It’s Not Their English, It’s Their Mandarin

In two back-to-back classes on Friday I encountered the sort of problem that most ESL teachers will ignore, either because they make sweeping assumptions about Chinese pronunciation, because they’ve never bothered to learn Mandarin, or because their training never prepared them for regional variation in the English pronunciation of their students.

In the first class, a girl named Ann from Guangdong was totally unable to pronounce the word “shine” in the brand name Shineway.  Instead, she said shuài (handsome) repeatedly, which made her classmate laugh, since Shineway is a sausage company.  I asked Ann if she could pronounce “shoe” and “shoot.”  No problem, and even “shit” came out okay.  However, “shall” came out “share” and “shy” also came out shuài.  Setting aside the l/r issue, I created a list of s/sh minimal pairs on the board (e.g. “sheep”-“seep”) and used it to drill Ann and her classmate, a girl from Beijing.  Ann had trouble, as you might expect, but the Beijing girl breezed through it despite having lower overall fluency than the girl from Guangdong.  Why?

Well, as anyone who has “listened for” a Chinese person’s hometown in their way of speaking can tell you, Beijingers and people around Beijing, including Tianjiners, Hebei residents, and Hebei/Beijing transplants to Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, generally have an easier time with English pronunciation than people located to the south.  (In this case, the “south” means the bottom 2/3rds of China!)  While “Beijing Mandarin” is still very different from English, its native speakers are generally able to handle more English blends such as sh as well as distinguish between the dreaded l’s and r’s, though they still have trouble with consonant sounds that don’t neatly fit into the pinyin system of initials and finals.  For instance, my wife cannot pronounce “zero” to save her life, since there’s no equivalent to z + e in Mandarin.  Getting back to “southerners” (again, I’ll use this term broadly), the trouble they have with pronunciation tends to manifest in their Mandarin first and then appear later in their English.

Consider the second class, which featured a new student unable to say s sounds clearly.  Every s-word she said, such as “sorry” or “so,”  began with an sh sound.  I asked her if she was from the south and she said no, that her hometown was Shanxi and Shanxi was in the north.  So I pointed out that that’s still in the “south” compared to Tianjin-Beijing.  I asked her if she had trouble with s and z sounds in Mandarin, which she found odd, and she said she wasn’t sure.  So I asked what she called the special food Chinese people eat during Dragon Boat Festival and she said zhòngzi.  (It should be zòngzi in standard Mandarin.)  I asked her to say the word “zoo” and she kept saying zhū (pig) instead.  She said her English pronunciation was bad but I suggested to her that her troubles really began with her Mandarin pronunciation, and that she is not alone.

To understand what’s going on here, we can run a quasi-experiment to show how a student’s Mandarin-speaking environment will influence their English.  Let’s look at Chinese Koreans from Dongbei vs. Chinese Koreans born in Tianjin.  Dongbei Koreans typically grow up in a Korean-speaking environment, and when they speak Mandarin they overuse the second tone, much like Mandarin learners from South Korea.  (Everything sounds like a question!)  Furthermore, when Dongbei Koreans speak English it has a real “Korean flavor,” especially in l’s and r’s, with, for example, “sorry” becoming “solly” and “hungry” becoming “hungly.”  Tianjin-area Koreans, on the other hand, may speak Korean at home but their school and work environment is Mandarin-heavy and they lack telltale Korean accents when speaking Chinese.  When they speak English they face the same issues as most Tianjiners, which is to say that they don’t have a series of fossilized pronunciation errors inherited from Korean language.

A host of issues converge here.  Consider that Mandarin is the first “foreign” language many Chinese learn at school, since their mother tongue is often a local dialect or another language (e.g. Cantonese or Korean), and that their Mandarin learning often suffers from the same problems that plague their English learning:  they can read and write reasonably well, do alright in listening, but are essentially “mute” except for stilted, prememorized recitation exercises.  Failure to fully grasp spoken Mandarin leads, in turn, to difficulty in speaking English, since Chinese English teachers usually stop drilling English pronunciation once a student progresses past the ABC level, and so, later on, many challenging sounds and blends that native Mandarin speakers can approximate become intimidating to these students.  Of course, there are exceptions to my generalizations, and anyone living in China is likely to have southern friends with brilliant English abilities.  Yet most of them will also demonstrate outstanding Mandarin skills!  The two languages go together, at least in China.

The overall point of these anecdotes is that ESL teachers in China need to orient themselves to the fact that a student’s English abilities reflect not only their intelligence and their commitment to learning English but also the way they speak Mandarin.  If you as a teacher haven’t taken it upon yourself to learn a little spoken Mandarin and the basic rules of Mandarin pronunciation, your teaching is actually missing a practical and helpful component.*   If you do learn Chinese, however, you’ll be surprised at how many of your students’ English pronunciation mistakes actually began as mistakes in their Mandarin.

* Setting aside the entire pronunciation issue above, a basic-to-intermediate grasp of Mandarin is useful when the ESL teacher is faced with the task of deprogramming Chinglish mistakes among their students.


Adventures in Democracy

Our blog emerges from long dormancy with a tale set long ago in an English classroom far, far away.  (Or Friday here in China for those of you who remain sticklers for facts.)

In recent weeks I’ve been talking about American politics as part of my school’s American culture series of lectures.  Talking about politics in a Chinese classroom requires, in part, a certain academic distance from one’s true political leanings as well as a comparative approach that finds as many similarities as possible between the Chinese and Western polities while explaining the key differences between each system.

We teachers self-censor, to be sure, but anyone who has observed Chinese politics closely is aware of the internal Communist party dynamics that resemble the coalitioning at work within the elite leadership of most American political parties.  Ultimately, the American people are enfranchised and the Chinese people are not, yet the forces at work that produce our available choices as American voters are similar to those forces which propel China’s next generation of leaders to the top of the politburo.

While talking about this to students I also take care to explain the variety of balances at work within American politics — between branches of government, between interest groups, between large states and small states, and between the majority and the minority — and highlight how China is very different from America in this respect, often to the detriment of Chinese citizens.

