Posts tagged: China

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – What to Eat

By , April 23, 2019

October was my dad’s first trip to China. But by the second day in Beijing, he remarked “these people are always eating!” It’s true – Chinese people are always eating. And eating amazing food to boot. So the number one take away from this post is, if you see a line of Chinese people forming around a food stand or in a crowded restaurant – you need to go to that place!  Generally, 21 million people can’t be wrong. And don’t be afraid to eat the food, even if they are selling it on the street. The Beijing government has become fastidious about the cleanliness of street vendors.

With Beijing being the birthplace of some of China’s most iconic dishes and snacks, it is culinary dream. So if something looks good, try it. But just to give a little bit of direction to the first time visitor, here are some things that China Law & Policy never misses out on when visiting Beijing.

Baozi – 包子

A plate of mini baozi. Make sure you get the big ones too!

Baozi is a little piece of heaven here on earth. And I have never understood why it hasn’t become more of a thing in places like New York City. Luckily baozi can be found on almost every street corner in Beijing – either at the window of a small restaurant or from a baozi hawker. Baozi is essentially a steamed, large, bready dumpling that can be eaten at any time of day. Inside this breaded goodness is a filling that can be anything – pork, beef, lamb, egg, an assortment vegetables. The bun that surrounds the filling often gets soaked in the filling’s sauce, making for a savory experience.

Zhajiangmian 炸酱面

A good place to try zhajiangmian

Zhajiangmian – a noodle dish with a tangy pork and bean sauce – is the first thing I try to find after landing in Beijing and its often the last thing I eat before leaving. Nothing is more Beijing than zhajiangmian and, sort of like bagels outside of New York City, it never tastes as good anywhere else in the world.  You can get zhajiangmian in lots of places in Beijing but the place that I think is the best is Xincheng Xiaomianguan (新城削面管). There is one in the Dashilar hutong area and one just south of the Drum Tower. Likely they are elsewhere in the city. But if you can’t find it, just ask your hotel where you can get some zhajiangmian nearby.

Jianbing – 煎饼

Fresh jianbing

I am not a fan of jianbing, but most people are and it is quintessentially Beijing. So it is a must try and tried fresh. The base is a very light and fluffy crepe and when it gets firm enough, a tangy, hot sauce is washed over it, an egg cracked on top and eventually scallions added. Sometimes a fried bread stick is also added. Once cooked, it is folded and ready to be wolfed down for a delectable treat.

Peking/Beijing Duck – 北京烤鸭

Preparing some Peking Duck

Eating Peking Duck in Beijing is not a cliché – it is a must! And it’s hard to find a bad place to eat it. Basically look for a crowded Peking duck restaurant and go in. If you can’t find one nearby, then head to Quanjude (全聚德). Quanjude, first founded in 1864, makes a mean, delicious duck.  Some might turn up their noses at the fact they are now a chain, but whatever. You aren’t in Beijing to be cool; you are there to eat good food and Quanjude offers great duck. If you have a bit more money to burn, there is Da Dong (大董) which serves splendid duck in a higher-end setting that is an experience to say the least. I prefer the one in by Worker’s Stadium(工体)with its neon lights and plastic, life-size horses in galloping poses throughout the restaurant.

Lamb Hotpot (火锅)

Lamb hotpot and other yummy things!

In the United States, when people think of hot pot, they often think of the super spicy version from Sichuan. But hotpot is also very much a Beijing thing, with the focus being lamb. Additionally, Beijing hotpot can have a spicy broth or a non-spicy broth. A simmering pot of the broth cooks in the middle of the table, with raw meat, vegetables and starch ordered to be cook in the broth once it starts boiling. It is best to go with a group so as to taste as much as possible. So if you are traveling with friends and family or a tour, grab a few people and go. If you are a meat eater, be sure to order the lamb slices. Potatoes, tofu, fish balls, chrysanthemum leaves and rice noodles are some of my favorites to throw in the pot as well. Once cooked, you can dip them into the sesame sauce that will be provided.

Beijing Yogurt (老北京酸奶)

Traditional Beijing yogurt

When one thinks of China, one does not immediately think “dairy.” But in Beijing, yogurt has been sold for centuries and is a rather exquisite treat to try while wandering the hutongs. Unlike U.S. yogurt, it is drinkable and you eat it using a straw. It is also unique in that it is sweet, but not overly sweet, with a tinge of the sour. It’s hard to describe why it is delicious which means, eat it.

This post could go on forever about all the scrumptious things to eat in Beijing. The point is, in Beijing, eating is half the fun; actually, it’s probably 75% of the fun.  So just try everything. And if you didn’t eat one of the things listed above, don’t stress about it. As long as you ate something good, that’s all that matters!

But did you discover some edible delightness that didn’t make it to this list? Or found a restaurant that is a must to visit? If so, we would love to hear about it so please share in the comments section below.

And most importantly, have fun in Beijing!

After a breakfast of baozi, Pops, having fun at the Drum Tower on his last day in Beijing!

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – Things to See & Do

By , April 22, 2019

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

The Forbidden City is a must see, but here are som other recommendations

Few cities have seen as much change as Beijing. When I lived there in the late 1990s, farmers still entered the city with mule-drawn carts to sell their harvest on some random corner in downtown Beijing. They could do that then because many of the farms were just outside of the fourth ring road. Today, fruits and vegetables are largely bought in supermarkets. Flashy office buildings fill the skyline and luxury cars line the roads. In less than two decades, Beijing has transformed from a sleepy capital city into a major, modern metropolis.

But echos of the past still fill the streets and tourists – if they know where to look – can still see customs that are centuries old. Old men still walk their birds every morning; candied hawthorn sticks are still hawked by street sellers; and women practice their taichi early in the morning in Beijing’s various parks. For a first time visitor, here are some things that China Law & Policy thinks should not be missed.

Jingshan Park at Dawn

My Dad, first timer to Beijing, overlooking the Forbidden City from Jingshan Park

Here is a secret about Beijing. Although it is a city of over 21 million people, you can have a little bit of it to yourself very early in the morning. So learn to love your jetlag and just get up when your body tells you to, which, for most people traveling from the United States, will be around dawn. One place you want to visit that early in the morning is Jingshan Park. Jingshan Park sits right behind the Forbidden City. The hill that is the park’s defining feature was created from the dirt that was dug up to make the Imperial Palace’s moat, and it offers some of the most spectacular views of Beijing. As soon as you enter the park, follow the signs that take you to the top of the hill. In a few hours, the hill will be a mad house but at 7 in the morning you could easily be the only one at the top. Enjoy the silence, the view and the light breeze across your face. Just to the south you will see the shimmering yellow rooves of the Forbidden City – on a sunny morning, the rooves will glow. But even on a cloudy or rainy day the view is not to be missed. And don’t forget to look at the other views – on the north side you will see the Drum and Bell towers; to the west will be the white pagoda of Houhai. Enjoy it for as long as you like, knowing that for hundreds of years, others have shared in this view. Then walk down and watch the senior set doing their taichi exercises.

