An Honor Well Deserved

C-Span founder Brian Lamb is one of the recipients of this year’s Presidential Medal of Freedom award. Besides helming C-Span, which proved ridiculously addictive to political junkies like me during the 1990s, Lamb has always been one of the best interviewers on television, especially in the now-retired C-Span series “Booknotes.” During a 1999 interview with Michael Ebner, Lamb discussed his semi-Socratic interviewing style:

ME: Your interviewing style on Booknotes is distinctive. Now, I believe that it’s carefully designed to achieve a special effect. I wonder if you would be willing to elaborate on your interviewing style?

BL: Well first of all, not to disappoint you, but it’s not carefully designed. It’s kind of an evolutionary thing that again came out of my early days of not liking the fact that so many interviewers get in my way when I watch television. They are giving me their views, and I don’t want their views. They are also either confronting the guest in a negative way or agreeing with them in a positive way, and what I’m trying to do is not have you look at me when I’m doing the interview. I don’t care that you notice that I’m there, but I don’t want you to keep saying to yourself, “Why won’t he get out of my way” I want to get a chance to watch the author talk about the book, discuss why they wrote the book, all the little questions that I’ve asked over the last ten years. I’ve just finished two years of book tours with two different books and have been in over fifty bookstores and done 200 interviews and basically been out in the country. Most people that I come in contact with have the same questions–where do you write, when do you write, how do you write–because there’s a mystery about it. People who read books generally admire writers.

Sadly, “getting out of the way” is something few television interviewers seem capable of doing, which is one of the reasons I don’t miss Fox and the other networks and their slate of infotainers who make a living talking down down to people. Though he found a niche almost thirty years ago, Lamb’s straightforward, calm, and nonpartisan demeanor would get him nowhere in television today, which speaks volumes about the decline of the modern media. (Upon reflection, this paragraph is pretty ranty, isn’t it?)

For people interested in reading more about Brian Lamb, ABC made him their Person of the Week in December 2004.

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Primary School Colors

Following a post from John at Sinosplice, I checked out the documentary “Please Vote for Me,” part of the BBC’s “Why Democracy” film series. The film covers a democratic classroom election at a top primary school in Wuhan, China. The candidates are three children in the 3rd grade: chubby and charming but devious Cheng Cheng, the Bill Clinton of the film; the incumbent Luo Lei, who takes a “bread and circuses” approach to the election; and Xu Xiaofei, who is not only the only girl but also seemingly the most decent of the three (just think of her as the Paul Tsongas or Mike Huckabee of the race).

Though clocking in at a short 47 minutes, “Please Vote for Me” is a brilliant and potentially disturbing film, insomuch as the children — with some help from their parents — take pages from the playbook of Lee Atwater and James Carville to defeat their opponents. This BBC News article offers a good summary of what transpires, but really the film should be watched on its own to appreciate what happens.

Given that the political history of Chinese people differs wildly from the US, the film provides some ammunition for those who believe the flaws in American democracy aren’t systemic so much as the natural effects of human nature in the political system. Beyond that, it’s a highly entertaining short documentary and look at the lives of the new Chinese middle class.

Housing Bubbles in the US and China

Paul Krugman has a series of graphs that record the rather dramatic regional rise in US housing prices since 2000. This rise in prices is coupled with a steady drop in the cost of construction since the 1970s and relatively flat interest rates since the 1980s. While I don’t agree with Krugman’s ideas 90% of the time, the data is interesting. I left Florida in 2003 just about the time the prices began to climb there, so this is more or less a phenomenon I’ve been detached from.

One thing we see in the data is that states like California and Florida which, ceteris paribus, have been “winners” in globalization, have also been “losers” in the growth of housing prices, whereas states which have been “losers” in globalization*, like Michigan and Ohio, have experienced more stable growth in housing prices. Add to this a steady uptick in population growth in California (PDF) and Florida and you have a recipe for out of control housing prices.

