Reducing income inequality:  China vs US

A few weeks ago, in his opening speech to China’s 20th National Congress, Xi Jinping doubled down on an initiative he introduced almost exactly one year ago: increasing common prosperity.   The goal, Xi said, “is to meet the people’s aspirations for a better life. We will endeavor to maintain and promote social fairness and justice, bring prosperity to all, and prevent polarization.”  During the week-long Congress, the concept of “common prosperity” was even added to the Party’s Constitution.

Increasing common prosperity is about more than just getting people more money, but like many social programs it certainly starts there.  In a post entitled “How the ‘China Model’ lifted 850 million people out of poverty,” I described how China’s rapid economic rise was rooted in Deng Xiaoping’s decisions to liberalize the economy in the 1980s and “allow some people to get rich first.”   Which they did, sometimes much too well.

According to the latest estimates, there are now about 5,738,000 millionaires in mainland China, and 539 billionaires.  As described in other posts, these are the people who have been willing and able to spend $1,000 for a single bowl of soup at a business banquet, or $1.5 million for a Covid N95 mask covered in jewels

But while the rich were savoring their $1,000 soup, the average person in China was scraping by on $13,000 per year.  A graph of income distribution in China would look like a squeezed pyramid with a very broad bottom, a small middle, and a tiny spot for millionaires at the top. Xi’s goal is to change this picture to an “‘olive-shaped’ income structure, in which the middle-income class is large and the poor and rich classes are small.” 

According to the CCP’s flagship tabloid, the program will “not only enhance people’s buying capabilities by enlarging markets, but also help eliminate wars and chaos by reducing cases of poverty.” Sounds good to me, but then I am not a Chinese millionaire.  To reassure those who are, other Chinese experts quickly jumped in to explain that “Common prosperity means doing a proper job of expanding the pie and dividing the pie… We will not kill the rich to help the poor.” 

Well then, what EXACTLY will China do?  I don’t know, and Xi probably doesn’t either. The common prosperity initiative is not a well defined list of policies; it is instead a broad general framework for China’s future.  It’s a campaign and a general direction, not a project plan.

Nevertheless, the work has begun.  In June 2021, Zhejiang province (just south of Shanghai on China’s east coast) published aplan to develop itself into the first common prosperity pilot zone. The document proposed raising per capita disposable income starting by 2025, and listed many specific changes including “rural land reforms, a plan to let resident income double in 10 years, and train 100,000 rural entrepreneurs, as well as push a number of scientific plans with a special focus on Internet plus, life science, and new materials.”  One example that is already underway:  an “intelligent farm” that includes 50,000 sheep, each with their own ear tag or ID card and…  control rooms where the sheep’s living and growing condition can be adjusted to provide it a suitable growth environment.”

The main reason Xi is stressing common prosperity now is a “tacit acceptance that China is entering a period of slower economic growth, something the leadership seems willing to accept as long as individual households are still seeing their prosperity rise.”  The initiative has both national and international implications.  In a 2021 speech, Xi noted that in some countries “the wealth gap and middle-class collapse have aggravated social divisions, political polarization and populism, giving a profound lesson to the world.”

You know, now that Xi mentions it, I have been feeling a little jealous about Elon Musk’s $80 million Gulfstream private jet.   Not to mention Jeff Bezos’ $485 million mega yacht.  Guess I’d better get used to it, because here in the US we seem to be heading in the opposite direction of China.  Although the US has no written policy on income inequality, almost everything the government has done in the last few decades seems to have been designed to make the rich richer.  

The biggest beneficiary of US laws and loopholes designed to make the rich richer may have been Elon Musk, currently the richest man in the world. For details see “Here’s how Elon Musk’s fortune has benefited from taxpayer help.”  Musk is shown here on a yacht in Greece last July.

In fact, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, income inequality in the United States has been rising for decades, with the incomes of the highest earners rapidly outpacing the rest of the population.  According to a recent analysis by the Washington Post, “Many economists say decades of cuts to income tax rates on the highest earners are one of the drivers of the runaway inequality that’s come to characterize the modern U.S. economy.”

From the end of World War II until the 1980s, the top marginal US tax rate was 70% or higher.  But then came Reagonomics and the idea that tax cuts for the rich would “trickle down” to boost the entire economy.  The first Reagan tax cut in 1981 reduced the top tax rate to 50%.  By 1986, the “IRS announced that… more than 900,000 Americans were millionaires, perhaps partially due to the high-level tax cuts under Reaganomics.”  Like the poverty stricken urchins in Charles Dickens, the US rich then said “Please, sir, may I have some more?”  And Reagan said: Sure.  A second round of tax cuts took place in 1986, reducing the top tax rate for corporations from 50% to 35%, and for individuals from 50% to 28%.

The next big tax cut was the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017, which slashed individual, corporate and estate taxes some more.  The law“was highly criticized for favoring billionaires and corporations instead of everyday Americans,” but rich people liked it a lot.   

Many economists have studied the effects of tax cuts like this, and consistently found that very little money actually trickles down.  The rich just keep it. For example, David Hope and Julian Limberg reviewed all major tax cuts in 18 countries between 1965 and 2015.  Their conclusion?  “Our analysis [found] strong evidence that cutting taxes on the rich increases income inequality but has no effect on growth or unemployment.”

When it comes to taxes, the top marginal rate is easy to observe, but what really matters is the  effective tax rate that wealthy people actually pay after all the “write-offs, exceptions and loopholes top earners are able to take advantage of.”

According to a White House study released last year “the 400 wealthiest U.S. families paid an average income tax rate of just 8.2 percent from 2010 to 2018.”  I don’t know about you, but it looks like I am paying two to three times as much as the 400 wealthiest families.

The original version of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda included provisions to “address these inequities by reforming capital gains taxes and providing tax cuts to families.”  But a funny thing happened to the bill before it was passed; various congress people kept chipping away at the middle class tax cuts.  Then, to add insult to injury, “Freshman Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz), held up passage in the evenly divided Senate at the last minute over a provision that would have closed… [a] loophole that allows private equity managers and hedge fund executives to pay significantly lower tax rates than most taxpayers.”  Sinema triumphed and the hedge fund executives kept their loophole.

This Congressional meddling in favor of special interests was hardly an isolated event.  In 2017, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) had refused to pass President Trump’s tax cut unless the bill “sweetened the tax break for a class of companies that are known as pass-throughs.”  Johnson too got what he wanted. 

It turns out that Johnson’s change was very popular with a few rich voters.  An analysis of just two wealthy Wisconsin families who “had contributed around $20 million to groups backing Johnson’s 2016 reelection campaign” found that these two families will see a total return of about $500 million in tax savings over the next eight years.  That’s a 2,500% return on the cost of helping elect Johnson.  Now, in some parts of the world, that might be called corruption.  Here in the US, we call it a perfectly legal result of effective lobbying.

Another example:  Sometime during the process [of negotiating the 2017 tax cut], “eight words… that had been in neither the House nor the Senate bill were inserted… Who wrote the phrase — and which lawmaker inserted it — has been a much-discussed mystery in the tax policy world.”  But we do know who benefited: wealthy families,  For example, this single loophole has “netted [Bechtel family members] deductions of $111 million on $679 million in income.”

These examples offer just a small window into the “explosion in loopholes and fine print [that] makes the tax code [so] time-consuming to understand,” and so profitable for tax lawyers, accountants, and wealthy Americans.  ProPublica’s ongoing study of “Secret IRS Files” provides a long list of additional “midnight deals and last-minute insertions of language [that have] resulted in a vast redistribution of wealth into the pockets of a select set of families, siphoning away billions in tax revenue from the nation’s coffers.”

At the end of the day, China’s common prosperity campaign could have significant advantages both inside and outside the country’s borders.  According to an analysis by the Asia Society, “This is a populist strategy to revitalize the roots of communist ideology in China [by providing Xi with] a new opportunity to align with the people against the powerful… by soaking the rich.”   Of course, the question here is can China pull it off?  Because if it IS successful, this will surely help “to disseminate the ‘China Model’ worldwide as a tool to further China’s superiority in global politics.”

Meanwhile, the US is moving in the opposite direction:  the gap between rich and poor has been growing since the Reagan tax cuts began.  Will this ultimately affect America’s influence around the world?

Who said “The Chinese Communist Party is like the Mafia”?

