Friday, August 2, 2013

Small-scale Family Agriculture in Village China 2013: Introduction

(Ken Erickson, Ezhou, July 2013)  Everyone loves to talk about pollution in China. They don't talk about sustainable small farming, which is how much of the country lives. 

Wheat- straw powers the cookstove. Greywater runs from the shower to an infiltration pond, supporting frogs and bugs  Frogs and bugs support ducks and other birds, and bats. Pesticides are too expensive, here, so night time fairly sings with avian and winged mammal life.  

Below the house is a small orchard.  Next to the orchard, a  big kitchen garden.

Below the orchard, terraced fields of row-crops and rice.  First, row-crops of peppers, some tomatoes and pole beans below those.  A rice nursury is at the top level and below that, more rice fields.  As you move down in elevation, a drainage-fed pool supports lotus for lotus root.  And more water for ducks.

A burial mound for the family ancestors is to one side of the families' fields.  

The household earns about $6,000 in a year from the farm. (Since some family members work outside the farm it is not very sensible to talk about farm income in isolation from the wider network of family who can contribute cash resources when needed—that's certainly a longer post, or even a book.  Anyhow, other extended famiy membershave other sources of cash: one is a lawyer, one has a rather wealthy boyfriend, another is a small shopkeeper. 

The house is built of concrete and one room in the house has A/C. There's a television, and afternoon MahJohng. 

Most of the farming is done by the brother of the woman who built the house and his wife.  They works a few hours each morning and afternoon weeding and watering. (Noon time is lunch and a nap).  Next: domestic spaces, and a better description of the micro-vertical zonation of the cropland.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

We Are All Coal Miners: Anthropology about Miners, Packers, Bankers

Today, we are all coal miners.

You turn on the stove. It lights up. You turn on the heat. The house gets warm. You turn on the lights. You can see where you misplaced your wallet. You go down in the mines, or you ride out to the offshore rig in the rig-tender, and you risk your life. Turn on the stove, turn on the heat, turn on the lights; you are involved.

If you aren't clear on the long term global climatological impact of the irresponsible overuse of fossil fuels (and you should be, by now), at least it should be clear that the hydrocarbon industry takes an immediate toll on human lives. But is it the industry? Is it irresponsible mine or oil rig managers? Wasteful consumers? Lame regulation? Crappy technology? Is it "culture"?

Sure it is; all of these things. But even old-school anthropologists should know that studying what's happened in the past and what is happening now are windows to see possible scenarios of what might be. Too few in my discipline take this view, but this is changing.

I've read a damn big pile of monographs and articles by anthropologists, good ones, insightful ones, that end with something like, "until structural contradictions are resolved," or "as long as powerful forces disregard the long-term consequences of (fill in the blank)", without exploring just how this is to be done. I won't point fingers; I'm guilty, too. Its not just a political question. Its an empirical one. What the hell can all this study, all this theory, do for anybody if it can't suggest where, exactly, the levers might be to re-direct our attention from unseen hands and hidden mechanics of power, and move them to influence real people whose views and actions must become, shall we say, more enlightened?

So this is a call for more ethnographic work focused on specific industries, studies set in clearly demarcated temporal and political contexts, studies that can point to where things are broken, and how human suffering may be reduced. There is an anthropological literature on mining, and Godoy summarized it twenty years ago. Historians like Colin Davis at the University of Alabama at Birmingham do this with mining history. Anthropologists like Donald D. Stull and Michael Broadway (and team) at Kansas University (and elsewhere) do this with poultry and beef-factory workers. And Gillian Tett, whose Ph.D. in Anthropology afforded her the methodological and theoretical tools to study of bankers, has done it for the recent fiscal collapse.

If I hear another potential client (or student) ask, "But what are some products that anthropologists have helped to design?" I think I'll answer by referencing not only anthropologists but careful scholars from any discipline, and journalists and pundits too, who provide detailed and clear descriptions of the reasons for corporate failure and government inaction. Reasons that can be unpacked, explored, discussed, and acted upon. We need more of this. And we need it now.

To say that in China, workplace safety generally and mine safety in particular is a problem, is putting it mildly. Thousands of miners are killed there every year in the service of the economic growth the country needs to keep factories running and to lower the already high levels of disorder and conflict between everyday folk and the government. And government there is responding with inspections and new regulations. (The nature of the response to disorder in China may look different, but too often when China takes dramatic action like removing a party-poss from a horribly troubled province, as they've done recently, it is lost in the maelstrom of red-carpet movie journalism and the momentary politics of the day). Will China's actions be enough? Probably not. Beijing doesn't have all the regulatory reach, nor the technical resources—yet. But it is a step in the right direction.

Will the US revamp the regulatory framework that keeps miners and rig workers safe? Will they do enough? Probably not. And no one will until mine and rig safety, indeed, workplace safety generally, are part of a broader empirical exploration that goes beyond bromides from left and right about "the market." Generalizations don't hold water when workers are killed and injured and when families and whole communities are devastated by an unwillingness to confront the specifics behind the broader structural drivers that push managers and operators to consider short-term gain ahead of global responsibilities. Not that doing that is easy. It ain't. But the conversation better ramp up pretty damn soon.

We're all miners, today.

Photo credit: from Michael Coyne's blog at Black Star.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Flowers for Google-China

As usual, things are more complicated than our USA news reporters would have us believe. True enough, Google has not done enough to make itself relevant in China. But for many Chinese people, particularly graduate students and people in Tech, Google has offered things that others either don't do or don't do well. Like their translation service, for example.

Yesterday, flowers were laid on the Google sign at Google's Beijing offices. Here in Hai Dian, a neighborhood through which all of us part-time Beijingren have visited many times on trips to Universities or to shop for electronics in the big IT shopping centers, Google is being memorialized. Gao Ming, a very well known Mainland video blogger, documented some of the reactions on his youku video-page.

