Recently I have moved out of google inc and joined jd.com. This afforded me some precious opportunity to experience both oriental and occidental cultures in depths. One thing I started thinking about is which side is the future of humanity. This is a pretty heavy topic that I cannot be completely unbiased on given my ethnic upbringing. Today I would like instead to elaborate on a small sliver of the subject, namely financial security.
There was a recent film that came out called “crazy rich asians”, as I learned on NPR. I haven’t bothered watching it. But the title caught my attention. Why are Asians known to be filthy rich? There was a story about a Beijing retiree who got hospitalized for pneumonia during the smog winter season, whose medical bill eventually cost the family all their wealth, including 2 apartment homes they owned, and all savings. By American standards, that family is already pretty well-off, at least a middle class family. On the other hands, most Americans don’t have much savings, and yet seem to live a reasonably happy life of 80 years. In China, life insurance is recently gaining popularity, because employers rarely offer coverage. From that extreme story, it seems medical bill can easily consumes a middle income family’s entire saving. The social safety net is fragile, even though normal hospital visit is much cheaper than the US.
Is US a socialist country then? By no means. But US does have better environment and much lower popularity density, even in money hubs like the Bay Area. The living space generally feels less oppressive. Financially hospital bills can usually be forgiven, unlike college loans. There are probably fewer superbugs than in China. That made up for the net worth difference with Chinese middle class.
Living in a financially stressed environment is not just bad for personal satisfaction, it affects people’s ability to do honest work. Recently NYU is giving all its junior and senior medical school students free tuition, saving each student about 200k total. I think a big motivation is that medical students have to carry their debt into too many of their productive years, usually something like age 40, before they can breathe freely like other professions. This naturally leads to prioritizing money over satisfaction from their actual job. Corruptible behaviors easily result, such as getting paid to use certain drugs, a practice that’s common in both US and China, and being ultra-conservative (to the point of being useless) in diagnosis to avoid lawsuits. The latter is arguably universal rational behavior, but having peer doctors who went through financial distress can only make one even more cautious. After all doctors should aim for both precision and recall.
Providing a social safety net is not easy, even in a country like US. Cultural tradition plays another important role in how much one values money. In more advanced cultures like China or Jewish societies, people have grown used to the importance of money as a universal measure of success and safety, so that all biological resources tend to be devoted to its accumulation. In other words, the threshold for reaching a psychologically safe level of net-worth or income is much higher than other societies. The social cost of this is obvious: people require hoarding a much larger portion of the collective wealth in order to function properly in their roles. Such momenta can catapult certain exceptional individuals into the rank of billionaires, at which point their rudimentary yet critical functions as individual contributors in labor production inevitably get replaced by management or other leveraging roles. Thus it is very rare to find highly paid individual contributing software engineers or scientist in China. Outside google it is also rare even in the US, but I at least know quite a few individuals. All of this hierarchical spiral of productivity death is attributable to how society distracts its members from money. Christianity, academic pursuit, etc all played important roles in this distractive effort. Equally important is the ability of the society to grant its members the free will to pursue a subject of true interest, rather than based on planned economic need. Of course not all career paths should be equally profitable, but there should be a sufficient variety of them each of sufficient quantity, that can meet basic living standards free from existential worry. This is currently absent in China, and arguably also in the US, such as liberal arts majors. Perhaps the ultimate direction is for everyone to have leisure for two careers, one making serious money, another for pure personal interest. Those who truly excel at the latter should be rewarded to pursue one exclusively, while the amount of time allowed to spend on the latter should not be pro-rated by the profit it generates.
I am pretty pissed by life these days. Just bought an expensive house for no good reason, only to realize there are several major problems with the new home. Now I am locked up for the next 30 years with a monthly debt close to 10k. Not exactly happy with how my career is advancing. Even though I appear productive, I do all the menial work without good understanding of the fundamentals. I am treated as an cheap overtime labor. I am probably somewhat stupid, given my defective long/short term memory. I often can’t recall things happening more than a week ago, no matter how major. I have big trouble coming up with creativity and appropriate things to say or put into slides. I have so much self-doubt that I keep postponing decision making towards the end of every project, leaving a litter of experimental flags. I wish I can study deep things more regularly and not just read the headlines, but kids and other family obligations keep me from doing that, and wife’s chastise is the main catalyst. I was never confident of my english/presentation skill anyway. I can pretend to be fluent or well-versed in front of novices or unsuspecting subjects, but get crushed instantly by people of intellectual swiftness and criticality.
