Credit Where Credit’s Due

Democrats deserve a lot of praise for taking the pain out of expat primary voting — and for recognizing that American expats are a political community that needs representation. The Christian Science Monitor has the goods:

This year, the Democratic Party is conducting its first “global primary” that will allow Democrats living abroad to vote by Internet, mail, or fax or in one of the centers being set up in more than 30 countries. Voting starts on “Super Tuesday” – Feb. 5 – and will last for eight days.

“We’re trying to make it as easy as possible for Americans to participate from all over the world,” says Christine Schon Marques, international chairwoman of Democrats Abroad, the official, volunteer arm of the Democratic Party, which is coordinating the primary. “The online process especially is very new for us. It’s very exciting.”

For many active overseas Democrats, the global primary is as much a way of galvanizing potential voters in what many predict will be a hard-fought election as giving expatriate Democrats a voice. While this is not the first time Democrats Abroad has sent a delegation to the national convention, this year, the party is trying to reach out beyond the traditional party activists.

This is another political arena — like social networking — where Democrats are clearly innovating and Republicans are clearly lagging behind. Step to it, GOP!

In Search of Status Synchronicity

Like a lot of bloggers, I’ve taken the status/miniblog plunge in the last few months.

  • I used to use Jaiku before China blocked it.
  • I’m using Twitter because it’s still unblocked and a bit more communication-friendly than Jaiku.
  • I also have a Facebook account and update my status there.

This kind of blogging is on my mind because WordPress just introduced Prologue, which as far as I can tell, is a bit of clever theme coding that emulates Twitter in group form. In fact, Prologue doesn’t represent a terribly new concept, since short-post form sideblogs have been around in WordPress for years, but it looks nice and is bound to give people some new group blogging ideas.

But the addition of Prologue to the WordPress theme set also reminds me of a problem arising from the glut of status/miniblog services, namely, how can we effectively manage updating so many different services with our information, and how can our friends access our statuses or miniblogs in a convenient manner? This echoes the old “how many blogs do you need?” question, but with statuses the possibility for redundancy is far greater.

For example, Facebook offers both a current status feature and posted items feature, which, in turn, provide the same capabilities as Twitter or Jaiku. In my case, I usually make my Facebook status the most “personal,” since it’s for my Facebook friends only, whereas my Twitter is public and therefore has less “man, I drank too much last night”-type statuses, but there’s still overlap. If I joined a Prologue blog, would my posts there be significantly different from either Facebook or Twitter? It’s doubtful. On another front, I’ve considered making a Chinese language miniblog on Taotao, since most of my friends on Twitter can’t read Chinese and would probably get a screen filled with boxes when they see my status updates. Yet fragmenting my writing once again doesn’t seem like a very good idea.

Overall, if there was a way to easily synchronize status updates between the different web services, it’d be a boon and cut through the clutter of managing and reading so many different services. (The alternative, of course, is to only use a single status service — or no services at all.) There are some messy web applications along these lines, such as the Twitter application for Facebook, which turns your Facebook status into an ugly “X is twittering:” line. But what’d really be helpful is a software solution, possibly designed along the lines of Thwirl, that’d let me manage all of my statuses or miniblogs from one place. This would require either sticking a lot of different API-handling features into the software or having the web companies standardize their posting APIs.

Similarly, if the program included an interactive “status reader” that pulled all of a person’s statuses which are visible to you* together for you to read, it’d make following someone’s activities more interesting and enjoyable than by loading each service individually. This may actually be the easiest part of the program to create, since most statuses are output as XML and are thus easy to present to the end user. But it’s important to make it more than just a glorified RSS reader.** It needs to be interactive by ensuring that the status reader is compatible with the web service that the status is being pulled from. For example, if I see that my friend Ed on Facebook has a big job interview tomorrow, I should be able to click on his name and send him a Facebook message of support. At the same time, if I see that a friend from Twitter has posted an interesting link, I should be able to click on her name and send her an @user message. The heart of the reader side of the program would be a “status address book” that contained each friend’s various status feeds, which could either be manually input or discovered via email address input.

Over time, I expect that the status update services will go the way of the IM services and social networking sites, which started out numerous but have slowly faded away into duopolies like Facebook-Myspace and MSN-Google Talk. Consequently, over time, my software bleg might be rendered moot by user preferences, much as multi-platform chat has become less innovative with so many new users sticking to MSN or Google Talk. But for now it’d be a damn cool tool to have.

* The key here is “visible to you.” If the status would not be normally visible to you, you shouldn’t be able to read it. Privacy matters.

** RSS readers make blog reading much easier, especially here in China where loading individual pages is slow, but the lack of interaction through the reader — I need to load the website directly to comment — has always struck me as a weakness.

New Labor Laws, New National Holidays

Those of us who have been working in China for a few years are used to our three “Golden Week” holidays — weeklong vacation periods during Spring Festival, May Day, and National Day. Now, regardless of the festival being celebrated, for Chinese people, the character of a “Golden Week” has always been “travel travel travel shop shop shop.” (That is, for those Chinese who actually get to celebrate the holiday rather than wind up working overtime — but that’s another post.) For foreigners, “Golden Weeks” may be utilized like any long holiday — we may take a trip across the country, throw a lot of parties, or just sleep in every day for a week or so.

2008 is bringing a big change to this tradition, however, since the new Chinese labor laws have gone into effect and have reorganized the national holidays. Gone is the May Day “Golden Week” [and National Day "Golden Week" too -- see the post below] — perhaps because the government is aware of the irony that no actual blood-and-sweat workers can enjoy their labor day holiday — and in its place Chinese have a single day holiday for May Day as well as a number of one-day holidays that correspond to festival days, namely, Tomb-Sweeping Day in spring, the Dragon Boat Festival in summer, and Mid-Autumn Day in fall.

In the past I always wondered why these festivals, especially Mid-Autumn Day, didn’t rate an actual national holiday. Mid-Autumn Day is often likened to Thanksgiving, but this comparison was more correct in the past, when Chinese people had time to travel back home for family reunions or cook feasts for their families. At the same time, Mid-Autumn Day is a heavily commercialized festival, perhaps second to Spring Festival in terms of its economic importance. Giving people a national holiday to lug all those mooncakes around just makes sense.

