Twofish's Blog

August 10, 2008

Two British articles about the Olympic opening ceremony

Filed under: china — Tags: , — twofish @ 5:10 am

Here is from the Daily Telegraph

And from Spiked Online

Alongside long-standing fears of the Easterner and his strange habits, there is a powerful element of Western self-doubt and even self-loathing in contemporary attitudes to China. In their alarm at China’s ‘obsession with winning’, sometimes gritty determination and demands for self-sacrifice to a ‘cause’ (gold, gold, gold), Western commentators and activists expose our own culture’s collapse of faith in single-minded human endeavour and our seeming unwillingness to rise above the mundane to do things awesome or historic. In the acres of tortured coverage of China’s ‘torture’ of its athletes, we can glimpse a key component of the West’s current confused approach to the Chinese: the new China reminds Western society of what it used to be like before it lost its cojones. The idea that tough training tramples on ‘basic human standards’ speaks to Western discomfort with self-sacrifice, with the idea that there is something bigger and better to which an individual might commit him or herself.


Some Western observers are so hostile to what we might call the ‘Olympian ideals’ of drive, zeal, aggression and the other stuff of the examined life that they see intensive training as ‘abuse’ and sport itself as effectively a form of torture. China is increasingly seen as ‘the Other’ precisely because it appears too Western: it is China’s ambition, growth, leaps forward – things that a more confident West might once have celebrated – which make it seem alien to Western observers who today prefer an all-must-have-prizes attitude over Olympian competition, carbon-counting over factory-building, and road tolls over road construction. Contemporary China-bashing is underpinned by a crisis of belief in the West in things such as elitism (the good kind), progress, growth and development.

It’s amusing reading that because the Daily Telegraph seems to show that sort of insecurity.

Yet suppose that, rather than westernising, China simply understands more coldly than we how the world now works. It has noticed that Westerners have become consumers and borrowers, and so it has become a producer and a saver. It has noticed that we live in a dream-world of our own films and computer games and celebrities, and it is happy to profit by furnishing the technological materials for these dreams. We play: it works: it wins.

Besides, the Olympic opening ceremony shows that China is now ready to glorify its own culture (not mentioning Communism, of course). “We Chinese invented writing and paper and printing and gunpowder and the compass,” it in effect told us yesterday, “and we spread our power by land and sea. We are exquisite, resourceful and unique.” “We are a high and ancient civilisation, growing in strength” was the message, conveyed with breath-taking elan. I bet the London Olympics in four years’ time will not dare tell Britain’s equivalent heroic stories.

It’s actually somewhat sad to read that, because there is no shortage of things that Great Britain can be proud of and can use in the 2012 Olympics.  Mother of Parliaments, creator of Common Law, creator of the language which I’m using to write this in, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Churchill’s “This was their finest hour” speech.  Sure there is plenty of things in British history that are embarrassing, just as there are in Chinese history.  But to be in a situation where you aren’t proud of some of the things that you’ve accomplished and to be not trying to use your history as both a warning and an inspration for the next generation, that is rather sad.

I suppose the crucial mistake is this:

I have in front of me a dispatch from The Spectator in August 1936: “Competent foreign residents here [Berlin] say that the German Government and people really do desire peace … and one has seen several things in this festival which suggest that Germany wants to impress her Olympic visitors not only with her efficiency … but also with her desire to be friendly.” “Harmony”, proclaimed the dominant Chinese character formed by the heaving choreography last night.

I am not predicting that, in three years’ time, the West will be at war with China. But I am pointing out the similarity of totalitarian political purpose. Youth! The future! Unity! National greatness! Cheering crowds, awed foreigners, dissent crushed! The Olympics offer all these things.

So basically any time anyone shows a bit of national pride and nationalism, the spector of totalitarianism and tyranny gets raised.  But that is a terrible, terrible mistake, because if nationalism is thought of as only the tool of totalitarianism and tyranny then only totalitarians and tyrants will be able to misuse nationalism, and nationalism is far too powerful a force to let that happen.  Nationalism is a tool, a power tool that can be used for horrible things, but it can also be used for great and glorious things.  If not for British nationalism and “King and Country”, Britain would have just given up after the Germans defeated the French, but instead Churchill went up to Parliament and offered nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.

Sad if no one mentions that in London 2012.

In praise of markets

Filed under: china — Tags: , — twofish @ 4:17 am

One of my objections to central planning is that in the end, it involves a group of people that think that they can run other people’s lives better than they do. If you live your life with an “anti-greed” philosophy and it works for you, then great. I’ve got enough trouble trying to run my life to worry too much about changing yours, and if being totally against greed and selfishness works for you, then go with it. I also don’t want to set up the way that I live my life as some sort of model. I was in a conversation today when I described my daily routine and the person at the other end thought it was horrificly hellish way to leave. To them, it probably is, but people are different.

So if you think that selfishness is a bad thing for you and that accquistion of material objects is not the goal of your life then that’s fine by me, but that isn’t what we are arguing about. What I object to is the idea that if you are anti-greed, that somehow that makes you morally superior, more spiritual, or that what you are doing is even better for the planet or the people around you. If you want to lead your life being anti-greed then fine, but if you end up trying to argue that somehow for living your life differently, you end up being morally superior to me or that your attitudes somehow make the world a better place whereas mine’s don’t, then we have an argument, since I don’t think that is true at all.

One of the things I spend a lot of time thinking about is how communism failed and market economies succeeded. Communism sounds absolutely wonderful, but in the end created one of the most hellish and vile political systems that have every existed on this planet. By contrast, if you explain how a market economy works, it sounds vile, corrupt, and decadent, but it somehow manages to work. How did this happen?

