If you want to get ahead in China, join the Party

It’s not easy to join the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  In the US, if you want to become a Democrat or join the Dr. Fauci Fan Club, all you have to do is sign up.  But to become a Party member in China, you need to take courses and tests, get recommendations, pass a screening process that looks not just at your background, but also at your parents, serve a probationary period, take an oath, and fulfill duties for the rest of your life. 

Less than 10% of those who apply are accepted.  Even Xi Jinping, now the leader of China, was rejected at first.  As a fascinating New Yorker profile notes, when “Xi [applied] to join the Communist Party’s Youth League… his application was rejected seven times.”  The problem was that although Xi’s father was a leading Communist official who had fought with Mao, the father had also lost several power struggles and been purged.  As a teenager, Xi himself was sent to the rural countryside and lived in a cave where he “learned from workers and farmers.” (During the Cultural Revolution, about 17 million “privileged youth” like Xi were sent to rural areas in the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement.”)  But Xi persisted in applying, and on his eighth try he was accepted.

The CCP has about 90 million members, about 7% of the Chinese population.  They are motivated by both idealism and ambition.  As the BBC has noted  “loyal membership [in the Communist Party] is essential for anyone who wants to climb the career ladder.”  This applies not just in politics and government, but in every area of life.  Even the richest person in China belongs (Jack Ma, with a net worth of about $39 billion).  So does Fan Bingbing, one of the most famous actresses in Asia, best known to Western audiences for her role in X-Men: Days of Future Past.  

According to the Constitution of the Communist Party of China, members must “Adhere to the principle that the interests of the Party and the people come before all else” (p. 11).  In addition, Party leaders such as representatives to the National Party Congress are pre-screened for such qualities as “‘unshakable belief,’ ‘correct political stance’ and ‘good moral quality’…” 

The constitution also states that the goal of the Chinese communist party is to “lead the people in building a harmonious socialist society.. that is prosperous, strong… culturally advanced… and beautiful.”  In the real world, according to Karl Minzner in The End of an Era (p. 18), “Since 1989, Beijing has firmly adhered to one core principle:  uphold the rule of the Chinese Communist Party at all costs.”

And they have achieved that goal.  As a recent BBC news report summed it up, “The Communist Party of China is in complete control of the country, from government to police to military.”  It is embedded in, and intertwined with, not just government positions but every part of the economy.

As Xi Jinping himself said at the most recent meeting of the National Party Congress “Government, military, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the Party is the leader of all.” (See Xi Jinping: The backlash, Kindle loc 67.)

At the heart of the Party’s power is the “Organization Department” which controls the assignments of Party members, and maintains secret files on all 90 million members.  According to a brief article published by the official China News Service, the Organization Department “always wears a mysterious veil in public,” so little is known about its operations, outside or inside China.

However, as noted in the first post in this blog, it is known that the department oversees virtually every important appointment in government, business, TV networks, newspapers, universities and think tanks. According to Richard McGregor in The Party (p. 74), the department “maintains files on top level officials in the public sector, to keep tabs on their political reliability and past job performance, making it indispensable to the Party’s control of the country” (p. 73). 

When I went to a Catholic elementary school many years ago, the nuns used to threaten us that if we misbehaved, a big black mark would “go in your permanent file.”  For China’s 90 million Communists, there really is a “permanent file” and the Organization Department has it.

Along with your record, advancement is often based on who you know.  (It’s a good thing institutions don’t work that way in the US.  Oh wait…) In China, building and maintaining business relationships requires attending frequent elaborate business banquets.  A traditional Chinese banquet includes eight to ten courses, and many many “bottoms up” toasts (or ganbei in Mandarin).  After each, you are expected to hold your glass up to show that it is empty. 

Drinking alcohol is such a critical part of building relationships that one educational guide to travel includes a section on drinking culture which notes that in China “You can have friends, be rich and drink …. or don’t drink and be lonely and poor.”  Another observer described advancement in the Party this way “If you didn’t have a liver of steel to cope with all the hard-liquor toasts, you were in the wrong line of work” (p. 21).     

(As a result of Xi Jinping’s reforms, Communist Party business banquets are now “limited by edict to four dishes and a soup.” (p. 243).  I am not aware of any limits on drinking.) 

Once you belong to the Party, you’d better follow the rules.  Fan Bingbing, the X-Men actress mentioned at the start, learned that the hard way when she suddenly disappeared from public view in 2018.  According to the New York Times, at the time this “fueled a flurry of rumors of personal rivalries and political intrigue… though few concrete facts.”  

Imagine what it would be like if Meryl Streep suddenly disappeared and no one knew where she was. The ratings for Entertainment Tonight would skyrocket, and tabloid reporters and paparazzi would swarm every possible location where she might appear.  The Chinese media was more subdued.   After a few months, Fan simply reappeared, publicly described her house arrest for tax evasion and noted “that she would have been nothing ‘without the party and the state’s good policies.’”  Sounds like she learned her lesson.

What does the Party’s control mean for relations between China and the rest of the world?  According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “The Chinese Communist Party wants ‘international domination’ and has embarked on a ‘global campaign’ to sway countries to their side… we want to see a liberalized China that allows the genius of its people to flourish.”

From the Chinese perspective, Pompeo’s problem is expecting Chinese “people to flourish” on our terms, through Western liberalization.

In 2013, a dissident leaked an extremely influential internal memo entitled Document 9 which describes the need for China’s “complicated intense struggle” with seven “false ideological trends.”  According to the New York Times, the secret memo “bears the unmistakable imprimatur of Xi Jinping.”

Number one on its list of seven false and dangerous trends was “Promoting Western constitutional democracy.”  Number two was “espousing ‘universal values’ to claim that the West’s value system… transcends nation and class, and applies to all humanity.”  Number five was “Promoting the West’s idea of journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline.”  And so on.

So it seems quite clear that the Chinese Communist Party is not aiming to imitate or accept the Western way of life.  In the US, the question for wise politicians is not can we beat China.  It is instead, how can the two superpowers learn to live together?

13.5 tons of hidden gold: Can Xi stop corruption?

There is an old saying in China that “If the Communist Party executed every official for corruption, it would overdo it a little.  But if the Party executed every other official, it could not go wrong.” 

In 2012, two days after assuming office as the most powerful person in China, Xi Jinping gave a speech warning that corruption could “doom the party and state.”  Soon after, he announced a systematic campaign to crack down on both “tigers” (senior party officials) and “flies” (mid and lower level civil servants).

In the eight years since, according to Professor Kerry Brown, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign “has really drawn blood, in ways that no other kind of campaign like this has ever done.”

The most dramatic example to date was a provincial official who might be classified as a “fly.”   Zhang Qi was a member of the Standing Committee of Hainan, China’s smallest province with a population of about 9 million.  When investigators searched his home, they found a hidden room in his basement where he had stored 13.5 tons of gold.  Based on the current price of gold (roughly $1,700 per ounce), those gold bars would be worth about $734 million.  But wait, that’s just the flashy part of his portfolio.  Zhang also had 268 billion yuan (about $37.5 billion) in various banks, for a total of $38 billion.

Before he was arrested, Zhang Qi may have been the richest man in China, depending on the day’s price of gold, and his other assets.  The top two Chinese billionaires in Forbes magazine’s 2020 list were Jack Ma, cofounder of ecommerce giant Ali Baba at $38.8 billion, and Ma Huateng (aka Pony Ma) cofounder of Tencent, another ecommerce behemoth, at $38.1 billion.  Zhang Qi did not make the list.

