Christopher Balding is leaving China

One of the best short essays you will read this year.


"There is a complete and utter lack of respect for the individual or person in China. People do not have innate value as people simply because they exist.

This leads most directly to a lack of respect for the law/rules/norms....

They are ignored quietly so as not to embarrass the enforcer, however, frequently, the enforcer knows rules or laws are being ignored but so long as the breaker is not egregious, both parties continue to exist in a state of blissful ignorance. Honesty without force is not normal but an outlier. Lying is utterly common, but telling the truth revolutionary.

I rationalize the silent contempt for the existing rules and laws within China as people not respecting the method for creating and establishing the rules and laws. Rather than confronting the system, a superior, or try good faith attempts to change something, they choose a type of quiet subversion by just ignoring the rule or law. This quickly spreads to virtually every facet of behavior as everything can be rationalized in a myriad of ways. Before coming to China, I had this idea that China was rigid which in some ways it is, but in reality it is brutally chaotic because there are no rules it is the pure rule of the jungle with unconstrained might imposing their will and all others ignoring laws to behave as they see fit with no sense of morality or respect for right.

I had a lawyer tell me about the corruption crackdown, and even most convicted of crimes, that people referred to them as “unlucky”. As he noted, there was almost no concept of justice even if people recognized the person had done what they were accused of having done. The discipline stemmed not from their behavior but they were cannon fodder for some game chosen by a higher authority."

I am afraid this is how most of the world works. Not just China.

My spouse and I stumbled over here coming from a different page and thought I may as well check things out.
I like what I see so now i am following you. Look forward to going over your web page for a second time.

Don't earn money from Chinese to do things against China. That's the basic Chinese ethics.

I agree, that was a great essay.

Mr Cowen was inaccurate in his assessment of my essay-reading habits.

Anyhoo: "I felt blessed to be able to dive into Chinese data everyday ". Blessed to be diving into a heap of steaming ordure? How odd. It takes all sorts, I suppose.

By the way, the first person to tell me that the Chinese have no notion of civic virtue was a Chinese. He based his conclusion partly on observing the behaviour of the citizens of Edinburgh.

But I found Hong Kong impossibly polite! I was amazed how nice and smartly dressed the people were, when I visited in 2016. Are they trying, as it is said, to be "anti-Mainland Chinese"?

What would Rene Girard think of China after residing there for nine years. If China is disorienting for Balding, imagine how disorienting it must be for Chinese who are old enough to remember a time before 1980. A culture that worshiped the past to a culture with no past. A culture that eschewed signs of wealth to a culture that worships signs of wealth. How does one have "respect for the law/rules/norms" under the circumstances. My godson spent a summer in Shenzhen several years ago working at a university. In describing his experience, a minor item seemed to capture the disorientation. He mostly ate meals in the cafeteria. I asked if he was able to make friends with the others who worked at the university and ate their meals at the cafeteria (my godson is fluent in Mandarin). He said that with every meal the people eating in the cafeteria would be different, as if those present the day before had disappeared. There's probably a simple explanation, but I couldn't help but wonder if the absence of a routine (such as eating with the same colleagues at the same place) is a product of the culture that is China today (including fear). As for China and Girard, China is a laboratory, a laboratory for studying human behavior when the old law/rules/norms are replaced with the new law/rules/norms. Disorienting.

The population of Shenzhen in 1980 was about 30,000. The population of Shenzhen today is about 13 million. Disorientation!

"imagine how disorienting it must be for Chinese who are old enough to remember a time before 1980. A culture that worshiped the past to a culture with no past."

Yes, because before 1980, Mao & Co worshipped the past so much that they ordered the "Four Olds" to be destroyed.

This reminds me of my first experience in Beijing, China, about 8 months prior to Tiananmen. There was very little traffic and almost everyone wore Mao costumes. Westerners were stared at as novelties. Fast forward 10 years and the scene had changed completely. Western style dress was common and industrial activity was omnipresent. The evolution there has been incredible, yet the values seem to be locked into Mao era survival mode.

I thought the paper was excellent. This is the best essay I’ve read on the subject and can endorse it completely.

"This leads most directly to a lack of respect for the law/rules/norms. One thing I began to realize over time is, while not German, how law, rule, and norm abiding Americans are with minimal fear of enforcement. "
I am afraid he is underestimating the very effective enforcement by police and courts in USA - which really keeps people from making self justified rules. Large population, in survival mode with proportionately smaller police force results in all this chaos. Just a policeman/authority figure, who people can complain to, will stop all this queue breaking. As a generation grows it becomes automatic.

But aren’t regular police forces a fairly modern development? My understanding wa that they by and large didn’t exist in the 19th century.

