Category Archives: China From the West

On Martin Jacques’s Latest Op-Ed and the Superiority of the Chinese State

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I came across this piece by Martin Jacques on the BBC’s website. He is, of course, the man behind the sickeningly sycophantic When China Rules the World. But even knowing that, there are some shockingly insane assertions in this article. Let’s jump in, shall we?

After a introduction in which Jacques sets up a straw-man argument (he assumes you think China’s government will be its downfall) to knock down, he writes,

You probably think that the legitimacy and authority of the state, or government, is overwhelmingly a function of democracy, Western-style.

But democracy is only one factor. Nor does democracy in itself guarantee legitimacy.


But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?

Take the findings of Tony Saich at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In a series of surveys he found that between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government.

The key word here, of course, is “central.” Saich himself writes:

While in 2009, 95.9 per cent were either relatively or extremely satisfied with the central government, this dropped to 61.5 per cent at the local level.

In China, local governments provide almost all public services and the fact that satisfaction levels decline as one gets closer to the people is a worrying sign.

Saich goes on to write that local approval numbers have increased under Hu and Wen, but of course, his latest survey was in 2009, before the recent bouts of inflation, the Wenzhou train crash, the current economic slowdown, the Bo Xilai scandal, the revelation that central leaders like Wen Jiabao and Xi Jinping have used their positions to amass huge personal fortunes ((I highly doubt many Chinese were surprised by this news, but there is a difference between knowing something in the cynical, they’re-all-corrupt attitude of a taxi driver and knowing something in the sense that the New York Times has given you very specific figures.)), etc. Jacques also — what a surprise — cites the 2010 Pew poll but, again, that came before everything I have listed above.

(And, of course, although Hong Kong and Taiwan are a part of China whenever it is rhetorically convenient to say so, somehow the opinions of Hong Kongers and Taiwanese about the Chinese government never get mentioned when discussing how “Chinese people” feel about the government).

All of those issues aside, there is a more fundamental problem with Jacques’ approach here: the reliability of strangers doing opinion polls in a country where a sarcastic tweet can get you sent to a labor camp. I am sure that Jacques, being a China expert, is familiar with the phrase 家丑不可外扬 (‘never air your dirty laundry in public’). I have yet to see a convincing explanation anywhere of how opinion polling conducted in China accounts for the fact that (a) people don’t tend to share their true feelings with random strangers and (b) that is doubly true when people perceive expressing critical sentiment to be dangerous, which we all know it can be.

Why would anyone choose to go out on a limb and tell a stranger they disapprove of the central government? They gain nothing whatsoever from such an action, and the risks, while minimal, are not nonexistent. Moreover, many Chinese are used to censoring themselves when it comes to discussions of politics in public or with strangers. Even if you are dissatisfied, being forthcoming about that has no upside.

Jacques is correct in asserting that democracies are not, by default, more “legitimate” governments than non-democracies. But since that’s refuting a straw-man argument that I’ve never heard anyone actually make, I’m not sure he deserves much credit for being right. Anyway, back to Jacques as he continues his argument:

If the Chinese state enjoys such support, then why does it display such signs of paranoia? The controls on the press and the internet, the periodic arrest of dissidents, and the rest of it.

Good point. Actually, all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms. Why?

Because the country is huge and governance is extremely difficult. They are always anxious, always fearing the unforeseen. Anticipating sources of instability has long been regarded as a fundamental attribute of good governance.

This does not strike me as a sufficient explanation for the Chinese government’s paranoia. That all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms is probably debatable, but instead of getting into it I’ll grant Jacques the benefit of the doubt there and instead point out that historically, this has been true of more or less every government everywhere. Before the modern era, finding a government that didn’t attempt to censor culture or round up dissidents every now and then is a rather difficult endeavor; this is certainly not a historical phenomenon that is unique to China.

And while China is more populous than any other nation on earth, Jacques’ assertion that it is more difficult to govern is highly questionable (and, in his article, totally unsupported). Certainly, governing a billion people is difficult. I imagine that governing a multiracial, multicultural nation of immigrants that has a history of divisive violence and a legal system that permits most people to carry firearms is also probably difficult.

So what makes China in particular so difficult to govern? Geographically, it’s about the same size as the US, and although it is far more populous, Jacques has just gotten through arguing that virtually everyone in China supports the government. If China’s central government really enjoys 95% approval, then that means it has to worry about around 62 million dissatisfied citizens who may be tough to govern. The US government’s approval rating, by almost any measure, means that it is frequently dealing with a dissatisfied citizenry whose numbers are at least double that.

