Twofish's Blog

April 26, 2008

Cynicism and Paranoia

Filed under: china — Tags: , , , , — twofish @ 6:13 pm

I’m a rather cynical person and rather paranoid.  I really do believe that there are people with political agendas trying to manipulate the media.

For example, there are these stories that the Chinese government is planning meetings with envoys of the Dalai Lama.  So if the Chinese government is planning meetings with the Dalai Lama then how come you have these newspaper articles about him having horns and being demons.  Well…..  If you look closely, you’ll see that the people trying to make the Dalai Lama look like the spawn of Satan are people from the Tibetan regional government, and I think they are trying to make the Dalai Lama look as bad as possible in order to make it impossible for the Central Government to talk with him.  There’s actually a battle for public opinion going on, and fortunately the people who are opposed to conversations with the Dalai Lama seem to have lost.  There is a lot of passionate emotion in China, but you sometimes have to look very carefully about where this emotion is directed.  All of the demonstrations in the past few weeks have been against France for the situation with the olympic torch and CNN, and there really isn’t that public emotion I can see about the Dalai Lama or about Tibet, that I can see.

But this tactic is not just confined to the Chinese press.  What thing that I found interesting was that a few days ago, the Prime Minister of Israel mentioned that he might consider negotiating with Syria on returning the Golan Heights.  You probably missed it because it was overshadowed by these stories on these videos of North Koreans helping Syria build a nuclear power plant.  The interesting thing is that all of these videos are two years ago and they involve a plant that Israel blew up.  But by putting it in the news, you stir up public opinion in such a way that it is impossible to discuss the Golan, at least for a few weeks.

It’s nothing to get mad or indignant about.  It’s all part of the political game.  The problem with the media is that in order to tell a story briefly, you need to simplify things, but in order to to political things, you have to realize the complexity of what is going on.

April 20, 2008

Cool… Another entry in the “let’s bash China contest”

Filed under: africa, china — twofish @ 7:11 am

Looks like China is going to be held responsible if things go bad in Zimbabwe.  You have to maintain a sense of humor about these things if you won’t want to go completely crazy or burn out.  There are people out there who see (honestly) the current Chinese government as the source of all evil in the world, and are likely to believe and report anything bad they can find.  And there is a lot of bad stuff because China is a huge country, and even more bad stuff if you let down your standards of evidence.

So once you resign yourself that China is going to be portrayed as the “bad guy” it then becomes amusing how the story is shaped so that China becomes evil.  If things go bad in Zimbabwe, then I’m expecting the editorial from Howard French talking about how China was responsible for Mugabe staying in power, ignoring the ten thousand other factors that go into Zimbabwean politics.

The big problem with this view of the world, is that it really doesn’t improve it.  What inevitably happens when you focus on trivial factors that don’t make any difference is that you get into the politics of symbol.  The argument becomes that whatever guns China sends really doesn’t may the difference, but that China needs to “send a message” at which point everything starts becoming things about sending messages rather than getting anything accomplished.

Keep your enemies close but your friends closer

Filed under: china, politics — twofish @ 7:00 am

One problem with the idea that “we are good and you are evil” approach to politics is that it ignores that fact that there are a lot of idiots on your side and some pretty smart rational people on the other.  There is the “traitor reflex” that when people suddenly get nationalistic it’s easy for people that call everyone else “traitors” to gain attention even if they can’t really get power.

Fortunately, in the case of China, the “call everyone traitor” group gets a lot of internet exposure, but they aren’t in a position to get power.  It seems that the Chinese government is calling on people to be “rational” which also fits in with the fact that it’s really, really difficult to sustain anger and fury for long periods of time.  So we are probably on the tail end of the anti-anti-China demonstrations.

The classic example is the dangers of “idiot nationalism” is Serbia.  If you are a nationalist, then presumably you want your nation to be rich and powerful, and if you look at Serbia now, its much less rich or powerful than it was in the late-1980’s.

April 19, 2008

Subprime mortgages and food prices

Filed under: china, finance, wall street — twofish @ 12:31 am

In economics everything is connected with everything else, and the difficulty is to figure out the connections.

