Why Institutions Matter: A Story About Rice

I’ve taken more than a passing interest in Nigeria’s agriculture plans lately so I was roaming around the internet when I stumbled on a couple of documents. Nothing to strange about the documents in and of themselves except that they were written by two different sets of people and at different times meaning that we can look at them side by side and make some interesting observations and perhaps a wider point about the troubles that so easily beset us as a nation

Exhibit A: An Assessment of the Operations of the Presidential Initiatives on Agriculture in Nigeria: 2001 – 2007 – written by some Central Bank of Nigerian in-house analysts in June 2011.

Exhibit B: Rice Value Chain Transformation Plan (2012) – written by the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) after a tour of rice production across Nigeria

The first document assesses the impact of various government policies to boost agriculture production in Nigeria across a variety of crops and sectors. The second one obviously focuses solely on rice. So to be able to make comparisons, I will focus only on the rice segment of the first document.

The first thing that jumped at me from Exhibit A under the Increased Rice Production and Export Programme (IRPEP) was this (page 14):

The overall objective of the initiative on Increased Rice Production and Export was to attain self sufficiency in the local production of rice in the short term (2005) and to produce for export in the medium term (2007). The project was expected to promote the production of 6 million tonnes of milled rice from 10.3 million tonnes of paddy by year 2005.

If that sounds familiar, it is because it is. Because when you go to Exhibit B, you’ll find this (page 2):

The goal is self sufficiency in rice production and complete substitution of imported rice by year 2015. Products in focus are parboiled milled rice and unparboiled milled white rice. The target is 6 million metric tonnes per annum of locally produced and internationally competitive milled rice by 2015.

Controlling for the ‘mere’ 10 year gap between when we set the targets initially and when we have now pushed it to, those goals look almost identical. So what happened? Well Exhibit A tells us that we managed to hit 4.8 million tonnes of rice in 2007 i.e. 80% of the target that was set. Production was also steadily increasing from 3m tonnes in 2002 to 4.2m tonnes in 2006.

I cant find any data for the 2008 – 2011 period so we have to engage in some educated guesswork. At the time of IRPEP, our domestic consumption was put at 5 million tonnes per annum hence the plan to produce 6 million tonnes and export the extra 1 million tonnes.

Adding up the projected rice production numbers for 2012 in the RVCTP document we get a shocking 601,459 tonnes for the year. In other words the ministry was expecting less than 1 million tonnes of rice to be produced in 2012 in Nigeria. The caveat to add to this is that a report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in January this year estimated our local rice production at 2.85 million tonnes. Whichever figure you believe, we suffered a disastrous collapse in domestic production somewhere between 2007 and 2012 of almost 50%. It is also not news that we have now become the world’s largest importer of rice with a projected 2.7 million tonnes of imports for 2013. Ironically, one of the IRPEP achievements listed in Exhibit A is that we managed to reduce our imports to less than 1 million tonnes in 2007 i.e. in around 6 years we have increased our imports by 270% while consumption has only increased by 20%.

This is the story of Nigeria and one that we should take a minute to reflect on. There is no amount of progress that we make as a nation that cannot be rolled back in a short period of time. We can afford to take absolutely nothing for granted if we want to get into the habit of continuous development. Those who say we should strengthen our institutions are right on the money – it is very hard for one person or ten to give us sustained development because people leave power or positions of authority and ultimately they die. We can take ten steps forward but the sin that doth so easily beset us and locks us in the habit of under achievement is never far away…we are like a nation trying to kick a long standing drug habit. Only a fool will say it’s going to be a walk in the park.

Without naming names, some people also work quite hard from morning till night and by way of securing their legacy, hand over their work to a random person who doesn’t share their values or has his own ideas. Nobody should then be surprised when things don’t go according to plan. It is uncanny that this rolling back of whatever small progress was made happened somewhere between 2007 and 2011.

This is all very important because we are back here again as you can see from the targets set out in the RVCTP. We now have an energetic minister who is going about his job with seemingly boundless energy. It is almost guaranteed that the person who comes after him wont run around like an energizer bunny moving to gear 6 what the current minister perhaps left in gear 5 (NAFDAC after Dora Akunyili comes to mind). And where will that leave us? Will we hit 5 million tonnes in 2015, the minister leaves office and then in 2019 we are wondering how and why we have become the world’s biggest importer of rice again after another ‘surprising’ collapse in domestic production.

