In Brief: Speaking of Arrogance…

I haven’t the time or, at the moment, the patience to go into this in depth, but let’s look for a second at the trailer for the upcoming documentary Death By China and let its ridiculousness wash over you like a wave:

Now, with the huge caveat that I haven’t seen this film so it could just be a case of terrible (or overly sensationalized) marketing, this looks insane. What’s more, it projects that same I’m-the-center-of-the-world-arrogant-pride-thinly-disguised-as-victimhood that I recently took some Chinese media to task for. This is probably not surprising — for all their differences, I think America and China are similar in many ways, one of those being a deep-seated belief that they are better than everyone else. But come on, guys. Everything about this is absurd and hypocritical.

For example, the Gordon Chang money quote here — “China is the only major nation on earth preparing to kill Americans” — is both extreme scaremongering and ludicrous arrogance. Yes, China is boosting its military capabilities across the board. Is there any evidence this is with the goal of killing Americans? No. China’s military will protect its strategic interests, and while that could include killing Americans who are in the way, Chang’s phrasing makes it sound like China is raising an army that’s going to parachute into the US, Red Dawn-style, and shoot your grandmother.

That isn’t going to happen, and it doesn’t even make any goddamn sense. Why would China want to destroy one of its major trade partners? Moreover, why would China want to destroy a country that owes it so much money? It wouldn’t. China doesn’t want to kill Americans, it just wants them to shut up about the South China Sea and stop selling weapons to Taiwan. Since neither of those things are likely to happen, some eventual violence is certainly possible, but let’s not pretend China is planning Pearl Harbor here.

The discussion of jobs in the trailer is even more ludicrous because it leaves out a gigantic, hugely important facet of that issue: the companies shipping these jobs overseas are American. It’s true some Chinese manufacturers are beating with American workers in part because they’re willing to abuse their own workers (although the fact that many of these workers are, by American standards, willing to abuse themselves is also a relevant point). But if China is taking American jobs via workers rights abuses, what does that say about the American companies that are willingly choosing to ship jobs there anyway?

It is not my intent to defend the labor practices of Chinese manufacturers here, but that strikes me as a Chinese problem. American companies shipping jobs overseas to take advantage of abuses is a problem that could be resolved at home by holding companies to a higher (read: any) moral standard. But, of course, it’s easier just to blame all that on the Chinese.

This argument also ignores the fact that as far as cheap labor is concerned, if China isn’t willing to offer it, some other country will be (and is). Abuse of workers is one problem, but another is that Americans are willing to see hundreds of thousands of jobs shipped overseas if it means they can save $20 on an iPhone.

(Note that I’m not even mentioning the absurd, over-the-top animations or the part where Americans, with a straight face, appear to be criticizing someone else about carbon emissions.)

Anyway, I don’t really have the energy to go into this further, and it would be unfair of me to do a proper shredding before I see the actual movie, anyway. But if this trailer is any indication, Death By China looks like it’s going to make the Red Dawn remake look like a tasteful, nuanced look at US-Asia relations.

OK, Goddamn it, Fine: Other Reasons I Left China, and Proof Yang Rui Isn’t One of Them

Apparently everyone else (read: two other people) decided to leave China around the same time as me. And since I guess even the New York Times can’t keep from implying that my departure had something to do with the Yang Rui incident, I guess I have to explain some things.

(Note: I don’t mean to imply that this post is just a reaction to that NYT piece. It isn’t. It’s a reaction to a whole lot of things, and overall I think the NYT piece is much better about conveying the real meaning of my “why I’m leaving China” post than many other people have been).

Those of you who read the original post and didn’t immediately assume I was lying and those of you aren’t interested in my personal life are excused. How that isn’t all of you is lost on me, but apparently it isn’t, so here we go.

My personal reasons for leaving China:

  • I hadn’t seen most of my family in several years.
  • My wife had never even visited my home country (like most young Chinese women, she found it impossible to get a US tourist visa; she applied and was rejected twice), and she and I both wanted to live here for a while so that she could improve her English.
  • My job at Tech in Asia is the rare one that is flexible enough to allow an international move without disrupting our lives in a huge way, so it seemed best to take advantage of that opportunity.
  • Our film is nearly finished and we’ll be applying to (and hopefully attending) festivals; that’s easier to do in a country where there are some of them (and where our film isn’t technically illegal).
  • As paradoxical as this may sound, I need to be in the US to set up something that will hopefully allow us to do more in-depth reporting on China. That I still can’t give details about, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to share that project with you soon.

So, those are some of the personal reasons. Why didn’t I share them in the original blog post? Because they’re personal reasons. I didn’t anticipate anyone would be interested and, perhaps foolishly, I didn’t assume that half the internet would assume I was lying about having personal reasons and that my real reason was running away from Yang Rui.

