Friday, January 28, 2011

Ryan Pyle Blog: China is Funding Terrorism


On December 20th 2010, the Shangdi Guanqun Investment Company signed a letter of intent to invest up to USD 2 Billion in to an port and industrial zone in the Northeast of North Korea. A similar investment was tried in the 1990s but didn't amount to much, but apparently this time around the deal was cemented during a visit by Wen Jiabao in 2009. Upwards and onwards.

So what does this mean? Well, apparently we live in a world where you (a pudgy dictator) can shell a democratic country, kill 40+ civilians and then be rewarded with a USD 2 Billion in investments from an emerging superpower, who is also the world's second largest economy. In other words, it means we live in a pretty sick time; an era of distaste and disbelief.

Make no bones about it, this money being invested will go nowhere. The port and industrial center will not develop and the money will be siphoned off or disappear. It will not help ordinary people in North Korea and will only create jobs that support either the military or the government directly. The Shangdi Guanqun Investment Company is a state-run company that specializes in natural resources and infrastructure development. Ownership, or should I say beneficiaries, of the company is opaque at best.

To me, a China watcher and long time resident of Shanghai, I would have to say that this deal simply amounts to state sponsored terrorism. Strong words, but what more can we believe. Basically a Chinese Government controlled entity is using cheap loans from a Government controlled bank to invest USD 2 Billion in a rouge state that holds most of Asia hostage with nuclear tipped missiles. If something sounds amiss, it's because it is. None of this adds up and it shows the true weaknesses of China: that leadership is fractured and it leaves one asking who is really in charge. Obvious Hu Jintao, while dining with President Obama, wouldn't have green-lit this investment to be announced during his state visit to the USA. Those who did make the deal public clearly wanted to damage Hu Jintao's reputation.

There are a lot of factions in China, all bumping in to each other in an attempt to carve out their own power centers. The political leadership is just one of those factions; the military is another. Former leaders, and their children, who run massive conglomerates and/or investment companies and LBO firms are another. As China becomes more powerful and more foreign investment enters the country having all these powers pushing for power, without a strict rule of law to govern them, will create chaos.

In the US the State governments push the Federal government, the Congress pushes the White House, the Supreme Courts keeps everyone in check. There are power centers and power does shift but there is a Rule of Law that keeps it all in check; and there is a free press that points out when one faction becomes too powerful. In China none of that exists. Some might say that is an advantage to getting things done quickly. That's true, and positive, when it comes to building infrastructure and things like low-income housing; but its clearly negative when it comes to propping up the North Korean regime with a USD 2 Billion investment.

China needs to decide which team it wants to play for: The one that sponsors terrorism or the one that doesn't. An article by the WSJ is below.

The Wall Street Journal
Date: January 19 2011
Copyright: The Wall Street Journal
Original Link: Article


A Chinese firm has signed a letter of intent to invest $2 billion in a North Korean industrial zone, representing one of the largest potential investments in Kim Jong Il's authoritarian state and a challenge to U.S. policy in the region.

The agreement was signed with little fanfare in Pyongyang on Dec. 20—a day otherwise marked by pitched tension on the Korean peninsula following the North's shelling of a South Korean island—according to documents viewed by the Wall Street Journal. Confirmation of the deal comes as Chinese President Hu Jintao visits Washington this week in a bid to forge closer security and economic ties with the U.S.

U.S. officials said the administration is aware of the possible Chinese investment, but noted that previous projects haven't gone anywhere. "No investment project will enable North Korea to meet the needs of its people as long as its government continues its destabilizing behavior," said a senior administration official.

The letter of intent involves China's Shangdi Guanqun Investment Co. and North Korea's Investment and Development Group. An assistant to the managing director of Shangdi Guanqun, who identified himself only by his surname, Han, said his company's planned investment is focused on the Rason special economic zone, situated near North Korea's border with Russia.

The zone was called Rajin-Sonbong when it was established in 1991, but failed to attract sufficient investment. It was revived, and re-named Rason, following a visit there in 2009 by Mr. Kim.