Walk the Hutongs

My Dad, enjoying the Beijing hutongs

Hutongs – the alleyways where Beijing residents have lived since the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) – are unique to northern China. No other place in the world has such architecture and it is a pity to not spend some time exploring these lanes. At one point the entire city was made up of hutongs but unfortunately, with the Chinese government’s desire to make Beijing into a “modern” city for the 2008 Olympics, many of the hutongs were demolished for large, non-descript apartment housing. However, there are still some hutongs left to explore where you can see how everyday life has been lived for centuries. One hutong area is the between the Drum Tower and the Lama Temple. This area has become westernized and you will find bars, coffee shops and high-end restaurants that cater to the expat crowd. But I do enjoy sitting in Café Confucius, having a nice latte with their cat, and watching everyday life pass by. If your travels do not take you to that area, you can also explore the hutongs just south of Tiananmen known as Dashilar. While a much more commercial district, it’s still a lot of fun to explore.

Inside Mei Lanfang’s siheyuan home

Do remember though that people still live in these hutongs. And while it is completely fine to wander the alleyways, it is not fine to enter into the courtyards where people live, even if the door is open. If you would like to see a traditional hutong home – known as a siheyuan (“four connected wall garden”) – check out the Mei Lanfang Museum over in the Huguosi hutong area, one of my favorite hutong areas. Not only will you be able to walk through a siheyuan home, but you will learn about a rather interesting and charismatic figure in Peking Opera and Chinese history.

Huguosi Hutong Area at night, Oct. 2018

Great Wall

Yes, you should go to the Great Wall. It’s mesmerizing to stand atop the Wall and look as it stretches endlessly into the distance. The only real question is, which part of the wall to see. Should you see the is the reconstructed wall or the “wild wall?”  I generally recommend the reconstructed wall for a first-timer. And if reconstructed is what you choose, the section to go to is Mutianyu (which if you walk in the direction of watchtower 23, you will hit the wild wall). If there are two or more of you, then hiring a driver to spend the day out there is worth it. The driver generally knows to leave early – the wall opens at 8 AM and, on a weekday, if you are there at 8, you will have some of the wall to yourself. As I mentioned yesterday, I have used Miles Meng’s service the last two times I have visited the Wall and find it well worth it.

Dad & me at the Mutianyu Great Wall, Oct. 2018

If you want to do the “wild wall,” do not do it alone.  I can’t stress that enough. Do it with a group so that you have a guide in case there are any accidents. Sprained ankles are probably the most common, but there are significant drops in certain places where the path narrows. I recommend signing up for a trip with Beijing Hikers. Usually it is a group of 10 to 15 people, with a bus pickup in downtown Beijing. If you are doing the wild wall, do wear hiking shoes.

Summer Palace

After the Great Wall, the Summer Palace is perhaps one of the most extraordinary tourist sites in Beijing. As its name connotes, it was the summer home of the Qing emperors after the Old Summer Palace was destroyed by French and British troops in 1860 (with some of the most prized antiquities of China carted off).  While the Summer Palace certainly has buildings that are must sees, it is more than just a palace. It is a massive, beautiful park where you could easily spend a whole day if you have the time. People may say that you only need two hours to “do” the Summer Palace, but this would be a mistake. After seeing the major sites in the park, go off on some of the side paths and enjoy the peace and quiet with spectacular views of the lake and Beijing to the southeast. Bring your lunch as the Summer Palace is a great place to picnic, relax and just have fun.

Beijing’s Summer Palace on a clear October day

Lama Temple

Beijing has quite a number of impressive Buddhist temples but the Lama Temple outshines them all.  Originally built as a residence for one of the Qing Dynasty princes, the building was converted to a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in 1744 and has remained one ever since. It is still a practicing monastery and if you get there early enough, you might be able to see the end of the morning group prayers. It is something to listen to rather than to watch. In fact, much of the experience at the Lama Temple is about your other senses. Through out the temple complex, the sweet smell of incense will fill your nose and even though it is often crowded, it is quiet enough that you can hear the tinkle of the small bells hanging in the breeze. It is this feeling of peacefulness – in the heart of Beijing – that will be a more lasting memory than any picture.

Burning incense inside Beijing’s Lama Temple

The World Trade Center’s 6th Floor Terrace

Now that you have seen the old, it’s time to bask in the new.  The place to do that is China’s World Trade Center (Guomao – 国贸), a massive complex of office buildings, hotels and a multi-floored mall in the southeast corner of Beijing’s Third Ring Road. The two, glass brown buildings at the south of the complex, the ones that look very 1970s, were the original World Trade Center buildings that opened around 1990. I actually worked in one of them in 1999 and at that time, those two towers were surrounded by shanty towns. Today, those towns have been replaced by some of China’s most impressive, glittering architecture, including the imposing CCTV tower. And there is no better place to view Beijing’s modern architecture than from the 6th floor terrace of the World Trade Center mall.  If you find yourself getting lost in the maze of a mall, just follow the signs to the Blue Frog restaurant. The terrace shares space with that restaurant. But no worries if you are not up for a bite. Fortunately, most of the terrace is free and open to the public. 

Viewing China’s present from the 6th Floor Terrace at World Trade

These are just a few suggestions of what to see in Beijing. The most important thing is just being there, in the heart of this vibrant city that is changing the world. Was there something else you did in Beijing that didn’t make the list and should have?  Please feel free to comment below about your favorite Beijing experiences. And join us tomorrow as we conclude this series with the all important “what to eat” in Beijing. 

Just for Fun: The Best of Beijing – Know Before You Go

By , April 21, 2019

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

Getting Ready for the Flight to Beijing

Beijing has long fascinated the Western mind. Since Marco Polo published his travelogue of China in 1300, Westerns have been inspired to visit Beijing and have rarely left disappointed.  And rightfully so for the emperors of China knew what they were doing when they built the city. On a clear day, Beijing’s imposing, ancient architecture, with its blazing red walls and shimmering gold rooves, pops against the bright blue sky. Even with some of the city’s destruction during the Mao era and, more recently, for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is still a city like no other in the world.

But for a first time visitor, this city of 21 million people can overwhelm. There is so much to see, so much to do, so much to eat. How does one prioritize?  China Law & Policy is here to help. In this three-part Just for Fun series, we give some pointers – based on our own experience in Beijing – on what a first time visitor should look to do. What should you see?  What should you eat?  Today, we start with some preliminary matters to take care of before you even get on your flight to Beijing.  For those of you who are regular visitors to Beijing, feel free to share in the comment section what you think is essential for a first-timer needs to prepare for his or her trip.

Virtual Private Networks

Before you get to the Great Wall, you will encounter the China Firewall

As soon as you arrive at the Beijing Capital Airport, you will be behind “China’s Great Firewall.” Those websites you visit daily – the New York Times, anything Google related (think gmail, maps), Facebook, Twitter – are blocked by government decree. But there are ways around it; one way is the use of a Virtual Private Network (“VPN”). Technically, accessing the internet through anything other than access points provided by the Chinese government is a violation of 1997 temporary regulations that are still in effect. And Chinese citizens have been fined ($150) during a recent government campaign against VPN usage. But most tourists that visit China use a VPN and here is a list of VPNs that usually work in China.  Here though is the clincher – if you are going to use one, you have to download it on all your electronic devices before you leave for China. Because VPN’s are essentially illegal in China, their websites are blocked in China and app stores are not permitted to offer VPNs once you are in China. So be sure to download them on your cell phone, laptop, etc., a few days before you leave and play with them so you know how to work them. A VPN will run you between $12 to $15/month. Almost all of the VPNs require automatic renewal on your credit card, so mark your calendar to terminate your subscription once you return.