Who said the CCP is like the Mafia:

  1. Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan
  2. Fumio Kishida, Prime Minister of Japan
  3. Lloyd Austin, US Secretary of Defense
  4. Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo, Mafia boss
  5. None of the above

In a way, I wish the answer was #4, the now deceased Tony “Big Tuna” Accardo (Al Capone’s successor in Chicago), but it wasn’t.  # 1- 3 are more reasonable guesses, and for all I know one of them has actually said something like this.  But the answer I was looking for was #5 “none of the above,” because my quote came from a Chinese dissident with a lifetime of experience as a CCP insider:  Cai Xia. 

Cai was born into a “red family” with impeccable credentials:  her grandfather was an early Party member and her parents fought in China’s Communist Revolution.  Cai holds a PhD in Chinese Communist Theory, and worked for 15 years as a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing, where high ranking CCP cadres are trained.  At the beginning of her career, she was so orthodox that classmates nicknamed her “Old Mrs. Marx.”   But as her thinking evolved, Cai started getting into trouble for criticizing the Party. 

She left her faculty position in 2012, but continued to publish and speak, almost as if she was testing how far she could go.  She found out how far in 2016, when she gave a speech in which she likened Xi Jinping to a “mafia boss” and called the Party a “political zombie.”  From that point forward, she wrote in an article in Foreign Affairs, “the CCP blocked me from all media in China—print, online, television. Even my name could not be published.”  In 2019, while Cai was traveling on a tourist visa in the US, a friend told her that if she returned to China, she would be arrested.  Cai decided to stay and now lives in exile in the US. 

In an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Cai spelled out the details of the Mafia analogy with Xi Jinping as the Don, the six members of the CCP Standing Committee as underbosses and consiglieres, and the remaining 18 members of CCP’s Politburo as capos who try to stay in Xi’s good graces by executing his orders.  As a reward “they are allowed to enrich themselves as they see fit, seizing property and businesses without penalty. And like the mafia, the party uses blunt tools to get what it wants: bribery, extortion, even violence.”

Marlon Brando portrayed Mafia boss Don Corleone in the 1972 Oscar best picture “The Godfather.”

Cultural differences between the US and China have added to misunderstandings between the two countries.  According to Cai “Americans are too naive… One basic cultural tradition of Americans is not to lie, to obey the rules, and to respect the spirit of contracts. In Chinese culture deception is in our blood. There is no spirit of the contract, no sense of fairness, and people often say different words to mean the same things under different circumstances. Something said today can change tomorrow.”

Well, I’m glad she said it.  In my posts on cultural differences between China and the US, I talked about “the relativity of truth,” but if I had written anything quite this direct I might have been sued by an anti-Asian alliance. 

Cai also highlighted another of the seven cultural differences I mentioned in my posts – “relationships as the key to success” – when she wrote “When it comes to one’s rise within the party hierarchy, individual relationships, including one’s family reputation and Communist pedigree, matter as much as competence and ideology.”

She sees President Xi Jinping as one example of the rise of a “princeling” (a descendant of an influential family) that has “failed upward.”  “Over the course of his tenure,” she wrote elsewhere, “the regime has degenerated… into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness… People who haven’t lived in mainland China for the past eight years can hardly understand how brutal the regime has become.”

All of his policies ultimately come back to holding on to power in Cai’s view.  When I wrote a post about Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, I quoted Professor Kerry Brown that Xi’s campaign “has really drawn blood.”  Perhaps I should have put more emphasis on whose blood exactly.  According to Cai, “since corruption was endemic in China, with nearly every official a potential target, Xi was able to use the campaign as a political purge.”  She proceeded in the same article to quote how Xi targeted rivals while “those who helped Xi rise have been left untouched.”  For example, while “there is reason to believe that… [Xi ally] Jia Qinglin… and his family are exceedingly corrupt—the Panama Papers, the trove of leaked documents from a law firm, revealed that his granddaughter and son-in-law own several secret offshore companies—they have not been caught up in Xi’s anticorruption campaign.”

One of the most important implications of Cai’s look behind the curtain is to remind us that the CCP is not monolithic, and that some Party members and elites strongly disagree with Xi Jinping’s policies.    Based on “more than 30 years of contact with middle and high level CCP officials,” Cai wrote in a Hoover Institution white paper (p. 25), “I can say that at least 60-70 percent of the CCP’s high level officials understand… that only a democratic constitutional government can ensure long-term stability in China and protect human rights, personal dignity, and personal safety.” 

Wait a minute.  60-70% of senior CCP officials want democracy?  Can that be true?  Why don’t they do something about it?  Cai’s answer:  “There is little chance for any form of opposition to organize under Xi’s heavy handed rule.”

Her advice to US policy makers is dark.  The CCP’s goal she believes is “to replace the free and democratic system of modern mankind represented by the United States, and the values and order of peace, democracy, freedom and justice,” with its own model of governance.  If that’s not bad enough, she has also argued that “relations with China are destined to be defined by standoff and confrontation in large part because the Chinese Communist Party is by nature totalitarian, belligerent, unpredictable, and unwilling to follow the norms of a democratic rules-based order.”

Given that Cai was basically thrown out of her home, in the country she loved, it may be wise to take what she says with a grain of salt.  If I were thrown out of the US as a result of my politics, I’d certainly hold more than a few grudges.  But it is also worth noting that her claims have an unusual credibility given that Cai is the highest ranking Chinese insider to provide insights into the hidden world of CCP politics.

In Cai’s view, if Xi were to have a fatal heart attack tomorrow, the nature of the US-China rivalry might change for the better.  But that’s probably not going to happen soon. 

What is likely to happen when the 20th Party Congress meets in Beijing October 16 is that Xi will be elected to an unprecedented third five year term as General Secretary of the People’s Republic of China.  He is 69 now so he will be 74 if his third term ends on schedule in 2027.  He could then be elected for additional terms and even become president for life. 

There’s hope for US-China relations in a post-Xi world. But in the meantime, with an adversary like Xi on the other side of the negotiating table, the US needs a very clear understanding of China’s goals and methods.  And we will also need to be prepared for a wide variety of surprises and unpredictable events.   

The sheer stupidity of Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan

Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to poke a tiger in the eye with a stick.  Especially if the tiger is up for re-election. 

But that’s essentially what US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did on her trip to Taiwan on August 2.  In a few weeks, over 2,000 Communist Party delegates will meet in Beijing and select its leaders for the next five years at the CCP’s 20th National Congress.  Xi Jinping will almost certainly be re-elected to an unprecedented third term as President, but he and his political allies have been under pressure for some time due to the human and economic effects Xi’s “zero-COVID” policy, and continuing lockdowns of millions of citizens. 

And as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd put it in his book The Avoidable War, “the ‘return’ of Taiwan remains the holy grail of Communist Party politics… many Americans may not appreciate how central the Taiwan question is to the CCP’s political priorities… or how much Taiwan shapes how China views its overall relationship with the United States.”  (Kindle loc 1534 and 1604 )

It would have been hard for Pelosi to pick worse timing, or an issue more likely to further inflame China’s already rabid wolf warrior nationalist movement. And inflame it she did.  Hu Xijin, a former editor of the party-run tabloid Global Times, wrote that the Chinese military should ‘shoot down Pelosi’s plane.’”  Many Chinese thought they might, and nearly 3 million of them tracked the flight’s progress on the app Flightradar24 to see, making it “the most tracked flight of all time.”

So what has Pelosi’s controversial visit accomplished so far?

  • Minutes after her plane landed on August 2, China announced four days of its most aggressive military exercises ever against Taiwan.
  • Almost as soon as Pelosi left, Chinese warships circled Taiwan, in part to demonstrate how easy it would be to cut the island off from the rest of the world.
  • On August 4, China launched 11 ballistic missiles in the area, some flying directly over Taiwan.
  • On August 5, Taiwan reported 68 Chinese warplanes over the Strait separating them from mainland China. 
  • Of these, 49 entered the disputed Air Defense Identification Zone, the midway point between China and Taiwan.  This came close to setting a new daily record.
  • Flights crossing the median continued at a rate of about 10-20 per day for several weeks.
  • According to a CNN report “Chinese and foreign analysts say the PLA’s cross-strait sorties aren’t likely to go away anytime soon, effectively making them a daily routine that some say could wear down Taiwanese vigilance as well as that of its supporters, including the US.”
  • In response to the heightened tensions, Taiwan has announced a record jump in defense spending for next year.
  • Cyberattacks against Taiwan have increased to rates 23 times higher than the previous daily record.
  • While military activities are setting new highs, US-China communication is approaching new lows.
  • China has canceled future phone calls and meetings between defense leaders in the two countries.
  • They have also canceled bilateral discussions on such topics as immigration, drug operations, and climate change.
  • This last is particularly disturbing. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it “China’s decision to suspend climate talks ‘could have lasting consequences for the future of the region, the future of our planet,’ and would punish the developing world rather than the US.”
An anti-American protest in response to Pelosi’s visit.

