor in. Yesterday, I stumbled on the most jaw-dropping estimate for RMB-appreciation I’ve seen yet.

Jim Rogers, chairman of Beeland Interests Inc. and a former partner of George Soros, said yesterday the yuan may quadruple in the next decade. If it did then the yuan would be at 1.8 to 1.9 to the US dollar. China’s economy would be at 13 trillion US dollar even if there was zero growth. I have noted that I expect China’s economy to pass the United STates on an exchange rated basis before 2020.

Non-deliverable forward contracts show traders are betting the yuan will reach 7.0070 in 12 months, a gain of 6.9 percent from the spot rate, and 6.95 by the end of 2008.

The government should revalue the yuan by as much as 20 percent, according to a report circulated inside the National Development and Reform Commission, Market News International said.

This would put the exchange rate at 6 to 1. China’s economy next year would be almost equal to Japan on an exchange rate basis.

Brian Wang: China Currency Update

Normally, I’d be extremely skeptical about this kind of prediction, but Brian’s proven himself to be an expert at predicting the future before.

Solar Power, it’s not just for granola-chomping hippies anymore. Solar power generation has been increasing exponentially for decades, but as futurist Raymond Kurzweil once said, nobody notices exponential growth until it hits the “knee of the curve“. Fortunately for us and our planet, it nearly has.

Between 2000 and 2004, the increase in worldwide solar energy capacity was an annualized 60 percent. Since 2005, production of photovoltiacs has grown somewhat more slowly due to temporary shortages in refined silicon. Still, technological progress has been relentless. In 1990, each watt of solar power from an array cost $7.50. By 2005, average prices in the US were nearly halved, at $4.00. Today, the price stands at about $3.60, even with the refined silicon shortages. Mass produced cells typically have an efficiency of about 17.5%, with some at the very high end achieving 30% efficiency. Meanwhile, designs already exist to take take advantage of nano-engineering and shave the cost per watt of solar cells to a tenth of their current level.

As solar power has been getting cheaper and more refined by the year, oil costs have been going up. It still isn’t to the point at which solar power as cost efficient as traditional methods, but the trend is definitely in that direction. In some areas in which power companies pay a premium on energy sold back to them from residential customers who generate their own solar power, the adaption of this technology has been dramatic.

Last year, global solar power spending topped fifty billion dollars, with Germany and China leading the way forward. Each country spent over ten billion dollars on solar power, and saw dramatic increases in deployment, far ahead of what their governments had expected. Germany leads all countries in solar power generation:

” There are now more than 300,000 photovoltaic systems in Germany — the energy law had planned for 100,000.

Spread out across the country, they are owned by legions of homeowners, farmers and small businesses who are capitalising on the government-backed march into renewable energy.

By tapping the daylight for electricity — which power companies are obliged to buy for 20 years at more than triple market prices — they are at the vanguard of a grassroots movement in the fight against climate change. “

Planet Ark: Cloudy Germany Unlikely Hotspot for Solar Power

China is becoming both a top user and maker of the technology:

“The technological prowess of China is growing a lot faster than people in the West reckon,” said Andrew Wilkinson, co-manager of a fund at the investment bank CLSA Emerging Markets that invests in Asian clean-energy industries.

Suntech’s 3,500-strong work force at four sites in China produces photovoltaic cells, the delicate, hand-sized black silicon panels that can transform sunlight into electricity.

At a time when China’s Communist leaders are trying to turn lumbering state companies into nimble global competitors, Suntech already goes head-to-head with Japanese and European rivals in foreign markets. Shi says that all of Suntech’s technology comes from its own labs.

International Herald Tribune:
Solar power pays off for Chinese entrepreneur

Interestingly, China is also undertaking an ambitious project to spread the use of solar power in Africa. They’re both training technicians and investing in joint-ventures in undeveloped countries.

[BEIJING] Chinese scientists are to train 10,000 technicians from African and other developing countries in the use of solar energy technologies over the next five years.