This is just rice. As you know, there is nothing Nigeria does not have a plan for somewhere written with characteristic brio with targets aimed for the stars because the moon is too puny for us. What is perhaps most annoying or painful is that failure never seems to stop us from doing the same things over and over again while expecting different results.

In 2001, the Taliban decided to destroy some 150 ft tall Buddha statues in the Hindu Kush mountains in Central Afghanistan. The statues had been there for 1,700 years and would always be a potential source of tourist income for the country if left alone. It took the Taliban just one weekend using dynamites to blow up the statues.

Nothing is secured or guaranteed to remain there just because it is there. The most dangerous time for progress is often when people have relaxed and take things for granted. In one fell swoop, years of achievement can be rolled back and nations can find themselves worse than wherever they were coming from in the place. It has taken no more than a week to destroy confidence in Cyprus’ banking sector.

If you see anything good happening in Nigeria, keep an eye on it and think of ways to keep it going. If you close your eyes for one minute, even the little you are ‘managing’ will be taken away from you.

This is why we also must be suspicious of ‘young’ people who are currently running about declaring themselves as change agents and demanding to be loved. It’s not so much that they are lying, it’s more that they often don’t know what they are talking about. A lot of the arguments I hear these days seem to be that if we vote the ‘right people’ we will get, drum roll, the ‘right results’. And that somehow, contrary to what the Bard said, we somehow all have the art to find the mind’s construction in the face or the words that roll out of people’s mouths when they are seeking our votes.

Maybe the first question we should be asking anyone who puts themselves about for office in 2015 is – what gains do you think we have made in the last 4 years and what are your plans for securing them?

It would be absolutely mental to hand the keys to anyone – incumbent or opposition – who cannot answer this question convincingly. Enough of this one step forward and two steps back style of development.

We haven’t got all day.

FF

P.S Spend some time reading both documents just to compare how eerily similar they are.

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Random Notes on Chinese Infrastructure

I caught the last train from Shanghai to Beijing at 5.50pm. Coupled with the fact that the windows on the train were slightly tinted, it meant that within the first 30 minutes of a 5hr 30 minute journey, it was quite dark already. But China doesn’t seem to have an electricity problem so I could see lights everywhere. More importantly, as we were leaving a big city, I was keen to see where the development would ‘end’ so to speak. It didn’t. I kept seeing roads and bridges all well-lit in the night. Most of them were empty too – just 10 lane highways and bridges everywhere.

So on the journey back, I decided to take an earlier train so I could complete the journey in daylight. The journey from Beijing to Shanghai is around 1320km, significantly more than the journey from Lagos to Kano. It wasn’t just one road running alongside the tracks, it was different highways we were crossing. In 2011, the Chinese highway system surpassed the American Interstate Highway System in terms of total length. America started building theirs in 1957 and continued up until 2010. The Chinese built their first one in 1988…

It occurred to me that whenever I hear stories about poor countries that suffer food wastage due to logistic problems – like Nigeria where 80% of tomatoes routinely go to waste – I never hear China mentioned. Nigerian cows for instance will give anything to be transported on Chinese roads. It surely must be a lot easier and cheaper to move goods across China. Just think of the amount of business that has been made possible with this kind of infrastructure. This is probably why Western companies are falling over themselves to set up car plants in China. Those roads might be empty now, but as more people get wealthy, they will need cars.

When I landed at Shanghai Pudong airport, I was struck by how imposing the airport was. But then I noticed there was no other flight landing at the same time as we did. We cleared immigration in a few minutes and went to get our bags. I counted 20 luggage conveyor belts. Huge ones as well. Only ours was working. After leaving Shanghai, the first station we stopped at was Nanjing South which had 30 platforms. Depending on the size of the town, the stations we passed through had anything from 8 to 30 platforms. Modern, shiny, well-lit. Conversely, as we landed at the 99% full capacity Heathrow in London, our plane made a u-turn and started to taxi to the terminal. I looked out the window and counted 4 planes waiting in line to land. Yet the govt here can’t build a new runway or airport for love or money.

Seemingly empty roads, bare airports, more train station platforms than they need. In a country like China which still has huge amounts of poverty. What’s going on? This, for me, illustrates the paradox of infrastructure – you need to build it when you are poor because you wont be able to afford it when you are rich. Yes. Or to perhaps put it another way; if you build it, they will come…eventually.