Summing up these events and others, “the China Power Project at the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said Beijing ‘seeks to establish a new normal in which the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] no longer respects Taiwan’s claims to a separate airspace and territorial waters.’” Chinese commentators are using the same phrase “Military drills that simulate actual battles have become the new normal. China can now decide whether a future exercise will seamlessly be turned into actual combat.”

So what could Pelosi have been thinking when she decided to include Taiwan on this Congressional Delegation trip to Asia?

Pelosi had been asked to avoid Taiwan on this jaunt by a number of senior officials, including President Biden. According to a White House spokesperson, “The United States had seen indications over the last several months that China was considering unprecedented military activity across the Taiwan Strait, and officials had seen signs that China would use Pelosi’s visit as a pretext to act.”  Which of course, is exactly what they did.

On July 28, Xi Jinping had even called Biden with a direct request: “Find a way to keep Pelosi from visiting.” Biden explained as a practical matter that would be difficult or impossible to accomplish.  That’s not how we do things in the US.

Pelosi explained her reasons in a Washington Post op-ed published the same day she landed in Taiwan: “The CCP’s brutal crackdown against Hong Kong… cast the promises of ‘one-country, two-systems’ into the dustbin…  By traveling to Taiwan, we honor our commitment to democracy.” 

It is worth noting that Pelosi’s op-ed does not seem consistent with official US State Department policy, which still holds to the principle of “strategic ambiguity.”  As explained in the New York Times, this “longstanding — and famously convoluted — policy [is] derived from America’s ‘one China’ stance that supports Taiwan without recognizing it as independent.  The United States provides political and military support for Taiwan but does not explicitly promise to defend it from a Chinese attack.”

An opposing opinion piece published the same day in the Washington Post was entitled “The real crisis over Taiwan will start after Pelosi comes home.”  It predicted that “The pace and intensity of U.S.-China competition are set to go up, changing the relationship forever, with Taiwan caught squarely in the middle.”

Writing a few weeks after Pelosi’s visit, two experts from the Carnegie Endowment provided several examples of how this prediction was already becoming true.  “Beijing could use an American freedom of navigation operation as a pretext to escalate the crisis further, potentially leading to an unsafe incident or encounter at sea or in the air. The breakdown in bilateral communication channels and the broader distrust between the United States and China only makes such a contingency more likely. Recent reports indicate that U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was unable to reach his Chinese counterparts after Beijing suspended multiple military deconfliction protocols.”

And just a few days before this blog was posted, “Taiwan… shot down an unidentified civilian drone over one of its islands that lies just a few kilometers from mainland China.”  Uh oh.

Pelosi is entitled to her opinions, of course.  But you’d hope a highly successful 82 year old politician could find something better to do with her time than rattling her saber. 

A number of analysts have offered a cynical view of her motives, including Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, who said Pelosi “had wanted to visit Taiwan before her retirement as part of her personal legacy.”  

It would be a shame for all of us if this is even partly true, and one congress member’s hubris ultimately helped lead to an accidental war.

Artificial intelligence:  China’s race to be number one

“Artificial intelligence (AI) will profoundly change human society… and change the world…” according to a 2017 report from China’s State Council.  Similar language appears in a 756 page US report in 2020 from the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, (p. 1, 7) “AI is… world altering… [and includes] the most powerful tools in generations for expanding knowledge, increasing prosperity, and enriching the human experience.” 

So, what are the two countries doing about it?  The Chinese report set this goal: “by 2030, China’s AI theories, technologies, and applications should achieve world-leading levels.”  China has taken this recommendation very seriously.  Its most recent five year plan calls for a total investment of almost $1.4 trillion in “building ‘new infrastructure’ through AI, data centers, 5G, the Industrial Internet, and other new technologies.”

According to a global AI index compiled by Stanford University, in 2021 the US was still number one and China was number two. But while China is racing ahead, “America is not prepared to defend or compete in the AI era” according to the US 2020 commission (p. 3).

So, if AI is so important, what is it exactly?  There are two main schools of thought. 

Theoreticians who support a broad view of general AI see it as an attempt to program computers to function like the human brain, only much much better.  Unfortunately, to date, the field of trying to program general brain-like intelligence has been littered with failed predictions.  For example, as Melanie Mitchell noted in her excellent introductory book Artificial Intelligence (p. 19), in the early 1960s “the future Nobel laureate Herbert Simon predicted, ‘Machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work that a [person] can do.’”  Oops, never mind.

Mitchell went on to explain that these days (p. 276) “Several surveys given to AI practitioners, asking when general AI or ‘superintelligent’ AI will arrive, have exposed a wide spectrum of opinion, ranging from ‘in the next ten years’ to ‘never.’ In other words, we don’t have a clue.”

In contrast, the more practical narrow approach to AI uses computers to solve just one problem at a time and has been astonishingly successful in the last few decades. According to Kai-Fu Lee, the former president of Google China, [in his book AI Superpowers, p. 19; italics added for emphasis] narrow AI programs “can now do a better job than humans at [a number of tasks including] identifying faces, recognizing speech, and issuing loans.”

Not to mention chess.  When world champion Gary Kasparov was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue AI in 1997, he was so “stunned… that he accused the IBM team of cheating” (Mitchell p. 44).  If Kasparov felt that bad, he should have challenged the machine to play checkers, Go Fish, or “Duck, Duck, Goose” which he would have easily won.  The only thing Deep Blue could do was play chess.

In 2017, Google’s AI program Alpha Go defeated world champion Go player Ke Jie.  Some experts had thought a computer could never beat a Go champion because, according to AI Superpowers (p. 9), “the number of possible positions on a Go board exceeds the number of atoms in the known universe.”  

Narrow AI accomplishes these feats with machine learning. 

Traditional computer programs are based on algorithms, standard sets of instructions to solve problems such as adding a set of numbers or finding its average.  If you run the program 100 times, the algorithm will always use the same steps. 

But an AI algorithm learns from experience, by applying massive amounts of computing power to huge sets of data, and modifying its approach based on results.  According to AI Superpowers (p. 18), “The data ‘trains’ the program to recognize patters by giving it many examples, and the computing power lets the program parse these examples at high speeds.” 

Kai-Fu goes on to explain (p. 24) that “Harnessing the power of AI today—the ‘electricity’ of the twenty-first century—requires four analogous inputs: [big] data, hungry entrepreneurs, AI scientists, and an AI-friendly policy environment.”  Both China and the US have all four.

But the more big data one has access to, the more accurate AI programs can learn to be. China’s biggest AI advantage is its access to the largest databases in the world.  The country’s population is nearly four times larger than the US, and its culture and laws do little or nothing to protect privacy. 

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published the results of a year-long study of “China’s expanding surveillance state.”  The conclusions were ominous: “Phone-tracking devices are now everywhere [in China]. The police are creating some of the largest DNA databases in the world. And the authorities are building upon facial recognition technology to collect voice prints from the general public.”

According to the cybersecurity website Comparitech 54 percent of the world’s 1 billion [surveillance] cameras are located in China.  And over a billion Chinese citizens use the messaging app WeChat (AI Superpowers, p. 27) to “[send] text and voice messages to friends, pay for groceries, book doctors’ appointments, file taxes, unlock shared bikes, and buy plane tickets, all without ever leaving the app… [This] wealth of information on users—their location every second of the day, how they commute, what foods they like, when and where they buy groceries and beer—will prove invaluable in the era of AI implementation.” 

One company to benefit from this is the Alibaba group, China’s answer to Amazon.  The two companies have somewhat different business models.  While Amazon sells directly to consumers and maintains an ever-growing number of warehouses to fulfill orders, Alibaba serves as a middleman to allow businesses to reach consumers directly.  Despite these differences, the two companies are in a race to attract to dominate global online markets.

One place this competition can be seen is in the AI algorithms used to offer buying recommendations.  At Alibaba, historically recommendations were based only on each person’s past purchases and browsing history.  In 2019, the company introduced a new “Artificial Intelligence Recommendation (AIRec) engine” to offer a more diverse group of recommendations.  The details are of course a secret, but Alibaba claims the new AI based system “outperforms… [traditional] algorithms by 20-100%.”

