In China, Get Your License Plate First and Then Buy Your Car

Traffic congestion in China is getting out of control. As a result, municipal governments are beginning to enact varying methods to restrict the number of cars on the road by assigning an allocation system to the issuance of new license plates. The number of registered cars, buses, vans, and trucks on the road in China reached 62 million in 2009, and is expected to exceed 200 million by 2020. Currently, there are four Chinese cities limiting car registrations: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Guiyang, capital of Southwest China’s Guizhou province. Other cities, such as Wenzhou and Nanjing, indicate they may soon follow.

In Shanghai, for example, with a population of 23.5 million, issuing license plates through auctions has been used since 1994. In the first 14 years of use these auctions raised 14 billion yuan, and this number is increasing. Recently, the cost of a license plate in Shanghai was $14,480, a record high. Presently, Shanghai releases only 9,000 car plates per month. This scarcity of license plates has forced drivers to buy a license plate before purchasing their car.

In Beijing, with a population of 20.7 million, 1 million-plus people competed for less than 20,000 registration certificates qualifying them to buy a car through a lottery system. This gave only 53 applicants, approximately 2%, the opportunity to obtain registrations. If an applicant fails to win two months in a row, however, then his name is automatically re-entered in the next lottery. This system has gradually increased the number of lottery applicants and decreased the odds of winning as new registrations are fixed at around 20,000.

Guangzhou, with a population of 16 million, issues 120,000 licenses per year, 50% by lottery, 40% by auction, and 10% to qualified environmentally friendly and energy efficient cars.

Since new license plates are expensive and scarce, there’s an active secondary market in reselling license plates. The Shanghai government, in an effort to reduce scalping, has required motorists to keep their license plates for a minimum of three years before they can re-sell them. This is a significant increase from the previous one year holding period and is designed to prevent the scalping, and the subsequent increase in value, of license plates within the city.

Although some argue that license plate restrictions have had little effect, Shanghai’s pioneering efforts have resulted in just 2 million registered cars versus 5 million registered in Beijing, which commenced vehicle restrictions on the New Year of 2011. Without restrictions, it’s estimated that 7 million cars would be in Beijing by 2015 where roads are only equipped to handle 4 million cars.

As you might imagine, there’s a number of scams to try and get around these license plate restrictions. One scam, according the China Hearsay, involves collusion between a secondhand car buyer and seller. The seller constructs an imaginary debt that the seller “owes” the buyer for which the car is used as “collateral”. The seller “defaults” on the loan. They both go to court and the “debtor,” who is actually the car seller, is ordered to hand over the car to the “lender, the car’s buyer.” Along with this transfer of ownership comes the already registered license plate. This works because it’s difficult to prove that the debt is not legitimate.

New car registration rules sometimes legislate obtaining a car license prior to purchasing the car. Beijing has such a rule and makes exceptions only for property transfers as a result of marriage or inheritances, or ownership transfers through court adjudications.

Some people get around registration restrictions by going to another city and obtaining a license in that city. For example, one car owner, at the suggestion of the car dealer, bought a license plate in Hebei province, which adjoins Beijing. If he’s then able to win a license plate in the Beijing lottery, then he can replace the Hebei plate. Langfang, a city close to Beijing’s Daxing district, only requires a photo and 800 to 1,000 yuan for a temporary residential certificate. This certificate then entitles you to obtain a license plate. Obtaining the license plate only takes a few hours. Beijing authorities are not happy with this practice and have adopted punitive measures for Beijing residents caught using this method to obtain a license plate. However, this practice continues in Langfang and in other cities which are not subject to car license auctions or lotteries, especially where the car owner has relatives. This system works well as long as you don’t need your car in the central areas of Beijing during weekday business hours, when a Beijing license is required to drive within the Fifth Ring Road between 7 AM and 8 PM. Outside of these times, and on weekends, there’s no restrictions. This is one reason for the heavy weekend traffic downtown.