And here’s where I get to the China angle in my post title: looking at some of the graphs, we could very easily replace California’s housing price trendline with the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone while plotting mid-tier regions like Tianjin against the Florida trendline and low-growth provinces against the Midwestern states. We find other similarities in the two markets as well. The housing price spike also started in China around late 2003, though unlike the US market, it shows no signs of slowing down. (Not surprisingly, my Chinese associates often talk about early 2003 as if it were a bygone era in real estate.) Chinese housing prices, likewise, cannot be explained by the cost of construction, since many raw materials have been subsidized while workers’ wages remain flat (and in the case of some unscrupulous contractors, nonexistent). Similarly, regions which have experienced dramatic population increases have also seen concomitant growth in housing prices, especially in regions like Shenzhen, where population grew 15% year on year in the 1990s and early 2000s.

There are a few differences between the US and Chinese housing markets, the most notable being that Chinese investors flood the housing market with cash because there are few other stable investments available. The Chinese currently lack the kind of financial services necessary to make sound stock and futures investments, so they turn to housing, which is seen as concrete and dependable. Things may change slightly in the future as the Chinese government liberalizes rules on investing in overseas stock markets, starting with a pilot program in the Binhai region of Tianjin.

While, as Krugman notes, the big danger in the American market is the spike in defaults caused by higher mortgage rates in the near future, not to mention unemployment from loss of construction jobs after the bubble, the danger in China is that the prices of new houses have radically outstripped the income of common people. Shenzhen, again, offers proof of this point:

The housing price in Shenzhen, the first special economic zone in China, has seen continual growth since the end of 2005. The average price of housing in the downtown area is 15,000-20,000 yuan (US$1,980-2,630) per square meter while that of luxury housing is 35,000-45,000 yuan (US$4,610-5,920) per square meter.

On the other hand, the average price in neighboring Hong Kong is 20,000-30,000 yuan (US$ 2,630-3,950), almost double than that in Shenzhen. Additionally, Hong Kong residents’ GDP per capita was US$38,127 in 2006 while that in Shenzhen was only US$8,619.

All this, and the bubble hasn’t burst. Yet, barring a dramatic shift in policy that leads to rising wages, alternative investment opportunities for all of China’s new rich, and more modest housing price growth, the contradiction between Chinese incomes and the cost of living ensures that the Chinese market is bound to follow America’s lead. In the words of another blogger writing on the subject, the Chinese and American housing markets are a painful illustration that not all growth is a good thing.

* The industrial Midwest remains a “loser” in globalization insomuch as, unlike California, it hasn’t created new jobs to replace jobs lost to trade, resulting in long-term higher employment rates.

Great Firewall, Bad Legislation

With the election cycle upon us, it’s not surprising that American politicians have taken to criticizing China more directly on issues such as Burma, the trade deficit, environmental protection, and Internet censorship. The last issue has drawn extra attention of late, perhaps because human rights advocates in the Congressional Human Rights Caucus and populist anti-corporate voices have joined together to lash out at US companies for helping China to build the Great Firewall, China’s Internet censorship regime.

This week, Rebecca MacKinnon chronicled the latest legislation unveiled in the House, the Global Online Freedom Act of 2007 (henceforth GOFA). The GOFA would penalize American firms who “play along” with the Chinese censorship regime and require such things as keeping user information databases outside of China. MacKinnon wryly notes that a similar effort got nowhere last year, but I believe China is more high-profile than ever in voters’ minds, so the bill might actually see some floor action.

All the pity, then, that the focus of Reps. Smith, Lantos, and others in the Human Rights Caucus is misdirected. Even if the GOFA becomes law, the chances of it putting a dent in the Great Firewall are slim to none. It would, in theory, cripple the Chinese market operations of Cisco, Microsoft, Google and similar corporations, but it wouldn’t mean the end of the Great Firewall. In a way that mirrors the contributions of foreign manufacturers to Chinese industry, the expertise of many Western tech companies have certainly accelerated the development of Internet censorship in China, yet just as Chinese firms like Haier have emerged from joint venture arrangements to stand on their own, Chinese Internet censorship would continue to thrive without, say, the latest Cisco routers.

This doesn’t mean, however, that US firms like Yahoo should be free from criticism for their cooperation with Chinese authorities. On the contrary, they deserve to be publicly excoriated for every little kowtow they make towards the Powers That Be. (This goes double for companies that talk big about defending free expression in the US but do just the opposite in China. I’m looking at you, Google.) But we should nonetheless realize that punishing American firms for doing business in China will do little to enhance the freedom and opportunities of Chinese Internet users.