This race between Alibaba and Amazon to improve buying recommendations may make a difference to revenues, profits and stock price.  But whether Chinese consumers or American consumers buy more stuff they don’t need doesn’t make a difference to the future of world politics. 

However, it does matter a great deal if China’s advantage in AI research leads to improvements in two key areas Xi Jinping identified in 2019: “Big data should be used as an engine to power the innovative development of public security work and a new growth point for nurturing combat capabilities.”

We will talk about military uses of AI in a future post, but we have already seen the effects of improved “public security” in a number of posts in this blog.  My post on China’s social credit system describes how big data is being used to develop systems to reward “good citizens” — which could mean anything from serving in an important Party position to just getting to work on time every day.  Rewarded citizens may be able to rent an apartment without a deposit, get a better interest rate at banks, skip hospital waiting rooms, and even get more matches on dating websites.  On the other hand, dissenters can be punished by preventing them from getting a good job, staying at a luxury hotel, or even buying a plane ticket.  At a more threatening level, as described in two other posts, mass surveillance is being used to imprison activists among the Uighurs, an ethnic group of about 11 million Sunni Muslims who live in Western China.

The New York Times investigation lists many other applications of AI, such as warning “the police if… a drug user makes too many calls to the same number [or]…   each time a person with a history of mental illness gets near a school.”

And if these applications do not seem menacing enough, consider the way local officials can misuse these AI systems.  Perhaps you’ve heard about the ongoing scandal in which Chinese savers have been unable to withdraw their money from four Chinese rural banks, and the government’s attempts to prevent the savers from publicly demonstrating.  One of the techniques local officials applied was to misuse China’s AI based covid tracking system. 

Some bank protestors found that “mobile apps used to identify and isolate people who might be spreading Covid had turned from green — meaning safe — to red, a designation that would prevent them from moving freely…. [local] authorities [who were] under pressure to account for the episode, later punished five officials for changing the codes of more than 1,300 customers.”

Whether used for good or bad, the race to be first in AI will have enormous political implications.  In a Foreign Affairs article entitled How artificial intelligence will reshape the global order, Nicholas Wright describes the threat of “digital authoritarianism… [in which] new technologies will enable high levels of social control at a reasonable cost… [and empower dictators to] make their citizens rich while maintaining control over them… AI will offer authoritarian countries… the first… plausible alternative to liberal democracy… since the end of the Cold War.”

Let’s hope Mr. Wright is wrong.

Avoiding a US-China war

In a speech last fall, President Xi Jinping ominously warned that : “The risks and challenges we face have obviously increased. It is unrealistic to always want to live a peaceful life and not want to fight.  We must abandon our illusions [and] fight bravely.”

Meanwhile, on our side of the Pacific, 82% of Americans now have an unfavorable view of China; according to a Pew Research Center report released in April.   When Pew started asking this question in 2005, 35% of Americans had an unfavorable view.  The percentage has been rising steadily since then, and this latest figure is a new high.

Last year, The Battle at Lake Changjin became the highest grossing Chinese film of all time.  It portrays the heroism of Chinese soldiers in winning a battle against the US in 1950, during the “war to resist US aggression and aid Korea.”

No sensible person on either side wants to risk a war that potentially could blow up the entire world.  But what exactly can be done to reduce that risk?

Some suggestions can be found in Kevin Rudd’s new book The Avoidable War:  The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China.  In my opinion, this is the single best book to read not just on the topic of avoiding war, but also on contemporary Chinese politics. 

In Rudd’s view, the risk of “armed conflict between China and the United States over the next decade, while not yet probable, has become a real possibility.” (p.  463).  This risk is based, he says, on “the single hardest question of international relations of our century: how to preserve the peace and prosperity we have secured over the last three-quarters of a century while recognizing the reality of changing power relativities between Washington and Beijing.” (p. 23)

“Our best chance of avoiding war,” he goes on to write, “is to better understand the other side’s strategic thinking and to conceptualize a world where both the U.S. and China are able to competitively coexist, even if in a state of continuing rivalry reinforced by mutual deterrence.” (p. 23)

Rudd summarizes his advice in three major suggestions:

  1. Understand each other’s “irreducible strategic redlines in order to help prevent conflict through miscalculation.” (p. 422)
  2. Where the US and China have irreconcilable differences, channel disagreements into competitive economic races in such areas as artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, and aerospace engineering.
  3. Where the US and China have common interests, such as in minimizing the effects of climate change, engage in strategic cooperation.

These three points are consistent with the advice from other experts, and have been discussed in previous posts in this blog, including “The single most important question for the future of US-China relations.”  But the challenges of implementing suggestions like this are all in the details.  And Rudd’s book stands head and shoulders above all the rest in his sophisticated presentation of the underlying details.  

If the path to avoiding war begins with each side understanding what the other wants and needs.  China’s lack of transparency serves as an immense obstacle.    As Michael Pillsbury — a China expert in eight US presidential administrations – has summed up the result “Americans have been wrong about China again and again, sometimes with profound consequences.” (The Hundred Year Marathon, p. 4) 

But, as noted in the New York Times review of Rudd’s book “Almost nobody has enjoyed the kind of access [the author] has had to Chinese officials.” Rudd is a former Prime Minister of Australia and current President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a “think-do tank” dedicated to helping governments and businesses manage policy challenges within Asia, and between Asia and the West.  Rudd speaks fluent Mandarin and has visited China more than 100 times.  This background has enabled him to also have countless discussions with a wide variety of officials over the years, including Xi Jinping, whom he first met in 1986.    

Much of Rudd’s book is organized around his analysis of Xi Jinping’s top ten priorities (slightly rephrased here, with links to related posts in this blog):

  1. Assure that the Chinese Communist Party stays in power
  2. Promote unity through nationalism
  3. Guarantee economic prosperity
  4. Ensure environmental sustainability
  5. Modernize the military
  6. Manage neighboring countries
  7. Secure the Western Pacific
  8. Increase Western influence through its Belt and Road Initiative
  9. Increase its leverage in Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Arctic
  10. Change the global rules-based order

Rudd describes these priorities as “ten concentric circles of interest starting from the most important.” (p. 96) 

Let’s start with number one on the list:  staying in power.  Of course, in one sense this is no surprise since almost every politician in every country in the world seems to want to stay in power.  What makes this especially relevant in the case of China is its recent history.  When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chinese leaders were afraid that communism could collapse around the world, including inside China itself. 

This led to literally years of study groups on the Soviet collapse.  In the end, China’s leaders concluded that “in the absence of the party’s strong central leadership… the country would simply dissolve into the bickering camps that had so often plagued China’s past.” (p. 106).  Or to put it another way, China would be much better off if the current leaders and their friends remained in power. 

Again from Rudd: “The shorthand form of Xi’s political narrative is simple: China’s historical greatness, across its dynastic histories, always lay in strong, authoritarian, hierarchical Confucian governments.” (p. 108)  And all signs indicate that the resulting nationalist movement (#2 on the list) is succeeding, and that the Chinese Communist Party is safe for now. (See my post on “Wolf Warrior nationalism.”)

Which takes us to the economy — #3 on the list above – and “the unspoken social contract between party and people: that the public will continue to tolerate an authoritarian political system under the party so long as the people’s material livelihood continues to improve.” (p. 127)

To date, the party has certainly delivered.  The last few decades of the Chinese economy have seen the fastest economic growth in the history of the planet, although progress has slowed in the last few years.  (For details, see my post “How the ‘China Model’ lifted 850 million people out of poverty.”)

The next few years and maybe even decades are likely to be far more economically challenging not just for China, but for the entire world.  In case you have been napping for the last few years, the world has been dealing with covid, supply chain disruption, the Ukraine War, inflation, economic inequality, food shortages, unsustainable levels of debt, and more.  No one knows the long-term economic effects, but it doesn’t look pretty.

And then there’s #4 on Xi’s list:  the environment.  Material livelihood includes more than just annual income.  The richest man in China — Zhong Shanshan, the chair of a bottled water company – is worth $66 billion, and ranks as the 17th richest person in the world, according to Forbes.  But no matter how much money Zhong has, it won’t do him much good if the planet burns up.

If you think the US has environmental problems, you should see China’s.  “The tragedy of China’s rapid economic development over the last thirty-five years is that the CCP subordinated environmental concerns to economic growth. This led to serious and health-threatening levels of air and water pollution as well as desertification, significant loss of biodiversity, and water scarcity.” (p. 171)  The resulting public concern has led to a “clean environment [becoming] a new part of the unofficial social contract between party and people.”