Others have obtained temporary plates by leasing them from car rental companies and some dealerships who charge a monthly fee, normally around 3,000 yuan. Individuals also sometime lease license plates, but this practice is usually among friends and family members so as to avoid possible government scrutiny.

In Beijing, some car dealerships themselves can sell a license plate for a fee of up to 100,000 yuan. This price is most often included with the price of higher end luxury cars. This is usually done because some dealerships, in anticipation of the license plate restrictions, which took effect at the New Year in 2011, bought second-hand vehicles for their plates and then transferred them to the new cars they sell.

In some instances drivers buy cloned license plates. These usually come to light when the real owner of the license plate receives tickets for violations he didn’t commit. In addition to cloned plates, false plates are also produced and sold to unlicensed drivers. However, if you drive with a cloned or false plate the police usually confiscate the driver’s car and initiate criminal prosecution. As a result, the use of false license plates still occurs, but on a small scale.

The revenue from the sale of license plates has largely been used for municipal improvements. In Shanghai, for example, the proceeds from auctions has been spent improving the city’s subway system as well as the construction of the mid-ring freeway project. In Guangzhou lottery proceeds are used for public transportation improvements.

According to the Ministry of Public Security, as of January 2013 there were 200 million licensed car drivers in China, , a 26.47 million increase from the previous year. As the number of drivers in China increases, the use of license plate restrictions is becoming more prevalent in an effort to control traffic within the bounds of a city’s infrastructure. Therefore, the practice of obtaining a license plate prior to buying a car is expanding across China.

Alan Refkin

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Walking Your Dog in China

A short time ago I was just putting the finishing touches on my newest book, Conducting Business in the Land of the Dragon (formerly Doing the China Tango II: Advanced studies), a title my editor seems to like better than my previous working title. In this book I wrote a chapter on China’s pollution problems and what they’re doing to try and address these serious issues. Contained in this chapter is a section on water pollution. What influenced this section of the book was a conversation I had with my assistant Maria, and which I didn’t mention in the book.

Every morning I take my dog Halle out for a walk and a swim in the lake a stone’s throw from where I live. Since I live in Florida it never really gets cold and the lake is also netted and protected from reptiles that try and eat you, such as alligators. Halle is a flat coated retriever, loves to swim, and can’t get enough of the water. On our excursions I usually oblige her by throwing a soft rubber ball a short distance into the water, which she delights in endlessly bringing back to me. This routine goes on until she gets tired and her man-servant, me, dries her off and takes her home.

One day I happened to mention my routine to Maria when she asked, to my surprise, if I gave Halle a shampoo when I returned. I told her I didn’t as it was a fresh water lake and didn’t have any salt in it. You can see the sandy bottom below the surface and, while it isn’t Minnesota quality water, it’s not the Mississippi River either.

In China taking a dog for a swim wouldn’t be possible and it’s questionable whether any dog could survive a swim in most of the fresh bodies of water in China. The reason is that the underground water supplies in 90% of Chinese cities are contaminated by industrial effluent, sewage, and agricultural run-off. In addition, 43% of state-monitored rivers are so polluted that they’re unsuitable for human contact. In an example I use in my book a frustrated Chinese businessman offered the U.S. equivalent of $32,000 to the environmental official from the local government if he would swim in his town’s river for just 20 minutes. The official refused.  This is why Maria was so surprised when I told her I was taking Halle for a swim and why taking even yourself for a swim in China is probably hazardous to your health and doesn’t work.

When you’re in China the only water you should make contact with is that inside a plastic bottle or water that’s been boiled (hot tea is generally safe to drink). I’ve followed this rule and, as a result, have never had a problem. Stray from this rule and you’ll undoubtedly need a trip to the local drug store for a little intestinal fortitude!

Alan Refkin

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Chinese Individualism goes Foreign

Individualism in China is increasingly being expressed by the foreign consumer brands they possess. Chinese youth, in particular, use foreign goods to denote who they are without verbal expression. Mobile phones, western clothing, and designer goods are all used to express this individualism. It allows one to create their own sense of worth and value.

