Translation: “New Houses in the Country, Easy to Build But Hard to Live In”

The following is a translation of this piece from Southern Weekend. While obviously not all rural building projects are this poorly-thought out, it’s an interesting story that may be reflective of a larger trend in Chinese building, especially in poorer areas: first get it built quickly and cheaply; worry about tomorrow when and if it comes.


A couple days ago, I returned home to Guanshanzhuang village in Rizhao, Shandong. I heard that one of my uncles was building a new house. The house was being built on a space put up for sale by the village government, on a hillside halfway up the mountain, a long-ago abandoned farming area. He paid 80,000 RMB for one mu of land, and cooperated with other villagers to build the building.

The uncle said that this house was costing over 80,000 RMB, including the costs of land, materials, and labor. He knew that I was an architecture major, and asked for my thoughts. I took a look at the house, which they’d already built up to the second storey: it was going to be a four-family Western-style villa, with no steel reinforcement, thin walls, and no layers of insulation. There were no trees near it, and the southern face was covered in single-layer glass windows.

I asked my uncle: “For the blueprints, did you band together and hire an architecture firm, or did you just find someone to draw them up yourselves?” He replied: “Farmers building a house still need to pay someone to make drawings? Think about the money that costs! We just asked some construction workers, we’ll build based on their experience!”

I asked, “You’re moving to a new house that’s almost four times bigger than your old one. But the windows are drafty, the walls are thin, there are no trees, there’s no well, you’re on a hillside…how much is it going to cost you to air condition this place in the summer? How much to heat it in the winter? Did you add that up?” His response: “……”

I asked again, “This house has no steel frame, no insulation, and no shade from the sun. Isn’t it going to fall apart over time?” His response: “…….”

Farmers building houses looks like a good thing. But after moving in, how many people are going to be able to stand these unseen and unconsidered costs?

Help Fund Our Next Project

The kidnapping and selling of children is a serious problem in China, and has been for decades. Many children are tricked or otherwise stolen away from their parents, and then sold to other families, into lives begging on the streets or, in the case of some girls, into marriage or prostitution. We want to make a documentary about these children and their families in the hopes that we can bring more attention to this crucially important issue. We’re calling it Finding Home, and we’re really excited about it. But we can’t do it without your help.

Click here to learn more about this project or to make a pledge to donate.

Your donation will help us pay for expenses including additional equipment and train and bus tickets, so that we can ensure we’re 100% prepared to capture these childrens’ stories. We’ve already started research and are working with volunteers from a local Beijing charity so that every child we find who may have been kidnapped will also be reported domestically, and spread through a nationwide network of volunteers dedicated to searching for justice and for the child’s real family.

We’re funding our project through Kickstarter, a cool website that allows donors to receive rewards based on how much they give. Anyone who donates a dollar will get their name in the credits of the film, those who donate $15 or more will get access to production diaries, $50 or more gets behind-the-scenes and uncut footage plus a DVD of the film, $250 or more gets the chance to actually ask the people we’re interviewing questions, etc. (there are way more levels and choices). If you’ve used Amazon or have a credit card, you’ll be able to make a pledge easily. If our project reaches or surpasses its $5,000 goal, we get funded. If not, your money is returned to you, so there’s no risk of throwing your money away on an underfunded project.

Your gift would mean a lot to us, and to the children and families we’re hoping this film will help. If you really can’t afford donate, please help us by sending this link to friends and family who you think might be interested. Together we can make this film, and make a real difference in the lives of some of these children.

Thank you so much for you time. We hope you can make a pledge and become a part of Finding Home today!

A ChinaGeeks Original Documentary: Kedong County

A few months ago, I took a brief trip to China’s rural northeast. With the speed of China’s urbanization evident every day I passed in Beijing, I had begun to wonder what China’s rural villages looked like. Was it just opportunity drawing millions of migrant workers to China’s cities? Or was something pushing them out of the countryside, too? Here’s what we found:

(Viddler direct link)

If you enjoyed that, please consider helping us with our next project. We’d like to take a lot more time and make a film about the kidnapping and selling of children in China, and the ways those kids find their way home. The project is called Finding Home, and if you’re interested you can find out more information about it and make a pledge to help our project get off the ground. We would be very, very grateful!

(We’re accepting donations through Kickstarter, a rather unique website. Basically, we set a goal and a time limit. If we get pledges that total that amount or greater within the time limit, we get the funding. If we don’t, then all the people who pledged to donate their money can keep it. Making a pledge is easy; if you’ve bought something from Amazon before in your life, the process will be a breeze.)

