Reading Assignment — Soccer, Scrap, and Street Vending

People in China love soccer (football), but even more they love to hate their soccer teams and players. In an article titled Why China fails at football, The Economist explores the abysmal state of Chinese soccer and why there seems to be little hope for improvement.

In a country so proud of its global stature, football is a painful national joke. Perhaps because Chinese fans love the sport madly and want desperately for their nation to succeed at it, football is the common reference point by which people understand and measure failure. When, in 2008, milk powder from the Chinese company Sanlu was found to have been tainted with melamine, causing a national scandal, the joke was: “Sanlu milk, the exclusive milk of the Chinese national football team!”

Everyone is free to take aim, and publicly. When China was dispatched 2-0 by Belgium in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing (pictured above), a presenter on national CCTV said: “The Chinese football team decided to get out quickly, so as not to affect the people’s mood while they watch the Olympics.” Chinese fans chanted for the ouster of the head of China’s Football Association, Xie Yalong. The authorities sacked Mr Xie shortly after the games.

All this hints at something rather unique and powerful about the place of football in Chinese society. It is, like all organised sport in China, ultimately the domain of the government; so, according to the Communist Party’s normal methods, senior football officials should be provided at least some protection from scrutiny. In general the secretive state machinery of sport is shielded from public inspection, as it manufactures medal-winning Olympic athletes in dozens of disciplines. Chinese football, though, is so flagrantly and undeniably terrible and corrupt that all potshots are allowed: at officials, referees, owners and players—even, implicitly, at the heart of the communist system itself.

Adam Minter, who blogs at Shanghai Scrap has written a fascinating article for The Atlantic about where your discarded Christmas lights go to die (or shall we say be recycled). It’s titled The Chinese Town that Turns Your Old Christmas Lights into Slippers.

A single strand of burnt-out Christmas lights weighs almost nothing in the hand. But a bale of burnt-out Christmas tree lights the size of a love seat? That weighs around 2200 pounds, according to Raymond Li, the general manager of Yong Chang Processing, a scrap metal processor in the southern Chinese town of Shijiao. He would know: on a recent Saturday morning I stood between him and three such bales, or 6600 pounds of Christmas tree lights that Americans had tossed into recycling bins, dropped off at the Salvation Army, or sold to a roving junk man. He had bought that 6600 pounds for my benefit, to show me how his company’s Christmas tree light recycling system works.

The huge volume was nothing unusual for Shijiao, the world capitol for recycling the old, unwanted Christmas tree lights that Americans throw away every year. Yong Chang recycles around 2.2 million pounds and Li estimates that Shijiao, located about an hour’s drive from Guangzhou, is home to at least nine other factories that import and process similar volumes. Combined, the factories here process in excess of 20 million pounds annually.

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a street vendor in China? Tricia Wang, a blogger/anthropologist recently spent a few days living and working as a migrant street vendor, offers a glimpse of the brutal life of a migrant worker in urban China:

This has been my schedule for the last 3 days:

4am     wake up and prepare bikes, put battery in
5am     head to market to buy fresh food for lunch
8am     return home, clean and wash vegetables
10am   cook food, load up bicycles, eat breakfast/lunch
11am   bike to the construction site and sell food
2pm     bike back to home, unload bicycles, clean pots & bowls, put stools & stuff back inside home
3pm     head to market to buy fresh food
5pm     return from market, wash vegetables, cook food
6pm     bike to construction site, sell food
8pm     bike back to home, unload car, clean bowls and pots
9pm     eat dinner
10pm   go to sleep

repeat.

Discuss among yourselves.

(Photo source: The Economist)