According to the European Business Review, China is soon expected to become the largest market for luxury goods. One question frequently asked is why is China, a socialist country, so interested in the possession of luxury goods? After all, it’s a Communist country that espouses equality, common goals, and frugality. Perhaps one answer to this question can be found in the desire of Chinese to mimic emblems of power from western culture which give the consumer an individualistic sense of modernity, wealth, achievement, and success, not unlike the desires of consumers in other global economies. However, in China these are the drivers which Chinese consumers use to set themselves apart within their peer group. It lets others know they exist, that they’re important, and that they matter.

This individualistic expression was largely absent from China until Deng Xiaoping’s policy reforms in 1978 which encouraged the individual pursuit of wealth and, at the same time, opened China’s doors to foreigners and encouraged their participation in the growth of China. The post-1978 generation grew up with a different mindset from their parent’s generation. Instead of individual efforts which collectivized wealth for the common good, this generation sought to obtain individual wealth and its trappings which manifested their success and set them apart from others in their peer group. Since foreign goods within China are far more expensive than domestic products, what better way to express one’s individual accomplishments and success? In addition, foreign goods are generally recognized as being of superior quality and reliability when compared to domestically produced products. Foreign products offer the latest technology or the most recent styles to Chinese consumers who are increasingly knowledgeable thanks, in large part, to the Internet.

According to Pierre Xiao Lu, Assistant professor of Marketing at the School of Management in Shanghai, the ability to afford such luxury goods is due to the rapid rise of social wealth which increased by an average of 10% in the three decades from the 1980’s to 2010. This allowed Chinese consumers to experience a better life with products of superior quality to those manufactured domestically. In addition, these products were an individual’s moniker of success, power, modernity, and self-confidence. This is also a reason one sees so many fake luxury goods in China. After all, only a small percentage of China’s 1.3 billion people are able to afford authentic foreign products. Those Chinese who are lower on the economic ladder also want to express their individualism and enhance their value within their peer group. Fake goods provide them with this opportunity.

But culture sometimes gets in the way of individualistic expression and causes conflicts. For example, China is a socialist country with a market-driven economy. It also promotes national equality among its citizenry. Moreover, the average Chinese citizen believes in this equality. In addition, the Chinese culture teaches one not to have an extravagant lifestyle, to exercise frugality, and to be discreet. This is a part of their socialistic value system and they’ve been raised to accept this as an inherent part of their culture.

Post-1978, these cultural traditions are still being taught, but they’re gradually giving way to individuals wanting recognition for their personal success and achievements. They want to separate themselves from their peer group through their accomplishments. Possession of foreign goods allows them to express their individualism in a country that has a centralized power structure and limits individual liberties. A red Ferrari driving through the streets of Beijing or a Gucci bag is a vivid expression of their independence and freedom.

This expressionism has not gone unnoticed by foreign firms who increasingly view China as a necessity for their long-term growth. The Economist notes that foreign manufacturers have therefore localized their products to broaden their appeal to the Chinese consumer. L’Oreal, for example, through its Japanese subsidiaries, Nihon L’Oreal and Shu Uemura, have developed products specifically for the Chinese market.

Furthermore, not only is Chinese enthusiasm for foreign products expressed by their purchase of foreign goods, but also by their increasing patronage of foreign food establishments. These establishments give many the feeling of westernization and sophistication, even if they’re fast food venues. In addition, Chinese tastes are becoming increasingly international. In response, many companies have added local food preferences to accommodate Chinese tastes. Chris Torrens, a Chinese specialist with the independent risk consultancy Control Risks notes that KFC, for example, in addition to its traditional product line, also sells youtiao, a Shanghainese breakfast dish made from deep-fried twisted dough, duck-style chicken rolls, Cantonese-style pumpkin congee (a rice porridge that can contain meat, fish, or other side ingredients), and gongbao jiding, a spicy Sichuanese chicken dish. While these are obviously not dishes commonly found outside of China, going to foreign food establishments stills carries a cache of individualistic expression and sophistication even if Chinese food is ordered.