Back to the train journey; every few minutes a high-speed train would pass us heading in the opposite direction. They also have a lot of expensive high-speed trains. Some months ago, I saw the photo below showing Chinese high-speed trains at a terminal and it looked almost beyond belief that they would have that much stock. But when trains pass you by every 20 minutes heading in the opposite direction on a 5 hour journey, you know they definitely have a lot of trains.

Since 2004, CRH (China Railways High-Speed) has taken delivery of around 1000 trains each one with an average of 10 cars. What the Chinese have built in 8 years took the Germans and British decades to build. They have so far spent something in the order of $300bn constructing tracks at breakneck speed. And as we traveled, you could see construction of elevated train tracks all over the place.

It’s also interesting that while here in the UK for example, normal speed and high-speed trains share the same tracks (meaning that signalling and scheduling have to be top notch), the Chinese simply built separate tracks entirely to accommodate the high-speed trains. No matter how uncharitable you are determined to be, it is hard to conclude that what they have achieved is anything other than remarkable.

As I was looking at all those roads, an idea came to my head. We know that Nigerian politicians and government officials love nothing more than to ‘commission’ or ‘launch’ things. They love cutting ribbons in front of cameras. Well, since we are friendly with the Chinese, why don’t we come up with some kind of exchange programme where we send our politicians to China anytime they want to open a new road to commission it for them? And just for the fun of it, we watch to see which one will develop arthritis in their wrists.

How about housing? Beijing is a really intimidating city. All the buildings are huge and imposing. But yet again, as you leave the city, you begin to see endless new developments sometimes seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Obviously there are a lot of Chinese people in China and it might be that the government is anticipating more migration from the Western provinces and is simply building these houses for that purpose. Or perhaps they plan to knock down some old buildings in the center of the towns and move people out to the suburbs. The things we refer to as ‘serviced flats’ or ‘luxury apartments’ in Nigeria are considered an efficient way of housing the masses in China. Of course if you are going to build a block of 20 floors, it has to be ‘serviced’. But we have now turned it into such a big deal (partly because of the ridiculous cost of cement in Nigeria) that it is not even an option anyone considers when talking about solutions to the huge housing problems we face in Nigeria.

Or the Subway system? Shanghai has 13 different lines and Beijing has about 15. And more are being built to cope with ever increasing number of people using them.

I don’t know how they do it, but building things has become easy for these guys. Or perhaps they have always been that way – they did build the Great Wall after all. But in a world where ‘infrastructure’ has become a cliché, it is quite something to see what its like first hand. When you approach the Shanghai Hongqiao Airport and Railway Station (They are side by side), you will be mesmerized by the flyovers to and from the area from all corners. It is infrastructure porn for lack of a better way to describe it.

The Chinese government is huge (they invented the bureaucracy after all) and can be deeply corrupt – the Bo Xilai case recently comes to mind. But for those who believe in the power of government to do big things. You can’t say the Chinese government isn’t ‘working’. A guy I met at the airport who has been visiting China for the past 10 years told me that 2009 was the year when they went ‘crazy’ with building stuff. This is probably why so many of the roads and bridges looked new. I suspect that Nigerians will vote for this kind of waste and corruption in their government by a landslide if given the option.

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Maybe there’s hope for us in Nigeria. The obvious evidence from China is that the more you do something the better you become at it and can do it even cheaper. The high-speed trains were initially imported under a technology transfer agreement. Today they are built in China and have started exporting them to other countries notably Georgia. It’s hard to get to 1000 trains when you have to import every single one. And you are not making a lot of progress when someone who left office in 1993 can still claim bragging rights that he built the most important bridge in the nation’s commercial capital.

It’s also hard to imagine a company like Julius Berger for instance continuing to dominate construction in a country like China (although Julius Berger is now a majority Nigerian owned company). They don’t like to rely on foreign technology for too long. They are very clever people and will quickly find a way to ‘own’ it. Once that ownership has been achieved, it then becomes like clockwork for them to rapidly deploy it.

Then there’s Chinese labor. This is probably the strongest thing about them. It’s not just that there are 1 billion China men available to work for a pittance, they are also very skilled. I am told that some Nigerians are now importing Chinese laborers for construction work in Nigeria. Actually this makes perfect sense to me and if I was awarded a big construction contract in Nigeria today, I’d seriously look into shipping in Chinese workers to do the job. The last time I was in Lagos, I was in a car passing through Yaba and saw a Lagos State government built bus stop. I couldn’t help but be irritated at how uneven the lines were and how shoddy the whole construction looked…which undoubtedly cost millions. It looked like it had been moulded together using someone’s bare hands. We must do better.

