Thursday, July 28, 2005


Hello, hello all. Sorry it's taken me so long to get back to this blog. Governmental influence in China increases as you get closer to Beijing, meaning that even here at Beijing Normal University I can't get access to the general Internet without leaving campus and asking a friend of Dr. Yu's to use his computer. I have managed to remain busy in my world-wide-web-free existence though. My days here so far has been used to contribute to a database for teachers to use in searching for appropriate flash based educational media to supplement their English lessons. I only just wrapped up the assignment a few minutes ago in fact. In the remaining five or so days I've got here, I'm planning on touring a bit - Tienamen Square and the Forbidden City (not to mention the six party nuclear arms talks) are just a few blocks from my hotel - and then writing another paper on flash based educational media attributes both positive and negative. Speaking of papers, I've included the first one I wrote in Shenzhen just below. Some of you might find it interesting, for the rest of you, I'm sorry. I'll try to post some nice pictures of Beijing in a couple of days. -joe

A Comparison of Modern Teaching Methods in China and the United States
Joseph L. Hartman

With respect to English language acquisition, Chinese and American schools have many similarities in their organizational structure and curriculum development. Yet there are marked contrasts in the curriculum delivery methods and student achievement philosophies each country exhibits. America’s English classrooms are noticeably less technologically integrated and less rigid than those in China, whose goal is to educate with efficiency through focus and familiarity. The differences seen in the two classrooms are indicative of a deeper philosophical divide between the two countries, pitting the Chinese belief in maximizing student potential against the American belief in leaving no child behind. Both could benefit from an adoption of the strengths of the other. For America this means an embrace of personal computers for every student, increases in technological integration across the curriculum, training for teacher involvement in the utilization of technology, and focused measures for pushing those at the head of the learning curve. For China it means embracing a balance of less defined individual lessons, increases in student-selected content, further integration of contextualization, and defined measures for ensuring the opportunity of success for all students.

Both Chinese and American schools depend upon their governments to dictate the content students study in every grade. Beyond this guidance however, the institutions in both countries are afforded the freedom to decide how best to deliver that content to their respective students. This paper will seek to analyze the differences in recent methods adopted by the two countries with respect to their English language curriculum, hypothesize about the possible underlying causes for those differences, and explore how each country may be able to benefit from the experiences of the other.

The American Model:
Integration, as witnessed in recent English classrooms in America, refers less to computers and software than to literature and books. Moving away from such historical staples of English development as weekly spelling and vocabulary tests, modern methods of English teaching emphasize context over content. Spelling and vocabulary words are no longer photocopied from long lists in standalone workbooks, but are instead taken from the pages of passages or novels the students are reading in class. Often, these words are previewed by the instructor to prepare the students for what they will be reading. In this way, expansion of the language is accompanied by a contextualization that enables the students to apply their prior learning towards a more effective synthesis of new information.

Current Language Arts education trends in elementary schools continue to expand upon this integration, utilizing several different types of reading strategies to encourage students as they acquire greater mastery of the language. In the very young grades teachers may utilize a picture-walk, a read-aloud, popcorn reading, or the lean-in lean-out strategy among others. The forefront of current English language curriculum in elementary schools is, however, dominated by class reading groups.

The Reading Groups Model allows students to independently advance through a self selected series of books read both individually and during designated class times. Reading during class time takes place in small groups of students with like books and may implement a number of comprehension strategies ranging from vocabulary study to character analysis. This is also the time when the instructor is free to circulate the class and provide assistance or evaluation to individual students. The Reading Groups Model may be implemented as a complement to more traditional spelling and vocabulary tests, or used as the source for such strategies. It relies upon student self-motivation for success and is highly structured out of necessity. Several students reading different books simultaneously denote an organized system for tracking student progress, and this can result in a high learning curve for beginning teachers. The balances within the Reading Group Model can also be difficult to maintain, but are immensely beneficial as they aim to simultaneously allow the maximum amount of individual student advancement, high levels of class independence, and ample teacher oversight.