As China becomes more entwined with the international community, and information becomes more available through the use of the Internet, economic growth and cultural changes will continue to occur. With little or no brand heritage, Chinese are turning toward foreign products, and patronage of foreign food establishments, as a way to distinguish themselves within their peer group, raise their quality of life, and visually proclaim a sense of independence and freedom.

Alan Refkin

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Divorce Chinese Style

When we think of divorce we almost always assume that both husband and wife don’t get along and therefore decide to call it quits. But that assumption may sometimes be wrong in China. Many couples, who are still very much in love with each other decide to call it quits for a totally different reason that has nothing to do with love or compatibility. Instead, it has to do with a new capital gains tax that was announced at the beginning of March. Sound confusing? Let’s explain.

On March 1, 2013 the central government, without notice, announced measures designed to further control housing prices. These measures particularly focus on the speculative investor and call for an increased down payment and a higher interest rate for second homes. This new law also includes the enforcement of an existing law that levied a 20% capital gains tax on previously occupied housing. Previously, home owners could choose between paying the capital gains tax or by otherwise paying 1% to 2% of the sales price, which was generally more favorable.

This brings us to the reason for the divorce. Many couples have one partner who already owns a residence, but they desire to buy another more suitable residence in which they can raise their family. In other circumstances, the couple may have one of their parents live in their existing dwelling while they purchase a new residence. In either case, if they bought this second residence it would be considered a second house and the tax would apply. Therefore, couples divorce, purchase the property in the other partner’s name, and then remarry. Since the newly purchased property is considered the individual’s first, the capital gains tax isn’t applicable.

If you believe this is done by only a few, think again! Couples are actually informed of the divorce process by the bank. And, not only is the bank cooperative, but so is the divorce office staff telling the couple not to put the reason for divorce as the new property law, but to choose another reason to place in their documentation.

According to Shanghai Daily, divorces have increased 400% in some divorce registry offices following the tax announcement. Nanjing experienced an increase of 200%.

China has always marched to a different drummer. This is just another example of that different drum beat.

Alan Refkin

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Chinese Karaoke

In my books I’ve mentioned that it’s not uncommon, following a business dinner, for everyone to go to one of the numerous Karaoke bars that dot all Chinese cities. Known as KTV studios, these Karaoke bars have little resemblance to those found in the U.S. where everyone is in one large room watching the person holding the microphone sing. In China Karaoke bars have numerous private rooms, of various-sizes, with thick padded walls to insulate them from sound intrusion. The rooms are rented by the hour and range in size from those that can accommodate only a few to ones that can accommodate a large group. These often come with a raised dance floor, chandeliers, couches, and multiple synced flat screens.

All rooms have a big screen TV that plays music videos which are selected from an extensive music library, many of which are in English. The rooms I’ve been to also have a Western-style bathroom. There’s a menu in each room where you can order drinks as well as both foreign and Chinese food. Each room usually has a female attendant who keeps the place clean, places your food and drink orders, and solves any technical problems that occur.

Everyone lets their hair down at Karaoke bars. From the CEO of the company on down everyone sings, laughs, drinks, and has a good time. In fact everyone is expected to sing which, for most Westerners, is something we’re not prepared for. I have a voice like a frog and have no musical talent. Nevertheless, the host will select Western songs which even I can sing. They don’t care how you sound, just that everyone is enjoying themselves. In a society that’s hierarchical and regimented, Karaoke gives everyone a chance to relax, enjoy, and freely express themselves without social consequence.