Zhang Qi and some of the gold hidden in his basement

The sheer size of Zhang’s fortune was nearly unbelievable.  It was equal to more than half of the $74 billion annual GDP of his province.  He must have siphoned it off over many years.

According to an official statement last month, Zhang has been expelled from the party and is currently being detained and investigated for violating the “Party’s political discipline and rules on frugality… [and] clean governance.” 

Xi’s campaign against “tigers” has not uncovered revenue anywhere near that total.  But from a political perspective it has been far more significant, because it violated the unspoken rule that China’s top leaders were immune to criminal prosecution. 

In 2015, when Zhou Yongkang, China’s former chief of domestic security, was sentenced to life in prison for abuse of power, accepting bribes and revealing state secrets, the New York Times described the sentence as “defang[ing] the most dangerous tiger yet… [Zhou was formerly one of] the nine-members on the Politburo Standing Committee, which governs the country. Now he is the most senior leader to be jailed for corruption in more than 65 years of Communist rule.”

Mr. Zhou was found guilty of accepting about $118,000 in bribes and of “leaking six secret documents to… a Beijing fortuneteller.”  The Times went on to report that these “dollar amounts mentioned in the verdict were tiny compared with the Zhou’s wealth… [His] family had documented assets of more than $160 million, a conservative figure that did not include bank accounts, real estate, assets held by proxies or other wealth not reflected in publicly available records.”

Sounds like a case where Mr. Zhou – the $160 million plus “tiger” – may have had a lot to learn from Mr. Zhang – the $38 billion “fly.”  But they both ended up in jail, so they probably had much more to learn from those who have not yet been caught.

In any case, these two well publicized examples are just the tip of a very large iceberg.  According to one official estimate, “51 officials at or above the provincial/ministerial level [“tigers”] were among a total of 621,000 people [“flies”] punished” for corruption in 2018.  An official communique quoted in the same article ominously promised that “We will continue to see that… no stone is left unturned and no tolerance is shown for corruption,”

China experts are split about whether the motivation behind this continuing campaign is for Xi to purge rivals or this is a genuine attempt to reform the Communist Party.  Actually, it is both.  According to Professor Kerry Brown:  “There’s no question at the so called tiger level, where they’re targeting senior officials that it is very politicized. . . . [But] at the so-called flies level… the motivations are quite different… Xi correctly understands that [when]… local officials shake down the citizenry on a daily basis… [it] is eroding the party’s status with the public.”

The road to reform will be a long one, because Xi is fighting against a tradition of corruption that goes back hundreds or even thousands of years in Chinese society.  For a list of 17th century examples, see The Book of Swindles, which is still available on Amazon.

In the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949), corruption was so widespread in Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang that it reduced popular support and contributed to the ultimate victory of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.

Corruption increased as an unintended byproduct of the government’s approach to rapidly growing the economy.  For example, over the last two decades China has built the world’s longest high speed rail network.  Trains can reach speeds of up to 215 miles per hour over its 22,000 mile length. New lines are still being built, and it is expected to extend to about 25,000 miles within five years.  Much of the funding has been provided by the government. 

Construction came to a temporary halt in 2011 after the fatal collision of two bullet trains killed 40 people, and injured nearly 200 more.  Local officials at first tried to cover up the details by quickly ending rescue operations and burying the high speed cars that had been damaged.  This was followed by a public outcry not just online but also in state-controlled media.  An investigation concluded that the accident was caused by defects in both construction and in management.  A fascinating New Yorker article which explored the background of this tragedy concluded, in part, that this “famous public-works project was an ecosystem almost perfectly hospitable to corruption—opaque, unsupervised, and overflowing with cash.”

A variety of reforms and new safety measure have since restored public confidence, and the 2011 crash remains the one and only fatal accident in the history of Chinese high speed rail.

Ironically, experts believe that corruption and easy money greased the wheels of China’s economic growth.  A recent New York Times article argued that “in 1990s and 2000s, when the country grew the fastest… officials could often be corrupt, but even the party’s fiercest critics sometimes acknowledged that they got things done. Liu Zhijun, the former railway minister, is serving a lifetime sentence for taking bribes and abusing power. He also oversaw the creation of China’s high-speed rail system, which vastly improved life in the country.”

Similarly, a November Wall Street Journal article entitled “China’s Corruption Paradox” argued that “In the 90s and early 2000s, China was very corrupt but also fast-growing. These days, the country is less corrupt by most measures but also slower growing.  That may not be just a coincidence: A growing body of work hints that in the absence of deep institutional and financial-sector reforms, a certain degree of corruption might actually have been essential to China’s growth model…. The basic argument is that when public institutions like courts and markets are fair and well functioning, corruption hurts growth.  When they aren’t – and when officials have a direct stake in growth – moderate corruption can help local bureaucrats and companies circumvent ineffective institutions or nonsensical regulations.”

It will be no surprise that corruption is very difficult to measure.  The most widely accepted metric is the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International which “captures the informed views of analysts, businesspeople and experts in countries around the world.” 

In its summary of 2019 published last January, China ranked number 80 in corruption out of 180 countries.  (Denmark and New Zealand were tied for the least corrupt, the United States ranked #23, and Somalia was the most corrupt.)  Still, China’s scores have shown a gradual but definite increase in transparency and reduction in corruption since Xi’s anti-corruption campaign began in 2012.

What would China need to do to improve its rank?  According to a January article in the South China Morning Post:  “If Beijing is serious about tackling corruption, it has to make more transparent its processes in decision making, policy setting and accountability, establish judicial and legislative independence, and empower citizens.”  Similarly, Professor Minxin Pei has argued that “To get rid of corruption in an economy, you really have to strengthen the rule of law, you have to downsize the government, reduce the role of government in the Chinese economy, and also… give the press more leeway in exposing corruption.”  Well, that’s not happening anytime soon.

So, to answer the question in the title of this post, Xi Jinping cannot stop corruption under the current system.  But he can and will continue to reduce it because, as Professor Brown summed it up:  “This is a treacherous time. If the Party is not able to discipline itself . . . then it will lose its mandate to rule, and it will be game over. So the stakes are high, and… this struggle is not going to disappear any time soon.”

Human rights in China: The Uighurs

The Uighurs are an ethnic group of about 11 million Sunni Muslims who live primarily in Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China.  For more than a century, there has been tension and violence between the Uighurs and their Han Chinese neighbors.  These days, the Chinese government routinely sends elite Uighur students to universities around the country, in the hopes of training a new generation of Uighur citizens who are loyal to the Party.

Recently, when one group of students returned home for a vacation break, they were astonished to learn that their parents and other relatives were missing.  They were informed by the police that the missing were in a school set up by the government, “to learn new skills to get better jobs, and improve their understanding of Chinese laws, and of Mandarin.” 

We know exactly what the students were told, because the police were quoting from a prepared list of questions and answers, the kind of script an American telemarketer might use to try to sell you a credit card.  The actual script was found among 403 pages of secret documents leaked to the New York Times last November.  The source was “a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity and expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including [President Xi Jinping], from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.”

The secret script also recommended “that police officers in plain clothes and experienced local officials meet [the students] as soon as they returned ‘to show humane concern and stress the rules.’”  These representatives assured students that they had “absolutely no need to worry” about relatives who have disappeared… [in part because prisoners would have] even better…  living standards than some students have back home’… [And] if you want to see them, we can arrange for you to have a video meeting.”