So let’s talk about that: was our decision to leave motivated at all by the Yang Rui incident? No. Since my wife was unable to get a tourist visa, we had to apply for a US immigration visa. Anyone familiar with that process can tell you that it would be utterly impossible to get one in the two months between when the Yang Rui crap started and when we left China.

In our case — which I believe was processed with unusual speed and went unusually smoothly compared to the average application — we decided to apply and began collecting materials in December 2011. We applied in January 2012, as you can see in the — I can’t believe I have to do this — email from Beijing CIS/DHS below. Note the date in the upper right-hand corner.

click to enlarge

Obviously, we had decided to leave China long before Yang Rui opened his mouth on weibo. As it happens, we were actually in Guangzhou doing the final visa interview as the Yang Rui thing started to take off in late May.

US Immigration visas have a six-month period of validity from the date the visa is issued, after which they are no longer accepted and one has to start the entire long, difficult, and expensive process over again (or so I understand it). So, when my wife was granted a visa on that trip in May, it meant we needed to enter the US before mid-October at the absolute latest. Late July ended up being the best option, mostly because we were able to find a pretty decent price on good flights for the day we ended up picking and because a July arrival would allow us to spend some time with my family, almost all of whom are teachers and thus have most of August off.

If I had been truly scared by Yang Rui, since my wife passed that interview in May, it would have been possible for us to fly back to Beijing, collect our stuff, and catch the next plane out as soon as her passport was returned with the visa in it, which ended up being just a few days later. The reason we waited another two months instead of leaving then is because Yang Rui had no effect whatsoever on our travel plans.

So there you have it. I would love it if, in at least the media, we could stop implying that Yang Rui had anything to do with my decision to move to the US. OK guys? That would be great.

(I apologize to our sane readers for doing this; it’s my own fault this has happened, but I felt the need to set the record straight.)

The Olympics and the Arrogant Victim

I can't believe they're being so unfair to Chinese athletes, says South Korean fencer Shin Lim before remembering that she's South Korean and that China isn't the only nation to be affected by questionably Olympic judging.
The London Olympics are about to wind to a close. Watching the Olympics and China at the same time is always interesting. As usual, the country’s athletes have dominated this year, and they have been number one in the gold medal count nearly every day (though as I write this, China is actually down a few). And, as usual, Chinese nationalists are convinced that China is the victim of a vast conspiracy.

The events in question

This year, there seem to be four specific things the Chinese are upset about. Chen Yibing’s silver-medal finish in gymnastics, a US swim coach’s vague and unsubtantiated allegations that Ye Shiwen was doping, and the disputed disqualification of a Chinese biking duo and the less-disputed disqualification of a Chinese badminton team for losing intentionally along with teams from South Korea and Indonesia.

Of these, Chen Yibing’s silver appears to be the most questionable; or at least, appears to have been questioned most widely outside China. I’m not a gymnastics expert and I haven’t watched the competition, so I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other. Perhaps Chen did get robbed. However, it seems unlikely that there’s a conspiracy afoot to rob Chinese athletes of gold medals in gymnastics. China has won four golds in gymnastics, more than any other country, and eight total medals, tied with Russia for first. (And with the subjective nature of gymnastics judging, if I were organizing an Olympic anti-China conspiracy, that’s where I would start).

I also know nothing about biking; that decision also dropped a Chinese team from gold to silver. Was that a bad call? The correct call? Corruption of some sort? I have no idea. But there’s certainly no evidence that it’s part of an anti-China conspiracy, unless you consider the fact that China didn’t win as evidence.

The American coach’s stupid allegations about Ye Shiwen were stupid (I think I mentioned that), but they certainly don’t evince a conspiracy to rob China of medals; the IOC does not rescind gold medals on the basis of what competing coaches say, and even Nature‘s much-criticized article on the issue says very clearly in the first paragraph that Ye has never tested positive for substance abuse, including in her post-race test. There was never any danger she would lose her medal, although the groundless speculation is unfortunate and US coach John Leonard should be disciplined and perhaps fired for making unsportsmanlike and unsupported accusations.

The Chinese badminton team’s expulsion is perhaps the least convincing of the “conspiracy” cases, given that the team turned in a performance so obviously bad that the crowd began to boo — not the sort of thing you see often during the Olympics. My understanding is that the Chinese team claimed they were sick after their disqualification was announced, which is a bit difficult to believe because of how they explained their awful performance before they were disqualified for losing intentionally:

“Actually these opponents really were strong. This is the first time we’ve played them and tomorrow it’s the knockout rounds, so we’ve already qualified and we wanted to have more energy for the knockout rounds,” said Yu.

