One in a Billion Names

Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 3.01.44 PMFor students of Chinese, one of the first rights-of-passage is being given a Chinese name. Usually a teacher or other person versed in the the subtle art of naming has this honor. The process occurs by: (1) Selecting a one-character family name from the surprisingly short list of most common names, one that typically begins with the same sound as the english last name; and (2) Selecting a one- or two-character given name, one that typically begins with the same sound as the english first name, and may or may not sound like the whole first name. The given name generally comes from an obscure literary or mythical reference, or coveys a grandiose sentiment, such as heroism for men and elegance for women (perhaps not so different from our own naming practices).

After much consideration, my first Chinese teacher gave me the name 杜照石 (dùzhàoshí). The surname is relatively common, and has the “d” from my last name. Mimicking the sounds of my first name within the confines of Chinese phonetics, the given name comes from consecutive lines of a poem by the 8th century tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei. Together the characters mean “illuminated rock” – and fortuitously the first character 照 is used in the word for taking pictures (photography is a lifelong hobby of mine, though my teacher did not know that).

It’s a good name, very intellectual sounding, and many Chinese friends and colleagues have complimented me on it. But, honestly I don’t really like the name, and one thing in particular bothers me: though the surname is common, not a single Chinese person that I’ve ever met or heard of shares my given name. Though some Chinese choose unique names, they are generally discouraged by the government, and thus rare. When Chinese come to the US, they either go by their Chinese names (which is only confusing because the surname comes first and pinyin are somewhat hard to pronounce for English speakers), or they adopt a common English name and keep their Chinese surname (many of which English speakers have become familiar with). Why, then, do we not do the same?

My parents named me after my great-grandfather, a man who was greatly admired as the family’s patriarch. It’s a name I use proudly. Although my Chinese name is functional (people in China can easily pronounce it, and I have gotten pretty good at explaining its origins as a conversation starter), it really has very little personal meaning to me. It’s simply a part of  the way I present myself in everyday Chinese life (see Goffman 1959).

I understand that Chinese phonetics cannot easily accommodate my english name. But, why can’t I just use a common Chinese name? Why do non-Chinese go to such lengths to create pseudo-Chinese names? This seems to further accentuate our foreigness. In the end, I’d rather keep the name I was born with and remain who I am: An American trying to speak Chinese – not an American trying to be Chinese.

What remains unclear is whether taking a Chinese name is simply a gimmick, or whether it serves a function for non-Chinese trying to engage with China. There’s certainly a precedent for phoneticizing foreign words with Chinese characters, notably foods and place names. But, these are generally commonly used words, with which the Chinese have become familiar. The same is true for a handful of foreign names, for example 大卫 (dàwèi) for “David”. But, how do the Chinese view foreigners’ names not common in China, either with their native pronunciation and spelling or using Chinese characters?

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The First China War

I’ve spent the weekend devouring and digesting The War for China’s Wallet. Shaun Rein takes a deep dive into China’s economic strategy, stability, and appeal to developing nations, as well as a timely critique of America’s weakness on all of these accounts.

In my notes, I began using the shorthand WCW I, as this is likely the first of many iterations of China wielding its economic weapons.

Shaun wisely advises governments and corporations alike to be strong over conciliatory, in order to earn the respect of the Chinese. Yet, this reveals a sobering reality: we must now earn the respect of the Chinese.

With trillions of consumer dollars at stake, WCW I is being waged squarely in the Chinese arena. Shaun generously refers to the authors of current US policy as “intellectuals”. Yet, these ideologues remain entangled in the outdated narrative of China’s economy being exclusively export-oriented.

Shaun provides a clear roadmap for waging WCW I. Yet, the rules of engagement are largely out of our hands. We have become reactionaries, much like the paper tigers described by Mao.

It appears WCW I is largely about profit and influence. Yet, if the US does not begin to develop economic strategies independent of the Chinese, the stakes of WCW II may be far greater.

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More than a Middle Class


A billion people in China are NOT in the middle class.

Typically we hear about the roughly 300 million people that make up China’s middle class. This figure makes marketers drool, and is the cause for much self-congratulation by the central government. Even the most cynical China watchers concede a hearty applause. Indeed, over the past generation, improvements to the lifestyles of this rising middle class are nothing short of amazing.

Of course, in China having 300 million people in the middle class means that approximately 1 billion people have yet to reach this socioeconomic level. This group includes marginalized rural populations, the urban poor, and nearly 300 million migrant workers.

While the business opportunities and economic success stories typically come from the middle class, my research suggests that the real space for innovations and market disruptions can be found among the 1 billion people forgotten or left behind by China’s breakneck development trajectory.

{To give credit where credit is due, I have adapted this perspective from CK Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.}

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Knowing what we don’t know: the Chinese economy


One thing that strikes me about us serious China observers is that we are frequently and completely wrong about the direction China is headed. In the 1980s many top analysts predicted that without democracy China would be unable to grow its economy. Later, many asserted that only with a free and open Internet could China maintain its growth.

Wrong on both accounts.