Let us know your thoughts on Kedong County in the comments. And please, tell all your friends about it and about our next project!

Han Han on the Shanghai Fire

Likely, you’ve already heard about the terrible fire in Shanghai that claimed the lives of over fifty people, many of them retired schoolteachers. Shanghaiist has been covering the story thoroughly, and we suggest you check there for the latest updates. But even Han Han, (who has recently been refusing interviews and barely updating his blog, probably in part because his magazine has been reportedly shut down), has addressed this issue, making several posts about the fire. One is a collection of photos, the other talks about his experience watching the fire (which he happened to be close to) before getting into some of his thoughts on how it happened and how people should view it:

In this post, I won’t bother singing the praises of anyone, because you can see how the fire is being controlled, the heroic rescue efforts, the stabilized feelings of family members [of victims], the leaders’ consoling words, and the residents [who survived] weeping with joy, etc., on the evening news. I’m just thinking, I’m living in a city full of tall buildings like [that one]. It was 28 stories high, but the firemen’s water guns could only reach six or seven stories up. From where I stood, I saw one ladder that reached beyond the 20th floor, but most couldn’t reach 20. Helicopters were useless to rescue anyone and could only watch. Of course, this was a very remarkable fire, perhaps it’s true that regardless of the number of firefighters and helicopters, regardless of how high the ladders went, nothing could be done. But perhaps a few more people could have been saved. I think Shanghai has shown the tools it has to combat fires in high rises, and all I can say is that it’s not enough.

Additionally, this was a nice building, not one that looked old and beaten up. I really don’t understand what they were renovating on the outside, and all of the scaffolding and nets are flammable. If you gave me a lighter and told me to burn down a 28-storey building, that would be difficult, but with this particular building, you would just have to light the safety netting at the bottom; the outcome would be the same as what actually happened. The reasons for this disaster are poor fire prevention [standards] and the baffling renovations, but I expect the reason for the renovation was beautification, saving energy, [etc.] Residential buildings aren’t as good as office buildings and the fire safety equipment inside is not perfect; wouldn’t it be better to fully renovate the inside of the building [i.e., update the fire safety equipment, etc.] rather than beautify its outside?

Finally, I’ve discovered that before every important gathering, there are fireworks, but after every important meeting, there is a disastrous fire. After the Olympics, the CCTV Hotel burned; after the Expo, a big apartment building burned. The latter was worse; the media is now reporting that 12 people died [this number is old, the death toll is now above 50], but from what I saw, when the firefighters enter the building and finish their search tomorrow morning, that number will certainly rise. There are those who say that after a disaster, we should do our best to provide relief, to help the grieving, and shouldn’t go searching for answers or make statements [about the disaster], it’s not the right time for that. But if you don’t question things, it just becomes an act-of-God natural disaster, the officials seize the opportunity and harmonize the media, and in the end it becomes a way for them to congratulate themselves on their own success. This has already become a constant. You can’t take out your anger that there is no answer on those who are asking the questions. So, what is your question?

Announcing: Parody Photoshop Contest (Win a Free VPN!)

Last week, both The Economist and BusinessWeek had major cover stories about China. And both magazines went straight for the some of the old cliches: red coloring, “asian” fonts, and Mao. In fact, this isn’t the first time for either magazine. Observe:

Of course, there are more examples beyond these two magazines. And we’ve already discussed the ridiculousness that goes on in headlines and book titles about China (“Red Dragon Rising!”). But when last week’s Economist and BusinessWeek came out we were inspired by @davesgonechina to create a photoshop contest.

THE GOAL: To create the funniest/best parody magazine or book cover about China, drawing on whatever cliche images, words, and headlines you choose.

THE PRIZE: The winner will receive free VPN service from Freedur for six months (a $49.99 value!)


  1. The winner will be chosen by a panel of judges, who will judge all entries for humor as well as overall quality. The judging panel will include members of the Western media who cover China, it will not include anyone from the ChinaGeeks staff. To assure fairness, the names of the judges will not be revealed until the winner has been chosen.
  2. You may submit up to three entries, in the form of .jpg files. You are free to create and share more than three if you wish, but you must indicate which three you would like to be your official entries.
  3. To submit an entry, email a .jpg file to custerc @ OR upload an image yourself and post it in the comments section of this post. Be sure the email address you use is the one we can easily contact you by if you are the winner.
  4. You must make your submissions by Friday, November 26th. The winner will be announced via this website on Wednesday, December 1st.
  5. You don’t really need to use photoshop, or be an image editing expert. MS Paint works well, too!
  6. Further questions can be directed to my email, or just ask us on twitter.