Technological integration in American English classes often applies only to the instructor. A CD-ROM with pre-made lesson plans and answer keys may be included with the Teacher’s Edition of class text books, and occasionally includes audio for the stories in the text and limited visuals. Unlike the Chinese curriculum however, the software is rarely intended for interactive use by the students themselves. The primary reason for the lack of technological integration in English lessons is due to a low ratio of students to computers in the classroom. Most American classrooms are equipped with only one computer for every four or five students, thus often relegating the equipment to a secondary status within the curriculum. More often used for word processing and evaluations of learned material than anything else, computer use is also hindered by a lack of training on the part of the instructors. Because of this, even the availability most schools provide of a computer lab with ample hardware for each student fails to motivate the average English teacher to integrate to the greatest degree these resources into their class curriculum.

The Chinese Model:
For the modern Chinese student, integration in the English classroom refers to the rapidly growing inclusion of technology into the lessons. This refers to Flash programs, the Internet, personal computers for every student, a large projector, and corresponding workbooks and teaching materials for both the students and instructor with which to support it all. Each lesson is highly structured and follows a predictable pattern with teachers utilizing an array of proven and successful strategies to engage their learners. Songs are used to review with the students at the beginning of the lesson, new material is previewed on the blackboard and projection screen before the class is permitted to explore it using individual notebook computers. A class review of the lesson is conducted using interactive games afterwards, and the students end each lesson by role playing with partners the scenarios they’ve seen.

The Internet lesson content is compiled by various community teachers and overseen by The Modern Education Technology Research Institute, a government body that oversees the distribution of the lessons to area schools. Lessons are generally organized into units, such as “family”, “jobs”, or “food and drink”, with the units then organized into a website template with different pages such as “games”, “stories”, and “songs”. The content of each page is generally delivered through Flash programs that are found on the Internet and then copied. Any required modifications to the content are made by the teachers themselves using Flash or another appropriate editing program. Because these multimedia lessons are available on each school’s intranet server, every teacher and student is able to easily access it.

The Chinese model, while efficient and designed to take advantage of the most effective and proven teaching strategies, does not afford its students the same individualized choices for learning as the American model. While there are multiple routes available to each student within the lesson, such as different games or stories (some of which are more difficult than others), in essence every student in the classroom learns the same lesson at the same pace as the rest of the class. Additionally, the context that American teachers provide for their students through the Reading Groups Model is a challenge for the Internet lessons to match. For example: a lesson may be about different kinds of food and include a flash-based game of Concentration with a song about a pickle at the circus, but this leaves something to be desired in the area of contextual relevance. In theory, the units could be integrated to a greater degree and eventually match or even better the level of contextualization offered in reading groups, but this is not currently the case.

Modern models for English instruction in America and China clearly vary on several different levels. Less clear is how and why those models came to differ so greatly despite similarities in their goals and origins within the educational system of each country. The differences in how Chinese and American classrooms have come to embrace technology are responsible for some of the variations, but many of them would be present even if computers had never been invented.

The Philosophical Models:
Summer school does not exist in Shenzhen. Student advancement from grade to grade depends entirely on age, regardless of whether or not the student is able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the curriculum. This runs directly contrary to the model for student advancement in America where a student who fails to learn the subject matter may not only be required to attend intersession classes to compensate for the lost time, but may perhaps be held back to repeat the school year a second time. No other circumstance more clearly demonstrates the underlying difference in the educational philosophies of the two countries as this.

In its most simplistic form, the Chinese educational philosophy views school as a forum within which students compete for success. The simplistic American philosophy views school as an institution of entitlement, within which equality must be assured and success all but guaranteed. The former could be seen as unfair to the slower learners, the latter as being unfair to the high achievers. The debate could most aptly be summarized as Chinese efficiency versus American equality.

The roots of this philosophical divide help define not only the different approaches to student support, but also partly explain the differences in elementary class sizes (40 – 50 students in China, 20 – 30 in the United States) and school sizes (hundreds of students in the U.S. versus thousands in China). The costs of public schooling in each country (free for 13 years in the U.S., heavily subsidized for 9 years in China) and books (provided by schools in America, purchased by parents in China) differ along these lines as well. Employing specialists who focus on single subjects of teaching is more efficient, if less nurturing, than employing teachers who instruct in all areas of learning; so this is what Chinese schools do from the earliest grades, while American schools typically wait until the middle school level.

Neither country dares to assume that its educational philosophy is without shortcomings. Similarly neither pretends not to be aware of the merits in contrary views. What often goes unanswered on both sides though is the question of how gains made in one respect can be made without resulting losses in another. Alas, education is not a zero-sum game.