You have it backwards. Good policing comes out of functional societies. Police are given the role of enforcing norms and laws because functioning societies recognize the need for that role.

Dysfunctional societies can be improved somewhat by good policing, but the moment the authority is not there they revert.

Where i live would not turn into anarchy if the police weren't around, simply because they aren't. The problems they solve would be done by other means. But we are what enough to delegate that work to someone else. I suspect that applies to most places in Canada and the us, with exceptions.

By the way, i believe the issues with policing over the last couple years are the end result of the improvements in law enforcement technique doing all that it can without actually changing the underlying issues in the societies in question.

Yes to that last sentence. As with so many things, people better learn to like it.

This was wonderful. Super inspiring. Reading the comments section here or just following twitter you get the feeling the whole world is overrun by cynicism and that you’re a naive idiot for trying to be any different. Glad fir the pep talk. Also appreciated how he put Trump in perspective. It’s easy to let the anger and outrage take over but it really isn’t as bad as people make it out to be. He sounds like a perfect guest for econtalk with Russ Roberts.

I think what makes Balding so upset is that China is showing the world how contingent universal western notions like individual human rights, democracy, rule of law etc... are. If China continues to converge on the west in terms of per capita income, it will put in question claims that those ideas are the cause of the west’s success.

A very bad mistake was made by those who justified human rights, democracy, etc... with their incidental material gains. And now China, a near totalitarian state, is proving them wrong.

The West's success is measured, by the West itself, in terms of income and "standard of living". Societies with a smaller per capita income are considered inferior.

He was asked to speak on what is the meaning of life, perfect for a part time missionary. He said he knew what people would say having lived in China for sometime but even so was stunned at how deeply and rigidly held the belief that making money was the entire meaning of life. There was no value system. There was no exogenously held right or wrong, only whether you made money. With apologies to a bastardized Dostoevsky, with money as God, all is permissible.

The Chinese have acquired this viewpoint from the West.

I don’t understand why he is so shocked with China turning out the way it has. In 1949 it adopted a western ideology, namely Marxist Socialism, that is deeply materialistic. It is an ideology that places little value on anything other than the improvement of living standards. I don’t understand why he thinks present day China’s acquisitiveness or its devalution of individual worth is a continution of an older cultural trait.
I would argue that (urban) China is very westernized. Perhaps even more westernized than Japan. We don’t perceive it like this because they adopted Marxist Socialism where Japan adopted Liberalism. But Marxist Socialism is just as western as Liberalism.

China is still significantly behind the West in per capita income, and it is slowing down at an earlier stage of development compared to its more Westernized neighbors. Its authoritarian political system is still holding it back—just less so than the former Marxist system did. A liberal China could achieve a similar per capita income as Taiwan and then it would really be the world’s leading power.

I definitely agree with this analysis. China is still much poorer per capita than developed nations. I also agree that its authoritarian political system will hold it back. Anyone who builds up a large enough business is going to be co-opted into helping to prop up the CCP, and that will effectively act as a huge tax on Chinese companies as they must make their decisions both with an eye towards business and to politics. Of course in exchange the businessmen of China will demand that the government will protect them from competition and to lavish them with state subsidies. That kind of crony-ist system is good at getting physical things built, like factories and roads and trains. An authoritarian, crony-ist system hinders the development of an ecosystem of competitive markets with low barriers to entry for new firms, which is crucial for long term economic growth and innovation.

I loved the part where he said that he was a libertarian and didn't much think about human rights. Lol no shit.

Kinda weird that he criticizes China for valuing nothing but money. In my experience that is American culture, doubly so for self professed libertarians.

Overall I give the essay a c minus. There is really nothing to like.

I have to agree. He sounds bitter. In fact, Asia is messed up compared to the West, that's what makes it Asia. They do work hard and save more than Americans however, but at the end of the day they're just doing grunt work and not at the leading edge. An American complaining about Asia is like a white collar executive finding fault with the secretarial pool; this is not cool. Different animal, you just have to take them as they are, not try and change them. Living in the Philippines, I can rant for hours about how messed up this place is, but, it does have advantages. Like today, paying a guy $15 to cut down a huge coconut tree that had to be taken down in sections. Did a good job and was happy to get the money. Likewise a Chinese factory worker making $5 a day and working hard, a human robot. If you're in the 1% like I am, what's not to like?

Ray, why in the world would a 'member of the 1%' live in a shithole country like the Philippines?



I partially agree with this critique. He fails to ask if libertarianism is a solution for much of anything if people won't obey the law.

But his theme of China as a threat is one that I mainly agree with, though not to the alarmist degree that he holds.

One thing I began to realize over time is, while not German, how law, rule, and norm abiding Americans are with minimal fear of enforcement. Cutting in line is considered extremely rude because there is a sense of fairness and that people have equal rights.