Your Passport – Don’t Leave Home Without It

You will need your passport to get on to Tiananmen Square

Second thing to note is that you need to travel with your passport on you at all times (and in case you missed it in preparing, you need a visa to get in). The U.S. Department of State recently reminded tourists traveling to China to always carry their passports. Additionally, you will need it to get through security checkpoints at certain tourist sites, such as Tiananmen Square. More importantly, for those traveling to China in their golden years, some tourist sites give a discount – sometimes as much as 50%! – to anyone 60 years and older (Forbidden City, Summer Palace are two such places). But the only way to verify that fact is by showing your passport. So don’t miss out on that deal.

Cash is King, At Least for Tourists

For tourists, China is still very much a cash-based society. China sort of skipped over credit cards and went straight to mobile payments.  At a small, hole-in-the-wall shop on some random street in Beijing, you will see Chinese people just flashing their phone at a machine to pay for their water. Fortunately for tourists, these shops still must accept cash. But they won’t accept credit card. For sure you can use your credit card at your hotel, for dinners at more established restaurants, and in fancier shops. When it comes to everything else, you will need cash. So you will be going to the ATM. . . a lot.  You should be able to use your ATM card at the major Chinese banks – Bank of China, China Construction Bank, ICBC, and China Merchant Bank, all of which are common around the city.  And remember, you cannot purchase Chinese money outside of China.  So as soon as you get out of customs at the airport, make a stop at one of the many ATMs that are in the airport and withdraw some cash. How much you need for the trip all depends on what you plan to do and what you plan to buy.

How to Get Around

Now, for taxis. It will be almost impossible to hail one off the street and Uber and Lyft are not really used by Chinese taxi drivers. They use DiDi, which does now have an English version but I have yet to use it. So if you don’t use Didi, empty taxis will drive right by you – even with your hand held up trying to hail them. For some reason, taxi drivers prefer a DiDi fare over a hail. So if you don’t want to download Didi on your cell phone, then your best friend is going to be Beijing’s extensive subway system which is a great way to experience Beijing as a Beijinger. But try to avoid rush hour when the trains are packed. Also, some stops are not terribly close to the tourist attraction and often there is a long walk to transfer trains.  So if you are traveling with someone who has challenges walking a lot, investing in a car service is a good idea. For the past few years, I have used Miles Meng (click here for info – just email Miles and he will set it up and give you the price) for airport pick-ups, driving to the Great Wall, and heading out to the Summer Palace. The driver drops you off and then tells you where to meet for the pick-up. It is more expensive than the subway, but when I was traveling with my Dad, a senior, it was a great way to see a lot of things in a short amount of time without tiring him out.

Toilet Paper – Don’t Leave Home Without It

Some things never change – a view of the Forbidden City at Sunset, Oct. 2018

When I first went to China in 1993, my roommate, who had lived in China before, immediately told me that I needed to carry a roll of toilet paper with me. Twenty-six years later, that advice is still applicable. Beijing is great in terms of public toilets. It’s just that the public toilets don’t supply toilet paper. Which makes sense in a city of 21 million people; imagine how much of the city budget would be earmarked for toilet paper. While you could carry pocket tissues and they would do the same job, in the end, I just end up throwing a roll in my backpack. And you can buy very nice toilet paper in local shops and supermarkets when you arrive – no need to bring that from the U.S. And in terms of public bathrooms, most now do offer at least one stall that is a “western” toilet and not a squat toilet. Although in more dubious bathrooms off the beaten path, I choose the squat toilet over a sit down.  Now that you have the preliminary matters down, it is time to start planning the itinerary!  Join us tomorrow when China Law & Policy shares some of its favorite things to see and do in Beijing.

Walls of Weakness

By , April 14, 2019
President Donal Trump visits wall prototypes in San Diego

Almost daily, Donald Trump talks about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.  According to him, it’s needed to keep immigrants out.  It was his commitment for a border wall that lead to a 35-day government shutdown back in January and, when Trump failed to secure any funding for his wall, caused him to declare a national emergency.  But Trump isn’t the first world leader to look to a wall as a way to keep people out. That dubious honor belongs to the Chinese. It was the Chinese who built a 5,500-mile-long wall along its northern border to keep out the different tribes just outside its borders and to maintain the purity of their Han culture.

In fact, he Chinese have been building walls for over 2,000.[1]  Starting with the Qin dynasty (China’s “first” dynasty), a wall was seen as a way to keep foreigners to the north out. But for most of China’s history, this wall was largely mounds of rammed earth. It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD) that a more permanent structure of mortar and bricks was finally contemplated.

Walking along the Great Wall, at Mutianyu

But the Ming did not build a wall out of strength; it built it from a place of weakness. After more than a century of expansion in trade and influence, with one of the most powerful navies in the world that promoted trade as far off as the coast of east Africa, by the mid to late 1400s the Ming Dynasty began to retreat inward.  It no longer sought trade abroad and its global power and influence receded. And its aversion to trade was not just restricted to the maritime sphere; it also included the tribes to the north. It was the Ming’s trade embargo on arms, copper, iron and horses with its northern neighbors that caused the northern tribes to unite and begin constant attacks on the Ming.

With these attacks, the Ming began to spend more and more resources on building the Wall.  For the next 150 years, the Ming’s sole focus – and at great expense to its empire – was the defense of its northern frontier, including constant repair and reinforcement of the Great Wall.  What tourists see today – the reconstructed Wall at Badaling and Mutianyu or the wild Wall at Simatai and Gubeikou – are relics of this emblem of a dynasty in decline. In 1644 the Manchus, a non-Han Chinese tribe to the north, breached the wall, defeated the Ming and established the Qing Dynasty, a non-Chinese dynasty that would rule until the dynastic model was overthrown in 1911.

Ming Dynasty soldiers

But the Great Wall is more than a symbol of ineffectiveness; it also demonstrates the danger in a country’s own isolationist policy. For the first 150 years of the Ming Dynasty, China, through effective trade relations with the northern tribes, was able to keep peace with its neighbors. It wasn’t until it began to turn inward and cut off trade that trouble emerged. But instead of reversing its policy, the Ming dug in, directing more and more of the empire’s resources and attention to building the Great Wall. Trump appears to be on the same collision course with history, taking the American public with him. In addition to shutting down the government for over a month, a move that appears to have cost the American public $11 billion in lost economic opportunities, by declaring a national emergency, Trump now seeks to siphon off from other federal agencies $8 billion to build his wall. In addition, instead of addressing some of the causes of the current immigration trends at the U.S.’ southern border – such as the failing central American states of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – Trump is digging in his heels, punitively threatening to cut off all forms of aid to those countries. Like with the Ming Dynasty, Trump’s demand for a wall is not just a call for something ineffective –most undocumented individuals in the U.S. are a result of visa overstays not physically walking over the border – it is also continues the United States’ path on an isolationist, anti-trade and anti-engagement strategy. For the Ming it was the beginning of their decline. Time will only tell if the same holds true for the United States.