Lessons to Learn:
American English classes would benefit from a move towards increased integration of technology into the curriculum like that seen in China. To effectively accomplish this denotes greater numbers of technological hardware - personal computers for every student at a minimum - hours of teacher training to instill confidence, competence, and to assure use of the technology, as well as centralized oversight of the ongoing curriculum changes to occur.

American students would also benefit from an increased emphasis on the part of schools to maximize student potential across all ability levels, especially those at the high end. Increased utilization of technology may hold some solutions for the most apt students to continually be challenged without diverting resources from the least apt, but other options are surely available. If intersession instruction is provided for those students who fail to meet expectations during the school term, why not make it available to those students who surpass expectations?

English classes in China would benefit from an increase in structural balance and organization like that seen in the Reading Groups Model. This requires an embrace of more flexible and student-selected lesson objectives to equalize the straightforward ones already being taught, as well as new focus on increasingly infusing lessons with relevant contextualization. Greater directional oversight of the model and further collaboration between lesson creators will eventually result in a learning system as competently structured and free as the Reading Groups Model, but with immensely greater learning efficiency and engagement potential.

Finally, China's schools would be well served to consider employing a system of support for failing students such as summer school or remedial courses. The inherent scholastic competition among students will only benefit from increases in the competency of all participants. A reduction in class sizes too would benefit students, as future increases in student learning independence will quickly warrant increases in individualized instructor guidance.

Both China and America stand on the brink of a great educational revolution. The promise modern technology holds for students and teachers is astonishing and inspiring, but will not inherently solve every complication associated with education. Ensuring effective employment of these technological tools equally across student populations will require both countries to continually analyze lessons learned in the past and implement adjustments in the future. It will be only beneficial if these lessons can be learned second-hand and the adjustments made jointly, with international collaboration providing the knowledge and experiences to do so.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Hong Kong and such

It's been a while since my last post so I though I'd try to bring everyone up to speed with the happenings in China.

Last Friday I finally met my official contact here in China, Dr. Yu. A professor with Beijing Normal University, Dr. Yu was in Shenzhen to make a short presentation during the teacher training Mr. Xu and I have been preparing for. Although I was only able to spend a few hours with Dr. Yu in the morning, it was a very reassuring visit and we talked about education and technology in America and China as well as the paper I've been working on. It's Dr. Yu who I will be working under next week when I fly up to Beijing, and he apparently has a different type of project in mind for me to work on when I get there, so I'm very much looking forward to seeing what that trip will have in store for me.

On Saturday I decided to take the weekend to visit Hong Kong. Although it may seem silly to say this, (given that I'm writing it from a desk in China) I'd really forgotten what it was like to travel. Since I've arrived here, I've had quite an easy time getting from place to place and making my way. In both Shanghai and Shenzhen I've always had a companion or two to take me around and translate and give me written directions to anywhere I had to go alone. It has been quite different from my trip across Europe a few years ago, when I was completely alone and inexperienced. Quite frankly, I'd forgotten what a stressful experience it can be to travel. Fortunately, just a weekend trip to Hong Kong brought it all rushing back.
I've always been under the impression that Hong Kong was just one island off the coast of southern China. I knew that it had been taken over by the British after the Opium Wars and was only recently returned to China for governance, but what I didn't realize was that Hong Kong actually consists of several islands. The most famous of these is Hong Kong Island, but the more recent development has been in Kowloon and the New Territories, just North of and across the water. I also completely failed to realize that Hong Kong is still essentially treated as if it were a foreign country by mainland China, a fact that made the ordeal of getting there and back infinitely more difficult.

The first step in my journey was to take a taxi from Shenzhen to the Hong Kong border, a bustling hub of human traffic that would have been nearly innagivable without the assistance of several English speaking ambassadors in yellow sashes. I was directed to a crossing exactly like that at an international airport, had my passport stamped, and continued on into Hong Kong. Curiously, the large rolling luggage bag I had stuffed with dirty clothes to wash at the hostel went unchecked, even by x-ray.

Mr. Xu had told me that I would be able to get another taxi to my hostel once I was in Hong Kong, but through the border I saw only large travel buses lined up. Along the sidewalk I looked for a taxi stand, but found only ticket vendors for the buses. Figuring a bus ride would save me some money anyway, I approached the vendor windows. Each window seemed to correspond to a certain destination within Hong Kong, and out of luck, I happened to see that one bus went to Mong Kok, a market district I had read about when reserving my hostel room. I remembered that the hostel’s close proximity to Mong Kok had been used as a selling point, and asked the vendor at the window about purchasing a ticket.