However, most foreigners will ignore little cultural details like this for the bottom line: our long May holiday is gone, but we get a few days off at different points in the year. It goes without saying that foreigners who aren’t familiar with the new labor laws might be unpleasantly surprised if they’re planning a May Day vacation this year.

Update: The above post was based on communication with my new employers, but according to some new information, it seems the National Day Golden Week also got the axe. This means that some of Chris’s concerns in the comments here should be assuaged, though it also means China’s holiday days have been cut overall from 16 days* (three five-day holidays and one one-day holiday) down to 10 days. This kind of cut should be deeply felt in China, since many employers expect overtime work on Saturdays and/or Sundays.

Update two: While foreigners in Tianjin seem to be unanimous in claiming that National Day has been cut to one day, Chinese friends are telling me a different story. My university students say that National Day will remain a weeklong holiday and May Day will be a three-day holiday. But other Chinese friends say May Day will only be one day and National Day will be unchanged.

Confused, I looked for more information online. I found a single unsourced blog post that claimed that National Day will remain a “Golden Week” while the other holidays mentioned here will actually be three days long. The always-reliable China Daily has nothing on the subject, just an article predicting that “Golden Weeks” will be phased out. Not so helpful. Other websites seem to support the original material of this post, but no official announcements of the new holidays seem to have been made — at least in Englsh.

In all, this seems like a good case study of how murky the promulgation of rules and regulations can be in China.

* Note that only 10 of these days are actually paid holidays.

Against Multicultural Illiberalism

While I’m not really fond of “Muslims on the march” in Europe stories, Christopher Caldwell’s reporting on the subject has always been among the best. His latest article in the Financial Times (h/t Ross Douthat) looks at the ongoing clash between tolerance and liberty in the Netherlands.

Caldwell in brief: Geert Wilders, the right-wing Dutch political gadfly, has proposed making a short film condemning the Koran. The Dutch political establishment, mindful of the violent potential of Islamic extremists, has gone into full panic mode in response to Wilders, bracing for terrorist attacks and even going so far as to encourage Wilders to leave the country. Even as they prepare for the Islamic reaction to Wilders’ hypothetical film, they call on him not to make the film in the first place, revealing the ever-widening gap between liberal ideals and multicultural realities.

As Caldwell observes,

Was Mr Wilders asserting a right to free speech? Or was he dressing up a gratuitous religious insult in constitutional language? He was doing both, of course. In their eagerness to keep Mr Wilders from airing his argument, the Dutch authorities helped make it for him. They were unable to admit that widespread worries about violence stem from a problem (extremism in the Muslim world) and not just from an approach to a problem (Mr Wilders’s brusqueness). At a speech in Madrid, Maxime Verhagen, the foreign minister, said: “It is difficult to anticipate the content of the film, but freedom of expression doesn’t mean the right to offend.” It doesn’t? Well, if it doesn’t, then freedom of expression is not much of a right.

Indeed.

Of course, Europe is not unique in its shrinking away from its liberal roots. America has, for the better part of two decades, experienced the same trend, and rather than upholding a single conservative or liberal standard for discourse, in which we should all be equally respected or equally offended, we have instead established one set of rules for the groups we deem majorities (whites, Europeans, Christians, men), and a different set of rules for groups we deem minorities (blacks, Asians, Muslims, women). Accordingly, a black political activist who rails against whites and preaches anti-Semitism and even encourages his followers to perform acts of violence can be nonetheless embraced by the mainstream political establishment, whereas a white politician who issues an apologetic for a segregationist politician will quickly find himself ostracized by party and country. Similarly, an artist may take a symbol of Christianity and desecrate it in the name of “art” and find support among the cosmopolitan set, but if another artist dares to do the same to a symbol of Islam, he or she will be denied outlets for their free expression.

While this is traditionally called political correctness or identity politics, it has deeper roots in postmodern, Marxist-flavored cant that sees a constant struggle throughout society between the oppressor (the majority) and the oppressed (one or more minorities). For someone who adheres to this philosophy, there is a moral duty to protect minorities from criticism while criticizing the majority. (On a now-defunct blog I called this the left’s obsession with always defending David against Goliath, even in cases where David is the more insidious party.) Though it comes from the left, this multicultural illiberalism, to coin a phrase, is obviously a break from the classical liberalism of a Voltaire or Berlin, which does not discriminate between but rather defends all different kinds of speech, and it is even at odds with the deontological liberalism of Rawls, which would compel us to a single standard of discourse rather than subscribing to the “cafeteria politics” of postmodernism.

What’s more, multicultural illiberalism is a strange mirror of continental conservatism, which after all defended privileged classes (royalists, Germans, Catholics) while condemning out groups (liberals, Jews, Protestants). For instance, take the positions of someone like Joseph de Maistre, reverse where his sympathies lie and you might wind up with a person who sounds a lot like one of Wilders’ critics. But multicultural illiberals have a flaw that authoritarian conservatives do not: whereas a man of the far right will see a natural unity between all groups he supports, the multicultural illiberal is forced into inherently contradictory positions that arise when when one of his “historically oppressed groups” oppresses another “historically oppressed group.” Who, pray tell, should he support?

Islam, naturally, brings many of these contradictions to the forefront. For instance, for decades on, the far left* has been mostly silent about the treatment of gays and women in the Muslim world, either ignoring the problem or choosing to defend Islam at the expense of the other minorities. An anecdote from my college years here: when a woman from a fundamentalist religious party in Turkey came to speak at Florida State, the campus left championed her, condemning Turkey for denying her “rights as a woman and a Muslim” by not allowing her to wear her headscarf in parliament. They did so while ignoring her party’s platform, which encouraged the imposition of sharia law in Turkey, which would, in turn, deny the rights of other women by forcing them to wear headscarves in public. And so it seems that while the multicultural illiberal feels all minorities should be defended, they also believe some minorities should be more defended than others.

Returning to the case of Mr. Wilders, I must confess that I find mocking Islam for mocking’s sake distasteful, much as I find racist jokes or promoting cultural stereotypes distasteful. Yet I was brought up believing in the right to offend and agreeing with the reasonable limits we impose upon offended parties in a free and pluralistic society. A racial or cultural demagogue has the right to spew hatred and we may respond in kind, but we cannot be excused if we resort to violence, nor should the racist be told that his speech should be limited because some groups may have a violent reaction to it, especially since this, as Caldwell notes, tends to underscore the provocateur’s main points. That being said, the politics of Geert Wilders and other self-styled enemies of Islam have an ugly and xenophobic edge, and though the defenders of liberal ideals may be tempted to join hands with Wilders and his fellows against radical Islam and its multicultural apologists, they should not be surprised if their hands become dirty in the process.

