Hello Flying Sesame readers!
I hope you are gradually getting up to cruising speed for a new year of work. A big thank you to those who kindly sent us suggestions during the break. One of which we are taking action is to compress topics of our China newsletter Sesame Express from five to three so that it is easier to digest each time, while keeping up with a more frequent release.
Today’s three topics are:
- China Tech have a toilet problem
- Coming of age of China’s female stand-up comedians
- Too much doom and gloom on EU-China investment agreement
1. China Tech have a toilet problem
It is no secret that China’s tech giants are battling the wind of regulation. However, what did come as a surprise is that they are also under fire for an entirely different reason: their toilets.
- The catalyst is a viral article published by Chinese magazine “People” (人物), which I would certainly recommend for a read if you are fluent in Chinese. It offers a deep dive into the absurdity of the situation and with a bit of banter. For non-Chinese readers, unfortunately there are no English versions available so you will have to make do with summaries from Technode and RADII China.
“In the eyes of managers, toilets are the enemy of efficiency. The toilet is the last part of the management system of a large factory. What this system has to do is to occupy the body of the employee for as long as possible, so that the employee can create more productivity per unit of time.”(Quote from Chinese magazine “People 人物”)
- The revelation of shocking toilet situation in the workplace, including insufficient facilities, installed timers and allegedly deliberate attempts by managers to minimise employees’ toilet breaks, hit a sore spot of China’s rank-and-file tech workers, who are already driven to breaking point by a gruelling 996, if not 007, work culture (996 literally means working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week).
To me, the toilet problem is in itself a caricature of a relentlessly cut-throat society in modern day China (which I touched on in my earlier post), where speed and efficiency trump everything. It is like a scene lifted from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times and time travelled to 2021. Rows of desks and laptops are now in place of the factory production line – how much and how little things have changed!
Well, the silver lining is that, this piece, together with other recent headlines, such as the sudden death of Pinduoduo’s overworked young employee as reported by Bloomberg, finally led to a mass reckoning of work life balance, a notion verging on illusion not only in tech but in pretty much all walks of life in China.
With many galvanised into action, calling for better enforcement of labour law and protection of workers’ right, let’s hope that capitalism with Chinese characteristics will shift to caring capitalism after all.
2. Coming of age of China’s female stand-up comedians
In all honesty, stand-up comedy is kind of an acquired taste for me for a long time. As an introvert born into a traditional Chinese family in the 80s , I’ve learnt to be polite and non-confrontational as part of my upbringing. So when I first came across the stand-up comedy, it felt alien, if not offensive. I remember dreading friends’ invitations to watch live shows. And when I finally ran out of excuses, I tried to stay as far away as possible from front row seats for fear of being picked on by the person on stage.
I am glad that with a stand-up comedy enthusiast husband, my attitude changed over time. I started to warm up to female comedians like “fierce and foul mouthed” Ali Wong, even though I admit that I was still half laughing and half cringing at some of her Netflix shows.
- In case you are wondering, there is nothing quite like this in the Chinese culture. Yes, it is true that we have our own homegrown comedy known as cross-talk (相声). But that’s more like a form of banter back and forth between typically two people.
- Hence, I was genuinely surprised when I saw stand-up comedy marching towards centre stage in my home country. What is even more remarkable, as observed by SupChina, is that female comedians appeared to have stolen the thunder of the show in Rock & Roast (脱口秀大会), a very popular Chinese talent show for stand-up comedians.
- The two female stand-outs from Rock & Roast are Yang Li (杨笠) and Li Xueqing (李雪琴). Yang, as per South China Morning Post, has “a style that’s been described as delivering the sharpest barbs in the softest way”. And Li, a graduate from elite Peking University who later dropped out from New York University because of her depression, became an inspiration to many who are alienated by the conventional definition of success.
“Men are adorable but also very mysterious. They can look so average and yet still possess so much confidence.”(Viral punchline of Yang Li (杨笠) from “Rock & Roast” 2020)
Don’t get me wrong. Chinese stand-up comedy is still miles away from its western version in terms of boldness. The topics are generally mild and crowd-pleasing ones, from work, gender to family life. But even that, according to The Economist, seems to have offended some self-righteous men who simply can’t take any joke from their opposite sex, which I find in itself a comical act.
3. Too much doom and gloom on EU-China investment agreement
Merely a few days have passed since I thanked the Santa for his timely present of Brexit agreement, and my peace of mind, after more than 4 years of saga. Europe, in no time, rubbed salt in my wound by concluding a bilateral investment agreement with China after 7 years of negotiation, officially known as Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).
Well, congratulations to EU for the post-Brexit coup! And how refreshing it is that international agreement can now be reached without all the tweets flying around!
- As Financial Times neatly summarised, the deal enhances market access for EU companies in areas of automotive, telecoms, cloud-computing, private healthcare and ancillary services for air transport. Notably, it eliminates the requirement for joint venture in the automotive and private hospital sectors. On financial services, it grants EU the same rights as per US-China Phase One trade deal. The other key aspect is to address the level playing field for EU companies on matters such as Chinese state subsidies to state-owned enterprises and forced transfer of technology.
- But it is crucial to point out that this is an investment treaty, not a trade deal. The scope is much narrower compared to the free trade agreement between EU and the likes of Canada or Japan. And it still needs to be ratified by the European Parliament.
- The reception of the deal is rather lukewarm in the west. The scepticism is nicely summed up by The Economist. While I don’t necessarily agree with everything it says, I think it is spot on in capturing the ultimate driving force behind the year-end hand-shake, in the following quote:
“We had an economic interest in concluding a deal. The Chinese had a political interest in demonstrating that China is not isolated. There was a perception we would get nothing more.”(Quote from The Economist “Cynicism explains a flawed new EU-China commercial pact”)
In defense of the CAI, here are my two cents to the naysayers:
- First of all, why should EU be blamed for looking after its own interests when old allies, in particular the US and UK, have become increasingly unreliable?
- Like it or not, the world’s centre of gravity is shifting to the East. Compared to Trump administration’s scorched-earth policy and haphazard bomb-dropping, EU’s decision to approach this through legal measure gives us believers in global trade a glimmer of hope for renewed international collaboration.
- I am fully aware of the challenges ahead in enforcing everything that has been agreed. And EU and China surely will have their many quarrels down the road. But hey, it took over 400 years from the Manga Carta to the Glorious Revolution. With time, and in its own way, China will get there too. But knowing how things work in my motherland, this is only gong to be possible through engagement from the international community, not antagonism.
Sitting in the Brexit land with my sovereignty finally back, I wish Boris good luck in negotiating his own CAI in the coming years.