Tuesday, April 19, 2011

    Notes and observations on China

    I have been studying abroad at Fudan University for almost eight months now and recently quite a few people have been asking me “So what have you learned?” Usually the answers that I give out on the spot are lackluster and it gets me to wondering if I have learned anything at all! Last night, while sitting around alone at Burger King, I began to reflect on what I have learned so far.


    Much has been written about China’s property bubble, but it is hard to fathom when it is mixed in with news about China’s phenomenal growth. However, when you are actually at ground zero, the bubble seems much more obvious. Walking around Shanghai, row after row of vacant apartment blocks, deserted multi-story luxury malls and redevelopment projects are the norm. At night, pitch black apartment blocks sit right across the street from a construction for yet another new apartment complex. On a typical day at the multi-story luxury malls on West Nanjing road, I may see twenty or so shoppers in the entire mall, but despite this all the stores are fully staffed every day and more commercial centers are planned just one street over at Weihai road. The Shanghai city government has redeveloped an area south of the bund called the Cool Docks, billing it as the next expat hot spot. The Cool Docks have been empty since the day it opened and yet more redevelopment projects are planned with the goal of turning area in between the Cool Docks and the Bund into one giant tourist walkway full of luxury shops.

    It is hard to see how all of this is sustainable given that China is facing growing unemployment and stagnating wages. I get the feeling that the professors I study under are equally as dumbfounded by how China just works despite the growing laundry list of problems. How long can the country keep defying the law of supply and demand? In my opinion, China is a gilded country with new shiny glass skyscrapers and luxury stores concealing the fact that the large majority of Chinese people are just subsisting and in no condition to support such developments. Shanghai is the richest city in China, but even its population cannot sustain the developments that are taking place in the city and to see this all I had to do was step into a mall.

    Shortcomings of Chinese Higher Education

    In the states, the media constantly reports on Chinese super students and how Chinese universities are graduating more students than ever. There is a fear that Chinese graduates are going to dominate America in the very near future and for a while I was in that bandwagon. However, after attending Fudan University, my eyes have been opened to the shortcomings of Chinese higher education.

    For all intents and purposes, I am on vacation while studying in Shanghai as compared to San Diego. The standards at Fudan are lax and the class curve that is enforced throughout the university is extremely generous. The Chinese professors that I have had have been poor instructors and worse of all; many professors who are teaching in English can barely speak the language at all. Chinese academia has not escaped the gilded nature of the country with Fudan offering many more classes in English than it can effectively staff in order to boost its prestige. In addition, after reading a few articles and papers that a prominent Fudan professor wrote, I cannot help but question the quality of the research that is being done in China. These questions of legitimacy are further compounded by the fact that there have been numerous cases of plagiarism involving high ranking university professors.

    Many of the Fudan students I have talked to have a negative view on their classes, describing it as a waste of time. Indeed, that seems to be the case whenever I look into a classroom I see the students either dozing off or reading books not pertaining to class, while the professor drones on. That is not to say that Chinese students are not ambitious, on the contrary to their behavior in class. Outside of class, Fudan students are quite studious and hardworking. Many of the students show up to class because attendance is mandatory and then learn by themselves through reading the textbook. By American standards, Fudan students lead Spartan lives revolving around academics and extracurricular activities that will make them more competitive in the workforce. Sadly, the university does not seem to be keeping up with its students.

    Fudan University is generally considered the third best university in China. Chinese academia only gets worse as one goes down the list of universities. Seeing the quality of Chinese higher education for myself, I now understand why there is such a large number of unemployed graduates. Western universities can take comfort in knowing that Chinese higher education is nowhere near them in quality.

    Final thoughts

    “Seeing is believing” and being on the ground in China has opened my eyes to all the misplaced hype about China. After eight months, the country looks like one giant house of cards, albeit one that unexplainably keeps adding more levels.

    Thursday, April 14, 2011

    Change of Plans

    Today, the CMO of Unilever came to Fudan University to give a seminar of sorts. I had this elaborate plan to audio record the whole proceeding put it on my blog along with comments and analysis.

    However, when I arrived at the building there was a line of students snaking all the way down from the second floor. Even with the help of my friend who was in the Fudan student union, the group organizing the event, I could not get in.

    While roaming the halls of the building wondering what to do, I stumbled upon a Fudan KTV or karaoke competition. So, instead of learning about Unilever's marketing efforts, I spent the night watching Fudan students sing their heart out.

    The competition started off pretty seriously with some great voices...

    ... but then there was this student who performed kungfu while singing

    In the end, it was all good fun and I made some decent lemonade out of the whole situation.

    Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    Coffee with a PR professional

    A couple of weeks ago, I had coffee with a Ms. Lee, a public relations professional currently working in Shanghai. We discussed the state of PR in China and the effect of government censorship in her work. In addition, like in all my discussions, we touched on what it is like to work in this foreign country.

    I was looking for an internship in PR in to gain some experience, but Lee told me it was best to start my PR career back in the states simply because China’s PR industry is still undeveloped. She explained that PR in China is still very tactical meaning that it is still event driven. In a more developed industry such as the United States, PR is much more strategic. A strategic PR takes into account the message itself and how to craft the message in order to best fit the target audience.

    These observations of the Chinese PR industry really struck me because I could relate it to my work at nonprofit in Shanghai. There was a focus on planning fundraising events without actually thinking about how to create a sustainable program, especially since they were trying to crowd source all of their funding. The message for the project was not very clear, but the nonprofit was not concentrating on solving that problem but rather how to generate publicity.

    Lee gave an interesting angle on Chinese protectionism that I had not considered or read about before. The way that Chinese protectionism manifests itself in the PR industry is in the form of censorship of foreign companies. As the government controls all domestic media outlets, foreign companies sometimes miss out on press coverage. In a worst case scenario, they are attacked in the media and not given a way to respond, which is exactly what happened to Paypal, when ChinaDaily ran an interview from the President of UnionPay stating that all China needed was UnionPay and adding in "More interbank networks will raise the cost of commercial banks and lower their profits."

    On doing business in China, Lee and I had similar observations. We were both shocked by how slow and inefficient Chinese workers were. In addition, we noted that many places were overstaffed and full of redundancies. Since we met at a nonprofit, we touched on the subject of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Her work experience in the work place gave me a better understand of how CSR is perceived by corporations in China, something that I had only read about. Unsurprisingly, there is an undeveloped idea of corporate social responsibility with companies seeing CSR as just giving money rather than a way of doing business or even a way to sustainably give money.

    I walked away from that meeting a much greater understanding of PR than I came in with. It feels good when the time you put into networking produces meaningful results.

    Sunday, April 3, 2011

    One Egg, One Dream: Expat Outreach in Shanghai

    I was connected to the Shanghai Non-profit Incubator (NPI) by Dr. Fung and have since started working with them. I was asked to assist in reaching out to the expat community in Shanghai about the One Egg, One Dream (OEOD) project that Shanghai NPI was working on.

    OEOD was a project that was originally started by Google. The project gave money to a local NGO, which in turn gave rural children one boiled egg per day through their school in order to give them proper nutrition. The Google project was supposed to be just a one off project, but Shanghai NPI decided to continue and expand it once it learned about it.

    I have been asked to find ways to generate interest and fundraise for the OEOD in the Shanghai expat community. This is the quick and dirty about what I am going to do to get the project running.

    1) Translation

    The first order of business must be the translation of the OEOD literature from Chinese to English. However, there is a shortage of English speakers in the NPI team that I am working in, meaning I have to get creative about where to get translators. In the beginning I thought of asking the students in my UC program, but few of them can read Chinese. In addition, due to a lack of incentive or accountability, reliability and timeliness will be an issue.

    Recalling that Twitter and Facebook users translated their respective sites into different languages, I got the idea to try to crowd source the translation. If I break up the literature into bite size chunks and post it in an online community with Chinese and English speakers, maybe the community would translate it especially since it is for a good cause. Currently, the community I have selected is italki.com, a language learning community with many active users who are bilingual in Chinese and English.

    If Shanghai NPI can build a reputation on italki.com, it could reliably use the italki community to translate for their future projects.

    2) Social Media Infrastructure

    Despite being blocked, Facebook is still the best way to reach out to the expat community in Shanghai. Many expat events are still planned and publicized on Facebook. Having a Facebook page with a quick Paypal donation widget will make it easy for expats to find and donate to the project.

    A Twitter profile might also be created; however, the strength of Twitter in my opinion is its mobility, since tweets can be received via text. However, as Twitter is blocked in China that mobility advantage no longer exists.

    A blog might also be in order as Shanghai NPI has their local NGO partners for the OEOD project giver regular updates, albeit in Chinese. Regular updates would greatly increase interest in OEOD and build a following of repeat donors. If crowdsourcing translation works, a regularly updated blog could be a possibility.

    3) Event Planning

    After everything is set up, then the plan is to pursue the fundraising strategy that Shanghai NPI has in mind. In Shanghai, there are a large number of restaurants and bars that regularly host fundraising events for nonprofits. It should not be too difficult for OEOD to find a venue from which to fundraise.