Of course, this high-minded talk may obscure the fact that I am no longer a university teacher but instead work at an almost-anything-goes English training center.  Our core goal is a fun, productive English learning environment. And so, with a nod towards the goal of promoting fun, I spent a handful of minutes designing a classroom election activity for Friday afternoon.

What follows is a documentary account of how said activity unfolded.

The class began with a review of a few of the political terms I had previously introduced to the students.  Specifically, we discussed:

  • political parties
  • political beliefs (“ideology” was too complex a term for a mixed-level student group)
  • party platforms
  • issues
  • candidates
  • elections

English classes, particularly hour-long classes like this one, shouldn’t overwhelm the students with vocabulary.  And with these few terms in hand we had enough to move on to the next step.

I again highlighted the concept of issues and elicited from the students a list of eight “hot issues” in China at the moment.  The “two meetings” of the NPC and CPPCC, which were held in Beijing at the start of March, pushed most of these issues to the forefront, with the government talking about talking about solving various problems, while possibly but not really implementing solutions.  (You see, China really is like America!)

The list of issues the students produced was as follows:

  • controlling housing prices
  • cleaning up pollution
  • improving health care
  • reforming education
  • whipping inflation*
  • fighting corruption
  • maintaining full employment
  • reducing inequality

* Okay, they didn’t actually say “whipping,” but all the talk about inflation got me to thinking of this:

Moving on, I divided the class into three roughly equal-sized groups and told them that they were all now political parties and that they were about to hold a political convention.  Their first item of business?  To choose an animal that represents their political party.

The first group of students was divided.  Panzer II, the school’s resident Hitlerphile and small government libertarian, suggested that the party call itself the “Virus Party,” because they could infect and kill the other political parties.  Another student wisely suggested the “Eagle Party” as an alternative.  I had their group put it to a vote.  “Eagle” defeated “Virus” by a vote of 8-2 with 5 abstentions.  There’s no telling what animals the abstainees would’ve preferred.

The rest of the students were unanimous in their choice of party names.  The second group called itself the “Wolf Party,” while the last and smallest group of students called itself the “Panda Party,” which immediately provoked a “Why didn’t we think of that?” reaction from the other groups.  Personally, I was thinking of pandas on unicorns:

Next, I gave them the task of devising a party platform that addressed each of the eight issues we brainstormed earlier.  Panzer II immediately suggested that “Ein Volk … ein Führer” as the Eagle Party platform.  God (in this case, me) responded in the negative.  Most of the groups went about their party platform work more seriously, however, and in the middle of the “convention” I asked them to nominate their candidates for president and vice-president.

Time management is essential in activities like this one, so I rushed the process along and had students announce their party platform and candidates and then had the six candidates — three presidents and three-vice presidents, three men and three women — all come to the front of the class.

It was time for a debate.  The Eagle Party’s whole plan of action was built around taxing apartments larger than 90 square meters to pay for everything. (You see, they started out as Nazis and turned into tax-and-spend Democrats.)  The Wolf Party, on the other hand, was pretty ineffectual, building their platform around core ideas in Jiang Zemin’s now-abandoned western China development strategy, and prone to being caught in “gotcha” moments by their opposition when they failed to answer questions posed by Sam Donaldson (also me).

As for the Pandas, well, in the words of their presidential candidate who himself paraphrased Hu Jintao, the panda is a “harmonious” creature and, by learning from the panda, the Panda Party would promote a more “harmonious society.” (This line was delivered in perfect deadpan earnestness and provoked a wave of laughter from the students.)  The debate ended with a closing statement from each party, and it looked for sure like the Eagle Party, which kept focusing like a laser beam on housing prices, was the clear favorite.

With a few minutes left in class we turned to voting. I handed out slips of paper and told the students that they were now voters and could vote for the party that they liked best, and that they didn’t have to vote for their own party. Alas, Palm Beach County (me yet again) failed to devise a sound balloting procedure.  Inspecting the final tally I noticed there were more votes than there were voters, but we were out of time.

The result?  The Pandas harmoniously stole the election.

The British Press’ Preemptive Anti-Backlash Backlash

Heather Horn at The Atlantic has a hefty roundup of British indignation at the supposed wave of anti-British hysteria sweeping across the US following the still-unresolved Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As I suggested earlier, this whole episode has taken me by surprise and left me asking whether the rift in the “special relationship” is being created out of whole cloth by the tabloid tendency of the British press with the help of prickly British politicians.

Just how bad is it? Consider the alliterated rage of Lord Tebbit, former Tory Party Chairman, who labeled President Obama’s rhetoric “a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of partisan, political, presidential petulance.” London Mayor Boris Johnson — also a Tory — has taken a similar tack, signaling that Tory enthusiasm for US lost during the Blair years is still lost with Cameron at the helm. Pols are always looking for a way to turn the masses towards an external enemy, so I understand their motives, but the British press’ headlong dash into like-minded nationalism is quite striking. And whatever the motives of British editorial writers, their chosen narratives, taken as a whole, lack perspective, coherence, and sympathy.

A disaster whose environmental carnage will rival the human toll of Katrina and whose economic cost will utterly devastate the American gulf coast is touted by David Strahan in the Independent as a helpful wake-up call for Americans to change their habits. Strahan’s cold-bloodedness is matched by the The Mirror’s eagerness to pin the blame for the disaster on an American company that allegedly manufactured a faulty valve used on the Deepwater Horizon. Nevermind that valves do break and BP remains utterly unprepared for a worst-case scenario.

(In fairness, it’s not just the British who are failing the perspective test: both international commentator Fareed Zakaria and Will Inboden in Foreign Policy have criticized Obama for putting the oil spill ahead of his international priorities, ignoring both the international nature of the crisis and its existential threat to the southern US economy.)

We are told by many writers and British politicians that BP no longer stands for “British Petroleum” — much in the way that KFC doesn’t mean “Kentucky Fried Chicken — and that calling the company this name amounts to “anti-British rhetoric.” Yet the fortunes of this very same company are touted as vital to the livelihoods of millions Britons, despite being “not British.” You cannot, as we Yanks like to say, have it both ways. If the company is truly fundamentally British, you cannot chafe when we label it such.

