It was a distressing moment. People gathered on a sidewalk in Shanghai looking at a body in the middle of the road. No sign of a head where a head should have been. And strangely, no vehicle stopped a few meters further on.
Someone had been run over, and I would have liked not to have seen the messy results. I pulled my travel bag round the corner and hailed a taxi. A white Jinjiang Taxi Co Santana. I put my bag in the front seat area, got in the back seat, told the driver where to go, and said: "Life is precious."
"You saw it too?"
"Yes. But what happened to the vehicle that did it, I wonder?"
Ten blocks away passed a public bus by the side of the road surrounded by policemen. Clearly this was the bus that had run over a person's head. The driver had just kept going for ten blocks. Incredible. The driver and I discussed this, and I was feeling pretty awful about it all. The thin line that separates us all from everything and nothing was very visible.
We got to my destination, it was an RMB11 fare. I gave him RMB12, said "take care," and got out of the cab and took an elevator upstairs.
Then I remembered the bag.
I raced back down to the entrance, but the taxi had already gone. I couldn't believe it. The driver and I had both witnessed a dead body, and discussed the meaning of it. Faced with the infinite truth of life, I had forgotten my bag, and faced with that same truth, he had stolen my bag.
I was outraged. Another Jinjiang taxi cruised by. I stopped him, got in and ordered him to call the Jinjiang taxi headquarters, then take me there.
Jinjiang Taxi Company is a state enterprise. Helping people does not come naturally to the staff of such enterprises. But faced with an outraged foreigner speaking fluent Chinese at them, the official in charge took note of the details and promised to investigate.
Shanghai taxis are all linked into computer networks. All fares are logged on a smart card which the driver must present to his minders at the end of each shift. Many taxis also have GPS equipment which allows the taxi companies to watch the position of all cabs at all times. But my least favorite taxi driver had no GPS equipment on board, so it came down to the smart card.
I had not taken a receipt from the driver, and therefore had no proof that it was a Jinjiang taxi. But because of the circumstances rather than because of the theft, I wanted to push it through to whatever conclusion could be reached. There was one other occasion several years ago where a friend left a suitcase in a Qiangsheng taxi. The taxi company refused to take any action to track down the thief in their driver ranks, and I wanted to see what would happen this time.
The result was that the driver was never found. On three occasions, I was called into look at photos of drivers who had picked up passengers at around the right time. Six drivers were brought round for me to meet. None of them was the guy.
It was a revealing process. The taxi company official thought he was being helpful, but if it had been up to him, he would have left it alone. There was no burning desire to find the guy, and the official talked on a number of occasions about how well they were cooperating with me to find my bag. I suggested that perhaps it was the other way round, that I was cooperating with them to find their thief in their midst.
The lesson: always take a receipt when you take a taxi ride in China.
The follow-on to the story was that I later found out that the person who had been run over was a neighbor of mine, an old lady who lived in the alley who survived by cutting up plastic bags from the market next door. The word in the alley is that the bus company was refusing to pay the RMB115,000 compensation due her surviving wheelchair-bound husband.
A nother crime-related story. An American banker went to Pudong airport in early April, checked in his luggage, went through into the departure area, filled out the departure card … and discovered his passport was gone. Somewhere between the checkout counter and the border control channel, someone had stolen it from him. He had to get his bags back, leave the airport and work at getting a temporary passport out of the US consulate.
The lesson: keep your passport safe.
Down in the southwestern extremity of Shanghai, a massive port and city are being constructed to correct Shanghai's lack of deepwater facilities. A bridge of 32km is being built out from the shore to a small group of islands where the water depth is 15m. The sea between the islands, known as the Yangshan Islands, is being filled into create a container port within one hour's drive of the city center – with double the capacity of Hong Kong's container port.
Little is publicly said about the Lingang (literally: Adjacent Harbor) project. It is not a secret, but it is also not trumpeted. The reason is the implications that the port has for trade flows in East Asia, and particularly for Hong Kong. The wharf facilities under construction will, within three years, have an annual throughout capacity of 25m standard containers. Hong Kong handles just over half that. The other entrepot ports of East Asia are also watching Lingang's growth with trepidation – Kaohsiung, Pusan, and Yokohama. But Hong Kong's role as the East Asian point where container shipments heading for North America and Europe are consolidated, already hurting from nearby Shenzhen, is under threat like never before. And Shanghai naturally cannot be seen to be undercutting Hong Kong's role. Even if it is.
Someone I know is writing a thesis in New York on the prospects for economic ties between China and Africa. Africa! Oh, right, almost forgot about the continent. China used to play the big brother helping African nations to create an alternative to Western and Soviet hegemonism. The results included the Tanzania-Zambia railway and hundreds of lonely African engineering students in universities across China. In the 21st century, what is the basis of Sino-Afro economic relations? My answer is raw materials and consumer goods manufacturing.
Africa will be a major source of raw materials for China, and from the African perspective the question is – who will own the resources and the means of production? To the extent that Africa can retain control of the underlying assets and sell China the goods, that is good for Africa, but it may not be possible because China can play different countries off against each other. Africa is at a distinct disadvantage in its relationship with China because it is not unified in the way China (or Australia) is.
Africa can be an even lower cost producer of manufactured goods to sell to China. It could conceivably beat China at its own game. But Africa has the manufacturing reputation of being not only low cost but also low quality. If it can solve the quality problem, however, then it could create a market for itself in China.