Out of the Fog and into Confusion

No blogs from me for too long – apologies. Shortly after my last posting, we had a mini-uprising among the students. They discovered, in an open forum with the Captain, that our vessel was turning slow circles on our path to Shanghai in order to allow enough days for our classes before arrival – at a cost in fuel, pollution, etc. A group presented a strong petition to proceed directly to Shanghai, anchor offshore while finishing classes, and then proceed to the port at a savings they estimated at over $1 million (perhaps exaggerated). The Captain checked with the owner, who said why not, and proceeded at top speed to an anchorage 54 miles off the port. Immediately, other students protested – either just because they had not been consulted, or because they found the ship more stable and themselves less prone to sea-sickness when underway that an anchor, but the Captain refused to go back to circles at sea. A very mini-uproar, but it gives you a flavor of these very independent, intelligent and forceful students.

Unfortunately, no sooner had we anchored that we, and Shanghai, and most of Asia and the Subcontinent, were enveloped in a massive weather system which registered here as dense fog, so we taught in a tiny world with nothingness staring in the windows at us. No problem – until the day we were scheduled to go into port, and the port (and the city – both airports, the highways most roads and all river traffic- were closed down. The students, and Elizabeth and I, really enjoyed the first day off – nothing scheduled, so we got caught up on work and relaxed. The second day was a little less relaxed, but there were competitions and contests and the like organized, and everyone consoled themselves with how much better off we were than passengers stranded at the airport. About this time, the Port Program people (including Elizabeth) began to get deeply involved in contingency planning if we couldn’t get into Shanghai in time for any of the programs scheduled for the third day. On the third day, we found that the ship had moved – ½ mile. The port had opened for 19 minutes, and then closed again as the fog returned. We organized an academic town-hall meeting on Global Climate Change ( and unusual weather”), and some more contests, and got into serious contingency planning involving alternative ports and docking spaces/visa requirement/useful port programs/etc and people began to get really antsy. On day four, we woke to a misty Shanghai. The Captain had gotten approval at midnight to bring us in. One persistent effect of the weather system is grey skies, persistent highs around 0 degrees, rain and occasional snow, and high winds – which makes getting around the city a bit difficult.

Among a 1001 other changes, this delay eliminated our planned excursion to Beijing, the Great Wall, Forbidden City, etc. – so if you were expecting pictures, I suggest you try Google. Everything was altered – including cutting our academic field programs down from three days to two very extended days, in order to allow the students to experience Shanghai, another equally important objective. We visited Fudan University (one of the 7 universities sponsoring The Scholar Ship) where we heard a surprisingly frank (and long) lecture on the changes in China and the (limited) prospects of the reforms achieving their objectives. We then split into groups, with my group visited China Eastern Airline ( a majority Gov’t owned airline split off from Air China to give the appearance of competition), a wholly Gov’t owned steel holding company which expects within 5 years to be the largest steel producer in the world and does not even have a marketing dept., and the Shanghai urban planning exhibit. All gave the same story – confusion, uncertainty about the future, tremendous energy and a focus on accomplishing the present, and a blissful refusal to acknowledge any problems – all under the rubric of “A Harmonious Society”. There is tremendous competition here for workers, with at least two parallel labor markets – a “life-long employment” market managed by the Gov’t and who you know, and a transient, competitive, and high priced market based on what you know – where the biggest problem in company investment in training, only to see trained workers leave for another company at a higher salary, taking their training with them. We were told that anyone with English language and any specialized knowledge could write their own tickets. A real boom economy – with extravagant consumption, housing shortages, construction everywhere, poverty surrounding luxury- and nobody knows where it will end. All attention is focused on the Shanghai Expo in 2010. In the meantime, a city with over 17 million people is trying to find itself. It is a fascinating place with hundreds of communities with separate identities living cheek-by-jowl and everyone assuming that they will be among the lucky ones to become rich in the boom.. It reminds e a little too much of Isfahan & Teheran in 1977, but the Chinese are not Iranians – (much more attractive and culturally rooted, for a beginning.) I hope they can do it

In between work, we walked and shopped (too much) and ate and enjoyed. Eventually we’ll be able to post our Shanghai pictures. We just returned from a last evening in Old Town (preserved buildings – all converted to Chinese crafts) and a Dumpling meal, and the ship sails for Bangkok at 3:00am. Last reported daily highs all above 90 degrees.

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