* Note that I exclude left-libertarians and mainstream liberals and all those to the left-of-center who do not dampen their enthusiasm for liberty with cultural relativism.

Compassionate Conservatism in Retrospect

A very short Paul Krugman post grumbles that “compassionate conservatism” was a code word for evangelicals and not really a philosophy of pro-welfare state conservatism.

Three things here:

  1. No matter what the facts are — new AIDS funding, drug benefits, NCLB, and other social program expansions under the aegis of Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” — “compassionate conservatism” cannot be what Bush said it was, it must be what the critics say it is. It’s important of course to not tie big government to Bush because the new, improved Krugman of the 00s likes big government (unlike the older model Krugman of the 90s who seemed positively DLC-ious) and fears that Bush will leave people wanting for — gulp — a smaller government.
  2. Second, even if “compassionate conservatism” is a code word, what’s wrong with religious code words that aren’t bigoted? The fact that Bush’s speeches have used religious messages has vexed liberals since they “discovered” it around 2004, and if anything it says more about liberals than it does about Bush. When Bush, for example, praised the “wonder working power” of the American people during a State of the Union in 2003, religious people — even non-regular churchgoers like myself — knew he was making a reference to a hymn, and for everyone else this was a sweet or strange or even silly turn of phrase. Yet it’s not insidious or actually exclusionary, anymore so than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. making comparisons between the plight of (mostly religious, mostly Christian) blacks and the plight of the Israelites. My friends to the left, you do know what the “Promised Land” was, don’t you?
  3. Third, it may boggle the liberal mind, and it certainly angers the conservative mind, but I think the Bush domestic record is going to go down in history as an abortive attempt at Christian Market Socialism, an American version of Clement Attlee’s Christian Socialism, which thankfully Bush rolled out without reciting Blake’s “New Jerusalem.” Regardless, Krugman and other Democrats ought to be thrilled that Bush’s domestic agenda has had such an enervating effect on Republicans, otherwise the GOP might still be in fighting shape this year.

Update: My namesake Matthew Yglesias takes note of Krugman’s post, seemingly dismisses the “dog whistle” theory, then labels “compassionate conservatism” an exercise in pandering. (He also does a lot of Jacob Weisberg-bashing that might interest you if you’re into that sort of thing.) That also seems closer to the truth, especially since Bush always used the phrase “I’m a compassionate conservative” to mean “I’m not a nasty Republican.”

Mass Media Effect

I’m coming late to this one, and what’s worse, I’m going to begin with a cliche.

An old saying goes, conservatives worry about sex in the media, while liberals worry about violence. Recent blogging on the game Mass Effect serves to underscore this point.

Mass Effect is an adult-market science-fiction role-playing game created by Bioware, a company famous for making some of the finest role-playing games to ever appear on the PC and X-Box platforms. Because the game has a 17+ M (mature) rating, the creators have the flexibility to include graphic violence, some profanity, and a little bit of sex. These mature elements add to the realism of the story but they’re not what the game is actually about. I’ve played through the game once and intend to play through it again, not for the sake of titillation but for the enjoyment of watching my character grow and develop.

Now, I stressed “a little bit of sex” for a reason. In Mass Effect, like most Bioware games, the player is given the option to pursue a romance with one of the game characters, and in an almost cliched fashion, that character will give you a chance to consummate the romance before the final battle. (This is one of the few weaknesses in Bioware’s storytelling.) Since Mass Effect boasts excellent graphics and animation, the non-interactive 30-second love scene* is more realistic than most games that came before it, but it’s tame compared to movies or even network TV.

Yet, as I noted at the onset of this piece, conservatives stereotypically get their dander up at depictions of sex in the media. Since the right has pretty much given up on fighting the good fight against sex in movies and TV, the topic of sex in games — which might be played by kids! — is still an open battleground. And for the last couple of weeks, Mass Effect has been a casualty of this (little) culture war.

The incident is also a good example of how Internet memes can filter over into mainstream media in a very short time. It all started when Kevin McCullough wrote and blogged about Mass Effect online, spreading rumors that the game was an alien sex simulator. In turn, talk radio hosts began bashing the game, only to be followed up by negative news coverage on Fox. The curious thing is that after each escalation of the criticism, many of the critics, including McCullough, backed down and admitted the game wasn’t nearly as racy as they thought. Yet that didn’t stop the momentum of Mass Effect criticism — it just kept rolling and rolling through the media with a life of its own. However, after the Fox segment, it will probably die down unless an opportunist politician picks up on it.

Note that if Mass Effect does fall into the political crosshairs again, it might be for the violence rather the sex. As I said in the beginning, liberals tend to criticize violence in the media, and videogames are no exception. Several prominent Democratic Congressmen led a crusade against violent videogames in the late 1990s, with the end result being the more stringent rating system in the industry today. More recently, the left-liberal Internet blog Think Progress went after the US Army for including the violent but phenomenal game Gears of War in a videogame tournament, labeling it a “chainsaw massacre video game” (it makes the phrase “alien sex simulator” seem quaint, doesn’t it?).

So could Mass Effect be attacked by the usual suspects for being violent or antisocial? When Mass Effect was coming to market it was dubbed “Jack Bauer in space” by the gaming media, and like the fictional hero of television’s “24,” the protagonist of “Mass Effect” is a government agent whose world is painted in shades of gray. While the game simulates no torture — the element of “24″ that seems to trouble liberals the most — the player, if he or she so chooses,** is able to lie, threaten, steal, murder, and do other nefarious acts while pursuing the game’s villain. He or she can even — horror of horrors — run over space monkeys with an APC. (Just wait until PETA hears about this!)

Then again, the possibility of left-wing criticism of the game is all hypothetical. Right now, it’s just the right wing who is speaking out against Mass Effect and, in so doing, reminding me that the people who make it hardest to be a conservative are often the conservatives themselves.

* This in a game that lasts about 40 hours if the players explore everything. That means that sex is approximately 1/4800th of the game experience. Compare that to Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed Lust, Caution, which is 10% sex, and Mass Effect seems like a ripoff. Perverts should stop playing games and go to the video store.