Flowers. A cup. Chocolates. Looks just like traditional offerings to departed or departing ancestors.

The video is of course in Mandarin, but click here and you can see [updated link 09/13] how people reacted. You'll hear references to Baidu "Oh, I use Baidu and I use Google. . ." and of particular interest is the range of written comments made to Gao Ming's post. There are fifteen pages of them and growing.

The comments range from reminders that Hong Kong is still China (or, wrote one commentator, "has Hong Kong not returned [to China]?" to a suggestion that China is headed back to the Qing dynasty, that China is once again falling behind, that Google will be missed, and several that essentially say "don't let the screen door hit you in the butt on your way out."

One of my favorites noted that it is impossible to get a sandwich without going into a KFC or into a McDonalds, and that with so much "red meat" to be had for foreign companies in the Chinese market, we should not be surprised to find battles over the rules that govern commerce on Chinese turf. In all, a healthy and lively discourse, arguably more civil than the stuff that has appeared on US blogs about our own recent struggles over health-care policy turf.

So Google's leaving by not leaving does not prevent the Great Firewall from censoring search results. It does send a signal that Google is not willing to self-censor. But it should also be a reminder that Chinese people are actively engaged in discussions about the nature of foreign company presence in China, that Google is appreciated by many, and that doing business in China means confronting difficult questions about local and national policy in an environment of growing local pride.

And before we cast stones at the PRC, its wise to remember that we have our own, very serious problems with Internet access, Internet security, and Internet privacy. Good luck, Google! No more delicious hot-pot around the corner from the HaiDian headquarters for the search-engine engineers. But Hong Kong food isn't so bad, either.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Google in China: Hubris, A Bad Fit, Or What?

Lower-income Chinese people—perhaps one should say "lower-income students and their families"—care deeply about access to the Internet. (The photo is from a lower-income home of a student and her parents in a small town in the Southeast of China). But it seems Google is not a core part of the desire to be connected, to learn, and participate in the Internet. Google has not met its potential in China, and now, after an encounter with some security "problems" (to put it mildly) they are making noises about packing up and moving out.

The recent flap about Google's presence in China is, indeed, more than a flap. Google claims that their servers were violated, along with some others. The idea that some official entity got to mucking about not only with Google but with some US corporate property in cyberspace seems not to be part of the Chinese discussion, but news about Google's unhappiness with Chinese censorship certainly is.. To be sure, the security issue is an important one, and censorship is, too. But another issue is the difference bewteen Internet use in China and in the US (and elsewhere).

Google is not, presently, a good fit for China.
By now, most folks who are interested in Internet in China are aware of the power of MSN and QQ. Not everyone sees this as a basic difference in communication practice. It might be easy to pin the difference on "cultural difference," but this begs the question of where that difference comes from. Tricia Wang lays out the issues in a lengthy and important post on her blog. Her comments neatly summarize the experience of our research teams (and my personal experience living from time to time in Beijing and here and there) over the past ten or so years. Tyler Rooker at his 中关村 blog has some pithy remaks about Google's hubris that are worth a read, too). Chinese sites like Baidu (for search) and TuDou (for video) are simply more relevant in China.

The differences among Google and other web tools in China extends to mobile phone use, too. It is is related to the pragmatic constraints of access, charges for phone and Internet use, and the services Google offers. Here are some of the issues (covered well by Tricia; I add a bit to her list, here):
  • Google doesn't provide access to the rich media content that other sites do.
  • The name "Google" is not well understood people aren't sure how to spell it.
  • Google has not tapped into the sense of national pride as other domestic IT products have done. Consider the line of peripherals and monitors made by the "aigo" company. Aigo sounds just like "aiguo," which means love of country or patriotism (爱国).
  • Google is not a player in instant messaging. QQ, the biggest player in instant messaging in China (and, probably, in the world) is much more than an instant messaging system. Its a game platform, it is always integrated in Chinese mobile phones, and it has brand exensions into cute, cuddly products in QQ stores. It has lent its name to a small automobile, the QQ car, which is, by the way, very 可爱的, very "cute" (sounds like QQ). Nothing wrong with a little alliterative fun in IT.
  • Google is not really a player in the mobile space in China, where asynchronous communication is cheaper and preferred. Mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous regardless of income. Few people talk much on their mobile phones. People get their business done quickly on the phone, unless they are rich. Ordinary people text plenty, but minutes are expensive. Text and QQ are not. Where is Google?
  • The competition is working in another space in which Google is inactive: buying and selling little low-cost goodies related to games, identity, and just plain fun. QQ has developed Q coin, a virtual currency that is so successful that the Chinese government is stepping in to regulate folks who trade in it. (QQ says Qcoin is a commodity, not a currency, btw).
  • Google makes sense for richer, post-graduate people; there is enormous interest in the Internet as an educational resource but for lower-income people Google is off the map. A decent desktop is certainly not off the map, even for folks of humble means (like the household in the photograph). IT matters to families who care about their children's future; Google is not seen as a partner in that regard. Why not?
Google has plenty of creative dreamers, but it seems they don't look into the deeper nexus of constraints and incentives that shape and direct practices in different national contexts. I'm sure there are plenty of people at Google who "get it," but it has been my experience that too few in the IT community have a clear understanding of the broadly cultural (and structural) differences in IT practices. A few years ago I met a high-level executive of a very large IT firm who was completely unaware of QQ, of how MSN and QQ are the preferred way of communicating on the Internet in China. How many in Silicon Valley are similarly uninformed?

Tricia Wang is quite correct. It would be a pity if Google were to give up on China, and it would help neither China nor Google nor the future of the conversation about Internet freedom and privacy if they were to give up the ship in the Middle Kingdom.