Collegiate E-trepreneurs

March 11, 2009

Toward the end of 2008, the Chinese government issued by way of Xinhua, the official state news agency, a directive that college students uneasy about the tight employment market should try starting their own businesses. At the time, urging naive, inexperienced kids to take on massive debt straight out of school when even established enterprises are tanking seemed like the CPC leading lambs to the slaughter to temporarily save its own hide. But a new effort by students in Zhejiang province has since come to light, and seems to hold promise for the scrappiest of the students here.

According to the Beijing Morning Post, nearly 1,800 students at Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College have opened online businesses on Taobao.com, the Chinese answer to Ebay. Some of these e-shops have really taken off, and the most successful student among them, a boy named Yang Fugang, is now bringing in 30,000 to 40,000 yuan a month (roughly 4,500 to 5,800 USD), more than many Chinese make in a year.

Yiwu College has encouraged this entrepreneurial spirit through the establishment of a self-employment school, which only accepts students with monthly profits exceeding 8,000 yuan. Students can earn credits by reaching profit benchmarks instead of taking courses, and with professors’ guidance, share practical knowledge and advice with new retailers. Marketing, pricing, and bargaining with suppliers are common discussion topics. 

Online shops are profiting as cash-strapped consumers turn to the Web in search of better deals. The trade volume from online shopping in China increased by 128.5 percent to 120 billion yuan (17.56 billion USD) in 2008, according to a report released by iResearch and Taobao.

This is promising news for savvy business students, but doesn’t really solve the wider problem of job creation. The unemployment rate here is growing by the day, though it’s almost impossible to measure given the vast number of unregistered migrant workers.

Fresh college graduates are among the groups most affected by the dearth of job opportunities. An estimated six million* new graduates will enter the job market this spring, adding to the 1.2 million leftover from last year who are still unable to find jobs. This can be attributed to a number of factors, but the bottom line is Beijing must find a way to placate the growing number of agitated grads and their parents. The government announced in February that all Beijing students would receive at least one suitable job offer within three months of graduation, though the spokesman declined to specify what constitutes a “suitable” offer. I bet most of them will be related to espionage. 

Only kidding, folks.

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President Obama announced his new pick for commerce secretary late last month, and the decision was immediately hailed by Chinese state media. The cursory reviews of the facts presented in many of these accounts seem to imply that the appointment of former Washington Governor Gary Locke would benefit the Chinese in bilateral trade relations by mere virtue of his ancestry. Locke is a third-generation Chinese-American who can trace his roots back to Guangdong and Hong Kong, and is married to another Chinese-American, broadcast journalist Mona Lee. 

In much Chinese thinking, this translates to undying loyalty to the motherland. The Chinese are as proud and nationalistic a race as they come, a trait that can alternately inspire fondness and frustration. Cultural elements tend to keep Chinese immigrants more tied into their heritage than many of the other myriad American immigrants, some of whom assimilate so much by the second generation that most of the families’ original cultural identities are lost entirely.

Locke obviously has good reason to further improve relations with China, America’s third-largest export market, and is well-positioned to do it. A major domestic campaign underway here is pushing consumption in the name of nationalism, despite the national tendency to sock it away for a rainy day. (This can be illustrated by an incident yesterday, during which I caught a glimpse of the balance of my Chinese colleague’s bank account on an ATM screen. Despite making 3,000 yuan a month to my roughly quintuple that amount, her savings is about ten times the size of mine – and she likely has a child to support.) However, Locke’s first priorities upon his confirmation will likely center on the pending free trade agreements in Latin America, specifically Colombia and Panama, before he can turn his full attention elsewhere.

While the material benefits for China won’t be evident for a while yet, the sense of pride in his accomplishment is justified. If confirmed, Locke will become the first Chinese American secretary of commerce, and the second Chinese American in Obama’s cabinet, joining Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Peeps – February 2009

February 25, 2009

Virtual voyeurs in the capital would be wise to steer clear of seedy online sites for the next few weeks. The State Council and the Ministry of Public Security are out for blood with Web sites found to be hawking flesh. Google, Baidu, Sina and Sohu are among the 19 sites blacklisted for providing pornographic or otherwise obscene content. These photos go against China’s social morals and have a negative influence on the public, especially on younger people, Cai Mingzhao, deputy director of the State Council Information Office, said at a teleconference announcing the campaign. The crackdown is certainly good news for Beijing screen siren Zhang Ziyi, who was recently photographed topless on a private beach while sharing an – ahem – intimate moment with her fiance. 

