Three years ago, China was set for a green auto revolution. But the country's electricity-powered car industry is in stasis.
When Warren Buffett in 2008 bought 10% of Chinese car and battery maker BYD (acronym stands for Build Your Dreams), many thought it was the dawning of the Chinese electric vehicles (EVs) age. That "golden era" may yet arrive. Eventually. But in the interim, that dream has mutated into something of a nightmare ensnared in interest group politics and lack of clear strategies.
Take BYD, whose current fate--because it is considered a private sector leader in the EV game--reflects conditions of the embryonic industry at large. A string of negative press has not helped its prospects. For example, Bloomberg reported in September that the Shenzhen-based company is planning to issue nearly $1 billion of bonds as it comes under pressure to pay back debt and as sales of its sedans dwindle. Then in late October, BusinessWeek followed with a piece that said BYD America has not only delayed opening its operations, it has also under-delivered in the number of jobs it claimed it will create in Los Angeles. (The subtext here: "see, Chinese investment in the US does not create 'green-collar' jobs!") Of course, BYD's troubles in the U.S. are linked to its sub-optimal performance in the domestic Chinese market.
Indeed, BYD has likely sold more of its fully electric and hybrid vehicles to government entities than to actual Chinese consumers. Even with limited consumer subsidies, the E6 all-electric model will still cost around 250,000 yuan, or nearly $40,000--sticker shock for the average Chinese consumer in the market for a car that gets you from point A to B. And that's all on top of percolating questions over the soundness of its battery technology.
Beyond BYD, the rest of the industry appears to remain more or less in stasis, with more talk than action. In the department of exaggerated/misleading headlines, this China Dailypiece trumpets "Electric taxis to triple in Beijing next year". But what does that actually mean?
Beijing will increase the number of its fleet of electric taxis from 50 to 150 by May 2012, said an official from Yanqing, a county in northwestern Beijing where an electric car pilot operation is underway.
The program in Yanqing is the biggest of its kind in North China, said Wu Shijiang, vice director of the transportation bureau of the county. The 50 electric taxis in operation were developed by Beiqi Foton Motor Co Ltd, the biggest commercial vehicle manufacturer in China in terms of production and sales.
So that's 150 taxis among how many tens of thousands in Beijing? And reading between the lines, this "county official" is clearly promoting local business interests to garner the attention of higher-level officials. In the absence of an official nod from the Beijing government, it is not entirely clear whether these taxis will even be used at all.
The state of EV development in China is hardly solely the fault of industry or technology. The central government shares a large part of the blame, as it has sent confusing and vacillating signals that confound industry and confuse the market. Despite what initially appeared to be fervent support for EVs, the top leadership has poured some cold water on the sector with recent comments. Premier Wen Jiabao, speaking at a national science and technology association conference in May, all but admitted that the leadership itself is unsure about the future direction of the EV industry and that issues ranging from strategy to core technology still need to be resolved.
Wen's comments explain why the ten-year plan on alternative energy vehicles development, which was intended to be released this year, has remained under wraps. That plan was supposed to be one major pillar of China's 21st century industrial policy through 2020 and considered a "strategic emerging industry". It appears that major disagreements at the top are driven by a generous helping of bureaucratic interest conflicts. According to the Economic Observer, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is pushing for the simultaneous development of fuel efficient cars and EVs; the Ministry of Science and Technology is obsessed with promoting EVs from a narrow technological standpoint; and the National Development and Reform Commission seems to support hybrids as a transitional phase toward singular focus on EVs.
Industry is complicit in complicating an already complex situation. Given Beijing's incessant touting of the trillions of investment that will flow to new strategic sectors over the next five years, including EVs, automakers and even major state-owned enterprises (SOEs) do not want to be denied a piece of the money pie. The auto industry already formed its own EV association, only to be followed by the formation of an SOE-dominated EV group that includes the likes of State Grid and the national oil companies. Why the oil companies? Because the "big two"--CNPC and Sinopec--control the vast majority of downstream gas stations, they believe there is profit to be made in retrofitting gas stations to EV charging stations. No one wants to cede ground in case the money spigot starts flowing RMBs.
The government, in essence, is stuck. Walking back on the entire EV program is impossible. But full-throttle ahead at this point seems unrealistic given that no one can decide on a clear path forward. Moreover, the government is most likely correct in assessing that blind pursuit of this program with little foresight can lead to irrational exuberance like what happened with the wind industry.
I have not been particularly bullish on the Chinese EV sector's near-term prospects, and it's unclear to me whether developing an auto industry on par with Japan, Germany, or the US even makes sense from China's macro development standpoint. (In this respect, I agree with Zhu Rongji's harsh assessment of creating a domestic auto industry.) Introducing EVs into the Beijing taxi fleet may help mitigate horrendous and unpredictable air pollution, but they won't alleviate the worsening traffic bottlenecks that now regularly choke the city. Even if EVs reduce air pollution, charging them could mean more coal usage--since China is primarily a coal-powered economy--that offset whatever carbon reduction benefits derived from less gasoline consumption in the transport sector. But wait, there's also "indigenous innovation", and wouldn't leading battery technology go a long way toward that goal? Paradoxical objectives, pulled along by powerful interests in different directions, explain much of China's story these days.
Whatever the outcome of this uncertainty, one thing is clear: what was once hailed as a potential EV revolution in China is turning out to be more akin to an incremental evolution.
Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.
When healthcare is at its best, hospitals are four-star hotels, and nurses, personal butlers at the ready—at least, that’s how many hospitals seem to interpret a government mandate.
When Department of Health and Human Services administrators decided to base 30 percent of hospitals’ Medicare reimbursement on patient satisfaction survey scores, they likely figured that transparency and accountability would improve healthcare. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials wrote, rather reasonably, “Delivery of high-quality, patient-centered care requires us to carefully consider the patient’s experience in the hospital inpatient setting.” They probably had no idea that their methods could end up indirectly harming patients.