The worst of the lot are anti-American ranters eager to climb up on the detritus of shattered ecosystems and shattered lives and shout about American venom towards Britain. It doesn’t actually matter that people throughout the region will suffer, that many endangered species will be lost — all that death and destruction just doesn’t matter so long as there’s another chance to vent against Washington. (Just like old times!) Many commentaries feature the bizarre tendency of the British press to focus on President Obama’s supposed genetic predisposition to Anglophobia, which first surfaced during alleged “slights” by Obama to Gordon Brown and the Queen, and which has become Britain’s very own species of anti-Obama Birtherism.

My British friends should take heart that Americans are unlikely to see in BP the face of our former colonial masters; instead, we look at BP and see an oil company. There may be differences with how people think on the other side of the Atlantic, but in America oil companies rank just behind the tobacco industry in the tally of “most despised” businesses. This is simply a fact of life, and those who decry the British jobs threatened by BP’s crisis in the Gulf of Mexico should ask whether they, too, encouraged the public to view oil companies as soulless machines of greed.

Why Photography Is Like an RPG

A few months ago on Twitter I mused that preparing a photography kit for a trip was a lot like equipping your character to go to battle in an RPG. Why? Assuming you don’t have a bag of holding,* you only have limited space to carry things in most travel-friendly bags, so you have to plan ahead about what kinds of foes (read: photographic opportunities) you will face. As I get ready for my next trip, I’ve put a little more thought into this metaphor, so what follows is part photography guide and part geek-out session.

For instance, every fighter has his favorite sword, and every photographer has his favorite walkaround lens. Some of us like a superzoom, while others (like me) go for quality and image stabilization of a shorter zoom. My Tamron 17-50 VC doesn’t have great reach, but it serves my purposes well both in daytime and in low-light. A walkaround lens is a Jack-of-All-Trades, which means it won’t give you the best possible results, but its flexibility means you shouldn’t go on a trip without one. In fact, it may be the only lens you take! But one word of warning: the kit lens that came with your camera is probably not your best choice for a walkaround lens — it’s a little bit like leveling up your character in an RPG but still using the first sword you ever bought.

Specialists, though, will often choose a difficult weapon to master. In an RPG this means a weapon that starts out weak but builds a lot of power as your skill increases. For a photographer, the closest experience is having a prime. We children of the digital age are a bit spoiled by zooms and variable focal lengths, yet the prime lens is an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. The fixed focal length of a prime means that you can’t use it in every situation, but having a couple primes in your bag will prove valuable on most trips. My Canon EF 50mm II, aka the “nifty fifty,” is light and, at a price of $90, it’s almost disposable in the event of evil wizardry a travel accident. It works well as a portrait lens, a low-light lens, and a street photography lens. My Canon EF 28mm isn’t nearly as versatile, but is suitable for use in close quarters and when photographing museum pieces** — but stay out of the sun with that one! At the longer end, my Canon 85mm is great for portraiture and sneaking up on targets, though in some situations I need something with even more reach.

If the trip includes a zoo, outdoor performance, or a sports game, you might want to hit far away targets, and the photographer’s longbow is the telephoto lens. Regrettably, this is the weakest lens in my kit, a Canon EF-S 55-250 IS, but that’s because I do most of my fighting, er, shooting up close. Yet it’s also a very light lens, meaning I can always pack it and still have room for my good lenses.

On the other end of the focal range are flowers, bugs, and other small subjects, the kinds of things you’d like to shoot in a park during spring or early summer. Though you’re photographing tiny things, the best lenses in this case are actually pretty hefty, such as my Canon EF 100mm Macro. It’s easily one of the heaviest lenses in a photographer’s kit, and though it doubles as a long portrait lens on my Canon 50D, its bulk and narrowly defined function means it stays at home most of the time. (It’s a little bit like that Mace of Undead Smiting in an RPG that doesn’t work so well against other beasties.)

Let’s talk about something more useful. A wide-angle lens is like an area effect magic spell; sometimes there’s just so much in front of you that you want to get it all in one shot. You should consider a wide-angle lens such as the Canon EF-S 10-22mm if you’re going to be shooting moderate-to-brightly lit interiors, such as Chinese temples, or most landscapes or public squares (Tiananmen, here I come). Note, however, that a wide-angle lens won’t work miracles in dark places. Most lack stabilization and are just too slow.

To complement your array of weaponry, you’ll need a good spellbook — or just nice accessories. If weather is a danger on your quest, consider All-Weather covers for your camera, lens, and bag. If you must journey into dark caves and hollows, your external flash and bounce filter makes for a nifty globe of illumination. If you don’t know how long it’ll be before you can return to town, a battery grip and a few spare batteries can make the difference between life and death taking or losing great shots. Also, a Lenspen, while not a complete cleaning solution, is a veritable cure light wounds for your camera’s filters and objectives. Last but not least, a carbon fiber tripod is every photographer’s friend when a hex potion curses you with unsteady hands or you don’t trust another adventurer to take your picture. (I usually don’t.)

Finally, no would-be warrior or photographer would be complete without his sidearm. In most RPGs this means a dagger or other short weapon, but for photogs, it’s a Micro 4/3s camera or other quality compact. In my case it’s a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3, which is more of an enthusiast’s camera than the latest and greatest piece of kit. But it’s pretty powerful in its own right, and lets me work HDR magic or take nice black and whites. The main advantage of a compact backup camera should be obvious the first time you’re shooting with a telephoto lens and suddenly need to go wide on a shot.

So there you have it: 13 years of photography and 16 years of playing RPGs crammed into one 1,000 word blog post. The important thing to take away from this is that planning for travel photography should begin as soon as you have your itinerary ready. Think through the venues and your photographic needs and choose the lenses that best correspond to your overall plans.

* I have it on good authority that LowePro is set to launch their Camera Bags of Holding line any day now.

** Don’t underestimate the value of a fast, short lens for museum photography. As long as you don’t use a flash you can shoot freely in most museums.

