China

*Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World*

That is the new book by Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei.  It is perhaps not so novel to students of Jean Bodin and medieval political thought, or say Chinese history, but still the book crystallizes a moment and I consider its publication a matter of note.  Here is one short bit:

But which hierarchical relations are justified and why?  In our view, it depends on the nature of the social relations and the social context.  As a method, we are inspired by Michael Walzer’s call for a pluralistic approach to justice.  There is no one principle of justice appropriate for all times and places.  Our main argument is that different hierarchical principles ought to govern different kinds of social relations.  What justifies hierarchy among intimates is different from what justifies hierarchy among citizens; what justifies hierarchy among citizens is different from what justifies hierarchy among countries; what justifies hierarchy among countries is different from what justifies hierarchies between humand and animals, and…The sum total of our argument is that morally justified hierarchies can and should govern different spheres of our social lives…

The discussion of the Kama Sutra, and its notions of hierarchy, was interesting too.

Is the world fortunate that the coronavirus hit China first?

Is the world fortunate that the coronavirus hit China first? China’s government has totalitarian impulses but that–for the most part– is working to its favor in combating the virus. What other country in the world could quarantine a city of 11 million people on the basis of (at the time) 17 reported deaths?

CNN: Across China, 15 cities with a combined population of over 57 million people — more than the entire population of South Korea — have been placed under full or partial lockdown.

Wuhan itself has been effectively quarantined, with all routes in and out of the city closed or highly regulated. The government announced it is sending an additional 1,200 health workers — along with 135 People’s Liberation Army medical personnel — to help the city’s stretched hospital staff.

China’s response to the virus has been unprecedented and one cannot help but be a little bit impressed.

I was in India recently and if the coronavirus hits India it could spread very rapidly and millions could die not just in India but around the world. India does not have a strong public health system (it has invested instead in sickness treatment, another example of premature imitation), it also has plenty of other opportunistic diseases and bacteria which would magnify viral sickness and overwhelm the public health system, and India does not have a state strong enough to effectively lock down cities. India’s only big advantage versus China is that it’s relatively free press and communication system could make an outbreak more quickly spotted. China, in contrast, tried to hide the initial outbreak. This does, however, cut both ways. India’s 1994 outbreak of the plague quickly became news, which led to official action, but hundreds of thousands of people quickly left the epicenter in Surat–smart action at the time but deadly if those fleeing are infectious.

We need a Manhattan Project to research, develop and produce new vaccines at a faster pace; the US is best placed to be the world leader in this regard. On other actions, the United States stands somewhere in between China and India. US quarantine action would certainly be slower than in China but it could happen, probably through the military, as we are seeing now.

The US approach of slow but eventually decisive action is probably best but how slow is too slow? Right now most people assume that the coronavirus is a blow to China but if does create a serious pandemic then China may be the first to recover and stabilize.

Hat tip: Lunch discussions with Robin, John and Ajay.

Might the coronavirus bring freer speech to China?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Chinese citizens are currently upset and panicked, and their online communication might exceed the ability of the censors to control it. Some censorship is done algorithmically, but much of it is performed by humans, if only because the algorithms are far from perfect and cannot pick up on the rapidly changing allusions and code words people use.

What happens if there are too many subversive messages to censor? The system might break down, and speech might become more free. Reimposing censorship might be difficult, politically and logistically.

There is yet another reason censorship might prove difficult. If you feel desperate and fear for your health, the penalties for speaking out online might not seem so bad by comparison. You might not care so much about that promotion at work or your standing in the party. Moreover, the stress of the situation may lower your inhibitions. And if public criticism becomes more common, it may seem safe to join the growing crowd. The eventual result of all this would be a partial collapse of censorship.

The link also considers the entirely possible scenario that Chinese liberties could instead decrease.

China, Texas fact of the day

When officials at the Texas A&M University System sought to determine how much Chinese government funding its faculty members were receiving, they were astounded at the results—more than 100 were involved with a Chinese talent-recruitment program, even though only five had disclosed their participation.