The alternative tactic of China critics is to make normative claims against China itself, to switch from saying “Cisco is evil for helping to build the Great Firewall” to saying “China is evil for having the Great Firewall in the first place.” Yet anyone who has studied modern China at all will immediately recognize that such criticisms fall on deaf ears, both in the halls of government in Beijing and, more unfortunately, on the streets and in the Internet cafes. Not only does the government bristle at what it deems “outside interference” in Chinese society, even the most cosmopolitan-minded Chinese may turn nationalistic when foreigners are seen lecturing to the Chinese government.

All of the above begs the question, what could the West in general and the US in particular do to weaken the Great Firewall? The answer may lie in seeing Chinese Internet censorship not as a moral issue but as an economic one. Let’s consider the following proposal.

In general, Westerners react to Chinese Internet censorship the way they react to book burnings: the government in question is deplored and the right to write and publish defended. Yet this analogy is weak on a number of fronts, not the least of which is that websites and especially web services represent a bundle of economic interests that are different than books. Moreover, while China is party to no conventions which call for political liberalization, the country has joined a number of agreements and organizations that call for economic liberalization, chief among them the World Trade Organization. And when considering the adverse economic effects from arbitrarily shutting out Western portals, search engines, and BSPs from the Chinese market, can we not call the Great Firewall a trade barrier?

I admit that I’m not the first to see Chinese Internet censorship as a form of crypto-protectionism. Much like a regime of infant industry protection, when Western web services are blocked, it forces Chinese users to turn to the Chinese competition. For instance, China’s recent blocking of Feedburner led the Chinese blogosphere to start using the Chinese provider Feedsky. When the blocks are lifted, the Chinese users are unlikely to return to the Western services unless, like Microsoft’s Hotmail, which has been blocked off and on, the service is significantly embedded into another service Chinese users depend on, such as Windows Live Messenger.

We can predict several of the ways the Chinese government would respond to such a challenge. First, they’d claim the right to protect Chinese citizens from indecent online content, and point to European censorship of Nazi ideology as a similarly justifiable form of censorship. Yet such a claim would invite intense scrutiny of what the Chinese government deems indecent. For example, is it reasonable to claim that Flickr or Youtube must be blocked to protect children from pornography when Chinese boys can use government-approved Baidu to look at Taiwanese actress Shu Qi’s famous parts? (Link NSFW, obviously.) Admittedly, hypocritical application of the law might at first seem a weak foundation for a WTO challenge, that didn’t stop Antigua from winning a WTO case against the US on similar grounds.

Secondly, they’d claim that any web provider can play ball in China if they follow the Chinese rules, so there’s no discrimination against foreign companies who cooperate. That said, while large companies have been asked to agree to censorship to continue doing business online in China, for the most part, China rarely publicizes its censorship requests or confirms the extent of its censorship. As some have noted, the entire enterprise of Chinese Internet censorship is murky and subjectively applied. Indeed, many services, such as Wikipedia, are just blocked outright, with no warning, while some sites continue to be accessible despite having materials long declared verboten in China. This lack of openness and evenhandedness means that the Great Firewall, in its current form, would be incompatible with the nondiscrimination and transparency requirements of the WTO.

In the end, moving the Chinese censorship debate from the halls of Congress to the fora of the World Trade Organization would not guarantee an end to the Great Firewall, but it would force the Chinese government to come clean about the extent and nature of its online censorship, which is in itself a victory. Furthermore, it provides an economic disincentive to other WTO member-countries currently thinking of building their own Great Firewalls. While an economy of China’s size could easily endure theoretical WTO sanctions, smaller developing countries would be hit hard and forced to weigh the costs and benefits of censorship. Finally, if successful, it would encourage Western political leaders to think creatively about how to encourage Chinese liberalization rather than to resort to the old moralizing discourse.