Not exactly happy with my family. There is very little common things I can talk to my wife about. She isn’t into politics. Both of us have been driven to 997 work schedule due to the financial burden and sheer workload in the tech industry. Yesterday I thought about leaving the bay area, but then I will miss my dad, who is my main source of consolation. Kid is way too hyperactive for me to handle. I cant’ even muster enough energy to save my own ass, let alone chasing kids around.
I don’t know if I am in a pit of depression at the moment. My confidence is certainly low, but that’s a perennial problem. I am swamped by the breadth and depth of multitasking imposed on me. I felt sold into a slave market that I never imagined myself getting into. I and my wife buy stuff without the ability to properly organize them. My memoryless trait often makes me buy the same thing two to three times. I never write code without copy/paste entire blocks from somewhere. I cannot retain stream of consciousness any more sometimes when I read novels, or technical report. These are worrisome signs of aging, and destroy me weekends and nights because I always have to put in extra miles than others to get things done. Never did I manage to make progress on first attempt.
So in retrospect, I made three poor decisions: 1. having kids, 2. buying that expensive house, 3. getting my parents and wife into the feud they are in now. If the 3rd one didn’t exist, I could have avoided 2 by talking to my parents before the purchase, and 1 could be solved easily by living together and taking advantage of their help. But now it’s all too late.
I know others also struggle similarly to me. But my lack of confidence and good decision making skill distinguishes myself from all the rest, since I can’t even easily communicate my problem to the outside world. On the other hand, if I get emboldened to decide on impulse always, I might have ended up in a jail already. Bankruptcy, felony charge, auto accidents. These things just seem not too far from me any more. I need some serious therapy.
These are in no way chronological, and if anything start from the more recent. Caveat: Quora tends to promote lots of pro-China articles simply because
I am sure Quora has its own internal metric of popularity due to China or perhaps China-adjusted upvote score or click through rate, to account for the above unique phenomenon.
As a punchline, I won’t resist quoting one of the answers regarding Chinese attitude towards democracy:
“In the West, people use the human rights issue as an excuse to diminish the sheer amount of good the CPC has done. It is estimated that since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, well over 800million people have been lifted out of poverty. The World Food Programme has now enlisted China as a forefront to counter world hunger.
Why does CNN not mention this?
Why does Fox not mention this?
Why is China always being trampled on?
People in China are legitimately satisfied with their current government and are proud of how China has clawed its way up from being the “Sick Child of Asia” to the world’s largest economical power using PEACEFUL means!
This means NO IMPERIALISM.
This means NO INVASION.
This means NO WAR.
The majority of the Wealth of the West was built on a foundation made up of bodies of slavery and the beaten blood of Africans, torn from their families.
The People in China Just want a peaceful and prosperous life, and the government has provided a lot of that.
Ask yourselves, is democracy really the answer to everything?”
I need to get in the habit of anticipating second hand smoking in restaurants during my China stay. This is my single biggest complaint throughout past, present and future visits. My nose is especially sensitive to cigarette smells. It used to be not like that, for instance when I was studying in the Netherlands a decade ago. I must have acquired the distaste for cigarettes during my miserable year in low income NYC apartment, where the entire unit was permeated from time to time by neighborly tobacco. Maybe European cigarettes were not as repulsive as the American or Chinese ones.
The fact that some of my wife’s family relatives work in the tobacco industry does not soften my stance against smoking. I had childhood history of asthma and even as an adult often had coughs and lung infections as a result of catching influenza. The recent article about a Beijing retiree’s miserable death by N3H2 that bankrupted his whole family, after they sold all their houses, makes me financially more conscious of lung protection.
As soon as I walked into my aunt in law (mother in law’s sister)’s luxurious apartment home, I was greeted by the familiar toxic puffs, radioactively spread from my half younger uncle in law (aunt in law’s younger half brother)’s shtick. Fortunately, the female in laws stepped up their complaints in defense of my daughter’s health, and my younger half uncle in law obediently stepped out to the balcony to finish his smoldering stub, and stayed smoke-free for the rest of the afternoon. I often marvel at how people like my aunt in law can stand such second hand smoking environment on a daily basis. It is almost cruel for me to remind them the carcinogenic risk of second hand smoking, in a society where it is virtually unavoidable.
