Evan Osnos Wins the 2014 National Book Award for Nonfiction

The National Book Foundation recently announced its winners for 2014. Of interest to me is the winner for nonfiction, Evan Osnos (he is one of my favorite writers at The New Yorker). I haven’t read Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China but I have read his fantastic piece in The New Yorker titled “Boss Rail,” published in 2012:

Until now, China’s trains had always been a symbol of backwardness. More than a century ago, when the Empress Dowager was given a miniature engine to bear her about the Imperial City, she found the “fire cart” so insulting to the natural order that she banished it and insisted that her carriage continue to be dragged by eunuchs. Chairman Mao crisscrossed the countryside with tracks, partly for military use, but travel for ordinary people remained a misery of delayed, overcrowded trains nicknamed for the soot-stained color of the carriages: “green skins” were the slowest, “red skins” scarcely better. Even after Japan pioneered high-speed trains, in the nineteen-fifties, and Europe followed suit, China lagged behind, with what the state press bemoaned as two inches of track per person—“less than the length of a cigarette.”

In 2003, China’s Minister of Railways, Liu Zhijun, took charge of plans to build seventy-five hundred miles of high-speed railway—more than could be found in the rest of the world combined. For anyone with experience on Chinese trains, it was hard to picture. “Back in 1995, if you had told me where China would be today, I would have thought you were stark raving mad,” Richard Di Bona, a British transportation consultant in Hong Kong, told me recently. With a total investment of more than two hundred and fifty billion dollars, the undertaking was to be the world’s most expensive public-works project since President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, in the nineteen-fifties. To complete the first route by 2008, Minister Liu, whose ambition and flamboyance earned him the nickname Great Leap Liu, drove his crews and engineers to work in shifts around the clock, laying track, revising blueprints, and boring tunnels. “To achieve a great leap,” he liked to say, “a generation must be sacrificed.” (Some colleagues called him Lunatic Liu.) The state news service lionized an engineer named Xin Li, because he remained at his computer so long that he went partly blind in his left eye. (“I will keep working even without one eye,” he told a reporter.) When the first high-speed line débuted with a test run in June, 2008, it was seventy-five per cent over budget and relied heavily on German designs, but nobody dwelled on that during the ceremony. Cadres wept. When another line made its maiden run, Liu took a seat beside the conductor and said, “If anyone is going to die, I will be the first.”

Well worth the re-read.

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Also by Evan Osnos published in 2014: China’s “Web Junkies”

On Etsy’s Crumbling Economy

Kevin Morris summarizes the crumbling Etsy marketplace — whereby Chinese manufacturers are infiltrating the handmade moniker of Etsy by flooding Etsy with cheaply manufactured, mass-produced items. I had no idea it was this bad.

Take a look at the “Infinity Ring,” a delicate brass loop coated with a silver sheen and topped with rhinestones and crystal. In pictures of the factory where it’s made, you can see rows of workers in surgical masks bent over dusty tables, not far from bulky industrial machines. From ports in Ningbo and Shanghai, the Yiwu Daihe Jewelry Corp. exports the ring to anywhere in the world at 50 cents a piece.

You can buy it on Etsy’s most popular jewelry store for $15.

How? To most Etsy users, the obvious answer is that Laonato, the store, is buying the rings wholesale from the factory, then pawning them off as handmade goods, reaping a monstrous 2,900 percent profit. That practice is known as “reselling,” and it’s a subject of intense controversy on the site. But like with a lot of things on Etsy—where the entire economy operates behind the shroud of the Internet—easily drawn assumptions and reality rarely align as neatly as you’d expect.

Continuing:

Laonato’s story might seem hard to believe, but there are actually a lot of Etsy stores getting ripped off by Chinese manufacturers—a second front in what seems like an uncoordinated war on the site’s hobbyists and single-person shops.

Trish Hadden’s bags are definitely handmade. The 53-year-old flight attendant from Albuquerque, N.M., sews her personalized label into each one, which she sells for anywhere between $12 for smaller purses to $60 for a handbag.

But like with Laonato’s jewelry, you can find Hadden’s bags on Alibaba—the commerce site that connects Chinese manufacturers to wholesale purchasers around the world and claims to be as big as Amazon and eBay confined—where they’re offered by the Hangzhou Dawnjoint Business and Trading Company for $3 to $4 apiece. The company, based out of the capital city of Zhejiang province, didn’t respond to a Daily Dot request for comment. It’s been plundering more than Hadden’s designs. The firm has stolen her photographs—which included images of her hand-sewn, personalized tag—and superimposed their own store’s logo on top.

As usual, caveat emptor, and all that.

How Hewlett-Packard Has Revived the Silk Road

Few people know this, but I used to live along the historic Silk Road.