Alan Refkin

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Fast Food in China

In both my books, The Wild Wild East and Doing the China Tango, I described the elaborate Chinese banquets that foreign businessmen are invited to as part of their interaction with Chinese companies. What I didn’t mention, however, was the Chinese people’s love of fast food. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s Chinese, American, or another country’s fast food. The fact is that Chinese people seem to embrace fast foods even more than we do in the U.S. One reason for this is that China has always had food carts where local vendors would sell noodles, dumplings, and other easy to consume Chinese food items. These carts can be found along sidewalks and roads throughout China and provide, for the most part, inexpensive and tasty food items. I’ve eaten at a number of them and found the food to be good with no emergency trips to the bathroom were required. Although food sanitation standards are relatively lax with food carts, choose those with the longest line. My staff has told me that this is one of the better indicators to use when selecting a food cart and one where you probably won’t have to have a bottle of Imodium for your after-dinner drink.According to Mintel, a media intelligence company, it’s estimated that 71% of Chinese consumers prefer to eat fast food for lunch. Dinner is the second most popular meal for fast food consumption with 54% of Chinese consuming fast food at this time. Chinese Fast food outlets have shown an 80% growth in numbers since 2007 and in 2013 they’re expected to generate sales of $94.2 billion, up 8% from 2012. Much of the reason for this growth is that fast food franchises are spreading to smaller Chinese cities. In the past you could only eat at McDonalds or KFC in larger Chinese cities. Now foreign fast food franchises are ubiquitous across China. The largest industry player is Yum! Brands, Inc. which operate both KFC and Pizza Hut with 5,275 outlets in 2012. McDonalds currently has about half as many locations. Subway, Burger King, and other foreign outlets are also planning hundreds of new fast food outlets across the country. In fact, if you go to the Shanghai’s Pudong airport, on the bottom level arrivals hall you’ll find Burger King at one end, open 24 hours a day, and KC anchoring the other! Fast food is everywhere in China.

As Chinese people have more disposable income fast food franchises are expected to continue expanding across China. Not long ago I ate at a Papa John’s in Chongqing and found the pizza to be every bit as good at that in the U.S. That consistency and quality is what attracts a great many Chinese to foreign fast food restaurants. In a country where food safety is the number one social issue Chinese believe that foreign fast food, while slightly more expensive, is safe, of good quality, and suits their busy lifestyle.


Alan Refkin

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Traffic in China

Traffic in China’s major cities is so bad that it makes Los Angeles traffic seem turbocharged by comparison. I know, I’ve been caught in it so many times it’s not irritating anymore, but expected. In fact, it’s not unusual in Beijing for business meetings to be delayed by an hour or more due to the cities huge traffic jams. I’ve sipped more than a few cups of tea waiting for my appointment to arrive and I know others have done the same waiting for me. In Doing the China Tango I briefly mentioned China’s traffic, but I didn’t really go into great detail because it wasn’t the focus of the chapter. But since my book came out a number of readers have e-mailed and asked me to go into more detail on China’s growing traffic problems. Hopefully what I’ve written below will provide more detail.

There’s a number of reasons for China’s increasing heavy urban traffic. The first is that there’s a continuing migration from China’s rural to urban areas. With this urbanization there’s also a corresponding increase in vehicular traffic. Another reason for China’s urban traffic congestion is that people in China are becoming wealthier and there’s now a large middle class. This increase in wealth has enabled more Chinese to purchase cars whereas, even a decade or two ago, this would have been out of the reach of most Chinese citizens.

In Beijing, known as China’s capital of traffic congestion, the average weekday congestion time is 100 minutes, 30 minutes longer than just a year ago. On rainy days traffic jams can last as long as three to four hours. Beijing just has too many cars on the road. On July 10 of this year, according to the South China Morning Post, there were 5.53 million cars registered in Beijing, a 330,000 increase over 2012. The world’s longest traffic jam, according to Forbes, occurred in Beijing in August of 2010. In that month cars and trucks trying to travel on the Beijing-Tibet expressway created a massive 62 mile traffic jam that lasted for 12 days. This is not a typo – 12 days! The reason for this wasn’t a natural disaster. Instead it was that a lot of vehicles, combined with a great many very slow moving trucks carrying an extensive amount of construction materials and equipment into Beijing, all came together at the same time.

