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Let’s talk about WeChat

WeChat is the most popular — by far — instant messaging app* in China. Everybody and their grandma has it. Got a smartphone? Got WeChat. Don’t got a smartphone? Still got WeChat. Yeah, I had WeChat before I even got my iPhone. It currently has 500 million monthly active users, most of them in — you guessed it — mainland China. For reference, WhatsApp has 700 million MAUs, while Facebook Messenger has 600 million. I don’t use the former, and the latter is blocked in China.

Obviously, then, I can’t compare these apps, so I can’t say which is better or worse. My understanding, though, is that WeChat is sort of like WhatsApp, Facebook, Snapchat, Vine, Tinder, Venmo, everything, all rolled into one and has far and away the most features. You can play games and buy things straight from the app, transfer money and documents to friends, and all that jazz. It is the little messaging app that could.

But as I’m hardly the social technology type, I am a bit confused about all the functions of WeChat. I just know that when I do use it, I have to go looking for all the functions because the app is really counter-intuitive. Maybe I am not thinking like a Chinese. I don’t know! But please, why?

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West Lake Bridge

Hangzhou

Boyfriend and I took a semi-impromptu trip down to Hangzhou (杭州) last weekend during the Qingming holiday. We had discussed going two weeks before but didn’t actually get around to booking train tickets and hotel until just a few days before we left. As such, the trains were nearly all sold out and most hotels fully booked. Luckily we managed to get a train leaving Saturday morning, but ended up having to stay at a pricier hotel and return via Shanghai. We even had to take business class on the Shanghai leg! (Business class was really nice, so I’m not complaining.)

Anyway, Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province, and located about an hour by train from Shanghai. It is famous in China for being idyllic – lush and green, mild in temperature, serene. For the most part, except for the tourists and traffic, that was all true. That image of the city most likely stems from its iconic West Lake (西湖, Xi Hu, above) and Longjing (龙井, “Dragon Well”) tea fields, both of which we visited.

Tea leaves, freshly picked and dried.
Tea leaves, freshly picked and dried.

We also went to the Xixi Wetlands Park, which is massive and a great place to get lost in. We unfortunately only had about three hours to spend there and we didn’t see many birds, so I’m not sure I got my RMB 80’s worth of the admission ticket. But it was one of the better national tourist sites I’ve been to in China.

More pictures after the jump! Continue reading

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Net neutrality and China: A case study

Guys, the FCC is going to rule on net neutrality one month from now. I don’t need to tell you how important this is. (Unless I do, in which case, see here and here. I won’t link to any arguments against it, because there aren’t any good ones.)

The Republican House and Senate have both introduced bills to preempt the FCC’s vote by removing its ability to even regulate ISPs and enforce a neutral Internet.

But how can anyone be in favor of a non-neutral Internet?

Right now, there are people in this world who have no access to the Internet. They exist in impoverished, rural areas, the places where we would like to think would benefit the most from the single greatest collection of knowledge ever created in human history.

In other parts of the world, people have access to the Internet, and they can (mostly) freely access any content — be it today’s weather, Wikipedia or torture porn — at the exact same speed.

And then there is China. Continue reading

My name, now renderable in emoticons

I woke up (was woken up) very early this morning by the rest of my family texting back and forth. Normally I would have been pretty annoyed, but:

It was the best text I've received this year.
It was the best text I’ve received this year.

For those of you who can’t read Chinese or emoticons, the first two characters say: Lao Zhu, or Old Pig. That’s me. I am Lao Zhu (Old Pig).

One of my earliest childhood memories is of the time when I was about 3 (I am 3 in all of my earliest childhood memories, though I have no idea if I was actually 3). We were all at my grandparents’ house, and I had wandered into the dining area where the TV was playing Journey to the West (maybe the classic 1986 CCTV adaptation??). Journey to the West is one of the four great classical novels in Chinese literature, the one about the Monkey King who goes west, which is India, to help a monk bring some original Buddhist scriptures back to China. Monkey King and the monk are accompanied by Lao Zhu, whose real name is Zhu Bajie. Zhu Bajie is half-pig, half-man (no bear) and described as lazy, greedy and super lustful of women. (Seriously, one time, he disguised himself as a monk to bathe with a bunch of chicks he came across in a pond, then changed into a fish to swim between their legs. His lust is also what got him kicked out of heaven). He is also disproportionately vain relative to his actual looks and abilities. And there’s this from his Wikipedia page:

In the original Chinese novel, he is often called dāizi (呆子), meaning “idiot”. Sun Wukong [Monkey King], Xuanzang [the monk] and even the author consistently refers to him as “the idiot” over the course of the story.