This famous 4,000 mile route connected Asia and Europe for many centuries, before fading in importance in the 1400s. Now, the giant corporation Hewlett-Packard has revived the route as a faster, overland alternative to shipping electronics from China to Europe versus doing so by sea. The New York Times goes along for the ride via photos and brief videos in this fantastic photo/video essay:

silk_road2

silk_road1

See the rest here.

The World’s Largest Building is Four Times the Size of Vatican City

The world’s largest building is located in Chengdu, China and recently displaced Dubai airport from atop the #1 spot:

The New Century Global Center, which recently opened in Chendgu, China, is 328 feet high, 1,640 feet long, and 1,312 feet wide. That’s roughly 20 times the size of Sydney’s legendary Opera House, four times the size of Vatican City, and three times the size of the Pentagon. And its 420 acres in floor space is nearly the size of the entire country of Monaco (499 acres).

The world's largest building is in Chengdu, China

The world’s largest building is in Chengdu, China

For more photos of this monstrosity, check out this link.

Not to be outdone in the height department: China is currently building the world’s tallest building.

Salman Rushdie on Worldwide Censorship

In an interview published at The Atlantic, Salman Rushdie shares his thoughts on censorship (particularly in China):

Q: Why do governments fear literature? Wouldn’t, say, the Chinese Communist Party be better off letting its writers write fiction without harassment?

Rushdie: I’ve always thought of it this way: Politicians and creative writers both try and shape visions of society, they both try and offer to their readers or to the public a view of the world, or a vision of the world, and these visions of the world are at odds with authoritarian regimes. Those regimes attempt to shut down the limits of the possible while fiction tries to push out the limits of the possible. So in effect their visions are in opposition to each other.

Rushdie thinks censorship has gotten worse in the last twenty years:

Q: Nearly a quarter century has passed since you were forced into hiding by the Ayatollah’s fatwa. In the ensuing years, how would you assess the worldwide climate for censorship? Have things generally gotten better, or worse?

Rushdie: I’d say that, in general, they’ve gotten worse. But one of the things our report highlights is that people have more tools to resist censorship using new media. For instance, in China,  while there’s increased repression in the form of arbitrary arrests, artists held incommunicado and put under house arrest, and increasing hostility towards literature and free expression, there is at the same time a growing willingness of Chinese citizens to find ways to express themselves. In spite of all the repression, there’s been a  growth of independent, non-state publishers to print things that wouldn’t be approved by state houses, and people have shown the willingness to post things online even if they’re not to the liking of the state.

Full interview here.

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(via Andrew Sullivan)

Iron Man 3 in China

An interesting bit on the importance of China for the Hollywood industry, via some Iron Man 3 and Robert Downey Jr. trivia:

And it’s not just records: Marvel and its Chinese partner, DMG, are setting new standards for foreign movies looking to earn government clearance in China. To curry favor, the company added four minutes of footage just for the mainland, including throwaway parts for Chinese A-list actors Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi, and a ham-handed milk drink product placement.

Also new is the aggressive outreach to Chinese audiences by Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr. Not only did he visit China for the first time in his life to talk up the film, but Downey also set up a personal account on Sina Weibo

I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I want to. I enjoyed Iron Man 2.

Red Tourism in China

Der Spiegel has an interesting piece on “Red Tourism” in China:

The Chinese government has dubbed this “red tourism,” and it is meant as a response to its people’s identity crisis, to a certain sense of emptiness and alienation. What exactly should people in China believe in these days? Who is really still interested in ideology? Taking a proactive approach to these questions, the Communist Party decided to put its own history on stage to create reminders of the revolution in various places around the country — and to make clear to all Chinese citizens who made their country great. The government has also set up a “National Coordination Group for Red Tourism” and convened “Conferences for Red Tourism” that have even been attended by a member of the Politburo.

All this revolutionary education certainly benefits the country’s economy. According to the party’s newspaper, “red tourism” has created millions of jobs and built thousands of kilometers of highway and several new airports. Soon Chinese patriots will even be able to fly to the spot in the desert where China tested its first nuclear bomb in 1964.

How one actor prepares for his role as Mao:

Actor Wu Yongtang earns 10,000 yuan, or about €1,200, each month for his performances as Mao, as well as a bonus for performing every day. Wu wouldn’t be easy to replace, and a limited resource brings in a higher price — even here on the Mao market. But Wu doesn’t really like to talk about money. Instead he explains that Mao appears in his dreams and interprets this as meaning “he wants me to play him.”

Before finding the role of his life, Wu had only worked as a driver, first in the army and then for a factory. He beat out two other applicants for the Mao role at the first interview because they were both barely 1.7 meters (5 foot 7 inches) tall, or too short to play Mao, who was 1.8 meters tall.

Unlike official Communist line, the article (part II here) is more than 70% good.