The Great Wall at Mutianyu, Oct. 2019

[1] For this post, CL&P relies on two sources for the history of the Great Wall of China: Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization (Cambridge University Press, 2nd Ed. 1996) and Peter Hessler, Walking the Wall (The New Yorker, May 21, 2007).

Just for Fun – Movie Review: Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White

By , April 4, 2019

Just for Fun (“JFF”) is a sporadic series on China Law & Policy where we take a break from the more serious aspects of China’s development. JFF often features movie reviews, art reviews, or anything else that could be considered “fun.”

Bin and Qiao, the two lovers at the center of director Jia Zhangke’s new masterpiece, Ash is Purest White (江湖儿女), are having the time of their lives as the film opens. It’s 2001 and Bin (Liao Fan) is a successful gang leader in the declining industrial city of Datong. Qiao (Zhao Tao) is his dutiful girlfriend, always by his side, collecting money at the mahjong tables on his behalf and picking up Bin’s gun when he accidently drops it on the dance floor. She is also the sole care taker of her father, a man who once was an important leader in Datong’s coal mines when those mines were flourishing. Now he commandeers the neighborhood loudspeaker for his drunken tirades.

But Bin and Qiao are united in their belief in the gang world’s longstanding code of loyalty; loyalty to each other, loyalty to their family, and loyalty to the gang. But that loyalty is tested when Bin is attacked by a rival gang – an exciting, kung fu-inspired fight scene – and Qiao saves his life by firing his gun. Both are arrested but its is Qiao, never revealing that the gun was Bin’s, that takes the fall with a five year sentence for possession of a gun. When Qiao is finally released, there is no Bin waiting for her. Instead, she has go find him, journeying through parts of China hundreds of miles from her home.

Qiao (Zhao Tao) in the Three Gorges Valley, searching for Bin

Her search for Bin takes her to one of the small river towns in the Three Gorges valley. It is 2006 so while the town still exits, its demise is imminent. Beautiful shots of the Yangtze, flowing through the town, are punctured with the shrill sound of public announcements, instructing local residents to pack up their bags because their town of over 2,000 years will soon be flooded into oblivion with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. It is clear that Qiao is beginning to realize that she is in a new China. And it becomes clear to the audience that while Ash is Purest White is ostensibly a story about love lost (not surprisingly Qiao finds out that Bin left her and gang life) it is more a story of China during those first two, tumultuous decades of the 2000s. 

And Jia quietly captures the momentousness of those two decades, both while Qiao is in the Three Gorges Valley and on her train trip back to Datong, where she ends up encountering the first of the new Chinese, a rugged adventurer, with Western-style backpacker gear, on his way to Xinjiang to search for UFOs. When Bin comes to see her ten years later, she meets him at the high speed rail station clasping her smart phone. Ever loyal to the gang and to the life, it is Qiao who now runs the Datong mahjong parlor and has become an underworld boss. It is also Qiao – still loyal to Bin – who nurses him back to health.

Director Jia Zhangke

Ash is Purest White shows why Jia Zhangke is one of China’s greatest directors. The genius behind Jia, which is perfected in this movie, is his ability – without any words – to communicate the confusion and uncomfortableness of living in a country that is undergoing one of the fastest economic transitions the world has ever seen. Qiao’s loyalty is admirable and because the movie centers around her (with Zhao Tao giving one of her best performances), we are able to see her transform and become a stronger woman. But in the end, she is still stuck in Datong; her commitment to the past – the code of loyalty – keeps her there. Bin on the other hand is not; he’s on the move, able to forget the codes of the past. And in a country like China, is it better to hold on to the past or to be constantly on the move? Ash is Purest White never answers that question, but, by asking it, the movie shows the difficult spot that China and its people are in as the country continues to develop at breakneck speed. 

 Rating: ★★★★½

Book Review: Peter Hessler’s Strange Stones

By , March 17, 2019

I miss Peter Hessler.  While there are still a lot of great writers covering China, there was something about Hessler’s writing – his ability to capture a moment and the ordinary people in it – that resonated.  His three books about China – River Town, Oracle Bones and Country Driving – are still some of my favorites. But Hessler left China around 2007, after covering it for almost a decade for the New Yorker, and I still feel the loss.    

When I heard that Hessler was set to publish a new book this spring, this time about Egypt, the country he has been living in since 2011, I looked up to see when it would be published (May 7, 2019 ). But, in looking up the publication date, I stumbled upon another book that Hessler published back in 2013, one that I hadn’t been aware of previously; one that is about China: Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West.

Author Peter Hessler

Ostensibly, Strange Stones is a collection of 18 essays, 13 of which cover Hessler’s time in China and a few about his move back to the United States. But Hessler’s China essays – covering the period of 2000 to 2008 – are a snapshot of a China that doesn’t exist anymore. In the decade since Hessler left, China has achieved some amazing feats: it weathered 2008 economic recession better than most; it has become the second largest economy in the world; in many key industries (think 5G, artificial intelligence) it is a leader; and both its government and its people have a confidence that was absent back in 2008. 

And that is why reading Strange Stones now – almost a decade after some of the most recent essays were written – is particularly poignant. Hessler portrays a China and its people that are just starting to come into their own. And in a way that the reader can relate to for Hessler has a gift for truly capturing the souls of people. Each of his subjects opens up to him, telling him their secret aspirations, as well some of their regrets.  From a worker in a Chinese bra factory, to the manager of Hessler’s car rental spot in Beijing; to the Uranium widows in Colorado who wish uranium mining – and the economy with it – could come back to their town; to a pharmacist in a small border town between Colorado and Utah, Hessler forces you to briefly see the world through their eyes.  And by doing so, you come to realize that Hessler’s subjects – be them in China or in Colorado – are no different than us.  A sentiment that too many people are apt to forget these days.Strange Stones doesn’t have the overarching narrative of Hessler’s previous books, but, to understand where China is today vis-à-vis a decade ago, it is still a must read.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Strange Stones: Dispatches from East and West, by Peter Hessler (Harper Perennial, 2013), 368 pages

Meng, Kovrig & Spavor – Same Same But Different

By , March 4, 2019

On Friday, Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, filed a lawsuit alleging that the Canada Border Services Agency (“CBSA”), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the attorney-general of Canada violated her constitutional rights prior to her arrest for extradition to the United States. In her claim, Meng alleges that on December 1, 2018, while transferring flights in Vancouver, CBSA detained her under the guise of a routine immigration inspection.  It was only after three hours of questioning and the seizure and search of all her electronic devices did CBSA finally inform her that she was under arrest, had the right to remain silent and had the right to an attorney.

Meanwhile, in China, two Canadians face a similar predicament.  Like Meng, they have been held in detention; they have been denied access to a lawyer; and they are being bombarded with questions, all in the attempt to have them incriminate themselves. But unlike Meng, their detention is now approaching three months, not a mere three hours; and there is no hope that they will ever be able to bring the claims she has raised – the abuse that is inherent when detained and questioned about a possible crime without a lawyer – against the Chinese government. 