About the Name

In Part II, Chapter 60, of the Daodejing, the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi declared, “Governing a country is like cooking a small fish.” The gist of the aphorism is that a ruler must be careful and measured in the application of laws and power, or else his country, like a hastily prepared fish, will turn out poorly.

Laozi has always been a significant voice of laissez-faire in Chinese philosophy, and unlike the Confucian schools of thought which promote obedience to authority for the sake of social harmony, numerous passages in the Daodejing set forth the idea that a rulers are quite capable of making mistakes, especially when they use force to control the lives of people. Instead, rulers should follow ziran (nature) and intervene only when wise and necessary, such as in times of disaster. Laozi’s views have led some libertarians to look to him as one of the earliest libertarians in history, and certainly there’s a connection between Laozi’s line of thinking and the Hayekian school of economic and political theory. Reform-minded Chinese economists who analyzed the success of the “responsibility system” among China’s peasant farmers in the 1980s invoked both Hayek and Laozi to explain how the farmers prospered when no longer under the thumb of state control.

The story of the 20th century might well be that despite our self-conception as rational beings, most “rational” plans for ordering society produced undesirable results, whereas stable political and economic outcomes were generally obtained naturally and democratically, without constant top-down control. From the Nazis to the Soviets to Mao-era China to the former Yugoslavia, this phenomenon was witnessed again and again, and it is no less true today. For example, many Iraq War supporters have pointed to the relatively safe and economically thriving* Iraqi Kurdistan as a model for the rest of Iraq. However, this ignores the fact that plans for Kurdish self-governance, unlike the structure of the coalition government, was not dictated by Washington; rather, America and Britain simply created the free environment that allowed the Kurds to succeed.** In the rest of Iraq, however, America has tried and seemingly failed at state-building precisely because the power-sharing conditions being imposed are not “natural” to the Iraqis.

In the larger picture, I regard Laozi’s saying as reflecting the rational bounds all policymakers must operate within and the speed with which policy can be implemented without harm to the people being governed. It’s also, arguably, a warning against the effectiveness of America serving as the world’s policeman, a role I was skeptical of during the Clinton administration and have become downright hostile to during the Bush years. As this has long been a principle I’ve adhered to as a libertarian-minded conservative, the name of the blog seemed to me a natural fit.

(For the record, I am not adept at cooking fish of any size.)

* The above holds true until the point at which Turkey invades and stops the Kurdish experiment in spontaneous organization.

** Tellingly, the Kurds have succeeded because their territory is ethnically homogenous, whereas Iraq as a whole faces a “Belgium problem” — only in this case, people are wielding suicide bombs and AK-47s instead of fine chocolates.

Antecedents to the Blog

True confession time: expat.wordpress.com was registered some 2 years ago just for the sake of acquiring a WordPress API key. I had meant to eventually make use of the domain as a group-based travel and life guide for people in China with a special focus on Tianjin and Beijing. Unfortunately, this plan was nipped in the bud by the Chinese powers-that-be, who deemed the new free blogs on wordpress.com yet another threat to harmonization. After wordpress.com was blocked by the Great Firewall, I decided to shelve the blog. After all, what’s the use of a website for people who live in China that cannot be read by people living in China?

In the meantime, I had other blogs hosted on LiveJournal, MSN Spaces, and my own (now defunct) domain, matthewstinson.net, so I was still pretty busy blogging on my own. Like others, I had first got into the blogging scene via Blogspot in 2001, and I did more than my fair share of poliblogging, though over time my political commentaries slowed to a trickle. I attribute this partly towards a busier lifestyle, partly towards the enervating effect George W. Bush has had on the conservative movement, and partly towards the decline in civility among bloggers.

About my life I can only say that China, as wonderful and interesting as it is, is just not very blogger-friendly. Setting aside the obvious elephant in the living room, the aforementioned Great Firewall, most of China lacks the kind of communication infrastructure to make blogging quick and easy. For instance, when out of the house, I would like to blog from WiFi hotspots or by using my phone as a modem, but in a second-tier city such as Tianjin, WiFi hotspots are few and phone data services are too slow. (Beijing is slightly better thanks to the liberal proliferation of Western businesses in the city.) At home, connectivity is also an issue, with Chinese ADSL choking like an old-school 56K modem during peak hours. Still, the Great Firewall has to be factored in, since it made managing matthewstinson.net a bit of a headache after my Blog Service Provider was blocked. Because I can’t always use a proxy, it also more or less killed my LiveJournal writing and stopped me from making a Blogspot blog after I ended matthewstinson.net.

