The single most important question for the future of US-China relations

In my previous post, I explained the clear consensus among policymakers that past US-China policy has failed.  But what should we do instead?

In my opinion, the United States’ future actions should revolve around the answer to a single question:

Realistically, which American interests are most critical and achievable?

The underlying assumption of this phrasing is that some American interests may seem critical, but realistically the chances of success are so low that it is unproductive to pursue them.  As the Rolling Stones put it: “You can’t always get what you want.” 

If we fail to take a new approach to US-China relations, the alternative could be disastrous.

As Christopher Layne, Professor of International Affairs at Texas A&M, wrote in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs:  “Over the past few years, multiple observers… have suggested that the United States and China might be, like the United Kingdom and Germany in 1914, ‘sleepwalking’ into war.”  Similarly, Andrew Bacevich, President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, wrote in the Boston Globe that “allowing US-China relations to devolve into a new Cold War will revive the danger of war on an apocalyptic scale.”

To implement a more selective approach to diplomacy, the US needs to start by re-assessing not just its most critical interests, but also which tactics are most likely to work with China, and which ones won’t.   Government decision makers need time to build consensus over what is most critical and what will work.  Their analysis should be shaped by three major considerations. 

1. The US must recognize and accept China’s growing power.

In a previous post, I explained why I believe that China will someday become the most powerful superpower in the world.  It may take 10 years or 50 years, but it’s coming. 

Whether you agree with my conclusion or not, there’s no denying that China is currently the number two superpower.

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner described the implications of China’s rise: “The starting point for a better approach [to foreign relations] is a new degree of humility about the United States’ ability to change China. Neither seeking to isolate and weaken it nor trying to transform it for the better should be the lodestar of US strategy in Asia. Washington should instead focus more on its own power and behavior, and the power and behavior of its allies and partners.”

To put this approach another way, before taking action anywhere in the world, US policy makers should first ask two simple questions:

1. How likely is it to work? 

Based on our experience in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and countless other actions, it is reasonable to be skeptical about military intervention.

2. Can we afford it?

The US National Debt is now approximately $27 trillion, or nearly 100% of GDP.  Given that Congress is considering several multi-trillion proposals to prop up the economy, this debt can only be expected to rise.  How much debt is too much?  Someday, the US may find out the hard way, but that’s another story.

This philosophy is closely aligned with the work of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank.  Major funding came last year from two political philanthropists who have rarely agreed on anything before:  right-wing billionaire Charles Koch and left wing billionaire George Soros contributed $500 million each.

The Quincy Institute’s core message was described by Deputy Director Stephen Wertheim in a recent interview with the Washington Post.  “US foreign policy should derive from a searching analysis of the interests of the American people. If US interests truly do warrant the significant projection of military power, then policymakers should act accordingly. The trouble is that now… armed dominance has become an end unto itself… to protect [our number one] position in the world.”

With a new more selective approach, according to Fareed Zakaria “The challenge for the United States, and the West at large, will be to define a tolerable range for China’s growing influence and accommodate it—so as to have credibility when Beijing’s actions cross the line.”

Then Vice President Joe Biden welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping on a US visit in 2015.

2. The US should work closely with China to maximize benefits in areas of common interest.  

Isolationism is not an option in today’s global economy.   As Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan explained in an article entitled “Competition without catastrophe”: “Global problems that are difficult enough to solve even when the United States and China work together will be impossible to solve if they fail to do so—climate change foremost among them, given that the United States and China are the two biggest polluters.”

The most important international treaty in this area was of course the 2015 Paris Agreement, signed by almost 200 countries, with a goal of holding warming well below 3.6°F (2°C).

As I explained in my post on Climate change and China, the US signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, then announced in 2017 that we would withdraw as soon as possible, which turned out to be November 4, 2020, the day after the presidential election.  Bloomberg News reported last week that President-Elect Biden has “said he would apply to rejoin on his first day as president and then ‘lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets.’”

