Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Birth of Korean Cool

In 1985, a 12-year-old Euny Hong moved with her family from suburban Chicago to Seoul, South Korea. Not just any place in Seoul, South Korea, but a neighborhood known as Apgujeong — the wealthiest, most exclusive cluster of addresses in the Gangnam district. The Hongs, in short, went “Gangnam Style” 27 years before it was a thing. And when it comes to South Korean history — as with meme superstardom — three decades is a long time.

Hong’s new book, “The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture,” loosely follows South Korea’s growth from the mid-60s, when the country’s per capita G.D.P. was less than Ghana’s, to now. Today, South Korea is the 15th-largest economy in the world. From Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video to the chips that Samsung furnishes for Apple’s iPhones, the book explores the confluence of factors that make for Korea’s pop-­cultural perfect storm.

Korea’s vitality lies in hallyu — a wave of cool so pervasive that President Obama name-checked it in a speech. Hong asserts that Korea’s rise is attributable to what the Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye calls “soft power”; the country wields influence not through military might but “by peddling a desirable image.” Korea’s government has earmarked a billion-dollar investment fund dedicated to fostering popular culture, and for Koreans raised abroad during the ’70s and early ’80s like Hong and myself, the notion that Seoul has become this fashionable is startling and deeply fascinating. After all, Korea was nicknamed the Hermit Kingdom by 19th-century Western explorers for its reluctance to play with others.

“Korean Cool” chronicles the author’s period of trying to fit in. She recalls toilets that don’t flush, corporal punishment and a Confucian catechism so entrenched that defying your parents results in agonizing shame. Just as Western kids feared the boogeyman, Korean children abroad lived under the constant threat of being “sent back to Korea” for delinquent behavior like smoking cigarettes or getting a C. The chapter on academic pressure rightfully dovetails into harrowing statistics of suicide, “the most common cause of death for Koreans under the age of 40.”
Hong views all of this through the slightly skewed perspective of a tween navigating a new curriculum and a disorienting national identity. Much of the awkward self-consciousness is compounded by noonchi — the Korean art of accurately gauging the infinitesimal cues of any situation in order to avoid social blunders. Missteps betray your standing as a tourist in the motherland, which results in a great deal of scorn and attendant humiliation.

Read the whole review at nytimes.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Food from China under attack in testimony before US Congress

Food imported from China. (Shutterstock / Robert Kneschke )
Mark Kastel, co-director and senior farm policy analyst with the Cornucopia Institute stated during his testimony that: “…many in this country, for good reason, based on history, do not trust the Chinese to supply ingredients for our dog and cat food. Why should we trust Chinese exporters for the food that we are feeding our children and families?”

He added that, despite some food from China being labelled as organic by the USDA, it does not necessarily meet the standards of US organic food, as certifiers are unable to personally inspect Chinese farms. He also added that many Chinese food producers have been caught using fraudulent organic certificates, far more than any other country.

He further decried the fact that so little of the food imported into the US is actually inspected, and yet despite the low inspection rates, issues with food imported from China are commonplace.

“USDA and FDA inspectors are only examining 1%-2% of all the food that reaches U.S. ports. And what are they finding? A disproportionate number of serious problems with exports from China including adulteration with unapproved chemicals, dyes, pesticides, and outright fraud (fake food).”
Patty Lovera, Assistant Director of Food & Water Watch was equally harsh in her criticism of Chinese-produced food before the committee. She stated that “China’s food manufacturers (have) often (been) found to cut corners and substitute dangerous ingredients to boost sales.”

She also referenced a recent report by a food industry analyst, saying that “the report cited 32 pesticides found in laboratory testing of Chinese foods, mostly in produce, fruit, and spices and noted that ‘economically motivated adulteration’ is a persistent issue in food production in China.”

The testimony before congress came just weeks before Chinese meat processor Shuanghui International Holdings agreed to purchase the top pork producer in the world, America’s Smithfield Foods, for US$4.7 billion late last month. If approved, the deal would be the largest ever acquisition of an American company by a Chinese firm.

That deal is now under review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), a committee comprised of members from nine different US governmental agencies, including the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security. The committee reviews foreign investment deals that could have an impact on US national security. While the committee itself does not have the power to block deals, it can recommend to the US president that he do so.

Despite the existence of some angst over Chinese influence becoming more prevalent in the American food industry, some experts don’t expect the CFIUS to raise any red flags over the deal, citing the fact that the food industry isn’t necessarily an industry of high national security concerns, like a technology or military-related takeover.

