Monday, February 09, 2009

Chinese Savings = Religion

For the past few weeks, I've been spending more time with my grandparents. They came to visit our extended family for Chinese New Year and are enjoying the warm weather and nice accommodations here in Shenzhen. I try to see them at least 3-4x a week and I usually take them out to eat western food - something they enjoy but don't frequently do. 

Even though each of my grandparents still receive more than 3000 per month in retirement from the government as well as consistent money from my mom and uncles, they always stash it away. (My grandparents also have all of their medical bills taken care of by the gov't.) I have been trying for some time now to convince them to spend more money to enjoy their golden years. What’s wrong with more traveling, taking taxis and eating well? They won’t do it, but are always saving. Although they like eating McDonald's and Pizza Hut, they don't like to pay for it.

While the western media argues that due to the lack of a social safety net and social security system, Chinese people absolutely need to save - because the gov't won’t take care of them. I disagree with this notion. 

Saving money is a religion in China, especially for older generations. While some people have plenty of money saved away already, they still do it. Their daily lives have been routine for so long that there’s hardly any time or anywhere to spend the money. Buying groceries in the morning, cooking at home and playing cards and mahjong can only cost so much. 

Migrant workers are another example of savers. They typically make about 2000RMB or less every month and save the majority of it - sending some home. However, if you look at them, they all wear some decent clothes, laptops and all have better cell phones than I do. They just typically save on everyday expenses and sometimes make that big purchase, buying something more than one month's salary. 

I've recently thought that with improving living standards - esp. in the cities, Chinese middle class and white collar young people will evolve to a western-style lifestyle of using credit and spending lavishly without regard for price and cost. 

Some of my friends are like this. They spend most of their relatively high salary 10,000 RMB/month on iphones, designer clothing and taxis. They travel all over China and SE Asia. They're living the good life. I worry that if these people are the next generation, China will save less. 

One recent CNN report made me feel optimistic about these Chinese middle class. It is reported that there is an online group who tries to spend 100RMB/week. That's incredible! These people want to be more consceince of day-to-day spending and to be more mature of managing their own finances. Maybe there is hope yet for China and its future...

Check out the report:

Thursday, February 05, 2009

China's (Optimistic) Future

During this current global recession and financial crisis, I've had many debates with fellow American friends living in Shenzhen on what will happen in China in the future. My friends (some of them have been in China for more than 5 years now and speak Mandarin fluently) often believe in a similar view as western media. 

"Chinese people let the totalitarian Chinese gov't rule in exchange for economic growth - at least 8%."

If this statement holds true, the current closures of thousands of factories directly linked to the export industry and the millions of workers that has join the unemployed poses a huge problem for the stability of the gov't and society in general. Recent unrest and footage of protesting workers have shown to be initial reactions of this issue. One of my friends even hypothesized that China will invade Taiwan just to distract the Chinese people and to increase nationalism sentiment.

I personally don’t understand where this "trade-off" between the Chinese people and gov't idea came from - because I disagree with it whole-heartedly. Although there have been riots - they have been relatively isolated and usually protesting justified inequalities perpetrated by local officials (often corrupt). In the video above, the toy factory closed unexpectedly and didn’t pay any of its workers. Is that the government's fault?

I personally see Chinese people as hard working, resilient people who have a history of getting through hard times. My parents lived through hard times with rationing and the Cultural Revolution where no one had anything. Just a few years ago, my hometown Harbin, didn’t have water for a week because of a chemical spill upstream that polluted the Songhua River. My extended family and grandparents still live there. Did people panic and riot? No. Everyone worked together to get through it. 

Look at the recent earthquake in Sichuan and the aftermath of that event. China is populated with people pulling together through hard times. In the absense of gov't help, villiagers banded together to help each other. People did what they could. While this happened, the gov't mobilized quickly and was on site immediately to help. Compare this to the 2005 Katrina disaster where the gov't didnt do anything for many days at the same time people were just waiting for people to "save them" at the New Orleans Superdome. 

The definition of a Chinese person's character is that he first blames himself before blaming someone else. He works to improve his own situation rather than waiting for the government to do something (Only when it’s too unfair do people take action). He is adaptive and stable. 

My outlook for the future China has always been optimistic. Here are the steps I foresee:

1. Although Chinese exports industries are getting hit hard; this is a natural situation that will realign the Chinese economy. Different businesses have already started to focus on selling their products, once destined for the US and Europe, in China.

2. The Chinese consumer, although not too confident currently, has savings and an ample appetite to spend. As Americans are riddled with debt and are saving more, Chinese consumers are still spending. Just walk around restaurants and malls and you won’t see any signs of recession here in Shenzhen. 

3. Migrant workers who lost their jobs are not going to riot. They are going to go home, start families, start businesses and live life. Less people are going to come back into the urban areas after Chinese New Year. In a recent report, China estimates about 20 million people have returned home.  Most people have made money in the past and have it saved up at home. And since living costs are drastically lower back in the smaller towns and villages, the savings go a long way. 

4. Thousands of 海归 (haigui - overseas Chinese) have returned to China - many with high level degrees. Since opportunities in the US, Europe and other areas of the world are gone, they have come back to China to find jobs. This will greatly enhance Chinese competitiveness and future development. 

