One in a Billion Names

For 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 … Continue reading One in a Billion Names

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 … Continue reading More than a Middle Class

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 … Continue reading Knowing what we don’t know: the Chinese economy

Zika: The China Connection

Growing concern about the Zika Virus may seem like a strange topic for this blog. In recent years, China has of course had a variety of viral epidemics. However, the knee-jerk response of several South American countries raises an unfortunate reminder of parallel histories of forced population control in the two regions. China famously used doomsday models to justify its one-child policy (Greenhalgh 2005), and forced sterilizations were all too common thoughout South America, for example, in Peru. At present, El Salvador, due to perceived risks from Zika, has begun to urge woman to refrain from getting pregnant until 2018. In a … Continue reading Zika: The China Connection

Debt to a Master, Fei Xiaotong

A student of Bronislaw Malinowski, Fei Xiaotong presented an empathetic and prescient account of the problems facing changing village economies in his native land of China. His career was greatly disrupted by two decades of persecution under the Cultural Revolution (Fei 1981). So much suffering and mismanagement could have been avoided if only Mao had listened to the brightest social scientist in the land. Fei nearly mirrored the communist ideology (though not its action-plan), foreseeing that the decline in domestic industry and high land rents would lead to a peasant revolt. He argued for a “reasonable and effective land reform” … Continue reading Debt to a Master, Fei Xiaotong

Getting Guānxi

“Those who exchange presents with one another Remain friends the longest.” ~From the Hávamál(Mauss 1990[1950]:1) The exchange of gifts or money for favors is commonplace in China. Both the national government (the CCP) and foreign observers tend to gloss this as bribery. However, more broadly in Chinese society, such exchanges are central to the production and maintenance of guānxi (关系) networks, a horizontal form of social organization rooted in reciprocity. Guānxi is based on fluid, person-centered networks, rather than fixed social institutions (Smart 1999:130), and emerges from a system of reciprocity in which social capital takes on a material value. Though … Continue reading Getting Guānxi

Pissing on the Street

Shenzhen, the city of 10+ million in southeastern Guangdong Province where I do most of my field research, has a wide variety of neighborhoods. In fact, until it was declared a special economic zone (SEZ) about thirty years ago, this now thriving metropolis was little more than a fishing village (Bach 2010). The crescent-shaped urban sprawl begins in the southeast with the bustling, often-chaotic Dongmen Market. The Chinese expression 人山人海 (lit: people mountain, people sea) seems apt for an area that, according to a survey I conducted this past winter, receives approximately half-a-million visitors on any given weekend. The narrow … Continue reading Pissing on the Street