Detained Canadian Michael Kovrig

On December 10, 2018, in what many believe was retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng, Chinese public security bureaus (“PSB”) picked up Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, two Canadians working on conflict resolution between North Korea and pretty much the rest of the world.  Kovrig, a former diplomat at the Canadian embassy in Beijing, was working for the non-profit International Crisis Group. Spavor was a consultant living in China and working on North Korean issues, include travel tours of North Korea.  Both were picked up by public security, Korvig by Beijing PSB and Spavor by Dandong PSB, for questioning related to possibly “endangering national security,” a crime that could encompass a variety of activities. (See China’s Criminal Law (“CL”) – English translation courtesy of China Law Translate – Arts. 102-112).

But unlike Meng, who is out on bail in Vancouver, free to meet with her lawyers and assist them in bringing new cases that challenge her current situation, Kovrig and Spavor sit in an unknown location in China, at the beck and call of the PSB and with little contact with the outside world.  Unfortunately the rights that Meng can avail herself – right to bail and the ability to challenge the constitutionality of her arrest – are not available to those suspected of crimes in China. Instead, for anyone suspected of crimes endangering national security, Chinese police are able to institute residential surveillance at a designated location (“RSDL”) for up to six months. (See China’s Criminal Procedure Law (“CPL”) – English translation courtesy of China Law Translate – Arts. 75 & 79).  And this six-month RSDL occurs before the police arrest the suspect, giving them unlimited access to interrogate the individual in order to build their case, or more aptly to pressure the suspect into confessing.

Detained Canadian Michael Spavor

While the designated location cannot be a detention facility (CPL Art. 75), it can be any other place where the police maintain constant surveillance. And while most criminal detainees have the right to meet with their lawyer, those suspected of endangering national security do not.  Instead, the investigating body – either the PSB or the prosecutor’s office – must approve the meeting. (CPL Art. 39). And largely they do not approve such meetings. Why should they?  From the six-month RSDL to the denial of lawyer access, the system itself incentivizes the PSB and prosecutors’ offices to ratchet up the possible charges, detaining individuals with crimes of endangering national security and then use the next six months to figure it out. 

Add to that the fact that the detention of Korvig and Spavor comes in the midst of the Chinese government’s row with Canada over the arrest and possible extradition of Meng to the United States.  A day after Meng’s lawyers announced that she filed a lawsuit against the Canadian government, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the Chinese Communist Party posted an article on its website about Kovrig’s detention and possible crime.  Relying on an unnamed source within a “relevant department,” the article stated that Kovrig is being investigated for the specific crime of stealing and spying on China’s state secrets and intelligence (CL, Art. 111).  According to this unnamed source, since 2017, Kovrig would enter China on his work visa and obtain state secrets from Spavor. The article failed to state what those state secrets were and how two Canadians meeting and discussing a topic they both work on could somehow rise to the level of stealing state secrets. Oddly, Spavor’s legal liability in all of this was not mentioned.

Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou

But the article raised the very real possibility that the Chinese government is willing to send Kovrig to jail for a very long time. Stealing state secrets carries a prison sentence of five to 10 years but for those situations where the circumstances are considered “serious,” the sentence can be anywhere from 10 years to life. (CL, Art. 111). If for some reason “grave harm” to China resulted, then the death penalty is a possibility. (Id.)

So while Meng rightfully accesses the protections afforded to all suspects in Canada’s criminal justice system, including the right to zealously challenge the state’s case, Kovrig and Spavor have another three months to go in RSDL before they even find out what charges will be filed against them.

The Digital Silk Road at the China Institute –Too Much Pollyanna?

By , January 8, 2019

Pollyanna, ever the techno-optimist!

By now, most people have heard of One Belt, One Road (“OBOR”) – the Chinese government’s program to build up the infrastructure in developing countries across Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. OBOR has largely been seen as a brick-and-mortar type of operation – building railroads, ports, pipelines. But in 2017, President Xi Jinping announced a new initiative within the government’s OBOR – promotion of a digital silk road.

And on Monday night, the China Institute hosted a discussion of that ambitious new program featuring Winston Ma, Managing Director and Chief Investment Officer of China Silkroad Investment Corporation, and moderated by Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University Arthur L. Carter Center of Journalism.  But, while the event was advertised as to be a lively, thought-provoking one that would confront pressing issues such as whether China’s digital silk road will lead to China’s domination of global internet standards and whether China’s technology will actually help emerging economies, Ma and Shirky’s conversation ended up being shallow and, as one audience member stated, blindly “techno-optimistic.”

Camal on the Digital Silk Road

For sure, the event did highlight some of developments that the rest of the world should wake up and take notice of. Going from building physical infrastructure in the developing world to cyber infrastructure unmaksks the Chinese government’s grand ambition to open those markets to its companies and become a  global superpower. And in some ways, as a country that developed simultaneously with the internet, China is uniquely situated to do that.  As Shirky pointed out, China was more of a blank slate to develop, and continuously modernize, its internet infrastructure.  The United States on the other hand, is saddled with the infrastructure of earlier telecommunications. Ma noted that this structural freedom enabled 800 million people to access the internet largely through mobile devices.  In fact, China has by-passed the use of credit cards – moving from a cash-based economy to a mobile payment one. Cash is often not an accepted form of currency, even by street vendors. Instead, the only way to pay in many places is with the swipe of your phone. What happens to those 600 million people without phones – and thus access to this economy – was not addressed.

But Ma further noted that it is this type of technology – and way of thinking – that China is also seeking to export to emerging economies.  The Taobao Villages – where farmers in rural areas can open an online “shop” and sell their produce or local crafts – is a model that could be replicated in other emerging economies. But is this good for the farmers in these other countries – to be dependent on exporting their craft goods to richer individuals?  Is it even good for the Chinese farmers? Instead of demanding that their government do more for them – such as provide quality education, health care, and social benefits that are on par with east coast cities – they must settle for peddling their goods in a virtual mall.  Unfortunately, these questions were not answered.

Surveillance in Xinjiang

Instead, both Shirky and Ma were unshaken in their commitment to the good that the internet and mobile devices can bring to all societies. Even when an audience member asked a pointed question about the use of this technology in surveilling and unlawfully detaining a million Muslims Uighurs in Xinjiang province, Ma evaded answering the question, instead re-focusing on antitrust issues. Shirky fared no better; he neither pressed Ma on the question nor rescued Ma from it by addressing it himself.

Ma was right to note that the global, technology infrastructure is the future and largely that future is still unwritten. That is why – as Shirky noted – it is dangerous for the United States to be backing out of so many global treaties and alliances when, as Ma stated, the world is on the cusp of writing “new norms for a new game.” Not only will the United States’ retreat from the global stage mean that U.S. businesses will be at a disadvantage for decades to come, but China will be the one writing those norms.  And given how easily Ma ignored the question on surveillance and mass detention in Xinjiang and how quickly Shirky acquiesced, the question is, is this a good thing?

A Very Unmerry Christmas from China

By , December 25, 2018

In happier times, Wang Quanzhang, his wife Li Wenzu and their son.

This Christmas night, as many across the Western world celebrate this holiday of peace, Wang Quanzhang, a Chinese human rights lawyer, will be jolted awake from his jail cell, rushed to get dressed, and paraded into a courtroom in Tianjin for a criminal trial whose verdict was likely already determined.

