Thursday, December 21, 2006

The local market near our apartment


Adam Smith, generally considered to be the father of economic thought, was mystified by the operation of markets. How could they be so efficient without some sort of managerial oversight? Smith concluded that markets were coordinated by the “propensity in human nature…to truck, barter, and exchange.” That is, to engage in commerce is just as much a part of the human experience as to engage in survival or reproduction.
Each Thanksgiving we celebrate the bountiful harvest of almost 500 years ago when the first successful colonists arrived in the “new” world. As I walk the streets of Beibei, I frequently wonder what it looked like five thousand years ago as the early inhabitants of this river valley pursued their “propensity…to truck, barter, and exchange.” My initial guess is that not much has changed.
Economists who work in the field of economic development have used a variety of terms to refer to levels of development. Probably the least value-laden construct is first world, second world, and third world. In the first world, most economic activity involves survival—primarily hunting, gathering, or agricultural pursuits. Most production is for self-sufficiency and there is little exchange among families. In the second world, an agricultural surplus supports the rise of non-producers such as priests, teachers, soldiers, and chiefs. Exchange between the producers and the non-producers becomes essential, and local markets develop. In the third world there is a high level of work specialization with relatively few food producers and a highly developed system of exchange. In a politically correct analysis, it is neither good nor bad to live in the first or third world—just different.
One of the fascinating things about life in Beibei is that we truck, barter, and exchange in all three worlds simultaneously. Many Chinese still live in the rural, isolated, agrarianism of the first world. These are people who will die within walking distance of where they were born. More often than not, they will die during their first few years of life from disease or hunger. The first world is rapidly vanishing in China as the infrastructure of transportation, health care, and electricity reach into the vast, isolated interior regions. In Beibei, it is not uncommon to see people who have literally walked (or floated) out of the first world into the urban milieu of the second world.
The most common interfaces of the first and second worlds are the informal produce markets that are found everywhere. Here you find merchants from the most humble to the very sophisticated. It is not uncommon to see a woman who has walked into town with one or two handfuls of surplus green onions trying to sell them for a few pennies [see photo]. She could never sell them for enough to pay for a bus fare back to the isolated spot that is home. What might she buy? Maybe some cooking oil or some cloth—things that are not easily produced in even the most self-sufficient household.
We live in an apartment complex of more than 500 units. Every morning vendors from the first world start laying out their fresh produce on the cement walkways around the central basketball court and playground. What is available follows the seasons—right now there are lots of cabbages that are as large as a basketball, peppers that will blow the roof off your head, and a type of radish that is bigger than a big carrot. Many vendors carry a crude balance beam to weigh your purchase. Women (in most cases) come down to this area in the morning to buy the day’s meals—no produce is stored at home as it is purchased and consumed the same day. By noon, the shopping is over and the vendors have started their long journey home, arriving in time to harvest another handful of green onions for tomorrow’s market.
Just around the corner from the basketball court, maybe thirty yards away, is a second world market. A row of shops along the road includes two green grocers who sell much of the same stuff as the street vendors, but with more selection, higher prices, and longer hours. There is a butcher with today’s meat proudly arranged on a wood table or hanging from a hook overhead. The meat, of course, is neither refrigerated nor covered. It is up to the buyer to get the freshest cut (caveat emptor). In addition to the fresh shops there is one small grocery store that sells rice, noodles, cooking oil, and other packaged goods such as Crest toothpaste. Between the street vendors and the small shops, the residents of our apartment complex are able to buy all of the ingredients of their day-to-day existence.
For a third world market one must go to downtown Beibei (10 minutes by bus) to a Chinese retail chain called CBEST. There one finds full lines of clothing, bedding, appliances, cosmetics, and a supermarket. In the supermarket you can buy all sorts of packaged goods like crackers, breakfast cereals, candy, paper plates, clothes pins, and cleaning products. In the fresh fish department you can select your fish from those swimming around in a tank and have it cleaned before your eyes. Last month we were able to buy the quintessential American food—peanut butter (we got Skippy crunchy).
There you have it—from the first world to the third in a matter of minutes: from a handful of green onions carried in from a nearby small farm to a plastic jar of Skippy peanut butter produced in China by Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch transnational conglomerate. The growing popularity of “farmers’ markets” in the U.S. suggests a certain nostalgia by some who live in the third world for the benefits of the first and second worlds past. Here in Beibei, we have it all—take your pick. But, be willing to truck, barter, and exchange.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Campus police in Beibei. Note what is missing.

