Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Thoughts on China from Japan

I've been speaking to Japanese groups (a company, a government agency, and a group of ordinary people) this week and have found some comments from the audience really interesting. After my presentation, one man asked a really great question: when will most ordinary Chinese feel as concerned about these issues - of occupational disease, for instance - as you do? He argued that Japan was only able to deal with its own occupational diseases that resulted from its rapid industrial growth when a majority of ordinary Japanese outside the factories became concerned about their fellow Japanese suffering from these horrible diseases. When will more Chinese start to care enough about this to demand better conditions in factories? Another question came from a man who was concerned about product safety, in particular the safety of China's food exports. He said he understood that improving the food supply chain would take time, but he asked: while China works on this problem, what should we do? We can't afford to wait for safer food. My view was that one thing Japan could do was to offer to share more of its experience in regulating and inspecting the food supply chain (of course, Japan, like every other country, doesn't have a perfect track record in food safety). Another thing we can all do is to press companies to be more up front about exactly where our food and other products are coming from, and under what conditions they are made. Still, the question remains about China's path toward resolving these issues.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Library Journal Best Business Book

A good friend has called my attention to the fact that Library Journal has put The China Price on its list of Best Business Books of 2008. The book made the list in LJ's web addendum under the category "globalization". "Harney’s no-nonsense work of investigative journalism examines the factors that contribute to the unbeatably low “China price,” including a lack of environmental regulations, labor abuses, Western consumption and willful ignorance," Library Journal writes. Check out the full list here. How cool is that?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The price of a life in China

In this morning's South China Morning Post, under the headline "250,000 cameras watching you in Guangzhou", the unidentified SCMP "staff reporter" describes a report from the city's Public Security Bureau, or police. The report discusses the 2008 Chinese New Year snowstorms, when at least half a million people were stranded at the Guangzhou train station. During that event, a recent Guangzhou police report "said that given that only one female worker was trampled to death in the days of huge crowds, the surveillance system had been a great aid to the government's handling of the emergency." I often cite the relative calm of the Guangzhou train station crowds when I argue that China's migrant workers are not rabble rousers. Can you imagine half a million people in America or France stranded at a train station (or a football stadium) for days on end without things getting violent? I hadn't realized that a woman died at the train station. That would have been big news in the US (and it was covered by the Chinese press), but in China, the fact that only one woman died is viewed as a qualified success.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Watch this space

This morning's papers carry a fascinating story: a senior Chinese official has suggested that the people who benefit from its ultra-cheap factories and lack of environmental protection (ie, Western countries) should be held responsible for the pollution they leave behind. Li Gao, director of China's Department of Climate Change, said at conference sponsored by the Pew Center for Global Climate Change: "About 15 percent to 25 percent of China's emissions come from the products which we make for the world, which should not be taken by us." I have to admit that I am so out of the China-climate change debate that I didn't even know China had a Department of Climate Change, and I have never heard of Li Gao, but it's an interesting remark. Negotiators are grumbling that this is unworkable, a "logistical nightmare", but China has a point. That said, it's also interesting because it comes at a time when Pan Yue, the country's most outspoken environmental champion, has reportedly been pushed aside in favor of Beijing's push for growth. The China Environmental Law Blog, a much better authority on this issue than I, has an intelligent post on this issue here, echoing the view that the proposal is impractical, certainly not ahead of the United Nations Climate Change conference in Copenhagen in December. To me, the larger question is: is this a line of argument that China is going to take in other areas? For example, it might say, Western countries, you accuse us of labor and human rights violations? Let's have a look at how your country's factories, or the factories that supply your retailers, are treating their employees in China, and then let's talk.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Chinese New Year in Jiangxi

videoThese are some pictures from my recent trip to the Chinese countryside for my friend's engagement party. It's my first foray into making videos out of photos, so please forgive the rough edges. But at least the pictures give you a sense of what life looks like in rural China, and how different it is from the cities where these migrants (and most every able bodied person in these photos is a migrant) work.

Chinese migrants are not rabble-rousers

As some of you might have noticed, I've been peeved by some of the media coverage of China's migrants as a force for instability recently. I don't believe migrants are a destabilizing force for China; just the reverse. Revolutions are rarely started by people like China's migrants. I vented about this in a piece in the Wall Street Journal Asia today.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

China: export-led or consumption-deficient?