So when you put it all together, in the next few years Xi will have his hands full with internal issues – nationalism, the economy, and the environment.   This may reduce the resources China has available to devote to foreign affairs (numbers 5 to 10 on the list).

As both China and the US governments are forced to focus on internal affairs, one can hope that it will give both countries a bit more time to try to understand each other better and avoid war.

Do children in China study harder than Americans?

They sure do.  While this simple fact is not surprising, you may be amazed at how much they study and the sheer immensity of the resulting China-US education gap.

A New York Times reporter described her children’s elementary school experience in Hong Kong this way:  “Starting at [age] 6, children are buried under an avalanche of studies until they graduate from high school.  Twelve-hour days are common among first graders… less on weekends but no days off.” 

This Westerner’s culture shock over the amount of work her children had been assigned in Hong Kong was experienced in reverse by a mainland Chinese woman who moved to the US for a graduate education.  She wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “for first and second grade in China, [my son] trotted off to school each day with a backpack stuffed with thick textbooks and materials for practices and quizzes.  For the third grade in New Jersey, he leaves for school with little in his backpack other than a required ‘healthy snack.’”

One key reason for this difference in schools is that “Chinese parents… regard education as a top priority and view academic achievement as one of the hallmarks of Chinese civilization… In Chinese culture, success is not the result of intelligence, but the result of diligence, self-discipline, and self-regulation over the long haul.”

As the Wall Street Journal author put it:  “It is a core belief in Chinese society that talent can be trained, so schools should be tough on children… [The result is that], schools are run like boot camps.” 

For example, consider a high school student who reported that “I remember I once fell from around 1,000th to 3,000th in my academic ranking [out of more than 10,000 students]. My teacher made me stand in the doorway during class for almost a month. This encouraged me to work harder and later I rose to 100th in the ranking.”

The high school student above was talking about a class to prepare for the biggest and most important hurdle in China’s educational system:  the gaokao (often pronounced by westerners as gow-cow), the national entrance exam for all colleges in China.

The exam is offered just once a year (on June 7 and 8 this year), and has been called “one of the hardest exams in the world.”   The gaokao “is highly competitive, causing prospective examinees and their families to experience enormous pressure. For the majority of examinees, the exam is a watershed that divides two dramatically different lives.”

According to the Economist,  “A good score can offer an escape from a life toiling on the farm or in a factory… and influences students’ economic prospects for years to come… Those who score well on the test are eligible to apply to the country’s best universities, a prerequisite for many good jobs…”  As another article summed it up “in a sense, Chinese students prepare for the gaokao their entire lives, with their senior years filled with test-prep classes and cram sessions.”

This photo went viral in China a few years ago when it showed how one school tried to boost gaokao scores – by providing intravenous amino acids to increase energy during long cram sessions. 

With this much on the line, it’s not surprising that “Nervous faints are common on exam day, and suicides are a regular hallmark of every exam season. A 2014 study claimed that gaokao stress was a contributing factor in 93 percent of high school suicide cases.”

The gaokao has sometimes been compared by Americans to our own stress-inducing standardized college exams.  But, at least in the opinion of Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews, “the SAT and ACT tests… [look] like playing Trivial Pursuit with your grandma compared with China’s two-day gaokao university entrance exam.  [It] includes exams in Chinese, math and a foreign language (usually English) plus additional subjects such as biology, physics and history.”

If you’d like to see how well you might do, you can try your hand at sample questions easily available online, as in the article “Thirty absolutely insane questions from China’s gaokao.”  In many high schools, senior year is almost entirely devoted to test preparation.

In her book The Girl at the Baggage Claim, Gish Jen (p. 92) wrote that in China “The whole nation revolves around [the gaokao]… in the United States not even the Super Bowl gets this much attention.”  Let’s stop and think about that for a moment.  One of the biggest events in our culture is eating Doritos while watching very large men knock each other over to get to a football.  One of the biggest cultural events in China is anxiously waiting for your children to complete an educational test. Which culture do you think will triumph in the end?

Every year, for two days in June, China comes to a standstill [for the gaokao]. Construction work is halted, traffic is diverted, and motorists are banned from honking, lest they disturb the [eleven] million teenagers taking a college entrance exam they believe will dictate their careers, wealth, and perhaps even marriage prospects. and anxious parents wait outside near the ambulances on hand to treat students — or parents — who collapse out of nerves… [In addition] drones are dispatched to monitor the rampant and sophisticated cheating.”

Drones?  That’s right.  According to the Washington Post, “students [have been] known to cheat on these university admissions exams by using a special pen that can take pictures of questions and transmit them to someone who relays the answers via ear phone… [Drones] can identify radio signals that emanate from the hidden earpieces… [and] transmit real-time information to test proctors with tablets on the ground.”

According to China Daily, last year 10,780,000 took the exam.  Less than 2% “made it to a top tier institution… [That’s why] preparations begin many years before, in some cases as early as pre-school, as parents try to give their children every possible edge.” 

Even within China, people are sometimes appalled at the lengths people will go to for an edge.  In 2012, Chinese social media went wild when the photograph above went viral, showing kids studying for the gaokao while “injecting amino acids to replace energy. In order to avoid holding students up from their studies and to save time for students having to travel between the clinic and their classrooms, the school arranged for the students to receive the amino acid injections in the classroom.”

But the gaokao is not all bad.  “While often criticized for prompting a culture of cramming, the gaokao is also regarded as the fairest way of screening talent in a country with such a large population. For students coming from rural places, the gaokao can be their ticket to big cities and more promising futures.”

And from the government’s perspective, the gaokao seems to work.  “The Chinese education system has been praised for its rigor — a Stanford study found that freshmen at Chinese universities outpaced their American and Russian peers by two or three years in critical thinking skills…”  Other research has found that Chinese students “score at the top of international math and science tests.”

In addition, “for all its flaws, gaokao scores are simple, objective, and anonymously graded, giving Chinese faith in its integrity… In a country so large and filled with corruption, a uniform anonymously graded test is the great equalizer that rewards hard work.”

“China’s college entrance exam is designed to give every student a fair and equal chance of success.” But human nature being what it is, some people are always looking for an angle, a way to gain an edge.   In the same way that some American parents pay for SAT cram sessions, “China’s wealthy often purchase intensive study programs and hire private tutors for their children.”

And as a Washington Post article put it, covid has “widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots, as the wealthier students could afford quiet rooms in their own homes and expensive private lessons, while the less privileged students had few choices other than taking the online classes offered by their high schools.”

Last year, in an attempt to level the playing field, the government issued several new regulations to crack down on China’s $100 billion tutoring industry.  The changes included banning “tutoring on weekends, public holidays and school holidays… as well as forcing [tutoring] companies to register as non-profit organizations, banning approvals for new companies, and making it illegal for them to receive foreign investment.”  While these changes should make a difference, they are unlikely to move the needle much on the US education gap.

Do I wish that my grandson’s education was similar to that in China?  Good lord, no.  But I do think it puts the US at a disadvantage, and raises the question:  “How will America compete with a China determined to train the best mathematicians, scientists and engineers?”

Feminism in China

Feminism has had “a prominent role… in China’s revolutionary history… China’s ruler Mao Zedong famously proclaimed that ‘women hold up half the sky.’ Propaganda images in the 1950s and ’60s showed smiling, muscular female welders and factory workers laboring to boost industrial production.”  The importance of sexual equality was institutionalized in the law when China’s first Civil Code was released in 2020.  “Husband and wife are equal in marriage and family,” according to Article 1055.

But neither propaganda nor laws have changed the underlying cultural reality that China’s “deep-rooted gender roles often place the bulk of housework and childcare on women, making it difficult for them to balance work or study with motherhood.”  (Hmm… I wonder why this sounds so familiar.)

In 2015, a group of feminists planned a “multi-city protest aimed at sexual harassment on public transport.”  To the surprise of no one, five of the leaders – later called China’s Feminist Five – were arrested “on suspicion of ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble.’” After an international outcry, they were released 37 days later, but were kept under nerve-wracking surveillance for several years.  According to Dr. Leta Hong Fincher , who wrote a book about the Feminist Five, this “marked the birth of [a] new feminist movement that has had remarkable momentum in the years since, in spite of a really brutal crackdown from Beijing.” 