The Chinese development model has now become the first serious competitor to the Washington Consensus since the Cold War. More and more developing countries model their growth strategies on the Chinese state-managed market economy. 

We must continue to be vigilant with both our investigations and critiques of the Chinese system. However, it seems unwise to view it as an immature or inherently flawed system that will inevitably evolve to look more and more like the US model. And its success is emboldened by its growing popularity.

As it has in the past, failing to accept this will continue to produce misguided policies toward China.

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STOP SAYING THAT! “Increased regulation hinders economic growth.”

At best this is a half-truth. For example, consider a new regulation on industrial air pollution. This would certainly add a financial burden to industries that produce air pollution, e.g., factories, refineries, etc. But, these represent only a fraction of the whole economy. More broadly, such regulations would create opportunities for innovation. There would be lots of money to be made from producing and selling air filters and other pollutant-reducing technologies. This would have the effect of growing and diversifying the economy, both in financial terms and in the creation of jobs. And then of course there are the non-economic benefits, notably less toxic air. So, please stop saying that increased regulation hinders economic growth.

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In Defense of Cash

Not having cash — not a positive image

Will getting rid of cash have benefits for society? This is a question that economists and public policy experts have been debating more and more. In fact, India (among other countries) has begun to eliminate all large denomination bills. The stated logic driving such programs seems to be that large bills are the primary enablers of organized crime and tax-evasion. There’s probably some truth to that (see Freakonomics podcast). However, many of the poorest people in society also rely on cash for their living expenses. They often have limited access to banking, or no access at all.

So, let’s assume for a moment that we could overcome the accessibility issue — that we could provide banking services to everyone. This is a big assumption, given that we’ve largely failed to do it up to this point. But, let’s assume we could eliminate the poor’s reliance on cash. Immediately it becomes clear that the biggest winner of all these new banking customers would be the banks themselves. But, let’s make another assumption: we can overcome any moral objection to banks profiting from consumer demand that is mandated by the government. So, for the time being, let’s be satisfied that we’ve eliminated the need for cash without further disenfranchising the poorest populations.

Now we’re left with the crime issue. Ideally, cash would be phased out over a decade or so. There would certainly be missteps, but hypothetically criminals would eventually no longer have access to the near perfect fungibility of cash. Now we find ourselves having to embrace another major assumption: in the absence of cash, criminals will not develop alternate means to conduct their “discrete” business dealings. Furthermore, even if they do develop new means, these would be inferior to cash in terms of “discreteness” and fungibility.

It seems fair to assume that any new currencies used for shady dealings would be electronic, for example like Bitcoin. This presents a whole new slew of complications for law enforcement. Hard cash can be traced and is increasingly hard to counterfeit. Electronic transactions, however, do not necessarily abide by the relatively rigid rules of the analogue world. Digital spaces harbor far more possibilities for “hacking” the system. It seems reasonable to assume that the code for a digital currency could be counterfeited in far more ways than the layout of paper currency. Furthermore, if social media use is any indication, financial transactions in the digital realm have the potential to become increasing anonymous and thus harder to trace (unless we take the authoritarian step of requiring real-name internet registration).

In the end, becoming a cash-less society might have some short-term impact on criminal activity. But, these effects would be hard-fought and by no means guaranteed. In fact, forcing criminals to innovate may make them harder to catch. It is far more likely that eliminating cash will have an immediate and lasting impact on the poor. Moreover, cash is useful for daily, non-criminal exchanges. For example, whenever possible I tip in cash. It’s more personal, and goes directly to the other person, rather than on a circuitous route through banks and management. Even as we continue to embrace the convenience of digital payment methods, we should not undervalue the social importance and impacts of cash.

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Project Proposal: Comment

In the first presidential debate, both candidates stated that nuclear weapons are the greatest threat facing humanity (one of the few points on which they agreed). Nuclear weapons are a big threat, potentially. Some, including President Obama, make a strong argument that climate change is the biggest threat. Clearly, we must continue to develop informed and forward-thinking solutions to both these problems.

Poverty, however, is a far more destructive and immediate threat. Abject poverty directly threatens the lives of more than a billion people worldwide. Indirectly, economic inequalities create the environments for the spread of disease, social unrest, and terrorism (all of which top many lists of the greatest threats to humanity).

What is the best way to improve people’s lives? How can we reduce poverty and increase economic opportunities? How can we call ourselves an advanced civilization without addressing these questions? In fact, there are many ways to accomplish these goals. More than at any other time in history, it is likely to find somebody working to improve these situations in almost any given corner of the globe. This is the new “local knowledge”. We must move beyond simply working with local communities to solve their problems with outside knowledge. This is the traditional community participatory approach to development programs. I suggest that now we must learn how local communities are already working to solve their own problems. And then applying this knowledge to similar problems faced in other communities around the world.

My doctoral research is a pilot program to test this theory. I’m looking at a huge problem in a very difficult place to solve it: Urban Migration in China. It’s a problem we find in industrializing countries around the world. Please see my project proposal here. (For a longer version with citations, click here.) I would greatly appreciate any insights (or potential funding sources).

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