** It’s sad but to be expected that critics of Mass Effect report that the game is a “role-playing game” without actually knowing what “role-playing” means.

And Then There Were Three?

Along the lines of Prof. John Ikenberry calling for a American-European alliance that dictates the rules of the game during China’s rise comes a New York Times Magazine article (h/t Rebecca MacKinnon) that envisions a tripolar world divided between the US, Europe, and China in the coming decade.

The author, foreign policy scholar Parag Khanna, offers this slightly awkward sketch of what he calls the “Big Three”:

The Big Three are the ultimate “Frenemies.” Twenty-first-century geopolitics will resemble nothing more than Orwell’s 1984, but instead of three world powers (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia), we have three hemispheric pan-regions, longitudinal zones dominated by America, Europe and China. As the early 20th-century European scholars of geopolitics realized, because a vertically organized region contains all climatic zones year-round, each pan-region can be self-sufficient and build a power base from which to intrude in others’ terrain. But in a globalized and shrinking world, no geography is sacrosanct. So in various ways, both overtly and under the radar, China and Europe will meddle in America’s backyard, America and China will compete for African resources in Europe’s southern periphery and America and Europe will seek to profit from the rapid economic growth of countries within China’s growing sphere of influence. Globalization is the weapon of choice. The main battlefield is what I call “the second world.”

And what is the second world? Khanna explains:

Second-world countries are distinguished from the third world by their potential: the likelihood that they will capitalize on a valuable commodity, a charismatic leader or a generous patron. Each and every second-world country matters in its own right, for its economic, strategic or diplomatic weight, and its decision to tilt toward the United States, the E.U. or China has a strong influence on what others in its region decide to do. Will an American nuclear deal with India push Pakistan even deeper into military dependence on China? Will the next set of Arab monarchs lean East or West? The second world will shape the world’s balance of power as much as the superpowers themselves will.

The second world isn’t exactly new terminology, mind you. Recall that the “old” second world was the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations, while “third world” was the term used for the minor powers manipulated by the first world West and second world Soviets. By eliminating the third world from the equation, the author suggests rough parity between the powers at the two tiers. This is problematic because his second world powers are a mix of developing and developed countries, resource-poor and resource-rich countries, and failed states and stable states

Moving on, Khanna seems to be asking the same question as Ikenberrry, can the US dictate the rules of the game in the future, and comes up with a very different answer:

The self-deluding universalism of the American imperium — that the world inherently needs a single leader and that American liberal ideology must be accepted as the basis of global order — has paradoxically resulted in America quickly becoming an ever-lonelier superpower. Just as there is a geopolitical marketplace, there is a marketplace of models of success for the second world to emulate, not least the Chinese model of economic growth without political liberalization (itself an affront to Western modernization theory). As the historian Arnold Toynbee observed half a century ago, Western imperialism united the globe, but it did not assure that the West would dominate forever — materially or morally. Despite the “mirage of immortality” that afflicts global empires, the only reliable rule of history is its cycles of imperial rise and decline, and as Toynbee also pithily noted, the only direction to go from the apogee of power is down.

[...]

I believe that a complex, multicultural landscape filled with transnational challenges from terrorism to global warming is completely unmanageable by a single authority, whether the United States or the United Nations. Globalization resists centralization of almost any kind. Instead, what we see gradually happening in climate-change negotiations (as in Bali in December) — and need to see more of in the areas of preventing nuclear proliferation and rebuilding failed states — is a far greater sense of a division of labor among the Big Three, a concrete burden-sharing among them by which they are judged not by their rhetoric but the responsibilities they fulfill. The arbitrarily composed Security Council is not the place to hash out such a division of labor. Neither are any of the other multilateral bodies bogged down with weighted voting and cacophonously irrelevant voices. The big issues are for the Big Three to sort out among themselves.

Note the essential difference between Khanna and Ikenberry: whereas Ikenberry stresses the importance of international institutions, Khanna takes a more traditionally realist approach, arguing that the three powers themselves will set the agenda and, in Bushisan terms, be the “deciders.” Not surprisingly, the piece downplays the importance of international institutions when Khanna turns to making recommendations for future US policy.

In fact, neither a Clinton, Obama, McCain, nor Romney administration would set policy based on all of Khanna’s ideas, but some hold promise He argues that America should revitalize her diplomatic corps, taking the Pentagon’s regional organization structure as a model to follow, and greatly increase the number of Foreign Service Officers and Peace Corps volunteers. So far so good. Next up he argues that American private philanthrophy should lead an expansion of American foreign aid, a laudable notion until one considers exactly how the government could bring this about. Khanna also, in true Westphalian style, asks America to shave the moralist edge off of her international politics, something which simply won’t happen. For instance, even though a President Obama would be loath to use military force to “bring democracy” ala Bush in Iraq, that doesn’t mean he will stop using the language of democratization or human rights when dealing with foreign countries.

And like Ikenberry, Khanna has an overly simplistic view of Chinese realpolitik. Consider this passage towards the end of the piece:

Fifth, convene a G-3 of the Big Three. But don’t set the agenda; suggest it. These are the key issues among which to make compromises and trade-offs: climate change, energy security, weapons proliferation and rogue states. Offer more Western clean technology to China in exchange for fewer weapons and lifelines for the Sudanese tyrants and the Burmese junta. And make a joint effort with the Europeans to offer massive, irresistible packages to the people of Iran, Uzbekistan and Venezuela — incentives for eventual regime change rather than fruitless sanctions. A Western change of tone could make China sweat. Superpowers have to learn to behave, too.

China, in his view, would happily take the quid of technology in exchange for the quo of altering its foreign policy. The problem with this concept is that technology exchanges aren’t useful until a country’s industrial and economic base reaches the point where it could actually utilize advanced technology. If we, say, gave China advanced smokestack scrubbing technology, it could be utilized in large-scale manufacturing enterprises in Shanghai and Shenzhen, but wouldn’t make its way into the countryside factories which are seeing the biggest growth in recent years. Similarly, cheap electric cars might make Beijingers thrilled but people in small cities and the countryside are going to stick with gas engines. At the same time, the raw materials China imports from the illiberal regimes it supports have the end effect of fueling the development of the overall industrial superstructure within the country, and China wouldn’t give up access to these resources without resource alternatives. “Clean technology” isn’t enough.