Right now I’m trying to figure out

subprime mortgage collapse -> **** -> rising global food prices

One problem here is that I’m not a farmer so I know nothing about the economics of agriculture.  In particular, I don’t know how a farmer interacts with the credit markets.

Michael Pettis has argued that the inflation in China is due to monetary policy, but the one thing that makes me suspect that there is much more to the story is that it isn’t obvious why RMB exchange rates should increase food prices in Haiti.

April 18, 2008

Climbing Mount Nebo and reading Chinese GDP figures

Filed under: china, finance, globalization, taiwan — twofish @ 8:55 am

One odd thing about globalization is that you end up with different ideas hitting each other.  Every time I read GDP projections about China, I always think about a passage from the Bible in Deuteronomy 34, which I learned when I was very small.

34:1 Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the Lord showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan 2. all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the western sea, 3 the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the Valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. 4 And the Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your offspring.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” 5 So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord,

Even given the most optimistic growth rates, the GDP and standard of living of China is not going to reach developed world status until at least the second half of the 21st century.  With all of the talk of China’s rise, people forget these constraints which were known by Deng Xiaoping when he started all of this in 1978.

The result of this is that I can see the promised land, but I’m not going to ever live in it.  It’s interesting to be part of a massive historical drama that started long before I was born, and is going to continue long after I die.

April 13, 2008

How to rule the world

Filed under: academia, china, politics — twofish @ 4:35 pm

I’m actually getting a bit tired of talking about Tibet, so let me talk about something related.

How does a group manage to stay in power and end up ruling the world?

In the 19th century, there were two groups that were elites that managed to control their bit of the world. The Protestant Ascendency in Ireland and the Boston Brahmins in New England. No one hears about the Protestant Ascendency anymore (even in Northern Ireland, the Church of Ireland Ascenency lost control to the Prespertyerians that run it now), but it turns out that the ideological heirs of the Boston Brahmins managed to end up ruling the world.

The center of Brahmin power was Harvard University, and rather than fight the inclusion of new groups (like the Irish), the people running things came up with a new definition of “elite” that ended up incorporating any group that could possibility challenge them. Gradually, one ended up with an institution that ends up being one of the centers of power for the groups that rule the world.

Conspiracy theorists are right that the world is basically run by a rather small number of people (at most 10000 people on a planet of 6 billion). Where they get things wrong is they underestimate the ability of the people that run the world to get the cooperation of the remaining people in the world. Most middle class parents in the United States (and in fact most in China) are trying to get their kids in Harvard rather than trying to overthrow it. Also the most successful conspiracies are “hidden in plain sight.” Harvard has a website, with rather detailed instructions on how you can have your son or daughter join the people that run the world.

Answer to question

Filed under: china — twofish @ 1:47 am

if you actually asked most Chinese for their views on particular subjects (Tibet, Taiwan, human rights, FLG, democracy, Chinese history, etc., etc.) their views exactly mirror the views presented in the Chinese media on a daily basis. Can you ,explain that?

It’s actually quite simple. If you live in a one party authoritarian state and someone you don’t know well asks what you think, you are not going to reply that you disagree strongly with the government. You are likely to repeat the party line whether you believe if or not. This makes it difficult to figure out what people really think. Sometimes people really *don’t* believe the government viewpoint, but they just aren’t going to tell a stranger that. Sometimes they really *do* believe the government viewpoint, in which case the don’t have any limits on saying what they think. It gets even more complex because typically a person will agree with the government on some issues and disagree with them on others. But you have to know someone very well before they will tell you which is which.

People are limited by the information they have, both through their education and the media. The same is true in the West, but it works differently. This is true everywhere.

Educated Chinese that really are interested in finding things out usually have a much broader view of things than most educated Americans, since there is higher English reading ability and also there are more people in China with close relations in the West than people in the West with close relations in China. So access to information really isn’t a major factor in opinions I think.

Not much of a dilemma

Filed under: china — twofish @ 1:25 am

There is something of a dilemma with the West and the Beijing Olympics, but it’s not the one that the article says.