SPONSORS: This contest is being sponsored by the good folks at Freedur. Freedur also provides VPN service for the ChinaGeeks staff, and we can assure you that it is fast, convenient, and that their service is excellent. If you’re coming to China, a Freedur subscription is well worth your money (or, alternatively, your time making a parody magazine cover so you can win a Photoshop contest and get the VPN for free!)

QQ vs. 360 vs. the Media vs. Common Sense

The media has been all in a tizzy about the latest example of terrible, terrible PR in China (and for once, it isn’t coming from the government). For those who haven’t been following, here’s the short version: 360, a popular Chinese internet security company, accused Tencent QQ, the world’s most popular instant messaging service, of serious security vulnerabilities including the ability to secretly scan the hard drives of users. What followed has been a great example of how not to conduct PR on both sides of the divide.

But in the scrum to cover the PR and the potential business implications, everyone seems to be ignoring the most obvious question, which is: does QQ really contain such serious security flaws?

No one seems to care! This question is at the crux of this disagreement, and the answer to it has gigantic ramifications given the ridiculously huge nature of QQ’s user base. But no one is reporting on it.

For example: this, this, this, this, this, this etc. There are lots of angles, but none that address whether any of the claims being thrown back and forth are true or not.

In fact, the only thing I could find that addresses the issue is this (via @klukoff), an unofficial test that claims to affirm at least some of 360’s accusations about QQ by using a Microsoft product that monitors what other software is doing. But that was posted nearly a week ago. Why is no one else addressing the veracity of these claims? True, the PR angle is interesting, but what about the is-the-most-popular-IM-software-in-the-world-secretly-spying-on-all-its-users angle?

Admittedly, I don’t know how easy this stuff is to test, but I get the impression no one has called any experts and tried, otherwise we’d at least see sentences like “experts were unable to immediately confirm 360’s allegations” popping up in a couple articles, right? Also admittedly, I haven’t had time to do a very thorough search of Chinese-language reporting on the topic yet, so I’m not sure whether the Chinese media is having a similar problem, although I suspect they are.

Seriously, this is kind of ridiculous. Would it be “unbalanced” to get an independent evaluation that supported one side or the other? Is it to difficult to find capable tech experts willing to talk to the media? Or am I just alone in caring more about whether or not QQ is actually spying than I care about whether or not 360 and QQ are acting in their users’ best interests?

They probably aren’t. I just wonder if the media is really doing any better.

Ai Weiwei Under House Arrest

Apparently, Ai Weiwei has been placed under house arrest for threatening to host a dinner. There is more to it than that, of course — for details see this, this, this, etc. — but I’m more interested in raising a couple of other points here.

It’s not at all surprising that the authorities were freaked out by the ideal of Ai Weiwei throwing a big, sarcastic demolition party and inviting his whole dissident Twitter army. I doubt that even Ai himself expected the event to go off without a hitch.

That said, his movement in the past few years has been relatively free, and, aside from that little knock on the head, authorities seemed content to harass the people around him, leaving him more or less alone. Undoubtedly, his international fame had something to do with it. Authorities have understandably been hesitant to directly harass a guy who has most of the foreign correspondents in Beijing on his speed dial. And the fact that he’s also Ai Qing’s son must also have helped. He was, according to some, one of the few people who had gotten big enough that they were more or less free to say what they liked without too much fear of repercussions (another is Han Han, whose magazine has apparently been nixed for good).

Given that, it’s interesting that the police chose to detain Ai himself, instead of allowing him to go to Shanghai and derailing the event by arresting everyone else who showed up. That is a fairly common tactic for them (most recently, the October 8th gatherings celebrating Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize were broken up in this fashion), and it was what I expected when I saw that Ai Weiwei was planning to hold the dinner.

It has been a busy fall for the authorities, what with Liu Xiaobo’s prize, the Party Elders’ letter, and even Premier Wen Jiabao’s comments about political reform to CNN, which someone apparently decided needed to be censored domestically (one hopes the irony of censoring the Premier is not totally lost on whoever pushed the button). Given these things — and the rash of arrests that followed the first one — I wonder if Ai’s house arrest is perhaps another signal of a strategic shift to an even more direct method of enforcement.

Arresting Ai himself is undoubtedly easier than letting him hold the event and then undermining it (although, as Evan Osnos points out, Ai Weiwei is probably making life hell for the poor cops assigned to keep him at home). But it’s also more blunt, and has turned the whole thing into an ongoing news story.