You can even refer to someone as a Zhu Bajie to mean that he’s dumb and unaware of it (probably because of his vanity). Basically, he really isn’t the best of characters. But for some reason, whatever he was doing on the TV at the time I wandered into the dining room really spoke to me. I can’t say what it is I saw that I identified with, but he is actually meant to (and does, in Chinese culture) represent the ordinary man. Despite his faults, he is still kind-hearted and a loyal sidekick. And he’s a funny character.

I asked my parents what was Lao Zhu. I don’t remember their answer, but it worked for me, so then I asked them to call me Lao Zhu as my nickname. I think they laughed a bit, but ever the spoiled one, I got what I wanted.

Happy New Year! I’ll be watching the ball drop later via Skype with my parents.

Happy China-versary to me!

I got hit by a car yesterday.

Before you panic, I am OK! I am OK because, while the car drove into me, it was going, like, 5 miles an hour? It kind of hit my purse first, which I was holding down by my side, and then all of a sudden I felt this nudge on my leg. I turned around and saw the corner of the front bumper of some sandy-colored Buick. It was really confusing at first, and the driver literally froze in his tracks. He waited until I had walked on some distance, then slowly drove past me, keeping a wide berth as he passed. I thought about snapping a picture of his license plate, but … meh.

Anyway, the incident got me thinking: It took five whole years to get hit by a car. I’ve been threatened by asshole drivers who pull up within millimeters of my body because they couldn’t wait for a pedestrian to finish crossing the road. I’ve been hit by side mirrors of drivers trying to squeeze past me in some tight space instead of waiting for me to pass. But to be actually driven into for no reason! Then I realized that — wow — it actually has been five years. Or just four days shy.

I landed in this glorious shithole on the frigid night of Dec. 14, 2009. The next five years flew by. The end.

(Haha, just kidding, I’ll keep bloggin, yo.)

Banned in China: An update

AQI banSome things the CCP has sought to ban recently:

The last two are yet another example of the Xi-led CCP (the XiCP?) crackdown on the culture of today’s society. Even some of the most lovable aspects of Chinese culture are not safe from the CCP, even as officials have some kind of obsession with promoting Chinese culture. A Chinese culture that has been sterilized and stamped and sealed with their approval, that is.

Sometimes the CCP’s ridiculous policies can be so ridiculous that they’re amusing, but other times their ridiculousness just makes you feel a little :(

That time when China hosted an Internet conference

Not quite content with the extravagance of hosting APEC, China went on to host its first World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, a coastal city near Shanghai.

How ironic is hosting a world Internet conference in a land where the Internet is blocked, blocked and blocked?

How ironic is it that China had to unblock the Internet in the city that hosted the event? And then restricted access into the city? If you can’t restrict access virtually, you can still do it physically, I guess.

I mean, how ironic is it that China delivered its would-be Internet declaration by hand, instead of by Internet, the very tool they were just talking about?

The CCP wants to play a bigger role in the development of the Internet, and it is proposing an open Internet that follows rules, which — apart from being a contradiction in our world — is just a thinly veiled way of saying it wants to censor the fuck out of it. And other countries could, you know, do it too. Yeah! Come on, guys! says the CCP.

Seriously, why would anyone take an Internet conference in China seriously? Oh, no one does. That declaration, meant to be officially released at the closing ceremony, never was. CCP ideals and Internet ideals just don’t compute.

How terrible a place is Beijing?

Judging by the lengths the government is going to make Beijing a “nice” place — pretty terrible! Here are some emergency measures being taken to turn this city around for the two weeks APEC will be in town:

  • Pollution: Government officials have promised nice air for APEC, by closing factories and kicking people out of the city. Drivers both inside the city and in the surrounding provinces are also being forced off the road.
  • Food safety: Hotels receiving APEC attendees must source their food from a list of 20 government-approved vendors.
  • Traffic: The government is restricting cars on the road by alternating the days on which cars with even- and odd-numbered plates can drive. Moreover, public schools and “non-important” government offices (such as the marriage bureau and visa office) were ordered to close from today to Wednesday of next week, with make-up days this past Sunday and the following Saturday. Private schools were “encouraged” (i.e. forced) to voluntarily close, and companies and other institutions were asked to allow employees to work from home those days. Even hospitals will be closed.
  • Security: Security checks have been ramped up at the airport and subway and around the city. According to Boyfriend, the subway has introduced bins, similar to the ones used at airports, for people to put their belongings in for the bag scan, and security no longer allows people to breeze on through with their bags open for a nominal security glance-check to see what’s inside — regardless of how much you scream and yell. I wonder if the scan checkers actually look at the screens now.
  • Press freedom: At the media center, not only can you get an overdose of Chinese culture, but also access to famous banned websites, such as Google and Facebook.
  • Protestors and small business owners and other “undesirables”: Who?