5.  Local and provincial governments understand the importance of high tech industries as well as economically sustainable green technologies. This focus will help future economic prospects.

6. The government is trying to aid in everything it can. It’s helping small businesses get loans through banks and helping consumers spend with subsidies. More importantly, the Chinese stimulus package focuses on infrastructure projects that will greatly improve Chinese transportation efficiency. During the last Asian Financial Crisis, China's lead in investing in its infrastructure helped it sustain economic growth for more than 10 years. 

7. As the economy starts to realign away from exports, the Chinese gov't will slowly sell off US debt and appreciate the Chinese RMB to higher levels. With a higher RMB, China will then go buy even more assets all over the world to further its future development. 

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Shenzhen Mass Transit: For the People

During the Spring Festival break, I was able to spend time and talk with my extended family at the different dinners and tennis outings we had. At one of the outings, I had to chance to discuss the Shenzhen public transportation with my aunt's colleague - an official who is in charge of government municipal projects. Currently Shenzhen is going through a massive expansion of its metro system. 

When discussing the effects of the economic crisis and the current government investment in infrastructure, our family friend mentioned that currently, the Shenzhen metro system had an operating loss of 500 million (五亿) RMB in the past year. That's a lot of money. 

I was first stunned at this number and was interested in why this is the case. The Shenzhen metro system is already the most expensive in the country with a graduated ticket price based on distance. Also with increasing traffic congestion, more and more people are choosing to ride the metro everyday in their commute. Even with these factors, the operating cost of the metro is still much higher than the revenue. 

As the official explained:
The metro runs as a regular company, but with the Shenzhen government as the controling party, we set the ticket prices. Our goal is to provide affordable transportation for Shenzhen citizens.  We make sure that the bus system and the metro system are not profit driven so that we can give the citizens a great service at a reduced price. This is also why all people over the age of 65 ride free of charge as well. 

As the expanded network comes online, we believe that even more people will ride the metro based on its convenience. Shenzhen will be a much different city. We believe the 500 million loss we incur every year will be reduced but in reality, that isnt too important. Cheap, reliable service to the people are.

When comparing the Shenzhen metro system with the NYC subway, there is a huge difference in thinking. Because the NYC system is profit based, price fares are constantly rising with subsequent lower service and convenience. I remember a few years ago, the MTA wanted to increase the fare price because of a loss while trying to hide millions of dollars worth of revenue from the public. 

The government promoting public transportation in China not only helps the citizens, it helps reduce the use of private cars and improves the enviorment. Currently China is building more than 10 different subway lines across the country with more planned. This is on top of the increased investment on railroads and other mass transit systems. 

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Chinese 海归 (Turtles) Returning Home

I was in Beijing a few weeks ago, talking to some expat friends when we started discussing the changing dynamic of English speakers in China. 

As one of my friends noticed, there were noticably more Chinese people who graduated from overseas universities in the Beijing social circle. These include those who have grown up in the foreign country and those who went there to exculsively study. 

Talking to a family friend a few days later, he estimated that more than 250,000 海归 have come back from different countries abroad in the past year. This friend, who is involved in many academic and business circles, explained that the recent financial turmoil has drastically increased the rate of return of both recent college graduates and experienced professionals. "The world economy is helping to bring the best and brightest home."

For years there have been a brain drain on China. After President Nixon's visit to China, many promising Chinese have traveled to and studied at American universities. These were often the best and most promising students in China. While some came back, most remained abroad to make their new home. My family is an example of this process. Those who did return to China have done quite well. These people are influencial in business, academica and politics. (Many friends of my parents are CEOs, university presidents and influencal policy makers after returning in the mid-90s.

In recent years as the Chinese economy has boomed, many people who otherwise would have stayed abroad are returning to China. I am one of these people. The China story was too strong for me to not come back to China and experience it first hand. Although I plan to go back to the USA (who knows when), I definitely know China will be a big part of my future. 

It seems now with the economic crisis in full swing, this desire to return to China has caught on with more and more 海归. Just as there are record layoffs in the US in just about every industry, China is still experiencing a high growth rate and a bright future. Why wouldn't people come back. Jim Rogers even moved to Asia so that his daughters can learn Chinese.

The current return of 海归 creates some interesting issues for the future:
1. As fast as China is changing now, more Chinese with experience in other countries will increase the momentum. Armed with new thinking and new ideas of the west, they will make a lasting impact on Chinese society. This includes lifestyle, culture and day-to-day life things. 

2. Chinese competitiveness in the global market will increase dramatically. An increase of western thinking combined with current practices gives large Chinese companies a boost. 

3. More successful small businesses will be created in the long term. With practical experience in western corporations, returning Chinese will take advantage of low labor costs and set up more and more SMEs. 

4. There will be more competition in every field - from jobs to bank lending and resources.

5. The government will have to find a way to best utilize the skills, talents and influences of these 海归.

6. There will be a change of social dynamics between locals and 海归 as well as the relative relationship and negotiation of idenity and diaspora with the changing China.

Ultimately, the return of soo many foreign Chinese will only change China faster and improve its place in the world. This currently hidden phenomenon will have a big impact in the future development and modernization of China.