The whole world is waiting to see how the US approach to climate change will play out in the coming months and years.  Hopefully, it can be accomplished in a more consistent way so businesses can plan and “don’t have this snap back and forth every time a new administration comes to town,” Marty Durbin, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute said last week.

3. The US should avoid pursuing policies which will be difficult or impossible to enforce.

When I wrote in this blog about the one million Muslim Uyghurs who have been sent to Chinese prison camps over the last few years for “political re-education,” I wondered how the US might help.  The US government has been wondering too.

In extremely rare show of bipartisan agreement, the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020,” passed 413-1 in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate.  It was signed into law by the President in June.  It calls for investigations by the FBI, State Department, Director of National Intelligence and others to identify the individuals who are responsible for these human rights abuses in Xinjiang, the westernmost province of China where most Uyghurs live. 

Possible sanctions against these individuals will include blocking their assets in the US and making them ineligible to come to the US.  They will also have to pay double to enter Shanghai’s Disneyland Park. 

Just kidding about the Disneyland part.  The point is that it is hard to put teeth into US punishments of Chinese citizens. 

But let’s step back for a moment.  Suppose the Chinese government passed a law announcing an investigation into civil rights abuses in the US.  Any individual found responsible would be unable to visit China.  How much do you think that law would change US behavior?  Not at all?  Good guess.  That’s also a good description on the amount of visible impact that the US law has had on China to date.

Of course, there is something to be said for objecting very publicly and strenuously to policies that violate human rights, even if our objections will have no obvious effect. Such objections can serve a moral and political purpose, and may even have a realpolitik impact.

But do you think it helped when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “The Chinese Communist Party’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang… ranks as the stain of the century.”  I don’t. 

US diplomats need to find exactly the right line to walk as they try to promote change in China.  Name-calling like Pompeo’s just risks making things worse.  As Quincy Institute researchers Michael Swaine, Jessica Lee and Rachel Odell wrote recently, “Treating China as an enemy… makes Beijing less willing to compromise in disputes and endangers bilateral cooperation on the most urgent of shared challenges, including climate change, pandemic disease, and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.”

Another complicating factor is the cultural gap between the US definition of human rights and China’s.  In a book on the East-West culture gap (p. 44), Gish Jen wrote that “The Mainland Chinese government… believes that… it is the people’s collective right to a livelihood that constitutes their ‘human rights’… [China argues that] when it arrests dissidents or suppresses public protests… it is protecting human rights against self-centered individuals.”

If the two countries cannot even agree on how to define human rights, how could they ever expect to agree on how to enforce them?

The current US response to the Uyghur problem reminds me of the old saying:  You can’t teach a pig to whistle.  It doesn’t work and it annoys the pig.

If the US adopts the approach described in this post, the most obvious place to start is, as Julian Gewirtz has written to work closely with China “to head off foreseeable disasters, such as the looming risk of cyberwar and the prospect of a conflict in the contested South China Sea. In these most volatile and dangerous areas, [the US and China] should negotiate redlines and effective mechanisms for crisis management and de-escalation.”

The failure of US policy towards China

A few weeks ago, the US House of Representatives’ Task Force on China released a report which called China “the greatest national and economic security challenge of this generation.”(Executive Summary, p. 1)

How did this happen?

In 1971, when President Richard Nixon announced that he was planning a visit to China, the world was stunned.  Nixon had built his career on fighting the “Red Menace,” and for decades had opposed diplomatic recognition of Mao’s “rogue regime.”   But Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger convinced him to try to drive a wedge between China and Russia, by discussing diplomatic and trade relations during this 1972 visit.

Over the next several decades, both Republican and Democratic administrations generally agreed on a liberal approach to diplomatic policy, based on the theory that “After being welcomed into the international political and economic order, China would play by the rules, open its markets, and privatize its economy. As the country became more prosperous, the Chinese government would respect the rights of its people and liberalize politically.”