"Do you take Yuan?" I asked. He shook his head "no".

"Where can I get Hong Kong Dollars?"

The man pointed off to the side, where I had been looking for taxis. I wandered back to that end of the line of buses but saw no bank or ATM. I approached a woman in charge of tearing bus tickets and, with a ten Yuan note in my hand, asked where I could get Hong Kong dollars. She called over a nearby man and explained to him my situation. He gave me a strange look, and then began fishing around in his pocket to pull out some coins.

"No, no" I said and motioned for the man to put his change back. "I need to buy a ticket."

"They can take yuan," the woman replied and she pointed to the vendor windows.

So back to the vendor I went, except his time I just pulled out 100 Yuan and handed it to him. No problem this time.

I settled down in the back of the bus, excited at the thought of a long bus ride through the New Territories and the upper, rural parts of Hong Kong. We had only been driving for about three minutes when the bus suddenly stopped under an overhang. I thought we were maybe at a different station to drop off some passengers, but everyone on the bus stood up and got ready to disembark. I followed suit, retrieving my bag from under the bus and following the crowd into another line at another border crossing. Apparently there is one to leave China, and another one to enter Hong Kong. After a long wait I walked outside the building and found my bus, at last able to enjoy the ride I had anticipated long before.

The bus station in Mong Kok is along Nathan Road, the central thoroughfare for the city that one can follow to the coastline and views of Hong Kong Island. I stumbled around the people-packed sidewalks, luggage in tow, before finally asking a newspaper vendor where I could find the road my hostel was on. Fortunately it was only a couple of blocks away, but the address numbers were inconsistently marked and differed depending on the side of the street. I ended up pulling out a map on the sidewalk (a plea for help in any country) and sure enough, a man asked me a few moments later if I needed assistance. With his guidance I was able to find my hostel, get my room, and drop off four pairs of pants for washing before heading out for dinner.

Walking around Hong Kong for the first time without having to worry about finding my hostel or tripping someone with my bag, I was able to actually notice a few things about the city. The first thing I noticed was that there are fat people in Hong Kong. This was quite surprising, because I had begun to think that people just didn’t get fat in China. In fact, I remembered pondering the lack of obese citizens about a week earlier as I returned from KFC in Shenzhen, and had simply chalked up the phenomenon to the effects of a strict and healthy diet of rice and vegetables. Hong Kong, however, was an awakening.

Just how much of an awakening this was for me can be expressed by the fact that I noticed this difference between Hong Kong and mainland China before I noticed that the traffic in each area travels on opposite sides of the road. Like England, right down to the large double-decker buses everywhere, Hong Kong citizens drive on the left side of the road.

The third thing I noticed about the city was the prevalence of western businesses. While KFC has become quite a staple of my diet since arriving in Shenzhen (being the only alternative to Chinese food I know of), I have not seen here a single McDonalds or Starbucks (to my continual dismay, if to the benefit of my health). Naturally, my first excursion in Hong Kong was in the form of a beeline to the Mickey Dee’s I passed on the way to the hostel. After leaving the restaurant, and still feeling quite fortunate to have noticed it, I began my walk down Nathan Road and spotted another McDonald’s. Then another appeared down an alley, and I started to realize that luck had little to do with my hostel’s close proximity to the restaurant I had patronized. I also began to see several Starbucks and 7-11’s; even a Circle K or two could be found. As I continued south down Nathan Road I noticed one final difference between Hong Kong and the mainland: diversity.

It’s not so much that I’d never noticed that mainland China isn’t particularly diverse (it’s a bit of a hard reality to miss when you don’t see anyone who isn’t Chinese for weeks at a time). It’s more like I had forgotten what it was to live among a diverse community. Before Hong Kong the last black person I saw was at LAX (and this is over a period of nearly a month including four days in a city of 17 million people). There were also plenty of Indian people and middle-easterners of all kinds. This attribute, along with the businesses and fat people, made Hong Kong feel like more of a blend between China and America (with a little Britain because of the traffic, buses, and accents) than just another Chinese city. While I suppose this makes plenty of sense given its long history of British occupation, it was still bewildering at first and there was something about it that I just didn’t like.