Mr. Han said the plan is to develop infrastructure, including docks, a power plant and roads over the next two to three years, followed by various industrial projects, including an oil refinery, over the next five to 10 years. He said the company was waiting for a response from the North Korean government before applying for approval from China's Ministry of Commerce.

"It's all pending at this stage, and it's really up to the Korean side to make the decision," Mr. Han said. He added that the $2 billion figure was what the North Korean side had hoped for, not necessarily what his company could deliver.

Associated Press
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il endorsing a bottle

The company's Web site says the company was "under the administration" of a state-owned enterprise, Shangdi Purchase-Estate Corporation. Mr. Han, however, said his company was "100 percent private."

For the Obama administration, securing China's cooperation in restraining North Korea's military and nuclear-proliferation activities is a cornerstone of a warmer bilateral relationship. But the potential investment is a reminder of possible limits of Chinese cooperation.

The U.S. wants to step up sanctions to force Kim Jong Il to give up his nuclear-weapons arsenal and military activities. China, meanwhile, is increasingly promoting business projects and direct investment to influence the North, say Chinese and American analysts, arguing financial pressure hasn't worked.

China is North Korea's biggest trading partner and aid donor, but the scale of this deal raises concerns in Seoul that Beijing is running its own version of the "Sunshine" policy under which the South boosted investment in the North from 1998 to 2008.

This policy disconnect is expected to be one of the issues Chinese and U.S. officials discuss this week. "These types of deals pursued by China generally present a real challenge to the sanctions" being effective, said Victor Cha, a North Korea expert who helped oversee Asia policy in George W. Bush's National Security Council. "The net effect is that it does make it more difficult for these sanctions to have the desired effect."

Such deals have emerged in the past and have come to nothing, analysts said, and it is possible this one, too, could peter out. A number of similar North Korean economic zones have failed to live up to their billing because of poor infrastructure and corruption, and a lack of economic reform. News of the deal was first reported in the Korean-language press, including the Voice of America's Korean service.

It is unclear how long the agreement has been in the works. But its Dec. 20 signing came on the day South Korea conducted a closely watched artillery test from Yeonpyeong Island near North Korea.

The test marked a high point in tensions after North Korea's surprise late November shelling of Yeonpyeong, which killed four South Koreans. Pyongyang had threatened a swift military response should Seoul carry out an announced artillery test on Dec. 20. But the day's drill came and went amid high security in the South, with the North saying in a statement it "did not feel any need to retaliate."

Top administration officials have recently both praised and chided the Chinese over the North. On a trip to China last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates commended the Chinese for their "constructive" role in reducing tensions on the peninsula after Pyongyang's recent shelling of a South Korean island. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a Friday speech pressed China to be more aggressive in helping tamp down the North's nuclear program.

The proposed investment is among the strongest evidence yet of China's strategy of using direct investment rather political pressure to push for change in North Korea. Chinese experts say that after North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, China tried to make improved bilateral relations dependent on Pyongyang dismantling its nuclear program. But after a second test in 2009, China changed tack.

Beijing now believes, according to Chinese experts, that the North Korean regime won't respond to political pressure and could collapse completely if China cuts off aid and investment, triggering a flood of refugees into northeastern China, and bringing U.S. troops right up to the Chinese border.

The investment strategy was cemented when China's Premier Wen Jiabao visited North Korea in October 2009 and signed a slew of economic and trade agreements. One of those agreements was for China to fund construction of a $250 million bridge across the Yalu River that separates the two countries.

Construction of the bridge, which would link China with another North Korean special economic zone, had been slated to start in August. Local officials said in November it appeared to have been put on hold indefinitely. Now they say a ground-breaking ceremony was held Dec. 31.

U.S. officials are particularly concerned about how China's financial links to North Korea may be facilitating Pyongyang's weapons programs. In November, Pyongyang showed a visiting American scientist 2,000 centrifuges stationed at a cover site, drastically raising fears about the North's ability to expand its nuclear-weapons arsenal.

"China's increased economic support undercuts the rest of the region's efforts to convince Pyongyang that there will be consequences for further belligerence, nuclear weapons development or transfer of nuclear capabilities," said Michael Green, who also served as a senior official on Asia during the Bush administration.

