Soft Power and Greenth: Dr. Fan's Tooth Whitener

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Lotus Flower Hotel

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Saturday, September 3, 2005

Once WWF approved our project, Jin Hui the driver, his two nephews, Gomba, Dugie, and I all packed into the green Toyota Landcruiser and headed to Kunming, the provincial capital, to purchase the video and computer equipment we would need. We reversed the path I had taken three months ago, only the now-harvested rice and corn were just being planted back then. As the countryside passed before us, we listened to the Backstreet Boys and a limited collection of music for a trip of this length.

When we stopped for the night in Dali, I purchased some more cds, to help out our aching collection, although I have to admit, that "Rock Your Body" and such grew on me a bit. Maybe I was missing Western "culture" a little too much?

After some pick-up basketball between the nephews, Gomba, and I, we headed to the Foreigners Boulevard for some beers. We ordered some Dali beers, as they were the least expensive. We were served Dali beer, but a "Happy Hour" variety. At the end of the night, our bill was 50% higher because we drank "Happy Hour" and not "Dali" even though "Happy Hour" was a type of Dali Beer: "isn't happy hour beer supposed to be cheaper?" We were scammed, but refused to pay the 50% rip-off surcharge. The bar then called all their friends who called all their friends, who all tried their best to look tough. We were outnumbered.

The police came.

Thus began the judgement as everyone told their version of the story to the police. In the end, it was a no brainer: the police want to help out the local businesses. We had to pay almost all of the bill, with a slight discount to make us feel better.

It wasn't the cost we were worried about, but the principle.

We left Dali the next morning, with a bitter taste of "Happy Hour" in our mouths, arriving in Kunming later that day.

One Week in Kunming
In the mercury vapor-half darkness of the Kunming Lotus Flower Hotel room, I lay in bed as the Vindictive Mosquito preyed upon me. The one mosquito managed to bite me multiple times; I thought mosquitoes only needed one blood meal at a time. Then the buzzing began again--the Vindictive Mosquito was near. Quickly I turned on the overhead lights, but my cone vision couldn't adjust in time as I could only see in pixelated rods. The Vindictive Mosquito hid safely...or so she thought. I knew she couldn't be far based on her irritating buzz.

I found her, death becomes her, my blood--temporarily hers--splattered on the pillow.

Here I lay, for the umpteenth night, waiting for that darned money to arrive from HQ so we could purchase the equipment for our WWF project. The politobureauschemeocratic situation plagued us like the Vindictive Mosquito.

Luckily, the hotel rooms were equipped with television--which receive about 56 channels--so we could watch the Japanese Army lose to the People's Liberation Army once again or we could watch the films about ancient China--the ones where they paste the fake long eyebrows and fancy facial hair on the actors and fly around like in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. These two themes seem to be a Chinese favorite, and the Japanese (using Chinese actors) make excellent bad guys. An English language competition show intrigued me: students competed to be the best English speakers--they're good. Finally, there's the English-speaking propaganda channel, where I learned about Soft Power.

See, China wants to have Soft Power, which they contrast with, you guessed it, Hard Power. An example of Hard Power would be, for example, the US in Iraq, they would say. An example of Soft Power would be China influencing the world through its cheap labor force and wonderful culture. US: Hard. China: Soft.

These television shows are interspersed with advertisements. Like elsewhere in the urban world, people's teeth are too yellow, their hair has dandruff, and they need better home entertainment products. The consumer culture is alive and well here. Yao Ming, the NBA Houston Rockets star, is very popular here, so appears in about a quarter of the ads.

Earlier, while flossing, I noticed a small assortment of items you can "buy" sitting next to the bathroom sink. I was puzzled by one item: Greenth: Dr. Fan's Tooth Whitener. Why Greenth? That seems like the worst possible name for a tooth whitener.

Teeth cleaned (but not whitened), infused with Soft Power, Vindictive Mosquito-less, and a good night's sleep later, I was ready for Kunming, a city of six million.

In the center of Kunming are sparkling buildings, cleaned regularly with Greenth. Consumers by the thousands shop in malls with all the latest products. International brands such as Nike, Coca-cola, and KFC are extremely popular here.

A large variety of shopping experiences are available to consumers, such as myself. Along the pedestrian walkways, street salesmen sell fish, turtles, dogs, cats, Rubick's Cubes, shoes, DVDs, CDs, military gear, clothes, and more. You can get the bootleg DVDs and shoes around the corner, in the back. The guys selling them are like the man on Sesame Street who wears a trench coat: "hey...pssssst. Wanna buy an 'S'?" On the other end of the spectrum are the multi-story malls where you can buy a condo in the newest apartment complex or the latest perfume. I stocked up on English books, DVDs, a guitar, and a pair of running shoes.

