Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Ted Koppel launches "Peoples Republic of Capitalism" series on China, on Discovery Channel

Ted Koppel (former anchor for ABC's "Nightline" who covered South Africa in so much detail in the 70s and 80s) premiered his first installment in his Discovery Channel “People’s Republic of Capitalism” series, with the episode called “Joined at the Hip” tonight. The website and schedule is here.

The show starts with workers at a Briggs and Stratton plant in Rolla, MO, lamenting their job losses when the manufacturing plant (that makes small engines and generators) takes the job to the super city of Chongqing in Central China. That city is to that country more or less what Denver or Phoenix is to the US, but it is much larger, having 13 million people, and has a warm climate, and spectacular skylines and colorful lights. The show also showed factory workers assembling boom boxes for export to the U.S. Actually, some American goods are imported by rich Chinese, such as factory from North Carolina.

The film showed how the managerial class lives, in McMansions with oversized kitchens and baths similar to what we might find in Beverly Hills.

Koppel discusses China’s “one child per family” policy, which it has relaxed for earthquake victims. He says that China still loves children.

The business relationships of Wal-Mart in China were shown, and actually Wal-Mart has high end stores in China.

The contrast between rich, in the cities, and poor in the countryside was shown.

Businessemen who buy Chinese companies for Wall Street were interviewed. An old silk factory was shown, and benefiting from American investors who will modernize it.

It’s disturbing that companies have found it profitable to use Chinese labor when the shipping costs, over long distances, must be large and increasing due to fuel prices. The “sustainability” movement claims that the world may have to de-globalize, with more emphasis on local manufacturing and food production again, even with some local labor intensiveness.

Update: July 10, 2008

From MAOism to MEism” started with a retrospect on what the cultural revolution was like from the 60s to 70s. Intellectuals were yanked to the countryside to be “re-educated”. The worst sin was to exhibit any personal “ambition.” The report showed a “dinner theater” type of play mocking the Maoist time. Yet, there was some nostalgia for “old times” when life was hard but simple, and was thought to be sustainable.

The report showed straight karaoke clubs where attractive young girls can probably earn much more than they could in factory work. Then it showed the gay clubs and drag shows. These have become acceptable in Chongqing. But there are a couple of major differences between this and gay life as it is perceived in the West/

For one thing, every person in China is expected to care for their parents and become involved in raising children (including marrying and trying to have exactly one), even given the “one child per family” policy. That is a tradition long established from Confucian days. Therefore gay men sometimes say that they will have to “go back into the closet” at age 30. Homosexuality is coming to be seen as a development phase for some young men (paradoxically, almost comparable to or in parallel with fraternity life or even military service).

The AARP has an interesting article about this issue, called "filial piety", and a video called "Aging in China," discussed at this link on by retirement blog.

The other interesting point is that “gay pride” events in public would “cross the line.” As we know, open political speech is still not permitted even in capitalist China, and American Internet companies doing business in China must comply with censorship policies. The question is, why still? Is it a holdover from Communism?

Koppel interviews a young engineer, who “loves in country” but “trusts his government.” The government is supposed to be a representative democracy but remains authoritarian in many ways. The report leaves one with the impression that China regards everyday political speech as “amateurish” and a distraction from productivity. In the United States, particularly in the Internet age with blogs and social networking sites, speech has taken on a value of its own, even if self-promotion associated with such speech is controversial. One suspects, however, that the government fears that dissent will lead to protests against low wages for average workers, and disrupt the new upper class. This doesn’t explain why the Chinese government still fears religious dissent, as from Tibet – some activism of Christianity is coming to be accepted. It seems largely a matter of maintaining control, and a fear that the control is not totally legitimate if exposed.

There are reports that, as the Olympics approach, China has blocked access to Blogger (such as on "Digital Inspiration" here ) although more confirmation may be needed.

The report also showed that China likes to import expensive foreign goods and designs, and does not have a lot of “artistic creativity” as westerner perceive it.

Yet, Chongqing is truly a spectacular city at night, with colorful lasers emitted from the skyscrapers.

Update: July 12, 2008

The third installment is called “The Fast Lane”. Much of the episode describes the Chinese auto industry, and the likelihood that America will buy more cars from China. But some of it also deals with car culture in China. Liberty Mutual was presented as writing auto insurance in China, without deductibles (as in the United States) for routine fender benders, because it wants to build its business.

The episode showed the heavy use of manual labor (that would have pleased my own father!) to supply jobs to economically disadvantaged peasants, such as one married couple that works building a tunnel for a new road into the exurbs 50 miles away from Chongqing. In the United States, such jobs would be more automated.

The Chinese expect increased trade with the rest of the world, and seem oblivious to the concerns over energy costs and global warming.

Late July 12:

The last installment is called “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” China is presented as now very pro-business, which is not necessarily pro-democracy. China has no organized government health insurance and no social security. The adult children are supposed to take care of their parents, so they would need jobs to do so.

The fact that common or manual labor is still cheap is demonstrated in scenes showing the building of one of Chongqing’s 16 new bridges. Ted Koppel makes a visit to a coal mine, which is supposed to be one of China’s safest. Nevertheless, China had 4700 mine fatalities last year, compared to 47 in the US. The griminess of coal in China is shown, where environmental standards for electric utilities are still low.

The “face changing” of the Sechuan opera is shown, as a metaphor for China’s change.

Political corruption was discussed. It is widespread, as American companies have started teaching the Chinese to do business “legally.” Corruption, however, can bring the death penalty in China.

Ted Koppel did not mention the infamous eminent domain fight over a small house on Chongqing that was reported by the media in March 2007, as with this story in "No Land Grab", link here. China apparently passed a major law recognizing private property rights on March 16, 2007.

Afterword: John Alexander remembered:

The program ended with a tribute to John Alexander, a journalist who was working with Ted Koppel on this film, and who collapsed and died in China at age 26. The cause was not disclosed. See "Remembering John Alexander: 1981 - 2007: Paying Tribute to a Former 'Nightline' Colleague," link here. At that link, there is a tribute from ABC "Nightline".

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