But I remember reading a quote attributed to Ratan Tata where he was talking about his motivation for developing the Tata Nano and he said ‘we need to take care of this segment of the market because if we don’t do it, the Chinese will come and do it for us’.

That one too is an option. We can always decide we can’t be bothered to master this infrastructure business and just pay someone else to do it for us….like the Arabs have mostly done. One thing is for sure though, we will be playing catch up forever if we continue as we are doing.

Shrugs. Some more photos below

FF

Infra - Housing 2 Infra - Housing 3 Infra - Housing 4 Infra - Housing 5 Infra - Housing 6 Infra - Housing Infra - Roads 2 Infra - Roads 3 Infra - Roads Infra - Trains 2 Infra - Trains 3 Infra - Trains

The Word On The Streets VIII: The 古村 Edition

Ownership of this blog has its perks. One of such is the ability to change the rules as I see fit. So even though TWOTS is normally an account of a trip to Nigeria, the rules can be broken to take in somewhere else e.g. with Singapore last year.

1.  There is no access to Twitter* or Facebook in China. Several other sites are also blocked e.g. Bloomberg for this story they did last year. I quickly discovered that any site that had ‘blog’ in it was also blocked. Any website with ‘blogspot’ in the URL is also blocked. This might be a Google problem as YouTube was also blocked.

Some websites which weren’t themselves blocked but had a blog section e.g. the beyondbrics page of the FT would take forever to open, as if the website was going to Beijing to seek approval before opening. Sometimes I’d see a Facebook or twitter notification come through on my phone but if you then tried to open it, it simply wouldn’t. Instagram is allowed though as is Foursquare (perhaps to help the government monitor people better?)

Incidentally the Chinese economy grew by 7.8% in Q4 2012 while the US economy shrank by 0.1% and the UK by 0.3%. Are these things related? I couldn’t possibly comment on that 🙂

*While they don’t have Twitter, they do have the formidable Weibo, reported to be 500m users strong and is where the Chinese ‘children of anger’ reside. So before Dr. Abati sends a proposal to Mr. President asking him to ban the use of social media in Nigeria as a way of growing our nascent economy….

2.         Feeling like a tourist, I had mapped out my journey from the airport to my hotel using this website but I decided to try out the Maglev train going from the airport halfway into town (Longyang). 50 Yuan later, we were on board and the train soon reached its top speed of 431km/hr. How did it feel? Fast! There was a point at which it seemed to hit something like a gap in the tracks – at top speed – and it made a loud noise. That scared me but my fellow passengers didn’t flinch so I relaxed.

At Longyang it was time to join the normal subway and I realized something I hadn’t thought of at all before – there are no black people in Shanghai. So there I was on a Saturday morning on the Shanghai Subway in a packed train. The only black guy anywhere near the place. I don’t mind being black (not like I have a choice) and I am happy to be the only black person anywhere but this was slightly uncomfortable initially. Happily, the same thing in English follows the train announcements in mandarin and the signs also have English versions everywhere. Same for the ticket machines with a prominently placed ‘English’ button on the touchscreen. As such as I was able to go from the airport to my hotel without asking for directions once from anyone. Neat.

3. I booked a mini tour of Shanghai for the evening of the day I arrived before I left London, which included a Chinese acrobats show. It was 90 minutes of awesomeness made even more interesting by the fact that the acrobats made a few mistakes. The things they were doing – like juggling 7 balls at the same time – looked humanly impossible at times and I had to restrain myself from jumping up from my seat to applaud them (only black guy in the room remember?). Sadly we were told not to take photos or record videos to protect the ‘intellectual property’ of the acrobat company. Something I found rather cute in light of recent events.

Anyway the show went really well until a lady came out for her performance, which consisted of some card tricks. I was sitting in the first row only a few feet away from the stage so this compounded my ‘mesmerisation’. I hate stuff that can’t be obviously explained. Needless to say, the lady started off with a deck of cards in her hands and kept on throwing them to the crowd…and throwing them…and throwing them…and throwing them. Yes, the cards didn’t finish even when her hands were empty. She simply ‘summoned’ more cards of different sizes, which did as they were told and promptly appeared in her hands. And then she threw them again. Can any magic aficionado point me in the direction of something that explains this trick? Thank you.

4. Seems to me that a surefire way to ‘hammer’ in China is to set up an optician’s business. Everyone seems to wear glasses and even those who don’t, have it in their pocket or glove compartment especially taxi drivers.

5. Speaking of taxis, it’s now obvious to me that one of the first things to organize in a serious city is the taxi system. Singapore has the best and tightest regulated taxi trade I have seen. The government sets the prices for the taxi drivers and the business is closed to non-Singaporeans. Those who get it are thoroughly vetted and background checked beforehand and in exchange for all this, the government helps them to enforce some kind of monopoly by tightly controlling the amount of licenses it gives out. The result is very very cheap taxis that are as safe as can be.

Dubai also has a very good taxi network – all cabs are metered so need to waste time haggling unnecessary over fares.

If a city has plans to be a serious place open to people who want to come and do business there, then it needs to ensure that people feel safe and comfortable enough to get on a plane and journey from airport to hotel without too many worries. Shanghai cabs are metered and once the cab starts running, there’s an announcement in mandarin followed by an English translation. There are numbers to call in case of an emergency behind the driver’s seat and the starting fare is 14 Yuan for each journey. Again very cheap cabs to move around.

Here’s looking at you Lagos. Let’s sort out our cabs and make them safe and predictable in pricing. Whenever I am coming to Lagos, I only use a cabman that has been vouched for by my close friends and even with that, it’s a heart in mouth journey from the airport to the house for me. What if he suddenly parks somewhere and asks me to surrender everything and jog on?

6. There are some 24 million in people in Shanghai but it definitely doesn’t feel cramped. The roads rise to the occasion in their length and width and you just know if more kilometers of road are suddenly needed, the Chinese will sort it out stat (they spent $45bn just to get the city ready for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, almost 50% more than Nigeria’s annual budget). These guys have cracked the infrastructure code, no doubt. The whole Pudong New Area was claimed from the sea (what Eko Atlantic wants to be) and is accessed by an underground tunnel road. I went there at night and I was amazed.

It’s understandable why they are proud of their city and fiercely protective of its image – when Mission Impossible 3 (shot in Shanghai) applied for a license to show the film in China in 2006 (only 20 foreign films are allowed to be shown in China every year), the authorities asked the film’s producers to cut out all the shots that showed high-rise buildings with clothes hanging in the open on the balconies. Skyfall too was asked to cut out the scene where James Bond effortlessly killed a Chinese guard when he arrived in Shanghai.

7. I was in Shanghai for an MBA related workshop for the first 3 days and I shared a class with about 20 other people. There was one Singaporean guy (half mandarin, half Malay so he spoke mandarin very well), a Cantonese guy from Hong Kong, A German guy based in Tokyo and married to a Japanese woman and myself as the only ‘non-Chinese’ people in the class. It wasn’t a particularly representative class of Chinese people as all of them had really good jobs (90% of them with American companies and had done a fair bit of travelling); nevertheless I tried to glean a few things from them.

First day of the workshop I arrived quite early to find one Chinese course mate waiting outside the door of the venue. She had forgotten the password we had been sent to let ourselves in so she was on the phone to someone trying to get it. I managed to remember it and I opened the door. It was just two of us there at this point but as soon as the door opened, she bolted inside seemingly to grab the ‘best’ seat in the room (since everyone uses laptops sometimes it makes sense to angle for a seat next to a socket). Now I am in my 10th year in London and I know the town has softened me up but I found this rather hilarious. It occurred to me then that I had also been impatiently pushed out of the way the day before while waiting to climb an escalator out of the subway. Chinese people are perhaps competitive as soon as there’s something to compete for.

Later on, we were discussing about working for the government and working for the private sector and the Canadian lecturer spoke about how only 3rd rate people end up in government in America after the great and the good have gone to the private sector. This same girl then went on a semi-rant about how there ought to be no shame in working for the government and how in China, only the best go into the government. To my surprise, all the other China people in the class let out a loud chorus of ‘nooooo’ when she said that. Like I said earlier, these are all middle class Chinese people working for multinationals so her making that kind of statement was perhaps taken as an affront to them. Nevertheless she wasn’t allowed to finish that point or repeat it.

Chatting with another girl, I was letting out my frustration at how slow infrastructure development can be in the UK due to NIMBYism and all manner of engaged minorities who can block a project they don’t like. I gave an example of how some people had got the government to commit to planting some trees to cover their view of the new HS2 rail line – which wont even be built until 2030 – simply because they didn’t want to see a train passing. Her response was ‘so the government listens to people there?’. In the relentless quest for development, people in Shanghai are now very familiar with the word chai – 湾仔 – what is written on a building when it needs to be razed to make way for something new such as a new road or a skyscraper. The government isn’t in the habit of listening to every last complaint and delaying what it has decided to do in the process.

Having said that, I ran into a British guy at the airport on the way back here who works for a Chinese company (and is looking to do business in Nigeria even) and he was telling me things have greatly improved in how the government compensates people for their land. Now the government might give people 3 flats in a new development in exchange for taking their land. When the block is ready, those people then sell 2 of them and become millionaires in the process.

8. I decided to do another tour of Shanghai on my own so I got in a cab and started off at People’s Square. Then walked to the Bund to look at the Pudong New Area

I had asked for the name of a street where cars aren’t allowed to pass from a coursemate and he helped me practice my pronunciation of it until he was sure a taxi driver wouldn’t take me to the border or some place else. So after leaving the Bund rather later in the night, I confidently told the first taxi driver I saw I was going to Bu Xing Jie. He dropped me off at the beginning of the street and I brought out my camera happily snapping away. By this time I was quite relaxed with the constant stares of people looking at the tall skinny black guy.

As I was strolling down the street, the first guy walked towards me and I was quite scared as the street was somewhat deserted by this time. He smiled and I returned the smile. Then he pulled out a card from his pocket with a rather fetching young Chinese girl on it. ‘You want nice Chinese girl?’ he enquired. I laughed and shook my head and continued walking. Of course what else was a black guy doing there if not to look for Chinese girls to sleep with? Totally understandable.

I walked further down and another lady came up to me. This one had about 3 cards and her opening gambit was ‘You want sex and massage?’. I laughed, shook my head and said no. She seemed offended and frowned before retorting ‘You no like sex?’. I was minded to tell her that it was the massage I didn’t want and I was entirely up for having sex with a Chinese woman in Shanghai as that was what brought me there in the first place. But I decided not to push my luck even after she offered to send the girls to my hotel room if I preferred it that way. 2 more people came with the same offer and one of them did it right in front of a statuesque looking policeman. Great to see the universal law of policemen and prostitutes holding up in Shanghai too.

Same thing happened on my last night in Shanghai and this time the guy wouldn’t let me be. So I took his card and promised to call him just so he could stop following me around. The wording on it is hilarious (see photos)

9. I had 3 days to kill so it made sense to take the fast train up to Beijing to check out another Chinese city. Beijing is ‘proper’ China compared to Shanghai’s westernized look and feel.

I kept expecting to get scammed and when it hadn’t happened by the 5th day, I became ‘concerned’. My hotel in Beijing was in the center of town so I decided to go check out Tian’anmen Square (when Chinese people in China Google it, they get images of a park with lots of families playing and having fun. Try googling it and search on images to see what it shows you).

After seeing the square and along with the ubiquitous presence of members of the People’s Liberation Army, I crossed over the road in the direction of Chairman Mao’s larger than life face into the Forbidden City and its temples. In both places there was a huge crowd of people (on a Wednesday morning) just strolling around with their families and having fun in the sunshine. I had expected to see plenty of tourists but 99.9% of the tourists there were Chinese people themselves. Only black man again…sticking out like a sore thumb. After walking round I saw a guy with a camera that looked like mine and asked him to take a photo of me if it wasn’t too much trouble – this exchange was completed without words because by this time I had realized that mandarin is a ‘sound’ language. So even if you are speaking English and it’s too fast, you might unknowingly say something else entirely (the day before, I was taken on a merry go round cab journey after I had told the cabman that I was going to the Shanghai Centre. Perhaps ‘Centre’ sounds like the Chinese word for ‘railway station’ because that’s where he took me. Cue frustration as the guy didn’t speak or hear a word of English). Also when I wanted a guy to write something for me in Chinese characters, I wrote it down but he asked me to pronounce it vowel by vowel so he could know what to write.

Anyway, after getting this guy to take a photo of me, I thanked him and started to walk off when a rather innocent looking Chinese lady walked up to me to say hi. She spoke passable English and I think I was too relieved to find a Chinese person to chat to. She said she was from Wuhan and only came up to Beijing for sightseeing. I said I had wanted to go to Shenzhen, which is further along on the same rail corridor, and she was surprised I knew a bit of Chinese geography. I then talked about how impressive it is that there seems to be so much internal tourism in China much like the way Americans do which makes people poke fun at them at being geographically ignorant (as an aside, all the Chinese people in my class said they are always amazed at how Americans and the British seem to know so much more of their own country than they do. Nigerians aren’t the only ones who feel this way it seems).

I told the lady I was tired as I walked round the temples already and she said we should stroll down towards the station. We kept talking and she told me she was a teacher down in Wuhan and I told her about London. We talked about the Chinese government officials who made the rounds on Weibo recently for owning 20 Rolex wristwatches and so on. So she asked me if I wanted to grab a drink in a bar near where we were standing. Like I said she seemed completely harmless and there were policemen all over in a very busy area. So I said why not and we dived inside one small restaurant looking tearoom. We entered and she asked for a room and we were led into a small room with a table and teacups. Alarm bells started ringing in my head as the waitress shut the door behind her as she left. Anyway gist continued flowing and they brought a big pot of tea. I asked for coke thinking they would bring it in a can and I would open it myself. To my disappointment the coke was brought in a glass. Awkward. What if there was something to make me sleep in it while they took everything I had and left me only my boxers? My Mum is a Deaconess you see and I grew up as a church boy. So I began to ‘plead the blood’ over the drink silently. She was drinking the tea and enjoying it and she poured me a cup, which I didn’t touch. Gist continued and she showed me photos of her cute looking nephew on her phone. I wondered if she was some kind of prostitute but her nerdy looks made me rule that out. She drank more tea and I drank some more coke.

After about 45 minutes alone in that room and she on her 5th or 6th cup of tea, I told her I was ready to leave as I still had places to go. So she summoned the waiter and even told me how to call a waiter and ask for the bill in mandarin. When the bill came, I looked at it and smiled. There was the scam, finally. It was for 980 Yuan. The ‘tea’ was 800 Yuan and the ‘private room’ was 100 Yuan. The coke I drank was 30 Yuan and some biscuits, which she had nibbled on and I didn’t touch, were 50 Yuan. I could see her face starting to change with her not being sure if I was going to fall for the scam or not. I took this as my cue to take the piss. So I pointed in between the 9 and 8 on the bill and asked the waiter why she hadn’t put the dot there. I then pulled out a 10 Yuan note from my pocket and began to confidently wave it around. There was a look of horror on her face and one of irritation on the face of the waiter. She then began to explain to me that it was actually 980 Yuan and not 9.80 Yuan (by the way Beijing is very cheap so 9.80 Yuan wasn’t totally beyond reason for tea and coke. A train journey for instance costs 2 Yuan). I then started complaining about not having anywhere near that kind of money as I only drank coke anyway. I pointed to the 30 Yuan on the bill for my coke and continued to protest. Evidently this had happened to her before and she quickly opened her bag and brought out something like 300 Yuan and her UnionPay debit card and handed it to the waiter. She then asked me how much I could pay and I pulled out a 100 Yuan note and gave it to her. This moved us into the negotiation phase and a back and forth began with her pleading that there wasn’t enough money on her card to cover it all. ‘What was in the tea you drank?’ I kept asking her and she didn’t answer. In the end I brought out another 50 Yuan, handed it to her and headed out of the place.

I walked like 50 yards before looking back and seeing her, she smiled and I smiled back. She waved and I waved back and then she headed back in the direction we originally came from…to look for her next victim. What tripped me the most in all this was how disarming she was. I would have thought she didn’t have a single devious bone in her body. Of course I still overpaid and she probably made a profit, which I suppose was the whole point. In my defense, I did it for you dear reader…so that whenever you are in Beijing, you wont fall for this trick again.

10. ‘The only thing real in that market are the people. Everything else is fake’. This was how my friend described Silk Street Market in Beijing to me before I headed out to China. It’s a popular tourist attraction these days and the Chinese authorities continue to pay lip service to shutting it down.

Look, there’s a KFC downstairs in the 6-storey complex. It’s a fake KFC. How do I know? Well before I entered this one I had already visited 3 different KFCs in China, as I didn’t want to go to a Chinese restaurant and mistakenly order cat or mouse barbecue. So I stuck to what I was certain about. As soon as I entered this ‘KFC’ I knew it was fake. There’s an Apple store inside the complex. Yep, fake. Going through this complex floor-by-floor is to behold the awesome wonder that is Chinese enterprise first hand. It’s well organized too – basement is for leather goods, 3rd floor for tailored clothes, 5th floor for jewelers etc.

