The bill

I've found myself completely fascinated by the receipts you get after you pay for dinner here.

Say you've just taken a few friends out for hot pot. The bill is 350 RMB, you give the waiter your cash, he gives you seven receipts. One for each 50 RMB note you've given him.

That is, admittedly, kind of ridiculous.

But here's the thing: Each of those slips of paper is both a receipt and a scratch ticket. There are little blocks of silver in the bottom right corner of each receipt. Scratch it off with a coin or a chopstick or your fingernail and see if you've won. I never have. It always says (I'm told -- it's in Chinese) "Sorry. Thanks for taking your receipt." Chinese friends say you can win money. Usually something small like a couple of bucks, but everyone here has a story of that one time their friend landed a quick 200 dollars or whatnot.

So, this is fun and all, but here's the part I love: This practice started (I've been told) because the government was having trouble taxing restaurants and other service companies. The business owners were keeping their profits off the books and lying about their income. Turns out that tax collection, in some sectors, is one of the few areas in which the Chinese government hasn't been that heavy handed. So they came up with the scratch ticket system.

Works like this: Who doesn't love a good scratch ticket? Losers.

So, everyone wants their scratch ticket at the end of their meal. If the restaurant doesn't have them, people don't go to the restaurant. So the restaurant has to buy the receipt forms with the scratch tickets from the government. The government gets income; the restaurants get "taxed."

I love this.

It's a simple and elegant solution to a complicated economic problem. And there's something lovely about the fact that it all boils down to a game. It's rare that one of the ancillary effects of tax collection or other invasive, bureaucratic processes is "fun." A little moment of anticipation and entertainment at the end of a night out. And I like that it's a different way of doing something that's just as effective as the way western capitalism executes the same macro-economic function. It hints at the idea that there are other ways of doing things, even within the rapidly standardizing global economy.

I have loved my time in China. I have loved many of the people I've met, much of what I've seen, SO much of the food I've eaten. But I have to admit, I don't love China. Much of it comes down to this odd notion I haven't been able to shake about the receipts. I'll try to explain...

China, in just about every way, has embraced capitalism. And it has raced toward it and toward the trappings of prosperity at a pace that literally astounds (when you hear people prattle on and on and on about "explosive growth" and the speed of change here, believe them). But it's racing toward an existing capitalism that is startlingly imperfect. The west has centuries of experience with it, and, jeeze, there are still deep, deep problems with the system.

So, now China is rushing into the fray and -- to oversimplify outrageously -- I can't help but wish they'd approach capitalism the same way they've dealt with the receipts. China has the opportunity to do things differently. To rethink capitalism. To learn from the mistakes countries like the U.S. have made and continue, repeatedly, to make. To change course. To find ways to build an economy without building a wealth gap, gutting natural resources, wreaking environmental havoc, and steamrolling people's lives for market share and GDP. But they ain't doing that.

I do not love China because many of the things that keep me up at night about the United States exist here unchecked. In the U.S., no matter what one can say (and one can say so much) about the failures of its current and past economic policies, there are traditions of concern for the environment and for civil and worker rights. There are many well-intentioned people in positions of power. There are legal protections, there are modes of recourse for the aggrieved, and there is a long tradition of resitance, opposition, and simple virtue, continually fighting for economic and social justice. Even if that fight can sometimes feel futile.

The world doesn't have time for a nation of 1.3 billion people to fumble about like the west has. China can't wait twenty-five years before realizing that air should be breathable. That cities need to be liveable. That water needs to be drinkable. That the road to unfettered consumerism could use a few speed bumps. And that poverty in the midst of affluence is unjust.

There are positive signs on all of these issues all over the place here. As China opens up to the world, the world, it seems, is opening up China. We've tried to share some of the voices this week of people working for change here. There is no question that the lives of an enormous segment of the society here are changing rapidly and improving materially. And not just in a "hey look, now you can buy a Latte" sort of way. This sounds cheesy, but it's true: People here have the right to dream now. It's hard to get my American head around that. But so many other things need to change just as rapidly. For the good of everyone.

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Couldn't have said it better. The Chinese can do it their way and skip all the legacy drudgery we carry around.

When we were there in 2000 setting up a US dot-com with China operations, our Chief Technology Officer and I (who share a couple inventions in the US) would invariably find huge opportunities to implement something in China that didn't yet exist - but in a totally different way that it's been done in the west.

Computer keyboards: QWERTY keyboard is a real dinosaur. But there are over 1500 Chinese characters, so typing chinese is slow and painful. In fact, there were 3 times more Chinese people who could read and type English than could type Chinese. We asked: Why not put a PDA-style writing pad on every keyboard to capture chinese handwriting?

Credit cards: Chinese carry cash becase they can't trust banks. They don't really trust paper money, but the is pretty cheap and it takes a lot to buy something. Their Confucian culture doesn't respect credit, as it leads to enslavement to the lender. In 2000 there were literally 50,000 true credit cards in ALL of China. We proposed stored value electronic payment systems to settle debts - like debit cards, but money was on the card in your hand.

Cell phones: Since the cost of a wireline phone was so high, we saw all these opportunities to implement new systems in China that used cell phones. For example, why not use cell phones as payment systems with security methods?

Lack of AC outlets: You know how hard it was to find a business with power outlets in anywhere but the executive's office? Imaging trying to set up a warehouse or manufacturing plant supply chain automation without phones or power.