Ryan Pyle

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ryan Pyle Blog: The Flavor of the Year


We are about three weeks in to 2011, and I am already trying to figure out who the "flavor of the year" is going to be. You see, every year in this industry there is only one or two magazines, newspapers or online publications that "have a budget" for original documentary photography; which is what I like to think I specialize in.

These "flavor of the year" publications generally buck the trend of diminishing budgets and layoff's. These publications often have money to burn, indeed some even refer to it as a "burn rate" of original imagery they need to purchase per month. Identifying these publications early, and making good pitches for interesting story ideas, can be the difference between having a great, creative and productive year; or having another year of stale and repetitive work.

Past publications that made a statement by funding original reporting include, but are not exclusive to, Portfolio Magazine,,, and a host of others. Even the WSJ, after it was bought out by News Corp, was flying me all over China to do some really important and interesting stories. But alas all of that has dried up, and so the trend continues. This leaves photographers, like me, bouncing around looking for the next editor who can actually afford a day rate for a whole week of shooting.

Now sure, many of you may be reading this and think that I'm bitter. I'm not. I'm a happy-go-lucky kind of guy and I've had a lot of great memories and moments being a documentary photographer in China. I will also continue to be a documentary photographer in China no matter how bad the industry gets, because I still strongly believe in what I do and I believe that I have a unique vision of China and how to document it. This is what keeps me motivated. This is what gets me up in in the morning.

My blog today, however, is a REALPOLITIK version of what the photo commissioning landscape looks like at the moment outside of a war zone. As one photographer mentioned a few weeks back in a Facebook posting, "It's like a lottery out there, and I am tired of buying tickets." He was referring to the assignment photography industry, just one job out there for hundreds of photographers who have entered the market in the last five years hoping to earn a living as image makers. Competition is fierce and pay rates are dropping.

So as I sit back and write to editors wishing them all the best for a happy and productive 2011, I wonder which magazines I'll be able to collaborate with best this year. Which magazines have the budgets for the ambitious ideas and strong stories that I want to tell. Sadly, my mind is drawing a blank. Most of friends, who are also editors, have lost their jobs in the last two years; forget about photography budgets most say, there isn't enough money to run the magazine let alone fill the pages with content.

Sure there are lots of problems ahead, and that also means there is a lot of opportunity. Let's put our thinking caps on and pull ourselves out of this industry wide funk.

Ryan Pyle

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ryan Pyle Blog: The NPAC Photo Essay


I recently had some work featured on the National Photographers Association of (NPAC) Canada's website. To be brutally honest I don't know too much about the NPAC. I knew there was an association, much like the American version; but I had never been in touch with them.

Having lived in China for a decade and spending my entire professional career abroad I never found much use in photography associations; but I can acknowledge that they seem to be very worthwhile for a lot of photographers based domestically, and they seem to offer a lot of legal advice and small business advice which I think is really important.

A link to the photo essay is below. The text that accompanies the work is below as well. I was in a particularly gloomy mood when I was writing this. Watch out for the double dip.

As we begin 2011 the world is finally showing some signs of economic recovery. Although there is a sovereign debt crisis in Europe and the United States continues to struggle with high unemployment, companies are making money again and banks are behaving more responsibly. As we all look forward to better and brighter times, it’s important that we learn lessons from the behavior that almost caused the end of the financial world as we know it. Not only are banks to blame but we, much of the general public, simply over-consume and spend beyond our means. Do our actions have consequences? The straight answer is yes; especially in places we would never assume.

In October 2008 when Lehman Brothers, the US Investment Bank, went bankrupt the shock-waves were felt around the world. Banks lined up for government hand outs, the public panicked and we all stopped spending. As a result retailers shuttered and global trade came to a screeching halt. For the small factory town of Dongguan, China; that meant that factories that produce goods for US retailers began going under on a daily basis. After years of farmers moving to the coastal cities, like Dongguan, to work in factories, now everyone was heading homes. Factories had gone bankrupt, jobs had evaporated overnight. In the span of about four weeks from October to November 2008 thousands of factories went under and millions of jobs were lost. Entire housing blocks became empty, the streets once bustling now became silent. Those who opted to stay fought harder for fewer jobs. The seen was one of general chaos. These images were taken in November 2008 while on assignment for Newsweek.