When some students pushed for more details, “The guide recommended increasingly firm replies telling the students that their relatives had been ‘infected’ by the ‘virus’ of Islamic radicalism and must be quarantined and cured…”  Students who pressed too hard were warned that their behavior could lengthen – or shorten — their parents’ detention.  In extreme cases, it could even lead to detention of the students themselves.

The offenses which had landed Uighurs in these re-education camps included: attending services at mosques: fasting during Ramadan; expressing interest in religious pilgrimages; studying Arabic; obtaining a passport, even if it was never used; having a prayer rug; sending texts that include verses from the Koran; praying too many times per day; naming a child Mohammed, Medina, or other common Muslim names; wearing long beards; not drinking alcohol; not smoking (because this displayed an insufficient “commitment to secularization.”)

The official government documents that were leaked to the New York Times went on to say that “as many as a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and others [have been sent to] internment camps and prisons over the past three years.” 

A few accounts of day to day life in the secretive camps have been published by former prisoners.  For example, according to one:  “There were almost 20 people in a room of [172 square feet]… There were cameras in [these] rooms, and also in the corridor. Each room had a plastic bucket for a toilet. Every prisoner was given two minutes a day to use the toilet, and the bucket was emptied only once a day. The prisoners wore uniforms and their heads were shaved. Their hands and feet were shackled all day, except when they had to write. Even in sleep they were shackled, and they were required to sleep on their right side… anyone who turned over was punished.”

During the day, classes in Mandarin and Chinese law are designed to “make them better citizens…  Detainees are forced to pledge loyalty to the CCP and renounce Islam… as well as sing praises for communism and learn Mandarin.” According to another prisoner, “The main purpose is to brainwash you, so you forget your roots and everything about Islam and ethnic identity.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the existence of these camps the “human rights stain of the century.”  (Mike must be an optimist.  The human race has about another 80 years to come up with a bigger human rights stain before the century ends.) 

In response, Congress passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which denounced the internment camps’ violations of human rights, and included sanctions against top Communist party officials.  The Senate passed this bill by unanimous consent; the House passed it 407-1.  Can you believe it?  Republicans and Democrats actually agreed on something. 

So what happened next?  The details are a little fuzzy, but it appears that the White House did not want the bill to reach the President’s desk.  If he signed it into law, it could upset delicate trade negotiations with China.  And if he vetoed the bill, it might look like he did not care about human rights.  So what happened was that the “path [of this bill] to the White House was stalled [last December] by a congressional process.”

The one thing Republicans and Democrats could agree on almost unanimously was stalled by a “congressional process”?  Yes it was.  That’s democracy in action, 2020 style.  If you have any questions, call Mitch McConnell’s office.

In reaction to the bill the Chinese government argued that “ the situation in Xinjiang was ‘not a human rights, nationality, or religion issue at all, but an issue of anti-terrorism and anti-secession.’”  Also, they said, it was none of our business.

The secret government documents recently published by the New York Times help put this view in perspective.  Massive imprisonment of Uighurs began soon after President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang in April 2014, a few weeks after Uighur militants stabbed more than 150 people at a train station, killing 31.  On the last day of Xi’s trip, a suicide bombing outside another train station injured nearly 80 people, killing one.  Less than a month later, another bombing at a vegetable market wounded 94 people and killed 39.

In a speech back in Beijing responding to this violence, Xi said:  “We must be as harsh as them, and show absolutely no mercy.”

The next year, the top security official in Xinjiang issued a directive calling terrorist attacks in London “a warning and a lesson for us.” It blamed the British government’s “excessive emphasis on ‘human rights above security,’ and inadequate controls on the propagation of extremism on the internet and in society.”

Chinese “officials claim the camps have prevented violence” since there has not been a single terrorist attack since December 2016, around the time camps were being built.

Does this Chinese argument — that it’s none of our business — affect the legitimacy of the Uighur Act?  Well, how would we feel if the Chinese passed a law threatening sanctions unless we closed Guantanamo prison?  (Prisoners have been held there, mostly without trial, for 18 years, since the prison opened as a result of September 11th.  There were 780 prisoners at the peak; forty remain today.) 

Or how would you react if China passed a law to protect the human rights of the 95% of US elementary school children who have been forced to participate in “active shooter drills.” The drills are designed to prevent the recurrence of a tragedy like Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 20 six and seven year olds were shot, along with six adults.   But according to the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions, these drills may be damaging the mental health of an entire generation of school children, such as “one little girl who refused to wear light-up shoes after a drill, because she was told it could make her an easier target.”

Part of the disconnect between the US and China in this area is based on cultural differences in the definition of human rights.  In a thought provoking book subtitled “explaining the East-West culture gap,” Gish Jen argues (p. 44) that the Chinese government defines human rights in terms of “the people’s collective right to a livelihood… [and it] is therefore… not violating human rights when it arrests dissidents or suppresses public protest.  Quite the contrary: It is protecting human rights against self-centered individuals.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not arguing that the US and China have equal records on human rights.  I am arguing that the countries define human rights differently, and that can lead to significant tensions and misunderstandings.

In my first post in this blog, I included a table summarizing nine key cultural differences between the countries, including a “core value” of freedom in the US vs. a “core value” of order in China.  As I wrote there, “The cultural differences between China and America are so great that they can easily lead to profound misunderstandings and even to war.”

These differences are complex and nuanced and will be hard to resolve.  But the alternative is worse.  As Samuel P. Huntington wrote in his weighty academic tome The Clash of Civilizations (p. 21), “avoidance of a global war… [now] depends on world leaders accepting… the multicivilizational character of global politics.”

China’s mass surveillance technology

Have you heard how the Chinese government used drones when they were first trying to limit the spread of the coronavirus?   

One video shows a man working in Wuhan without a mask, when suddenly a voice from the sky says “Why did you come outside without wearing a mask?”  The man seems confused and looks around to locate the voice.  When he spots the drone, he smirks a little.  “Don’t laugh,” the drone says sternly.  “Now get on your cart and go home immediately.  Don’t come outside if not necessary.”  The man looks at the drone again, and starts to drive his cart away, but apparently not quickly enough.  “What are you looking at?” asks the drone operator.  “Go home now.”  Which the man does.

According to a CNN piece a few weeks ago, a variety of mass surveillance techniques have been used in the first few months of trying to stop coronavirus, and “China’s top prosecutor issued a notice warning that anyone… who refuses to accept quarantine or treatment, will be ‘severely punished.’”   

Now I must admit that when it comes to trying to prevent a worldwide pandemic, there’s an argument to be made for doing whatever it takes.  But if I heard voices from the sky telling me what to do, I’d either see a psychiatrist or join the resistance.

My recent post on the social credit system mentioned a few of the ways technology is being used for mass surveillance, but those were only the tip of the iceberg.  Throughout China, there seem to be cameras everywhere.  According to a Comparitech study of the relative number of CCTV cameras in 120 cities around the world:  “Eight out of the top 10 most-surveilled cities are in China.”  (The other two are London and Atlanta).  And it’s only getting worse.  The same study reports that “By 2022, China is projected to have one public CCTV camera for every two people.”

In some cases, these systems are being used to fight crime.  For example, some individuals violate customs laws by illegally buying tax free goods in Hong Kong and then reselling them in mainland China.  This got a lot harder when facial recognition systems were installed at several border check points to compare travelers’ appearances against a database of faces and travel information.  That system now informs custom officials whenever a suspected illegal trader has been flagged.

