Looking to the East

One result of my trip to China last September was that my radar now sweeps over stories from that general direction with more regularity. Admittedly, I don't know if I understand more about China or just find myself wanting to read loads more about what's going on there. Regardless, I'll offer up a few curious stories seen over the last handful of days. If you're like me and you hold onto the hope of better understanding what's going on across the globe, these stories might help a wee bit.

The burgeoning love for status symbols in China has made it a coveted market for selling those goods. The NYTimes ran what I saw as a fascinating story Monday on the crazed expansion in the Chinese market for fashion magazines. They're mainly a vehicle for ads promoting luxury goods (a category of consumption that's exploding in China). "Elle" now runs over 700 pages. Other issues have been added or they split them into two. And they're expensive. Can you imagine spending over $3 a pop per throwaway mag when you make a bit more than $700 a month? It does fall in line with a culture that I saw openly embracing designer labels - not cheap knock-offs - where the idea of spending a few grand on a real bag is justifiable. Buried deep in this piece is the observation that this whole game could evaporate in a moment if the economy slows and how even the fashion mags need to steer clear of censors.

The Ai Weiwei story continues to evolve. Last week's announcement of his lost appeal on those trumped up tax penalties was more bad news for this artist after a long run of similarly unfair targeting. He's like an aging heavyweight boxer - I often don't know how he can keep getting back up to fight again after all the punishment he's been taking. Ai's latest rejected appeal feels like another punch in the gut. This man shows how even the most powerful artist still can't expect to exercise truly free expression in an evolving China. The hooks from this story are in deep for many of us, all around the world. To fill in much more backstory, I found much to marvel at in the profile over the weekend of the young American documentarian - Alison Klayman. Her film "Never Sorry" focuses Ai and has been on my "must see" list for months. I, for one, am glad Klayman was there to film and stuck it out for as long as she did to do so.

Another interesting tidbit I wish I'd known about when I visited last fall is a bookstore in Hong Kong that specializes in the books Beijing doesn't want the Chinese to see. Apparently there's enough banned books to fill a whole store. The fact that they can operate there after the handover is certainly a bright spot. And with the number of Chinese traveling from the mainland to Hong Kong more than doubling in the last five years (from 13-ish million to 28-ish from 2006 to 2011), there's a growing audience for it. Baby steps, people. But steps, nonetheless.