Back in Hong Kong, I had breakfast this morning with a very smart economist friend whose name and employer I will leave out since those were the terms of our discussion. We were talking about Asian economies (sounds dry, but it wasn't) and he made an excellent point that is relevant to today's debate about China: by the numbers, China's economic model has never been export-led. According to this economist, 40% of China's growth in recent years has come from investment (private and public - that's everything from building roads to putting equipment in factories). An equal amount has come from consumption. Only 20% of growth has come from net exports. That export share has risen since the turn of the century, and the "tentacles" of the export sector extend into other industries, but it's still hard to argue that China has been "export-led". A better way to describe China, by his argument, is "consumption-deficient". This is certainly something everyone agrees on, including the Chinese government. (Good news for Wal-Mart and Carrefour!) As we know, there are lots of reasons why Chinese people are big savers, but one comment from my most recent visit to rural China sticks in my mind: driving around on the back of a motorbike with this young guy who had opened a little restaurant in Foshan, outside Guangzhou, he told me that he prefers to shop in the cities. Why? It's more expensive to shop in the countryside. A coat that costs RMB100 in the city might cost him RMB180 in a rural store. Why is that? Is it just logistics and distribution costs?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Yomiuri TV Wake Up! Plus

This morning, I had a great time appearing on Yomiuri TV's Wake Up! Plus - a refreshingly substantive, balanced program that airs nationally in Japan every Saturday from 8-9:30am. The first half of the program focused on Japan's latest political scandal - the arrest of the top aide to Ozawa Ichiro, the most powerful opposition politican, on suspicion of accepting bribes from a construction company. The timing of this arrest is spectacularly bad for both Japan and Ozawa's party, the Democratic Party of Japan (now ironic motto: "People's Lives First"). Not only was the DPJ on the verge of snatching power away from the old guard Liberal Democratic Party, but the country is facing its greatest economic crisis in decades. Things are only going to get a lot worse - Japan's 4.6% unemployment rate, slightly more than half of America's, looks like a one-way bet. The second half of the program focused on China's economy. My esteemed fellow guests were quite concerned about the demands for greater democracy. There are certainly more demands for accountability and transparency than ever before, and my research into labor lawsuits suggests that once you tell people they have rights under the law, they don't forget.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Congressional testimony and The Swan

I'm in Osaka this weekend to appear on Yomiuri TV's Wake Up! tomorrow morning. My wandering around the business district near my hotel this afternoon produced lots of thoughts about Japan (do I really need three people doing my hair simultaneously in a country with relatively high wages?) but more on that later. Back in my hotel, in between watching snatches of a Japanese version of The Swan (where it's okay for the host to tell a fat guest who was bullied into adulthood for her weight and looks "don't you think you should just lose some weight?"), I have realized I never posted my Congressional testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In case you missed it in the last sentence, here it is. More on Wake Up! tomorrow after I finish the show.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Niseko!

This is totally unrelated to China, manufacturing, or anything else I normally write about here, but I had to post this picture. This is me and Colin in Niseko last week.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Japan's downward spiral

Tamamoto Masaru, a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute, has a great op-ed in yesterday's New York Times. He argues that Japan has become a pyschological mess, touching on some of the issues that have most fascinated me recently - the country's failure to develop its own vision of its future, the reliance on Western models, the deeper malaise affecting ordinary Japanese. The point he makes about people's reliance on government to solve their problems is one that I hear often from Japanese friends, and one that came up in my conversation with a taxi driver in Sapporo over the weekend (I know, the taxi driver conversation is such a cliche, but this guy was unusually interesting, I swear). I've posted a link about this on my LinkedIn page and got a surprising amount of interest, so to summarize his argument: Hokkaido's financial resources have been severely depleted - remember Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, which went bust 12 years ago). Companies from the main island of Honshu that had branches in Hokkaido are shutting them down in this recession. And pillar industries like agriculture and commercial fishing are not faring well. The government's response for years has been to launch big expensive projects, particularly in tourism, but in this man's opinion, they never followed up effectively. They left them half-done. What is needed, this man said, was private investment, good corporate leaders who have a vision and are motivated to follow through. This lack of leadership is certainly something I remember from my days in Japan. And it's an interesting comment as people hope for public spending to arrest, if not reverse, the global economy's spiral.

Consumer behavior


It's clear that people are a lot tighter with their money these days, but how will consumers spend once the economy recovers? It's a relevant question to all of us who care about the well-being of workers and the health of the environment. Grant McCracken has an interesting post on this on The Atlantic Monthly's website. He proposes a few scenarios, including one where we trade down on some things in order to trade up on others, and seems to come to the conclusion in the end that we should all be thinking more about the environment when we consume. The nightmare scenario he describes is Japan, where people become permanently miserly. Especially after my recent trips to Japan to write my Atlantic piece and on research trips, I take exception to this, as, I believe, would economist Jesper Koll. In comments that sadly didn't make it into the piece, Jesper argued to me that Japanese consumption has actually been stable as a portion of incomes, and that one big factor driving down Japanese consumption has been the end of the consumer finance industry at the government's behest. In discussion of consumers in Asia in particular, I think we should be all be looking a lot more closely at the spending patterns of different generations, particularly as countries like Japan are aging a lot faster than other countries.