 

Many migrant laborers working in the capital were packed up and shipped back home ahead of the Spring Festival holiday as the global financial crisis began to reverberate through China, but the mass exodus did little to free up cash flow in the city. Seventy percent of Beijing residents said in a recent survey that they have been affected by the ongoing crisis, with freelancers and families earning less than 2,000 yuan per month reporting the most strain. The World Bank has forecast that in the new year, China’s heretofore breakneck economic growth will dip below 8 percent, to 7.5 percent, for the first time in two decades. 

 

Prices of inbound tour packages bottomed out during the 2009 Spring Festival, but holiday makers weren’t kicking it at home. Beijing’s three major railway stations handled* almost 10 million passengers during the holiday period, an 18 percent rise, year on year. To encourage air travel, the Chinese government cut fuel surcharges on domestic flights to 20 yuan on short distances and 40 yuan for longer trips, down from 80 yuan and 150 yuan, respectively. 

 

Millions of mobile subscribers ushered in the new year on the receiving end of a mass apology — via text message. Sanlu and the 21 other dairy companies implicated in last year’s melamine-contaminated milk scandal sent out the ** on New Year’s Day, saying “We are deeply sorry for the harm we have brought to children and to the society. We offer our sincere apology and plead for forgiveness.”  The apology was issued almost immediately after four executives from the companies pleaded guilty to selling sub-standard products at a trial in Hebei province. Now it’s only a matter of time before we express our personal condolences through SMS: “It sux that ur mom died. Paninoteca at one?” 

 

Would-be iPhone users in Beijing can stop holding their collective breath. The State Council agreed on Dec 31 to issue 3G network licenses to the three top Chinese telecom providers at the beginning of 2009. Li Yizhong, head of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, said China plans to invest 280 billion yuan in 3G networks within the next two years. The networks will meet European and U.S. technological standards, in addition to domestic ones. 

 

Bird flu is back, and it’s in Beijing. Nineteen-year-old Huang Yanqing died in a Beijing hospital Jan 5 after a week-long battle with the H5N1 virus. A World Health Organization statement says she became infected while slaughtering and preparing ducks in a poultry market just outside Beijing. Inspectors are in the process of disinfecting or shutting down poultry markets in Hebei province, and China Daily reported that authorities have banned poultry from other parts of the country from entering the capital. Every person who came in contact with Huang just prior to her infection has been placed under medical surveillance, but no further cases have yet come to light. Avian flu has killed 248 people worldwide since 2003, but this is the first case in China in almost a year. Mao Qun’an, spokesman for the Ministry of Health, says despite the seemingly isolated nature of the case *(AS OF 1/06), officials are on the alert for additional infections. To play it safe in Beijing, don’t drink the water, and steer clear of the kaoya.

Peeps – January 2009

February 25, 2009

Underpants vs. Wisdom Window

The time has come to christen the new CCTV Building – and like any proud parents, Beijingers are full of name ideas. To the chagrin of CCTV (and likely Rem Koolhaas), “Big Underpants” has taken hold, and seems likely to stick. The broadcaster, desperate to establish an official name to eradicate references to large undergarments, has launched an online promotion drive in which netizens are encouraged to send in name proposals. Submissions include “Magic Cube,” “New Angle,” and “Peak of the Ages.” Online news sites are reporting that thus far, zhichuang (智窗), or “Wisdom Window,” has emerged as a popular alternative to the abhorred “Underpants.” Unfortunately for CCTV, zhichuang is also a homophone for hemorrhoids (). 

 

This just in: Use a condom when having sex with a sex worker

December 1 was World AIDS Day, and Chinese officials took notice this year. Premier Wen Jiabao traveled to Anhui to visit AIDS patients and workers, and vowed to increase state funding for disease prevention and control. Back in Beijing, the municipal public health bureau estimates that only 47 percent of the 90,000 sex workers frequently use condoms. This revelation is all the more disturbing because sexual acts, at 55 percent, have replaced intravenous drug use [currently what percent?] as the most common means of HIV transmission in the city, Xinhua reports. 

 

Borrow a ride

Rental bicycles are also gaining momentum on the streets of Beijing these days. With the arrival of a new program sponsored by IBike Media, residents of the Maizidian community can now commute to work hassle-free. By the end of the year, 40,000-50,000 bikes will be available for free rental around Beijing at the swipe of an ID card or passport. Rental stations will be set up at supermarkets and transportation hubs all over the city, so those leery of purchasing yet another bike just to have it stolen again can pedal around town worry-free. Thanks to GPS tracking devices, as long as the bikes are parked in designated areas, renters won’t be held responsible for theft. Even the most determined thieves will find peddling their loot tricky, as the bikes are specially designed to stand out. 