Since then, China’s MeToo movement has been miniscule compared to that in the US.  But the fact that there have been MeToo cases at all can be seen as a huge breakthrough in a country that controls both social media and the traditional press.  The most well-known case to date involved international tennis star Peng Shuai.  On November 2 last year, she published a detailed social media post accusing Zhang Guoli of forcing her into sex three years before.  As one of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, Zhang is one of the most powerful people in China.

According to the New York Times “state censors quickly restricted searches for Ms. Peng’s name on the Chinese internet and deleted the post, but… [the word spread and] in the following hours, netizens logged nearly seven million searches for the post.”  The day after the post, Ms. Peng disappeared from public view.  As explained in a follow-up Times article this February this “prompted a global chorus of concern for her safety.”  She reappeared in February at the Beijing Olympics.  When a reporter asked why the post had been erased within hours of her accusation.  Peng replied “I erased it… Why? Because I wanted to.”

Uh huh.

Beijing residents demonstrate against sexual harassment in 2020

While anecdotes like these give a flavor of the status of Chinese feminism, a more systematic way to see where the Chinese stands in relation to the rest of the world is by looking at “The Global Gender Gap Index… introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006 to benchmark progress towards gender parity” in four categories: economic opportunities, education, health and political leadership. 

According to the most recent “Global Gender Gap Report”, China ranks #107 of the 156 countries in the study.  (Iceland is #1 with the smallest male-female gap.  The US is #30.)   

But when you look into the underlying data, China actually has the smallest male-female gap in the world in two sub-categories:  professional and technical workers (51.7% female in China) and enrollment in post-secondary education (55.9% female).  And they rank sixth in the world with one of the lowest gaps for “wage equality for similar work.”

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that China earned its low overall rating with scores on many other sub-categories, including the percent of women in ministerial positions (#147 of 156).  Despite the fact that “Chinese law states that women and men should have equal rights in all aspects of political life… [and] 30 per cent of the members [of the Chinese Communist Party] are women… [women] remain marginalized in politics.”  China’s central decision making body, the Politburo has 25 members, but only one is a woman:  Vice-Premier Sun Chunlan.  And “no woman has ever held a seat on the seven member Politburo Standing Committee.”   That’s where the real power lies, and women don’t have it.

An even more critical subcategory is sex ratio at birth, where China ranks dead last (#156 out of 156 countries) with just 89 women born for every 100 men.     

To some extent, this gap can be traced to China’s infamous “One Child Policy” instituted in 1980 to reduce population growth.  Given a cultural preference for sons, the policy made a bad problem worse by leading “to a rise in sex-selective abortions, with families often choosing to abort girls.”  For more about how this law trampled on reproductive rights and destroyed families and individuals, see my post in this blog entitled “How families are changing.”  Or better yet, watch the 90-minute documentary “One Child Nation” (streaming on Amazon). 

From the government’s point of view, the law reduced population growth too much, and it was revised to become the “two child policy” in 2016.  At that time, the government “told couples that it’s their patriotic duty to have two babies. They’ve dangled tax breaks and housing subsidies. They’ve offered to make education cheaper and parental leave longer. They’ve tried to make it more difficult to get an abortion or a divorce.”  When all that did not have the desired effect, it was replaced in 2021 by the “three child policy.”  

If future policies try to encourage four children, then five, then six or more, that won’t work either.  The problem is that Chinese society has largely become urbanized, and no law has been able to overcome larger cultural forces.  “Add into the mix a tendency among millennial women to delay marriage and have even one baby — or none at all — and it’s a demographic time bomb.”

None of the policy changes to date have reduced widespread anxiety “over the rising cost of education and of supporting aging parents, made worse [in China] by the lack of day care and the pervasive culture of long work hours.”  In short, as one social media user summed the up challenge of getting people to have more children: “Don’t [policy makers] know that most young people are already tired enough just trying to feed themselves.”

As a result of all this, according to the most recent census, there are about 35 million more men than women in China.  And the gap in marriageable age males continues to get worse as the “one child” generation grows up. From now until about 2060, “three single males [of marriageable age] will be competing for [every] two single females.”  

The surplus of young males has already caused an increase in sexual trafficking.  According to WION, an Indian TV station, “Women have been trafficking from northern Myanmar… [and] sold for anything between 3,000 to 13,000 dollars to Chinese families… Once bought, women were held prisoners and pressured into producing babies.”

Many solutions have been floated to try to solve the gender imbalance. One publicity hungry economist even wrote that China should consider polyandry.  The Washington Post called this the “two husband strategy” and quoted such outraged social media comments as “He wants to legalize sex slaves,” and “It made me throw up.”

Summing up these and other developments in a recent interview entitled “The state of Chinese Feminism in 2022,” Dr. Fincher concluded that there is a “glimmer of hope…that because there is much more awareness about widespread sexism and injustice towards women in China, that all of these attempts to push back against the Chinese government… are having an effect.”

One big advantage that feminists have, Dr. Fincher went on to explain, is that “the Chinese Communist Party itself was… founded on the basis of gender equality… [This is] one of the reasons that this feminist awakening continues…  The Chinese government does not want to appear to be completely intolerant of any discussion of women’s rights…”

The Chinese diaspora

More than 10 million people who were born in China now live in other countries, plus another 50 million or so descendants who identify as Chinese, according to the International Organization for Migration.  They are concentrated largely in Southeast Asia.  Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have the highest populations of Chinese, with the United States in fourth place at over 5 million people.

President Xi Jinping has “prioritized efforts to cultivate support of the diaspora as well as all of its citizens who study and live abroad, which state media has collectively referred to as ‘overseas Chinese’… [He has also] called for ‘closely uniting’ with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese dream.”

There’s just one little problem. As Timothy Heath, a research analyst at the RAND think tank, put it “The Chinese diaspora, like those of other ethnicities, is a heterogeneous group with diverse views, values, and identities. Many regard themselves as of Chinese heritage but feel no allegiance to the People’s Republic of China.”

In fact, some of them hate China.  That’s why they left.

For example, in her bestselling memoir Beautiful Country, Qian Julie Wang wrote about moving to Brooklyn from Zhong Gui, China when she was seven years old.  Her father was critical of the government and had long faced attacks and harassment in China.   He moved to New York around 1990, and Qian and her mother followed a few years later, after he had saved enough money to pay for their passage. 

Life was not easy in the US.  Both of Qian’s parents were college professors in China, but in New York they were just two more undocumented immigrants.  The best jobs they could get were in laundromats, sushi factories, and a sweatshop where her mother worked 12 hours a day, cutting extra strings off shirts and pants.  She was paid three cents for each garment.  Three cents.  But no matter how hard and unpleasant these jobs became, Wang wrote, her father “would never forget what [the Party] did to him.  He would happily eat America’s shit before feasting on China’s fruits.” (p. 88)

Wang would probably not have found time to write a memoir if she had grown up to work in a sweatshop.  US streets may not have been paved with gold, but her parents’ values paid off, their economic situation gradually improved, and Wang ultimately attended Yale Law School, “where [she] could not have fit in less.” (p. 3)  This type of trajectory is not uncommon because “With a tradition of hard work and frugality, Chinese migrants tend to earn their place in society by saving their income and investing in property to tide them through economic hardship… [And] whether they are rich or poor, Chinese families abroad are willing to make sacrifices to ensure that their children get the best education possible.”

Some emigrants have a much more positive view of China than the Wangs.  According to a brief history of the overseas Chinese on a UNESCO website, many of them “continue to have strong ties to their home country. They believe that China is their homeland – an attachment that often lasts for generations. One of the main reasons they migrate is to be able to support their families and friends – they have a culture of making remittances to help those at home financially.”

Within the overseas Chinese, this sub-group is seen by the Party “as a tool of influence, not only for the promotion of China’s culture and language, but also for the facilitation of lobbying for business purposes, economic growth and diplomatic purposes.”

At a time of growing tension between the US and China, some of these efforts have dark overtones, as revealed in Hidden Hand, which one reviewer called “a remarkable book with a chilling message.” According to its authors — Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg — “An understanding of CCP influence activity in the West is impossible without an understanding of the CCP’s united front work, the objective of which is to induce, co-opt and coerce those outside the Party to form a ‘united front’— or coalition of groups that act in ways that suit the Party’s interests—and to undermine those it designates as enemies.”  (p. 24)

Two years ago in this blog, I wrote about China’s persecution of the Uighurs, “an ethnic group of about 11 million Sunni Muslims who live primarily in Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China.”  As a result of this persecution, a number of Muslim Uighur activists have left China, only to find that China’s malign influences do not end at the border.  According to Hidden Hand (p. 122) “Uighurs in Canada, Britain, Sweden and Germany have been told that unless they agree to spy on fellow Uighurs they will never see their families again.”  As one Chinese Canadian dissident and activist put “Some might think that once you flee China, you are free.  But you are never free.” 