Wang is the final victim of the Chinese government’s nation-wide crackdown on human rights advocates, a crackdown that happened three and a half years ago in July 2015.  While most of the other victims of the crackdown have been dealt with, Wang has been held incommunicado – in violation of Chinese law – for over three years.  Unable to see his lawyers or his wife, news of Wang’s well-being has been limited, with news reports occasionally confirming that he is in fact still alive.

But on Christmas Eve, his wife, Li Wenzu, tweeted that she was just informed that Wang would go on trial on December 26.  Make no mistake, the Chinese government’s choice of the day after Christmas for Wang’s trial was intentional.  And does not bode well for Wang.  Knowing that much of the Western world shuts down between Christmas and New Year’s, the Chinese government has used that time to sentence some of its most famous advocates to harsh – and unjustified – prison sentences.  As RFI has pointed out, Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who eventually died in a Chinese prison, was sentenced to 11 years on Christmas Day 2009.  And on December 26 of last year, human rights advocate Wu Gan, another victim of the Chinese government’s 2015 crackdown, was given an eight-year sentence.

For Wednesday, expect another severe sentence for Wang Quanzhang who has been charged with the serious crime of subverting state power.  Not only has Wang refused to “confess” in exchange for leniency and agreeably participate in a show trial, the Chinese government has vilified Wang by name in the press, including naming him as a ringleader.  It also has alleged that because of the alleged influence of “foreign forces,” specifically the use of foreign NGO funds, these lawyers, including Wang, are  national security risks.  And don’t expect the passage of time to soften the government’s view of Wang, especially as China’s economy slows down, threatening the current regime’s stability and power.

The crime of subversion of state power – Article 105 of the Chinese Criminal Law – carries some of the most severe penalties short of capital punishment.  Much is determined on the role of the individual in the subversion.  A ringleader must receive a minimum of 10 years; the maximum sentence is whatever the court – or in this case the Chinese government – wants.  For those who actively participated in the subversion but were not ringleaders, the sentence can be anywhere from between three and 10 years; and those who were mere “participants”, the sentence cannot be more than three years and can be as minimal as controlled release or the deprivation of political rights.  For those who incite subversion (as opposed to actively participate in it), ringleaders shall receive no less than five years and all others no more than five years.

Li Wenzu, Wang Quanzhang’s wife, shaves her head in protest of the three and a half year detention of her husband.

The Chinese government has failed to make the indictment public and likely Wang’s wife – who has been protesting her husband’s detention including publicly shaving her head last week – has not seen it either.  So it is unclear under what portion of Article 105 the Chinese government will seek to punish Wang.  But given the fact that it has already claimed that Wang was a “ringleader,” have held him for over three years with limited access to a lawyer, and is setting this trial for the day after Christmas, expect a severe sentence, likely in the double-digits.  But for Wang, his wife and five-year-old son’s sake, and for China’s future, we hope we are very, very wrong.

What’s the T on China’s Social Credit System? – Jeremy Daum Continues – Part 2 of 2

By , November 13, 2018

This is the second of a two-part interview with Jeremy Daum, senior research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, founder and chief editor of China Law Translate and an expert on China’s social credit system. To read Part 1, click here.

Yale Law Senior Researcher & China Law Translate founder, Jeremy Daum

Yesterday, Jeremy Daum, senior research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, and the founder and chief editor of China Law Translate, started to give us the T – the truth – on China’s social credit system.  In yesterday’s interview, we discussed the social credit system’s blacklists and the Western media’s confusion that the social credit system gives a “score” (it doesn’t).  Today, we continue our interview with Jeremy, discussing some of the other aspects of the social credit system – the need to create some kind of credit history for China’s large number of unbanked, the influence – if any – of private credit companies, what the real threats of the system are, and how does social credit interact with the surveillance state in a place like Xinjiang.

Read the transcript below for Part 2 of this two-part interview. Or click the media player below to listen (total time – 25:53).

CL&P:                  The other thing that you mentioned in the beginning about the social credit, the financial credit, the administrative regulatory/blacklist, but also this moral education and I think that’s one of the one that I think a lot of Westerner’s have a hard time getting their head around is this idea of developing a system of trustworthiness and sincerity throughout society. How exactly does the social credit system go about building that?

JD:      There’s a lot of different factors, and again I think the part that’s most confusing is that all of this stuff gets grouped in together under the title of social credit. People think that somehow those blacklists and somehow those financial credit things must be feeding into these other components whereas it’s really very siloed sort of stuff. Even though some of it does involve data centralization. Part of the way they do it is with education, straight out education and publicity. Having programs, teaching people about financial credit, but also about moral trustworthiness. The idea that you need to be as good as your word. They’re putting that in school curriculum for children, they’re putting it in outreach things for retirees. They’re creating majors of credit management in the financial sense in universities and they’re just trying to spread that idea.

A winning Model Family in Shanghai

The other part of it though is just taking, trying to put forward role models. Departments, this is part of the red list side of things, are supposed to pick people who they think are doing their job great. Going the extra mile and being above what the law requires and put those forward. Then they get publicized through the media and the like. This is not too dissimilar. . . I have a picture you can put on your website if you want from near my house that is model families and it has the photo is of three families in my neighborhood who have been chosen as role models –最美家庭. And do they get any benefits from that? They probably got a fruit basket or something, but they’re just being put up there as a model. That maybe seems a little hokey or-

CL&P:                  Yeah, like student of the month.

JD:      Maybe to our cynical background it seems silly and I suspect it does to a lot of people in China too. But I think that’s pretty much the extent.

CL&P:            Let me ask you, that’s an interesting thing you bring up about financial education and including the morality component in financial education. If it’s about paying your debts I don’t think actually in the United States in my interaction with a lot of the clients I work with, there is an embarrassment for some people in not paying back their debt, and there is also a lack of financial sophistication, especially in low- income individuals because the products are so complicated.

China to teach financial literacy

Do you know to what extent, if China is looking to create a society, you have two thirds of your society that are unbanked, so they don’t really know banking products, they don’t know credit products, how they can be taken advantage by it. Is part of the financial education to teach them the bad parts of banking? I know when my clients come in there’s overdraft fees. They’re paying, even with a Bank of America, Wells Fargo credit card or bank account, yeah they’re not going payday lenders, but they basically have the same effect because of overdraft fees on a $20 purchase they’re paying 300% on not having enough money in your account, overdraft fees and stuff like that. Is the financial education component looking to teach people who haven’t been banking about the dangers of some of these products?

JD:      Yes. I don’t think the market here is as complex yet. We’ve seen various attempts to branch out in the peer-to-peer lending situation which is now getting regulated more tightly. In effect yes, I think it’s teaching people the consequences of not being able to pay back your loans, but also how to evaluate a loan and an opportunity and investment as well. The government wants to make money more mobile to make the population more mobile and this is part of its effort to do that.

CL&P:                 Going back to some of the misconceptions about social credit in the Western press, I think you mentioned before the Sesame Credit. Can you talk a little bit more about the private credit market, developing a credit dossier in the private market vis-à-vis the social credit system itself?