So what is it that makes China so hard to govern? If Jacques is correct in his argument that Chinese people overwhelmingly support their government, then China’s government has to deal with far fewer dissatisfied citizens than the US does, spread out over an area of approximately the same geographical size. Here, Jacques will likely recall another popular Chinese idiom: 自相矛盾 (‘contradicting oneself’). How can China’s citizenry be overwhelmingly supportive of the government and yet somehow so difficult to govern that the government must resort press and internet censorship, the suppression of dissidents, etc.?

But let’s move on, because this is where we move from faulty logic and questionable unsupported assertions into the realm of full-on crazy:

The Chinese idea of the state could hardly be more different [from the Western one].

They do not view it from a narrowly utilitarian standpoint, in terms of what it can deliver, let alone as the devil incarnate in the manner of the American Tea Party.

They see the state as an intimate, or, to be more precise, as a member of the family – the head of the family, in fact. The Chinese regard the family as the template for the state. What’s more, they perceive the state not as external to themselves but as an extension or representation of themselves.

It’s hard to know where to even start with this. First of all, the idea that all Chinese people see the state the same way is utterly ridiculous. Earlier in his article, Jacques points out that Western perceptions of the state depend in part on one’s own political positions, but apparently there is no such diversity when it comes to the Chinese. No, “they” all apparently feel exactly the same way about the state.

That would be ridiculous enough on its own, but his assertion that Chinese people see the state as “a member of the family” is also pretty nuts. On the one hand, I can see where Jacques probably got this idea; the government itself often uses the family metaphor to characterize the way it governs over the people, and the people have to some extent adopted this metaphor. I’m not sure where Jacques is getting the idea that people perceive the state as an extension of themselves, but some leaders (i.e. “Grandpa Wen”) certainly are referred to occasionally as though they are members of the family.

However, the idea that all Chinese really see the state itself as a member of their family (or see the state as themselves) is absurd. It’s also difficult to disprove empirically because it would require reading the minds of large numbers of Chinese people. But anecdotal evidence abounds, and as someone who spent the part of last couple years traveling around China talking to Chinese families I feel quite confident in saying that there are plenty of Chinese people who don’t see the state as the head of their families, let alone an extension of themselves. Jacques, I’m sure, would argue that those people are the exceptions that prove the rule, but even if we just consider the parents of missing children and ignore other larger demographics of people who have come to see the state largely as an obstacle (like these folks), we’re still talking about hundreds of thousands of exceptions.

In fact, in my entire time in China and outside of China talking with Chinese people, I don’t think I’ve heard a Chinese person sincerely refer to the state as though it were a family member more than once or twice. Sure, it’s just anecdotal evidence, and it doesn’t prove anything, but I do feel inclined to point out that it’s far more than the zero evidence Jacques offered in support of his assertion.

Anyway, from here, Jacques moves into specifics, and bizarrely, chooses what has got to be one of the worst possible examples in an attempt to prove his point:

Even though China is still a poor developing country, its state, I would argue, is the most competent in the world.

Take infrastructure – the importance of which is belatedly now being recognised in the West. Here, China has no peers. Its high speed rail network is the world’s largest and will soon be greater than the rest of the world’s put together.

Really? It is at this point when we begin to suspect that Jacques’ article may actually be satire, because what else could possibly explain this choice of examples? Has Jacques forgotten that China’s high-speed rail network, one of the youngest in the world, has already experienced one of the deadliest high speed rail accidents in history? Is he unaware of the concerns about low-grade fly ash in track construction that indicate most of Chinas high-speed rail network is unsafe? Did he not watch the government’s response to the Wenzhou crash, a performance so blunderously pathetic that it ought to be listed in the dictionary next to the word incompetent?

At best, China’s high-speed rail is an unknown quantity. I do think China’s government was right to invest in this technology, and that China should expand its rail system as rapidly as is safely possible. But since at present there are multiple indications that China has far outstripped what is safely possible, using the high-speed rail network as an example of the Chinese state’s competence simply because it is big seems a little bit insane.

The Jacques moves on to his second example:

And the state’s ubiquity – a large majority of China’s most competitive companies, to this day, are state-owned. Or consider the one-child policy, which still commands great support amongst the population.

Indeed, some of China’s most competitive companies are state-owned, but Jacques is forgetting that that is in large part because it is the state that decides who can compete! It’s also worth noting that in some industries where users have more choice, private companies dominate. Let us compare, for example, the telecom industry and the internet search industry. State-owned companies dominate the telecom market (China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom are all state owned) and consumers don’t really have other choices. Since telecommunications networks need to install sensitive hardware in millions of places across the country, it’s no surprise that state-owned companies dominate here and Chinese consumers don’t have a viable private option. But in internet search, where users are free to visit any URL they choose (so long as it isn’t blocked), private Chinese companies like Baidu and Qihoo absolutely destroy the state-owned offerings.

The dominance of state-owned companies varies by industry, but given that the government ultimately decides whether any company is allowed to operate or not, we shouldn’t be too surprised that lots of state-owned companies end up doing pretty well. To use a sports metaphor, State-owned companies win a lot because the referees are the state. How good a record would the you expect the Yankees have if George Steinbrenner was the umpire for every game?

But let’s move on to Jacques’ assertion that the one child policy “still commands great support” among the population. Here we have another vaguely worded and totally unsupported assertion. It also comes at a particularly interesting time given that the China Development Research Foundation (a government think tank) just released a report urging China to abandon the One Child Policy entirely.

In terms of popular perceptions, the One Child Policy is a complicated issue. In my experience, most Chinese accept that it was a necessary measure to prevent population growth beyond the nation’s capacity to support people, and believe it’s still necessary, although in my own conversations with people I have found that most seem to consider it to be a bit outdated and wouldn’t be too sad to see it go. I’m not aware of any scientific polling on this specific issue, but a recent online poll with more than 30,000 respondents found that more than 70% wanted to abolish the One Child Policy and less than 30% wanted to keep it. Is this what Jacques means by “great support”?

Jacques concludes:

The competence of the state is little talked about or really valued in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Indeed, since the early 80s, the debate about the state in Britain has largely been conducted in terms either of what bits should be privatised or how it can be made to mimic the market.

Now, however, we are in a new ball game. With the Western economies in a profound mess and with China’s startling rise, the competence of the state can no longer be ignored. Our model is in crisis. Theirs has been delivering the goods.

Why is it that every article like this seems to imagine that history just stopped in 2009 or 2010 and the events of the past few years don’t matter when it comes to evaluating the success of China’s state? Moreover, why do the West’s economic woes prove the incompetence of the state when they are mostly the result of incompetence and gambling in the private sector? China’s government certainly deserves credit for the growth of its economy, but condemning Western states for the current crisis seems like a much greater reach.

I’m no economist, so I could be wrong, but again, Jacques doesn’t make any effort to connect the moral failures of Western investment bankers with the failure of the state on a systemic level. Nor does he point out that “the goods” China’s government has been delivering have come with both immediate problems (see: Wenzhou train crash, inflation, Bo Xilai scandal, censorship, paranoid crackdowns, etc.) and long-term issues that haven’t yet fully emerged (see: ageing population, local government debt and reliance on land sales, gender imbalance, shoddily-built infrastructure that will break sooner or later, etc.).

Western governments also face numerous problems, of course, and if we define a state’s competence as based entirely on its total GDP then, yes, China is poised to become the most competent state in the world. But right now, that definition would make the United States the most competent state on earth, a claim that (if it wasn’t election season) I think even the most strident Tea Party nutjobs might shy away from making.

Jacques’ article is full of the vagueness that is characteristic of China’s-system-is-the-best arguments because, as usual, his only real evidence is China’s remarkable economic growth. And while its growth has been impressive (to put it mildly) it has also given rise to significant problems. Some are already in full bloom and some have yet to emerge but pose serious questions about the Chinese system’s long-term viability if it does not reform. China’s system has done an incredible job of improving the economy over the last thirty years. But thirty years is barely more than a generation, and using that period (which was not without its rough patches, by the way) as evidence of systemic superiority is at best premature.

It is also simplistic, because it assumes that the purpose of the state is purely to generate economic growth. Economic growth has been great for China’s population, but when assessing the superiority of a given system (which, just as a side note, is a pretty pointless endeavor to begin with) there are a myriad of other factors I would argue that should be considered. And despite what Jacques might say about what “Chinese people” think, I know plenty of Chinese people who agree with me.

Has the state adequately protected its people from threats to their well-being, including long-term threats to their health like pollution and tainted foods? Has the state adequately protected its people’s human rights? Has the state enacted policies that solve problems in the short term without creating bigger ones in the long term? Has the state’s primary concern in governance been the welfare of its people or the perpetuation of its own power? These are serious questions (and there are many more) that could apply to most Western regimes just as well as they apply to China. But Jacques, in his article, has considered precisely none of them.

If nothing else, I hope that someday we will be able to move past the ubiquitous, ridiculous idea that “Chinese people” are a monolithic bloc that thinks the same way about everything. In China, as anywhere, there is a diverse spectrum of beliefs and opinions when it comes to the legitimacy, the role, and the competency of the state. Certainly, these beliefs and opinions have been shaped by China’s unique history, and as a result they do probably skew differently than Western opinions about the same topics (although measuring this empirically would be extremely difficult).

But Chinese people do not all think the same way about anything, and anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit.

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Another Lesson in How to Fail at Soft Power

I came across this story a couple days ago, and found it mildly amusing, but eventually decided it was worth sharing here because it’s indicative of the larger trend. First of all, here are the basics for those that haven’t already read the article:

Citing “strong resentment from the local Chinese community,” the Chinese government has asked the city of Corvallis to force a Taiwanese-American businessman to remove a mural advocating independence for Taiwan and Tibet from his downtown building.

But city leaders say the mural violates no laws and its political message is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Taiwanese artist Chao Tsung-song painted the 10-foot-by-100-foot mural last month on the side of the old Corvallis MicroTechnology building at Southwest Fourth Street and Jefferson Avenue. The work was commissioned by property owner David Lin, who is renovating the space for a restaurant and has rechristened the building Tibet House.

In vivid colors, the painting depicts riot police beating Tibetan demonstrators, Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule and images of Taiwan as a bulwark of freedom.

In a letter dated Aug. 8, the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco formally complained to Corvallis Mayor Julie Manning about the mural’s content and asked for her help in having it removed.

“There is only one China in the world,” the letter reads in part, “and both Tibet and Taiwan are parts of China.”

Now, I can’t be too sure about the quality of the reporting here, because the article refers to Tibet as a “country” and as a “breakaway province” (it most certainly is neither, though some might like it to be). But I’m guessing the basic facts of the case here are true.

Let’s think about this from the perspective of the local Chinese consulate general. A business owner in your area of the US has put up a mural that you find offensive. If this were China, of course, you could have it taken down, and maybe have the guy beaten or tossed in jail for a little while to teach him a lesson. But you don’t have those powers in the US, so your only real options are to ignore it or make a big stink about it. Why in hell would you ever choose the latter?

If you ignore it, the only people who ever hear about it are the people who happen to visit or drive by that building, most of whom probably aren’t even going to understand its meaning. If you make a big stink about it, on the other hand, you turn it into a news story. What’s more, you turn it into a news story that the local government has an active interest in promoting because it makes them look awesome. ‘We stood up to pressure from the Chinese government and defended the first Amendment rights of an American business owner’ — what US government official wouldn’t want that story on the front page of every newspaper? That is exactly why what could have been a tiny non-story is now being discussed on this blog and elsewhere despite the fact that I don’t even know where Corvallis is.

The other question is what the hell did Chinese consular officials think they were going to gain from sending that letter? Surely Chinese diplomats are given at least some basic training in US laws, so they ought to know the local government wasn’t even going to consider taking the mural down. And while I understand this is probably the sort of thing that has to be done from time to time to please the overseers back in China, I can’t imagine anyone in China would have heard of this mural either of the Chinese consulate general hadn’t broadcast it to the world by formally making a complaint about it.

The complaint makes the Chinese government look petty and weak even as it draws attention to two issues the Chinese government doesn’t want anyone talking about. The publicity helps ensure that more Americans are going to come down on what the Chinese government would consider to be the “wrong” side. Sure, consular officials may have scored some points with their buddies at home, but they did so by putting yet another scratch in China’s already-battered international reputation and by setting the country back even further on its increasingly unrealistic-looking quest to wield some kind of measurable cultural power outside its borders.

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.

Guest Post: Shame on Shaun Rein

The following is a guest post by Tom of Seeing Red in China. Of note also is a similar piece on The Peking Duck.

Yesterday Shaun Rein published a piece in Forbes bashing CNN’s lack of journalistic integrity when it helped Christian Bale organize a trip to Linyi. The main point of his article is sound, CNN did clearly cross a line from reporting news to creating news, but in Shaun’s efforts to hawk his new book and attack CNN, he grossly misrepresents what is going on in Linyi, exposing his own shameful lack of journalistic integrity.

Please bear with me as I pick apart the worst paragraphs of the piece:

“My issue here is not with Bale. In general, I believe one should follow the laws of nations that one visits, and that Bale should do so, but I also generally believe in free speech, no matter how misguided.”

It should be noted that it is not against the law to visit the city of Linyi. At no point did uniformed police officers or even the thugs that chased him away claim that what he was doing was against the law. Rein’s implication that it was in someway illegal serves only to obscure the issue.

One of the reasons I wrote my upcoming book, The End of Cheap China, was to dispel myths and distortions in the Western world about China, by covering both the good and bad of its evolution and trying to bring nuance where organizations like CNN bring activism. Far too many news organizations in the West perpetuate outdated or simply wrong views of the Chinese government and its people for the sake of getting eyeballs or, perhaps, to try to help contain the country. It is sad when CNN’s coverage of China becomes more like tabloid fodder than the gold standard it once was.

Here Shaun speculates that CNN might actually be trying to contain China, when it was covering what actually happened when Christian Bale tried to enter the village. Yes, it was 100% wrong for CNN to hire the van at Bale’s request, but CNN didn’t hire the thugs that kept Bale from visiting Chen Guangcheng. Pretending that human rights abuses don’t happen in China is hardly what I would call “nuanced” or balanced. It’s on par with Global Times pretending that the pollution in Beijing is harmless fog, hardly something worthy of Forbes.

I have a chapter in The End of Cheap China on the lessons I’ve learned from China’s sex industry and how it seems contradictory at first glance that brothels exist in the open everywhere, without local police molestation, while the central government cracks down on Internet porn. A closer look shows that China’s sex industry actually is a friction point between the central and local governments, a juncture where interests often diverge.

The central government might try to shut brothels but is stopped by corrupt local officials. President Hu has called local corruption a serious problem and has made rooting it out a major goal of his administration. My book tries to shed light on the interplay and often diverging interests between local and central government officials and why improvements are sometimes much slower than the central government wants.

Through censoring web searches for information on Chen Guangcheng and Linyi, the Central gov’t has clearly displayed that it actually has a similar interest in keeping Chen’s illegal detention a secret within China. While Shaun’s point about the difficulty of controlling prostitution might be true, Chen’s initial detention was the result of him opposing local implementation of a national policy. In this case the central gov’t’s interest in keeping Chen silenced does align with the local gov’t’s interest in saving face.

As a Chinese co-worker told me the other day, when there is one corrupt official, it’s a problem with that official, when there are hundreds of corrupt officials, it’s a problem with the system.

Bale and CNN’s publicity stunt indicts an entire political system without delving deeper into the reality of Chen’s detention and the interplay between the central and local governments.  I have no idea about Chen’s detention, and if he is being wronged or not, but if there are issues with his case, I am not convinced that calling the entire political class “disgusting,” as Bale does, can help.

When I pressed Shaun on his ignorance pertaining to Chen’s detention, he said again that he would not comment on something he had no knowledge of. The documentation of Chen’s abuse has been widely reported for nearly three months. To have “no idea” about it seems like he is feigning ignorance, otherwise he must have only been reading People’s Daily (even Global Times reported on Chen). It’s fine that he isn’t convinced that Bale calling the system disgusting is helpful, but how can he complain that CNN didn’t delve deeper into the reality when he himself has no idea about it?

Far too many in the West indict China’s whole governing class and system when a single local official does something stupid or brutish. Yet they criticized only a lone thuggish police officer in New York for pepper-spraying Occupy Wall Street protesters. They didn’t called [sic] President Obama evil for what that one officer did, or call for an overthrow of all of America. Yet Bale did that in China’s case, and, worse, CNN helped him.

So much is wrong with this paragraph that it hurts. Firstly, what is happening in Linyi absolutely involves the entire political system. Local officials who were initially involved in Chen’s case have been promoted to provincial level offices, and the brief mention in Global Times indicates that the central gov’t is aware of this illegal detention. Yet, the central gov’t has yet to take any action to help Chen.

The imprisonment of Chen does not rely on a “single local official” but involves village leaders, city level leaders, and provincial level leaders along with a squad of hired thugs.

Shaun pretends that this is in some way comparable to thuggish cops pepper spraying protesters. This would be similar if 1) the police in the pepper spray incident involved faced no punishment, ever 2) similar events happened throughout the US several times each day and 3) domestic newspapers were not allowed to report on the incident and information related to it was scrubbed from the internet. However, Shaun did say that he had “no idea about Chen’s detention”, so I guess it isn’t too surprising how wildly inaccurate his comparison is.

The last thing the world needs is increased tension between the world’s two superpowers. CNN should be ashamed for becoming more like a tabloid and inserting itself into the story rather than maintaining journalistic integrity and providing an objective view of its subjects.

I would argue that it is actually not a journalist’s job to be concerned about whether or not the story they are publishing creates tension between China and the US. The role of the journalist however almost certainly demands checking the facts and reporting the whole story when it does appear.

Shaun argued more eloquently at the beginning of the piece, CNN should not have involved itself so closely in the creation of this story, but it would have been a much stronger piece if he had demonstrated any of the integrity he expects from CNN.

The Dangers of a Quick Visit

First and foremost, all credit due to Stan Abrams of China Hearsay for finding this article and posting it on Twitter. As he pointed out, the rosy-glasses here are remarkably large, but I wanted to write a post about it because this kind of article is not altogether uncommon. The process, it seems, goes something like this.

  1. American businessman with no special knowledge of China visits China for a week or two.
  2. American businessman is very impressed with China’s authoritarian efficiency, and its high speed rail.
  3. American businessman returns to the US and writes glowing review of China for a respected newspaper and the editors print it even though it’s somewhat ludicrous.

I do also want to say out front that some of the things Robert Herbold says about China in this article are right, and there are some advantages to making comparisons like this. I suppose the real point isn’t to talk about China at all, but to galvanize the United States into doing something for once (you know, aside from invading middle eastern countries), which doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Still, the execution here is, well…off.

Recently I flew from Los Angeles to China to attend a corporate board-of-directors meeting in Shanghai, as well as customer and government visits there and in Beijing. After the trip was over, in thinking about the United States and China, it was not clear to me which is the developed, and which is the developing, country.

So, after briefly visiting Shanghai and Beijing, mainland China’s two most developed cities ((Shut up, who cares about Shenzhen?)), Herbold feels qualified to judge whether or not China is developing? That is utterly ridiculous. It might be fair for him to judge, say, public transportation systems (except that you know someone who flies to China to attend a corporate board of directors meeting isn’t going to be on any public transportation). But to judge whether a country is developed or not, shouldn’t you visit more than the two cities, especially if those two cities are widely known for being China’s most developed? Maybe take a trip out into the countryside or something. Or at least visit a second or third-tier city. You don’t have to do that. But if you want to write in the Wall Street Journal about whether or not China is developed, it seems like you might want to make an effort to actually see some of China. I’d have thought the WSJ editors might insist on that, but apparently not.

Infrastructure: Let’s face it, Los Angeles is decaying. Its airport is cramped and dirty, too small for the volume it tries to handle and in a state of disrepair. In contrast, the airports in Beijing and Shanghai are brand new, clean and incredibly spacious, with friendly, courteous staff galore. They are extremely well-designed to handle the large volume of air traffic needed to carry out global business these days.

In traveling the highways around Los Angeles to get to the airport, you are struck by the state of disrepair there, too. Of course, everyone knows California is bankrupt and that is probably the reason why. In contrast, the infrastructure in the major Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Beijing is absolute state-of-the-art and relatively new.

The congestion in the two cities is similar. In China, consumers are buying 18 million cars per year compared to 11 million in the U.S. China is working hard building roads to keep up with the gigantic demand for the automobile.

The just-completed Beijing to Shanghai high-speed rail link, which takes less than five hours for the 800-mile trip, is the crown jewel of China’s current 5,000 miles of rail, set to grow to 10,000 miles in 2020. Compare that to decaying Amtrak.

Herbold is spot-on here, but of course, he’s only talking about Beijing and Shanghai. Anyone who’s spent hours on a Chinese bus bumping along narrow, pothole roads, squatted over a hole in the ground by the side of the road at a truck stop “bathroom”, or squeezed into a standing-room-only hard-seat slow train knows that the comforts of Beijing and Shanghai are not available nationwide. This is obvious to someone who has lived in China for even a few months, and could also easily have been ascertained by talking to any regular Chinese person who doesn’t have something to gain by impressing you, but Herbold didn’t stay long and I doubt he bothered to converse with many laobaixing while he was here.

In fact, I’d be surprised if he ever experienced the “infrastructure” that China’s regular people use every day; the subways, slow trains, and unairconditioned buses. From his description of the trip, it sounds like he probably spent most of his time in black Audis and on business-class seats in high-speed trains and planes. But that’s just pure speculation on my part.

Government Leadership: Here the differences are staggering. In every meeting we attended, with four different customers of our company as well as representatives from four different arms of the Chinese government, our hosts began their presentation with a brief discussion of China’s new five-year-plan. This is the 12th five-year plan and it was announced in March 2011. Each of these groups reminded us that the new five-year plan is primarily focused on three things: 1) improving innovation in the country; 2) making significant improvements in the environmental footprint of China; and 3) continuing to create jobs to employ large numbers of people moving from rural to urban areas. Can you imagine the U.S. Congress and president emerging with a unified five-year plan that they actually achieve (like China typically does)?

The specificity of China’s goals in each element of the five-year plan is impressive. For example, China plans to cut carbon emissions by 17% by 2016. In the same time frame, China’s high-tech industries are to grow to 15% of the economy from 3% today.

This is where things start to get really disturbing. If you read this carefully, you’ll note the only thing he really mentions being impressed by is the five year plan. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s a lovely plan. But it hasn’t happened yet. Wouldn’t Herbold have heard an equally rosy view of the future if he had traveled to the US and met only with democratic party officials and strategists, for instance?

Without speaking to the common people, or even the ability to understand what’s being said in newspapers and on TV, of course it seems like everything is perfect and the future will be even better. China aside, did Herbold consider who he was talking to? No government official, from any country, would ever greet foreign investors with a presentation about how things were going badly and the government’s plan was to make everything worse over the next five years. But if Herbold ever bothered to ask anyone who wasn’t a government official about how effective China’s government is, he doesn’t mention it here.

Of course, he’s not entirely wrong. China’s government has engineered massive economic growth, lifted millions out of poverty, etc. My point is mostly that Herbold’s methods are highly questionable, and regardless of past successes, the government isn’t exactly batting 1.000 at the moment, as we’ll see here:

Government Finances: This topic is, frankly, embarrassing. China manages its economy with incredible care and is sitting on trillions of dollars of reserves. In contrast, the U.S. government has managed its financials very poorly over the years and is flirting with a Greece-like catastrophe.

Whoops. Guess Herbold didn’t stay long enough to learn that China’s local governments are trillions of dollars in debt, and that inflation may have climbed above 6%, a three-year-high, last month. Yes, the government is sitting on a mountain of reserves, and they’re certainly in a better position than the US government is (though that’s not saying much…). But there are also serious financial issues that Herbold seems to have completely missed.

Human Rights/Free Speech: In this area, our American view is that China has a ton of work to do. Their view is that we are nuts for not blocking pornography and antigovernment points-of-view from our youth and citizens.

Here, it seems Herbold has bought hook, line, and sinker the same Party line any foreigner hears the first time they mention “human rights” in China: “It’s just a cultural difference! It’s not that China is horrifically oppressive, it’s just that Chinese and Americans see things differently.” Sure, some do. But many Chinese understand human rights and free speech the same way Americans do, they just don’t have any say in what the government does or any way of expressing those opinions. I’ve said plenty about human rights in other posts, so here, let’s leave it at this: it’s an extremely complex issue that Herbold boils down to a single sentence, which essentially parrots the Party line. Even if this were true and every Chinese person felt the same way, did Herbold ever attempt to verify it, even anecdotally, beyond his meetings with government officials?

Anyway, he goes on about research and science before a rousing “Wake up, America!” conclusion — yes, he does actually use that cliche phrase as his closer — but I think it’s already clear what the problem here is.

At the risk, nay, the inevitability of sounding elitist: spending a week or two in China on a business trip doesn’t make you an expert on China. Hell, I can speak decent Chinese, I’ve lived here for years and traveled to many different parts of China, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing a piece for the WSJ about whether or not China was a “developed country”. (For the record, I don’t consider myself an “expert” either, although I clearly know a bit more than Robert Herbold).

I don’t blame Herbold for having the impulse to write this; certainly after my first two weeks in China I felt I had observed much of what was different between China and the US, and I spent a lot of time reflecting on what was wrong with the US. Luckily for me, the Wall Street Journal didn’t offer to publish those thoughts. Like Herbold, if I got anything right back then, it was by accident, for I didn’t have the resources yet even to know what I didn’t know, nor had I spent the time required to learn anything of substance.

Frankly, the Wall Street Journal probably shouldn’t have published this. I’m sure he’s a very intelligent and adept businessman, and everyone is entitled to their opinion, but come on. Printing something like this even as an op-ed gives it credence that it just doesn’t deserve. I know the WSJ has a very adept staff of folks who know enough about China to rip this article to shreds, or even to write another one on the same topic with the nuance that it actually deserves.

In Defense of the NY Times and Paranoia

Recently, the New York Times ran an article about the increasingly tight controls over everything from the internet to the media in China. It starts with this anecdote:

If anyone wonders whether the Chinese government has tightened its grip on electronic communications since protests began engulfing the Arab world, Shakespeare may prove instructive.

A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancée over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.

He spoke English, but another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence.

Everyone likes a good censorship test, so it’s easy to understand why people started piling on. Shanghaiist and Shanghai Scrap ran tests to see if they could duplicate the effect, and both found they couldn’t. ChinaHush also noted this, and on other blogs and Twitter the response has been kind of harsh, calling the story “false” and attacking the credibility of its authors.

Now, I love a good Western media thrashing as much as anyone. And a Western media blooper that allows us to shout “protest” into our phones? Now that’s good times.

These “experiments” are all predicated, though, on the assumption that the NY Times article is talking about automated censorship. You say “protest”, and presto, the phone magically hangs up on you. And yes, if the New York Times had reported China was doing that, it would be a load of crap. But that’s not what the story says.

Let’s take a look at the sentence that immediately follows that opening anecdote:

A host of evidence over the past several weeks shows that Chinese authorities are more determined than ever to police cellphone calls, electronic messages, e-mail and access to the Internet in order to smother any hint of antigovernment sentiment.

It seems clear to me that the anecdote was meant to be understood in the context of “authorities [being] determined […] to police cellphone calls,” which is probably exactly what was happening. The anecdote isn’t meant to be evidence of voice-recognizing censorship software, it’s evidence of increased police surveillance of the phone calls of anyone they consider suspicious.

Now, there’s no way to know whether the Times’s contacts would fit this description, because both of the sources mentioned are anonymous. Still, other journalists on Twitter confirmed that the authorities are definitely listening in on some phones. So why is everyone assuming the reporters are just making this whole thing up?

The fact is, we’re all testing for an automated system, but that makes no sense. I can’t even imagine the kind of resources bringing such a system to bear on all mobile phone lines would require, and even if they could, how could it possibly work? Given the diversity of accents and dialects throughout China, not to mention the diversity of “sensitive” words, my guess is such a system would be more or less impossible to make effective. Text filtration is one thing — and we already know for a fact that China Mobile filters texts for sensitive keywords from time to time ((I learned that myself the Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.)) — but voice filtration is another one entirely. Why bother? The PSB already has lists of their “people of interest”, it’s probably a lot cheaper to monitor their phones manually than it would be to monitor the phones of the entire nation via some crazy software.

Now, is this the clearest New York Times story ever? No. The fact that so many people assumed they meant automatic filtration software is testament to that. Moreover, there’s no real way to be sure it’s true because the sources are anonymous. Probably, there was a better way to start that article.

But with that said, is it fair to call the article “false” or accuse them of poor fact checking because yelling “PROTEST!” into your phone didn’t get you disconnected? No. We’ve all had fun playing with our phones. But let’s call off the witch hunt until we have some actual evidence that they’re making things up.

In Brief: Groupon Teaches us How to Please No One

Viewers of this year’s Super Bowl were treated to a special exercise during one of the advertising segments when Groupon, the group purchasing website, ran this advertisement:

UPDATE: There is now a version of this ad on Youku with Chinese subtitles as well. It will be interesting to see whether this takes off on the Chinese net or not.

It is, of course, offensive. But what’s so remarkable about it is that they managed to make something that was simultaneously offensive to both sides of the Tibet debate. Now that takes some doing! How did they pull it off?

They start by going straight for the throat of the Party line folks, by saying, “the people of Tibet are in trouble. Their very culture is in jeopardy.” Obviously, this goes against the official line that everything in Tibet is great and anyway you foreigners should mind your own damn business. It’s worth noting that it’s also incredibly vague. What is the point of even mentioning that something is in jeopardy if you’re not going to address what is threatening it or how the problem can be solved?

Ah, but Groupon does offer a solution! Well, a solution for you (assuming you’re American), that is. You see, with Groupon, you can save money on Tibetan food in Chicago, allowing you to feel like you’re supporting another culture and being a “citizen of the world” without actually learning or doing anything. Thanks to Groupon, you can experience wonderful and authentic fish curry that has been “whipped up” for your discount eating pleasure by real-life oppressed minorities! Huzzah!

Of course, your eating cheap food in Chicago does nothing for Tibetan culture, which is in jeopardy from…something unspecified in the advertisement. Nor does it help the apparently-troubled Tibetan people. But it does get you cheap curry, and that’s what counts, n’est-ce pas?

Needless to say, pretty much everyone hates the ad. “Free Tibet” groups are condemning it (as they should), “One China” supporters are condemning it (as they should), and people who have more nuanced opinions on Tibet but aren’t tasteless orientalists are also condemning it (as they should). The ad is racking up condemnations from Youtube to Sina Weibo, where more than a few people have echoed the sentiments of this comment:

“That Groupon ad is really fucking brain-damaged!!!”

There are a series of Groupon ads like this, though I’m not sure if they all ran during the Super Bowl. The video descriptions on Youtube make it sound like by buying the products in the ads, one makes a contribution to the relevant cause, but that’s not at all clear from the advertisements themselves. The whole thing is very vague. If it’s really a charity initiative, it was executed very poorly. If it isn’t, well…that means it’s a joke, which is even more concerning.

Many Chinese netizens are also commenting that this will make it impossible for Groupon to succeed in the Chinese market, although I wouldn’t have held out much hope for that being successful anyway, as there are already several Chinese group buying sites with their roots planted firmly.

For a few netizen translations, check out this post on the Nanfang or just go here to read the comments in real time.

UPDATE: Shanghaiist has a post chock full of info on this, which includes this tidbit from Groupon’s founder:

“The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as “Save the Whales”), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in “Save the Money”)?”

OK, yeah, I see what you were going for. However, that’s a highly questionable idea to begin with, and it was especially awfully executed. If you want to know more behind the scenes stuff, you can check out the Groupon blog post on it here. At the moment, there’s only one comment, so I’m assuming they’re not going to post any negative comments about the ads on their own blog.