Thoughts on That Liberalism and Intelligence Survey

Liberals, including some friends of mine, are quite satisfied at a new survey of intelligence and ideology that finds liberals to be more intelligent, on average, than their conservative counterparts.  According to the CNN report summarizing the research, Evolutionary Psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the London School of Economics has made the following three discoveries:

  • Liberals average as much as eleven IQ points higher than conservatives;
  • The smarter you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist;
  • And male sexual exclusivity is linked to intelligence.

Now, there are a number of questions that come out of this, some of which place the survey in the category of bad social science.  For starters, Kanazawa, invoking human evolution, makes broad claims like

Religion, the current theory goes, did not help people survive or reproduce necessarily, but goes along the lines of helping people to be paranoid, Kanazawa said. Assuming that, for example, a noise in the distance is a signal of a threat helped early humans to prepare in case of danger.

And yet their survey sample is American youth, no older age cohorts and no foreigners.  The problem here is that when you’re talking about human evolution you don’t just look at a particular culture at a fixed point at time and say “This is generally true for all of us.”  For example, the research ignores Europe, where nearly everyone from football hooligans to Brussels elites have given up on God,* meaning that intelligence there is no longer a reliable predictor of atheism.  Similarly, the research ignores the Islamic world, where highly intelligent people are also often highly devout.   (While I won’t characterize terrorists as the “most faithful” of Muslims, it’s worth noting that many prominent Muslim terrorists are engineers and other high IQ professions.)

Moving on, other problems with the survey appear when you consider that the particular findings don’t match up with the American political environment.  For example, there should be an additional correlation between liberalism and male sexual exclusivity, yet if the last two decades taught us anything, it’s that liberals are less likely to endorse the concept of faithfulness in general even if they are faithful in their private lives, whereas conservatives and the religious are more likely to promote faithfulness in general.  This doesn’t square with Kanazawa telling us that conservative attitudes and religion have old school evolutionary advantages yet male sexual exclusivity does not, since the former actively promote the latter.**  Another issue is that American-Americans, who affiliate themselves with liberal causes more consistently than most groups in the US, are also far more churchgoing than their fellow liberals: while 44% of Americans claim no religious affiliation, only 10% of African-Americans do so.  This is an outlier that goes unexplained in the CNN summary but might make it into Kanazawa’s full report, which, in the interest of full disclosure, is not something I am going to pay $32.00 to read.***

Another issue with the report comes when Kanazawa asserts that liberalism has the contra-evolutionary trait of being interested in the welfare of strangers whereas conservatives prefer to be interested in the welfare of their kin.  On the surface of it, this claim makes sense, given that liberals endorse government social programs while conservatives argue against government handouts.  Yet if we look beyond the role of the state in promoting the welfare of strangers, we find that conservatives are significantly more committed to private sector altruism.  For instance, of the top 25 states for charitable giving in the mid-2000s, 24 voted for Bush and one voted for Kerry in the 2004 elections.  Moreover, throughout history, religious institutions have long demonstrated a commitment to the welfare of strangers, and in the Islamic world these institutions have provided vital social services where the state has failed its citizens.  A failure to account for private charity means that Kanazawa’s arguments about altruism and evolution stand on shaky ground.

Overall, the deeper problem is that Kanazawa is looking at specific cultural constructs and making general evolutionary claims.  Culture is fluid and changes generationally and geographically.  Evolution, conversely, takes time.  If we are hard-wired to be conservative or liberal, religious or atheist, in the same way that we are genetically predetermined to be intelligent, then we shouldn’t see such profound shifts in values within a short span of time, and we shouldn’t see large gaps between cultural and national groups worldwide.  As presented in the media, much of Kanazawa’s report is junk science, and comes dangerously close to being a Bell Curve for white liberals.  It remains to be seen whether the actual document is similarly flawed.  That I leave to the peer reviewers.

* Nearly half of Europeans no longer believe in a personal God, and church attendance stands at 30-20% for most major European countries.

** Interestingly, though Islam is often deplored for promoting four-wife polygamy, scholars of Islam consider this an advance over life in the Arabian peninsula at the time, which involved unlimited polygamy.  From an evolutionary perspective, Islam increased social peace and increased cooperation by limiting the number of wives a man could have, which made the religion more appealing than its pagan competition.

*** Seriously, what’s up with that pricing model?  Buying a single article online costs more than buying a single issue of the whole journal.

Avatar’s Political Messages: the Overt and the Hidden

Stuart Staniford has written a compelling post where he compares the politics of James Cameron’s Avatar to the philosophy of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber.  A key — and disturbing — passage:

We put [the Unabomber] in jail because he started killing technologists, stating as his reason that he hated industrial society and wanted to return to a more natural and free state of humanity. He was less successful in the execution than Jake/Trudy/Grace and the Na’vi – who actually succeed in ejecting Parker and Co. from Pandora – but it seems to me that the moral logic is exactly the same.  Nature good, technology bad, violent opposition justified.

So, you might want to stop a minute and ask yourself: how exactly does Cameron get mainstream American audiences to root for the Unabomber side in this conflict?

It’s a good question, but in fact, Avatar is not the first time Cameron has asked viewers to root for terrorists.  Though it predates the Unabomber as a public figure by four years, Cameron’s Terminator 2 is heavily infused with a violent ludditism not unlike Kaczynski’s manifesto.  We come to accept Sarah Connor’s extremism because, in the universe of the film, there really is a future where technology threatens mankind.  But that doesn’t change the fact that her rhetoric and the Unabomber’s rhetoric are cut from the same cloth, in particular when she rants and starts comparing the creators of Skynet to the creators of the atom bomb.

(As an aside, before Cameron was a hypocrite for using cutting-edge technology to make a film attacking technology with Avatar, he was a hypocrite for doing the same thing in Terminator 2.)