JD:      Yes. Sesame Credit, and the reason I’ve written about it at all, is because early on there were some people out there confusing it with China’s social credit system. Even after I’ve written on it and other people have largely cleared that up, people still seem to think it’s a private version of the social credit system and that’s not right either. This isn’t something that’s going to have a public equivalent. What Sesame Credit is, is if we’re looking within those general categories I mentioned earlier of what social credit contains, they’re within that financial portion. And the People’s Bank of China already has a personal credit reporting system.

Alibaba’s Sesame Credit – making credit simple.

And it authorized, in its attempt to reach the great unbanked, it authorized eight companies that were data-rich to develop systems that might eventually become personal credit reporting systems. Among these was Ant Financial affiliated with the Alibaba empire, and there was Tencent, Tencent had one. But the most prominent has been Ant Financial, Sesame Credit. And this does have a score rating and it has a lot of really cute graphics that have an odometer, sort of, green to red. Sesame made a lot of statements early on about how their system was going to tell you if someone was trustworthy. And they talked about how they were going to mobilize their big data to get this going on. I should say right off the back that none of those eight companies that was given permission to develop a functional system received a license ultimately, to create a licensed personal credit report system.

CL&P:                 So basically the Chinese government said, look we want to see where this goes. We’re going to let you guys experiment, see where it goes, and then they saw where it went and they’re not adopting any of this.

JD:      Yes. They created a little incubator to let these try off and they have a lot of natural advantages and data. But, and I think I mentioned earlier with Ant Financial and Sesame Credit they said well the main problem here is your conflict of interests. You’re basing your evaluation of people solely on their use of your products.

CL&P:                 Right.

JD:      The other problem was that it just wasn’t a great indicator. Now, what they’ve done since then is they’ve created an internet lending database. This isn’t bank lending, but this is lending that was happening through the internet and each of those eight companies that wasn’t given a license originally now owns an equal share in this database that is going to be part of – I’m a little shaky on it myself honestly because there’s not a lot out there – but is going to be part of what they try again to create a viable credit score on. We’ll have some other data outside of their own sphere of influence. And these companies will not be sharing data with each other is my understanding. Sorry, they’ll share the 百行 – the credit-

CL&P:                 The credit report . . .?

JD:      Well no-

CL&P:                 The actual report that shows what you owe?

JD:      So they’ll share this common database the government has licensed with the internet data and they’ll all draw on that and then mix that with their own special sauce at home to create their reports. Ant Financial won’t give Tencent it’s commercial data.

CL&P:                 Okay, so you could theoretically have a different “credit score” from Ant Financial as opposed to Tencent-

JD:      And you would.

CL&P:            Or if all you do is use Ant Financial products you would have no credit score with Tencent or . . .

JD:      How those companies choose to create credit products will be up to them-

CL&P:                 Will be up to them.

JD:      And they might create more than one because part of what the government wants to do in this financial sector is allow companies to start creating more products that would be useful to different people. And so what they create will be up to them.

To go back to Sesame Credit and what it is now. So Sesame Credit, because it doesn’t have an official license, while it would very much like to become something like a FICO score, right now it is really not much more than a rewards or loyalty point system.

CL&P:                 Yeah.

JD:      It’s important to say again, it’s a private scheme, not a pilot for a government scheme. It gives you rewards for using Ant Financial and Ali Pay products and those rewards tend to be things like the waiver of deposits at companies that have signed agreements with Ant Financial, there are no penalties because-

CL&P:                 They want you just to do more commerce. They’re just encouraging you to get commerce there.

JD:      This is a rewards program and some people like it.

CL&P:                 It’s like United Airlines, you’re a part of that program, the rewards program, so therefore you’re going to try to do more United Airlines.

JD:      That’s right. When I ask sometimes people on the street or students that I’ve had who are trying to understand social credit, I ask if they have a Sesame Credit. Sometimes people have to check and see if they do and those who have used it have that same sort of zealot mentality of someone who really loves their Discover card. It’s not a thing. Now that might change someday as it grows.

In most places in the U.S., job applications require a credit check. Even for low-wage employment.

CL&P:                 As we were talking about what the Bank of China has which is basically … In the United States you can go to annualcreditcheck.com or whatever and you can pull your credit report and it just lists what your debts are, it doesn’t give you the score. It sounds like that’s what Bank of China has. I know in the United States there is a tremendous amount of criticism about our credit reports. And again our credit reports and our credit score, most states in the United States do not outlaw the use of credit report pull to get a job, even if it’s not affiliated with anything related. To get a job at McDonald’s in most states, I think New York City is one of the few cities where they’ve banned the box, but you have to agree to allow them to pull your credit even though you’re just wiping the floors in McDonald’s.

There’s a lot of criticism of credit reports in the United States because it doesn’t allow people . . . it’s only about your debts, it’s only about your credit cards, it’s only about your student loans. It’s not about anything good you’re doing, like that you pay your rent on time. So rent doesn’t appear on your credit report. And then a lot of these cards, like the Rush card which is targeted toward people who are unbanked, if you make payments on that it doesn’t, again, appear on your credit report. Only if you stop making payments does it appear so it’s only negative. Has the Bank of China in looking at credit report and what they’ve created on the national level, have they looked . . . Are they just adopting what the United States has, which is definitely not a perfect system, or are they looking to be more holistic and to help people who generally are unbanked get a good credit report by putting their rental income that they’re current on, something like that.

JD:      I’m not honestly sure how they go about calculating the scores. My colleague Jamie Horsley has spent more time looking at these issues. I’ve seen a few reports that come out of it, but I’m not clear. I would say as a general rule while the US and other international foreign models have undoubtedly inspired a lot of what’s happening with the idea of credit reports and even a credit economy, nothing remains unchanged. It will be the “with Chinese characteristics versions.” I think the goal, of course, is to have people with good credit, but there is also this strain of wanting to punish the people who are dishonest that you hear in all the rhetoric and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that some of that’s there.

CL&P:                 In concluding, so it seems like the social credit system, I mean it’s a fascinating, fascinating thing what they’re trying to do. I think it’s maybe not all scary. I think there’s a lot that does need to be done helping people get better credit for your economy and stuff. But what do you think is. . . I mean but there is things . . . I mean it is going to a level of knowledge about people that to us as Westerners is really scary. What do you think are the things that people should be . . . that the Chinese government and the Chinese people maybe should be looking at to be a little nervous about?

JD:      Yeah, so there’s a few things. The first is something that’s already happening which is the real name systems. This is a phenomena that I think a lot of governments are dealing with trying to end data islands by connecting all of this data that the government collects. The government-created data in China is known as public social credit information. Public in the sense of government, not private, not market. I think that anonymity in some aspects of your life, not having all of your data linked is important. It’s not just important for political dissonance and dissent, it’s important for people with unpopular opinions and unpopular lifestyles.

The benefits of anonymity on the internet

The homosexual community might not want the data that they use in their personal life being somehow mingled with the other data. Now in theory it’s only the government that has any access to this data and there wouldn’t be much purpose for mixing everything together. I don’t want to imply that there’s a question about your sexuality in there, but if all of your internet access is done through a real name registration system and all the platforms that you log onto have to have a real name registration, then any sites which requires a login is going to have it and that creates quite a decent profile of a person’s personal life as well, if not to mention, purchasing histories, et cetera.