 

Traffic violation amnesty

There’s also good news for those who still insist on firing up the engine every morning. Beijing traffic authorities have finally put a cap on late fees for traffic violations, which previously accrued at a rate that rapidly outpaced the actual fines. The decision comes three years too late for the unfortunate migrant worker who inadvertently racked up 105 traffic violations to the tune of RMB 10,000, but savings could be substantial for other drivers in the capital city. The Ministry of Public Security is currently collecting opinions on other aspects of the traffic violation laws, particularly regarding the placement of surveillance cameras. Make your voice heard to save yourself a few kuai, and possibly a dent or two on your rear bumper. Send your suggestions to english@mail.gov.cn.

Peeps – December 2008

February 25, 2009

The European parliament awarded jailed Beijing dissident Hu Jia the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, despite warnings from the Chinese government. Sure enough, shortly after the announcement Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao denounced the decision as a “gross interference in China’s domestic affairs.” Activists had hoped that Hu, whose own domestic affairs had been strictly confined to his apartment prior to his incarceration, might be released as a byproduct of the award, but so far that possibility does not seem to be in the offing. Still, Hu has since been transported to a more hospitable facility in Beijing, where his family was allowed to visit him. Interestingly, just a week after the result came out, a Chinese official announced an unprecedented “human rights action plan” that will seek to improve the rights of Chinese citizens over the next two years. 

 

Dissidents weren’t the only ones running afoul of the law this month. Bayunfeng Sichuan Restaurant is on trial for bribing customers to forego taxable receipts in exchange for goods. Ms. Hu, a writer who spent just over a hundred yuan in the restaurant in early October, has filed a suit for 10,000 yuan against the restaurant for emotional damages, claiming infringement of her right to monitor the collection of national taxes. The restaurant’s offense? Offering Hu a bottle of Sprite in lieu of a receipt, which the manager alleges Hu suggested in the first place. The offer of goods or discounts to keep a transaction off the books is fairly common practice in Beijing, despite the State Administration of Taxation’s efforts to promote taxation as an act of moral uprightness. The manager of the restaurant claims Hu is sensationalizing the issue, and sneers that if she wanted to do the right thing, she would have simply filed a complaint, rather than chase renminbi. The court has not yet announced a date for its decision.

 

The global financial crisis is beginning to reverberate through the capital city, if only in the form of meetings. The seventh Asia-Europe meeting, held in Beijing on October 24 and 25 amid the requisite event florascaping in Tian’anmen Square, centered on the unfolding financial crisis, though China’s role as one of the world’s largest economies remained undefined. “We swim together, or we sink together,” European Commision President Jose Manuel Barros declared at the summit. Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who has declared the impact of the crisis on China “limited and controllable,” offered his agreement, but little in the way of advice. Chinese officials are expected to attend a meeting of world leaders on November 15 to further address the crisis.

 

Just a few steps away, at the Forbidden City, a new world is opening up – a virtual one. IBM and the Palace Museum recently launched “The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time,” a computer application in which avatars can don period costumes and wander around the pristine paths of the online palace. The stated purpose of the project is to give users unable to actually visit Beijing access to the world heritage site, but Beijing residents are likely to benefit more from it. Gone are the daunting crowds and limited descriptions. Forbidden City avatars – officials, eunuchs, and the like –  can wander the grounds at leisure, without the threat of pesky vendors or sunstroke. Navigationally-challenged users can consult a handy map that also links to historical information, then visit the actual Forbidden City to test their new knowledge.

Participants at the World Health Organization Congress held Nov. 8 in Beijing called for the integration of acupuncture, cupping, and other forms of traditional medicine into national health care systems worldwide. This legitimization means practitioners would be accredited professionals responsible for keeping their skills up with the times. Traditional medicine has frequently been dismissed as “soft” medicine carried over from a less informed age, but that may soon change. Plans are currently underway to modernize traditional medicine through research and innovation under the accords of the Global Strategy and Plan of Action on Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property adopted earlier this year.

Sports fans in the capital city had one more opportunity to showcase their national pride after the close of the Paralympics. The first World Mind Sports Games, which include competitions in chess, bridge, checkers, Go and xiangqi (Chinese chess), brought together 3,000 mind athletes from more than 100 countries seeking WMS gold last month. Since doping controls are now de rigueur at any international sporting event, physical or otherwise, bridge and chess competitors underwent the same strict tests as Olympic and Paralympic athletes. It was a formality. No one has yet been caught cheating, and as one official said, performance-enhancing drugs couldn’t conceivably help a mind sports athlete. Still, WMS organizers have bigger aspirations — making it under the IOC umbrella — and if they want to play, they’ve got to comply. There’s no word yet on the possibility of a posthumous test on Bobby Fischer.