Can this type of technology be applied when an individual is walking around in a crowd?  You betcha.  Some police in China have been given smart sunglasses that allow them to snap a quick photo of anyone they see, and then instantly compare each face to a database.  In one demonstration of this technology, police in a crowded high speed rail station used this systems to capture suspects accused of crimes ranging from hit and run accidents to human trafficking.

Of course, the basics of facial recognition are not exactly cutting edge technology.  If you use an iPhone, you may have unlocked it this morning by showing your face.  But in China, “Facial recognition… has become a normal part of many people’s lives, used in subways, office buildings, schools and even safari parks to check season-ticket holders.”  Another article provided additional examples, including “a KFC outlet in Hangzhou, China, has rolled out a ‘Smile to Pay’ system [and] universities use it to screen staff and students.” 

There are even facial recognition systems outside some restrooms to prevent people from wasting toilet paper.  Step in front of a camera for 3 seconds, and you will be rewarded with 28 inches of toilet paper on your way in.  But if you need more, you are going to have to wait 9 minutes, because the system knows who you are, and 28 inches is all you’re getting.  (To see how people reacted, watch this video.)    

Facial recognition technology has even been applied in classrooms.  According to a 2018 government press release, a Hangzhou classroom installed “a facial recognition camera that scans the classroom every 30 seconds [and]… records the facial expressions of the students and logs whether they look happy, upset, angry, fearful or disgusted.”  Not to mention whether they are paying attention.

However, this classroom experiment was greeted with a wave of bad publicity.  The negative reaction to this system was too much even for China.  Last September the Ministry of Education issued guidance recommending that in the future “schools seek the opinions of parents, students and teachers before introducing technology.”

So if you are working for a startup that hopes to develop mass surveillance technology for China, keep this in mind:  toilets may be OK, but classrooms are off limits.

Note that as this is written, none of the systems described have been installed throughout the entire country from border to border.  And there is no nationwide big data analysis in progress to integrate all the data from independent computer systems, so that the government can track everywhere you go and everything you’ve done.  So if you are a known toilet paper waster in Beijing, you can probably get away with more waste in Shanghai.

But that doesn’t mean the Chinese aren’t working on combining data from multiple sources.  The New York Times reported one experiment on combining mobile phone and CCTV camera data to increase accuracy at “a dingy apartment complex in Zhengzhou… which hosts cheap hotels and fly-by-night businesses.”  They compared facial data with phone location and “if a face and a phone appeared at the same place and time, the system grew more confident they belonged to the same person.”  Within four days, the system had matched 3,000 phones with their owners’ faces.

So the systems of the future may be far more accurate and complete.  But even with just today’s technology, some mass surveillance systems have been quite effective in helping to suppress dissidents.  Some of China’s most advanced and intrusive mass surveillance systems are being deployed in Xinjiang, a vast territory of mountains and deserts on China’s western border.  The area is home to many ethnic minorities, including about 11 million Muslim Uighurs. 

The Uighur minority has been subjected to a wide variety of harsh policies which will be described in my next post, with the goal of forcing them to abandon traditional Muslim practices and embrace Chinese identity and nationalism. 

Here’s just one example:  A few years ago, mobile phone users in the capital of Xinjiang received a message from the government requiring them to install the “Jing Wang” app on their mobile phones.  The notice came complete with a QR code to simplify downloading the app, and an explanation that the app would “automatically detect terrorist and illegal religious videos, images, e-books and electronic documents.”

One article describing this included a photo of police checking phones with this caption:  “Authorities from Xinjiang are checking to make sure that people are using the official Jing Wang application… If they are caught at a checkpoint and their devices do not have the software, they could be detained for 10 days.”

And if that’s not invasive enough, according to a NY Times opinion piece, “All communication software is banned except WeChat, which grants the police access to users’ calls, texts and other shared content.” 

As an excellent New York Times overview noted:  “By themselves, none of China’s new techniques are beyond the capabilities of the United States or other countries. But together, they could propel China’s spying to a new level, helping its cameras and software become smarter and more sophisticated.” The proliferation of systems like this seems inevitable in an authoritarian state that values security over privacy.

China’s social credit system: Myths and realities

In some parts of China, Santa-type lists of “who’s been naughty and who’s been nice” are being used by the government to control behavior in their widely publicized “Social Credit System.” 

If you’ve been naughty – which could mean anything from committing a crime all the way down to jaywalking – you may be banned from

  • Getting your kids into private schools
  • Getting a good job
  • Staying at luxury hotels

According to Business Insider, nine million people with low scores have been blocked from buying airline tickets for domestic flights.

When you cross certain intersections in Beijing, the combination of advanced facial recognition technology and CCTV cameras everywhere enable a computerized shaming system to project your face and ID number on a giant billboard.  And when friends call you on the phone, the first thing they hear will be a siren and a recorded message such as “Warning, this person is on the blacklist.  Be careful and urge them to repay their debts.”  Even bad dog owners can be punished.  If BaoBei’s loud barking keeps your neighbors awake at night, she could be taken away. 

Monitors display a video showing facial recognition software in use at the headquarters of the artificial intelligence company Megvii, in Beijing, May 10, 2018. Beijing is putting billions of dollars behind facial recognition and other technologies to track and control its citizens. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)

But if you’ve been nice – which could mean anything from serving in an important Party position to just getting to work on time every day — you may be able to:

  • Get more matches on dating websites
  • Get a discount on your heating bill
  • Rent an apartment without a deposit
  • Get a better interest rate at banks
  • Buy tickets for China’s high speed trains
  • Skip hospital waiting rooms
  • And much more

Add it all up, and you have what Vice President Mike Pence described as an “Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.” 

Oh wait.  That’s the myth.

In fairness, the myth can be traced to a 2014 official government document which described a 2020 deadline for assigning a single “social credit” score to every one of China’s 1.3 billion citizens, and using these scores to shape behavior.  The goal of this system was to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

This goal has proven elusive.  Last July, an article in Wired magazine, described the current reality:  “The [social credit] system as it exists today is [just]… a patchwork of regional pilots and experimental projects, with few indications about what could be implemented at a national scale.”  As Chinese scholar Xin Dai summed up the current state of the art, “You have this really massive but also chaotic scene of different people trying to put together different types of programs.”

Every example mentioned above has been implemented somewhere in China, and many related systems are still being built and tested.  But as Time magazine summed it up:  “It’s difficult to generalize about all of them, since they can vary widely.”

So it is clear that the idea that a comprehensive Orwellian nationwide system being completed soon is a myth  The reality is that there is no chance that it will be completed by this year’s original deadline.  In fact, it may never be completed.

Nevertheless, although the components of the system are neither complete nor nationwide, some examples still sound quite frightening to my Western mind. 

From my perspective, one of the most interesting things about the planned social credit system is the reaction of China’s citizens.  If just one of the examples mentioned above were planned for the US, it would be blocked by ACLU privacy lawsuits for decades, if not forever.  But many Chinese citizens don’t seem to care.  In fact, they embrace it.

A recent “survey of Chinese citizens shows 80 percent of respondents either somewhat or strongly approve of social credit systems.”  As noted in a Washington Post article, “the reality [is] that there are different cultural expectations of the government in China than in other countries. China’s governance tradition of promoting good moral behavior goes back thousands of years… [But] fraud is now so widespread that anyone who has lived in China in recent years has most likely experienced it in some form.” 

