Sunday, August 29, 2010

"For All the Tea in China" - a book review

For All the Tea in China
How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History

by Sarah Rose

In 1839, the local Chinese government in Guangzhou (Canton) seized opium and destroyed it.  The consequences - Opium Wars, foreign treaty ports, the eventual fall of a dynasty - are in some ways still being played out, for example how China handles international criticism.

Though the life and times of one astonishingly resourceful Scottish botanist, Sarah Rose has written a delightful short, "popular history" which chronicles just one of those many consequences: the international trade in tea.   By disguising himself as a Chinese official - or Mandarin -  and traveling to areas well off limits to foreigners, Robert Fortune, a quite man with little formal education or opportunity in Britain, came to learn more about Chinese methods of tea cultivation and preparation - not to mention China's flora and geography -  then had been known in the West before.  

In the process of relaying his story, Rose teaches a bit about travel in rural China, English gardens, the notions of face and guanxi, British trade as well as crucial Chinese history just after the First Opium War (1841) leading up to the Taiping Rebellion  But what keeps us turning page is a an adventure story based on her subject's own writings and the extensive records kept by the East India Company, which we can recognize  today as multi-national corporation.  Rose keeps us in suspense through wise jumps in time, though once or twice this can also confuse, and she adds conversation to the bones of the story, though surely no one can be certain exactly what was said on the top of mist-filled mountain.  Of course, that is not the point.   Nonetheless, a rough map of Fortune's travels, trade routes and a  diagram of tea plant would make things easier.

Why did the British develop a taste for black tea when Chinese drink green tea?  The answer is as telling about then as it is about today.  

[The reviewer lived in Fuzhou in 2003 where WuYi Mountain is revered.    He was also told if he wanted to learn about modern China, the place to start was Taiping Rebellion that began during Fortune's stay: "The Chinese seldom stand up, but when they do there is real trouble."]

The Long March To Renminbi Convertibility

Although I keep my rmb under the mattress, waiting for appreciation, I am aware international financial markets require more activity than this kind of buy-and-hold strategy.  Here's an update from the Financial Times on recent developments in rmb convertibility.

The Long March To Renminbi Convertibility

China continues quietly to take steps toward convertibility of the renminbi, writes David Pilling of the Financial Times.  In a first, for example, McDonald's issued a small, 200 MM rmb denominated debt ($29 MM) in Hong Kong.    

For the most part holders of trade-related rmb have little opportunity to invest, i.e.  foreign firms holding the rmb must either exchange the currency or put  it into low interest banking accounts.     Pilling summarizes recent Beijing efforts to allow trade settlements in rmb (2009), offshore banks to exchange rmb among themselves (July) and now allow offshore banks to invest in China's interbank bond market .   Hong Kong expects to play a key role any markets in offshore rmb, similar to the way London maintains markets for overseas US dollars, Eurodollars.

However, Beijing's motivation for these still small steps is unclear.  Pilling explains it could seen as an effort toward establishing the rmb as an alternative reserve currency to US dollars, a way to remove currency middleman in China-centric trade, or a more humble effort to stimulate China's nascent domestic debt market, where bonds seldom trade and are usually held to maturity without risk or 'price discovery.'  Most agree Bejing is far from comfortable with a fully convertible rmb in which capital can flow in or out of China in an instant.

Read more about the renminbi convertibility

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

California - Comment to the FPPC

August 10, 2010

Fair Political Practices Commission
428 J Street, Suite 800
Sacramento, CA 95814

via fax: 916-322-6440

re: Agenda Item #1, August 12, 2010

Dear Chairman and Commissioners:

I will be brief.  This is not on the agenda and I will be happy to return again when it is.

My name is Jim Rothstein; I have no affiliation.  I came to Sacramento 5 months ago because California and Jiangsu Province, China signed an excellent energy cooperation agreement (MOU) in October 2009.   I came because I was eager to observe and perhaps participate as a citizen in its implementation.   (I lived in China for 6 years.)  

For my efforts - on my dime, I basically got nothing:  not a 'yes',  not a 'no', just a kind of undefinable, muddled 'mush'.