Later in the evening, we walked over to a restaurant to bid farewell to my younger sisterly cousin in law (my wife’s sisterly cousin, for lack of a better term), who was flying back to Australia early the following morning, as well as my half uncles in law, who would be heading back to their small village town the next day as well. This time, I was much more alert to the possibility of indoor smoking. Sure enough, a gentleman sitting diagonally from our table puffed like business as usual. Smokers do strike me as tougher human beings whose rights are harder to infringe upon, just like my younger half uncle in law, whose tone became more gangsterly under the aura of cigarette smoke. Fortunately I knew better than confronting a puffing stranger directly, and turned to a young waiter looking for errands. “My good sir”, I walked over with a hand covering our conversation, “there are several young kids here, would you mind asking that gentleman there to not smoke indoor?” The waiter looked initially confused, defensively. Then as I insisted through my condescending gaze, he replied that some senior manager would need to intervene. I was briefly reassured and started looking forward to a worry-free meal, until he and a slightly more senior female attendant approached me at my seat and explained thus, “you know we do put up the smoking is prohibited sign at the entrance, but in our restaurant business, we really can’t upset the customers about smoking restrictions since it’s a local custom. You can move your daughter two seats to the left so that the smoker isn’t seated as closely.” While extremely unhappy, I knew there is little I can do and what they told me was largely the truth.
To my brief relief, the two staffs did walk over to the gentleman, and even though I didn’t overhear their conversation, the man did not pick up another shtick for the rest of the evening. And the relief lasted about 5 minutes, when a gentleman seated right next to our table became the next source of the local custom. At this point, I could only force myself to get used to it and have a nice meal.
Later that night I feverishly scoured jd.com and other almighty shopping sites for tobacco masks or nose filters, and did find a few. But even under the rage and rabidity of physical violated, I knew full well these contraptions were no substitute for a clean environment with strictly enforced indoor smoking bans.
There is nothing more irritating than cigarettes in this otherwise perfectly lovely and harmonious country. Is it the need to appear tough, calm, and carpe-diem, that propelled generations of male workforce onto the tobacco stage? Surely the political leaders did not act as great role models. Population density may be another important factor, since NYC was not in a very different situation. Even though I am not a big believer in marijuana legalization, concerned about its psychological effect on our young kids and social mores in general, I would not hesitate if it can completely weed out tobacco, a much more criminal substance that takes toll on my lung cells directly. Had cigarettes been invented in more recent history, it would have been strangled in the cradle by the FDA and similar organizations in other countries without a doubt. Traditions like that and islamic jihadism and Catholic condom ban unfortunately have to continually be tolerated in societies.
My elder cousin’s family happened to visit Guangzhou and surrounding area (mainly the Changlong zoo in Panyu) these days, so I invited them to come visit us at my mother in law’s home. He insisted that he came by himself, an obvious ploy to avoid receiving money for his son. Instead he brought over a basket of fresh fruit and money for my daughter, and refused to take ours. What a wonderful tradition. The money will keep me alive for a few days.
So we spent some time with his parents over wechat video. It was challenging to know the right names to call and there were about 6 choose 2 such challenges. But that didn’t matter much.
Afterwards my cousin and I went out to take the bus so that he could have dinner with his extended family while I look for a place to cut hairs. He offered a few expensive options but I thought I could find one myself in one of those alleys. Turns out I was quite wrong. The whole city is in semi-hibernation mode right after Chinese new year. I spent the remaining 3 hours scouring a radius of 2 miles from where I got off the bus, in search for a hair salon. It was also silly to never backtrack in a busy city where the roads are intertwined and not always in straight lines and often blocked by pedestrian overpass.
A few noteworthy observations on my aimless meandering. Various wall decorations suggest that democracy is a key pursuit of the society, along with virtues like freedom, equality. There were a few others that I can no longer recall. Pedestrians, while being numerous even during the holiday season, were peaceful, respectful, and optimistic looking. Also citizens here are a lot friendlier than those in Shanghai, despite me coming from the latter. Most people I talked to on the street for directions know mandarin fairly well. In Shanghai, I always have fear asking for directions, especially from security guards. Taxi drivers are also rude as hell.
The first major blow to my expectation during the walk was when I stopped at a muslim noodle restaurant and ordered beef noodle soup. Firstly there was no wifi in the store. When the noodle soup was presented, it had absolutely no green vegetables, unlike the picture. Instead it had a few potato and pumpkin shreds, along with noodle and beef shreds. The noodle was good, spongy and smooth. But the beef had visible embedding of blood vessels and the non-green vegetables were simply useless.