Returning to Staniford’s question, how does Cameron get audiences to side with terrorist luddites (or if you want to use an Iraq metaphor, “insurgents”)?  Part of it is because, like Terminator 2, the technological baubles he throws at us are so appealing that most audiences barely think about the plot.  Still another reason is that, for liberal and moderate audiences, the movie is a triumphalist appeal to white guilt.  Triumphalist, because rather than lecturing the protagonist about his racism, it gives him the opportunity to transcend his own racial limitations.  As Annalee Newitz put it in her essay on race in the films Avatar and the much-superior District 9,

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

There’s another side to this which explains incentives for Sully (and the audience).  More than just “peoples of color” or even “noble savages,” the Na’vi are highly idealized and eroticized, presented to us as, in the words of one friend on Twitter, “ten foot blue supermodels.”  Unlike the aliens in District 9, whose appearance and behaviors tend to repulse rather than evoke sympathy, Cameron banks on sexual imagery both to lure in the teenage demographic and to make his messiah tale more palatable.  (This choice was so blatant that Cameron opened himself up to all kinds of parody.)  What if, however, Cameron had made the aliens in Avatar something truly alien, like the jellyfish-like Flouwen in Robert Forward’s Rocheworld, or simply made Eywa herself the only sentient life on the planet?  He could have sidestepped many of the film’s shortcomings, though the end result would’ve been closer to 2001 than any of Cameron’s prior work.*

Despite the film’s politics, Cameron manages to sell us on Avatar with a ton of technology, a feel-good fable, a significant amount of sex, and a dumbed-down New Age religion.  And yet there’s a less-discussed moral aspect of the film that appeals to audiences:  the defense of property rights.  This is perhaps an accidental reading of the movie; Cameron certainly wasn’t out to defend one of the foundations of capitalism when he wrote the script, but the movie invites such comparisons.  Here’s libertarian David Boaz, making the case that Avatar is about eminent domain:

Conservatives rallied to the defense of Susette Kelo when the Pfizer Corp. and the city of New London, Conn., tried to take her land. She was unreasonable too, like the Na’vi. She wasn’t holding out for a better price; she just didn’t want to sell her house. As Jake tells his bosses, “They’re not going to give up their home.”

“Avatar” is like a space opera of the Kelo case, which went to the Supreme Court in 2005. Peaceful people defend their property against outsiders who want it and who have vastly more power. Jake rallies the Na’vi with the stirring cry “And we will show the Sky People that they cannot take whatever they want! And that this is our land!”

I’m sure that some in America will roll their eyes at Boaz.  But here in China, the Avatar-as-defense-of-property rights meme is the dominant view of the film.  Chinese have little interest in Avatar‘s cotton candy pantheism and no white guilt to make them sympathize with native peoples (in fact, had Cameron linked the Na’vi to Tibetans or other minorities, Chinese would have hated the movie), so the sheer spectacle of the film is what drew in Chinese audiences and the economic aspects are what they took away from their viewing.  How else to explain the apparent victim of an illegal demolition who hoists a banner above his half-smashed home, telling people that the lesson of Avatar is “to defend your home to your death!”

* Save perhaps for The Abyss, which presents us with “aliens” that are fantastically different from us, though at times sickeningly cute.

Google and China: in the Long Term

This is neither a blog post about Google’s motives for changing its mind about China, nor is it a post about the seeming triumph of Baidu in the world’s fastest growing economy, nor is it a post about the Chinese government’s steadfast denials of hacking or its silly propaganda offensive against Google and the US. Those posts have been written already, both by people with greater interest and greater insight than myself. Instead, I would like to explore the long-term ramifications of the Google-China affair, as well as the implications of the U.S. policy response outlined by Secretary of State Clinton.

First, while domestic IT companies will continue to thrive, both the perception and the reality of Google’s situation will have a negative effect on international IT investment in China. When “inside job” memes start spreading alongside a very public insinuation that the Chinese government aided and abetted IP theft on a vast scale, there can be no question that the end result will be a poisoned business environment for IT companies in China. While companies everywhere will always be open to cyberattack, the added danger of physical access to corporate IT infrastructure will lead many companies to rethink placing datacenters and software labs in China. More disturbing is the possibility that IT companies may come to question the loyalty of Chinese staff in an IT world replay of the Wen Ho Lee affair. (To Chinese friends:  you might want to delete that Communist Party membership you wrote about on your resume.)  Factors such as these may lead IT firms to turn to India instead of China as a hub for their low-cost Asian operations, or to Taiwan or South Korea for more expensive, bandwidth-critical investments.

A second development is that Google will harm its reputation by sending mixed messages about future plans in China. The company’s hard stance has won considerable praise from foreign observers used to watching companies muddy the ethical waters when doing business in China. (When Google said no to Zhongnanhai, one could almost hear the gasps of delight in Washington and Silicon Valley!) Thus it comes as no surprise that when Google starts whittling away at the strength of its initial statements, it leaves many of the company’s fans with a sour taste in their mouths. Google’s investors will be left scratching their heads at how Page and Brin — Google’s tech geniuses — could spearhead such a bold position only to have it talked down by Schmidt — Google’s biz guy — in the weeks that followed.  Even worse, for smaller IT companies Google’s actions beg the question, if, in the end, even Google cannot stand up to China, how on earth can we?

Moving on to the Secretary of State’s speech, the main problem with the U.S. approach is that it wants to sidestep the economic issues involved in Chinese censorship and nationalist hacking and wrap everything up in the guise of human rights. Human rights are important, no doubt, but they were not a sufficient cause for Google’s abrupt policy change regarding China nor are human rights behind, say, IP piracy intrusions at Adobe and other IT firms. Moreover, putting human rights front and center is the old familiar anti-Chinese government narrative, a narrative which, while it may please the ears of Western audiences, will ring false to many Chinese citizens who, as Baidu’s Sun Yunfeng notes, care less about political issues and more about “the most routine information in economy, culture and technology fields.”

While the speech was more a statement of principles than a policy outline, there were a few moments in which Clinton’s statements played into Beijing’s hands. Consider the passage where Secretary Clinton announces U.S. government assistance to develop “circumvention tools”:

We are also supporting the development of new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship. We are providing funds to groups around the world to make sure that those tools get to the people who need them in local languages, and with the training they need to access the internet safely. The United States has been assisting in these efforts for some time, with a focus on implementing these programs as efficiently and effectively as possible. Both the American people and nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.

We want to put these tools in the hands of people who will use them to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, to build global support for President Obama’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons, to encourage sustainable economic development that lifts the people at the bottom up.