It took me a long time to figure out exactly what it was about Hong Kong that made me uneasy, but I finally decided it was the lack of identity in the city. It’s difficult to explain, but there doesn’t seem to be a real feeling of culture in Hong Kong, or at least, not as much culture as there is in Shanghai or Shenzhen. If I had to say there was a culture at all to the city, I’d say it was the culture of business. It seems that everyone and everything in Hong Kong is geared towards business and money. Even the Frommer’s China Guide my grandmother gave me mentioned the lack of culturally interesting sites in Hong Kong. For sightseeing it recommended admiring the tall banks downtown.

There could certainly be other explanations as to why I felt this way about the city: I didn’t have a guide, I was staying at a hostel, the city was in the middle of a shopping festival right. Yet, even as I traveled alone and stayed in the hostels of other cities of the world where shopping was popular, I never felt the void of identity that I felt in Hong Kong.

I think this feeling can be linked to the role that Hong Kong played for China in the communist years and, to a lesser degree, continues to play. Being the isolated outpost for capitalism and business that it was, these attributes naturally became its culture. People visited Hong Kong to do business not to appreciate Chinese history, and so that is how the city has grown to define itself. Plus, with a British government and Chinese population, it only seems logical that an identity crises would eventually emerge. The advantage of such an attitude is that it caters perfectly to travelers, and I found Hong Kong much easier to manage alone than either Shanghai or Shenzhen.

I spent Saturday night wandering around the markets of Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui,
and I got up early on Sunday to see Victoria Peak on the island. The Star Ferry is a popular way to cross the water and only costs about 25 cents so I decided that would be the way to go. I found a Starbucks, got a Green Tea frappucino and was pointed to the Peak Tram, a famous and historic mode of transport to what is probably Hong Kong’s most famous tourist destination. Victoria Peak provides stunning views of both sides of Hong Kong Island, and the differences between the two couldn’t be more blatant. There is also a small shopping mall at the top, a few restaurants, and even a Madame Toussad’s Wax Museum. I avoided all of these (except the Mickey Dee’s in the mall before I left) and headed for the Peak Circle Walk, which traverses some of the most unexpected terrain I’ve ever encountered. Beautiful foliage and views, a waterfall, and innumerable butterflies can be seen on the circle walk, and there is no shortage of anxious visitors keen to do so. I ended up taking a bus instead of the tram back down the mountain, enjoying a memorable (if frightening) winding ride through thick tropical forest that inexplicably ends in the center of a metropolis without warning.

Around six I decided to head back to Shenzhen and so returned to my hostel. I hauled my luggage back along the crowded sidewalks to the bus station, purchased a ticket and took a seat in the back. I waited in line to exit Hong Kong and found my bus to take me to the entry border to China before standing in line once again to enter the mainland. When I got to the counter and presented my passport, the clerk seemed to check over my papers a little more intently than anyone else before. After a few seconds, another man appeared to take my passport and direct me to a different booth. Given a chair to sit on, I waited for a few minutes in confusion before the man reappeared.

“Your visa is expired,” he informed me.


“You have only one entry on this visa. You must return to Hong Kong. Follow me.”

I had only received a single-entry visa to enter China, with my one entry being used at the airport in Shanghai when I arrived. Since I left the mainland for Hong Kong, I needed another entry to return to Shenzhen.

One of the first things Mr. Xu did for me when I arrived in Shenzhen was to print out for me an information sheet in Chinese explaining my situation as an intern, the address of the office, and his phone numbers. If I got lost somewhere or needed help, I could then show the paper to a taxi driver or someone on the street to get assistance. Now I pleaded with the border worker to call Mr. Xu, not so much in the hopes of being able to return, but so he would know why I wasn’t going to be at the teacher training on Monday morning. The man took my paper and directed me to a different office and officer on the exiting side of the border. There I waited for another few minutes before the new officer returned my passport and paper and sent me on my way.

“You go back to Hong Kong now,” was all she said, her finger pointing the way.

Back on the Mong Kok bus, back in line to enter Hong Kong, back to the bus station, and back to my hostel I went. Luckily, the only space available for the night was the very room I had reserved for the previous night. I called Mr. Xu myself, talked with the hostel manager about where to go for a new visa and went to bed a little scared, but mostly just befuddled.