So you go in a store and see a bag you like. You ask how much and the store person brings out a calculator and types in say 2000 Yuan. She then hands you the calculator and asks you to enter your price. So you enter 150 Yuan. She pretends to get angry and asks if that’s dollars or Chinese money. You say yes, Chinese money. She then asks you for your ‘no kidding price’. After much haggling with you threatening to walk away, you agree on a price of say 220 Yuan. You take the bag and move on. If you come back in 5 minutes to the same shop and pick up the same bag, the store person will do the exact same thing i.e. start from 2000 Yuan. They do this to wear you down so that perhaps this time you might agree to pay 250 Yuan instead.

But I think something interesting is happening in these stores that reflect China’s growing ambitions perhaps. I needed to buy a leather traveling bag as I only took a small one with me. Now of course I was ‘spoilt for choice’ from Louis Vuitton to Burberry to whatever. Aside from the fact that I am not a designer person to the point where I would carry around an LV traveling bag, I also am unable to tell the difference between an original and a copy. They all looked good to me. Anyway I noticed one particular design in all the shops with some kind of horse design on it. I had no idea who the designer was so I asked and the lady in the shop said ‘no this one not copy, original Chinese design’. Every shop had this ‘designer’ in stock in all kinds of products from wallets to handbags to travel suitcases. And they were really good looking items. I am talking about stuff that you can slap a brand name on it and people will happily pay a premium for it. But here were the Chinese, confident enough to sell it under their own brand name and place it on the shelf right next to the fake Louis Vuittons and Pradas. The Chinese are not coming, they have arrived. I didn’t hesitate before buying the bag. They are still taking their inspiration from popular brands but it wont be long anymore.

There are tailors who will take your measurement and produce a suit for you in less than 24hours. There are fake iPads and fake converse shoes. It is impossible to tell the difference with a casual glance. Chinese labor is well and truly skilled because it takes some talent to copy stuff in the way these guys do.

11. Rushing back to my hotel in Beijing to grab my bags and catch the train back to Shanghai, I saw a black guy! leaving the hotel. Couldn’t stop to talk as I was in a hurry. I got to Beijing South Railway Station and it was so packed I could only get a train for 2 hours later. But then I saw the guy again and instinctively went over to talk to him. Turned out to be a young American kid who decided to leave Washington DC and come try out his luck in Shanghai. He works in consulting and feels the future is in Asia. Said he felt he would learn the language faster if he just came out to China and stayed there while applying for jobs as well.

Talking about how the job market works there, he said the hardest part is getting an interview because 99% of CVs out there are fake with people claiming to be able to do things they can’t. So getting an interview is as good as getting the job as it means the employer has applied the usual discount and you still passed. He seemed like a really good kid and we exchanged numbers. I thought it was pretty cool of him to leave America and come try his luck in an unfamiliar country.

Almost everything in China needs to be discounted in this manner. You can’t just take anything at face value it seems. Singaporean coursemate was telling me about how so many Chinese companies were coming to list on the Singapore exchange at one point and to hide the fact that say, 2 of the 4 people on the board were in fact brothers, they’d list their names to investors as Mr. Chang (Mandarin) and Mr. Cheung (Cantonese). Obviously the average Chinese person wont fall for such a trick so it seems a lot of these scams are aimed at gullible foreigners. I was mentally discounting everything like this as I went along – for example wherever I saw ‘massage parlor’; I immediately took it to mean whorehouse or something of the sort. Read this story as another example. Chutzpah I tell you.

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It’s impossible to document everything in one post and for this reason I have deliberately left out anything to do with infrastructure in this one – I will do that in a second post as I think it merits a discussion on its own. I apologize for the length of this post.

A lot of things become somewhat clearer after visiting China. Why does the Communist Party for instance try so much ‘thought control’? Well there are 1 billion Chinese and the thought of them getting angry must be a truly frightening thing. Walking round Tian’anmen Square and seeing PLA soldiers everywhere and all the propaganda all over the place confirmed this – Chinese people are constantly being reminded how great their country is and how gloriously the Communist Party is running it in general and the Politburo Standing Committee in particular. It is essentially self-preservation.

If you are reading this and you’ve mulling over going to China, take this as your cue – book your ticket and go. Don’t waste any more time, go see the country for yourself.  It is something to behold and experience, as I will try to describe in my next post.

As the guy I met at the airport said to me ‘this is your first time? Don’t worry, you will definitely be back’

FF

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