A plant pathologist at the Texas system, where the median annual salary for such scientists employed by the state is around $130,000, told officials that the researcher had been offered $250,000 in compensation and more than $1 million in seed money to start a lab in China through one of the talent programs. The researcher ultimately rejected the offer, according to the Texas system’s chief research security officer, Kevin Gamache, who led the recent 18-month review that has garnered praise from U.S. officials.

That is from Aruna Viswanatha and Kate O’Keeffe at the WSJ.  As for Harvard:

Charles Lieber, a pioneer in nanotechnology, allegedly signed a contract with Chinese counterparts under which he would be paid around $50,000 a month, plus another $150,000 a year for personal expenses; he was also promised—and received—more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at the Wuhan University of Technology, according to prosecutors.

He is specifically charged with deliberately lying to U.S. government investigators when asked if he received Chinese talent-plan funding, rather than simply omitting the information on forms.

Commercial silence about China, what is the equilibrium?

OK, the NBA and its players won’t much exercise their free speech rights, nor will university presidents, so how will this all look in the longer term?  Surely India and other nations are learning from the Chinese experience, and so here is one excerpt from my Bloomberg column:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India is an avowed student of the Chinese experiment. Is it so far-fetched to imagine that he would help to create comparable pressures on speech for institutions doing business with India? The more China’s strategy succeeds, the more likely it is to spread. Modi has not shied away from controversy in making Indian policy, so the domestic pressure to follow the Chinese model could be quite strong.

Imagine a world, not so far off, where Indonesia is a business’s fifth-largest customer or a university’s seventh-largest supplier of students. Will it really be so safe to criticize the government of Indonesia, even for employees of those institutions on their social media accounts? U.S. businesses today are quite reluctant to criticize their customers at all, regardless of how much they collectively or individually account for revenue.

The world is evolving into a place where countries and regimes are exempt from all significant public criticism from any entity (or its employees) with substantial interests overseas — whether commercial or academic. That scenario may sound dystopian, but in fact it would not be a major shift from the status quo.

It is also easy to imagine a norm evolving where major customers, say China and India, become offended if a business or its employees criticize a much smaller nation. The theory might be that if any criticism is allowed at all, eventually it will reach the larger (and more controversial) nations. Or perhaps the smaller nation is an ally or friend of the larger, more powerful one. So you had better not criticize Kiribati, either.

And my parenthetical:

(Paradoxically, China’s concern for speech over actions shows a respect for the power of discourse — and free speech — that contemporary America could learn from.)

Recommended, and here is India already flexing its muscle over Bezos and WaPo (NYT).

What to make of the new U.S.-China trade deal?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The U.S. has established its seriousness as a counterweight to China, something lacking since it largely overlooked China’s various territorial encroachments in the 2010s. Whether in economics or foreign policy, China now can expect the U.S. to push back — a very different calculus. At a time when there is tension in North Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea, that is potentially a significant gain.

…Currently the U.S. is working hard to keep Huawei equipment out of the forthcoming 5G networks in many countries. (Imagine letting the KGB run the American phone network in say 1980, and you can see what is at stake here.) For that campaign to succeed, even partially, the U.S. needs some credible threats of punishment, such as withholding intelligence or even defense protection from allies. The course of the trade war has made those threats more plausible. If you are Germany, and you see that the U.S. has been willing to confront the economic and military power of China directly, you will think twice about letting Huawei into your network.

A third set of possible benefits relates to the internal power dynamics in the Chinese Communist Party. For all the talk of his growing power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has not been having a good year. The situation in Hong Kong remains volatile, the election in Taiwan did not go the way the Chinese leadership had hoped, and now the trade war with America has ended, or perhaps more accurately paused, in ways that could limit China’s future expansion and international leverage. This trade deal takes Xi down a notch, not only because it imposes a lot of requirements on China, such as buying American goods, but because it shows China is susceptible to foreign threats.