China’s rapid transit system isn’t much help as it hasn’t kept pace with urbanization. Subway and bus lines are jammed and railway lines are used mainly for intra-city transit. China could begin to control traffic congestion by limiting automobile purchases, but not everyone is behind this plan, especially automobile manufacturers. Therefore, most cities have limited the number of cars allowed into the more densely populated areas of the city by enforcing either odd or even license plate numbers on certain days, or certain license plate end numbers on specific days. Beijing, Shanghai, and other major cities have also gone one step further and instituted a lottery or auction for new license plates in an effort to put the brakes on the increasing number of cars entering the city.

Alan Refkin

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The Lack of Unequivocal Answers in China – Soft No’s and Soft Yes’s

Communication between Chinese and Westerners can often result in misunderstandings. There’s been more than one businessperson who’s thought they’d heard one thing from their Chinese counterpart, when in actuality they’d been told another. Unless you have a good interpreter who can accurately convey what’s being said, and put it into Western terms, what’s being told to you may not be what’s being said. Take for example the simple words no and yes.

Culturally, the Chinese do not like to provide unequivocal answers. They also don’t like to disappoint someone or provide negative news. Negative news offends people and often causes the deliverer to lose face, and the receiver to get mad at the messenger. Moreover, in Chinese society, it’s generally considered rude to say “no.” A Westerner, on the other hand, may very well reply with a simple “no” when he’s asked for a response and the answer is negative. We don’t consider such a response to be rude. Instead, we consider it to be honest and straightforward. However, in China, you’ll almost certainly get an indirect response to a question where the answer is negative. That response is likely to be something like: I’ll have to look into thatI’m not sure we can do thatI’m busy, maybe, or even, in some instances, yes! So in addition to receiving a response that’s not unequivocal, the response you receive may also be totally inaccurate.

For example, you go to a watch repair store in China to have your watch’s battery replaced. The clerk says that he doesn’t currently have the battery in stock. You press him and ask if he can get the battery so that you can pick up your watch the following day. He says “yes.” You return the following day and your watch isn’t ready and you’re angry. Moreover, you learn that he had to order the battery and it’ll take two days to arrive. You’re beside yourself at this point wondering why you were lied to. The clerk, on the other hand, can’t understand your anger as he views himself as just being polite to you, a Westerner, and telling you what you wanted to hear. He didn’t want to disappoint you. While we would consider the clerk’s response to be an out-and-out lie, he would consider it culturally rude to disappoint you when you expected that the watch would be ready the following day. How do you get around this? Probably the best way is to ask questions that will try and provide a more accurate picture of what you’re facing. Ask a question whose response won’t result in not meeting your expectations, as well as not causing the other party to lose face. An informational question. In this example you would ask the clerk: “when will my watch be ready?” This would get you the desired information, “two days”, and yet not put the clerk in a position where he would consider himself rude by telling you “no,” as well as be in a position to disappoint you.

A Chinese response of “yes” can also be misunderstood by Westerners. For example, when a Chinese person nods his head and says “yes,” they may simply be polite. A “yes” doesn’t necessarily mean “yes.” In this case a “yes” would very likely indicate that this person is paying attention to what you’re saying and not necessarily that they’re agreeing with you. They want you to know they’re paying attention. Therefore, many times during a conversation, “yes” merely means: I’m listening and attentive to what you’re saying. It doesn’t mean that I accept what you’re telling me. A real “yes” will many times also be indirectly communicated to you, just as a “no” would be. Culturally, Chinese try and stay away from absolutes and being unequivocal. If they did, they would very likely be unable to change their position without losing face, something that is culturally unacceptable.

Following are a few examples of what you might hear during a conversation when someone is indirectly trying to communicate a “yes” or “no.” If someone is implying agreement, or saying “yes,” they might include one of the following in their sentence: shi (it is so), dui (correct), or hao (okay). If someone is disagreeing, or saying “no,” they might include one of these words in their sentence: bu shi (not), mei you (haven’t), bu dui (wrong), wufa (no way), bing fei (really isn’t), bu yao (don’t want); fei qing (no entry – without an invitation), and fouren (deny). There are actually quite a number of ways to say or give a “yes” or “no” in Mandarin, and some can be taken as absolute. However, these are seldom used. More often, soft “no’s” and “yes’s” are used instead.