First of all, at this point I see little chance that the Chinese government will do anything in response to the Olympic protests, and personally I think that they would be a bunch of idiots if they made even *symbolic* efforts to respond to the protesters. The problem is that this thing has become so much of a circus that if the Chinese government tries to change any policies in response to the protests, that this will be taken as a sign of weakness, and invite even more protests. Better to stamp down and say *NO* now. No concessions on human rights, on Tibet, on Darfur, on anything before Beijing 2008. If that leads to every country in the world boycotting the Olympics and China getting dragged through the mud in the Western media, then so be it.

Personally, I think that central government policy toward Tibet has been a disaster, that the entire Tibetan regional government should be fired, and there should be quiet talks with the Dalai Lama, but if Beijing does this under pressure and protests, then the result will be more pressure and protests. You do things because they are the right thing to do, you don’t do them under pressure, and there will be plenty of time after the Olympics to address those issues.

Now as for the real dilemma. Let’s be clear on one thing. The primary concern of a politician is not Tibet, not human rights, not anything else except to stay in power. In Western democracies, staying in power means winning elections and keeping public support, and that means not looking bad in the news. Right now the groups in China that tend to be pro-China are people that are making money in China and they are not going to do anything as long as looks like they are going to keep making money. However, if it looks like that they are going to start losing money, people are going to act.

But even this is easy to fix. All the politician has to do is to shake hands and take pictures with the Dalai Lama and make the occasion reference to Tibet in a speech, and that will keep the NGO’s and political opposition happy, and then go back to signing trade deals that make the corporations happy. In other words, loudly talk about human rights and Tibet, but do nothing of any real consequence, in part because they can do nothing of real consequence.

There are two consequences for this:

Darfur…. Darfur was the one issue in which olympic pressure might have actually yielded policy changes in Beijing. Darfur is not an issue of vital strategic importance and having Beijing pressure the Sudanese government costs it basically nothing, and it would be quite worth it for a protest-free Olympics. The problem now is that Darfur has been so overshadowed by Tibet that not many people really give a damn about Darfur any more. Sad. Since people are still dying there, and things are a million times worse in the Sudan than in any part of China.

“We love the Chinese people but hate the Chinese government.” – The NGO movement loves this mantra, but it’s dead now. If you want to show that you can make a distinction between the Chinese government and the Chinese people, it is utterly brain dead to focus your protest movement first on World Trade Organization membership which hits the livelihood of ordinary people and then on the Olympics in which people are supposed to root for the home team. The circus that has surrounded the torch race has discredited a whole set of causes, and it will take a while to repair the damage in the Chinese public.

Part of the reason that it’s just a total mess is that there isn’t a centrally directed conspiracy. There are lots of groups just doing their own thing you end up with complex results that are outside of the groups control, that’s politics.

There is this article that captures the unreality of the situation…

Great, in order to make the New York Times love you, all you have to do is to do exactly what it says to do, and make some pretty fundamental changes in your government, all in less than six months.

It’s not going to happen, and I think it would be foolish for the PRC government to even try.

April 12, 2008

About media bias or non-bias

Filed under: china, economics, politics, wikipedia — twofish @ 5:08 pm

I don’t think that the Western media is particular biased against China per se. It’s just that media is looking for a “good” and “exciting” story, and “good stories” are usually about “EVIL OPPRESSOR” against “INNOCENT VICTIM” and China sometimes falls into the “EVIL OPPRESSOR” role. It’s not necessarily anti-China since any big government or corporation is going to sometimes fall into the “EVIL OPPRESSOR” mode, and one part of any media strategy is to try not to get hit with the EVIL OPPRESSOR label too much.

Part of the reason is that China is getting more and more powerful and rich, and the more powerful and rich you are, the more likely it is that you will be an “EVIL OPPRESSOR” and less likely that you will be “INNOCENT VICTIM.” Note that in the 1980’s Japan and Russia were “EVIL OPPRESSORS” but today no one cares about them any more.

Part of the reason I’ve started the “LET’S BASH CHINA COLUMN…” is that one has to get used to it and laugh at it rather than get too angry because anger destroys you (something that I learned from the Dalai Lama).

The other problem is that Chinese students tend to go into fields that make money (computer science, law, and finance). I really don’t know that many Chinese students that come to the US to study journalism. Part of the reason this is that skills in finance and CS are transferable. People can easily move from Goldman-Sachs to Bank of China and vice-versa, from Huawei to Cisco and back, and no one I know has moved from the New York Times and back.