“Really, it’s not necessary to go out hard again when the knockout rounds are tomorrow.”

A Note on Refereeing

So really, we’re just down to the Chen Yibing loss and the bicycling disqualification as signs of foreign foul play in China’s Olympic performances. Although I don’t claim to know the intricacies of reffing either sport, I will say this: as someone who has worked as a referee before, it is way harder than it looks. It is much easier to do from one’s couch while watching TV than it is to do in real life. Conspiracy seems far less likely to me than that the judges simply made mistakes.

Nor is getting screwed over by the refs solely a Chinese problem, although you would get that impression from some of the Chinese media. Chinese nationalists might ask Japanese boxer Satoshi Shimizu, South Korean fencer Shin Lam, the Spanish men’s water polo team, the South African field hockey team, Iranian boxer Ali Mazaheri, the Japanese men’s team artistic gymnastics team, South Korean judo wrestler Cho Jun-ho, and the Canadian women’s soccer team (among others) how they feel about the refs in their respective competitions. Sometimes, the refs screw up. It’s unfortunate, but the fact that it’s happened to China a couple times isn’t a huge surprise given that China has nearly 400 olympians playing in hundreds of different matches and competitions.

China is being robbed!

Nevertheless, these incidents have led to a lot of yelling on China’s internet and in the media about how the London Olympics are out to cheat China out of medals. According to the Global Times, a survey on ifeng found that 75% of respondents felt Olympic refs and judges were targeting Chinese players. The prevailing theory is, of course, that the West hates seeing China succeed (read some of those comments), with bet-rigging a in close second.

It’s not really clear who is perpetrating this conspiracy. “The West” is sometimes cited, as is America, London, the United Kingdom, and even the IOC. Why it would be so important to any of these people to screw China out of a few gold medals is also deeply unclear — is beating China in the medal count (which the US would have done anyway regardless of all the disputed events listed above) going to fix the American or European economies? Contain Chinese military expansion? Force China to adjust its trade policies?

If you ask supporters of the conspiracy theory this — why would anyone be intentionally sabotaging Chinese athletes? — the answer is generally just that “the West” wants to see China fail. After spending some time discussing this with a few of the nationalists who now follow me on weibo (because of this), I had a thought.

Obviously, China’s victim mentality remains extremely strong among some of its most ardent “patriots.” It seems sort of incredible to me that one can simultaneously be winning the Olympics (if that’s a thing) and complaining that the Olympics is rigged against you. It is, however, an offshoot of the idea that the government drills from time to time in its propaganda when it wants to stoke the fires of nationalism: ‘Remember what the foreigners did to us a hundred years ago? They’re still trying to do that.’

The fact that there’s no evidence of this doesn’t seem to matter at all. As far as I’m aware, aside from feeling like Chinese athletes should have won some events, there is absolutely zero evidence that those losses are connected to any foul play on the part of judges or anyone else, and even less (if that’s possible) evidence that any of this theoretical foul play is related to an anti-China bias. As I mentioned above, China is hardly the only country to be upset about aspects of the judging so far this Olympics.

More and more, though, I am struck by the utter arrogance that lies behind this perpetual-victim mentality. After all, if you assume that someone is out to get you, you’re making yourself the victim but you’re also assuming that they care enough about you to bother. Some Chinese nationalists — including popular media commentators — seem to hold the impression that everything “the West” does is related to trying to contain China in some way.

Of course, some Western governments — including my own homeland’s — certainly do plenty of things that really are aimed at containing China (see, for example, the much publicized “pivot” plan). But not everything that every foreigner does is driven by anti-China bias. In fact, my return to my home country last month has driven home for me a truth that some of my weibo followers would probably find unpleasant to the point of disbelief: most foreigners do not give a fuck about China. It’s not something that people think about during their day. It does occasionally become a hot issue in politics or the media, but generally those issues aren’t really related to China at all; China is being used as a comparison and a foil to reflect problems with America (job outsourcing, weak economic growth, terrible science education, general fat laziness, etc.).

The Olympics do have some symbolic value, of course, although I think Chinese people tend to take them much more seriously as a reflection of their nation’s status than anyone in the United States has since the miracle on ice. Even so, though, how inflated must one’s self-importance be to assume that any questionable call in a sporting event is a hostile geopolitical act?

(I must pause here to say that I do realize — and embrace — the irony of a not-everything-revolves-around-you lecture coming from an American. Yup, America is just as bad if not worse.)