Cultural differences and etiquette are the main reasons for the difference between what we believe we hear and what’s actually being communicated. The Chinese believe that direct responses can be impolite. Moreover, using unequivocal terms, such as “no” and “yes” gives them no flexibility. It paints them into a corner. If something goes wrong, taking an unequivocal position can lead to a loss of face, or even one’s job. Communicating directly and unequivocally, which many consider a Western trait, is therefore seldom practiced. Consequently, this leads to both soft “no’s” and soft “yes’s.” The problem is, most foreigners are inexperienced at ferreting out the subtleties in the Chinese language, have little knowledge of the Chinese culture, and therefore have no hope of distinguishing an indirect “yes” or “no.” They take what’s being said as literal. The Chinese take it as indicative and subject to change.

One way to break through this cultural barrier is to ask questions of your Chinese counterpart which will provide you with the real answer. You may have to ask the question in several different ways, as well as frame your questions in such a way as to ferret out the real answer. What’s important to remember is: don’t ask a question where a negative response will result in your disappointment or point out the other party’s inadequacies. If you do, this could cause them lose face. In addition, don’t ask a question which is designed to elicit a speculative response. They’re not going to go out on a limb and give you their gut feel. That’s Western. If you ask a question that calls for speculation, the response you receive will be a soft “no” or a soft “yes.” Therefore, how you frame the question will allow you to discern the real answer by filtering out idiosyncrasies of both culture and etiquette that are uniquely Chinese.


Alan Refkin

There are no Speeding Tickets in China

In Doing the China Tango I discussed the driving habits of a great many Chinese drivers. But, as with all authors, you sometimes can’t get into the level of detail you like in the few lines or paragraphs you have to get your point across and move on. If we get too descriptive the book tends to drag and move in a number of directions. Editors hate this have the author re-write those areas of the book. Therefore authors try and be descriptive, succinct, and then move on. The lack of speeding tickets in China, therefore, is something I’ve always wanted to add a couple of more paragraphs on and I’m now glad to discuss it in a little more detail.

First off, Chinese drivers are not stopped for speeding on the highway. There’s no highway patrol car, with lights and siren, pulling someone over. As a result you’ll see cars weaving through traffic at high rates of speed and passing police cars in the process! This was something I couldn’t believe when I first came to China and, on my way from the airport, saw my driver in fact weaving between cars and cutting office a police cruiser. In the U.S. that would undoubtedly get you the bed and breakfast plan at the local jail. In China, nobody thinks twice about it.

The reason for this, as I soon learned, was that speeding is determined by radar detection and a photo of the speeding cars license plate. The police therefore know who the infringer is and tickets are then sent in the mail, with the average ticket costing around $32. The radar is usually, but not always, placed on overpasses so you’ll often see drivers brake hard before getting to them and then speed up afterwards. Chinese drivers know where the police radar is located and this practice of slowing down before you come to the radar is a common practice in China’s major cities.

Some drivers, however, get a little more creative and either cover up part of their license plates or else place false license-place stickers (which are widely available) over their original license plate numbers. The police seem to draw the line with license plate stickers and violators can get thrown in jail for two weeks if caught. However, for the most part, drivers rely on knowing the location of police radar and adapt their driving habits accordingly.


Alan Refkin

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The Evolution of Chinese Language and Characters

The Chinese character is the oldest continually used system of writing in the world, its early use dating back almost 5,000 years. Since that time it’s gone through a long period of transformation before it evolved into its present day form. For most of us, a Chinese character is indecipherable, its appearance more akin to a Rorschach test than the written word. Nevertheless, it’s evolved into the basis for a language that’s used by one-quarter of the world’s population.

Perhaps the earliest documented use of Chinese characters are the oracle bone inscriptions. Oracle bones are pieces of shell or bone used by diviners to submit questions to deities regarding future events – such as the abundance of a crop harvest, whether it’ll rain, etc. The diviner would carve the question into the bone or shell with a sharp instrument that was sufficiently hot enough to crack the surface. The diver would then interpret the cracks and also write his prediction on the piece. This, and characters appearing on ancient Chinese pottery, are the earliest forms of Chinese writing.