Ryan Pyle Bio

Born in Toronto, Canada, Ryan Pyle spent his early years close to home. After obtaining a degree in International Politics from the University of Toronto in 2001, Ryan realized a life long dream and traveled to China on an exploratory mission. In 2002 Pyle moved to China permanently and began taking freelance assignments. In 2004, Ryan Pyle became a regular contributor to the New York Times covering China, more recently he has branched out in to mostly magazine. Ryan Pyle is based in Shanghai, China. Ryan is a reportage style photographer, working almost exclusively in 35mm format range finder cameras. His work drifts between journalism and fine art as he roams through China shedding light on the country and its diverse people.

Ryan Pyle

Friday, January 07, 2011

Ryan Pyle Blog: Shanghai Schools


Students in Shanghai middle schools are smart, but how smart? Well, according to a global study that was published a few weeks ago the students that are lucky enough to get in to the best schools in Shanghai are the smartest in the world. Middle School kids in Shanghai, some 5000 of them, outperformed children of the same age from 65 other countries; including the USA and Canada.

How did this happen? Well children in China, and their parents, take their education very seriously. That pressure, combined with discipline and hard work turns out children that are hard working and "book" smart. The same can be said for South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan; where learning is about discipline.

So why is the western world collectively failing in middle school education? Funding? Culture? Rap music? I always find these debates interesting because it is very obvious that the United States, for example, has the best Universities in the world. This is a statement that few could debate. But at the same time the US also has a rotting public educational system and problems with school violence.

After visiting this school in Shanghai, to take the image above, it became pretty obvious that producing a strong educational system requires strong discipline from students and teachers, but even stronger discipline from management. This school in Shanghai was humming with law and order. It wasn't overbearing but it was there. The students all wear uniforms. They all keep themselves, and their desks neat. The hallways are spotless, the school directors office was spotless. How does all this happen?

The key might be respect. The profession of teaching is still respected in China, perhaps less so in the USA. Public school teachers need to be paid properly, and they need to respect themselves in order to gain the respect of their pupils.

One can make an argument that the Chinese system doesn't great entrepreneurs or "free-thinking" adults, or the worlds most creative engineers. And that might be true. But one could also make the argument that the Chinese system provides a better education for the majority of it's pupils. Besides, true genius is rarely found in middle school; those creative forces need to be nurtured and incubated in Universities. Sadly, China's Universities are far far behind the western world; and it's a topic for a whole separate blog.

I'll never forget a friend of mine, named Armstrong. He was my translator and assistant for a week I spent working in Xiamen. He would also tell me that Chinese Universities are horrible, they just want to collect fee's and provide as little as they can. He would also tell me that the education he received in middle school and high school was far superior then his university education.

Food for thought. David Barboza's article is below.

The Original Article is below
Copyright: New York Times
Original Article LINK

Title: Shanghai Schools’ Approach Pushes Students to Top of Tests

By David Barboza
SHANGHAI — In Li Zhen’s ninth-grade mathematics class here last week, the morning drill was geometry. Students at the middle school affiliated with Jing’An Teachers’ College were asked to explain the relative size of geometric shapes by using Euclid’s theorem of parallelograms.

“Who in this class can tell me how to demonstrate two lines are parallel without using a proportional segment?” Ms. Li called out to about 40 students seated in a cramped classroom.

One by one, a series of students at this medium-size public school raised their hands. When Ms. Li called on them, they each stood politely by their desks and usually answered correctly. They returned to their seats only when she told them to sit down.

Educators say this disciplined approach helps explain the announcement this month that 5,100 15-year-olds in Shanghai outperformed students from about 65 countries on an international standardized test that measured math, science and reading competency.

American students came in between 15th and 31st place in the three categories. France and Britain also fared poorly.