Rewards: We were constantly impressed by the entreprenuerial nature of Shanghainese. They constantly amazed us...Until we tried to get work done that WE needed done. We'd see that a 12 step process would have 5 steps incomplete. When we analyzed the process, we'd see that it was same as US process. OK. But when we watched the Chinese do the process, we'd discover they didn't do the other steps because the technology gadgets weren't being used. e.g. the handheld devices that ran on rechargable batteries weren't being recharged, so the inventory control data was lost. Nobody was compensated or rewarded for recharging the data wand. If they would be punished (shades of the Emporer) they would do it (or find someone to blame). But we wanted them to grasp the whole and improve the process.
So we set up systems that REWARDED for not simply doing a step to make a product, but also completing all the other process steps that reported progress back to the US. Soon they had ideas to reduce the steps and work faster. Pay by the piece (even for data) and you'll be amazed.

We had so much fun there, we was sad when the bubble burst and venture capitalist in US lost their confidence to take risk. One of our US team, who was in on the ground floor when Silicon Valley took off, remarked that the Chinese would one day look back on this period as a golden age. They weren't yet enslaved by wealth, but not so poor as to be desperate. Get on a plane and visit - NOW! The food is incredible, the people are delightful (if you're a humble and polite guest), and the changes are breathtaking.

I love your reports from China. You have presented a very balanced picture about China. Keep up with the great work.
In term of the economic and social development in China, when you combine a communism and capitalism together, you get the worst of both systems. Let's hope for the best.

I spent the summer of 2004 in China. I am going back in 2007. The people are incredibly warm and friendly. They would do anything for us.

We taught English for three weeks in Changsha and traveled for two weeks. We rarely paid for our food; the food was either included in our tour price, prepared by our hosts or by the college where we stayed in Changsha. I enjoyed reading about China's scratch tickets. What a great solution.

When you interact with all age levels you can see the changes coming. In general, the older people are traditional and the younger people are eager for change.

The one child rule that has left so many baby girls in orphanages is changing in that city families are embracing daughters and shedding the traditions that led to cherishing only sons. Affluent newly weds no longer must live with the son's parents. I observed that they are more likely to take care of both sets of parents yet live independently of them. Thus, little girls are as desirable among younger parents as little boys are. My students proudly told me if they had daughters. Yet a large orphanage for girls is located in Changsha.

When we needed more cash, someone from the college would go with us to the bank. They would stand next to us and make sure we got what we asked for.

When Chinese people saw westerners on the streets in Changsha they would run to us and ask to practice their English with us. Many of them have had years of English classes but few opportunities to use their English speaking skills.

Am working on a research report on a Chinese healthcare company and will be going to China in the next several months. I absolutely loved your China broadcasts and the many insites you provided about business and China's people. I am blown away by China's rapid growth into an economic superpower but clearly environmental and health issues are of great concern. Thanks so much for your efforts in China. It would be nice to package your broadcasts into an educational program for high schools and colleges that could be distributed or sold to schools because the information is so current and it is presented in such a meaningful and interesting manner. A great learning experience. Congratulations again on a job well done.

Your reasons of not loving China are thought provoking. Hope the majority, particularly those in China, realizes what you have realized. For China not making the same mistakes benefits not only China but the entire mankind. Let them take away your reasons of not loving China and give you plenty of the contrary.

I love Marketplace. The live broadcast of the last two weeks has been fantastic. Thank you!

I love the China reports. You presented a true picture of China which rarely been seen outside of that country. Keep up the good work!

Excellent work!

Thanks the NPR team for your effort. The more communication, the more understanding. American need to update their knowledge about Chinese; Chinese need to know deeper about American as well.

Hope to be able to download previous broadcasts.

You guys are great! The past two weeks have been extremely informative. Even though I am Chinese myself, born and raised in the US, the perspective from which you have reported has been revealing. I have been working in China for past 6 months and most of what you have talked about is happening everywhere. Many friends of mine back in the states don't fully understand what China is going through. Even several friends that have visited China, have not really experienced what it is like to live in China. I think you and your team have done an extremely great job on this project. I would recommend everyone to view China with an open mind and listen to your broadcoasts.

Is it possible to download previous broadcasts that are no longer listed on the front page of your website?


I came back from a business trip to China two weeks ago and have been following your reports with great interest. I am working on a joint venture with a Chinese company in the field of environmental cleanups. It is easy to see how the system, because of its lack of institutional checks and balances fails to protect people and the environment. It will be interesting to see how the situation evolves over time. One thing for sure, in China, one can feel the energy in the streets and it is difficult to be pessimistic about the country unless you come close to a polluted river. The environmental damage inflicted on China's waters will take a Herculean effort to overcome. I hope that the energy that is felt in China's streets will be sufficient to undo decades of environmental neglect by forcing decision makers to take a serious look at this looming disaster. Perhaps a little institutional accountability is in order.

Really enjoyed the China specials. We visited Hong Kong, Chong Qing and Guangzhou this past spring. We adopted our beloved daughter in CQ. Those three cities were so different from each other. Almost like different countries. We hope to return soon to learn more about our daughters' birthplace and culture. What warm, friendly people in Chong Qing. The city reminded me of Texas, everything is BIG! Buildings being torn down while a building is being built on the same property. Everything seems to be moving and changing in CQ. Guangzhou and Hong Kong seemed almost laid back in comparison. We wish the people of China nothing but the best.



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