(The above having been said, I think the best way to put pressure on China wouldn’t be to criticize Beijing directly but to widely publicize — in English and in Chinese — the misdeeds of its client states, especially whenever China hosts the head of state of a country like Sudan. China has already shown itself sensitive to the public image of its foreign allies. Consider that a few years ago, when Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov came to visit Beijing, China temporarily blocked all Internet searches for Uzbekistan to keep curious Chinese in the dark about Karimov’s misdoings.)

Lastly, I’d like to note Khanna overstates, understates, or ignores a few key points during the article:

  • He ignores Western Europe’s demographic crunch, which will necessarily shrink European power and/or radically alter the character of Europe in the next two decades.
  • He understates Russia’s expansion of economic and military power and self-esteem under Putin, who seems likely to call the shots from afar in the decade ahead. It’s hard to imagine a situation where Russia, even a shrinking Russia, willingly subordinates itself to China or the EU.
  • He understates multilateral Europe’s love of multilateral institutions; even if the UN may not be the best way to solve a problem, the first instinct of Europeans will always be to turn to the UN or similar institution.
  • He overstates Chavez’s power in Venezuela; in fact, all mentions of Venezuela have a “pre-referendum” feel to them.
  • He ignores the biggest problem that Africa faces in the long run, namely, the wave of instability that follows as Islam moves south. The creation of two African Unions — one of them Islamic in character — or no workable African Union at all seems far more likely than establishing an EU-style African Union in the near future.

These criticisms aside, Khanna’s article is a strong companion piece to Ikenberry’s and a sobering preview of the challenges America faces in the decades to come.

Update: Khanna’s piece has not surprisingly elicited further reactions from the China blogosphere.

Professor Michael Pettis of the China Financial Markets blog posted a negative critique of Khanna’s article that is a bit snarky but definitely solid. Most importantly, he expands upon the critical issue of demography in Europe — and China:

… If we assume that the six great or potential powers of the world are China, Europe, India, Japan, Russia and the US, it seems that all of them with the exception of India and the US have very serious demographic problems that will seriously undermine their future growth. Take Europe for example. I don’t have the figures in front of me, but today Europe’s population is, I think, about 15% greater than the US. By the middle of the century it will be about 15% smaller, and its median age will have risen from a couple of years more than the US to about 12-16 years more. Projecting the differential per capita growth rates over the past few decades into the future (I know, I know, but what is a more plausible alternative?), Europe’s GDP, which is today larger than that of the US, is likely to be only two-thirds or less than that of the US – and when I ran these projections a few years ago I did them on a per-capita basis, not on a per-worker basis, which would have been much worse..

Khanna will argue (and nearly does) that Europe has an almost unlimited supply of countries eager to join and, by adding them to the European stew willy-nilly Europe can keep its population and economy growing for a long time. This would require that Europe keep adding North African and Asian states to the European Union without domestic opposition, fully integrating them immediately in the Europe political and economic system, and without in any way diluting the cohesiveness and decision-making ability of the European elite. Khanna may have spent several months of those two Starbucks years visiting European countries, but I was born in Spain of a French mother and grew up primarily in Europe, and I think this is, to put it politely, highly implausible.

Read the rest.

For his part, Richard at The Peking Duck recommends the article to readers, and saves most of his criticism not for Khanna but for Hu Jintao.

Daniel Drezner’s response includes this painfully funny line:

I will heap praise on Khanna’s agent for getting the excerpt placed into the Magazine. There’s less demand than there used to be for prose stylings that read like Benjamin Barber after a three-day coke bender in Macao.

Ouch. He goes on to make the point that Khanna’s article — and I think perhaps even Khanna’s book — noticeably lacks data to back up its assertions.

Meanwhile, Kevin Drum is channeling Khanna’s article when musing a new Democratic foreign policy approach. To wit:

[M]ake an appeal to national chauvinism. In the Parag Khanna piece I mentioned below, there’s a bit of discussion about how China interacts with the world, and none of it has to do with projecting military power. So what would happen if you played off that? China isn’t fighting foreign wars, they’re doing X, Y, and Z instead. And they’re winning. So we’d better get on the stick and start doing what they’re doing. [Italics in original.]

I really, really hope Mr. Drum only means we should copy China’s policy of military non-interventionism and not all of China’s foreign policy strategies.

A Short Thought on Crime and China

After my two brushes with crime in China — a mugging, which resulted in the theft of my Nokia N95, and catching a catburglar trying to break in to my apartment — the reactions among Chinese people were all pretty similar:

  • Did you see his face? Did he look like he was from Xinjiang?
  • Was he a Xinjiang person?
  • A Xinjiang guy stole your phone, right?

By “Xinjiang person” the speakers mean a Uighur, a Eurasian minority from Xinjiang that is genetically and linguistically related to Turkish people. In Tianjin and other large Chinese cities, Uighurs are among the lowest of the underclass, making a living selling dried fruits or Muslim food or, yes, by stealing and selling stolen goods.*

What was striking to me, however, was the automatic assumption on the part of Chinese that “thief = Uighur.” Is this just a Tianjin thing or are such reactions common around China?

* Note that I’ve never been robbed by a Uighur but they’ve offered me (presumably) stolen cell phones dozens of times.

Dining Out vs. Home Cooking in China

One of the lifestyle changes that living in China brings for most Westerners is a newfound tendency to eat out all the time or buy prepared food from a shop or stall rather than cook food at home. Even if going out for a meal was a once a week tradition for someone back home, odds are that he or she will be going out for meals much more often in China.

The most obvious explanation for this is purchasing power: because Chinese rents and service sector wages are much lower than in China, a Chinese restaurant meal for four that would cost $50 US Stateside can be had for less than 100 RMB. Street food is even more affordable — literally a dollar per meal. (For those interested, John at Sinosplice has a nice post that covers the costs of dining out in China with more detail.)

Note, however, that if you’re one of those foreigners who “doesn’t trust” Chinese restaurants, eating at McDonald’s and KFC will cost you the same as it does back home. Amusingly or not, I’ve met several Europeans who would rather die than eat fast food in their home countries, yet make it a habit to eat McDonald’s regularly while studying or working here. Similarly, a former colleague of mine only eats meat if she’s eating at McDonald’s; otherwise, she sticks to a vegan diet while in China.