Experts said comparing scores from countries and cities of different sizes is complicated. They also said that the Shanghai scores were not representative of China, since this fast-growing city of 20 million is relatively affluent. Still, they were impressed by the high scores from students in Shanghai.

The results were seen as another sign of China’s growing competitiveness. The United States rankings are a “wake-up call,” said Arne Duncan, the secretary of education.

Although it was the first time China had taken part in the test, which was administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris, the results bolstered this country’s reputation for producing students with strong math and science skills.

Many educators were also surprised by the city’s strong reading scores, which measured students’ proficiency in their native Chinese.

The Shanghai students performed well, experts say, for the same reason students from other parts of Asia — including South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong — do: Their education systems are steeped in discipline, rote learning and obsessive test preparation.

Public school students in Shanghai often remain at school until 4 p.m., watch very little television and are restricted by Chinese law from working before the age of 16.

“Very rarely do children in other countries receive academic training as intensive as our children do,” said Sun Baohong, an authority on education at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “So if the test is on math and science, there’s no doubt Chinese students will win the competition.”

But many educators say China’s strength in education is also a weakness. The nation’s education system is too test-oriented, schools here stifle creativity and parental pressures often deprive children of the joys of childhood, they say.

“These are two sides of the same coin: Chinese schools are very good at preparing their students for standardized tests,” Jiang Xueqin, a deputy principal at Peking University High School in Beijing, wrote in an opinion article published in The Wall Street Journal shortly after the test results were announced. “For that reason, they fail to prepare them for higher education and the knowledge economy.”

In an interview, Mr. Jiang said Chinese schools emphasized testing too much, and produced students who lacked curiosity and the ability to think critically or independently.

“It creates very narrow-minded students,” he said. “But what China needs now is entrepreneurs and innovators.”

This is a common complaint in China. Educators say an emphasis on standardized tests is partly to blame for the shortage of innovative start-ups in China. And executives at global companies operating here say they have difficulty finding middle managers who can think creatively and solve problems.

In many ways, the system is a reflection of China’s Confucianist past. Children are expected to honor and respect their parents and teachers.

“Discipline is rarely a problem,” said Ding Yi, vice principal at the middle school affiliated with Jing’An Teachers’ College. “The biggest challenge is a student who chronically fails to do his homework.”

While the quality of schools varies greatly in China (rural schools often lack sufficient money, and dropout rates can be high), schools in major cities typically produce students with strong math and science skills.

Shanghai is believed to have the nation’s best school system, and many students here gain admission to America’s most selective colleges and universities.

In Shanghai, teachers are required to have a teaching certificate and to undergo a minimum of 240 hours of training; higher-level teachers can be required to have up to 540 hours of training. There is a system of incentives and merit pay, just like the systems in some parts of the United States.

“Within a teacher’s salary package, 70 percent is basic salary,” said Xiong Bingqi, a professor of education at Shanghai Jiaotong University. “The other 30 percent is called performance salary.”

Still, teacher salaries are modest, about $750 a month before bonuses and allowances — far less than what accountants, lawyers or other professionals earn.

While Shanghai schools are renowned for their test preparation skills, administrators here are trying to broaden the curriculums and extend more freedom to local districts. The Jing’An school, one of about 150 schools in Shanghai that took part in the international test, was created 12 years ago to raise standards in an area known for failing schools.

The principal, Zhang Renli, created an experimental school that put less emphasis on math and allows children more free time to play and experiment. The school holds a weekly talent show, for example.

The five-story school building, which houses Grades eight and nine in a central district of Shanghai, is rather nondescript. Students wear rumpled school uniforms, classrooms are crowded and lunch is bused in every afternoon. But the school, which operates from 8:20 a.m. to 4 p.m. on most days, is considered one of the city’s best middle schools.

In Shanghai, most students begin studying English in first grade. Many middle school students attend extra-credit courses after school or on Saturdays. A student at Jing’An, Zhou Han, 14, said she entered writing and speech-making competitions and studied the erhu, a Chinese classical instrument. She also has a math tutor.

“I’m not really good at math,” she said. “At first, my parents wanted me to take it, but now I want to do it.”

Ryan Pyle