My last day in Hong Kong was pretty uneventful. I woke up early to get to the visa office before the lines got too long, but still ended up waiting for nearly an hour. The regular terms for a visa were fifty U.S. dollars and three days, but for an extra thirty dollars I was able to get a new visa in a few hours. I split the time waiting at the hostel and reading in a Starbucks where I indulged in another Green Tea frappucino. I made it back to my room in Shenzhen around 7, and although I had missed Dr. Yu’s speech to the teachers that morning, at least I was going to be able to go with Mr. Xu to the training on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Hope you’re all enjoying your July. I’ll try to write more tomorrow. -joe

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

I had to say this

So my time here has (not unexpectedly) led me towards greater utilization of technology. Some of the programs I've been using recently have been introduced to me previously such as flickr, an online website that was recently bought by yahoo. Like the also popular shutterfly, flickr allows sharing, uploading, searching, and management of photographs. I've recently uploaded quite a few pictures taken during my internship in China that can be seen alongside some other photos at
My real reason for writing this entry though is another program: Google Earth. I would be lying if I said this wasn't the single most impressive program I've ever seen. If you thought Google Satellite Maps or Keyhole was cool, wait until you see Google Earth. I haven't even had the time to explore it completely yet (I had to write this first) but I would highly recommend simply downloading the program, running it, clicking on every possible button, and then just thoroughly enjoying yourself. (Make sure to get directions somewhere, and then hit the play button. Trust me on this).
Have a blast -joe

Teachers of the World Unite!

Teachers of the World Unite!
Originally uploaded by jlhartman.
Yesterday I got to go with Mr. Xu to a local elementary school and meet with these six English teachers. We talked for a couple of hours about differences and similarities between schools in America and China, and what strategies our respective schools might employ to make teaching more effective. While my hopes of observing a class in action have been delayed due to student testing at the end of the term, my time with these wonderful women opened my eyes as to the incredible changes that the Chinese schooling system is undergoing. They too seemed to appreciate my time and words, and I think the meeting was beneficial for all of us involved. I'm currently helping Mr. Xu prepare for a meeting we will hold here at the Institute next week to help teachers broaden the scope of their multimedia curriculum, and I think this preliminary meeting will help me to better understand the specific needs these teachers will have next week when the training begins. -joe

Sunday, July 03, 2005

The Long Answer

There are only two English language television stations here in Shenzhen, and neither broadcasts in English for the entire programming time. In fact neither broadcasts continuously throughout the day at all, reminding me of the few times I’ve either heard about or seen in movies the famous American Indian Head and national anthem that used to signal the end of the broadcast day for American stations so many years ago. Fortunately for me, both channels here feature shows that largely suit my interests.

Since my arrival I’ve seen fascinating travel and nature shows on Marco Polo, the Nile River, and the South African Coast. Political, world, and financial news programs abound, as well as various documentary-style shows produced by the BBC. A particularly interesting one features a British celebrity chef’s efforts to overhaul the United Kingdom’s public school lunch program. (Being a teacher, I find few things more entertaining than watching the reactions of under-prepared adults’ attempts at coercing a large group of children into unfamiliar actions. “Children DON’T like vegetables! I can’t BELIEVE this! They actually PREFER unhealthy rubbish food!”) When all of this programming is combined with the American shows they air (ER, CSI: Miami, David Letterman, Lost) and the surprisingly similar commercials - albeit in Chinese - the result is a television viewing experience very close to that one might enjoy stateside. In fact, the only glaring difference between the two is the vastly different amount of public service announcements aired here.

During the presidential campaigns a few months ago I remember a prominent party representative being questioned about the incredible amount of money being spent on television ads to advance the cause of his candidate. He gave, what I thought, was a surprisingly relevant answer:

“Companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to convince people to buy the right toothpaste. So no, I don’t think we’re spending too much money on the ad campaign.”

His response made me think about all the commercials I regularly watched, and how little they actually mattered in terms of social education and improvement. I watch a lot of sports, so I noticed how several times in the course of one evening I was exposed to commercials comparing calorie counts between different types of beer, but I didn’t know where to take my empty bottles to recycle them since the privately owned apartment building I live in doesn’t enjoy the benefit of county waste management services.