Another explanation for foreigners eating out most of the time is the high barrier to entry to preparing home cooked meals in China. First, foreigners working as English teachers or studying here may be housed in a school dormitory or small apartment that doesn’t lend itself to cooking. Second, as this post from James Fallows suggests, many foreigners have a hard time buying the things they need in China. For instance, I can’t even find deodorant most of the time, so how am I supposed to pick up the right cheese and spices? Third, many foreigners are unable to adapt themselves to the cooking styles in China. We have to be prepared to cook with gas, forgo large ovens (unless one happens to be minted), and make due with local spices.

But one doesn’t have to be Liu Xiang to jump over these home cooking hurdles in China.* The easy way out is to have a Chinese significant other who can do all the cooking for you, but this is cheating. Another way to cheat is by buying frozen dishes and frying or microwaving them, though in the end you may wind up using a lot of sauces to make eating worthwhile.** A better solution is to learn local cooking, either from a Chinese teacher or from the Internet, though most recipes will need to be adjusted for the materials on-hand. (Strangely, many “Chinese” recipes on the Internet use ingredients not found in China.) The most expensive solution would be to buy imported goods from an international supermarket and cook Western food. Unfortunately, most of these products have an import premium that makes them cost 50-200% more than what we pay back home.

Beyond all of this, you will need to make an investment in spices and seasonings, household appliances, dishes, cookware, and cooking utensils. The price of flavorings will vary according to what you want. Asian spices like ground red pepper, five spice, Sichuan peppercorn, and (gulp) MSG cost next to nothing, but imported seasonings like oregano and cinnamon sugar will run 30-50 RMB per bottle. As for appliances, most foreigners will get a gas stove and microwave with their apartment, but a few other things need to be bought. A toaster oven can be bought for 150-200 RMB, and a rice cooker runs for 100-300 RMB (but you can use the microwave if you want). If you’re stuck in a dormitory without a gas stove, this means getting an induction cooker, which is also rather cheap, though you need to make sure your cookware choices are all compatible with an induction cooking surface. Thankfully, the last three items on my list are all very cheap in China, provided that you’re not dropping big bucks for imported cookware and cutlery.

Overall, this investment in a working kitchen can prove challenging to short-term or cash-deprived expats and may deter them from home cooking, though expats in China for the long haul will see benefits to cash flow after a few months. The benefits are especially obvious if one learns to cook Chinese food that uses less exotic ingredients than, say, the cayenne-seasoned jalapeño bacon cheeseburgers I’ve been making for lunch this month.

Finally, I’ll end this post with a couple examples of home cooked dishes most expats could make in China.

Macaroni skillet pizzaThis is a recipe I nicked from a Hunt’s spaghetti sauce can — “macaroni skillet pizza.” Ingredients are canned spaghetti sauce, macaroni, ground beef, pepperoni, and mozzarella. Because it uses so many imported ingredients, this dish is slightly expensive to make, around 20 RMB per serving, with five to six servings per skillet.

Homemade kung paoThe second dish should be more familiar to anyone who eats Chinese food — kung pao chicken. The main ingredients — chicken breasts, scallions, dried red peppers, and peanuts — are pretty cheap but you still need to have some special sauces and rice wine on hand prepare it.

In close, with a little patience, the right tools, and the willingness to experiment, home cooking can become part of an expat’s lifestyle in China. It may even save them money in the long run.

* I swear to God this is the only Liu Xiang joke I’ll make this year.

** One exception I’ll make to frowning on frozen foods is Long Fong brand dumplings. I’m terrible at making dumplings myself, and these are the best-textured, best-tasting frozen dumplings I’ve tried, and if they want to send me money for saying nice things about them, they can contact me by email.

Privacy – (CCTV + Youtube) = Lawsuit

A very unlucky Shanghai couple discovered that their public display of affection on the subway became very public after CCTV footage of the pair made its way to online video sites. Reuters reports,

The three-minute video of the couple in their 20s was shot in September and uploaded to Youtube and Chinese video-sharing Web sites last week, Tuesday’s China Daily reported, citing a local newspaper.

It drew more than 15,000 hits in two days, it said.

“A mocking voice can be heard in the background of the video. It has extremely embarrassed the couple,” the paper said.

The couple had hired a lawyer in the interests “of all passengers traveling on metro trains in Shanghai,” the paper quoted the unnamed man in the video as saying.

The funny thing is, the number CCTV cameras per capita in China lags behind Great Britain, so I’m surprised this didn’t happen in Britain first.

Also from the CFR

Michelle D. Gavin has a superb Council on Foreign Relations brief on possible US strategies for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Writing in the fall of 2007, she argues that we should stop focusing on regime change and instead ask what we can do to keep Zimbabwe from becoming a failed state once Mugabe is out of the picture. The whole report is heavily influenced not just by existing Africa policy but also civil reconstruction difficulties in Iraq — see in particular the section on enlisting Zimbabwe’s armed forces to stabilize the country.

It seems to me that the foreign policy think tanks could turn out a whole volume of “post-” reports, including “post-Castro Cuba,” “post-Kim North Korea,” and “post-Assad Syria,” just to name a few. I wonder if the policymakers would actually bother to read them, though. (Yes, that is a rhetorical question.)

The CFR Does China

Over at the Lost Laowai blog, Ryan links to a poorly-titled* LA Times oped by Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Fellow and foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead, in which Mead looks at the “shrinkage” of the Chinese economy in the latest World Bank data and explains how this and other problems inherent to the Chinese politico-economic structure mean that Beijing won’t be challenging the US for the role of hegemon anytime soon.

Mead looks at other implications of the data, especially in regard to global poverty, but his fixation on China’s threat capability leaves Ryan wondering where all the hostility and pro-American talk came from. However, Mead’s not a journalist so one shouldn’t expect neutral journalistic positions. He is a scholar and proponent of American exceptionalism (which sees America as special and uniquely important in world affairs), and his talk on China’s military capabilities reflects the ongoing discussions within the CFR about whether China is a military threat to the US, an economic threat, or a strategic partner (to use Clinton-era talking points).

Most of what I have to say about Mead’s article I’ve left in the Lost Laowai comment section, but Mead’s not the only person at the council commenting on China. The CFR decided to start off 2008 by focusing on China in the January/February edition of Foreign Affairs, the council’s flagship publication — a journal I used to geek out to when I was still in university. While most of the articles online are behind a subscription firewall, the website features a full-length essay by political scientist G. John Ikenberry that treads ground similar to Mead while giving us more ideas to chew on.