Why is the Chinese government going through all this trouble? Is APEC a big deal? The short answer, for us everyday plebes, is: Not really! But government and business leaders from all the important Asia/Pacific nations will be here. The United States is attending — Obama is coming — as well as Putin and Abbott and Abe. They will talk about cooperating with each, economically, and maybe reach some big deals. So APEC has the potential to be important, but probably not to the point where more normal countries/governments would feel it was OK to disrupt businesses and people’s personal lives just to suit some big shot officials. But this kind of high-level, multinational, all-talk-no-action forum is exactly China’s cup of tea, so it’s practically like the Olympics all over again. It’s even being partially held in the Olympic Park, and they’re planning some kind of fireworks show for APEC.

China’s foreign minister explained China’s goal as such: China wants to host a “harmonious and smooth” APEC that would leave a “deep impression on history”.

This is a forum that is held every year (last year, it was in Bali).

APEC preparations began last week, and true to their word, officials managed to clean the air. Between Friday night and Saturday morning, the AQI had fallen from a high of 274 to a low of 46 by noon. Unfortunately, by Tuesday, on the eve of the first APEC events, the AQI was back up to 305 before dropping back down to healthy levels again for two days. But then again, today, as APEC kicks off in earnest, Beijingers awoke to familiar hazy skies. The AQI was back up to 160 this morning. Someone should get fired.

And despite the government’s efforts to turn Beijing into a wonderful place, there are still some emergency measures not being taken that would go a long way toward improving the city:

  • Ban on sidewalk/street-side parking
  • Ban on honking for no reason
  • Ban on shouting into phones
  • Ban on pushing and shoving and not lining up

Everyone is leaving China

Or so this article claims, rather dramatically.

But I am here to refute that claim.

Because I am not leaving. Oh, no, I am staying put. I’m so staying put that I just signed a lease for two more years. #notalleveryone

In all seriousness, though, the author does have a point. The recent crackdowns on speech and expression are indeed alarming and ominous (and annoying*). But are they really the reason why everyone is leaving? For some people, the attacks may be pushing them toward leaving. But they were probably already considering leaving, because let’s face it: There are a lot of reasons to leave China. This “one-man rule”** is not the reason people are throwing in the towel. They are leaving for a variety of reasons, such as better opportunity elsewhere, looking for a change, pollution, health, being closer to family, natural point in their career to move. You get my gist. One of those reasons for moving could be “freedom,” but it’s more like an incidental benefit to leaving than an actual reason many people are using to leave.

Thing is, this type of claim is always being made, especially over the past three to four years. The government has been fixing its policies, and no, they have not been favorable to expats. It unified the tax system for domestic and foreign companies in 2010, unified the Chinese social insurance contributions system for local and foreign employees in 2011, placed greater restrictions on getting a visa in 2012, made it harder to get a work permit in 2013, and this year placed higher qualification requirements on English teachers. And those are just the policies. So for a lot of people, the benefits — and ease — of living in China are just no longer there. Of course they’re going to leave. But they are leaving for practical reasons, not ideological.

There are also many social reasons (such as the rise in the number of qualified, educated Chinese who want jobs) and cultural reasons (such as how foreigners — no matter their contributions to China — will never be Chinese). Also, if you haven’t heard already, the air here is terrible. Pollution is the reason that middle-class Chinese people leave. (The rich leave because of better education and work opportunities for their children and economic security.)

Lastly, China is a terrible place, but it continues to do well in expat rankings. HSBC just released their annual expat survey, and China placed third, mostly on the strength of its economic benefits. Because despite all those reasons to leave, many people are still able to find reasons (money***) to stay.

* Just as I was about to post, I saw this article about Beijing banning the annual Halloween tradition where a bunch of expats dress up and take a loop on the Line 2 subway. It’s a little silly, but good fun. It certainly isn’t anything dangerous or subversive. But this is more to do with the upcoming APEC summit than speech.

** I don’t even know what she means by “one-man rule.” If she thinks Xi Dada is calling all the shots, she’s kind of not learned a lot in her four years here.

*** In this year’s expat survey, China came in first on the economics front, up from second place last year. Meanwhile, China went from no. 3 to no. 26 in “expat experience”. It seems that HSBC may have revised its methodology, however, so it’s unclear what this sharp decline is about (political ideology was not a metric).