Such threats can even extend into the classroom (p. 210).  “In recent studies, several professors across the US [have] reported that they assumed their Chinese students were reporting on each other. Some said that Chinese students had approached them directly with concerns about being denounced.”  While some of these reports are probably paranoia, others have been based on confirmed incidents.  For example, at “the Australian National University, a comment made in class by a Chinese student was reported to the embassy, and her parents in China received a visit from the Ministry of State Security, warning them about their daughter’s behavior. The Ministry of State Security visit [in China] came two hours after she made the comment [in Australia].”

In today’s post-pandemic age of globalization, the special challenges facing members of China’s diaspora are growing more complicated.  If you followed the Winter Olympics last month, you probably know about Eileen Gu, the first woman to win three freestyle skiing gold medals in a single Olympics.  The bi-racial 18-year-old was raised in California by her single mother, a Chinese immigrant.  Next year she will continue to live in California when she starts her freshman year at Stanford, but she chose to compete for China in the Olympics.  You can imagine the uproar in social media on both sides of the Pacific when she chose to compete for China, from horrified Americans to smug Chinese.

Olympic gold medalist Eileen Gu was raised by a Chinese single mother in California but chose to compete for China.  She has made millions as a spokesperson for both Chinese and worldwide brands.   

Growing up, Gu visited Beijing frequently and she is fluent in Mandarin. Gu has repeatedly refused to answer repeated questions about whether she had to give up her American citizenship to compete for China.  Instead, she would only answer cryptically “When I’m in China, I’m Chinese and when I go to America, I’m American.”

If Gu’s decision was based on business, it was an excellent one.  Before the Olympics, she had already earned over $35 million in branding deals with such Chinese brands JD.com, Anta, China Mobile, and the Bank of China.  These earnings are expected to skyrocket now that Gu is a star.

The challenges faced by Gu are dwarfed by those of the millions of Chinese emigrants who’ve never won an Olympic medal, or even a high school track meet.  Instead, they face a wave of discrimination that has only increased as our relations with China have deteriorated.

Since the onset of COVID-19… Asians of all ethnicities had been increasingly scapegoated, demonized, and physically and verbally assaulted… Stop AAPI hate [an Asian American Pacific Islander coalition formed in March 2020] reported over 9,000 racially motivated attacks on Asian Americans between March 2020 and June 2021.”

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Chinese American writer Frankie Huang summed up the diaspora challenge like this:  “In the United States, we’re often treated as perpetual outsiders who must constantly prove our loyalty…  [But] being Chinese American need not be considered a fractured experience: There’s no division between where the Chinese part of me ends and the American part begins.

The Rule of Law – China style

Last year, China implemented the first comprehensive legal code in its 5,000 year history.  The Civil Code of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) consists of 1260 articles regulating personal and business life, including property law, inheritance, contracts, torts, and much more.  (Note: It does not include criminal law, which was discussed in a previous post in this blog.)

Here are a few examples from the section on marriage and the family:

  • Adult children are required to financially support their parents. (Article 1067)
  • If parents die or are unable to raise their children, elder brothers or sisters… have the duty to raise their minor siblings. (Article 1075) 
  • Couples who file for divorce must observe a 30 day cooling off period. (Article 1077)
  • A husband may not file for divorce during his wife’s pregnancy or within one year after his wife delivers.  (Article 1082) 
  • Family members shall respect the elderly, take care of the young, help each other, and maintain a marital and familial relationship of equality, harmony, and civility. (Article 1043)

Wait a minute.  Could this really be the first comprehensive legal code in 5000 years of Chinese history?  Yes it could.

The Chinese do not have a long history of written laws or judicial precedents.  Instead, the  Confucian tradition “distrusted written laws and put their trust in people and innate human goodness.”

Relying on human goodness went much better some times than others.  It all depended on how good each ruler was.  In effect, for thousands of years “the law was whatever the emperor said it was, and there was no institutional body in China that could overcome his decrees.”

Western experts often refer to the Chinese system as “Rule BY law.”  In contrast, the Western system of “Rule OF law” implies “that there is a body of law that is superior to the current ruler, which constrains the ruler’s decision making… Traditionally, Chinese political philosophy emphasized an avoidance of conflict and maintenance of social harmony through deference to benevolent authority… Disputes were [handled]… on the local level by respected elders… Law and litigation were viewed as unnecessary [since]… government and society were fundamentally moral.”

Because of this tradition, a system that resembles Western courts has been slow to develop.  As late as 2013, China’s equivalent of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – Wang Shengjun – had no formal legal training whatever.  However, his replacement – Zhou Qiang, still President of the Supreme Court of China – had an M.A. in law and was part of the first generation of a dramatic expansion of law schools and graduates. 

The total number of lawyers in China increased from 2,000 in 1979, to over 522,000 in 2021, according to the latest report from China’s Ministry of Justice.  (By comparison, the US has 1,300,000 lawyers to serve a population less than ¼ the size of China’s.)

A copy of China’s first comprehensive civil code in 5,000 years.

Last year, the CPC (Communist Party of China) Central Committee also adopted its first five-year plan to continue to establish the rule of law to “help the state gain strength and prosperity. It states that the promotion of rule through law is necessary in order to ensure the resurgence of the PRC in the long term and to realize the so‑called ‘Chinese Dream’ of once again becoming a world power.”  In case citizens have any doubt about what this really means, the plan also contains a number of guiding principles, starting with “maintaining the centralized and unified leadership of the CPC as the most fundamental guarantee of the rule of law in China.” 

In every society, the purpose of laws is to maintain order.  In China, as Harvard Law Professor William Alford put it in “The China Questions” (p. 215), order is “defined by the Party [as preserving] the Party.”

The interests of the CPC are also considered more important than any law.  “The party decides what is part of the state legal system and what is ‘sensitive’. Sensitive matters are defined by the CPC and assessed outside the law and are therefore not under the control of the state judiciary.”

Several more five year plans will be required until the “socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics… basically takes shape” by 2035.  The 2021 five-year plan also “rejects an independent judiciary and the principle of separation of powers as ‘erroneous western thought’. Beijing is explicitly interested in propagating China’s conception of law and legal practice internationally… and enforcing its interests through the law.”

The phrase “with Chinese characteristics” emphasizes the perceived importance of creating a uniquely Chinese system which is consistent with the country’s traditional practices, and which is aimed to increase the power of the Party.

Many of the most interesting aspects of the system are closely related to the characteristics of Chinese culture described in previous posts, including the relativity of truth, non-linear thinking, and saving face. 

For example, China’s traditional approach to the law includes both non-linear thinking and relative truth.  According to University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett in “The Geography of Thought,” (p. 74) legal disputes do “not consist… of a contest between opponents… Typically, disputants take their case to a middleman whose goal is not fairness but animosity reduction… There is no attempt to derive a resolution to a legal conflict from a universal principle. On the contrary, Asians are likely to consider justice in the abstract, by-the-book Western sense to be rigid and unfeeling.”

This difference can be disorienting for Western businesses that bring a lawsuit in a Chinese court.  As boutique law firm Harris Bricken noted in an overview of “China litigation and arbitration,” “Chinese judges place more emphasis on the overall context and ‘fairness’ of the case and much less on legal technicalities than their American counterparts. For example, if a company executes a contractual obligation poorly because of an incompetent or uncaring employee, a U.S. court would almost certainly hold the company liable for all damages arising from the breach. A Chinese court, on the other hand, might either not find liability or severely limit the damages, believing it unfair to penalize a company for the incompetence of one employee.”

The concept of relative truth can also be seen, according to the China Justice Observer, in the fact that judges “attach the greatest importance to documentary evidence. The role of witness testimony and physical evidence is almost negligible… [because] false testimonies of witnesses and false statements of the parties are very common in Chinese civil litigation… [This] undermines the trust of judges in what witnesses and the parties say.” 

Another key cultural difference in China is that, again according to Harris Bricken, “settling a case is often viewed as losing face. The Chinese company you are suing may prefer to lose the case and blame it on the judge than to settle and be viewed as having been at fault.”