So the question is, is this strategy an indication that the authorities no longer care about making this kind of news, or is it just another example of the government shooting its own foot?

(As a sidenote, whatever the reason for detaining Ai, it doesn’t seem to have worked, reports coming in from Twitter indicate that there are already nearly a thousand people at the “River Crab banquet”. Interested parties can follow periodic updates via milpitas95035 on Twitter.)

Unrelated Announcement

Also, many apologies for the lack of posts recently. I’ve been working on finishing up the first ChinaGeeks Films original documentary! It will likely be another week (at least) before the final product is ready (still need to add subtitles, cutaways, and wait for the narrator to record his bits so I can do the final audio mixing) so the relative dearth of posts may continue until then.

A Minor Inconvenience

While we were up in dongbei shooting a documentary last month, we ran into this situation completely unintentionally. We walked to this street, Kedong’s main thoroughfare, in the hopes of catching a cab, only to discover there were no cars on the road. We shot a good bit of it; here’s what happened:

Passing of the Governor from ChinaGeeks on Vimeo.

I didn’t bother editing this video for color or anything, but it’s not going into the documentary, so I thought it might be worth sharing and discussing here. Obviously, as official transgressions go, this is quite insignificant. And it wasn’t a huge hassle for us to wait half an hour before being allowed to cross the road, since we didn’t have anywhere we needed to be anyway.

I’m posting this because I think it’s indicative, more than anything, of an attitude that plagues Chinese officials. How much of an inconvenience would it really have been for the provincial governor to drive through town with other cars still on the road? Surrounded by an army of police cars and with police standing guard up and down the street, he certainly wasn’t in any physical danger. And it’s not like Kedong, which has remarkably wide streets for its tiny population, was going to have a traffic jam at three in the afternoon.

I’m also wondering what people think. In the evening, I mentioned this to the family that I was staying with, some of whom are devout government supporters, expecting them to say that the governor deserved special treatment. To my surprise, not a single one of them said that. “You should have filmed it so you can post it online and expose him,” someone said. Everyone agreed that closing the road for hours so that the governor could drive through Kedong (a process that took about 30 seconds, as you can see in the video) was ridiculous, and they wondered why I was told not to film it (it’s not like they were trying to travel undercover, after all…)

So what do you think?

The Egg and the Wall

Japanese author Haruki Murakami said in his acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize in 2009, ‘Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.’ Under the context of China’s numerous social problems, such as forced demolitions, petitions, corruptions, injustices and suppressed freedom, Murakami’s logic is one which easily finds its way in public discourse and forces everyone into this mindless choice: you are either ‘for’ the people, that is progressive, liberal, grassroots, the ‘egg’ which breaks against the stone wall, or ‘not for’ the people – that is the conservative, the rich and powerful, the ‘high, solid wall.’ An example of this mindset is the popular saying by an urban planning department vice director from Henan province in 2009, ‘Are you prepared to speak for the Party?  Or are you prepared to speak for the common folks?’, a reply made in response to a reporter investigating how come a real estate developer, having permission to build economic housing only, erected 12 villas and two mid-rise buildings instead on the piece of land concerned.

‘I speak for myself’

Huang Jiping, an economics professor at Peking University and formerly an economist at Citibank, recently mounted a defense against accusations that he is a speaker for the government and the powerful. He is of the view that this mindless stereotyping is harmful to any serious, rational discussions about public policy in China. Excerpted from his Caixin Magazine blog:

I used to work for Citigroup in the past. Those who criticize me did not point out errors in my opinions, but directly accuse me of being a speaker for foreign capitals. Now that I am in Peking University, I should be more neutral, right? Those who criticize me say now that I am receiving state’s money, I am a writer for the government. I need to clarify that part of my salary does come from the state education bureau. But isn’t it too far-fetched to say that I am a government speaker just because of this?

It’s indeed a low input, high productivity strategy to stand on the moral high ground and blame all those who hold a different opinion from you. The problem with this strategy is that people with differing opinions can no longer engage in rational discussions. The truth is no longer important. The result is that opinion leaders will increasingly cater for the sentiment of the public.

I once joked that it is very easy to become an enemy of the Chinese public or the netizens’ community. To be drowned by the spits of netizens, you only need to write an article predicting that housing price will still continue to rise. Conversely, those who predict a housing market collapse will be popular. Emotionally, those looking to buy a house will want the market to drop a bit. But the fact is that no one is questioning experts who predict a collapse of housing prices, when the market rises year after year. We can hence see that apart from emotional factors, economic theories are also very important.