If you imagine the amount of beer ads you might see during a basketball playoff game or the amount of political ads you might see in October of an election year, you can imagine the amount of public service ads that air here in China. There are commercials here on nearly every topic of social responsibility: water conservation, mosquito control, television viewing responsibilities with respect to children, restaurant quality standards, staying safe in large crowds, dealing with sexual assault, appreciating cultural diversity, how to avoid spreading the flu, why stealing cable is bad, how to properly treat and maintain apartment windows (this one closely following on the heels of a recent rash of cases involving windows falling from tall residential buildings). The list goes on and on, but my favorite PSA has to be the one that educates the viewer on proper methods of customer service. (You mean I shouldn’t just totally blow off a customer if they ask me something? I should be polite to them? and honest too? That’s just crazy talk.)

I’m unsure exactly how the television media in China is regulated, and why it is that so many PSAs air. It seems to me that a disproportionate amount of them are shown on the English channels, but since I rarely watch anything else I can’t say for sure. I do know that a large part of television content is aired on various CCTV stations. CCTV stands for China Central Television, and all of those stations are apparently directly operated by the government. There seem to be several private stations as well – especially here in Shenzhen, with its close proximity to Hong Kong - but how each station’s advertising system is organized, I don’t know. Ultimately, how much any of the business behind airing the PSAs really matters is, I think, less important than the fact that they are aired at all.

In addressing The Short Answer in my previous post I made the point that China was obviously learning from America and other successful capitalist nations to gain insight as to how to most effectively modernize and join the ranks of the most powerful nations in the world. That China was doing so with more models to copy, more technology to utilize, and more human understanding to exploit than any nation that preceded it was resulting in an unparalleled pace of development. This, in turn, was enabling the country to enjoy the unprecedented luxury of avoiding, postponing, and in some cases completely leapfrogging many of the common pitfalls associated with modernization; and after spending less than two weeks in the country it was obvious to me that China was well on its way to becoming a worthy challenger to the United States for the title of World Superpower. I concluded that the U.S. should fear China essentially for its potential to “outamerica” America itself. The caveat to my conclusion was that the U.S. essentially controls its own destiny with respect to China’s rise. I’m not referring to preemptive military action or protectionist subsidies, although I doubt either would hurt China any more than America at this point. I’m referring to America’s ability to reciprocate China’s successful strategies and learn some lessons from its challenger. Public Service Announcements may be one place to start.

Any sports fan can tell you that commercial spots during the Super Bowl are as expensive as advertising on television gets. For the 2005 game, the price was apparently $2.4 million per commercial. Any sports fan can also tell you that there are precious few Public Service Announcements during the Super Bowl. After all, what politician could justify spending 2.4 million taxpayer dollars to remind people to cover their mouths when they sneeze? I don’t know whether the Chinese government pays for the ad time to air their PSAs or whether they simply legislate themselves the ability to do so, but I would suspect the latter. As uncool, and possibly ineffective (I’d really like to do a study on this while I’m here seeing as how they’re essentially attempts at educating an entire society) as these PSA’s are, there is no way the Chinese government would let a big event like the Super Bowl be broadcast without reminding the viewing public many times over about the dangers of driving while intoxicated. (Americans? We just hope that beer companies will take some time after the bikini clad super-models/NASCAR/beach volleyball/burping frog montage to mention it…or at least put it up on the screen somewhere…or at least direct the viewer to the company website so they can learn more...please?).

Like an overzealous basketball referee (sticking with the sports theme here), China is notorious for keeping a close eye on all its companies. Foreign corporations are outlawed from holding more than a 50% stake in any Chinese business, most large companies are at least partly owned by the government, and the country is carefully and strategically divided into different economic zones. Hong Kong and Macau in the south are both Special Administrative Regions, with different regulations than the mainland with Hong Kong even requiring a separate Visa to enter by air. Even Shenzhen is divided into different zones complete with government checkpoints. (At the airport I had to make sure I got an orange taxi and not a green one because the green ones can’t go into the Special Economic Areas). While all of this may sound like a hassle (which I suppose it is), the flip side of such a diligent government is that it doesn’t let business concerns inhibit its attempts to better society. (China wants you to know that there are ways to get rid of disease carrying mosquitoes, and here’s how. Now here’s how again…and again…and again…). Certainly China’s communists are beginning to learn that economic prosperity is contingent upon free and independent markets. So, will the U.S. learn that social prosperity is contingent upon strong government oversight of those markets and their participants?