"I think they'll clear it," Paul Marquardt of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton told USA Today. "I would be very surprised if this raised the kind of issues that CFIUS was concerned about."

Others disagree however, and see the safety of the US food supply as being very much an issue of national security. Read the whole story...

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

State Grid Rolls Out Expansion in Europe

From Tianjin to Tuscany
Winston Churchill memorably described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. In WiC’s view the same quote might equally be applied to China’s electricity behemoth, the State Grid.

Not surprisingly, State Grid invokes strong feelings among Chinese decisionmakers. Reformers see it as an overly-powerful beast that controls 90% of China’s power distribution, monopolistically supplying electricity to 1.1 billion people. On the other hand, corporatist types – who have favoured an alternative ideology known as ‘state-led capitalism’ – view the company as a national champion.

The ‘enigma’ for WiC is the often contradictory messages that come from the corridors of power as to which wing is in the ascendant – and is therefore shaping the influential company’s future. In May the statists seemed to score a landmark victory when the firm finally (after much delay and many arguments) got the go ahead to begin work on 10 UHV lines at a cost of Rmb381.5 billion . This set in motion what is likely to be one of the world’s biggest infrastructure investments, with analysts reckoning State Grid would now get its way on a national rollout of UHV at cost of $250 billion by 2020. That looked a defeat for reformers, who’d argued against the controversial plan, citing technological concerns and worries it would lead to State Grid exercising an even greater control over the power industry
On the other hand, massive graft purges in the electricity sector – starting at the Three Gorges Dam in late March – seemed to be sending a message that the reformers had the upper hand and were readying to pare back the overmighty company’s influence. Indeed in June, the State Grid even made market-friendly noises for the first time, suggesting it would welcome private capital to help build a national vehicle-charging network for electric cars – thereby sharing the fruits of this growing business with entrepreneurs. It also said it would allow private-sector operators to feed new energy power sources (such as solar) into its nationwide system. CBN called both moves “an icebreaker”.

More recently the political pendulum looks to have swung the other way again, with State Grid expanding aggressively abroad. Back in the ‘national champion’ mode it has now unveiled a bold European strategy. Last month it bought a 35% stake in Italy’s grid operator, which is the sixth biggest in the world, according to the People’s Daily. That $2.8 billion deal may swiftly be followed by another. State Grid has joined a consortium with the Belgian grid operator Elia to bid for a 66% stake in the Greek electricity transmission firm ADMIE.

A top executive at State Grid told the Chinese press that it would make further investments in Europe, bringing its UHV and smart grid technologies to the continent.

Its timing is savvy. People’s Daily also comments that the EU is concerned that its target of linking member states with a ‘Eurogrid’ by 2015 is lagging – with many local governments and indebted firms unable to make good on grid commitments in the aftermath of the euro crisis. An EU energy commissioner has even told reporters that the EU welcomes State Grid’s participation in grid construction – so long as it abides by the relevant laws.

Read the whole story at Week in China.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Fairy Tale Ending

A case of taking the mickey? Or just a prudent attempt to remain anonymous? Anyway the winner of Shandong’s lottery turned up at a press conference in a Mickey Mouse mask, to collect his cheque for Rmb497 million ($80 million) – the third largest win in Chinese lottery history. All that is known of the winner is that he owns a shoe shop, and post-tax will have Rmb398 million to spend. Or to be more exact Rmb378 million. In what Apple Daily punned was a “Disney ending” the individual in question donated Rmb20 million of his haul to a charity fund to help people in the community. Shandong’s Sports Lottery described the act as voluntary and said it showed he had “a good heart”.

At the press event – where the winner spoke through a voice-changing device – he told media he’d been buying lottery tickets for five years and purchased his winning ticket on August 11, the same day the result was announced. The biggest ever lottery win previously occurred in the capital Beijing, where an individual won Rmb570 million last year according to Sina Finance.

Read more from Week in China.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Shaolin Cultural Festival Scheduled for October in Britain

Founder of Shaolin Temple UK, Photo: China Daily
The 2014 Shaolin Culture Festival is to be held in Britain this fall.

The festival is organized by Shaolin Temple China and the European Shaolin Association and co-organized by Shaolin Temple UK.

The event will include Kungfu competitions and an exhibition on Shaolin culture and 12 Zodiac animal relics.

Visitors will also have the chance to experience Chinese meditation, medicine, tea and an incense ceremony.

The seven-day festival is scheduled to take place in London and the University of Oxford starting on October 8, 2014. Read more at gbtimes.