As to the political situation stateside, I’ll start by noting that I’ve never really been a fan of George W. Bush. I was, for a time, a fan of the people he chose to surround himself with, and had I been voting for president based merely on advisors, there’s no question that I would’ve voted for Bush over Gore in 2000. Yet when it came to Bush himself, there has always been a hollow blandness to the man, an unserious folksy demeanor that suggested Joe Average instead of Leader of the Free World. He was never meant to be an innovator or activist the way Gore has always been cast, and Bush’s bipartisan triumphs in conservative Texas were always shaky ground upon which to build a new national politics. As a serious conservative, I gained the sense in the first election that the choice between Bush and Gore was a choice between the right ideas implemented poorly and the wrong ideas implemented well. In the end, I chose to abstain from voting, and I don’t regret that decision.

Little did I know that Bush would prove me wrong. Not only have Bush’s ideas been implemented poorly, many of them — the Medicare drug benefit, No Child Left Behind, new protectionism, veto-free budgeting, the Katrina response, and state-building in Iraq, to name a few — have been the wrong ideas to begin with. At the same time, if I could not cheerlead for the president, I could hardly cheerlead for the Congress. Gone was the vision and vigor that Republicans brought to the Hill in 1994. Instead, the potential for real change was sapped by the lobbyists, by the activists, and by the inherently corrupting nature of incumbency, all of which saw reformers stepped on by senior members and the grassroots disillusioned by an orgy of big government as disgusting as any scene in a Hogarth painting.

My friends on the left attribute these failures to inherent flaws in the ideology of conservatives and libertarians. I would counter that what we’ve witnessed is not ideological decay but the structural weakness and rudderless leadership of the Republican party, which mirrors the situation Democrats found themselves in during the late 1970s. In short, my fellow Republicans: these are our Jimmy Carter years.

That is not to say that Democrats have suddenly become the party of ideas, though they are, without a doubt, the party of anger. Indeed, in Democratic displays of outrage and Republican flag-waving, both parties have eschewed intellectualism post-9/11 for the sake of political theater, and online in particular the parties play to the reptilian instincts of their base. While those new to the blogging game might not believe it, things weren’t always so smashmouth in the blogosphere.

In 2001, there was still considerable room for serious thinking and debate among political blogs, and I enjoyed it. Why, back then, even Atrios and Instapundit said nice things about each other! But by 2007, whatever nuance that used to exist in blog commentaries has been largely abandoned in favor of echo chambers within each ideological community and the clash of binary opposites between them. (To illustrate the latter point, consider how intelligent political commentary gets automatically pigeonholed these days.) Some happy exceptions exist, but even the most sober-headed bloggers will have a legion of ugly commenters to deal with.

The developments noted above forced me to make a few adjustments. I maximized my online enjoyment over the past three years by focusing on photoblogging (moblogging, really) and blogging on personal blogs for my friends and family to read. As for the rest, well, I didn’t have the stomach to engage as a partisan, yet I would not abandon ideas that I felt right because I refused to stand by party leaders when they were wrong. And so I went on hiatus for the sake of living a little and thinking a lot.

After my long break I’ve decided to start this blog up again (Like Cooking a Small Fish is essentially the fifth iteration of my political blog) because 2008 will be an important year in the US and China. America will choose another president — and potentially a radically different direction — while China, thanks not only to the Olympics but also to American electoral politics, will be thrust into the spotlight. There’s a wonderful opportunity here to explore issues of governance, the economy, and society, and the road ahead is not so narrow that the bombthrowers will be the only travelers.

Given my time constraints I want to make this an essay-style blog with a few posts each week rather than dozens of posts daily. I blog to relax, to get ideas out of my head and onto paper (symbolically, of course), and also because living in China means I need to write regularly lest the local color sneak into my English. If you read my blog, I hope you enjoy it, even if you disagree with me — and odds are you will.