India more populous than China?

China may have 1.29 billion people, rather than the official figure of 1.38 billion

You know your country is big when the official population figure may plausibly be off by 90 million people:

India may already have overtaken China as the world’s most populous country, according to research by an independent Chinese demographer.

Yi Fuxian, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Chinese officials had overestimated the number of births between 1990 and 2016 by almost 90m.

He attributed the alleged error partly to an overly optimistic fertility rate figure. China’s fertility rate was estimated at 1.6 children per woman in 2015, while Mr Yi believes it could be as low as 1.05.

If Mr Yi is correct, China’s population at the end of last year was 1.29bn, compared to the government’s official figure of 1.38bn. India’s population is officially estimated at 1.33bn.

The first meta-company?

This peek under the hood of Amazon.com is fascinating and slightly scary:

This all said, I believe that Amazon is the most defensible company on earth, and we haven’t even begun to grasp the scale of its dominance over competitors. Amazon’s lead will only grow over the coming decade, and I don’t think there is much that any other retailer can do to stop it.

The reason isn’t the bullet-point moats that are talked about in headlines, and it isn’t the culture of innovation or Bezos’s vision as CEO (though I do think Amazon’s culture is incredible and Bezos is the most impressive CEO out there). It’s the fact that each piece of Amazon is being built with a service-oriented architecture, and Amazon is using that architecture to successively turn every single piece of the company into a separate platform — and thus opening each piece to outside competition. […]

The most obvious example of Amazon’s SOA structure is Amazon Web Services (Steve Yegge wrote a great rant about the beginnings of this back in 2011). Because of the timing of Amazon’s unparalleled scaling — hypergrowth in the early 2000s, before enterprise-class SaaS was widely available — Amazon had to build their own technology infrastructure. The financial genius of turning this infrastructure into an external product (AWS) has been well-covered — the windfalls have been enormous, to the tune of a $14 billion annual run rate. But the revenue bonanza is a footnote compared to the overlooked organizational insight that Amazon discovered: By carving out an operational piece of the company as a platform, they could future-proof the company against inefficiency and technological stagnation.

Clever: Amazon exposes its own internal tools and systems to market competition. That way, the company’s operations are gradually perfected by the invisible hand of the market. Another way of putting it is that Amazon offers its own innards to the consumer. The company is the product. Very “meta.”

Assuming this is indeed a conscious, deliberate strategy, has any company tried this before?

Where this may be heading:

It seems obvious to me that Amazon will move into small-parcel shipping (UPS/FedEx/USPS) within the next five years. They are thumbing through their income statement and picking off the largest categories to “productize” — first technology (AWS), then fulfillment (FBA), then COGS (the actual products themselves via Amazon’s various private label programs), and next shipping. They’ve already started operating their own fleet of 40 cargo planes and thousands of tractor-trailers. They’ve built out dozens of parcel-sorting centers to reduce the fees they pay to existing small parcel carriers. And it’s a natural fit for their services model — they have tremendous internal demand and their existing services customers are perfect early adopters.

Blast from the past: Low-tech cheating

Originally posted Oct 26, 2013

China began the practice of selecting government officials through the imperial civil service exam in the early seventh century. This system lasted more or less continuously for 1,400 years. During much of that history, the exam tested candidates on their ability, among other things, to memorize insane quantities of classical texts. The stakes were daunting: success opened the door to lucrative, high-status public office; but after years of expensive test prep, the average candidate had a maybe five percent chance of passing the grueling provincial level exam.

Under these conditions, its hardly surprising that cheating flourished. In the face of strict policing and the threat of draconian punishments, dishonest examinees over the centuries tried almost every conceivable technique of trickery and fraud. The results were sometimes amazingly elaborate:

The sheer volume of knowledge required to succeed in the Imperial examinations elevated cheating to something of an art form in China. Miniature books were devised to be concealed in the palm of a hand; shirts had important passages from the Confucian Classics sewn, in miniscule lettering, to their insides; fans were constructed with pass-notes on their obverse. Other duplicities included hiring veteran scholars to sit the exams in ones stead, and the simple expedient of copying a neighbour in the exam hall. At certain times, bribery of examiners was commonplace.

– Justin Crozier, “A unique experiment.” From the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding’s China in Focus magazine (2002)

(Source)

In 2009, Chinese researchers discovered two tiny booklets dating from the Qing Dynasty designed to be smuggled into exam halls. One of them, slightly larger than a matchbox, contains 32 million characters of text.

It was amusing to see similar items on display in the museum under the Tengwang Pavilion in Nanchang. The labels aren’t very descriptive, but you get the idea:

Fortunately, China has put all that nonsense behind it. The imperial exam system was abolished in 1905. Today, instead of a rigorous, high-stakes national exam that holds the key to lucrative and prestigious government jobs, China has, well, a rigorous, high-stakes national exam that holds the key to social mobility.* And instead of miniature books and garments covered with hundreds of thousands of characters, the more unscrupulous exam-takers of today use wireless earpieces and pen scanners.

*Though perhaps decreasingly so.

Blast from the past: High school vice-principal sells useless cheating equipment, riot ensues

Originally posted Oct 24, 2013

This June, Malcolm Moore reported in The Telegraph on a riot that occurred at a high school in Zhongxiang, a city in central China’s Hubei Province, when school authorities cracked down on students attempting to cheat. Students at the No. 3 high school had been getting suspiciously high scores on the gaokao, China’s brutal national college entrance exam, so this year the school brought in a special team of proctors to relieve students of high-tech cheating gear. Pandemonium ensued:

For the students, and for their assembled parents waiting outside the school gates to pick them up afterwards, the new rules were an infringement too far. Outside, an angry mob of more than 2,000 people had gathered to vent its rage, smashing cars and chanting: We want fairness. There is no fairness if you do not let us cheat. Read the rest of the article here.

According to Moore, groups of students hurled rocks at school offices, trapping proctors inside, some of whom sent out calls for help on the internet. One proctor, who had confiscated a students mobile phone, was punched in the nose by the students father.

The incident is shocking enough, but I thought it worth pointing out that there is another layer to this story, apparently unreported in the English-language media. According to this article by Ye Zhu Yi in the Shenzhen Shangbao (Business Newspaper) which a Chinese friend offered to translate for me a vice-principal of the school had actually sold wireless cheating devices to thirty students through a teacher who acted as a middleman. But the students were unable to use these devices during the gaokao, as the school set up signal jammers to prevent cheating. Following the exam, the thwarted students marched to the vice-principal (who, they knew, had supplied the cheating technology) to demand a refund. The vice-principal refused, so the students reported him to the police. The resulting investigation netted two groups of cheaters.

Even more amusing, the exam had to be called off and rescheduled because angry parents barged into the classroom, argued with proctors, and even tried to switch off the jamming devices while the exam was in progress.

Extreme cases like these highlight the massive problem of cheating in Chinese schools. But the official and public reactions to them also illustrate the fact that many Chinese are disgusted by cheaters and the conditions that enable them. For example, the above-quoted author goes on to argue that (roughly):

  • Cheating is out of control at many schools, rendering gaokao scores useless as measures of ability;
  • Cracking down on cheaters is all well and good, but is not enough;
  • The basic problem is that the gaokao has far too much importance in shaping a students future prospects, leading to crazed competition which gives rise to cheating;
  • So besides punishing cheaters, we also need to reduce the importance of the gaokao and reform the whole education system and the way that students are evaluated.

Sound advice, I think.

Blast from the past: Loanwords

Originally posted June 16, 2013

Teaching business English to Japanese students in Shanghai has reminded me of one thing that I miss about South Korea, where I used to live: English loanwords. A loanword is a word from one language that gets adopted by another language. Modern-day Korean is littered with English loanwords, which often makes for curious listening; a foreigner who doesn’t understand Korean, listening to a Korean conversation, will hear a stream of completely unintelligible speech punctuated now and then by strangely pronounced English words such as “shopping” or “condition.”

As I discovered in my classes with Japanese students, the Japanese also borrow an enormous number of words from English, ranging from everyday items (konpyuuta for “computer”) to abstract concepts (moraru for “moral”). This provides Japanese ESL students with a large “built-in lexicon” of English words that they already know because they are commonly used in Japan.

In one class, I was amused to hear a student refer to a car horn as kurakushon, which I took to be a borrowing of the English word “correction” – quite an evocative way to describe a blaring horn. In fact, as I later learned, kurakushon comes from “klaxon,” the name for the electric horn that makes the classic ah-OO-gah sound of early cars and submarines.

Japanese and Koreans love to use English loanwords. But Chinese rarely use them, because the Chinese language is extremely loanword-resistant. Sometimes, in a relatively upscale venue such as Starbucks or a nice restaurant, I will hear people dropping English words, usually in a context where the speakers are working together or talking about work or business. As English is the default language of international business, its not surprising to hear actual English terms like “city manager” or “enterprise software” bandied about in China. But I generally don’t hear English loanwords at all.

Consider that in Japanese, “table” is teburu, “ice cream” is aisu kurimu, and “cheerleader” is chiagaru (“cheer girl”). In Korean, those words are rendered as te-i-beul, a-i-seu keu-rim, and chi-eo ri-deo, respectively.

In China you call them zhuozi, bingqilin, and lala duizhang – there is no borrowing from English at all.

By and large, the Chinese adopt foreign words by translating them semantically rather than transliterating them – that is, transferring the semantic information (meaning) rather than the phonetic information (sound). Thus, the Chinese word for “computer” is diannao, meaning literally, “electronic brain.” (Again, the Japanese word for “computer” is konpyuuta – a transliteration.) “Democracy” is minzhu, meaning “people rule.”

Some more examples:

  • hedonism: xiangle zhuyi (literally: “to seek pleasure” + “ideology”)
  • jeans: niuzai ku (lit: “cowboy trousers”)
  • mainstream: zhuliu (lit: “main” + “stream”)

These and similar modern coinages are fun to learn. Unlike the bland phonetic borrowings in Japanese and Korean, they are vivid, meaningful and organic expressions of the Chinese language, using native Chinese words to express new and/or foreign concepts.

But I have to say that there is something pleasing to me, as a native English speaker, about the abundance of English loanwords in Japanese and Korean. Above all, I miss the craziness of Konglish (Korean English), with its distorted borrowings of English words and phrases. Besides the simple transliterations mentioned earlier, such as shopping and ice cream, Korean also has a quirky lexicon of English loanwords with altered meanings and English words combined to form novel phrases. For instance, Koreans will routinely and unselfconsciously use expressions like these:

  • a-i syo-ping (“eye shopping”) = window shopping
  • geul-lae-meo (“glamour”) = voluptuous woman
  • mi-ting (“meeting”) = blind date
  • sa-i-deo (“cider”) = soft drink such as Coke or Pepsi
  • sel-peu kae-me-ra (“self camera”) = home/amateur video

I have also heard this one in Korea:

  • syeo-teo-maen (“shutter man”) = man who is financially dependent on his wife – thus his main job is to open and close the rolling steel door (shutter) of his wife’s shop every day

Chinglish, unfortunately, is no match for the glories of Konglish.

Update: On a related note, this is just funny.

Blast from the past: Shopping around at the Shanghai marriage market

Originally posted June 3, 2013

On a sunny Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago, I stopped by People’s Park in the center of Shanghai. There I was interested to find the famous marriage market in full swing.

A huge crowd of Shanghainese parents milled around, shopping for spouses for their absent sons and daughters in this outdoor Chinese version of Match.com. They browsed among thousands of flyers advertising single men and (mostly) women hanging personal ads with brief descriptions and requirements, for example:

Translation:

Hubei Province girl. Born in 1986. 1.60 m tall. Self-taught undergraduate degree. State-owned enterprise. Monthly salary 4500 yuan [about $733]. Delicate/graceful. Pretty.

Seeking: Height about 1.75 m. Undergraduate degree or higher. Stable job. Any area.

In China, the idea of parents literally shopping around for a match for their offspring seems almost normal, even if the sons and daughters in question – nearly all of them working adults, in some cases living overseas – may resent and be embarrassed by such heavy-handed paternalism. To be sure, the Shanghai marriage market is something of a curiosity and not by any means the main venue for people to meet their significant others in this city. I sensed an air of desperation to the place – after all, it’s hard to imagine that men and women whose parents feel compelled to sit in People’s Park like street vendors, displaying personal ads clipped to open umbrellas, are busy fending off the opposite sex.

It’s possible, though, that I’m wrong, and that many happy relationships are forged by the bustle of the marriage market. In any case, the People’s Square Blind Date Corner (its official name) seems to offer a good opportunity for parents to sit around, stroll and mingle outside, shooting the breeze with each other – an activity that aging Shanghainese tend to enjoy.

Blast from the past: Money, power, and posters

Originally posted April 15, 2013

I saw this interesting poster while jogging on Longhua Road in Shanghai:

It’s a piece of propaganda displayed by the local subdistrict government. The boy is saying “My dad has power!” (Wo ba you quan!), while the girl is saying “My dad has money!” (Wo ba you qian!). The single black character to the lower right of the image means “compare” (bi).

The figure on the far right (Money) is of course the symbol of the yuan, the Chinese currency. The figure on the left (Power) may need some explanation. It is an official stamp or seal, or, as its often called in Asia, a chop. Although largely unfamiliar to Westerners, the chop has a more than 3,000-year history in China, where it is the ultimate symbol of power.

These little wooden seals are a kind of signature, used to certify official and legal documents. Every company and government office has one. Chops confer immense power and are therefore carefully guarded by their owners. Anyone who manages to steal the official chop of, say, a company thereby acquires the legal powers of that company’s top executive.

For this reason, legal battles and even violent scuffles often break out over possession of the official chop of a company or government entity. During the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards and rebel factions seized control of local governments (including the Shanghai government, in 1967), factories, and schools by breaking into them and stealing their chops. Even today, it is not unknown for companies and government agencies to raid their rivals offices to grab the all-important chops.

Going back to the poster, it is a sort of warning to the rich and powerful not to raise their kids badly. The words “My dad has power!” evoke the infamous case of Li Qiming, who in 2010 struck two students while driving drunk at Hebei University; one of them died the next day. When security guards detained him, the 22-year-old driver shouted: “Sue me if you dare. My father is Li Gang!” Li Gang, as it turned out, was the local deputy police chief. Li Qiming was ultimately sentenced to six years behind bars, but his presumption of impunity, despite the governments efforts to quash the story, fueled a widespread perception that the powerful and well-connected are above the law, and his sneering words – Wo ba shi Li Gang! – went viral online, triggering an outpouring of satirical art and poetry.

This is extremely bad publicity for the Chinese government, and it threatens the social fabric. In that context, this poster mocking the insolence of many of China’s guan er dai and fu er dai – the progeny of privileged government officials and wealthy elites – is a subtle piece of parenting advice designed to discourage such flagrant abuses of power.

View of the road with propaganda posters on the wall to the right

Blast from the past: China at 186 mph

Originally posted March 28, 2013

In early March, I took the bullet train from Guangzhou to Beijing. The route, which opened last December, is the longest high-speed rail line in the world. The train hurtles across the country at an average of 186 miles per hour, linking the southern megacity to the northern capital in a journey of 1,428 miles – roughly the driving distance from Boston to Miami.

The trip takes eight hours or longer (depending on the time of departure), which is far slower than flying, and my second-class ticket cost 862 RMB ($138), which is about the same as discount airfare from Guangzhou to Beijing. On the other hand, rail travel is far more comfortable than flying, and high-speed rail is, after all, awesome. I’ve taken many bullet trains to and from Shanghai, and always enjoyed them, so the chance to ride this astonishing new railway was hardly something I could resist. The only real question was how to get a seat.

Buying a train ticket in China: still Kafkaesque

For the average foreigner, booking a train ticket in China has always been a trying process. As I headed to Guangzhou South Station, I half hoped the gleaming new facility would set a good example for the future by having a straightforward and convenient system for buying tickets.

Nope. As usual, the experience was Kafkaesque. There are two options for buying a ticket at the station. Banks of self-service ticket kiosks, with Chinese and English touch-screen interfaces, allow the traveler to choose the destination, departure date and time, and class of travel. This is almost too easy. But wait! You need to swipe a Chinese ID card in order to make the purchase – those of us holding foreign passports are out of luck. On to option B: the ticket hall.

Ticket hall, Guangzhou South Station

“Bedlam” is a word that comes to mind at many of these ticket halls in China, with their infamous crowds and queues. The one at Guangzhou South Station was better than I had feared, but still stressful. Amazingly, there was no English to be seen in this ticket hall, which would be understandable at a backwater bus stop, but was harder to explain at this huge and vital station. Given the global hype about the new Guangzhou-Beijing line, did it not occur to the Ministry of Railways that some foreigners might actually want to ride the thing?

Before doing anything else, I needed to find the train schedule – but that was easier said than done. At the back of the ticket hall was an information booth with a couple of employees. I asked one of them for a schedule, and he handed me a Chinese-only brochure with a vast chart covered with microscopic text. When I asked him to help me find the trains to Beijing, he pored over the brochure for a minute, then apologized and shrugged helplessly. (The train times were there; I later found them myself, with great difficulty.)

As it turned out, it was easier simply to go back to a kiosk, punch in the preferred day(s) of departure, and look at the available times that showed up. Then I could book my ticket at one of the windows in the ticket hall.

Gigantic scale

Skylight over departure concourse, Guangzhou South Station

Infrastructure in China tends to be unsettlingly vast, so I had a familiar feeling when walking around Guangzhou South Station. Designed by a London architecture firm, the mammoth structure sprawls over some 5.2 million sq ft, with multiple floors for arrivals, departures, and metro lines. A beautiful 1,142-ft-long skylight soars over the departures concourse. The enormous size of the station seemed to be justified by the crowds, which even on a Monday afternoon were substantial. During Chinese New Year the place is probably packed, and usage will surely increase over time as the region continues to boom.

The Chinese government plans to merge Guangzhou with eight other cities in the Pearl River Delta to form a giant megalopolis which will be 26 times the size of Greater London and will contain 42 million people. Guangzhou South Station is a key transportation hub in this emerging super-city; no wonder it’s so big.

Passengers at departure concourse, Guangzhou South Station

Low-altitude flying

The trains themselves are a high-tech marvel. As a benighted American, I am used to old, slow, clattering trains on which you practically expect to see soot-covered men shoveling coal into a boiler. I can never forget the thrilling experience of riding the futuristic maglev to Pudong Airport in Shanghai, with its top speed of 268 mph and its terrifying 12-degree tilts.

The average cruising speed of the Guangzhou-Beijing bullet train, like the Beijing-Shanghai bullet train which I took a few weeks later, is about 186 mph. At Guangzhou South Station and Beijing South Station, passengers present their tickets, then descend on an escalator to an island platform, where their sleek, humming train awaits, like something out of Star Trek.

Bullet train, Beijing South Station

Boarding a bullet train, Beijing South Station

The trains are clean and comfortable, and the rides are extremely smooth. Uniformed train attendants come by wheeling drinks and snacks carts. Seats are equipped with power outlets and free Wi-Fi is supposedly offered. It’s like flying, minus the turbulence and inner ear issues.

The passengers are mostly middle-class, a high proportion of them businessmen. Peasants are not to be found on these trains – they can’t afford the tickets. Everyone seems to be glued to a smartphone, tablet, or laptop watching movies, chatting, or getting work done. As the long journey unfolds, many people doze off.

Bullet train, Beijing to Shanghai

On the Guangzhou-Beijing trip, I enjoyed watching the rugged, green subtropical landscape of Guangdong province flying by:

And here are some views from my later Beijing-Shanghai journey:

At one point, I heard a great whoomp and the landscape outside was suddenly replaced by a white blur. The blur filled the window for a few seconds, then just as suddenly disappeared, leaving me blinking at the landscape again. It had been a train going by in the opposite direction, at a relative speed of about 375 mph.

Average cruising speed

The experience of riding these trains is not always as genteel as the Jetsons-like technology and aesthetics might lead one to expect. The annoyance begins at the station, where buying tickets can be a trial of endurance. At the Beijing station, brusque restaurant staff, like street hawkers, tried to hustle me into their suspect eatery. On the trains, the attendants go about their duties with grim professionalism and rarely smile. Ceiling-mounted video screens offer such fare as a Mr. Bean episode and a trashy American reality TV show.

Previous trips on China’s bullet trains have sometimes been even rockier: noisy, wandering passengers; violent action movies turned up to infuriating volumes on the train’s speakers.

Costly and unnecessary?

These minor annoyances aside, high-speed rail is simply the best way to travel. The experience is so awesome that many Americans who ride these trains for the first time will be thinking: Why can’t we have some?

It is not clear to me that America needs high-speed rail, at least over long distances. Building a bullet train line from, say, Boston to Atlanta probably would not make a great deal of sense, for reasons which Megan McArdle at The Atlantic lays out here and here. For that matter, it’s not clear that high-speed rail makes a great deal sense for China, either; the Chinese Academy of Sciences reported to the State Council in 2010 that the country’s large-scale network may be impractical and unaffordable.

Putting aside the economic issues, what interests me is the sheer energy and ambition behind China’s high-speed rail buildup. Within five or six years, China created the largest and perhaps most advanced high-speed rail network in the world. There are probably more total miles of high-speed track in China now than in the rest of the world combined, and the government plans to double that figure by the end of 2015.

This may prove to be a disastrous misallocation of resources, or it may not. We will have to see. But by any standard, it’s impressive.

The leverage threat

The China debt crisis intensifies:

China’s level of leverage is rising at an “alarming pace”, particularly in the finance sector, a senior central bank official said in a commentary, amid growing concern by the country’s senior leaders over financial security.

The official Xinhua news agency on Monday cited Xu Zhong, head of the People’s Bank of China’s (PBOC) research bureau, as saying the country needed to deleverage at a “proper pace” to reduce financial sector debt and avoid systemic financial risk.

“China’s overall leverage level is reasonable but is rising at an alarming pace, especially in the financial sector,” Xu said. The original commentary was published in business journal Caijing Magazine.

Xu said high levels of stimulus spending from government paired with poor corporate management and financial supervision were key factors causing rising levels of leverage, Xinhua said.

Some more context from Bloomberg:

China’s run of solid economic indicators proved little consolation for its shaky financial markets in April. The dichotomy stems from a shift in the leadership’s focus toward reducing leverage — one that’s set to determine whether growth joins asset prices in heading down.

Economists are practically unanimous in saying that reduced debt loads would be good for China’s longer-term health. The big unknown is whether officials can manage that without a dose of short-term pain. As UBS Group AG analysts put it in a note last week: if authorities’ initiatives are “not managed well, it could lead to a rise in credit events, excessive liquidity tightening, faster-than-intended slowdown of credit growth, and greater market volatility.”

“I’m gonna do…”

Barbaric

I’m hearing this all the time now, from people of all ages and stations in life:

Customer: “Yeah, uhmmmm…. I’m gonna do a 6-inch meatball sub.”

Sandwich Artist®: “And what would you like to drink, sir?”

Customer: “Yeah, I’m gonna do a Coke.”

Where does this horrible locution come from? What is its etymology? Are linguists looking into this? Google is drawing a blank.

“Can I get…” is bad enough – a shameful mutation of the traditional “May I please have…” or the more up-to-date, but still polite “Can I have… please” / “I’ll have… please.” Apparently, we’ve reached another milestone in the descent into cultural barbarism. The next stage will be to jab your finger at the thing you want while grunting ferociously.

Jeez, people. Nobody expects you to talk like the host of Masterpiece Theater… but may you please try not to sound like an absolute moron? Thanks.