Describing the plans, Xi Wenhua, director of both the Institute of Natural Energy (INE) and the China Solar Energy Information Centre, told SciDev.Net the training will include programmes on small-scale solar power generation and solar-powered heating and irrigation.

Using funding from the central and provincial governments, the INE — part of the Gansu Provincial Academy of Sciences — has established an eight-hectare training facility powered entirely by solar power. The facility, which is the largest in Asia, has trained more than 400 people from 70 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America since 1991.

Science and Development Network:
China to train developing nations in solar technologies

Raymond Kurzweil’s prediction that by 2030 we’ll be able most of our projected energy costs at that time through solar power still sounds bold. I sure wouldn’t want to bet against him, though. He’s the guy who predicted both Deep Thought’s defeat of Gary Kasparov and the mapping of the human genome 15 years before they happened.

Related Articles:
Worldwatch Institute: Solar Energy Booming in China
Japan Times: Japan cedes solar power lead to Germany; China closing gap

Disclosure: I own shares of Suntech Power (NYSE: STP), and much of this piece is based on things I learned researching the company.

I’ve long been a fan of Richard Dawkins’ books. I read the Selfish Gene as a teenager and found it absolutely fascinating. Not only was that book the foundation of sociobiology, but it also coined the term “meme”. Little did I know that a few years later, millions of people would be tossing the word around, with the original meaning a bit muddled but still intact.

In the last couple of years, Dawkins has been on a crusade against what he calls “The Enemies of Reason”. After traveling around the world and debating with numerous religious leaders (including Pastor Ted Haggard before he was caught with the gay prostitute/meth seller). In his new video, rather than continuing the assault against traditional religions, he’s after Astrology, Homeopathy, and a variety of other “New Age” beliefs.

I’m cheering him all the way on this one, and after spending years living in Taiwan it’s a godsend, pardon the term. It really is too bad there isn’t a Chinese speaker like Dawkins. The level of superstitious belief here, particularly in astrology is just mind-boggling. I must have met hundreds of Chinese who really wanted me to tell them my birth date so they could figure out what my sign was and pigeon-hole me.

The part on astrology starts at five minutes and thirty-seven seconds.

I think it may just be because of the Apollo missions that I’m as much of a sci-fi geek as I am. Growing up with my grandparents, I remember hearing my grandfather and my uncle tell me story after story about the space program. For someone like my grandfather, who grew up during the depression and World War II, the idea of space exploration really must have been amazing. His grandparents had thought that human flight at all was improbable, and then not only did he live to see commercial flight become common, but he lived to see people sent to the moon. It’s only natural that these experiences set his expectations too high.

moon

I knew the names, color, and approximate distance of all the planets when I was seven. Within months I’d also learned how long their days and years were, how many moons they had and more. I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I guess a lot of kids did. I stayed interested in space but, the progress I’ve seen has been the opposite of what my grandfather saw. I saw Challenger blow up when I was in elementary school. I read all kinds of exciting things about Mir, only to see it come to an unpleasant demise. I got fired up when scientists visited my school talking about possible life on Mars, only to see interest slowly fall apart. I saw space development funneled increasingly into weapons of war, and low-orbit communications. The US has spent eleven times what all the research and execution of a manned mission to Mars would have cost… re-invading Iraq.

After all of those disappointments, it was with great joy that I read about Yáng Lìwěi (杨利伟), and his historic first Chinese mission into space three years ago. If anything could get my fellow Americans interested in space again, rather than war, it’s the idea that the Chinese will go ahead without us.

In a perfect world, people would leave all their various petty brands of nationalism at the doorstep, but if there has to be competition, let’s see it in a way that will advance humanity rather than devastate it. This is good news.

SHANGHAI — China successfully launched the unmanned lunar space orbiter Chang’e 1 on Wednesday, fuelling Asia’s undeclared space race and moving a step closer to its goal of putting a man on the moon by 2020.

The liftoff in southwestern Sichuan province was broadcast live across the country as a demonstration of President Hu Jintao’s pledge of more science-based progress and to make China a competitor in the lucrative commercial space market in telecommunications.

The Vancouver Sun: China blasts into Asian space race with orbiter launch