Security And Honesty In Beibei And Beyond


A frequent question that is asked of us as we live in Beibei is “are you safe and secure?” Travel to and living in a new, different place always involves a certain element of insecurity. The unknown is inherently insecure, and being plunked down in the middle of Beibei certainly involved a lot of unknowns several months ago. By now, most of those unknowns are knowns and most of the initial feelings of insecurity have turned to feelings of security and familiarity.
My wife and I have traveled a lot, and as we do we like to venture off the beaten path followed by most tourists. Our behavior in China has been no different. Both in Beibei and elsewhere, we have usually shopped where the local people shop, traveled on the same buses they travel on, and eaten in the same restaurants they eat in. In so doing, we have developed a pretty good sense of what individual security is like in Beibei and other cities we have visited.
My wife and I walk around town and campus freely at any reasonable hour with absolutely no concerns. In Beibei, many streets and parts of campus are irregularly illuminated at night. We walk alone, and even when we venture into previously unexplored territory we have never felt threatened. We have been approached by the curious (and avoided by the fearful) but never in a malicious fashion. I have no concern at all about my wife walking alone on our local streets at night.
Our apartment is on the ground floor, hence there are bars on all of the windows—this is standard for most dwellings. We are a little special in that we are in a compound with a gate that is locked at 11pm and we have a night watchman (who probably sleeps more soundly than I do). Also, right out of our back window is a police sub-station. At night, the four or five city block apartment complex that we are in is patrolled by two police officers with a dog. The front door to our apartment, when locked, could be opened by any 7-year old with a Jack of Spades. Nonetheless, we have never had a known robbery attempt and usually leave the door unlocked. We certainly do not feel, nor have we had reason to feel, threatened.
On campus, things look a lot like a U.S. campus. There are guards at the gates to the campus [see photo]. They seem to let anything in, but check vehicles leaving. I presume this is to prevent the faculty, etc, from confiscating University property. On campus there are uniformed police who deal with bike accidents and other important issues. There are also plain clothes police. I like these guys—they are very friendly with the students and usually have a very visible ID around their neck that says something in Chinese characters and then “Police” in English. They pop up all over campus in a very unobtrusive way. When you think about it, it is really nice to have police around when you don’t need them; and, the fact that they are around is probably why you don’t need them. In police work, a good defense always trumps a good offence.
One of the real surprises here has been the absence of firearms on police, bank guards, and other uniformed civil servants. Most carry a night stick and that is it. In addition, I have not seen a single citizen with a firearm. Perhaps if neither side has them, neither side needs them in normal day to day police work.
We have found that when we are lost a good place to ask directions is at a bank because there is frequently someone there who speaks a little bit of English and they usually know their neighborhood. One day we went into a bank and asked for directions to the post office. The lone bank guard led us out of the bank, down the street for about a block, waited until the proper bus came along and then put us on the bus with instructions to the driver. Nice of him, but all of the time he was being kind to us the bank was left unguarded. One has to conclude that to him leaving the bank unguarded was less of a threat than having some poor lost Americans running wild in the community.


With the exception of some aspects of the tourist industry, tipping is not practiced in China. In fact, we have been told that it is something of an insult. Early on, I left a little tip on a restaurant table only to have the owner chase me down the street and return my “forgotten” money.
Several days ago we were on an intercity bus. As we got off a nice passenger noted that I had left a piece of money on my seat (a $0.12 bill). He got it and gave it to my wife as we got off the bus. Again, and again, we see little things like this that reflect a very fundamental value of honesty. And we see fairness. All classes (this is not a “classless” society) treat one another fairly—we all wait in line and we are polite to one another (unfortunately, there are rare exceptions).
When you are in a country of 1.3 billion people, you are always living elbow-to-elbow, even out here in Beibei. One consequence of this is that wherever you are, there are 5, 10 or 15 other people. In this environment, everything seems to be participatory. On several occasions, merchants have tried to over-charge us only to have one or more local resident intervene on our behalf and talk the merchant down. It is evident that they don’t like to see anyone cheated—even “rich” Americans.
Is this a modern dream world? No way. Last week as we got off a bus in Chongqing a woman ostensibly tried to stuff an advertisement into my wife’s pocket—obviously a pickpocket. I got off the bus about three or four passengers later and the same woman tried to rip an umbrella from my backpack. She has a sore arm today. As this happened, a total stranger in the crowd saw her, grabbed her, chewed her out, and sent her on her way. Ordinary people here just don’t like to see ordinary people (even Americans, who obviously are not ordinary) treated unfairly. This is the only time we have been physically attacked while here, and it came to naught.
We have had an occasional cab driver try to rip us off (200 for a trip we know costs 50) and that sort of thing. As an obvious foreigner you expect that. But we have had twenty honest cab drivers who have bent over backwards to understand us and to help us along our way for every one that has tried to rip us off. I bet you can’t get those odds in New York City.
Speaking of which—my observations are based on our daily life in Beibei and brief visits to several large cities. It is my hope that Chinese visitors in Gainesville are treated with as much courtesy, honesty, and humility as we have received here. I am confident that life in Shanghai, Beijing, and other large cities is probably just as “rough” as life in Miami or New York City. Please help our visitors to Gainesville return to their countries with pleasant memories of the U.S. and its people, as we will return to the U.S. with pleasant memories of China and its people.