According to an excellent social credit article in Time, “In China, cash has long been king. As recently as 2011, only 1 in 3 Chinese people had a bank account. The nation’s rapid rise from collectivized penury to the world’s No. 2 economy meant it never had the chance to develop Western-style credit histories. That meant people could default on loans, or sell shoddy or counterfeit goods, with few repercussions. Society was dogged by a question: Whom can you trust?”

China’s recent history compounds the problem.  During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), nobody could trust anybody.  Mao Zedong’s campaign encouraged students to form “Red Guards” to root out the “four olds” – old customs, culture, habits, and ideas.  They did so with a vengeance.  Millions were accused of being bourgeois reactionary rightists, had their property seized, and were harassed, tortured, and in some cases even executed.  Student groups attacked their teachers, their parents, and each other.  

Even Party officials were not safe.  Both Deng Xiaoping (China’s leader from 1978 to 1992) and Xi Zhongxun (vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress, and father of China’s current leader Xi Jinping) were exiled to work in rural work camps.  By the time the Cultural Revolution ended, as many as 20 million people had died.

So given that fraud is widespread, and that less than 50 years ago, parents could not even trust their own children, it is easy to understand why Chinese citizens would embrace a system that helps them know who to trust. 

The Time article quoted a shopkeeper in Chongqing as saying “Chinese people don’t care about privacy. We want security. It’s still not enough cameras. We need more.”  A high school teacher added:  “Because of the Social Credit system, vehicles politely let pedestrians cross the street, and during a recent blizzard people volunteered to clear the snow to earn extra points,”

No matter how sanguine Chinese citizens are about this, there can be no doubt that technology is being used to shape citizens’ behavior.  Details of a few key examples will appear in my next five minute post on mass surveillance.

Is the “Belt and Road” a step toward China ruling the world?

In 2013, soon after coming into power, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced a new plan to invest in a “Silk Road Economic Belt” to improve railways, highways and airports that linked China to its neighbors throughout Eurasia.  Since then, this plan has evolved into the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) and has expanded several times to include Africa, Latin America, and the Arctic, as well as improved maritime ports, telecommunication networks, oil and gas pipelines and much more.

To date, China has signed BRI cooperation agreements with 123 countries and undertaken over 3,100 projects.  Chinese banks have invested more than $210 billion so far, and Chinese state-owned enterprises are getting most of the work, “more than 70 percent of the combined value of [the] contracts launched under the initiative.”  And they are just getting started.  The total cost of the BRI is expected to exceed $1 trillion

Typical BRI projects includes highways and roads in India, Georgia, Tajikistan and Montenegro; railways in Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia; ports in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Djibouti and the UAE; hydroelectric power projects in Cambodia and Uganda; improved fiberoptic links with Pakistan; pipelines in Azerbaijan; and solar power in Kazakhstan.  BRI has even expanded into outer space with the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) which is scheduled to become fully operational this year.  BDS will provide a Chinese alternative to the US Global Positioning System (GPS), which enables Siri to give you directions to the nearest Burger King, and US missiles to hit their targets.

Is there a giant map showing all of BRI’s planned projects?  Nope.  On the contrary, “The Belt and Road is not an entity with fixed rules; rather it is deliberately intended to be informal, unstructured and opaque… It is an idea, a concept, a process.” (Belt and Road, p. 35, 24).  As a result, any maps of its major routes, including the one that appears below, are simply rough guides and very much subject to change.

Why would China invest over $1 trillion in other countries? According to a report from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Ministry of Commerce, the official BRI goals include working with China’s neighbors to “jointly create an open, inclusive and balanced regional economic cooperation architecture that benefits all… It is a positive endeavor to seek new models of international cooperation and global governance, and [to] inject new positive energy into world peace and development.”

Hmmm.

Critics have called the program “a dagger aimed at the heart of [Western] economies and societies” and noted that “Whoever is able to build and control the infrastructure linking the two ends of Eurasia will rule the world.” (Belt and Road, p. 11, 3)

However benign or malicious its intent, there can be no question that from the Chinese perspective, the BRI is an absolutely brilliant idea because it provides so many different benefits, including: 

  • Increased economic growth, by opening new markets to China and providing an outlet for the industrial overcapacity that resulted from China’s over-building boom.
  • Support of a “‘going global’ strategy funded by Chinese banks… and staffed by Chinese workers”
  • Increased trade by lowering transportation costs through improved infrastructure.
  • Closer diplomatic and economic relations with BRI countries so that “Instead of gunboat diplomacy and coercive military power… China [can] use economic leverage both as an incentive to garner support for its interests… [and] as a means to punish recalcitrant countries.”
  • Increased stability.  For example, “By investing in volatile countries in central Asia, [Xi] reckons he can create a more stable neighborhood for China’s own restive western provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet.”  
  • Increased returns on China’s immense foreign exchange reserves, most of which are currently invested in low-interest US government securities.  The interest rate on loans to finance BRI projects are higher.
  • Increased use of the official Chinese currency – the renminbi – to replace the dollar in international trade.
  • “Debt-trap diplomacy.”  Countries that owe China money are less likely to challenge China on human rights or territorial disputes such as the South China Sea.  And if countries are unable to repay, China can restructure or forgive the debts in return for strategic concessions.  For example, “In 2011, China wrote off an undisclosed debt owed by Tajikistan in exchange for… 447 square miles of disputed territory.”  Debt-trap diplomacy is seen as a particularly troublesome challenge to the US.  “In September 2018, the head of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. government international finance development agency, accused China of purposefully plunging recipient countries into debt in order to ‘grab their assets’ and to go after ‘their rare earths and minerals… as collateral for their loans.’”  (I wonder whether China would forgive part of the growing US national debt if we offered them South Dakota.  Just a thought.) 
  • And last, but definitely not least, no one should ever lose sight of the potential military benefits.  As one expert put it:  “If it can carry goods, it can carry troops.”    

It is important to note that these benefits focus on BRI’s physical infrastructure projects.  More broadly, however, BRI aims for “‘five connectivities’: policy coordination, infrastructure building, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people exchanges. Taken together, these five links reflect the Chinese leadership’s vision for a region more deeply integrated around China… The ultimate objective of BRI is not only to enhance infrastructure connectivity across Eurasia but to ‘move toward a community of common destiny and embrace a new future.’” 

Yikes.  Guess what country would be the dominant power in this new future.

However, it is also worth noting that there is no lack of controversy about whether BRI will succeed.  Critics outside and inside China believe the initiative “might easily fall short of the great claims made for it… It could [also] give rise to new problems for Chinese financial institutions, and debt service problems for countries with weak credit ratings.”  (Red Flags, p. 175)  According to a New York Times article, “The initiative has been plagued by allegations of corruption, overspending on vanity projects, excessive debt and other problems in countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Uganda.” 

If we wanted to review all of BRI’s main projects and discuss what will and will not work, we could be here for weeks.  Indeed, the BRI has become “so big it is almost impossible for one person to have mastery of it.”  (Belt and Road, p. 8). 

But this post is designed to provide a five minute big picture summary, so let’s stop here and return to two of the BRI goals quoted above.  Which seems more accurate?  Is the BRI a “new model of international cooperation… [to lead to] world peace and development” or part of China’s attempt to “rule the world”? 

Actually, from the Chinese perspective, it may be both.