The U.S. still is keeping $360 billion of tariffs on Chinese goods, hardly a propitious sign that China made a great bargain. There is even speculation that China will not report the full deal to its citizens…

It is a common argument that being tough with other countries strengthens the hard-liners in those countries. But in China the hard-liners had been growing in power and influence anyway. This trade war, and the resulting first phase of a trade deal, shows there is a cost to China for being so hard-line.

Do read the whole thing, and note that we still should be agnostic.  Nonetheless extreme TDS is preventing people from thinking rationally about this one, and thus I view my column as a correction to most of what you are seeing in MSM.

China’s Great Transformation

Here is a new paper from Christopher Balding, and it seems to be connected to a larger book project:

How will China transform its economy from middle income to high income country in the coming decades? While economists spend large amounts of time studying debt and demographic challenges, I will take a wider approach to the structural challenges facing China needing to remake society from a middle income to income country.

I consider Chris to be one of the least-heralded very influential people.  Perhaps more than anyone else, he has brought many American elites around to a more hawkish view of China.

China isn’t close to being the #1 economy

From my latest Bloomberg column:

The key point is the difference between income and wealth. GDP and related numbers measure income flows: namely, the quantity of goods and services produced in a given nation in a given year. Wealth is a measure of the total stock of resources in a nation and is much higher. Furthermore, the gap between wealth and income is usually higher for nations that have been wealthy and stable for a very long time, such as the U.S.

When it comes to national wealth, the U.S. has a big lead over China, possibly as much as three times greater. That is a very rough estimate by Michael Beckley of Tufts University, drawing on data from the World Bank and the United Nations.

For a relevant pointer to Beckley, I thank Evan Abramsky of AEI.

China trade negotiation fact of the day

Brussels has been striving to secure the deal for six years, as it seeks to prove it has the negotiating muscle to broker meaningful agreements with Beijing that can defend European companies from unfair competition.

The European Commission and the bloc’s foreign policy chief signalled a tougher approach to China in March in a landmark document that branded it a “systemic rival” in some areas — an allegation Beijing denies. Ms Weyand, the chief official working for Phil Hogan, the EU’s trade commissioner, said that “we are moving at a snail’s pace on the investment agreement”.

That is from the FT., and of course that hardly counts as much progress.  Elsewhere you will see Paul Krugman suggesting Trump has lost the trade war, but I don’t think he comes close to even seeing what the trade war with China is about.  No matter what Trump says, the trade war is not about lowering the trade deficit.  It is about (for a start) two major considerations: a) ensuring that national security-motivated partial economic decoupling takes place on terms not so unfriendly to America, and b) giving America levers to make sure China does not make such significant inroads into the world’s tech infrastructure, most notably with 5G but not only.

The stipulation of Chinese purchases of American exports, which probably they will not and cannot meet, is in fact a lever to give the United States enforcement power over the less tangible parts of agreement, which is indeed most of the agreement.  We want China to be in default of the agreement terms, so we may threaten them with tariffs to enforce compliance elsewhere, and so that is a better rather than worse outcome for the United States.

On the trade war, agnosticism is still the correct opinion, at least so far, as we are not even sure we know of the full agreement, or if America and China are visualizing signing literally different versions of the “same” agreement.  And even once (or if) the full text(s) is revealed, we still won’t for some while know how either a) or b) are going, much less relative to the relevant counterfactuals.

In general, I am finding that commentary on the trade war is of relatively dubious value, in part for partisan reasons.  The key here is to set aside your political views, and spend a lot of time talking with national security people.