Daning River—a tributary of the Yangtze in the Three Gorges region

Three Gorges

One of the most popular tourist destinations in China is the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River. Since this adventure is practically in our back yard, we decided we had better do it before we left China. The usual tour is a three night voyage down the Yangtze on a river boat that passes through some spectacular scenery including three narrow gorges where the river passes through majestic canyons. While this is a leisurely trip thousands of tourists have taken for the sheer beauty of the journey, today it is an excursion that has an additional dimension—the Three Gorges Project.
In the 1920’s one of the poorest regions of the U.S. was the Southeast. Most of the population there were isolated, poor farmers who lived in conditions that we associate with the third world today. Most had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no access to markets, schools, or jobs. In the center of the region is the Tennessee River basin. The Tennessee River begins in northwestern Tennessee and flows south, parallel to the Appalachians, to Chattanooga in southeast Tennessee. From there the river turns west through northern Alabama to the Mississippi border where it turns north for a final run through western Tennessee and Kentucky, reaching the Ohio River just before it spills into the Mississippi River. On a map, the Tennessee River looks like a U with a larger, longer left side.
In addition to the poverty of the region, the Tennessee River was known for its floods. Seasonal rains brought devastating floods to the region killing thousands and stripping what little topsoil there was off the precarious fields and denuded forests of the hilly landscape. This was the home of the Tennessee hillbilly—poor, isolated, and uneducated. Beyond subsistence farming, the main industries in the region were revivals and moonshine—often serving the same clientele.
In 1933 President Roosevelt proposed creating a federal agency to develop the impoverished Tennessee River valley. The congressional champion of the project was, of all people, Senator George Norris of Nebraska. The result was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This regional development project featured the construction of a series of dams on the river to provide flood control, power generation, and navigation. Programs of erosion control and reforestation were mixed in with the massive building programs. In time, the region became a source of plentiful, cheap electricity that attracted industry and provided jobs.
Today the Tennessee River valley is a prosperous industrial region with beautiful lakes providing recreation including some of the best bass fishing in the world. In the academic field of regional development, the TVA is a textbook example of a successful, large scale, integrated project.
Several years ago, following a flood that killed thousands, China announced the initiation of the Three Gorges Project (TGP) to place a flood control hydroelectric dam across the Yangtze river—the third longest river in the world. The size and scope of the TGP is of record setting proportions; and, the controversies associated with the project are many. It is by all accounts the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken. Upon completion in 2009, the dam will provide about one-ninth of China’s electric power, most of which is currently produced by burning coal--a major factor in the horrible air pollution problem that much of China faces.
The dam will also provide flood control and navigation from Shanghai to Chongqing. Ocean freighters will steam through the world’s largest locks on the way to the industrial markets of Chongqing—1,500 miles from the sea. Two aspects of the TGP are of particular interest.
First, there is the environmental issue. Will a project of this magnitude change the environment? Will species that have lived in the river survive in a lake? Will silting at the dam site soon fill the reservoir behind the dam reducing the effectiveness of flood control? Will the industrial and municipal waste that is currently dumped into the river to be flushed out to the sea now begin to accumulate in the lake creating a mammoth cesspool?
Second, there is the relocation issue. As we motored down the 400 miles of river from Chongqing to the dam we passed numerous signs that marked the eventual high water level of the dam at 176 meters above sea level. Much of the construction of the dam has already been completed (locks and hydroelectric generators are still under construction) and the lake has been filled up to 159 meters. In 2009 the lake level will rise to the final level of 176 meters. Anything that was previously on the river is now underwater or will soon be so. The government estimates that 1.5 million people will have to be relocated. Homes that have been occupied and fields that have been harvested for five centuries are being lost to the waters of the TGP. Burial sites and religious shrines will be lost.
The government provides those who have lost their houses with new apartments that are certainly more modern that what is being lost, but who wants to give up the family farm for a new city apartment? Many of the displaced are leaving the land permanently and moving to large industrial centers like Chongqing. The fact that all land is owned by the state makes the relocation process a little easier than it would be in the U.S., but it is still a human challenge of monumental proportions. It was my unscientific observation that a lot of the housing that has been built to relocate the affected families remains unoccupied. Some towns are currently a curious mixture of old dwellings near the shore and new buildings higher up. Land that will soon be inundated is currently being farmed as it has been for centuries.
Life for the residents of the Yangtze valley will certainly change as a result of the TGP, just as life changed in the Tennessee valley as a result of the TVA. Let’s hope the change is for the better.
As for the scenery, it is as beautiful and spectacular as ever. The TGP can’t change that. However, the partial filling of the lake has made travel up some the tributaries of the Yangtze possible. The gorges on the one tributary we went up were even more beautiful than the famous three gorges of the Yangtze. Sometimes change is beneficial.