When cars meet bikes

I got hit by a minivan yesterday while biking along the highway that makes a ring around inner Beijing. It had just been raining. The defined bike lane, usually separated by a row of trees, had just ended as a road branched off the highway. To my right was a moped veering left to avoid a deep puddle, and to my left, a minivan that was veering right to exit. Between them: me, hitting the brakes of my beloved bicycle; my shoulder, hitting the moped; my back wheel, hitting the minivan’s back wheel. And then my rear reflector clattering across the concrete.

The minivan pulled over, and a young couple came out. After their initial confused emotional angst, they kindly asked if my bike was broken. “Did you get hurt?” I hadn’t even tipped over and didn’t have a scratch. Only the splashguard over my rear wheel was warped, so that it pinned the tire in place. “If we had tools,” the wife said, “we’d definitely help to fix it.” They seemed genuinely concerned. Eventually there was nothing more to say, and they drove off, maybe a little slower this time.

I grabbed my bike with its immobile back wheel, careful not to get grease on the suit I was wearing, and carried it a few meters looking for a place to park it overnight until the bike repairmen returned to their street carts. There, by chance: a woman standing by the open hood of a car; a man crouched next to a fan and some piping; and a wrench. I asked the auto repairman if I could borrow his wrench, and he instead got up without ceremony, took out some tools, and expertly repaired my back wheel. He refused a tip. Even the woman didn’t seem bothered that he interrupted fixing her car to help me. Eventually, there was nothing more to do, so I biked off, maybe a little slower this time.

Getting hit by a minivan reminded me why I love China. There are so many people here that you can’t avoid bumping into them once in a while — sometimes they’ll break your bike, sometimes they’ll fix it. In Beijing too, there’s that same persistent “plodding along” that I felt in New York this March; despite the pounding pace of change, such patience. Perhaps it’s because things have been so hard for so long, Chinese people I’ve met tend to recognize what’s horrible, and what’s really not — and then they shrug off the stuff that’s not.

Next week, the US and China, one land known for its cars, and one land known for its bikes, will meet for the Strategic and Economic Dialogues in Washington, D.C. The headlines, I suspect, will focus on the collisions, since people like to read about accidents. Admit it. You’ve been reading mine.

But I hope that the real story will be about how the US and China can help each other out anyway. That sometime during those two days, Treasury Secretary Geithner turns to his counterpart at the SED, Vice Premier Wang Qishan, and says, “Hey, sorry you got hit by this financial crisis thing. Did you get hurt?” And maybe in response Wang Qishan will look at his wounded economy, which isn’t really that horrible, shrug and say, “We’ll be alright.” At some point, after all the tea and coffee is drunk, there’ll be nothing more to say. And so the US and China will set off on their own ways as they work to rebuild the world economy in their own ways.

Maybe a little slower this time.

Civilization in the West

jiaohe

If you want to see the exposed gears of civilization, come to China’s northwest province of Xinjiang, where the ancient cultures of the silk road mix with the seven countries that still border it today Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan/ India. Visit the ruins of Jiaohe city, a trade center on a plateau until the water dried up seven centuries ago; visit the vineyards still using the irrigation systems dug in China’s “Death Valley” two-thousand years ago; eat raisins dried on trellises in brick-walled homes. Time seems to have stood still, told out only by the site of motorcycles, cellphone towers, tour buses, and impeccably paved roads. Continue reading

On the financial crisis, from my time at Lehman and in China

It didn’t really hit me that this financial crisis was bad until I got an email from the president of ING Direct, where I have an online savings account, telling me not to panic. I’m still digesting the news, the policies, the politics, and the implications, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share my perspective from the two places I’ve been which are relevant to this story: the trading floor of Lehman Brothers, where I sold derivates several years ago to US corporations looking to manage currency risk from 2002 to 2006, and China, where I spent a year in Chengdu, China’s equivilant of middle America, before coming to Beijing where I am now a business strategy consultant for US multinationals. The story I lay out below is based on my personal experience, and obviously misses a lot of pieces of this immensly complex puzzle.

But from where I sit now and where I’ve sat, I see two fundamental reasons for why the financial world has unravelled: (a) that banks and the financial markets are run by actual human beings, and (b) that Chinese people don’t have the financial protection that would allow them to feel comfortable spending their savings. If I’m right, this mess may self-correct itself as talented financial managers leave the rubble of New York to help build up China’s consumer financial network — but before we get there, first here’s how we got here.
Disclaimer: I haven’t worked at Lehman Brothers in several years, was never involved in management or oversight, and cannot in any way comment on the financial strength of that company. In no way, shape or form should this Aabservation be seen as any sort of investment recommendation.

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