After walking out with 15 bucks, I kept strolling along some freeway sidewalks (another important distinguishing features in Chinese cities, compared to US suburbs) until it turned dark and I saw another Macdonald store. I decided to try my luck there for wifi and food. Half way through ordering of a “jumbo” burger and sprite, I asked about wifi and was told there were none. Extremely surprised, I cancelled the order and walked out until I found a pizza hut place, and decided it must have wifi. A cute impeccably looking waitress greeted me but rolled her eyes when I inquired about wifi availability. She must have thought I was a free-rider. I assured her that I was here to eat, and was then shown a good table with a smile on her face and two beautiful menus. She then sat with another guy at a table right next to me, and I couldn’t recall if she was the waitress or just another customer, since she appeared to be eating something and the guy playing video games on his cell phone. After being unable to connect to the open access wifi the store provided, I walked over to her explaining that I didn’t have a local cell number in order to register the connection. She tried a few of her own numbers and was surprised that they didn’t work either, and told me to just wait for now, which effectively meant there would be no wifi. After some more time, it occurred to me that I might have to approach her myself for food order, so I did. I was going to quit the store except she already served me a glass of lemon sprinkled water, and I did not want to walk out stores twice in a single day, for some chivalrous reason.
The mini seafood pizza was not entirely disappointing, and somewhat honestly reproduces the picture on the menu, except there was no mention of imitation crab meat on the menu, a move I thought was honest by itself, since they could easily have put crab meat in the description, real or not, but might elicit customer complaints. After finishing, which took about 3 minutes, with the help of silverwares that came only after my request, but with due apology, I paid the 44 bucks and walked away again.
This time, I gave up on the notion of haircut, and sought straight for some grocery shopping venues, as my cousin suggested, to supplement my mother-in-law’s busy cooking schedule. Finally I located one situated many high rise department stores. I picked up some yoghurt, sweet rice balls, and cooked meat dishes, then ordered a cab back. The cab was just unloading some passengers so the driver must be pretty happy to pick up another one right away. The whole trip cost only 12 rmb, which is less than 2 usd. Cost is still fairly reasonable in China, especially for necessities like transportation, non-luxury food resorts, and service sectors. Houses and clothings are on the more expensive end, especially in big cities.
By the time I got back, I had no more energy for toothbrushing and as soon as my head hit the hay, sleep dawned on me for 10 straight hours — I woke up briefly in the middle of the night to brush teeth. My 9+ hour sleep requirement just got worsened during my China stay.
I am conflicted internally about the pros and cons of the so-called totalitarian Chinese political system. At a lunch one day one of my Australian colleagues suggested that totalitarianism has been a historical feature throughout ancient Chinese history, rather than a modern innovation. Indeed unification has been a recurring theme, only interleaved by periods of turmoil and unrest, which have always been considered undesirable for society at large. From a Chinese perspective the undesirability of a fragmented China is more than obvious: warlords engage in military campaigns against each other, with collateral damage of massive casualties and and cultural and economic disruptions. The question is whether a unified nation-state is always good to its citizens. From historical accounts, that has consistently been the case. The possibility of partial and dishonest historians under the intellectual coercion of ruling emperors always exists, but we have learned many incriminating facts about ruling families throughout the centuries, and if Western schools were to take confucianism seriously, which they do to give the impression of pro-ethnic diversity stance, then they should treat the historians’ account with similar reverence, simply because those were continuations of the Confucian traditions, however self-perpetuating they may look.
One of the most contentious aspects of modern China is its suppression of freedom of press, which the west values highly, as a safeguard against corruption, and other forms of institutional abuse and degradation. China today is not shy about the fact that certain inconvenient facts are suppressed at the state level. The Great Firewall is an example, though the deterrence is not absolute. I’d like to draw some parallels with the early United States democratic history. Back during the founding period, slaves were not allowed to vote individually and yet boost the voting weights of slave-owners in the Southern plantation states. There is little justification aside from the fact that blacks were not recognized as legit humans back then by the prevailing Southern white community. Same goes with certain white indentured servants, Native Americans, women, and non-land-owners in general. In that sense, democracy is not absolute, and did not arise from the ideal of human equality, but through a compromise of self-serving motives. At least on paper this does not sound as great as how one might be taught at school, unless one belongs to the ruling class at the time. The voting is also not universal, but slightly hierarchical, in which general populations had to vote for representatives, who in turn cast votes for the POTUS and other important federal positions. This may be a result of technicality, but unfortunately (from the liberal perspective) the system is highly inert to change. From a conservative point of view, the two-stage voting system helps giving smaller states a comparable voice against large ones, and I would say prevent population from over-concentrating around the mega-cities, a problem China is struggling with today with varying degree of success.