I don't think Americans realize this at all. One interesting example is vistors being shocked that American drivers will pull over to let ambulances, fire trucks, etc. pass. Even if they are stuck in traffic.

"visitors being shocked that American drivers will pull over to let ambulances, fire trucks, etc. pass. Even if they are stuck in traffic."

Visitors from where are shocked?

Please have a look at Germany

"the illiberal, authoritarian communist government of China" - you mean the one for which all right-thinking people of good will, we are repeatedly told, should be extended a unilateral rescission of trade duties and complete freedom to violate international property rights standards with compete immunity? You mean the one whose hostile military is occupying international shipping lanes and the territorial waters of its neighbors but for whom all right-thinking people of good will are, we are repeatedly told, supposed to kowtow in the wise manner of President Obama? You mean the same one celebrated by MRU for its "bright future": "China has invested tremendously in human capital, which is one of the most valuable assets to any modern economy. These investments in human capital will certainly survive the current recession and help facilitate a bright economic future."

But hey, Balding does a little gratuitous Trump bashing and everything is OK. If the problem with Trump in Russia was that he didn't "stand up" to Putin, the US problem with China is that we don't have an intellectual class that is intellectual enough to meet its challenge. Much easier for them to project their authoritarianism unto Trump.

Maybe TC just found in it some new Chinese quirks, which he can pin to his collection; or evidence of our great American stagnation in eating lunch with the same people over and over.

Insofar as content reflects the curator, there does seem to be some sort of shift going on, at this blog ...

Probably marketing. Education credentials merchants have to constantly come up with new advertising campaigns to keep the gravy flowing.

If you don't move over, you can get cited. In North Carolina the fine is $250 plus court costs and in California it is $750 plus court costs.

Yes, you can. But I don't know of anybody who ever has or who would be tempted not to yield if they thought they'd never be caught. But as for the declining use of turn signals....grrrrrrrr.

"It is profoundly view the rise of China as tension arising...from rising economic development in a major state or as a bilateral conflict with the United States....China presents a fundamental threat to the liberal democratic order and the ignorance on display by so many is simply mind boggling."

It is fashionable, especially among intellectual elites, to show how open-minded and unbiased they are by refusing to acknowledge the illiberal nature of non-Western regimes. It's especially verboten to compare these regimes unfavorably to American liberal society. Hence, the reflexive denial of American Exceptionalism, for example. This phenomenon seems related to the observation that these same elites, although they may personally raise children in traditional two-parent married households, refuse to "preach what they practice".

Not promoting virtuous values simply because one holds those values oneself is not open-minded and unbiased; it's biased against virtue. Sometimes one needs to sacrifice the personal satisfaction that arises from demonstrations of (false) open-mindedness to advance the greater good.

Indeed, Obama’s refusal to faithfully execute the law, citing prosecutorial discretion, and rather to enforce it only against political foes and to ignore it for political friends is his most damning legacy - as attested to by the peoples’ response to the same approach when taken by the Chinese Communist Party.

So much butthurt. Need a hug hun?

I'm sure you would have the same response if Obama was swapped out for Trump.

China is a deeply authoritarian state, but most of its oppression seems targeted at its own people. As a non-Chinese libertarian, I’m cautiously optimistic about China’s rise because China’s foreign policy seems much less interventionist than the US’s. China hasn’t invaded any other country since the 1970s. China also hasn’t tried to cut off trade between two other countries, the way we’re forcing Europe and Iran to stop trading. China’s central bank hasn’t set off any emerging markets crises. Therefore, a rising China that weakens US dominance could be a good thing for global liberty even as its own citizens remain oppressed.

"because China’s foreign policy seems much less interventionist than the US’s. China hasn’t invaded any other country since the 1970s. China also hasn’t tried to cut off trade between two other countries, the way we’re forcing Europe and Iran to stop trading. China’s central bank hasn’t set off any emerging markets crises."

Since the 1970s was a nice qualification. Nevertheless it routinely threatens the sovereignty of Taiwan and bullies nearly all of its neighbors. Also add its intervention in Africa. Most recently it's role in regime change in Zimbabwe (look it up).

I don't doubt its ability to set off an emerging markets crisis. Whether they will do so out of desperation or incompetence is the question.

"Most recently it's role in regime change in Zimbabwe (look it up)" - but China has history going back over 30 years in Zim. Specifically, the Chinese backed the ZANU, who are largely Shona tribe people like Mugabe, while the Russians backed ZAPU, who are largely the minority Ndebele tribes people. ZANU and Mugabe beat ZAPU and the Chinese won, many years ago.

Bonus trivia: Mugabe trained his crack internal repression forces, the feared "5th Brigade", in North Korea.