If you ask me, the Belt and Road Initiative is still another example of China thinking long-term while the US thinks short-term.  We are getting outsmarted again.

The biggest theft in human history

In 2012, the director of the National Security Agency warned that intellectual property theft cost the US $250 billion per year, much of it attributable to China, in what he diplomatically called the “greatest transfer of wealth in history.”  Since then, the problem has only gotten worse.  According to a 215 page investigation of China’s trade practices published by the US Government’s Trade Representative office (Appendix C, p. 9), “while precise quantification is difficult… the commission estimates that Chinese theft of American intellectual property currently costs between $225 billion and $600 billion per year.”  $600 billion! That’s more than I spend at Whole Foods in a decade.

A 2017 NY Times op-ed described what is involved: “Intellectual-property theft covers a wide spectrum: counterfeiting American fashion designs, pirating movies and video games, patent infringement and stealing proprietary technology and software…. Perhaps most concerning, China has targeted the American defense industrial base… Chinese agents have gone after the United States’ most significant weapons, such as the F-35 Lightning… and the Patriot missile system… and [even] stolen documents related to… the F-15 fighter and… the Space Shuttle.”

However, as explained in a recent Chicago Tribune article, “Beijing typically doesn’t dispatch spies on missions of commercial espionage. Rather, it encourages Chinese who study and work abroad to copy or steal technology and rewards them when they do.”

One example quoted in the article was based on a federal prosecution now in progress:  “The Chinese tech giant Huawei…  was obsessed with a T-Mobile robot nicknamed Tappy that could detect problems in cellphones by mimicking how people use them… T-Mobile was letting Huawei engineers into the Tappy lab to test their phones. In 2013, according to [a recent Federal] indictment, a Huawei engineer spirited a Tappy robot arm out of the lab in a laptop bag.”

The impact of intellectual property theft is widespread.  Last March, a CNBC survey of members of its “Global CFO Council” that found that one out of every five companies said “Chinese companies have stolen their intellectual property within the last year.” 

Some experts believe that this type of industrial espionage is an inevitable cost of doing business in China.  After all, it is the world’s fastest growing market, with 2.4 billion potential customers. 

And Chinese experts have argued that emerging economies have always stolen intellectual property.  For example, when the US was a rising power in the 1900s, Pillsbury stole technology from European companies to “[process] carloads of wheat and oats… into flour and cereals.” (p. 157, The Hundred Year Marathon

Some believe, as the title of one article put it, that China’s Record on Intellectual Property Rights Is Getting Better and Better.  “Trade, foreign investment, licensing, international research collaboration, cross-border movement of experts, collection of open-source material, imitation, reverse engineering, and, yes, theft have all contributed to China’s technological progress. Most of these activities are legitimate and voluntary and have clearly benefited U.S. business interests.” 

Similarly, a thought provoking article published two weeks ago entitled The New China Scare: Why America Shouldn’t Panic About Its Latest Challenger argued that “among U.S. companies doing business in China, a recent survey found that intellectual property protection ranked sixth on a list of pressing concerns, down from number two in 2014…. Why this shift from 2014? That year, China created its first specialized courts to handle intellectual property cases. In 2015, foreign plaintiffs brought 63 cases in the Beijing Intellectual Property Court. The court ruled for the foreign firms in all 63.”

Let’s see.  A $600 billion per year problem, and 63 court cases.  It is easy to conclude that most companies that are interested in breaking into the Chinese market are reluctant to sue their future partners.  Should we see the intellectual property theft “glass” as 2% full or 98% empty?

American experts now trying to negotiate a trade agreement with China certainly believe there’s a problem.  The same article notes that Peter Navarro, Trump’s top trade adviser, sees “the theft of our intellectual property… [as] issue number one in the United States’ trade dispute with China.”

So how are the trade negotiations going, when it comes to this issue?  Here’s a hint.  Last June, the intellectual property issue almost led to the Chinese walking away from the table.  “State Council adviser Shi Yinhong says America’s insistence on strong intellectual property protections is asking too much of Beijing… Chinese officials have started to think ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ as the gap between the two sides continues to widen.”

But then, last week, President Trump tweeted in his inimitable fashion that the US is “Getting VERY close to a BIG DEAL with China.”  How was the intellectual property theft issue addressed in this “Phase One” China trade agreement?  Few details are available, and nothing has been signed yet.  When the New York Times reported last Sunday on what’s known so far about that deal, it was mainly about Chinese promises to increase its purchases of US goods by at least $200 billion over the next two years in return for tariff reductions.  There were no specifics on intellectual property and the article’s title did not offer much room for hope: “China’s Hard-Liners Win a Round in Trump’s Trade Deal.”

Of course, even if Phase One does little or nothing about intellectual property theft, there could be a Phase Two or Phase Eleven agreement that does address US concerns about intellectual property theft.  Which would lead to the question of whether China would actually abide by any agreement it signs.  Their track record so far reminds me of Rosie Ruiz.    

Details of China’s past non-compliance appear in a definitive report from the US Trade Representative’s office.  Its summary concludes that (p. 7): “The evidence adduced in this investigation establishes that China’s technology transfer regime continues, notwithstanding repeated bilateral commitments and government statements.” 

Perhaps the Chinese trade delegation subscribes to tactics from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” especially his idea that “All warfare is based on deception.” 

So what should US companies and government representatives do?  Mostly these days they seem to either ignore the problem or wave their hands about it, as in the Bloomberg Businessweek cover headline seven years ago (March 19, 2012):  “Hey China! Stop Stealing Our Stuff.”

But nobody seems to know how to make this happen.

Do the Chinese people want democracy?

Yesterday, Hong Kong voters provided a “landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in [its] district council elections.”  This came, of course, after months of pro-democracy protests.  Does this mean that a majority of Chinese citizens want democracy?  No, it does not.

As explained in the previous post in this blog, accounts of the Hong Kong protests in the mainland Chinese media have been incomplete and slanted to describe them as an “anti-Western prelude to terrorism.”  Similarly, today’s first election accounts from the official state news agency Xinhua “reported [that] the votes had been counted, but did not detail the results. It said ‘some rioters harassed patriotic candidates’ on election day, and that the ‘most pressing task for Hong Kong at present is still to bring the violence and chaos to an end and restore order.’” 

At this very moment, it is fair to assume that the way the central government in Beijing responds is being discussed at the highest levels.  A hint at the initial reaction came a few hours ago when Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that “no matter what happens, Hong Kong is a part of China…  Any attempt to mess up Hong Kong, or even damage its prosperity and stability, will not succeed.”

Yesterday’s results at the polls make it crystal clear that a majority of Hong Kong voters want a more democratic system. But the 7 million people who live in Hong Kong represent only about 0.5% of China’s population, and have a radically different history and cultural background from the mainland Chinese population. 

Hong Kong became a colony of Great Britain in 1842 when China lost the First Opium War.  For the next 150 years, the island lived under British rule and became accustomed to Western law.  In the negotiations that led up to returning Hong Kong to China in 1997, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed the “one country, two systems” constitutional principle, which gave the government of Hong Kong autonomy, and its people more rights than on the mainland. 

Simply put, the Hong Kong protestors are fighting to hold on to the democratic rights they have held through several generations.  Most mainland Chinese have no experience with democratic rights.

Given Beijing’s control of the media and the internet, it is hard to know how the mainland Chinese feel about democracy.  But the best available evidence suggests that most are reasonably content with the current authoritarian system. 