Basically, Ikenberry looks at the perennial topic of American decline — which talking heads have been warning about since before I was born — and asks whether China’s rise will topple the Western liberal order. His short answer is no.

Let’s go to the man himself:

… The rise of China does not have to trigger a wrenching hegemonic transition. The U.S.-Chinese power transition can be very different from those of the past because China faces an international order that is fundamentally different from those that past rising states confronted. China does not just face the United States; it faces a Western-centered system that is open, integrated, and rule-based, with wide and deep political foundations. The nuclear revolution, meanwhile, has made war among great powers unlikely — eliminating the major tool that rising powers have used to overturn international systems defended by declining hegemonic states. Today’s Western order, in short, is hard to overturn and easy to join.

[...]

As it faces an ascendant China, the United States should remember that its leadership of the Western order allows it to shape the environment in which China will make critical strategic choices. If it wants to preserve this leadership, Washington must work to strengthen the rules and institutions that underpin that order — making it even easier to join and harder to overturn. U.S. grand strategy should be built around the motto “The road to the East runs through the West.” It must sink the roots of this order as deeply as possible, giving China greater incentives for integration than for opposition and increasing the chances that the system will survive even after U.S. relative power has declined.

Those of us with foreign policy backgrounds know where this is going.

Ikenberry begins by sketching out basic power transition theory for the readers: the idea that a great power will leverage its economic might to become a hegemon (and in some variants of this theory, enforce a “hegemonic peace”) and order the international (or regional) system around that power’s needs, yet when a rising power sees its economy reach parity with the hegemon, the system faces a crisis point as the rising power must choose to cooperate with or topple the politico-economic system established by the hegemon. To explain with an example, according to proponents of this theory, 19th century hegemon Great Britain used war to defeat Germany, a rising power at the start of the 20th century, but later on, allowed another rising power, America, to peacefully inherit Britain’s hegemonic position and the international system created by the British. Today, naturally, America remains the hegemon and the role of challenger is played by China, and many scholars ask, what happens next?

To Ikenberry, the United States has remained hegemon for so long thanks in part to the remarkable international order constructed by Roosevelt and others at the close of the Second World War. As I said, we know where this is going — international liberal institutionalism. Ikenberry praises the liberal trade regimes (listen to the sounds of clenched teeth among Democrats), the primus inter pares nature of American leadership (my words, not his; Ikenberry claims that America leads by consensus, which I take to mean leading like a prime minister rather than an emperor or king), and the international institutions that have spread norms and fostered cooperation (he cites the United Nations but NATO and the World Bank are more palatable examples to most UN-phobic Americans). When the moment comes, China, in Ikenberry’s eyes, will recognize the benefits of remaining in the system, rather than upsetting the balance.

His proof? China’s current enthusiasm for participation in international economic institutions:

China is already a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a legacy of Roosevelt’s determination to build the universal body around diverse great-power leadership. This gives China the same authority and advantages of “great-power exceptionalism” as the other permanent members. The existing global trading system is also valuable to China, and increasingly so. Chinese economic interests are quite congruent with the current global economic system — a system that is open and loosely institutionalized and that China has enthusiastically embraced and thrived in. State power today is ultimately based on sustained economic growth, and China is well aware that no major state can modernize without integrating into the globalized capitalist system; if a country wants to be a world power, it has no choice but to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). The road to global power, in effect, runs through the Western order and its multilateral economic institutions.

China not only needs continued access to the global capitalist system; it also wants the protections that the system’s rules and institutions provide. The WTO’s multilateral trade principles and dispute-settlement mechanisms, for example, offer China tools to defend against the threats of discrimination and protectionism that rising economic powers often confront. The evolution of China’s policy suggests that Chinese leaders recognize these advantages: as Beijing’s growing commitment to economic liberalization has increased the foreign investment and trade China has enjoyed, so has Beijing increasingly embraced global trade rules. It is possible that as China comes to champion the WTO, the support of the more mature Western economies for the WTO will wane. But it is more likely that both the rising and the declining countries will find value in the quasi-legal mechanisms that allow conflicts to be settled or at least diffused.

The problem here is that we only really have evidence of China integrating economically into the Western system while remaining outside most of the liberal political and cultural currents. For example, Western norms concerning human rights within countries and solidarity against human rights abuses in other countries (e.g. Sudan) are all but ignored by China,** since the People’s Republic speaks a vastly different political language of “non-interference” that goes against Western norms which demand reform at home and action abroad. Even when China acknowledges a norm, such as the trend towards abolishing the death penalty or protecting the global environment, the country argues that the circumstances of the present prevent them from adopting such policies. Thus, as China ascends in the United Nations, it seems likely to refuse Western powers who call on China to support liberal norms, instead offering only indifference or outright opposition.

Ikenberry sidesteps the question of whether China could be co-opted to follow Western norms and instead asserts a need for the US to strengthen its connections to the West, and in so doing strengthen the West as a politico-economic-military complex. His method? Again, Ikenberry’s answer is liberal institutionalism, though he spends most of the time arguing in the abstract:

The first thing the United States must do is reestablish itself as the foremost supporter of the global system of governance that underpins the Western order. Doing so will first of all facilitate the kind of collective problem solving that makes all countries better off. At the same time, when other countries see the United States using its power to strengthen existing rules and institutions, that power is rendered more legitimate — and U.S. authority is strengthened. Countries within the West become more inclined to work with, rather than resist, U.S. power, which reinforces the centrality and dominance of the West itself.

[...]

The United States should also renew its support for wide-ranging multilateral institutions. On the economic front, this would include building on the agreements and architecture of the WTO, including pursuing efforts to conclude the current Doha Round of trade talks, which seeks to extend market opportunities and trade liberalization to developing countries. The WTO is at a critical stage. The basic standard of nondiscrimination is at risk thanks to the proliferation of bilateral and regional trade agreements. Meanwhile, there are growing doubts over whether the WTO can in fact carry out trade liberalization, particularly in agriculture, that benefits developing countries. These issues may seem narrow, but the fundamental character of the liberal international order — its commitment to universal rules of openness that spread gains widely — is at stake. Similar doubts haunt a host of other multilateral agreements — on global warming and nuclear nonproliferation, among others — and they thus also demand renewed U.S. leadership.

