The Wal-Mart in the basement of my building sells live frogs in a big aquarium, for eating. I don't know what surprised me more when I moved here - the frogs, or the Wal-Mart. [...] In addition to the frogs there are live turtles, plastic bar code tags threaded through little holes in their shells. [...] This being China, any employee handling food inevitably wears a gauze mask and sanitary outfit that gives the deli counter the feel of a level-3 containment facility.
There are two Chinas - a small urban China that is getting richer, and an enormous rural one that remains desperately poor. Imagine cities in the United States surrounded by rural Mexico and you have the dynamic. [...] What makes the situation exceptionally weird is that this is happening in a country that still professes to be Marxist. And the new Chinese capitalism feels like it was introduced by people whose understanding of it came solely from reading Marx: it is ruthless, exploitative, and contains the seeds of its own destruction. The only hitch is that the inevitable finale - proletarian revolution - is supposed to have already happened.
Behind a fence topped with razor wire just off U.S. Highway 71 is a bunker of a building that Wal-Mart considers so secret that it won't even let the county assessor inside without a nondisclosure agreement.
Wal-Mart's ability to crunch numbers is a favorite of conspiracy theorists, and its data centers are the corporate counterpart to Area 51 at Groom Lake in the state of Nevada. According to one consumer activist, Katherine Albrecht, even the wildest conspiracy buff might be surprised at just how much Wal-Mart knows about its customers - and how much more it would like to know.
"We were contacted about two years ago by somebody who runs a security company that had been asked in a request for proposals for ways they could link video footage with customers paying for their purchases," Albrecht said. "Wal-Mart would actually be able to view photos and video of customers paying, say, for a pack of gum."