Christopher Balding on the new China trade deal

Here is the final paragraph, there is much more detail throughout, recommended:

If we take what is known about the deal, its role as a Phase I deal leading to later deals, and assume it gets executed as described, with each side living up to their commitments, I think it is fair to describe this deal as a solid step forward.  Realistically however, each side seems to be positioning themselves for the expected failure of the agreement and little reason to believe the deal will be executed as described. The Trump administration has maintained significant leverage if China does not follow through on its commitments and I have little realistic reason to believe China will meet its commitments. At the end of the day in any contentious negotiation, it comes down to placing risk adjust trust in your counterpart to execute their side of the agreement. Each side is signaling they have little faith in their counterpart.  If we start from that premise, the Trump administration seems to have positioned themselves well expecting this deal to eventually collapse but also lower tariffs if by chance China does abide by it commitments.

And:

…I would have to put the risk that this deal doesn’t see 2021 as close to 50%.

Here is the full post.

China fact of the day

China is set to add new coal-fired power plants equivalent to the EU’s entire capacity, as the world’s biggest energy consumer ignores global pressure to rein in carbon emissions in its bid to boost a slowing economy.

Across the country, 148GW of coal-fired plants are either being built or are about to begin construction, according to a report from Global Energy Monitor, a non-profit group that monitors coal stations. The current capacity of the entire EU coal fleet is 149GW.

While the rest of the world has been largely reducing coal-powered capacity over the past two years, China is building so much coal power that it more than offsets the decline elsewhere.

Here is more from Leslie Hook at the FT.

Facial recognition isn’t just about China and airports

The child labor activist, who works for Indian NGO Bachpan Bachao Andolan, had launched a pilot program 15 months prior to match a police database containing photos of all of India’s missing children with another one comprising shots of all the minors living in the country’s child care institutions.

He had just found out the results. “We were able to match 10,561 missing children with those living in institutions,” he told CNN. “They are currently in the process of being reunited with their families.” Most of them were victims of trafficking, forced to work in the fields, in garment factories or in brothels, according to Ribhu.

This momentous undertaking was made possible by facial recognition technology provided by New Delhi’s police. “There are over 300,000 missing children in India and over 100,000 living in institutions,” he explained. “We couldn’t possibly have matched them all manually.”

Locating thousands of missing children is just one of the challenges faced by India’s overstretched police force in a nation of 1.37 billion people.

In spite of these practical benefits, I still do not favor facial recognition systems at the macro level.  India seems to be planning a big one:

…India’s government now has a much more ambitious plan. It wants to construct one of the world’s largest facial recognition systems. The project envisions a future in which police from across the country’s 29 states and seven union territories would have access to a single, centralized database.

Here is the full article with much more detail about the plans.

Middlemen, China story of the day

Five hitmen have been jailed for attempted murder, after each one avoided carrying out the contract themselves so they could make a profit.

Chinese businessman Tan Youhui was looking for a hitman to take out a competitor, Wei Mou, and was willing to pay 2 million yuan (£218,000) to get the job done.

The hitman that Mr Youhui hired, decided to offer the job to another hitman, for half the original price.

The second hitman then subcontracted to another hitman, who then subcontracted to a fourth, who gave the job to a fifth.

However, hitman number five was so incensed at how much the value of the contract had fallen, that he told the target to fake his own death, which eventually led to the police finding out about the plot, Beijing News reported.

Here is the full story, via Yana.

China facts of the day

Sports Business Journal recently estimated that the NBA’s presence in China is worth $5 billion to the league.

And:

Nike, with [Lebron] James as a primary spokesman in China, received 17% of its $37.2 billion in brand revenue from Greater China in fiscal 2019…James also has served Tencent as a spokesperson, consultant and endorser of the NBA 2K League in China.

From a marketing expert who knows China:

“The NBA is nothing but good; it provides entertainment, keeps people busy, gives them something to talk and be passionate about, and if they’re doing all that, they’re not on the streets complaining about the government.”

And to close the joke:

Said [Bill] Bishop, referencing the pingpong diplomacy that initiated a warming of relations between the countries back in the early 1970s: “One of the jokes going around is U.S.-China engagement started with pingpong and ended with basketball.”

Link here.