If a settlement is agreed to or a judge awards damages, the “winner” may have problems collecting the amount due.  “Chinese courts often lack the authority… to force collection on their judgments. In addition, Chinese companies sometimes find it more cost effective to avoid a judgment by shutting down and re‐opening under a new name.”

In other words, if you work for an American company that has a dispute with a Chinese partner, and you decide to take them to court, the result may be very different than you would expect.

In the future, we can expect more of the same.  According to an article in The Economist entitled “China is becoming more assertive in international legal disputes,” the five year plan also “calls on China to help shape international law, to turn itself into the first choice of jurisdiction when resolving cross-border disputes and to encourage the use of Chinese law abroad.”

This is quite troubling since the Chinese system “bears no resemblance to the Western understanding of the rule of law. Its objective is for the law to better control state actions, but without limiting the power of the party in any way.”

Thus, the future of international civil law is still another area where the rise of China threatens US interests.  No one knows exactly how this will play out, but, for us at least, it doesn’t look good.

Are the people of mainland China just like Americans? (Part 2 of 2)

Part 1 of this post listed seven characteristics of mainland Chinese culture which can complicate political interactions with the West, and discussed the first three:  a high value on order, collectivism over individuality, and saving face.  This post will explain the remaining four:  political patience, relationships as the key to success, non-linear thinking, and the relativity of truth.

Political patience is one of the most powerful weapons in China’s diplomatic and military arsenal, particularly against an impatient superpower like the US.  As Harvard Professor Graham Allison put it:  “Americans tend to focus on the present and often count in hours or days. Chinese, on the other hand, are more historical-minded and often think in terms of decades and even centuries… U.S. politicians take to Twitter or announce alliterative, bullet-point policy plans that promise quick solutions. In contrast, Chinese leaders are strategically patient: as long as trends are moving in their favor, they are comfortable waiting out a problem.”

Exhibit A for the application of political patience is Hong Kong.  In 1898, the British Empire obtained a 99 year lease to the island.  By the time it expired in 1997, the UK and China had negotiated an agreement for a 50 year transition period under the principle of “one country, two systems.”  This assured that Hong Kong would maintain its democratic government and capitalist economy separate from the mainland until at least 2047.

Danger signs began appearing within a few years, with Beijing pushing for more control and protestors in Hong Kong pushing back.  This peaked in 2019, when Beijing proposed a new law which would permit Hong Kong residents accused of crimes to be extradited to the mainland.  Half a million took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest.  When the extradition law was finally withdrawn after seven months of protests, activists said it was too little too late, and the protests continued.

In Hong King, protests like this disappeared in 2020 after Beijing passed a strict new security law.

By May 2020, Beijing had had enough and announced that its legislature was considering a sweeping new national security law to govern Hong Kong.  According to a New York Times report, the law defined “four offenses — separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers — with penalties up to life imprisonment. It [also] demanded oversight of schools and media.”  (Maybe it was just a coincidence, but China put this policy into effect at a time when Washington was distracted by the coronavirus crisis, and a series of Black Lives Matter protests.) The law was passed on June 30, 2020 and went into effect the same day. 

In less than two years since then, over 100 of Hong Kong’s most well-known activists have been arrested, and the crackdown is still underway.  Just a few weeks ago “police arrested six current and former executives… [of] Stand News, one of the last independent news organizations in Hong Kong… in predawn raids, accusing them of a conspiracy to publish ‘seditious’ material.”

Fortunately, there are signs that the US is becoming more sophisticated about dealing with China’s political patience.  In January 2021, Rush Doshi was appointed director for China at the National Security Council.  Doshi is the author of a recent book entitled “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order.”  While some scholars believe that China’s leader Xi Jinping is responsible for China’s current aggressiveness, Doshi argues that Xi’s actions are all part of a master plan based on political patience.  So we can only hope that the US will factor China’s political patience into its thinking… at least until a new administration disagrees. 

Another East/West difference which can complicate mutual understanding is the fact that in China relationships are the key to success.  The Mandarin term guanxi has become so common that it is defined in the Oxford English dictionary as: “the system of social networks and influential relationships which facilitate business and other dealings.”  But that definition is just the start.  The concept of guanxi is so complex and so critical that entire books have been written about it.

Confucianism holds that the basis of society lies in the family, and that proper behavior starts within the family circle.  One’s network of personal connections — and the importance of guanxi — builds out from there to include friends, friends of friends, and business partners. All of these relationships must be built over time, to assure trust and mutual respect.

In this context, the most important fact about guanxi is, as Richard Conrad put it in Culture Hacks (p. 166 and 187):  “China has one set of rules for conduct within the extended family or clan group and a much different set of rules for those outside of the group… When an official steals money from the state to help his family in China, he sees himself as being virtuous.”

If it’s OK to steal from fellow citizens as long as they are outside your network of connections, imagine how foreigners can be treated.  Conrad also wrote (p. 192) that after traveling to 31 of the 32 provinces in China, “[I] have never been robbed, though I have, from my Western perspective, been cheated in almost every province I visited.”  As James McGregor summed it up in his book One Billion Customers (Kindle loc 269):  “China has allowed foreigners in only on its own terms, and those terms are often opaque, contradictory and bewildering… negotiations can take forever and the resulting agreements can be promptly ignored.” 

When it comes to US-China communication, one of the most confusing and frustrating differences is the next on our list:  non-linear thinking.

When I earned a PhD in Psychology several decades ago, I spent five years learning to identify the underlying causes of human behavior using linear logic, in which A causes B and B causes C.  But (Culture Hacks, p. 112) “the Chinese believe the world is far too complex for simple linear logic. Rather than focusing on unifying rules or patterns, Chinese thinking became as complex as the perceived world.”

This difference extends even to the games we play.  In the West, chess is a popular linear game in which each move proceeds logically to the next.  In China and other Asian countries, a more popular game is “go,” which is played on a larger board with many more possible moves.  To win, one must surround the other player’s pieces, an art in which each move can be affected by the overall context of the board.

Go is a far more complicated game than chess.  Computers became able to beat skilled human chess players several decades ago, most famously in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat world champion Gary Kasparov in a six game match.  But for go, a comparable result required another two decades of research, until Google’s Alpha Go program beat 18-time world champion Lee Sodol in 2016.

This sort of situation-dependent complexity can be especially frustrating for Westerners when combined with the seventh and last trait from our list:  the relativity of truth.  “China is a relative society and doesn’t believe in absolute right or wrong… If one can get away with a crime and not get caught, then there is nothing wrong with it.”  (Conrad, p. 192)

Like so many other things in China, truth depends on context.  What is right in one context may be wrong in another.  This can be extremely confusing to Westerners.  For example, when Western bankers evaluate the financial position of a company, they look at statements such as “profit and loss” based on the records in a company’s accounting books.  But “Chinese companies will often have one set of books for public investors to see, one set for the government and tax authorities, and then the real set of books… they believe in different truths for different audiences.” (Conrad, p 122)

Even worse, “to the Western mind, once a bargain is struck, it shouldn’t be modified; a deal is a deal. For Easterners, agreements are often regarded as tentatively agreed-upon guides for the future.”  (Conrad, p. 196)

The political consequences can easily be seen in the case of Hong Kong.  In 1984, China and the UK signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration which guaranteed that the “one country two systems” approach to Hong Kong government would last until 2047.  But around the time of the first major Hong Kong protests in 2014, “The government began dismissing [the agreement] as a relic… a Chinese diplomat in London said the declaration was ‘now void,’ according to a British lawmaker.”  For Hong Kong, the “one country, two systems” approach began to be phased out in 2020, 27 years before the agreed upon deadline of 2047.

The US’s naïve belief that China would live up to its signed agreements is also behind a number of other diplomatic mis-steps, right up to the fact that, as a headline in Fortune magazine put it that “The centerpiece of Trump’s trade deal with China ‘failed spectacularly’.”

The seven differences described here unquestionably complicate today’s relationships between China and the US.  But on the positive side, as Nisbett noted in The Geography of Thought (p 227) there is “evidence that cognitive processes could be modified even after relatively limited amounts of time spent in another culture.”   If globalization continues to march on at its pre-pandemic pace, it is reasonable to expect that these cultural differences will gradually shrink and even disappear.

But until then, as Harvard Professor Graham Allison wrote in Foreign Affairs,  “misunderstandings are magnified, empathy remains elusive, and events and third-party actions that would otherwise be inconsequential or manageable can trigger wars that the primary players never wanted to fight.”