One issue here is that the “Western media” claims lack of bias. If you go to People’s Daily or Xinhua and ask, are you fair and objective. They’d say “of course not, we speak for the Communist Party.” The trouble with CNN, Washington Post, and New York Times is that they claim to be objective and unbiased, when it’s pretty clear that they are not. (Read anything that Howard W. French writes.) Interestingly not all media claim non-bias, the Economist, one of my favorite magazines, makes it very clear that they are biased for free-markets and free-minds. The Wall Street Journal also doesn’t claim objectivity.

The problem with claiming non-bias is that then you can’t talk about them and thing rationally about how your biases affect your reporting. Also by claiming non-bias, you are implicitly saying that people who disagree with you are biased, and that means that you have no reason to take their views seriously.

This brings up the question of whether the notion of non-bias works at all in the internet age.

The groups that overseas Chinese groups should learn from are groups conservative groups like “Accuracy in Media” and conservative bloggers that killed CBS News and made Dan Rather a laughing stock. Another thing to study is the Tailwind scandal.

One reason to not get too overexcited about media portrayal about China is that people in the US are “immunized” to media bias in much the same way that people in China don’t really trust the People’s Daily. People in the US *don’t* get all or even most of their information about China from the newspapers but rather from Chinese that they live and work with.

Finally, one reason that is important in that during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the United States was seen has “heaven” and “savior” by most Chinese. CNN gets a *lot* of anger now, because of its role in 1989 when it was seen as “savior” during the Tiananmen demonstrations. Chinese are finding out the truth which is that the United States is run by ordinary people not super-humans. One thing that greatly concerns me is that Tibetans in Tibet who have much less exposure to the West than Han Chinese in Shanghai may see the United States as a savior, and this may lead them to do things which they wouldn’t do if they knew the reality.

So you have monks demonstrate and pictures end up in the front page of the New York Times. *WE ARE SAVED, TIBET IS FREE, THE NEW YORK TIMES AND NANCY PELOSI WILL SAVE US*. Except that in three months, the New York Times is gone, people in the West have forgot about you, and the Chinese government is still there. People are still dying in Darfur and Burma. Remember them?

Two, under what situations would it cease to be biased against China?

If China falls apart and gets invaded then it becomes an *INNOCENT VICTIM*. Personally, I think we should just get used to the media trying to portray China as an *EVIL OPPRESSOR* and learn to manage it.

Also don’t think of the Western media is an monolith. There are lots and lots of different groups in the West. As with all political activism, you need to find the groups that agree with your views and work with them. has a nice section on anti-anti-China bashing.

And three, if Westerners are receiving a distorted image of China, their valuation of the Chinese economy must be distorted. How do I make money off it?

Not really. Business people don’t get their news from the newspapers, they see for themselves. One reason I like people in business is that it is interesting how people who are good at making money are very good at trying to figure out what is *REAL* going on since they want to make money off it.

Right now the CEO of every major corporate sponsor is hoping that the Olympic protests dissipate and if they can think of a quiet way that they can reduce the protests they’ll do it. They are limited by the fact that if they do anything obvious then the headlines will read *EVIL BIG CORPORATION SILENCES INNOCENT VICTIM PROTESTERS!!!!!* so I think what they are doing is to not say anything stupid and just wait for things to blow over, and if there is no news, then they can start running the Olympic commercials in June or July. Looking at the list of cities, the only two that I can see where you could have a repeat of Paris are Canberra and Delhi.

BTW, no major corporate sponsor will *DARE* pull out at this point. Anyone that does will be looking at losing the China market for the next decade. One thing that’s nice about multi-national corporations is that while 1.2 billion Chinese can’t vote for President of China, they can vote as to whether or not the want to drink Coca-Cola or wear Nike. This gives Chinese quite a bit of control over multi-national corporations, and the protesters can have the streets if we take the board rooms.

April 11, 2008

Let’s bash China this month because…..

Filed under: china — twofish @ 3:42 pm

I’m going to start a monthly column.

Let’s bash China this month because…..

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