Professor Ikenberry ends the essay by asserting that if the United States builds stronger connections to the West, that the West as a whole will be stronger than China and China will, in turn, see the wisdom of cooperation rather than conflict when she reaches a point of parity with America. And yet, as Ryan noted with regard to the Mead piece, Ikenberry’s essay says far more about America than it does about China. Most of the article is devoted towards explaining what the United States should do without deeply exploring what China might do, and that’s a disappointment coming from a scholar of Ikenberrry’s stature.

Finally, I can’t close this topic without noting that a sentence Ikenberry wrote in the middle of his essay struck a nerve with me. “War-driven change has been abolished as a historical process.” That is a ridiculously absolute statement for a scholar to make, though at the same time I hope to God we don’t see Ikenberry proven wrong.

* In Mead’s case, I hope it was the LA Times that came up with the title.

** Fun thought experiment. Imagine if the Cultural Revolution had ended after three rather than ten years and China had emerged as an anti-Soviet, quasi-capitalistic power in the early 1970s rather than the early 1980s. Now imagine a rising China doing business with the Soviet-opposed apartheid state of South Africa. Could China have given the South Africans enough economic and political support to sustain the regime in the face of Western boycotts?

The Good Only Lasts So Long

While on the subject of transportation, the subway is one of the nicer things Tianjin has to offer, even though the main line doesn’t cross the river or run to Tianjin Station (a moot point for now, since the station is still being renovated). In contrast to Beijing’s two main subway lines, the cars and the stations are clean, comfortable, and orderly. Things are pretty much the same as they were when I made this video in July 2006:


According to government plans, the Tianjin metro will expand in the coming years to offer a total of nine lines offering connectivity throughout the city and between Tianjin and outlying regions in the Binhai New Area, giving Tianjin one of the most advanced metro systems in China.

Lest I be accused of excess Tianjin boosterism, there’s a big “but” coming. Though the first line has only been open for a year and a half, Tianjin’s subway seems to be running into serious maintenance problems. Like most modern subways, Tianjin’s subway uses a token system and automated token kiosks. Starting last year, the token kiosks began to periodically go on the fritz at every station in the city. When one kiosk breaks down, it’s not a big deal, but when four out of five kiosks are marked “out of order” at a station, as was the case in the photo below, one begins to wonder where the corners were cut when installing the system and just how reliable the infrastructure will be when lines two and three open in the next two years.

Out of order disorder

Tianjin’s New Taxis

New Tianjin taxiStarting this month, Tianjin’s taxi companies have begun to upgrade their taxi fleets in advance of the Olympics. The new taxis, like the one shown above, are all new cars painted in a teal and silver two-tone color scheme that recalls the design of Beijing taxis. A bridge logo on the side of the taxis is based on Liberation Bridge, an old Tianjin landmark. Like Beijing’s recent upgrade to a mostly-Hyundai taxi fleet, the new taxis are intended to enhance Tianjin’s image. Most of the new cabs will be Toyotas or Velas (a make of Tianjin’s First Autoworks), but presumably other large taxis like Hyundais and Volkswagens will stay on the road. However, most taxi drivers are still in old Xialis (a compact sedan based on a Toyota design), and will need financing help from their companies to obtain a new car.

I’ve been in Tianjin for four years and this is the third time Tianjin taxis have been upgraded. The first round of upgrading involved decommissioning hundreds of Huali minivan taxis, banana-yellow deathtraps that were good for carrying bicycles or moving house but not much else. The second round of upgrades involved switching the old analog meter and manual invoice system to automated digital meters with ticket printouts ala Beijing and Shanghai. After the third round of upgrades is finished this year, Tianjin will have a lot of bright shiny taxis on the road, but one aspect of the taxi service will still need improving — taxi drivers.

Tianjin has some affable and reliable drivers to be sure, but there are still too many cheats and lowlife drivers on the road. For instance, after the new meters were installed, some drivers began to place black electricians’ tape over the minute and kilometer counters so that victims, er, passengers cannot predict fares or know when they are being cheated. Also, as is the case in many large cities in China, taxi teams parked at major locations like shopping centers, the airport, and the train stations will cheat their passengers by taking longer routes, demanding money up front, or simply refusing to take people. Finally, unlike their Beijing counterparts, almost no Tianjin taxi drivers can speak English. This is not a problem for me but for the lazy expat or tourist, getting around can be a chore.

Foreigners Using QQ

Ben Ross has a great post explaining the relevance of the chat program Tencent QQ to the Chinese Internet user base, its advantages as a Chinese learning tool, and the headaches it sometimes gives foreigners who try to install the program on their computers.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ben’s endorsement of QQ as a language-learning and networking tool, but I’d like to say a few more words about the difficulties foreigners may face using the program.

For starters, though QQ has offered an English client for around five years now, the registration process is totally Chinese, so a beginner student of Chinese would do well to get help from a Chinese friend or their Chinese teacher to start using QQ. Moreover, the new security process added to combat the wave of password-stealing trojans — note that most computer viruses in China seem to exist for one purpose, to steal QQ passwords — are complicated and difficult for someone whose Chinese is low-to-intermediate. I consider my Chinese level upper-intermediate but even I had trouble with the Chinese CAPTCHAs used by Tencent.

As for the computer clients, the English client development usually lags behind the Chinese client, so if you want to use QQ to the fullest, consider downloading the Chinese version. In fact, the English version is only English in its basic interface, and navigating many parts of the program still requires Chinese. What’s more, as Ben notes, you will need to change your (presumably Windows-driven) computer’s character set to Chinese for non-Unicode programs to get QQ working properly. You can do this by going to Start –> Control Panel –> Regional and Language Options (icon) –> Advanced (tab), and selecting Chinese (PRC) from the drop-down box labeled “Language for non-Unicode programs.” A word to the wise, however: this will mess up some of the programs and text files on your computer.

The mobile clients, which I’ve used more extensively since Mobile QQ became free*, are totally Chinese. Phone users have a choice between older, simpler clients or the bloated new Java-driven client offered by Tencent, which is sluggish even on high-end smartphones like the N95. For Symbian users, a better choice is lightweight QQ client that can be downloaded from the Nokia websites or comes preinstalled on your phone if you bought it in China.

Anyone serious about learning Chinese or networking with Chinese people should give QQ a try, but be prepared for the challenges involved.

* Note that you still pay for data costs. It’s the client that’s free now.