Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bigger is not better

For some reason, China reminded me a lot of the simpsons. Or rather, often of the simpsons. First up, in Japan I felt sad, depressed, outraged and angry at the ridicolous stubborn stupidity of the Japanese beauracracy. I got emotional, I still want to do something about it.
But China I jut don't give a shit. I mean I give something, but like the simpsons episode where Homer discovers Fat Tony is selling rat milk to the schools and he slaps the milk out of Bart and Lisa's hands, then Milhouse asks "can I drink the milk?" and homer says 'sure knock yourself out' to me China is Milhouse.
It also reminded me of the episode where the simpsons go to China and in Tianamen square there is a plaque that says 'on June 4th, 1989 in this square nothing happened' cracked me up a fair bit, that is I have never seen the footage, but it doesn't make my host Jerry laugh much at all. He infact broke his promise never to return to China after 4 years, because he was sick of the limited range of Chinese restaurants in Melbourne.
Also the big topic, I mean the big topic in China is the Olympics, and I mean, you blink in China you will still see a Beijing 2008 logo on the inside of your eyelids. There is already 24 hour coverage on a dedicated channel of the Olympics despite it still being 7 months away.
I mean the Economy, it reminds me of the stonecutters episod of the Simpsons where Homer get's his new vibrating massage chair and Lenny and Carl are standing by 'Jealous?' Homer inquires, 'Well no Homer, we have the exact same chair' Lenny responds, and Homer retorts 'your jealous'.
This was my recurring thought almost any time I spoke to any of my Chinese hosts, through Andy or Jerry and to Andy and Jerry themselves. Andy saw me uploading photos onto facebook and told Moggie (my other member of my China posse) 'tohm is like an evil journalist he only takes photos of the bad things' I explained that I as taking photos of the spit that Chinese people were spitting on the ground, and the poverty created by the chinese government and so fourth, but Andy thinks I should have been taking photos of the new shiny shopping malls. Except showpiece shopping malls in China are slightly lower quality and far less interesting than Chadstone. Think ballarat central square.
This is what is being churned out at such an impressive scale. 9% growth means appaling homegeniety and low quality. The demand in China is pushing out carbon copy apartment blocks and shopping malls creating a new Australia (in economic size) each year. But the equation isn't fair. Australia's economy was created slowly over 200 years, with its fair share of indegenous genocide and white thievery, exploitation of labour and selling out of neighbours like East Timor. But as such, Australian and even Japanese buildings span multiple eras you have buildings that are 200 years old, from the 20's, 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's etc. In China's modern megacities you have servicable but unimaginative architectural styles dating back from era's such as 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. And they are ugly and shit. like 70's goldcoast. They are warmed better than most Japanese homes, in beijing, and population density is admittedly much higher than in Australia, Beijing has roughly twice the population of Australia.
But here is the irony of China, in Catch 22 Yossarian is aarded a medal for flying over the target twice in ferrara, an act of incompetence that results in a medal for bravery. The explanation of Colonel Corn's ingenious tactic is to be proud of something that they really should be ashamed of.
This is China. CCTV9 and I assume all the other channels trumpet the glory of China's 'opening up' and the 'magnificent economic growth' to be fair on CCTV9s dialogue program, a Chinese energy resources expert provided a voice of reason by remarking when the journalist talked about how China wasn't to blame for rising oil costs because 80% of its energy came from coal. The dude said 'yes but there is no way we can continue to do so because the environmental costs are just too great' that's something John Howard would never say. And I expect Kevin Rudd to say, and so should you, it is afterall the same as selling cigarettes to Children, except cigarettes are sustainable.
China's economic growth rests on the sole virtue that it was kept poor and isolated from world markets. Something it should be ashamed of. Yet it thinks just by consuming it has somehow done something of value. China is not Japan, Japan developed the best manufacturing systems in the world, contributed vast amounts to problem solving and total quality management and this just in the course of its catchup in industrialisation. And Japan failed.
China doesn't even have that. I'm no expert but last time I checked the 'experts' rhetoric as basically 'China shows no signs of slowing down' and so forth like it was good news. Books have a picture of the Chinese flag as a credit card and talk about how to be successful in 'the worlds Largest market'
But this requires a few assumptions. I'll list them:

1: That relative to wants resources are unlimited.
The Chinese public really doesn't understand nor anticipated inflation. They were hungry for more investment and more development because they thought it simply meant a 'real wages' increase, that is each Yuan would have the same if not more buying power than before. But with inflation hitting 40% on some basic goods panic is starting to set in. Fact is that if everyone in China lived like your average Yank or Aussie we would need 6 more planet earths. So we simply assume China won't slow down because we have 6 more planet earths.

2: That education has no impact on economic success
Andy remarked that the scariest thing about the Chinese stock market was, how stupid Chinese investors are. Numerology, superstition are big in china, education is not, certainly in terms of the press. Brain drain is a reality in Australia, Europe and America places with quality education systems (though I still believe inadequate) as the best and brightest head overseas for greater opportunities. China's domestic supply of well educated citizens is evidently increadibly small compared to the overall population. Education takes generations, my generation is majority higher educated for example in Australia. This is not true in china. China is abundant in low skilled workers, pointing towards structural unemployment pushed by rising wages driven by inflation. How long will Nike, Honda, Toyota and whoever else stay around then? and then what, economic growth is pretty addictive.

3: That democracy has no impact on economic success
The ability to choose a government based on policy and issues may have some impact on the private sector, otherwise we wouldn't worry about anonymous party donations in Australia, or lobby groups in America. Which of course isn't success as such but greed but nevertheless, a basic statistician I would have thought whilst not concluding that democracy leads to economic success may find a strong positive correlation. But for the sake of China, lets suppose the government that impoverished the country in the first place will now lead to sparkling glorious success.

4: That access to accurate information is crucial to business success
which is really 2 just reiterated to stress that your average Chinese citizine thinks that Mao 'made a few mistakes' that Tiananmen square is a great place to meet, that Tibet was liberated from an evil tyranny, that Taiwan is part of China, that Yao Ming is the greatest center of all time and so fourth. I heard Chinese investors pulled out of a Melbourn docklands development because the building wasn't the auspicious gold colour in the drawings but more of a copper brown effect. These are the boardroom execs that we are staking economic growth on.

So to sum up, it is not hard to gain an inkling that 'if something is too good to be true it probably is' infact it is exactly the same as Japan and the Internet bubble.
The article I read in Newsweek put it 'for investors to believe that this time it is different they need something geopolitical that has no precedent, that is they believe that precedents don't matter because the world has changed forever, Japanese business models where suposed to do that, the internet was also supposed to change things forever but the same thing happened' China is only unprecedented in scale (also pointed out by newsweek not my insight) but that is what makes it worse. The speculative bubble grows too big too fast, the speed helps more people jump on the bandwagon, the size promises more pain.
Foreign investors can declare bankruptcy, write off losses against tax, try and sell bad debt etc, we are pretty okay. The poor chinese person who left the farm to work for 20c an hour that suddenly has no food, no job and no savings (poor rural workers are at the governments urging also excitingly investing in Chinese shares) will probably die out in the cold.
It is quite upsetting to see irresponsibility on such a massive scale, and its all greed. Fact is Japan and the Internet did change the world forever, in incremental, small but significant ways, not the ways everyone thought in the internet bubble and the Japan bubble. Not golden ticket ways, not 'free money' ways. Economic development in China is a good thing, but only bad change happens fast, economic growth of 3-4% would be good and even possibly sustainable, not compounding at 9% a year with foreign companies bashing down the door to get a slice of the action. It needs to be staggered with gradual improvements in education, Japan took 30 years after world war II and that was fast. China is taking 5, it needs at least 50-70 a couple of generations. This isn't getting everyone warm currently, its getting a few people into top designer brands and driving cars and so fourth. It seems to only do good when it involves polishing for the olympics.