The Chinese system today certainly does not embrace universal vote either, but chooses a rather hierarchical way of promoting leadership, hybridized with some top down successor-cherrypicking process. Because of the ostensibly longer feedback loops, and partial insulation from people’s wills, transparency is potentially compromised, and the prospect of corruption is viewed as higher. Indeed during the anti-corruption campaign spear-headed by Xi as well as earlier, several mega-corruption cases have been uncovered, with personal wealth reaching the 10s of billions, seating some political figureheads squarely on the FORBE’s list. American corruptions are usually of smaller magnitude, at least in terms relative to national income average or other measures of average wealth. Reports of senatorial net worth look paltry in comparison. Arguably, however, the extent of corruption goes beyond mere illicit wealth acquisition. Members of congress are not barred from inside trading, a rule that is meant to prevent conflict of interest, ironically. I do not know how the Chinese statutes stand on this matter. Spiritually, the party leaders should frown upon such capitalistic evil-doings.
In the media-dominated modern era, transparency, which is a cornerstone of a functioning democracy, is largely ensured by the media. That’s why China’s decision to ban certain websites is considered highly incongruent to western values. However, I would argue that juxtaposing American democracy during statutory slavery prior to 1865 and socio-economic slavery thereafter, the decision to ban certain media outlets is not worthy of much criticism. It is unreasonable to ask a 5 year old to reach the mental maturity of an adult by exposing her to pornography; countries also take time to mature to be ready for certain political forms. Cancerous material such as drug advertisement and violent pornography should arguably be outlawed completely. If slavery abolition was insisted during the US founding period, the British would still be ruling the continent, with her unjust taxation. If the Chinese government were to relax its media stronghold, unverifiable figures of governmental atrocities would surely instigate revolt by the under-informed mob, that would disrupt everyday lives of middle class families and free market economy. So peasantry/farming population in modern China played a similar role as slavery in the US, with an important distinction that peasants ascend socio-economic ladders through painful but viable migration waves to the cities, as did my grandparents generation, as well as millions of migrant workers who leave their children behind with grandparents in pursuit of better living. The blacks are struggling with basic civil rights even today, and gerrymandering is virtually a collective consciousness at the state congressional level, at least in North Carolina and possibly a few others. Granted the problem US is trying to solve has its unique challenges, mainly ethnic diversity. The Chinese challenges may be even more noteworthy, namely high population density. China also has ethnic diversity, mainly concentrated near the borders. It would be somewhat inconceivable to let a self-serving democracy run freely in the country and hope for a win-win happy compromise to come out. Anthropology tells us that usually there is only one winner in the end. The preservation of minority genomes is largely a conquerors’ hobby.
As the US confronts the spread of fake news, China’s state censorship seems to claim a rare but decisive victory. The climate denialism had no chance to go mainstream, and superstition driven policies find no home in the statutes. The US is developing its own defense mechanism against these manufactured truths, however it is in no position to counter religions, one of its core founding values. The process is somewhat similar to anti-trust laws, where corporate conglomerates were banned from collusions, despite operating under free market environment. Platforms like facebook and google receive injunctions to internally regulate media content, effectively injecting editorial discretions aligned with political agendas, however unquestionable the motives. Thus one should not be alarmed by the unsettling rise of fake news, but draw analogies with the legislative traditions of the past, and rest assured that the system will heal itself in due time. The Chinese government seems to approach the problem from another end, namely more strict starting point, gradually relaxed towards tolerance of dissension. I don’t think the government will ever tolerate fake news per se, since it is viewed as intrinsically bad, like mosquitos. Thus there is likely no formidable legislative adaption like what the US is going through right now. This does not mean the name fake news would not be mentioned many times in the written laws, but they will be more proactive rather than reactive. The disadvantage is that the system may be less resilient to future attacks of unforeseen kind. But there is always a tradeoff between explore and exploit, and the US path is definitely the more exploratory of the two. In terms of relative advantages, China can easily piggyback on US exploratory findings, and steer away from the failure cases to devote more energy towards key legislative improvements. The key however is not to copy the entire system, but only the end results and reconstruct it through more efficient means. In machine learning parlance, this is called distilled learning, and is known to improve results dramatically.