I  then did the natural thing:  I began to scratch; I began to use some of the available tools available to the public  - some of which you provide.   

This is why I am here today.

Some of what I found - using FPPC tools and other tools (CPRA) - include:
(Note: I will file a detailed complaint with FPPC Enforcement.  This is not my purpose today.)

  • Meetings and numerous state-organized groups, some raising money and others drafting implementation or policy, that I could not attend or join.     I found evasive answers ('You can call it a program, or a policy initiative.') when I asked about open meeting laws.

  • Private groups paying for official trips to China, some 'mission critical', for regulators, legislators - together with investment bankers, California business people.     Lots of taxi receipts - but no one could tell me where they were going or meeting.   No one could verify the 'mission critical' guarantees were actually met.  And, Form 700 merely disclose a US 501(c)3 with a Beijing address, completely obscuring whether or not the payment originated from a  US or foreign entity.  It is a secret even who joined on these trips!

  • The same 501(c)3 then seems to have regular, private access to regulators and legislators.  The group can even help pay for Energy Commissioner James  Boyd, requested by Linda Adams of CalEPA - per public records, to travel to China to help close a ('mission critical' ?) business deal between two Chinese companies.  Then the same NGO can bring one of the Chinese state-owned  companies to Sacramento!   But to see the photograph, however, you have to visit a Chinese website.   So much for any prior beliefs you may have had about transparency.
  • And I found State agencies who miss no opportunity to delay, obscure, confuse, ignore, even belittle.   I found agencies so determined not to any release anything that might add to a growing list of doubts, dots and questions - or worse, inform the public - that laws appear to be negotiable.  

(Again, I will file a complaint - separate from today.)

The reason I am here today is that I found the tools you provide inadequate to answer the most basic of questions:   What is the role of these NGOs in implementing the California-Jiangsu MOU?   (Or, the original way:   What is the status of MOU implementation?  Or: Why are there so many other seemingly unrelated activities going on?)

"Disclosure" is not the same thing as comprehension or  allowing public oversight. 

Unfortunately, with your tools, I have found that a summer associate - not yet a lawyer - can easily outmaneuver me.   And it is not just me -  I sure you have noted that the Sacramento Bee's articles about China travel do not cover all the China trips, all the 501(c)3 or all the questions about the subsequent role these groups play in Sacramento - or who is behind them.

I urge to you cut off the private funding of trips and make the rules clear, easy and fair.   And, if a private group - after paying its fair share of taxes - feels it has extra money to donate to the State then please do allow them, but the  State must select the best use - in a transparent process, which  exceeds Form 801 or Governor's vague 'mission critical' requirement .   

And always verify.

I am happy to discuss any item in detail.

Thank you for your time.

Jim Rothstein

Thursday, August 5, 2010

California - Letter submitted to Sacramento Bee

I submitted this letter to the editor (Sacramento Bee; 200 word limit).

To the Editor:

Tom Knudson of the Bee has done a good job  reporting  free trips to China legislators and regulators, paid by private, non-profit money (Sacramento Bee, 7/26/09 ,; Public Eye, July 7, 2010; 

But there is more. 

Out of public view, State regulators continue to play an active role in brokering a 500 MW solar (PV) deal in California between two Chinese companies, proposing a California exhibition hall in China, selecting China  projects and industrial alliances, and hiding their own role with  the non-profit that has been involved in numerous activities, including paying for Linda Adams to visit China.

Charged with implementing the 'landmark', 'subnational' energy agreement between California and Jiangsu Province, one of China's industrial powerhouses, our State regulators should be working - transparently  - toward wise energy policies that leverage the best of California's leadership, resources and innovation together with China's ability to drive down market prices by low-cost manufacturing. benefit both countries. 

Instead, State agencies,  response to questions asked nicely or formally with answers so muddled and misleading - if at all  - that it is easier to find out about California's activities from Chinese websites (which have the photographs!) We keep hearing that China is not transparent.   Maybe it time to enforce our own transparency laws - the public's right to know, so well stated in the Bee's July 4 editorial about the Freedom of Information Act.