Without getting too political, I think a case can be made for America becoming excessively involved in business and corporate affairs; or perhaps better stated, for business and corporate affairs getting excessively involved with America. That elected politicians work closely with union and corporate heads should be a shock to nobody, but whether that relationship is beneficial to the nation can be debated. In some cases, such as Vice President Cheney’s “secret” meetings with oil company executives concerning energy legislation, a case could be made for seeking the counsel of those men most intimate with the industry (although I can think of no legitimate reason why their identities should be kept from the public). Other times, the close working relationships seems to work more to the advantage of the businesses. One recent example could be the current energy bill passed by the House of Representatives that contains protection from lawsuits for MTBE producers whose product leaked into and polluted the groundwater of communities in as many as 29 states. Instead of an overzealous referee, in this case the government comes across as one who has obviously been bribed by one of the teams.

None of this is to say that China understands the role of government better than the United States (personally, I feel like there are too many restrictions here, I can’t even read my own blog!). Rather, the country’s concerns and cautious approach towards private enterprise appear at least somewhat justified, and they show that China is not only learning from America’s successes, but its failures as well. This may explain why despite the country’s embracing of capitalism over the past 20 years, its communist past is still evident through its concerns for the working class (even if the most visible form of this concern is the veritable barrage of PSAs) and the more heavy handed approach to business regulation it takes. America also regulates corporations, as evidenced by seatbelts, the SEC, and child labor laws, but the Chinese government does not seem content with just these basic principles. Instead, China seems interested in a different type of government involvement, a type that results in making business work for it, rather than it working for business (the latter situation being what happens if the U.S. wants to air a PSA during the Super Bowl).

If we imagine our basketball referee was also the owner of one of the teams he was calling in a game, we would have a situation close to that of the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation. CNOOC is largely controlled by the Chinese government and recently made headlines for its offer to acquire Unocal, the west-coast based American oil company. This offer, while not directly made with citizen money, is made possible through special loan guarantees by the government. So the offer is ultimately supported by the Chinese public. To draw a comparison, imagine if Ford Motor Company wanted to purchase Volkswagen, except didn’t have the money to do so. Imagine then that Congress voted to give Ford as much money as it needed to make the deal possible until Ford could pay it back. (I doubt whether the American public would support such a move, but if Ford was already half owned by the government and overseen by the State Department, it might be seen as a victory for the nation). While the idea of something like this occurring is almost laughable to Americans, it is exactly what the Chinese are accustomed to. The government foresees a national increase in oil demand and wants to shore up its assets and reserves. Why wouldn't it use businesses to help it do so?

The fact is that, because energy is so important to every nation, the Chinese model is increasingly the manner in which countries have addressed petroleum dependence. The top nine oil companies in terms of reserves are all 100% government owned (in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, Libya, Nigeria, and Mexico by descending order of available supply). PetroChina is number fourteen on the list and 90% government owned, while ExxonMobil checks in two higher at number twelve. Of course, ExxonMobil is not owned - even in part - by any government, the only company in the top 16 that can say so. (It is interesting to note that the U.S. government is reportedly considering blocking the sale of Unocal to CNOOC on national security grounds, a move that would evidently move it more in line with the approach of the above listed nations).

It would appear the international model for corporate regulation approves of great government involvement in those areas of business that are of great national importance. That America disagrees can be illustrated by the fact that it is the only industrialized nation without a national health care system. While there is obviously a place for government oversight within private enterprise - Arthur Anderson painfully taught us the danger of letting it oversee itself – a consensus about how much and when has yet to be reached. (Personally, I feel the answer lies somewhere about equidistant from where China and the U.S. currently reside).

There are obviously other factors separating China from the United States that could be pointed at to either support or discount its recent rapid growth– democracy and currency market methods not the least of them – and yet the country has clearly acknowledged it has something to gain by moving away from its old economic policies and towards more American ones. The question now becomes whether the U.S. will make a similar realization and adopt any winning Chinese policies (at which point I’ll hopefully figure out where to take my empty beer bottles).

If so, where does that leave Americans? Our quality of life may collectively improve, and we may avoid the embarrassing sight of a Wal-Mart on the White House Lawn, but will not our two countries remain opponents and adversaries? At what point does Cold War II begin? Next time I’ll try to address The Real Answer, and offer a more appealing alternative choice for our nations to make. -joe