Writing continued to evolve over the centuries, but China was a big country and, prior to the Qin Dynasty (221 – 206 BC), it was a country that was fragmented by warlords and fiefdoms. There was no one supreme head of the country. Moreover, language and Chinese characters varied widely throughout the country and nothing was standardized. A person from one part of the country may not be able to communicate with someone from another region, by either the spoken or written word. However, all that changed with the Qin Dynasty which unified China for the first time and, subsequently, mandated a unified script to be used throughout the kingdom.

Unlike English letters, Chinese characters do not constitute an alphabet. Instead, a Chinese character represents one syllable of spoken Chinese. That syllable may be a word on its own or part of a more complex word. In addition, the character itself may represent a physical object, a notion, or even pronunciation. Consequently, Chinese is a script of ideograms, rather than an alphabetic language. While the English language contains 26 letters, ancient and modern Chinese characters number over 60,000, although even the average college graduate will only know between 4,000 and 5,000 characters.

Even though most Westerners haven’t the vaguest idea of what Chinese characters mean or how they’re pronounced, Chinese characters have continued to evolve and become more simplified and stylized throughout the long period of Chinese history. According to The Chinese Civilization Centre, the earliest use of Chinese characters are in pictographs, which is simply a representative drawing of an object. For example, the pictograph of a bird or fish would look like the outline of a bird or fish. While not all pictographs were perfect visual representations, they were suggestive of what they’re intended to represent.

The problem with a pictograph is that you can’t convey anything that’s abstract. In a pictograph, it is what it is. To address this, according to Du Feibao of the China National Travel Service, ancient Chinese would combine two or more elements, producing associative compounds, and thereby form an entirely new meaning. As examples: combining the written characters for sun and moon produced a new word – bright; placing the sun over a line representing the horizon formed an ideogram which meant sunrise or morning; the symbol for mother, “mu,” is made by adding two small dots above the symbol for woman, “nu,” to symbolize a woman feeding a child; and the character for thought would combine the individual characters for the brain and heart. However, while pictographs and associative compounds enabled people to better express their thoughts, it didn’t help them with how to pronounce what was written. That was accomplished by pictophonetics which combined one character for the meaning and another for the sound. Today pictophonetics constitute 90 percent of all Chinese characters.

From the beginning, Westerners had a problem translating Chinese to English, and vice-versa. Written Chinese represents both ideas and concepts, as well as sound, and therefore it has form, sound, and sense. English letters, on the other hand, only have form and sound. In addition, as if translating Chinese isn’t hard enough, the Chinese language is tonal where the tonal emphasis has to be placed properly in a word or the speaker will get the word wrong. With its use of numerous characters and various tones, providing a methodology for translation was an extremely difficult task.

Over the centuries there were a number of methods employed to use the Roman language to write Chinese but they all were, to some degree, inherently deficient. It wasn’t until Pinyin (short for Pinyin wenzi, or alphabetical writing system) was adopted in 1958 that a fairly reliable method for translating Chinese into the Roman alphabet came about. Pinyin essentially spells the sounds of the Chinese language. In Pinyin the emphasis is compensated for by the use of additional punctuation. Today pinyin is used to translate and teach Chinese. It’s also become the standard input method for entering Chinese characters into computers.

Memorization of Chinese characters and words is also a measure of literacy. Since today’s Chinese characters are way beyond the pictograph stage, memorization is essential. Therefore literacy in China is measured by both the number of characters and the number of words one knows. Moreover, literacy is irrespective of one’s dialect. China is a country of one language, but it’s also a country of various ethnic groups and many dialects. This makes it difficult, if not impossible at times, to understand people from various areas of the country. However, the standard written language within China is based on the country’s standard spoken language, Mandarin, and these various dialect groups are therefore able to communicate through the written word as these dialects are largely a spoken rather than a written form of communication.

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