“According to valid polls conducted by Western standards, the overwhelming majority of the [Chinese] population sees the central government as having benevolent intentions and, notwithstanding serious mistakes, as having largely filled those intentions.”  (China’s Crisis of Success, Kindle location 6219)  If China’s persecuted minorities were polled — including Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims – the results would surely be more negative.  But these persecuted minorities represent only about another 0.5% of the total population.

It is no surprise that most Chinese citizens are content with the stable present, considering their chaotic past.  Within living memory, China was one of the poorest, most backward countries on the planet.  For example, the older generation lived through the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961, in which as many as 45 million people died of starvation. 

Now, a half century later, thanks to the Chinese economic miracle (to be discussed in a future post) the biggest food challenge some Chinese face is what to order at Starbucks.  Should they get a red bean oats scone to go with that Mango Passion Fruit Frappuccino?  (According to a recent article in China Daily, there are now over 3,000 Starbucks in China.  Within five years, in partnership with one of China’s largest distributors of soft drinks and instant noodles, Starbucks expects to have over 125,000 locations in 400 Chinese cities.)

For countries that are still stuck in poverty, democracy is not a priority.  As William Overholt put it, “If you are malnourished and ill and illiterate and your children are at risk, participating in an election doesn’t help much…. [In India’s democracy], a malnourished illiterate 12 year old girl whose mother died in childbirth… and whose father is crippled by air pollution far more debilitating than China’s, who has never seen a toilet and who was forcibly married to an old man, will have the right to a vote, but is that really what’s most important to human dignity?” (China’s Crisis of Success, Kindle locations 684, 307)

At least since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, “Beijing has firmly adhered to one core principle: uphold the rule of the Chinese Communist Party at all costs.”  (End of an Era, p. 18)  The country’s leadership is especially concerned with avoiding the fate of Russia’s experiments with democracy in the 1980 and 1990s.  As the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party summed up the results of the Soviet Union’s ill-fated attempt at democracy: “Gross Domestic Product fell by half… oligarchs emerged to plunder state assets; Russians lined up on the sidewalk to face supply shortages; war veterans had to sell their medals in order to buy bread.”  (Age of Ambition, p. 365)

In China, the Party has been extremely successful in growing the economy and preserving their power.  In fact, according to Richard McGregor “The Party’s marginalization of all political opponents makes it somewhat like the Iraqi army after the second Gulf War.  Even if it were disbanded or fell apart it would have to be put back together again because its members alone have the skills, experience, and networks to run the country.”  (The Party, p xxii)

No one can predict the future, but that’s never stopped experts from trying.  Twenty years ago, most academics believed that China was on a slow road to liberal democracy.  But these days there are fewer who predict this rosy outcome.  As Michael Pillsbury put it (Hundred Year Marathon, p. 182) “Of course, there’s a chance that… China will turn away from tyranny and embrace democracy at home and abroad.  But there is little reason to be optimistic.”

Part of the explanation was discussed in the first post in this blog “The cultural differences between China and America are so great that they can easily lead to profound misunderstandings.” 

According to Graham Allison “China abides by Confucius’ first commandment ‘Know thy place.’  For Chinese, order is the central political value, and the alternative to order is chaos.” (Destined for War, p. 142)  Or, to put it another way “The cultural heritage in which the good of a hierarchical society is prized far above the democratic rights of the individual… runs through the veins of the Communist Party, much as it did for the [5000 year history of Chinese] imperial dynasties.” (Red Flags, p. 18).

Why Winnie the Pooh was banned from the Chinese internet

Suppose you visited China, and had a sudden urge to read about Winnie the Pooh.  If you tried to search the internet for the portly bear, you would get the error message “Content is illegal.” Why?  Because censors have concluded that Chinese social media mentions of Winnie the Pooh were often actually sly references “to President Xi, as he walks with a similar waddle.”  (Like War, p. 98).

You would also get an error message if you tried to use Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Pandora, Netflix, HBO, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or any of the more than 8000 other websites blocked in mainland China by what has been called “the Great Firewall.”

These examples illustrate how “a government censor looms over the shoulder of every citizen with a computer or smartphone.  Web searches won’t find prohibited results; messages with banned words will simply fail to reach the intended recipient.” (Like War, p. 97)

In 2001, Jiang Zemin, then General Secretary of the Communist Party, gave a speech about the internet in which he mentioned its positive economic benefits, but also noted that it could promote the spread of “superstition, pornography, violence, and pernicious information [that could] harm the mental health of the population and of youth.”  (The Great Firewall, p. 90)  So you could say censorship protects residents of mainland China from child molesters in chat rooms, internet videos of ISIS beheadings, live streams of mass murders, and Nigerian bankers emailing offers of a small fortune if you just send them a few thousand dollars.  But it also shapes what people know, and do not know, about what is going on in China and the rest of the world. 

The Chinese government considers “censorship” the wrong word to describe the many functions of the Great Firewall.  The Communist Party might prefer a word like “harmonization,” since harmony has been an important virtue in Chinese culture since ancient times, and its importance has been stressed by many Communist leaders.    

Ironically, however, the word “harmony” was also banned from the Chinese internet after social media users who had found that the word “censorship” was banned creatively began using “harmony” as a cynical substitute.  Then they started to use the phrase “river crab’d” which sounds similar to “harmony” in Mandarin.  As a result, both the words for river crabs and their images have also been banned. (Like War, p. 98)

Almost as surprising as the list of terms that are forbidden is the list of topics which are permitted.  In Chinese social media “Political problems are discussed, corruption is exposed and criticized, national leaders are lampooned, and air pollution is discussed endlessly and at length.” (The Great Firewall, p. 73) 

However, some political discussions are off limits, namely anything that could threaten the government or social order, or organize collective action.  In other countries, the internet has been a powerful tool for organizing resistance.  To cite one example, in 2011, during the Arab Spring, a Google executive used Facebook to suggest people organize protests in Egypt, and 85,000 quickly pledged to march.  March they did, and soon after dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.  (Like War, p. 85)

Over the last few months, the demonstrations in Hong Kong have had mainland China censors working overtime.  Under the “one country, two systems” principle formulated by Deng Xiaoping, Hong Kong’s internet falls outside the Great Firewall.  And according to a CNBC report “social media has played a significant role in the documentation, organization, and assembly of the [Hong Kong] protests.”

But as of today, the disturbances in Hong Kong have not led to significant challenges to the Party in mainland China.  On the contrary, according to a New York Times article, China has “aggressively stirred up nationalist and anti-Western sentiment using state and social media, and it has manipulated the context of images and videos [of Hong Kong demonstrations] to undermine the protesters. Chinese officials have begun branding the demonstrations as a prelude to terrorism.” 

There has been a lot of talk about whether US reporters create “fake news.”  In mainland China, there can be no doubt.  More than 2 million people work for what is cynically called the “50 cent army” because they are paid 50 Chinese cents for each post they produce which “Promotes unity and stability through positive publicity… Today… [they] churn out at least 500 million social media postings each year.” (Like War, p. 100)

The most significant study of Chinese internet censorship was conducted by a Harvard research group that devised a methodology to analyze millions of social media posts which were later censored on over 1,400 Chinese social media sites.  They concluded that the Great Firewall is used primarily to “curtail collective action by silencing comments that… spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities.”