J.J. Abrams, the director tasked with bringing Star Wars back to the top of the crowded franchise heap, has always been happy to borrow. When he set out to make a new Star Trek and drag that moribund cinematic franchise back into blockbuster territory, he cheerfully swapped in some very familiar visual language to help it over the hill. Early on in the film, James Kirk (Chris Pine), nursing a desire to transcend his farmboy life, rides a motorcycle to see the U.S.S. Enterprise being built at a shipyard, and gazes up at it longingly. Star Wars fans would connect the scene to one at the beginning of the first 1977 film, when Luke Skywalker wistfully watches the dual suns of his home planet set; Star Trek's producers even called the scene "our Tatooine moment." Abrams has never exactly been a visionary artist, but he's a master of elevating the familiar—a fact made clear in the previews of his new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
From the beginning of the project, we've had the fundamental question in mind of what this site is—which is to say, both what it's become (as regular readers know, a lot's changed here over time) and what we want it to be. Is it the website of a magazine? Is it a news site? Is it, as James Franco possibly once suggested, a blog?
The answers, we recognized, are all in one way or another yes. But we figured we'd try a thought experiment: What if we described TheAtlantic.com as a direct, dynamic, digital extension of our core identity in journalism—as a real-time magazine?
That seemed to us both authentic and aspirational: an idea that captured what The Atlantic has been doing in new media for years and a framework that could bring the right focus to rebuilding TheAtlantic.com now.
And Americans? The land that gave the world the iPhone, the Declaration of Independence, and the Kinsey Report prefers emoji that depict technology, royalty, and… eggplants.
These preferences were revealed in a new report from SwiftKey, a software company that makes keyboards for iOS and Android phones. The report describes global trends in emoji usage and breaks them out by country and by language. Like nations themselves, it seems, emoji usage is also shaped by culture, climate, and geography.
What else did the report find? According to SwiftKey:
The most-used category of emoji used are “happy faces.” Happy faces, sad faces, and hearts make up more than 70 percent of global emoji usage.
The video, 25 years later, is almost as recognizable as the song itself, even though it conjures up images of soft-focus karaoke backing tracks and a million drunken vocal renditions of heartbreak. The camera scans over a road flanked on either side by tall trees, while a figure clad in black walks across the screen. Then there’s a misty shot of a bridge, a couple of pigeons flap their wings, and Sinead O’Connor’s face comes into focus: shorn, oval-eyed, seemingly disembodied, and completely indelible.
“It’s been seven hours,” she sings, “and fifteen days/ Since you took your love away.” Beneath her vocals, there’s just the sound of a single synthesized string note, before the drum track kicks in on the seventh line, just as O’Connor’s voice becomes an unmistakably Gaelic wail: “I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant/ But nothing/ I said nothing can take away these blues.”
The Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, didn’t use that expression when we talked by phone, but that’s what he described to me: a man at the center of an ever-churning machine processing vast amounts of news and data at his command.
“Sometimes we’re wondering what is the limit for a human being for absorbing this huge amount of information,” Peskov told me, “but, well, it’s really a very, very, very heavy job.”
Peskov, speaking fluent English, described the operation. “First of all, the information and press department of the presidential administration prepares digests on print media, on Internet sources, on domestic media—federal and regional.
“We have special people working around the clock, preparing TV digests. We’re recording TV news on the [Russian] federal channels for him during the day. Obviously, it’s very hard for him to watch news so we make digests, let’s say, zip versions of TV news, divided into issues.”
In the shower I share with my three roommates in my apartment in Mexico City, there are all the things you’d expect to see: a few bottles of Body Shop-brand shampoos and conditioners, and a bar of soap—the organic-looking brown kind with tiny splinters of unrefined material protruding from the surface. But there are also two bottles of Lactacyd, a brand of feminine wash.
“You should use it,” my roommate tells me. She’s an astute, outspoken woman in her early 30s who works as a journalist for one of Mexico’s most well-known liberal magazines. “It’s meant to get rid of or prevent infections,” she said.
For more than half a century, douches, or feminine washes, have been a staple in pharmacies throughout the world. Yet, here in the Distrito Federal, douching is a trend that seems to have gained serious momentum in the last two years, according to Karla Font, a Distrito Federal-based gynecologist with many patients who actively douche. A worker at Farmacía Paris in the Historic District told me that every day they sell at least 30 bottles.
One of the hazards of being paid to think out loud is that most ideas are wrong, and some of those wrong ideas are bound to be yours.
Several years ago, I wrote a column with Jordan Weissmann, now the senior business and economics correspondent for Slate, about how young people, gutted by the Great Recession, might turn against the culture of suburban homes and cars, the two big-ticket items that have powered the country through previous recessions. For many years, my chief frustration with the article was that the only words that commenters seemed to read were also the only three words we didn't write: "The Cheapest Generation," which was the headline. But this week, I have another frustration with the article, which is that, inconveniently, reality is messing with our prediction.
“Oh my God, can you grab him?” I shouted at the woman at the door, as my 3-month-old puppy darted out into the cold and I tried to stop my 6-year-old twins from following suit. She obliged, and I was able to get a proper look at her. It was in the 30s outside, unseasonably cold for Florida, and the young woman holding my squiggling puppy was wearing nothing but a light spring sweater, shivering and looking miserable. I invited her in.
Over a cup of coffee, she introduced herself as Tysharia Young and tried to do what she’d come to do: sell me overpriced magazine subscriptions. It was not the first time someone had knocked on my door for this purpose, and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last. Gainesville has had such issues with magazine sellers that our local police department recently issued a public warning.