When Andy's cousin asked me if Beijing was beautiful, I had one of those uncomfortable pauses followed by the evasive 'it's very interesting' I also made Andy's lovely mother happy by saying Wuhan was a great place to live, and seemed easier than Beijing. Beijing is filthy, cramped and filthy. Did I mention it as filthy.
Beijing is 'big' I am told, everything China is proud of is 'worlds biggest' and 'worlds largest' this seemed to impress a fellow Georgist in a presentation I saw when he talked about buildings being 'suitably large' for a 'large country' which in the end is a truism, not an achievement.
I'm afraid that China is incredibly small, way way small, tiny, minuscule, pathetic, beneath contempt.
Exhibit one - traffic Beijing can probably boast 'the largest roads in the world' roads that are woefully inadequate for demand. Taxi's only run on distance in Beijing as ou can easily be trapped in traffic for up to 6 hours, not very fair. Infact trips that would take at most 20 minutes in Melbourne's shitty infrastrucure take an hour on average in Beijing. Push biks are definitely faster, but really fucking cold that time of year. Tokyo has worse roads, but runs smooth as silk, thanks to amongst the worlds best public transport which is foreigner friendly too.
The trains are another part of traffic that is small in China, it is soviet cheap, at 20c a ticket for anywhere in Beijing, but again the supply is dismal compared to demand, changing lines with Parky required queing just to descend stais, and you queud for 20 minutes in an uncomfortable shuffle with people spitting on your feet.
And then there's New Years festival, like Japan, China stupidly (the originator, Japan change from Chinese new years to appear more 'western') insists everyone customarily returns to their ancestral homes for new years celebrations, shifting massive numbers of people all at the same time.
Jerry was queuing for 6 hours to be told that tickets were sold ou, then the snow came and cancelled a bunch of trains. Its all inadequete.
I caugh a train to Wuhan and back (2000km in all) for less than $100AU it was sort of oldish bullet train technology but ran smooth enough. Beijing may appear massive but not compared with 1000km of dilapidated rag tag, Chinese countryside. It's awful and ugly. The farms are the highlights, but the dwellings are falapart brick structures that look post apocalyptic. This is where most of china's billions live.
The scale dwarfs any achievement. Bigger is infact not better, but much much worse. Either with some foresight the CCP anticipates that with wealth will come a much needed drop in the birthrate, but Andy has 50 cousins, his mum is one of 11 his dad one of 5 (or was it seven) they don't need a one child policy, they needed a one child per family tree policy.
Andy and Jerry describe accurately that China's problem is 'too many people' and it is simply true. The world's population may actually decline if China honestly developes near modern birthrates, but Andy also said the superstition (or culture) is such that families just keep having kids until they have a boy.
If Japan is an infant, China is a wad of cum. A very small number may become successful but millions are going to miss out.
What we arrogantly assume to our peril is that moder technology is such that you can take a McDonalds burger flipper and place him in the CEO's chair of a fortune 500 company in the same year to great success and mutual benifit. As said good change takes time and effort, the Japanese bubble was at least speculation on ompanies with long track records, solid sales performance in a country with good (if a little narrow visioned) governance (and excluding the bribe-come-gift-giving culture) its also worth noting that companis like Sony, Nintendo, Toyota, Honda and so fourth are still reat companies today, Toyota is leading the way on fuel eficient and alternative transport, smart cars etc and introduced innovations such as Just in Time, engineering the errors out of the system, Honda has mind reading software development and is investing in Solar and fuel cell, Nintendo brought out the Wii and the Gameboy has been a winner for decades now, Sony is struggling recently but at least is number two in the world market fo both gaming consoles and MP3 players not to mention Japanese fashion giants and anime.
China on the other hand is liquidating not developing, foreign companies are coming in to exploit cheap labour like they have done countless times before, a large scale yes, and without real intellectual property protection but when they go I doubt China will be able to sustain itself, there just isn't the materials on earth let alone in China.
On the whole, despite hosting just about the world's largest everything, china is unimpressive, like milhouse*.

*except not because Milhouse also isn't the simpsons 'largest everything' I gotta get back on top of my analogies.

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