Confessions from China
by Jayant Bhandari | Posted June 05, 2011
I must start with a bit of history. Two years back, I drove a van that I later sold for $150, yes, one hundred and fifty dollars. It actually ran very well, and I never saw a reason to sell, until one person I went to pick up in it almost jumped out. Another person never returned my phone calls.
I discovered that I might have the oldest van in downtown Vancouver. Rusted pieces fell off quite frequently. But it never gave me problems during the four years it was mine. I still regret that I sold it. I realized, however, that I had to go for a better car.
By the time I finally did the purchase, the target vehicle was no longer a new car, but a secondhand one bought after much depressing Indian-style negotiation. It is still a swanky gas guzzler. Nevertheless, I bought it not to show off — who cares about showing off to mindless consumerists? — but to irritate environmentalists who like to tell me how I should live.
Then I thought I must buy a nice watch — I owned none until then. I did that on eBay after hard negotiations. I knew that what eBay was offering had the lowest price when I received the eBay version of "f**k off." I still regret wasting money on that watch.
Anyway, I realized that I was cheap, so I made no more large material acquisitions. Why one should buy things is actually beyond me. I haven't bought a suit for 12 years, and I have just one of them. My formal shoes were bought eight years ago.
I also realized that my cheap van had done a lot of self-selecting of friends for me, and I didn't want people to befriend me because of my swanky car. I am indeed an ascetic by instinct. It's a family tradition. Asceticism is important in Jainism, the religion of my family.
Anyway, my expenses did go up quite a bit after I met a couple from St. Kitts, who taught me to buy high-quality, low-carbohydrate, organic food. I haven't eaten those $1.50 pizza slices for a long time now, and I'm not sure whether to thank the couple or blame them about the food. I do thank them for is the many other benefits their friendship has brought to my life.
When I do personal traveling, I always stay in youth hostels, paying $20 or less a night. That doesn't make me hypocritical when I spend $500 a night when I travel on business — I have told my company that I'm happy with cheaper accommodations, but they still put me up in expensive ones. Ironically, I find low value in expensive hotels, because I want to be able to meet people informally.
A couple of years ago my mom gave me a long lecture on budgeting. I started to budget, but soon stopped. I didn't need it. My real problem isn't saving; it's never spending money. I once tried to force myself to spend by putting half my salary into my checking account, but the money remained unspent. Eventually I had to start transferring it back to my trading account.
I am just not made to spend. This week, I realized that the stupid Canadian government spends several times more of my money (on killing Libyans and other projects) than I do myself. Am I an accomplice in murdering people?
Now I am on a trip to China, my third in six months. I will be here for a month.
I'm currently in Beijing. Before I left, I told myself I must start living like a grown-up. I decided that I did not want to stay in a youth hostel this time. So I booked myself a five-star hotel. The problem is that it is hard to get rid of one's cheapness. I looked for a nice hotel on Expedia, but when I finally got here, I realized that by trying to pay too low for my room, I had found a hotel that's in the middle of nowhere, among the ruins of what was recently Olympics frenzy. It is very posh, but I must take a taxi for everything. No one speaks a word of English.
I continue to believe that in the larger scheme of things this over-building is just noise. China's growth is unstoppable, for many future decades.
But in terms of service it is a true Shangri-la. No non-Chinese face exists here. When I go the gym, I get a huge amount of attention from the servers. They all try to speak whatever one or two words of English they know. I get a cup of warm tea, which keeps getting filled up. But I have decided not to explore the hotel thoroughly. Some of the hostesses are dressed like sluts and there is a lot of drinking going on in the club. I feel self-conscious when two of the skimpily dressed girls escort me around. But then I don't know. . . Chinese do over-drink anyway.
Today I saw a lot of government officials, military personnel, etc., arriving in their Audis and limousines. I laugh at the robotic way these military-men and bureaucrats walk, and I wonder why some people get so impressed. Hope they don't know that there is a Misesian snoop staying here.
I have met a lot of people. The only exposure that many tourists have to China (or any other country) is to touts, pimps, and prostitutes in busy touristic places. I go to none of them except briefly. (To digress, I actually like those touts. They are entrepreneurial people and once in a while I even strike up a conversation with them. It is the losers in governments, who have never done a day of honest work, and who disrupt the free market, who convert those entrepreneurial people into touts.) The Chinese I have met in non-touristic places are friendly and helpful. Unlike other visitors, I find genuine honesty and conscientiousness.
I might change that statement tomorrow. . . I met a Chinese couple yesterday. They are taking me out to show me the Great Wall. Are they going to ask me for money? Am I taking too much risk? I will see, but I guess I know how to discern who is good and who is not. And if I have failings in this area, I must pay to learn. That reminds me that I have only once been swindled out of real money — in Zurich, Switzerland, of all places.
During my several trips to China I have seen hundreds of empty buildings, even towns. But I continue to believe that in the larger scheme of things this over-building is just noise. China's growth is unstoppable, for many future decades. There is truly an ethical and cultural revolution taking place, though not the Maoist kind. The new generation is much more enlightened and confident than their parents — as the result of widespread information technology, as I have witnessed in many other developing countries. I don't care about economic numbers (which are fleeting) but about the changes taking place in the character of the people. This is what will give China a sustainable growth rate. I recognise increased snobbishness and consumerism, but this is part of growing up. I intend to make a huge amount of money from Chinese growth.
It's true that by investing in real estate, the Chinese may be wasting resources, but investing in inflated housing is still a trillion times better than consuming inflation-priced perfumes. Also, it is better that a government should build more roads, even if they lead to nowhere, than distribute free money to losers, thus creating a cascading moral problem. China is an economy of savers. Many people whom I have met share a room with six or seven other people. To a modern-day economist this sounds bad. My grand-mom, a much better economist, though uneducated, would have said that it's a recipe for significant future wealth. I follow her teachings and will bet on China and its commodities.
But this is not just the story of one country. In my travels in the developing world, I see many changes happening in real time, and many cultures opening up. The developing world is indeed at a cusp of a revolution.
On Sunday, thanks to Facebook, I will meet a whole bunch of anti-statist American runaways in a Beijing restaurant. Contrary to outsiders' perceptions, this is possible without any major fear. I will let you know if I get arrested, though in my view some of the worst governments are democratic ones. I find Chinese governance very good in many ways, at least for me as a tourist. Policemen stand in a corner like statues, non-intrusively. I'm able to make out a customer satisfaction survey whenever I cross Chinese immigration or interact with a bank teller. That is true capitalism.
I'm very fortunate to be able to visit overseas several times a year without any worry about money or about the time I must take off from work. I work as I travel, and even if my expenses weren't taken care of as well as they are, I wouldn't be inclined to spend much. I've explained that. But I also want to explain that I am thankful to my family, who not only made me cheap but also gave me the super-concept of compound interest. And I'm grateful to the many people (Doug Casey, Rick Rule, Frank Holmes, and others) who influenced me with their speeches and writings.
Now I am off to my gym and then for a walk to the business district to watch rich Chinese women wearing very short skirts and buying junk. Not long ago, Chinese women were wearing Mao jackets, and there wasn't a lot of junk to buy.
Jayant Bhandari, a resident of Singapore, is constantly traveling the world to understand it and to look for investment opportunities, particularly in the natural resource sector. He advises institutional investors about his finds. He also runs a yearly seminar in Vancouver entitled "Capitalism & Morality."
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