In extreme situations, the government has even turned off the entire internet in troubled areas.  For example, beginning in July 2009, Muslim Uighur riots killed nearly 200 people.  (The government’s repression of Uighurs will be discussed in a future post.)  As explained in a BBC news report, the authorities believed that internet communication had played a major role in organizing disturbances, and so they simply blocked access for all seven million internet users in the troubled Xinjiang region of Western China.  Service was not completely restored until ten months later.

In some ways, the term “Great Firewall” may be a bit misleading in that it conjures up an image of a single physical device or switch for controlling internet access.  The reality is far more complex.

While management of the physical backbone of the internet provides one means of control, much content blocking is done by software.  When China began its efforts to control internet access in the 1990s, it was a relatively backward country technologically.  How did it develop the highly sophisticated technology they needed to filter and manage key words so quickly?  They simply bought it from US companies, notably Sun Microsystems and Cisco.  (Like War, p. 98)

Government censors identify the terms which are forbidden, but they are often implemented by internet content providers.  “Blogging platforms, publishers [and] social media… are held liable for all content appearing on their websites, regardless of who created it… [As a result, most Chinese internet companies] employ teams of hundreds of in-house censors, who are generally far more vigilant and draconian than their government overseers, in order to protect their own backs.” (The Great Firewall, p. 72) 

Are most residents of mainland China outraged by this type of censorship?  Nope. “The regime’s efforts to control what makes it on to the… internet… have been so successful that most people are unaware of, or unconcerned by, the borders of their digital world.” (The Great Firewall, p. 71)  

The lack of reaction to censorship is just one more example of the profound differences between China and the US that make it so hard for us to understand each other.

Aging leaders and the risk of accidental war

World War I started with a series of accidents and miscalculations, when world leaders  “sleepwalked into the abyss…. None of these men understood the danger they faced.  None wanted the war they got.”  (Destined for War, p. xii, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Guns of August.)  And as a result of the bad choices made by a handful of national leaders, 37 million people died over the next five years.    

If World War III were fought with today’s sophisticated nuclear weapons, more than 37 million people could die within the first hour of war. And World War III could easily start in a similar way to World War I:  with a series of accidents and miscalculations, aided and abetted by the judgment of 70 and 80 year old leaders whose thinking is clouded by stress. 

When the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists updated their Doomsday Clock last January, they estimated that the planet is now just “two minutes to midnight, as close to the symbolic point of annihilation that the iconic Clock has been since 1953 at the height of the Cold War.” 

One possible flashpoint that could lead to war is in the South China Sea, where territorial disputes have increased the potential for minor confrontations to escalate into major ones.  About one third of global maritime shipping passes through the South China Sea, and China is one of several countries that claim the right to its rich resources of oil and natural gas.  Since 2014, China has been expanding its presence in the South China Sea by piling sand on top of reefs it claims hundreds of miles from its coast, and building airstrips, military structures, and port facilities on top of these newly created islands. 

In 2015, the US began conducting “freedom of navigation operations” to defend international shipping rights in the area.  This in turn has led to a number of close calls as US and Chinese ships assert their claims by “playing chicken” in the area.  For example, last April a Chinese destroyer narrowly avoided a collision with the USS Decatur, when it passed as little as 45 feet across its bow in the South China Sea.  If lives are lost in a collision like this, US and Chinese leaders in their 70s or 80s could be required to make some very quick decisions about how to react in an enormously stressful moment. 

In the Democratic presidential debate on September 12, Julian Castro was roundly booed when he tried to make a joke alluding to Joe Biden’s age and memory lapses.  The joke felt awkward and politically incorrect, but it opened the door to discussing a sensitive and important issue.  When 78 year old Bernie Sanders had a heart attack a few weeks later, even more voters began to talk openly about age.

By the time of the October 15 Democratic debate, all three leading candidates – Warren, Sanders, and Biden – were asked whether age would affect their performance.  To no one’s surprise, all three said don’t worry, I will be fine.

When Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1977 he was 52.  Now 95, he recently told a reporter:  “I hope there’s an age limit [on the Presidency]…  I don’t think that I could [have handled the challenges]… that I faced [as President] in foreign affairs… if I [had been] ‘just’ 80.”

This sensitive discussion is complicated by the fact that there are enormous individual differences in the effects of aging.  One person’s 80 is another’s 85, 75, or even 70. 

By the end of a four year term that ends in January 2025, Bernie Sanders would be 84, Joe Biden 83, Donald Trump 79, and Elizabeth Warren 76.  Three of the four would be the oldest US president to date, passing Ronald Reagan, who was a few weeks from his 78th birthday at the end of his second term in 1989. 

Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.  But some believe that he was experiencing the early effects of Alzheimer’s much earlier, while still president.  Reagan’s son Ron wrote in his memoir My Father at 100 that the president “might himself have suspected that all was not as it should be. As far back as August 1986 he had been alarmed to discover, while flying over the familiar canyons north of Los Angeles, that he could no longer summon their names.”

In China, President Xi Jinping is no spring chicken either; he will be 71 in January 2025.  In the middle of a crisis, he is also likely to consult with older advisors.  In China leaders “who step down continue to possess decisive and direct influence… far more influence than in… the United States… Over the past six decades, sixty-one people have exercised authority and influence from the pinnacle of political power in the People’s Republic of China. As of 2012, these leaders had an average age of 79 years and… one-in-five Chinese leaders has lived beyond 90.”  (Arunabh Ghosh, Chapter 6 in The China Questions, p. 52-55.)

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy was just 45 when faced with decisions that could have easily led to a nuclear war costing hundreds of millions of lives.  The Cuban Missile Crisis began when aerial reconnaissance photographs showed evidence of Soviet missile site construction in Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida.  Some of Kennedy’s advisors urged an immediate and forceful military response.  General Earle Wheeler, the Army’s Chief of Staff, recommended that the US should “go ahead with a surprise air attack, [a naval] blockade, and an invasion [of Cuba].” (Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F Kennedy, p. 153).  For thirteen days in October 1962, the world teetered on the edge of a global thermonuclear war when Kennedy decided to first establish a naval blockade of Cuba.  I was a teenager at the time, and can still remember the long lines at church and the widespread fear that we could all die at any moment.

Ultimately, war was averted when JFK made a secret agreement with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (aged 68) to remove US missiles from Turkey in return for removing Soviet missiles from Cuba.  Later, JFK told his brother Robert that he thought that the chances of a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis had been “between one-in-three and even.”  (Destined for War, p. xiii)  What would the odds of nuclear war have been if the negotiations were conducted between two older leaders who had just a little less energy, focus and/or impulse control? 

How much are we willing to risk even a mild cognitive impairment in our leaders, in a world in which North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel, Russia, China, and others possess nuclear weapons.  A world in which one aging leader who is tired, stressed, or confused can make a single mistake that could literally blow up the planet.

In my opinion, we would be wise to choose leaders who will be less than 80 or maybe even 70.  But what else can be done to reduce the risks of war, accidental or otherwise?

In a recent speech in Beijing, Harvard professor Graham Allison briefly described a few of the ideas that he and others have come up with in the years since he first wrote about Thucydides’s Trap.  Allison concluded that after several years of discussing how to avoid war with experts, none of the ideas he’s heard “seem compelling to me at this point.”  That’s one of the reasons Allison’s research group is crowdsourcing ideas about how to escape Thucydides’s Trap in a contest entitled “Do You Have a Grand Strategy to Meet the China Challenge?”  

You have until November 27 to submit your ideas.  Assuming no old people accidentally blow up the planet before then.