I think anonymity is important for protecting people, not just in terms of privacy, but in terms of freedom from discrimination, freedom from persecution. In this society if you’re a Christian it could be an issue. There are always going to be groups that aren’t popular in a community and you should be able to have access to things that don’t hurt people without having to make it public. The other question is, like you said, there is a sort of tendency of people like you were talking about in the US with the credit stores we have, to want to generalize beyond this and to want to take a rating in one area and extend it to all other areas. Criminal records are another thing in the US where a criminal record, or even a record of an arrest where you were later exonerated, can be something that can really follow you for quite a long time.

CL&P:            I mean even . . . I think even in the world I work you have a blacklist for tenants who have been sued, who are largely low-income in New York City. And regardless of whether they’ve … the action was frivolous brought by the landlord, they’re still on this blacklist. And unless they’re sophisticated enough to demand that they get taken off the blacklist, they’re on it and then they can’t rent another apartment for five years. And granted it’s a blacklist that is created by a corporate . . . like corporations go in and they review and they create it and then they sell it, but it is still very, very damaging.

JD:      And that’s exactly the sort of system that shows the right kind of problem, is that people are always looking for shorthand to rule out. Anyone who’s ever done hiring or admissions knows that you can’t holistically consider every situation so if there is a blackmark of any kind, even if it turns out it’s based on some sort of an unfair rule system or a faulty premise, you’re going to rely on it to some extent.

The other thing that I think with China’s system that’s important to remember is while I’ve said that the administrative regulation part isn’t so much new or bad as social credit because all it’s really doing is enforcing legal obligations, existing laws. Just that something was in an existing law doesn’t mean it’s good. Better enforcement of bad laws is a problem. Generally speaking enforcement of laws is desirable, but if your law is already unfair that can be an issue. And there are laws in China that I disagree with.

There are limits on the freedom of speech that go beyond anything I can tolerate and other areas as well of course. So that becomes a real issue. This enforcement might work. There is still a fear that these joint punishments will eventually extend to things beyond just judgment defaulters. And judgment defaulter’s already a pretty broad category given that any administrative agency is seeking enforcement on its administrative penalty can go to a court to get an enforcement judge. The concern would be that they try to mobilize this massive array of penalties against people for other types of violations. Essentially making a sort of outlaw system where if you failed to follow the rules then the society is no longer protecting you, you’re now on the outside. Now that doesn’t seem to be happening now, but that is the direction that some people fear. But even with what is happening now, with the real name systems, the tendency of people to overgeneralize and the fact that we’re enforcing laws that aren’t great to begin with, it could be really problematic.

CL&P:                 How does social credit interact with some of the privacy issues, some of the surveillance issues that we’re seeing?

JD:      One thing that surprises a lot of people is how much ink is spent in the social credit regulations aimed at corporations and at people on privacy. A lot of it discusses how information has to be protected from outsiders. Like all privacy discussion in China’s criminal law, China’s regulatory laws in general, it always talks about duties of confidentiality, but always assumes this doesn’t sort of apply to the government. Police are supposed to protect confidential information that they come across in investigations. But you don’t get to protect that from the police. This is sort of the same thing in the social credit. There’s actually a lot of discussion about making sure that your personal information isn’t abused, sold to people, or transferred to third parties, but the government has few qualms about gathering it up.

Enough cameras? China’s surveillance state.

It’s worth pointing out here another thing which is a lot of people seem to mingle parts of China’s surveillance apparatus as a whole with social credit. These aren’t necessarily the same systems. Social credit for sure is part of the way of keeping tabs on people in China. It has these administrative permits and administrative punishments in it primarily and also this lending information and financial parts. It’s certainly part of that, but the police also have their own systems that involve the cameras we see on the street. That involve the ability to access computers and networks.

This is part of why when I hear discussion of this being the totalitarian control through social credit, I’m like “China actually has plenty of very blunt, straightforward tools for control.” And you only need to look at Xinjiang to see that. When China has a problem that it wants to deal with it usually has few issues with taking a direct approach to resolving it. Despite appearances, I think China’s actually pretty transparent about what the goals of social credit are and what the goals of surveillance are.

CL&P:                 When you say Xinjiang, look at Xinjiang, is that to exemplify the surveillance state or is there anything going on in there with social credit?

JD:      I don’t think it has much to do with social credit, I think Xinjiang shows you exactly how blunt and direct a tool China can use when it wants to resolve a problem quickly. Here we have large numbers of people being detained. Is there a legal basis? Shaky at best. It’s an end justifies the means situation, where they’ve decided that they’re going to do this. Social credit I think is really about building institutions, and China . . . the point is that China has plenty of tools at its disposal for social control and social management.

CL&P:                 And Xinjiang is the example of that?

JD:      It doesn’t need to create new ones.

CL&P:                 To what degree, I mean in your learning about the social credit system here in China, I mean this is a huge amassing of data in one place and to me it’s not clear that other countries are not going in that direction.  Yes, Facebook has a lot of your data, but what you brought up about the gay community . . . a lot of the stuff if you wanted to find out you can just look at people’s friends, Facebook does all these algorithms, figure out what is your thing. Granted it’s to target advertising. But to what extent do you think other countries, other governments will be looking at country, at least in the amassing of data on their people?

China’s social credit system – too much data to be useful?

JD:      I think it’s less looking about China than recognizing the fact that we simply create more data now than ever before. Everything we do now has records and we do things through automated information tech systems. I think how every society, let alone every country deals with that is really one of the defining issues right now. In the US, we seem primarily . . . we’ve had our share of government surveillance scandals, but primarily we’re letting corporations deal with the data and deciding when to limit corporation’s collection of data. Europe has taken a harder line in the interest of privacy rights against corporations.

In China, it’s no surprise that the government is taking the lead on it over corporations. The government is trying to harvest all of its data. The question is what do you do with the data and that’s a technical question but also a policy question. I’m a layman for data science but it seems to me that you’d actually start gathering all this data, have way more data than would be useful to you and it would be really hard to analyze. But I’m sure for specific purposes you could start to find useful things.

CL&P:                 Going back to China what’s next on the horizon for social credit, what should we be expecting in the next six months –

JD:      In the next six months well –

CL&P:                  To a year.

JD:      We have a plan through 2020 that tells us what’s going to happen and within that there’s specific dates. For people who are interested in what’s going to happen to individuals and individual credit-worthiness which is part of that social credit plan, we’re seeing more and more provincial level governments putting out their plans which have timelines in them of what will be done. Mainly it seems to be focusing on the reputation of people in key professions. Doctors, travel agents, people who really effect a lot of other people’s lives. We’ll see I think regulation in those, and I think what it’ll mainly take the form of is the people who have violations of the rules in that field are going to be banned from working in that field for a period of time. But I think we’ve already seen . . . we’re well into that 2014 through 2020 phase and I think we’re already seeing the shape of things that are coming out.

CL&P:                 All right, well thank you very much, Jeremy, for giving us the T on social credit. We’ll probably be following up with you. Your blog has been great, China Law Translate has been great with a lot of the translations and analysis of social credit so thank you very much for that. Yeah, we’ll be keeping tabs on you through social credit.

JD:      Thanks Elizabeth.

To read Part 1 of this two-part interview series with Jeremy Daum on China’s social credit system, click here.

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