Christmas in China

I spent 12 days in China with my family over Christmas this year, a whirlwind tour that took us to seven different cities, including the birth-cities of my two adopted daughters.  In a series of blog posts this week, I recount a few observations from the trip.

 

Last I heard, the Communist Party in China wasn’t that enthusiastic about Christianity.  You never would have known it spending Christmas there with my family a few months back.

We arrived in the Beijing airport to the sounds of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer playing in the background.  Pretty much the only music we heard the whole trip was Christmas music.  This was true not just in places frequented by tourists, but also in shopping malls and restaurants as far-flung as Nanchang and Zhenjiang  -- two cities where we didn’t see a single American in two days.

China's "Little Emperors"

In a Freakonomics Radio episode called “Misadventures in Baby-Making,” we looked at the unintended consequences of China's One Child Policy. A new paper (gated) in Science looks at the so-called "little emperors" and how they might impact China's economy. From Bloomberg:

China’s one-child policy has produced adults that tend to have personality traits unsuited for starting businesses or managing companies, according to a study that adds to economic concerns surrounding the rule.

Using surveys of 421 men and women in Beijing and testing their skills in economic games, researchers in Australia found those born after the 1979 policy were more pessimistic, nervous, less conscientious, less competitive and more risk averse. They also found them to be 23 percent less prone to choose an occupation that entails business risk, such as becoming a stockbroker, entrepreneur or private firm manager.

(HT: Katherine Wells)

Shanzhai Skyscrapers

China is famously a hotbed of copying.  Western firms constantly kvetch about Chinese knockoffs of their products—and often with good reason. China’s intellectual property laws are fairly strong, at least on paper. The problem is that the laws aren’t effectively enforced – and it’s an open question whether the Chinese government is capable of shutting down the copyists. China’s uneasy relationship with intellectual-property law is due in no small part to China’s "shanzhai" culture. What is shanzhai? The literal meaning of the word is “mountain stronghold,” but it has come to connote imitation, and more, imitation done in a way that is upfront about its fakery and may even be celebrated for it. 

Shanzhai culture is incredibly vibrant and shows no sign of slowing down. Shanzhai cellphones, for instance, are sometimes applauded for their ingenuity. Some include nifty features not seen on the original they are imitating. Some mash-up features found on competing phones into a single device.  All are cheap.

Chinese Bluegrass

If you have 3 minutes and 41 seconds to spare on this fine Friday, you could do much worse than watching a performance of "Katy Hill" by Mei Han's Red Chamber with John Reischman and the Jaybirds:

(HT: Nick Frisch)

Are Good Manufacturing Jobs Bad News for Education?

Here's a fascinating new working paper from Yale economist David G. Atkin, called "Endogenous Skill Acquisition and Export Manufacturing in Mexico" (abstract here; PDF of an earlier version here). The gist:

This paper presents empirical evidence that the growth of export manufacturing in Mexico during a period of major trade reforms, the years 1986-2000, altered the distribution of education.  I use variation in the timing of factory openings across municipalities to show that school dropout increased with local expansions in export manufacturing. The magnitudes I find suggest that for every twenty jobs created, one student dropped out of school at grade 9 rather than continuing through to grade 12.  These effects are driven by the least-skilled export-manufacturing jobs which raised the opportunity cost of schooling for students at the margin.

It makes sense, of course, that students on the margin might happily abandon school in favor of a good job. But is that necessarily a bad thing? How should a society balance jobs and educational ambition? And who should be thinking harder about this issue -- India or China? Or perhaps the U.S.?

What China Censors

A new paper from Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts analyzes "millions of social media posts originating from nearly 1,400 different social media services all over China before the Chinese government is able to find, evaluate, and censor (i.e., remove from the Internet) the large subset they deem objectionable."  Here's what they found:

Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future — and, as such, seem to clearly expose government intent, such as examples we offer where sharp increases in censorship presage government action outside the Internet.

FREAK-est Links

1. Do wind farms affect air temperature? And are we finally starting to solve the mysteries of clouds?

2. How dangerous are chairs?

3. Does playing music make kids more compassionate?

4. Strategic losing for Chinese Olympic badminton sweep? (HT: Mayur Misra)

5. Warren Buffett spots another winner.

The Chinese Haven't Bought All Our Stock Markets, Have They?

Maybe my computer thinks I am in China (but I am not; I am in New York).

Maybe a Chinese hacker is just having a laugh (it has happened before).

Maybe the Chinese have bought all of our stock markets (although I seriously doubt it).

Or maybe, for whatever reason, Yahoo! Finance is simply some coding issues. Because when I checked the markets this morning, they seemed to have been renamed: 

What's the Story With Shark Fin Soup?

A reader named Chuck Armitage writes in with a question about which I know nothing but which I'd like to know much more.

So what do you say, readers? What do you know, and think, and what can you tell us?

Here is my question... Why is shark fin soup still popular?

Ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture and yet that is what shark fin soup represents. The more expensive it gets, the more it proves that your host honors you by serving the soup. And the more the West vilifies the barbarian finning practices of the shark fisherman, the more the Chinese seem to dig in their heels and say look at your own barbaric practices before you racially attack us. There is a huge disconnect between what are normally considered admirable traits of civilized Chinese society and what is going on with this tradition.

Are the activities of the ecology activists helping or hurting their cause? How do you change the sentiments of a seemingly positive tradition when the act is causing such an ecological disaster? Is seal clubbing or factory farming as bad as shark-finning?

It is a burning issue right now and many species of sharks will go extinct if it is not solved. No matter what we do in North America, the real issue is in Asia. Even if we ban the import of shark fin here, the growing wealth in China will end the shark as we know it in our oceans.

How can this be positioned in a way that will be championed by the Chinese populace?

The Economics of Chicken Feet… and Other Parts

Our latest podcast, "Weird Recycling," featured Carlos Ayala, the Vice President of International at Perdue Farms. Stephen Dubner's interview with him centered on chicken feet -- or chicken paws, as they're called in the industry. Until about 20 years ago, paws were close to value-less for a U.S. chicken company. But thanks to huge demand in China, paws have become big profit centers. The U.S. now exports about 300,000 metric tons of chicken paws every year. Perdue alone produces more than a billion chicken feet a year, which according to Ayala brings in more than $40 million of revenue. In fact, Ayala says that without the paw, chicken companies would be hard-pressed to stay in business: