Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Eric X. Li vs Minxin Pei on China and Democracy

I finally got around today to watching the Idea Festival debate between Eric X Li and Minxin Pei. It's lively and interesting, and becomes more so as it progresses. My major take-away is that the pro-democracy side of the argument is most vulnerable when it makes global claims (the 120 democracies in the world gaining adherents in some sort of happy arc of history towards freedom and justice for all). That kind of vision is easily discredited, and Li gained a lot of audience sympathy for instance by reference to the dysfunctional condition of US and European democracies, and by a comparison of the 'clean', successful autocracies of HK, Singapore and Qatar and the corruption of Greece and Italy. In doing so he kept the attention off any real deep-dive criticism of the true flaws and miseries of the Chinese system. Would-be proponents of democracy for China take note - a more nuanced version of the argument needs to encompass the flaws and inconsistencies of the western democratic model and thus establish a less assailable foundation for the critique of China's current system itself. Otherwise it is easy for the EXLs of this world to cry hypocrisy and claim to have exposed your democratic dream as a sham. 

Below are my live reactions to the video:

Considering Kaiser Kuo's endorsement on the always-excellent Sinica podcast of Li as the 'first sword' of the apologists of authoritarian rule, by the end of Li's closing statement around 13:30 I'm a bit disappointed. The 'the CCP has a superb track record and hence will continue to flourish' argument is weak, and would be as weak in an investment analysis as is it in this political critique.

His position is getting stronger around 20:00 comparing satisfaction in China with the disarray of western democratic systems. 22 minutes in on corruption pretty good - 3/4 of non-western countries in the top 20 cleanest of Transparency International index are authoritarian (Minxin Pei's rejoinder that they're all city states with low monitoring costs is right on the button), while plenty of western democracies (Greece,  India, Italy) are far from clean. Nice concise survey of the wild times of the industrializing US too.

Eric Li: around 30 minutes - the breadth of change that the one-party system has been able to encompass since foundation are far greater than democracies have had to deal with, but it has been flexible enough to keep up with the pace of that change. Minxin Pei - the party hasn't changed that much, the gap between the political system and economic/social reality is changing fast, either the former must change or the pace of growth and opening must slow quickly.

Minxin Pei paints a picture around 34 minutes of a split between party elites fueled by social discontent that will be the start of a transition to multi-party democracy. Sounds a bit optimistic - that kind of split would be more likely to turn very nasty than herald political reform.

38 minutes - EXL: a fallacy to equate democratic elections with legitimacy; like a legally binding contract on a sub-prime mortgage loan: morally illegitimate. MXP: that legal legitimacy is actually moral legitimacy too - noone thinks otherwise.

MXP - democracy will happen in China within 10-15yrs from now.

EXL - political liberty/rights come from men, so they're not absolute, they're negotiable. MXP - that's ok, but in China (and autocracies) one class of people has lots more rights than the regular people - regardless of  moral relativism that's wrong because the negotiation happens from a totally unbalanced power dynamic.

EXL - regarding the new democracies (Taiwan, Korea etc.) it's too early to pass judgement on the success of that transition, particularly with corrupt former presidents in jail.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

in memory of Charles Hwa

On Saturday 27 May 2012, Charles Hwa, Class President of the current graduating Tsinghua International MBA class, respected member of the Beijing start-up community, and dear friend to so many of us in Beijing, passed away tragically at the age of 33. Charles was playing basketball with friends in Chaoyang Park when he collapsed. Despite the best efforts of friends, medics and passers-by to give him CPR and revive him, Charles’ heart stopped and he did not regain consciousness. It was his 34th birthday this weekend coming.

It’s hard to find words to describe this tragedy. Charles was the most beautiful person, never angry, never unkind to anyone. He was always ready to help with a problem, and always had time for others. He was so smart, and generous, and caring, and we loved him. Charles, you touched our lives with your spirit and your kindness, and we will never forget you. It’s so hard to accept that you’ve left this world now, but you will live on with us in our memories always.

It’s impossible for us to know what happens after death, but at least we can be sure that whatever it is, wherever we go, Charles must be in a better place, because someone so special and always so good to all those around him couldn’t be somewhere bad.

Rest in peace Charles, you are in our prayers.
His friends.

Friday, 25 May 2012

all chinese songs considered

The new Beijing Banter is up!

Three leading lights of the Beijing music establishment guide us through the state of the scene, from hermit rock to girl groups to political protest to a band member who supports his musical career working as a train driver in a Wuhan steel factory.

With thanks to Marcus M Schneider of Metrowaves, Ami Li of Splitworks and Charles Saliba of Maybe Mars.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

beijing welcomes you, decent foreigners

The last week or so have gotten a little weird for foreigners out here in Beijing. Let's put it this way: some of our number have not necessarily been covering themselves in glory...a British guy was caught on video last week getting beaten by Chinese after apparently trying to assault a Chinese girl, while a Russian cellist was filmed being pretty anti-social on a high-speed train from Shenyang. Understandably, this has led to some anti-foreigner sentiment emerging in various places including this gem on Weibo from anti-semite and all round charming CCTV news anchor Yang Rui:
The Public Security Bureau wants to clean out the foreign trash: To arrest foreign thugs and protect innocent girls, they need to concentrate on the disaster zones in [student district] Wudaokou and [drinking district] Sanlitun. Cut off the foreign snake heads. People who can't find jobs in the U.S. and Europe come to China to grab our money, engage in human trafficking and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Foreign spies seek out Chinese girls to mask their espionage and pretend to be tourists while compiling maps and GPS data for Japan, Korea and the West.
In the meantime, this frankly bizarre page has appeared on Sina's english website gathering stories and videos of Good and Bad expats including the two mentioned above together while supporting the 'anti-3-crimes' campaign recently launched to crack down on foreigners without appropriate visa status and, creepiest of all, exhorting people to call a hotline to report their neighbourhood foreigner. The whole thing is somewhere between hilarious and chilling. I haven't felt any real change in the mood myself out and about in (among other places) Sanlitun, but I'm certainly taking extra care not to get provoked into a shouting match. 

Thursday, 26 April 2012

two wonderful, thoughtful films

Two superb and unusual recent films worth watching: Black Pond and Monsieur Lazhar - the first is about a middle class British family who are accused of inviting an odd local old fellow over for tea and murdering him, the second about a genteel Algerian with traditional ideas in Montreal who takes over an elementary school class whose last teacher hung herself in their classroom. Wonderful, thoughtful stuff.

Monday, 26 March 2012

the cook-off

On Saturday afternoon, Chuck and I loaded up the car with chili, fixins and a chocolate stout cake (for our loyal supporters) and headed over to Great Leap Brewery for the Back Alley Chili Cookoff.

We were the only Texan-Arkansan-British chili combination team, not surprisingly, though there were a couple of Irish guys. The other eight teams were all-American; NY was represented well, including the guy in the Knicks jersey to my left below, who came into this contest hot on the tails of a win at the Brooklyn chili cookoff; his chili included home-made chorizo with caramelized peanuts to top. 

Ours was a more traditional mix - flank steak, kidney beans, tomatoes, onions etc., although we had a fair share of interesting additions - pulled pork, bacon, coca-cola and Great Leap's spiced Stout (cinnamon, cloves etc.). The real secret though were the phenomenal chilies we sourced and prepared. Some - chipotle and several smaller red mexican-style chilies - we bought ground from Drive Thru, my favourite bar/herb and spice emporium of the moment. Others - including red and green bell pepper/chili hybrids - we bought fresh at the local market, dried and crushed or charred and peeled. The combination of fresh, smoky and hot flavours were superb and I'll be doing some variation of this method in the future wherever chilies are called for.

The moment of judgement arrived...the judges' choice and the peoples' choice (based on a vote) were announced.

And we did great! Well, out of 10 contestants we were runners up in both categories, and the No. 1 in each was different - it'll do...for a first attempt anyhow haha!

A big thank you to Julie Bradford, Chuck Bradford and all of the fine folk who turned out to support us, and of course to Nathalie and Candice for organizing such a fun event.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

nicolas anelka and a chili cook-off

Last night Nicolas Anelka played his first game in China for Shanghai Shenhua, who are paying at least £6m a year for his star power, and we were there to watch. He also scored, jumping the hoardings to celebrate with the hundred or so Shanghai fans who made the trip up to Beijing to watch our local boys Guo'an take the big spending Shanghainese down 3-2. Full disclosure - I've not been known in the past for my love of the beautiful game, but last night was excellent. Superb seats available for peanuts at a stadium 5 minutes cycle from my apartment, goals aplenty and only mild vuvuzela deafness. 

It's not too clear, but you should be able to see the phalanx of riot police on the right of this photo - these guys were everywhere.

It was interesting to witness the Chinese crowd fully embrace the more negative emotions that football inspires - the go-to chant for Beijing appears to be 'shabi' - idiot. In fact, the most positive comment I heard all evening was 'haoqiu' - good ball, used a a multi-purpose statement of approval for any development positive to Guo'an. It was shabi that really caught the imagination of the Beijing crowd though - directed at the Shanghai fans, the referee, linesmen, Anelka, and probably everyone else involved too at one point or another - it was often very unclear who exactly was the shabi. In any case, if that's the level of excitement that Guo'an games involve (and Jorgen assures me that it's not) I may well make a return visit to the workers' stadium.

In other news, to really get the most out of my last week of lounging around at home before I start a new job at Dragonomics next week, I've entered a chili cook-off at Great Leap brewery. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has heard me enthuse about wanting to attend such an event on our next US road-trip, so the lure of actual participation on my very doorstep (and at what is one of my top 3 places in Beijing) was too much to resist. As such, Julie (Greta's mum, and a top-notch cook from Arkansas) and I have been dashing hither and thither around town to source the most delicious ingredients possible. The catch - only one ingredient can be imported, all the rest must be Chinese - sounds more restricting than it actually is; it's amazing what you can get here. With another week to go before the cook-off, I'm not going to go into any more top secret details, but here are a few pics to whet your chili appetite:

Any tips from readers on their chili secrets would be gratefully received in the comment section!

Thursday, 1 March 2012

a mirror for princelings part III: promoting social values and high moral standards

I'm pretty sure this following nugget didn't come from the World Bank team; I don't think even that paternalistic institution considers its role to include prescriptions about the moral standards of a society...
There is wide-spread concern in China over many recent instances of “moral failures” that were reported widely in the media. As China becomes a high-income society, its social values and moral standards should be reexamined and reinforced. From a social perspective, not only will this contribute to improving the quality of life, it will also provide a greater sense of community and enhance social cohesion. From an economic perspective, it will reduce transaction costs and improve the quality of economic governance. Promoting social values and high moral standards is not only the job of government; it is also the duty of social organizations and, indeed, every citizen. Moral awareness, not legal compulsion, should be the hallmark of a high-income, harmonious society.
It would be interesting to know a little more about exactly which social values and moral standards the team feels are particularly in need of improvement - based on two years of following Chinese netizen reaction to 'moral failures' from bribery of officials to rail crashes to numerous 'absence of a good samaritan' scenarios, my guess is that reducing corruptibility and the development of greater empathy for fellow-citizens would be pretty close to the top of the list.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

a mirror for princelings part II: from imitator to innovator

One of the most interesting paragraphs so far in Chapter II has concerned shifting role of government as China reaches the 'technology frontier.'
Changing the development model is urgent because, as an economy approaches the tech- nology frontier and exhausts the potential for acquiring and applying technology from abroad, the role of the government needs to change fundamentally. Initiating this change early helps smooth the transition from importing new technologies to innovating and creating new technologies. 
Developing countries tend to benefit from the latecomer’s advantage by following a development path adopted by others. This path makes the role of government relatively straightforward—providing roads, railways, energy, and other infrastructure to complement private investment, allowing open trade and investment policies that encourage technological catch-up, and implementing industrial policies when market and coordination failures inhibit the development of internationally competitive industries consistent with the country’s comparative advantage. The development strategies of East Asia’s successful economies—Japan; Korea; Hong Kong SAR, China; Singapore; and Taiwan, China—have all broadly reflected these features.
But when a developing country reaches the technology frontier, the correct development strategy ceases to be so straightforward. Direct government intervention may actually retard growth, not help it. The role of the private sector is critical because innovation at the technology frontier is quite different in nature from simply catch- ing up technologically. The process becomes essentially one of trial and error, with the chances of success highly uncertain. Innovation is not something that can be achieved through government planning.
It's difficult to see exactly on what data the World Bank is basing this assertion - how does anyone know what the correct development strategy is for a society reaching the technology frontier (and moreover how do you know when you've reached it? is the Chinese telecoms sector at the frontier because the country has more than 1 billion mobile phones in active use, almost 100 million of which are current generation 'smart-phones'?). The US, often lauded as the most innovative society in the world, has increased government involvement in innovation significantly over past decades, and the most commonly expressed view across the political system that such efforts need to increase rather than recede.

Of course one could make a case that the nature of involvement in the US is different - R&D tax credits are a less directive tool than a Five-Year-Plan injunction - but the effect is roughly the same, diverting capital and managerial attention into areas that the government deems critical to national success or security. 

I don't think anyone knows yet what strategy - central planning, total market freedom or some combination of the two - will yield the best results in the innovation race (partially because it is such a gamble). Perhaps our philosophers will discuss this subject in a more nuanced way later in the report...I'll let you know!

a mirror for princelings part I - a gloss on the world bank's china 2030 report

Yesterday the World Bank in association with an influential Chinese think tank (the DRC) released a highly anticipated report entitled 'China 2030: Building a modern, harmonious and creative high income society.' This kind of advice document has a long provenance - in medieval europe they were known as specula principum or the 'mirror of princes' - the most famous example of which may be the letter of Aristotle to Alexander the Great. At heart such literature is the product of two complementary paradoxes - princes have all the power to act but little time to reflect, philosophers have leisure to ponder but lack the power to build their utopias. Of course the relationship was never so equal - the power dynamic was always highly asymmetric, and it was a brave philosopher/poet who wrote a true critique of the executive. Though the pen may be mightier than the sword, power, as Mao knew well, grows out of the barrel of a gun.

So there you have it, the philosophers of the World Bank (and DRC) are bringing their wisdom to the feet of China's princes (or should that be princelings?) - the key questions will be (as they have always been) - how far will said philosophers dare to offend their princes in the way of real critique; how incisive will their analysis and prescriptions be; and what chance do their prescriptions have of being enacted?

Here it is - it's a chunky 468 pages long though, so on the assumption that unless you're an inveterate China geek you won't be ploughing through this one, here is my initial gloss:

First order of business - what do they mean by the adjective-laden (and evidently decided-by-committee) title?
A modern society is industrialized and urbanized and enjoys a quality of life that is on par with the Western world. This society would have modern values, a modern economic and social structure, with access to contemporary, state-of-the-art product and process technologies, and would engage and contribute as an equal with other nations in the discourse of the modern world on all subjects. Note: our 'modern values' may not be quite the same as your 'modern values' - such fetishization of the modern for its own sake is worrying in any case: as Chesterton opined - The real objection to modernism is simply that it is a form of snobbishness. It is an attempt to crush a rational opponent not by reason, but by some mystery of superiority, by hinting that one is especially up to date or particularly 'in the know' - my preference, tbh, is for crossing the river by feeling the stones, rather than striding out into the current where all the best logic of modernity tells you there should be stones...

As a harmonious society, China sees three interrelated goals. First, its own policies need to be inclusive and just, aimed at eliminating most social and economic boundaries and at building a society in which everyone has a common stake in the country’s economic, social, legal, and political institutions. China would like to see a society where people show mutual respect, disputes are resolved justly and peacefully through accepted norms, laws, regulations, and practices—and the institutional structure is quick to adapt to society’s changing needs and aspirations. (consultative leninism) Second, China sees itself living in balance with nature, in which its ecological foot- print—the use of resources and creation of waste—are consistent with the biological capacity of its (and the world’s) land, water, and air resources given existing technology. And third, China would like to see itself as an equal, constructive, and accepted partner in the community of nations, working peace- fully and cooperatively toward common goals, and engaging constructively on global issues and in global institutions. 

As a creative society, China sees itself building its future prosperity on innovation in which everyone’s creative potential is tapped. Its success will lie in its ability to produce more value, not more products, enabling it to move up the value chain and compete globally in the same product space as advanced countries. (and whence flies comparative advantage when we're all selling each other internet advertising?) Creativity will manifest itself not just in product and process technology, but also in cultural and artistic pursuits. If successful, China’s experience could potentially be a beacon for other middle-income developing countries to follow.

As a high-income society, China’s aspiration is to enjoy a per capita income on par with advanced economies; have a large middle class that acts as a force for stability, good governance, and economic progress; eliminate poverty as it is known today; and pro- mote social harmony by increasing equality of opportunity and lowering inequality in all its economic and social dimensions.
more to follow...