 

Shenzhou VII blasted off last month amid much hoopla, and Chinese around the world eagerly awaited word from the three men aboard the space shuttle. Xinhua jumped the gun in providing the news, printing a statement from the airborne taikonauts prior to liftoff. The state news agency immediately retracted the statement, chalking it up to technical problems. At least the glitch didn’t come at the expense of the actual mission, as was almost the case with China’s first moon exploration project in 1970. Sun Jiadong, who headed the project, said workers manufacturing the components let their patriotism interfere with the designs — with nearly disastrous consequences — when they etched Chairman Mao’s likeness on the surfaces of many of the components. The designs were so large and elaborate that they unevenly redistributed heat on the surfaces of the parts. Political currents at the time made it difficult for Sun to speak up, but he eventually steeled his nerves and approached then Premier Zhou Enlai about the problem. The Dong Fang satellite was thus saved from a fiery ending, and the Asian space race was officially on.

 

Wet nurses are raking in the dough in the wake of the melamine-tainted milk scandal. Chinese mothers unable to nurse, and with money to spare, are appealing to agencies for surrogate breasts from which to feed their infants. Wet nurses in Guangzhou were commanding 20,000 yuan a month, up from the previous rate of 6,000 yuan, in the weeks immediately following the revelations. Beijing’s own household management agencies have reported a surge in interest, despite the health risks that abound from the practice. Nutritionists warn that just any old breast milk won’t do, and advise mothers to breast feed their own babies if possible. Families of many of the potential wet nurses are also less than thrilled at the thought of their loved ones entering into this type of service, and some husbands have threatened to bar their wives from nursing infants other than their own. But if it was good enough for Puyi…

 

Milk wasn’t the only thing poisoning Beijingers in October. Air in the city returned to pre-Olympic pollution levels for three successive days at the beginning of the month, with the pollution index reaching 126 the day after National Day. City officials are working quickly to reverse this. Trial driving restrictions beginning on October 11 peeled a couple hundred thousand cars off the road each day. Under the new plan, a revised version of the popular even-odd system used during the Olympics and Paralympics, private cars are banned from the roads one day a week, depending on their license plate numbers. Cars with plates ending with 1 and 6 are banned on Mondays, 2 and 7 on Tuesdays, and so on. Government cars are also included in the ban this time, albeit under separate rules. The pilot ban, in place until mid-April next year, has not met with the same approval as the temporary restrictions in August and September, and the addition of new subway trains to ease the load on perpetually packed subway Line One has done little to ease the outcry.

 

Those who think the subway dauntingly crowded can now spend their unused metro card credits on taxi fare, thanks to the new card swipers with which every taxi is now supposed to be equipped. During the Paralympics, taxi options also expanded to include London taxis outfitted to pick up handicapped passengers. Only a handful of the iconic taxis are currently cruising the streets of Beijing, but this, too, could soon change. Geely and London taxi maker Manganese Bronze struck a deal early last year to set up a new manufacturing base in Fengjing, a city near Shanghai. Though the majority of the 40,000 LTI TX4 taxis to be produced annually are not destined for the Chinese markets, due to their prohibitively high cost, there’s no guarantee that more of the vehicles won’t find their way to the capital over the next few years. A ride in a roomy TX4 beats one in an exhaust-filled Citroen any day.

The big story around China today – aside from the ongoing milk scandal – is the launch of Shenzhou VII, a space mission aimed at making China the third country in the world to accomplish a space walk. The story has been plastered all over Chinese media for weeks, and made world news today upon its launch.
China’s space program has made rapid gains in the past decade as it scrambles to keep ahead of Japan and India in the second wave of the space race. However, the program wasn’t always up to date on its technology. Sun Jiadong, chief of China’s first moon exploration project in 1970, detailed some of the challenges in the initial stages of development in an unusually forthcoming interview with a source CRI reporters didn’t feel the need to attribute.
“Workers etched Chairman Mao’s image on the surfaces of many components. What’s more, they made the designs as big and elaborate as possible. In that special environment, everyone did that. But in aerospace products it should be strictly forbidden, otherwise it would cause deadly problems due to uneven heating. But it wasn’t easy to say this then.”
Sun steeled his nerves and approached then Premier Zhou Enlai about the problem, thus saving the Dong Fang Hong satellite from bursting into flames from its faulty motherboards. No word on what the Great Helmsman thought about the engineers’ arts and crafts project.

For more on Shenzhou VII, check out this NYT article featuring a scarcely mentioned twist to the narrative.