China has not had the military (and to a lesser degree economic) ability to project power. That is changing visibly now, and you can see the first results in ther takeover of disputed islands. This will increase as their military becomes stronger, and extends its operational footprint. Give them another 20 years. There is no altruism there.

Yes, China's place in the power politics of the Pacific reminds me of Japan's between WW I and WW II. A clearly rising power, with concomitant construction of a navy that could project power not just locally but across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

And though there was no inherent need for war, there was an inevitable increase in rivalry between the rising Asian power and the western powers. I'm cautiously optimistic that China and the US and its allies will continue to avoid resorting to military might. But the historical antecedents are not comforting; China will continue to improve its navy and other military forces and once it has military strength we'll have to hope they have leadership that is sane and wise enough to avoid using it.

On the positive side, China as a regional threat might be the one thing that could get traditional or historical foes such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the USA to work in concert with one another.

China's dictator openly speaks of expansionist policy, and aims to "right historical wrongs", including the subjugation of Japan. We have every reason to think China will be a bad actor if/when they gain the military tools to dominate their opponents.

It strikes me as interesting that something as seemingly trivial as cutting in line revealed quite a bit about psychology in China. My eyes widened when I read the author's analogy saying that the U.S. complaining about its problems is like Warren Buffet complaining about a minor dip in the market. I agree that the U.S. has a giant GDP and a huge federal budget. However, I think we certainly have very significant problems that are either unique or uncommon around the globe. I enjoyed this essay.

What, he hasn't left yet?

Huh. It's like different peoples are different and have different cultures with different behavioral norms and political philosophies. I guess this is something libertarians eventually become aware of over 10 years time. Slowly, over another 10 years, maybe it might even dawn on them that this has implications for policy.

But do Chinese-Americans have significantly different behavioral norms or political philosophies?

Good paragraph:

"Coupled with the lack of decency is the shift as to what problems people are fighting over. I am amazed when I go to the US or Europe and everyone is talking about how oppressive the government is and this specific policy issue signals the end of democracy if their side doesn’t win and when the next financial crisis will hit. I personally think 2008 created a near social PTSD syndrome across a range of view points. Almost like the wealthy who need therapy despite living materially comfortable lives, Americans are fighting with vitriolic rhetoric in seemingly unnecessary ways."

Yet more evidence for my thesis that there's no actual libertarians, just people who like to pretend they are.

Yes I just read an essay in "This Idea Must Die" that argued we are all products of our society, that there's no such thing as "individuality", even in the West!

And you do realize, comrade, that the early anarchists, which arguably are an extreme form of libertarian, were allied with the communists? Unfortunately they were cast aside by the Bolsheviks.

"One thing I have come to believe deeply is that beliefs and convictions are only manifested in adversity or when tested. Beliefs which only receive beneficial feedback are less convictions and more conveniences."

Good line.

I doubt line-cutting is such a common phenomenon in today's China. It sounds like China-bashing to me.

Interesting. It's been a decade and a half since I've been there, so queueing etiquette may have evolved. And if so, that highlights how variable and contingent that etiquette is -- and probably unreliable as a cultural or sociological marker.

When I was there, public transportation had no lines at all. Literally just blobs of people jostling to get to the front. I had made my way to the front to hand over my renminbi for a subway token but was a fraction of a second too slow, some 70-year old guy thrust his cash in front of my hand and was given his token.

Riding the subway was equally chaotic. Common sense says that the people on the platform should let the passengers disembark first, and then board. But no, it was just a free for all and thus disembarking and embarking took twice as long as it should because nobody could move efficiently.

The only place where I observed lines was at the airport, where I presume the constant presence of men in military uniforms with weapons discouraged chaotic behavior.

But if the Chinese are actually queueing these days, even with line-cutting occurring, that's an improvement over what they were doing before.

But I wonder about the utility and accuracy of queueing behavior as a social or cultural measure. I've read articles that compare queueing behavior in countries and IIRC England and Japan had the most orderly queues, USA and Germany were pretty good, Israel and China were mobs.

If everyone needs to compete even for getting onto a bus or crossing a road, their competitiveness must also be strong in their working environment. No?

I wonder why he feared the police (detention)? What did he do? Chinese are quite tolerant of foreigners. About having no other god than money... it used to be said about Yankees.

"I wonder why he feared the police (detention)? What did he do?"

Yes, that was one of the weird aspects of the article. He kept talking about "my situation" -- and never said what that situation was! Presumably saying stuff that the Chinese government doesn't like -- but that's so broad a statement as to be almost meaningless, like saying that Chinese eat a lot of Chinese food.

I wonder if that weird lack of directness is due to living so many years in China that he now emulates their communication patterns, or it's so explosive that he dares not mention it?

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