He finally concludes for whom he is speaking:

My job is to analyse China’s economic problems based on my interpretations. If you need to ask who I am speaking for, I can only say that as a scholar, I speak for myself. I truly hope that people having a different opinion can debate with me on the problems, instead of saying that I speak for foreign capitals or the government. If you are still not satisfied, then you can say that Peking University professors are of mediocre quality. But you just want to frame me instead of discussing concrete viewpoints.

The reverse food chain of the media

Wang Shuo, chief editor of the Caixin website, was sympathetic of Huang Jiping’s experience. Voices from the grassroots are becoming increasingly common in the Chinese media, but it is also true that market reform without a check-and-balance mechanism has polarized public opinion into various groups, based on how much they support the regime, how much they gain or benefit, or whether they are winners or losers. Wang describes how this brings about a cynical atmosphere in the society, which in turn leads to the strange ecology of the media:

In contrast to the ecological food chain logic of the survival of the strongest, the media food chain logic is the survival of the weakest. Viewed in isolation, the media is not considered to have credibility, but not if it criticizes professors. Professors are not considered to have authority, but not if they criticize school leaders. And who will believe school leaders? But they too will gain credibility if they criticize officials from the education bureau. Education bureau officials have few targets to choose from, but they still can go for officials from the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).

Yes, NDRC officials lie almost at the bottom of the media food chain. The public opinion will definitely choose to side with the egg but not the stone. The contents of discussions do not affect the existence of this food chain. But even NDRC officials lie almost at the bottom, they still have targets to go after. They are the traitors of the country, especially those who are close to Japan. Traitors are absolutely at the bottom of the food chain.

A return to rationality

The polarization of public opinion can be linked to the political culture of China. In every society, it is normal for opinion to be divided into left, center or right. But in China, there seems to be a tendency for things to evolve into extremities: you are either the rich and powerful, or the poor and powerless. Wu Jinglian, Senior Research Fellow for the Developmental Research Centre of the State Council, recently points out in an article at the magazine China Reform how this polarization can pull China back into its historical cycle:

The cronies in the far right are not only hurting the interests of the weakest groups, but also those of the middle classes (professionals, entrepreneurs, etc) which do not have political powers. Nevertheless, ‘extreme leftism is a punishment to extreme rightism.’ Under this situation, leftist forces are utilizing public dissatisfactions about authoritarian capitalists to advocate for a return to Mao’s tactics like the Cultural Revolution and People’s Dictatorship. This is apparent from signs of violence linguistically as well as physically, and is a dangerous trend.

Some people think that China has been like that for thousands of years. As an entrepreneur said, two extremities of violence have dominated the political culture of China: one is the tyrant, the other is the mob. They take power in turns. When the tyrant’s rule is too much to bear, the obedient mass can turn into violent revolutionaries, and replace the tyrant ruler. When the mob has ruled for sometime, it too will decay into tyranny. Therefore, we have this cycle of ‘tyranny – revolution – new tyranny’ in Chinese history. The history of ‘ousting the emperor and become the emperor yourself’ has been repeated in China for thousands of years.

Nevertheless, Wu shows optimism in the article by pointing out that China’s social transformation is leading to the emergence of a middle class composed mostly of professionals and white-collars. They are an important component in China’s modernizing society. And even though they are demanding improvements, they basically approve of the current social order and do not wish to completely overthrow it. China’s prospects of escaping from its historical cycle lies in this group which represents not only stability but also gradual improvements.

As Wu points out, this group is still small in numbers, and their sense of civil values and responsibilities is weak. And at this time of great social transformation accompanied by injustices, it is easy for public opinion to fall into the trap of choosing between ‘egg’ and ‘stone wall’, or ‘left’ and ‘right’. What China needs is not populism and violence, but common sense and rationality, as Xu Youyu, Chinese philosopher and public intellectual, commented in an interview with Southern Weekend back in 2009:

Some people hold the same viewpoints as the New Left in the West, but many of their viewpoints expressed in rights defense cases are also approved by neo-liberals. I think it a good phenomenon that in the New Left community, there emerges a group which whole-heartedly defend their leftist stance, but at the same time make concrete contributions in public affairs. I admire their sincerity. This also illustrates that we can abandon the debate between left and right, and return to basic conscience and responsibility. In fact, things are not as complicated as we think, and we should do what we ought to. Moral consciousness can help most of us to make the choice. This is not the result of so-called reaching a consensus, but just a show of sincerity in us all.