As an unstated policy of the United States, this approach would be precisely right — the U.S. should be working to strengthen democratic movements in authoritarian countries. On the other hand, as a stated policy, the United States is giving ammunition to regimes in Beijing (and elsewhere) to label dissidents as pawns of Washington, to stigmatize them as the agents of foreign powers. Although Westerners may find charges such as “information imperialism” laughable, we should not ignore Beijing’s rate of success at making common Chinese distrust any critics deemed to have too many friends in foreign capitals. Furthermore, Washington runs the danger of not only stigmatizing individuals but also technology. If proxy services are explicitly linked to U.S. policies, the Chinese government is all but certain to double their efforts to thwart all software designed to leap over the Great Firewall, and because Beijing exports information control technology to other authoritarian regimes, there’s a danger of the closed Internets everywhere being quickly “immunized” against the tools designed to crack them open.

Lastly, we should always remember that although China itself is not democratic, there are democratic forces at work in the country, and those forces have been increasingly successful at forcing changes in government policy.  Netizens, dissidents, and the Chinese consumer each wield their own forms of democratic power, but Chinese democracy is prickly and resents paternalistic Western interference.  Consequently, Chinese can be vociferous in their criticism of the government so long as that criticism is seen to be genuinely “Chinese” in origin. The best thing that Google can do in the long term is to let the Chinese people, not Washington, say “Don’t Be Evil” to Zhongnanhai.  Despite Baidu’s homefield advantage, Chinese companies are service leaders, not technology leaders.  Google is the number one technology leader, and Chinese consumers can appreciate that fact.  At the same time, the best thing that the West can do in the years ahead is to treat information control technologies like we would nuclear weapons: fight to control the spread of the technology; work to reduce its application, especially in democracies; but ultimately hope that governments can mature to the point where such technologies are seen as archaic and unnecessary.

Dickens vs. Axelrod

Anyone who has studied game theory specifically or political science in general in the past two decades is bound to have read Robert Axelrod’s seminal work The Evolution of Cooperation.  Using computer modeling, Axelrod goes on to demonstrate that cooperation can be fostered over time thanks to organisms/actors having a fear of the shadow of the future; that is to say, if I think I will have to have dealings with you in the future, then I will cooperate with you now with hopes of continued cooperation in the future.

I am, of course, vastly oversimplifying Axelrod’s thesis, but he presented a convincing theory of how long-term benefit could trump short-term gain if the participants had an ongoing rather than one-off relationship.  What got me thinking again about Axelrod — and inspiring this post — is that storytellers often contradict Axelrod’s findings by positing the late-in-life or end-of-life change of heart among characters.  Consider that literary trope, the archetypal greedy old man (think Ebenezer Scrooge) who takes a turn towards benevolence before death because of the sudden realization that, in passing, he will be remembered only as an evil miser.  For him, the shadow of the future is very short, and thus he has a disincentive to cooperate, yet cooperate he does.  A similar thing happens in the movie Groundhog Day, when the protagonist Phil changes from a narcissistic misanthrope into a near-humanist when he finds himself stuck in a day that repeats again and again, a situation which, according to The Evolution of Cooperation, should encourage selfish behavior.*

Now are storytellers simply wrong, are these stories outliers outside the bounds of Axelrod’s schema, or is there something else at work here?  It might be argued that filmmakers and writers are more sentimental than the real world, and that these change of heart scenarios reflect ideals more than practicality.  But there’s something deeper than that — not only will I make choices with an eye towards future cooperation (“We can eat what you like today and then tomorrow we can have what I like”) — but I will also take actions mindful of the fact that they will influence the perception others have of me as a social being.  For those around us, the memories born from these perceptions become the sum total of our existence.  And to invoke Martin Buber, if we make I-It relationships the focus of our life, and treat others as only functional means to an end, then we are not only denied true friendships when living but also, when we die, we will cease to live on meaningfully in the memory of others.

Returning to Axelrod, we might say that he has painted a picture of how cooperation may emerge between us as economic beings, yet that doesn’t capture the hows and whys of how cooperation emerges between us as social beings.  And it is our acceptance — or rejection — of our status as social beings which creates the opportunity for cooperation beyond the scope of material self-interest. Scrooge might not stab his business partners in the back because it will cost him money, but he has no qualms about making Bob Cratchit’s life miserable until he comes to embrace his status as a social being.  To wrap things up, the political science question that obtains from this bit of Monday musing is how to model interactions in way that elegantly captures both individual material incentives and social spiritual incentives.**  Until we do that, we are left with too many questions about why cooperation fails to take hold in social systems.

* It should be noted that when Phil first realizes his situation, his first instinct is towards anti-social behavior, but this soon bores him.

** In international relations terms this means balancing both realist/hard power concerns and liberal/soft power concerns instead of asserting the importance of one over the other.

To Resurrect a Blog

To resurrect a blog, you need:

  1. A nice proxy service* and willingness to run a blog that’s blocked in China** most of the time.
  2. A swanky new layout, courtesy of the WordPress monochrome theme.
  3. An enthusiasm to get back into essay writing.  One can only say much in 140 characters.

In other news, I haven’t used WordPress in ages. I’m mucho impressed with the current interface.  Brilliant use of coding, and so damn good looking.

* Between PaperBus and winning six free months of Freedur, I hope I won’t suffer for lack of a proxy.

** It used to be the case that expats in China avoided having a blocked BSP like the plague, but perhaps having all of Twitter and Facebook shut out by the Great Firewall changed our perceptions.  After all, if not having a VPN is no longer an option in China, then using blocked services becomes more attractive to writers and readers alike.

Send China to Burma

Dr. Steven Taylor noted earlier in the week that the SLORC junta in Burma (sorry, no Myanmar here) has agreed to receive aid but not aid workers.  Dr. T notes that this is par for the course in dictatorships:

One of the tried and true (and tragic) behaviors of hardline dictatorships is to reaction to internal disasters as if either they didn’t happen (something that is increasingly difficult to do these days) or to downplay the need for help from the outside (if not to reject it outright). It has to do with control (of information as well as what the population might learn) as well, I suspect, with embarrassment over the state of the country. No doubt there is a healthy dose of xenophobia thrown in for good measure.