Part of it involves this “I know how to run your life better than you do” attitude that is an inherent part of communism. Once you think that you know how other people should run their lives, and it turns out that other people don’t want to run their lives that way, at that point you have to bring out the secret police and force people to run their lives the way that you think they should be run, and at that point things turn really bad since the people that think they know better, really don’t, and people who think that they are unselfish vanguards of the people, really aren’t.

People are different. People should be different. If people were the same, there wouldn’t be any real need for markets, since if I’m the same as you, then what is there for us to trade? It’s the fact that market economies benefit from the fact that people are different and in fact encourages people to be different, that makes market economies much nicer to live in. Instead of sending in the secret police to mold people into the ideal “socialist man” and eliminate people who aren’t, you go up to someone and figure out what economic exchange is possible that makes two parties better off.

August 9, 2008

So what does reform mean anyway

Filed under: china — Tags: — twofish @ 3:33 pm

Huizer: That should involve greater separation of party and state (very difficult to do and very risky not to do)

Separation of party and state was tried in the 1980’s. It worked very, very badly, and really I don’t see any reason to try it now. One thing that is interesting is to try to get someone that supports it to explain exactly why they think it is a good idea.

The system as it now exists has the actual orders going down the state hierarchy, but with the party being something of a “human resources” department in charge of figuring out who gets what state position. I don’t see any reason to have any quick, radical changes in the system, since it seems to work.

I do support strengthening the state and legal system so that if there are ever any bitter fights or power struggles within the party, that the whole thing doesn’t collapse (i.e. what happened in Russia), but I can’t think of any reasons to split the party and state. (And that includes human rights reasons, since I don’t think a split party/state will be more friendly to dissidents, and if it means less control over local officials, it may be even worse for political dissidents.)

Huizer: administrative (not entirely separate but high priority) reform of the rural sector

I’m really starting to really hate the word “reform” since it has become a feel-good word that really is starting to lose any meaning. In 1980, the term “reform” actually had some meaning in China since it meant the group of people that didn’t believe in revolutionary Maoism or Stalinist economic policies. Since no one in the Chinese government is a Maoist or a Stalinist today, it means that everyone is a “reformer” and when everyone is a reformer then the term doesn’t have any meaning any more.

Let’s step back a bit. What *exactly* do you think ought to be changed in rural China? I think that if you ask a dozen people what exactly “rural administrative reform” means, you will get a dozen answers, and arguing over specific policies is the conversation that needs to happen.

August 8, 2008

The Olympics really don’t matter that much

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — twofish @ 11:47 am
I’m getting more than a little annoyed by the olympic hype.  Yes they are a grand world party, but in the end it’s just a bunch of people running around the field, and people who are breathlessly talking as if it was the supreme battle royale between darkness and light get on my nerves.

The Washington Post is this weird paper, because they have some of the world’s best China coverage with John Pomfret, Philip Pan, and Edward Cody, and yet they seem to have an editoral board that seems totally out of touch with the world, and doesn’t actually seem to talk to any of their reporters. One journalistic technique that annoys me is that “statement in the form of a question.”  When the evidence seems to point against what you think it should be, you start asking questions, that have no answers.

But we say this without a sense of total certainty, because the true opinion of China’s people is difficult to gauge. What they know about their country and the rest of the world is filtered through the distorting lens of official propaganda and censorship. And for those who exhibit excessive curiosity, or excessive outspokenness, the consequences — loss of work, ostracism, prison — can be dire. So we wonder: How many Chinese inwardly seethe at the pollution hovering over their capital? How many anguish at the forced relocation of thousands of Beijing residents to make way for Olympic venues? How many harbor unexpressed anger at the detention of peaceful dissidents — a flat violation of their government’s promise that hosting the Olympics would bring greater respect for human rights?

It’s actually not that difficult to gauge Chinese public opinion.  Ask Pew and the answer is “not many Chinese are angry at the government.”  And these rhetorical questions really have no content.  If you look closely just what is the Washington Post trying to say?  The only thing that I can see is “the facts seem to be against me, so I’ll ask this rhetorical question, and then not bother with the answer, so people can’t argue with me.”  If you want to say that “although surveys of Chinese public opinion seems to be against us, we don’t think that people have an accurate understanding of what Chinese really think” then say that.

Blinded By the Firewall: Why the Chinese Think The World Loves China – Not

Filed under: china — Tags: — twofish @ 11:35 am

I hate articles like these that

The Pew Global Attitude Project is this wonderful treasure trove of information which is why I hate it when someone takes one number from it and generalizes to make faulty conclusions.

First of all, you see similar disconnects between the US opinions of itself and world opinions of the US.  Also, if you look at the numbers you’ll see that attitudes toward China vary wildly from nation to nation.  There are places in the world with wildly positive views of China (Russia and Pakistan) and places in the world with wildly negative views of China (Japan and Western Europe).  So when you ask someone “what does the world think about China” and then you don’t specific “where in the world” then you aren’t going to get a good answer.

The reason that I think that the Chinese firewall *doesn’t* have that much of an influence on Chinese attitudes is that if they did, you’d see marked shifts in attitudes between Chinese in China and overseas Chinese who live outside the firewall, and my anecdotal impression is that you don’t.

The notion that Chinese are ignorant and propagandized is something that really hurts political change in China, since it gives people the idea that “if those poor Chinese knew the truth, that they would come to our enlightened way of thinking.”  It’s rather condescending, since I don’t think that the average Chinese is more ignorant about the world or more susceptable to government propaganda than the average American is.  And it’s not true because it implies that the more contact China has with the West the more likely it is to adopt “enlightened Western attitudes” which I doubt is the case.

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