Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chinese rumor mill

When Planning Your Next Trip to Beijing... Beijing is known for having god-awful pollution, but the whole time I was there, it was remarkably clear and fresh out. It was a massive upgrade from Hong Kong's air at the time (Hong Kong has improved a bit as the weather has cooled), and I couldn't understand what the usual fuss was about. I just chalked it up to good luck. But about a week after I returned to Hong Kong, I discussed this with Aaron, who was in Beijing shortly after I left. He, too, had great luck with the air for the first 3 days of his visit (and loved the city as a result), but he woke up on the fourth day to find the city so overrun with smog that he couldn't see all the way across Tiananmen Square. The next two days, he lamented, were almost totally spoiled. What had changed? Aaron brought a report from the locals: the People's Congress had been in session during the time I had been in Beijing, and for the first few days of Aaron's visit. When the People's Congress is in session, the Chinese authorities allegedly turn off all of the factors in the region (I have a potent mental image of an enormous lever that controls every factory at once, being switched into the down position), and as soon as the congressmen all leave, the factories come back online (same mental image plays in reverse, plus some cackling by the man pushing the lever). The assumption is that the factories will all be turned off during the Olympics, and for a few weeks on either side while the tourism rush is on. If you're visiting Beijing and don't have dates planned, though, I suggest you research when the People's Congress is in session next.

I Wonder How Much It Costs When You Break It Down Per Musical Note. Another report comes from Kathleen, a friend from high school and college and a well-placed source in Beijing. One of the ongoing storylines in Beijing is the construction of the National Theatre Dome, and within it, the New Beijing Concert Hall. The complex is destined to become the new cultural center of China, a sumptuously luxurious and completely cutting-edge shrine to the arts. The project is sort of an enormous boondoggle, though, and rumblings suggest that, when it's completed, the cost per seat in the new Concert Hall will be equal to the cost of building an entire school in one of the rural areas.

Maybe There's a Little Counterfeit Version of Me Running Around There Somewhere? If the amount of intelligence and ingenuity that the Chinese put into knocking things off went into actually creating new products, the American economy would be doomed once and for all. There are all kinds of cultural reasons I could blather about to explain why they've chosen to be the best copyists in the world rather than the best innovators - Confucian traditions about interaction with the past, and the like - but instead, I will just marvel at some of the amazing things they've been able to copy at lower cost. For example: eggs. Eggs are one of the cheapest staple foods to produce, and somehow, the Chinese have succeeded in synthesizing them artificially for even less than it would cost, in China, to get the real ones. Also, vodka. Have you ever seen the Mythbusters where they put cheap plastic-bottle vodka (they call it "rotka," but that is a ridiculous word) through a Brita filter 13 times, effectively purifying it to the quality of good vodka? This works, but in the U.S., it doesn't make any sense: purifying an entire bottle of vodka 13 times costs more in Brita filters than the difference in price between cheap vodka and good vodka. In China, though, they've perfected and cheapened the process, so they import cheap wine, purify it for pennies on the bottle, and reseal into empty Stolichnaya bottles. This explains why I was able to go to a club in Shanghai, pay 120 yuan (about $15), and get open bar service of Stoli vodka all night long (still not sure how they fake the Jameson whisky so well). Of course, it's not all so harmless as eggs and vodka. Latin America is always dealing with counterfeit medicines made in China. One story I heard involves a cough medicine in which the Chinese manufacturer switched out the glucose syrup for some industrial solvent of comparable consistency. A few dead Latin American kids later...

Kids Who Date-Rape Themselves! For all the talk about lead-contaminated kids toys coming from China, my favorite story is this one. Some toy manufacturer was selling little metal toys that were supposed to be coated in a (non-toxic) chemical that, when wet, magnetized the metal. The idea was that the pieces were just plain and inert, until a kid got them wet, and then they would stick together. The Chinese manufacturer discovered, though, that the non-toxic chemical used to magnetize the metal could be replaced with a cheaper alternative that just so happened to create GHB (a popular date-rape drug) as a by-product when combined with water. Unfortunately, the children's preferred method of wetting the toys was sticking them in their mouths. Which basically led to a series of kids putting their toys in their mouth, drugging themselves, and mysteriously passing out.

Are all of these stories true? Some I've seen verified in the news (date-rape toys), some are just conjecture (People's Congress and pollution). Personally, I believe all of them. But in a way, what does it matter? The fact that these absurd stories about China are even considered plausible tells you all you need to know.


KC said...

Hi Ken,

Thank you for stopping by my blog yesterday. I appreciate the comment!

I will add this blog to my list of daily reads...Harvard law AND study abroad?! I know this will be very interesting reading.

Hope you'll stop by my little corner of the net again soon. :)

KC said...

Okay, I love your blog. What I'd love more is a new entry.

See what you can do about that and get back to me.

I need SOMETHING to read while I'm in the library! :)