The shroud being drawn across the disaster relief effort by the junta naturally creates a problem for donor countries, as there are zero guarantees that humanitarian aid will (a) go to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, (b) not be used politically by the government, and (c) can actually be delivered in a prompt and effective manner.

To an extent, the junta’s policy is understandable from the perspective of a hyper-paranoid autocratic elite which has almost no international friends and sees the crisis situation as a potential opening for outsiders intent on toppling the regime.  The human cost of this need for total control is difficult to estimate — surely it will add thousands to the final death toll from the storm — but SLORC likely looks to examples such as the North Korean famine as assurance that a hardline regime can remain in power despite massive loss of life.

So, what should the UN and the West do to make sure that relief aid can actually get to devastated Burmese communities?  They might want to call on China.

While an international pariah, SLORC, like the regimes in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and North Korea, has a significant ally in Beijing.  Westerners have thus far unsuccessfully tried to pressure China to change its friendly policies towards the Burmese government.  They ought to learn by now that China will always refuse to implement policies that might run contrary to the interests of one of its client states.  That said, while nothing will sever the Sino-Burmese relationship, the international community might be able to persuade China to put boots on the ground in Burma as part of the relief effort.  SLORC trusts China, after all, and is not likely to see Chinese relief workers as a security threat.

China might not agree to be the West’s proxy, but the country’s relatively recent history in providing relief operations suggests an openness to the idea.  Bringing Beijing on board would require illustrating the following benefits to Hu Jintao and his foreign policy hands:

  • Leading a significant relief effort will provide good PR for the Chinese government in advance of the Olympics and in the wake of the Tibet riots.
  • China, by distributing aid, could help stabilize Burma (and help SLORC stay in power).
  • Western countries could provide the bulk of the material cost, and even some of the air- and sealift, leaving China with the cost of manpower, which is significantly less than Western manpower costs.

Many in the West will be left scratching their heads and wondering where the good side is in this proposal.  China, a sometimes-adversary, comes out ahead, while the SLORC emerge unscathed and Western countries foot most of the bill.  Yet, as we watch the news from Burma, we cannot underestimate the scale of the tragedy nor the urgency of the situation:  between 20,000 and 100,000 already dead, millions displaced, and tens of thousands more threatened by malnourishment, disease, and floodwaters.  This is a rare circumstance where the lesser of two evils is easy to determine.

The question is, will any leaders in the West or the UN step forward and ask China to go to Burma?

Jeremiah Wright, House Divider

A short video of a rant by Barack Obama’s pastor Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright has been making the rounds in the right-wing blogosphere.* While Wright has been on the radar screen of many an Obama critic for months now, it’s rare that we get to hear him in his own words. And what ugly words they are.

It’s troubling at first considering that Wright trots out the kind of religious identity politics that racist cult leader Louis Farrakhan and the black religious left made famous, but it moves from disturbing to ludicrous when Wright compares Sen. Obama to other blacks to illustrate how “privileged” Hillary Clinton is. Despite Wright’s laundry list to the contrary, Obama is half-white, the family wasn’t poor — and for that matter the senator himself isn’t poor — and while Obama was raised in a single-parent household, his was a uniquely international, multiracial childhood — one in which, again, contra Wright, acceptance came more naturally. To hear Wright speak, however, it sounds like Obama grew up the son of a welfare mother in the projects.

While sadly amusing, this may also be the more racist, more divisive aspect of Wright’s rhetoric, since instead of embracing and endorsing Sen. Obama as a welcome bridge between races and generations, Wright employs his own one drop rule and vulgarizes Obama into a common black man victimized by rich white men. No respect is paid to the reality of Obama’s white mother and the white grandparents who raised him, nor does Wright seem cognizant of the modern American cultural milieu, which has progressed to the point where a “black president” is not only possible but, if the predictions hold, likely.

Overall, Wright’s speech is divisive and nasty, and if I were Barack Obama, “preaching” like the above, taken with the fact that Wright said of Louis Farrakhan,

His depth on analysis when it comes to the racial ills of this nation is astounding and eye opening. He brings a perspective that is helpful and honest.

and the fact that he further presented a “lifetime achievement” award to Farrakhan in late 2007

would be enough to drive me from Rev. Wright’s congregation. Not so with Sen. Obama, and his unwillingness to rebuke Wright — he merely says he doesn’t agree with all of Wright’s opinions — makes me think that the dream many have for a post-racial politics to emerge from the Obama candidacy is a false hope.

It further begs the question, who is the real Barack Obama?

Update:  Can you guess the uplifting phrase in Wright’s post-9/11 sermon?  How about “God damn America”?  Obama says this was just Wright trying to be provocative.  Pat Robertson’s PR guy better write this phrase down to use next time ol’ Pat opines on supposed Godly displeasure with His creations that leads to natural disasters.

* Liberals aren’t linking to it yet because they’re too busy complaining about McCain’s endorsement by Christian fundamentalist loon John Hagee. But John Hagee isn’t McCain’s pastor, and no amount of blogging by the left will prove that he holds sway over McCain the way Wright has influenced Obama.

Stereotypes with Chinese Characteristics

One classroom lecture that I’ve repeatedly used and refined during my time in China has been an exploration of student understandings of stereotypes and the propagation of stereotypes among the Chinese urban middle class. What stands out during the lesson is the degree to which some kinds of imagery — the Arab terrorist, the black athlete — have become so globalized that many Chinese sound exactly like their American counterparts when discussing people from different backgrounds.

I generally begin this lesson by defining the word stereotype and inviting students to offer stereotypes, positive and negative, of men and women. This makes things lively at the start, especially in classes with a strong mix of male and female students. From there we move on to stereotypes of people from different parts of China.