Many of the stores around the cities of China are cell phone stores, which is one of the biggest businesses in China. China Mobile is the king of the cell phone and their blue and white brand name is posted everywhere--on billboards, on walls, on houses. They are one of the big China Blue Chips, getting bigger all the time. Its government parent company just sold some its western China assets to them (China Mobile: CHL), providing them with the potential for a China-wide cell grid.

At its own pace, the government has been spinning off more of its industries, such as China Mobile. New companies have been issuing IPOs like there's no tomorrow. Maybe Greenth will soon issue stock.

The surge in Chinese stocks can be seen most dramatically in the local internet cafe. Here dozens of young males and a smattering of females play games (The9 Ltd.: NCTY), surf ( BIDU), or chat ( SINA). The companies behind the Chinese internet are now all public companies listed on the international stock markets. In particular, Baidu's recent IPO soared 354%, but has since backed off to more reasonable levels. Stock markets aside, the internet gamers are all addicted to the Legend of Mir 2 (Shanda Interactive Entertainment: SNDA).

Underlying all the IPOs are scorching growth in China's GDP and a cash-rich country--Soft Power. China has been using three main techniques to build its cash: 1) a large, inexpensive labor force, 2) a devalued currency pegged to the dollar, and 3) a 15-20% tax on all imports. The latter two combine to make foreign goods, in general, too expensive to purchase. The sum of all three combine to make their exports extremely attractive to US Companies such as Wal-Mart and their consumers, and make companies want to establish businesses in China.

With this Soft Power, China is now using its cash to purchase the world, or at least parts of it. A recent purchase was IBM's personal computer business, making Lenovo (HK Stock Exchange) the third largest computer company behind DELL and HP. That's right, the business that began it all is now Chinese. China is also attempting to gobble up oil companies and rights to oil throughout the world. Soft Power is a good place to be.

China's Soft Power has also frustrated the international community, and justifiably so. The products that the US could sell in China aren't competitive because of China's three main techniques (see above). Also, most of the ones that do sell here--DVDs, CDs, software--are pirated versions, violating international copyright laws (but haven't we all downloaded a song or "borrowed" some software?). Using its own Soft Power techniques, the U.S. finally convinced China to begin the process of revaluing its currency.

Like good consumers, we had arrived in Kunming to purchase our equipment. The computer and video stores in Kunming, we found, were highly inefficient and the staff didn't know much about the products they sold. If you needed a product, they probably didn't have it; they needed to go to the Magic Store.

The Magic Store existed somewhere around the corner, so the salesperson would leave the store, coming back 30 minutes, maybe an hour later with the item. This happened at almost every store we visited. Instead, we would have liked to have visited the Magic Store because it took us hours of hopping from store to store in order to find what we needed.

During our week in Kunming, we met with leaders in the conservation field--the Kunming Institute of Botany and Zoology, the Yunnan Forestry Bureau, Conservation International, and more. With them, we discussed our plans and talked about how we could help each other.

We also visited the zoo (prison) where we followed the signs to the "Breasts of Prayer"--the lions, tigers, and bears. The prisoners were forced to perform cruel and unusual tricks for their human captors. Imagine you are a horse (or even a zebra like Chris Rock in the movie Madagascar). A tiger is one of the last animals you'd want to have around you, much less in the same cage. Now imagine that very tiger balancing on your back, breathing down your neck, as you gallop around in a circle, your back breaking. Finally, the audience was allowed to enter the cage and sit on the tiger while the trainer snapped Polaroids for a small fee.

Finally, that darned money arrived and we were able to return to Shangri-la to begin our project, computer and video equipment in-hand. Our wait was fruitful, however, as we learned about Greenth, Soft Power, the Magic Store, Breasts of Prayer and much more. This time we skipped Dali and its "Happy Hour", driving in one day back to Shangri-la.
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nwithers on

Let there be Magic
I too have come across 'magic stores' in other places, and it might well be some kind of global tubular conveyor like those that whisk money around period department stores, like the wonton soup pipelines that deliver the same stuff to every chinese restaurant on earth. Glad to hear you are getting immersed in some eco counter-point to the consumer rollercoaster which seems to have such a head of steam ( and smoke and ash )Of course many people still ride bikes from which the only fumes are carbon dioxide.
I was on my way to see you the other day but got hi-jacked by an englishman who travelled to Sri Lanka to meet the touring English cricket team . This, for him, had a Mecca like quality. Its amazing what global quests are being played out on this site. Keep on track. Your odyssey has other weird and wonderful creatures in its path, no doubt, which are a constant pleasure to find on my desktop. Happi trails. Neil

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