So seriously, enough of the Olympic conspiracy bullshit. In their accusations of foul play, Chinese commentators are being just as wrong-headed and foolish as John Leonard was when he accused Ye Shiwen of doping. Leonard had no evidence to back up his accusations, just a feeling that in the American loss, something unfair had happened. China has no evidence to back up its conspiracy theories either, just a feeling that China didn’t get gold in a few events where it feels it should have. Maybe those events were unfair, but biased? There’s no evidence of that. Unfair officiating

The whole point of the Olympics is for everyone to come together in a spirit of sportsmanship, forget all the politics, and enjoy the thrills of competition at the highest levels of athletics. But despite the fact that China’s athletes have achieved remarkable things this games and racked up yet another incredible gold medal count, China seems determined to pout about the London Olympics. It’s not so much that China still wants to be the victim. It is still, I think of remnant of the old imperial center-of-the-universe mentality: the fact that we are a victim is just further evidence that ultimately, it’s all about us.

‘Village Democracy Spreads the Wealth’: Interviewing Yale Researcher Nancy Qian

Does village democracy in China bring greater income parity to poorer populations along with feelings of satisfaction and empowerment?

When I reported last month on the release of an American-funded, multi-university study examining the effects of village democracy on public goods expenditures in China (see “Village Democracy Spreads the Wealth” (07/01/2012), I had not yet been able to reach any of the study authors for a direct interview.

Naturally, many questions remained unanswered, particularly those related to the limitations of the research and the caveats that always underlie good news.

To recap briefly:  The international study, jointly undertaken by academic researchers at The London School of Economics, Yale University,  Johns Hopkins, and Peking University’s China Center for Economic Research, concluded that local elections and village democracy in China are actually increasing prosperity and local villager “buy in” to better governance.

Measuring both economic and social effects of local elections in 217 Chinese villages randomly selected from 29 Chinese provinces, the study’s major finding is that village democracy increases local expenditures for public projects by as much as 27%. Examples include irrigation for poorer village farms and more spending for public schools.  Moreover, villagers themselves are willing to part with money to invest in these projects through increased taxes; virtually none of the expenditure increases come from regional or central government coffers.

Another major finding of the study is that village elections — which have been rolling out in China since 1982 — actually results in redistribution of land and agricultural income to poorer families. “Elections increased the ratio of the income of the households that were in the poorest 10 percent over the households that were in the top ten percent by 21 percentage points,”  the authors stated. How? Elected village officials are empowered to redistribute farmland originally leased to enterprises (which disproportionately benefits village elites), thus boosting agricultural income among the poor.

Why, then, does China continue to report an escalating number of “mass incidents”  — riots, demonstrations, uprisings — as many as 127,000 a year (New York Times), with land disputes accounting for 65 percent of rural “mass conflicts” (China Academy of Social Sciences). If village elections are working so well to redistribute wealth, why is the income gap between richer and poorer in China growing ever wider?

Obviously these questions are complex. “Democracy doesn’t guarantee happiness; we also have protests in fully democratic countries,” observed Nancy Qian, one of the study co-authors, an assistant professor of Economics at Yale University.  “Just because things are better in the villages doesn’t mean it’s enough,” she continued. “We don’t have the data over time to find out whether elections have increased or decreased local protests.”

I reached Qian while she was taking a speeding Amtrak in New England.  She added a number of qualifiers about the democracy study.  First,  study data did not touch at all on civil rights.  The researchers did not interview or collect survey data from villages in ethnic minority regions, such as Tibet or Xinjiang.  They did not collect or collate data on democracy protests or any other kind of Chinese protest, whether local, county, or provincial.  So there is an apparent gap in knowledge about democracy, public money and satisfaction. Not only is it tough to get reliable data on the numbers of [village] protests (“You know you’re not getting a random sample,” Qian said, since both Chinese media and government tend to suppress reports of protests). “As researchers, you’d be worried about protests you’re hearing about and what you’re not hearing about,” she added.  Available data may be unreliable.  But the relationship between local democracy and the freedom to protest is one that Qian would like to explore.

Further, the democracy study did not look at whether greater democracy at a local level promoted richer and more elite folk to elected positions. Qian acknowledges “there is a lot of turnover [in elections]; and the people who enter office today will be very different from people who were in office before.  They are younger and more educated; and they may not have been from the Party before. They’re not part of the original elite.”

Such issues as localized corruption, black jails, forced abortions in the countryside, and the relationship between village governments and the prosecution of crimes by police were subjects untouched in this broad-based study. These real-world factors are like commas in a long embedded sentence with the main idea at the end — and that idea, according to Qian, is that village democracy in China apparently improves public life overall and helps to redistribute both land and income from the richest families to the poorest ones.  However, the question of how democracy actually shapes the lives, thoughts, and options of people in specific villages, in specific regions of China, remains open.

In the near term, Qian and her colleagues will add further dimensions to their study. “We want to understand whether elections work to benefit people with higher social capital, and also to look at the role of religion and how that affects how elections really work,” she said.