I asked the students to complete sentences such as the following:

  • Dongbei people are …
  • Beijing people are …
  • Hong Kong people are …
  • Xinjiang people are …

Not surprisingly, Dongbei people — in Tianjin at least — were painted in colorful but positive terms, but people in the capital were ripped on heavily, while those from Xinjiang came in for the most negative stereotypes (“monstrous,” “dangerous,” “terrorists”). This impression of Uighur people is worrying to me since, of all of China’s minority groups today, they have the greatest chance to face discrimination in society, and when stories like this one go flickering into the public consciousness, the stereotyping verges on becoming a permanent fixture in Chinese thought.

Returning to the lecture, one thing I added tonight was a group quasi-experiment in which the students were shown a series of photos and asked for their impressions. Since our reactions to the appearance of strangers can be influenced by the stereotypes we subscribe to, this was another way to gauge the prevalence of certain stereotypes among my students. That said, this wasn’t a truly scientific survey,* and I “rigged” things a bit when choosing the nine images shown in the collage below by making sure some photos were out-of-character for the person depicted:

stereotypes collage

These images are all famous people save one (the Sikh in the center left), and except perhaps for young Michael Jackson (top center), none of them are recognizable to most Chinese. What reactions did the students have?

  • Ted Bundy (top left): “intelligent,” “businessman,” “lawyer”
  • Michael Jackson (top center): “poor,” “good at sports”
  • Gov. Bobby Jindal and family (top right): “happy,” “Middle Eastern,” “not American”
  • Sikh man (center left): “Bin Laden,” “Arab,” “oil merchant,” “terrorist”
  • Kristen Kreuk (center): “model,” “actress,” “mixed”
  • Kim Jong-nam (center right): “rich,” “countryside person,” “taxi driver”
  • Augusto Pinochet (bottom left): “Nazi,” “strong man,” “Japanese”
  • Cindy McCain (bottom center): “businesswoman,” “serious,” “kind”
  • Bobby Bowden (bottom right): “government official,” “intelligent,” “European”

To analyze the responses a bit, I created this segment of the lecture expecting the Sikh to catch most of the negative comments, since Westerners also mistake Sikhs for Muslim fundamentalist Arabs and thereby transfer negative stereotypes from Arabs to Sikhs. Furthermore, I deliberately included a friendly-looking Ted Bundy, so as to further underscore the point of the dangers of stereotyping, and the students fell for my “trap.” The other results are across the board, and the reactions to Bobby Bowden and Kim Jong-nam made me laugh. Lastly, while liberals may be heartened by my students’ reaction to Pinochet, China throws a wrinkle into the mix because being Nazi-like is not always negative here.

But that’s a subject for another post.

* A scientific survey would probably involve individual testing and ask respondents to simply note whether they had good feelings or bad feelings about the person they were looking at.

The Polish Lobby?

Adam Blickstein writes that the Clinton campaign found time to remember the Katyn Massacre — the Soviet mass murder of 20,000 Polish POWs during World War II — just before this week’s Super Tuesday II primaries. The campaign, naturally, made no attempt to connect the dots, but Blickstein and others note that the sizable Polish-American populations of Ohio and Pennsylvania (the latter state will feature in the next set of electoral contests) may have invited just such ethnic politicking.

This is not the first time American politicians have crafted foreign policy to appeal to Polish-Americans, of course. Reagan’s embrace of Pope John Paul II doubtless helped him make inroads in the Midwest, while President Clinton’s push for Poland’s membership in NATO in the mid-1990s was arguably influenced by domestic concerns.

As The New York Times reported in 1996,

White House officials tried to portray the speech [endorsing NATO expansion] as only partly campaign related, saying the President wanted to influence a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in December. The ministers are to set a date for a NATO summit meeting in late spring or summer that will select the first new nations to be added to the alliance and begin the process of negotiating their entrance.

But the officials also acknowledged that the President was delivering his speech in a part of the country with a sizable number of residents who emigrated from Eastern and Central Europe. And Mr. Clinton’s focus on ethnic voters was only underscored when he went from the speech to lunch at the Polish Village Cafe and ingested stuffed cabbage, pierogis and sauerkraut.

Together with the assault on Serbia in 1999, the eastward expansion of NATO was one of the foreign policy moves responsible for alienating the Russians from the US. Since our relationship with Russia should be more important than our relationship with Poland, this policy choice went against American national interest as defined by realists.

In light of the long-term linking of American foreign policy to Polish-American support for American politicians, no doubt Mearsheimer and Walt will be hard at work on The Polish Lobby after completing The Cuba Lobby, The Mexico Lobby, and The Armenia Lobby as follow-ups to The Israel Lobby.

Oh, no, wait, none of those other lobbies involve Jews. My bad.

Lowering Standards at The Atlantic?

I consider myself a fan of The Atlantic, but this post by James Gibney is simply disgusting (emphasis added):

John McCain and others often cite U.S. bases in Korea and Japan as a model for a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. This rape case, which the Japanese authorities dropped because the family of the 14-year-old junior high student didn’t want to pursue charges, is a reminder of one of the less savory dividends of U.S. bases in your backyard. U.S. military personnel have been raping Okinawans for the last 60-plus years.

Soldiers have often had a bad track record with women, and Japan’s behavior during World War II is proof of that (even if the Japanese don’t admit it), but Gibney crosses the line between saying rape incidents are a problem that causes tension between the US, Japan, and Okinawa* and arguing American soldiers are predisposed to rape. By the Gibney standard, news stories like this should lead us to oppose efforts to send UN Peacekeepers to Darfur.

Gibney’s main point is to use the Okinawa rape case as an anti-Iraq War talking point, and he pushes his argument further beyond the pale by “admitting” in the next paragraph that not all American soldiers are sociopaths. There are numerous reasons against being Iraq, but our soldiers will rape the local women and some of our soldiers are sociopaths aren’t among them. Faulty reasoning got us stuck in Iraq, but bad faith arguments won’t get us out. James Gibney should be ashamed.

(h/t to Marc Danzinger, who is an Atlantic fan no more)

* Note that one of the reasons the Okinawans are so vigorous in protesting transgressions by American personnel is that many Okinawans consider themselves a separate people from the rest of the Japanese, so the Japanese government’s endorsement of the Okinawan deployment is seen as an extension of Japanese domination of the Okinawan people. This fact is rarely mentioned in media discussions of the US presence in Japan.