The part of the theory about becoming prosperous proved to be correct.  As China began to slowly embrace some elements of the Western system, it raised 850 million people out of poverty, and became the number two economy in the world. 

But the other part of the theory — that China’s prosperity would lead them to become more liberal and play by the rules — didn’t.  It has taken nearly five decades for US policy makers to give up on this idea. 

Instead, economic success has tightened the authoritarian grip of the Chinese Communist Party.  The country shows no signs of adopting Western values.  In fact, China has explicitly rejected the Western model on numerous occasions.  For example, “an internal Communist Party memo known as Document No. 9 has explicitly warned against ‘Western constitutional democracy’ and other ‘universal values’ as stalking-horses meant to weaken, destabilize, and even break up China.”

As a senior Congressional staffer who would prefer to remain anonymous told me recently:  “For several decades, Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle spoke enthusiastically about the need to engage China to make China more like us.  But over the years, frustration among lawmakers has grown exponentially because the strategy has simply not worked.  Time and time again we’ve been faced with Chinese theft, underhandedness, and deception.  Even worse, China is using its economic and commercial influence to bring other countries into its orbit and to strengthen its economic and political power.”

One of the things that makes China so hard to deal with is the fact that, as former Wall Street Journal reporter Dinny McMahon put it in his book China’s Great Wall of Debt (p. 11), “China’s economy [is] incredibly opaque… [The government’s] control of information – be it the massaging of data [or] faking it outright – is not the root cause of China’s opacity.  It is merely a symptom.  What makes China so opaque is that its rules are fluid.” 

Why do so many major American companies try to operate in an environment in which the rules change constantly, Chinese companies violate contracts, and steal intellectual property worth hundreds of billions a year in what has been called the “greatest theft in human history”?  The answer is quite simple:    Because 1.4 billion people live there.  No other country in the world offers companies as much potential for revenue growth.

While many US corporations seem to care only about this quarter’s profits, policy makers take a much longer view.  And one of the very few things that most Democrats and Republicans agree on these days is that China poses a significant threat to the US. 

What should we do about it?  Clearly in the past we have misjudged China, so the first step toward an improved foreign policy is to establish a firm foundation of knowledge about China’s approach and intent.  As a country, we need to better understand the many complex interrelated dimensions of the US-China relationship including security, competition, trade, supply chains, artificial intelligence, emerging technologies, cyberwarfare, energy, human rights, and much much more.

How is the US doing when it comes to improved understanding of China?  Badly. 

A few months ago, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence published the results of a two year study of China based on hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of reviews of analyst reports.  The quick bottom line, as summarized in a Foreign Affairs article by the Committee’s Chair, is that “What we found was unsettling. Our nation’s intelligence agencies are not ready—not by a long shot.”  According to a redacted summary of their final report, the committee offered 100 classified recommendations and 36 public ones. 

But, if one goes by the statements of our politicians, our current goal seems to be, as US Secretary of State Pompeo put it in a speech last year:  “the United States and its allies must keep China in ‘its proper place.’”  In a 2020 Foreign Affairs article Fareed Zakaria described this as “a patronizing statement that would surely infuriate any Chinese citizen.”

Things are not much better on the other side of the Pacific. Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, said a few months ago “that the United States is ‘a far cry from the major power it used to be,’ and its leaders are “working to suppress China because they fear China’s growth.’”  Similarly, the state-backed newspaper Ta Kung Pao recently proclaimed that“America is moving from ‘declining’ to ‘declining faster.’”

On the plus side, at least the rhetoric has been dialed down since the days when Mao Zedong led China from 1949 to 1976. For example, in a speech about nuclear war in 1957, Mao famously said “If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.”

Fortunately, since then, Chinese policy has completed “a remarkable shift from a radical agenda of revolution to a conservative concern for stability.” 

So, for those who see every glass as half full, there is some good news:  the Chinese Communist Partyviews Washington “as an obstacle to its goals of preserving its own rule and gaining regional dominance, but it does not believe that the United States or its system of government has to be defeated in order to achieve these aims.”

As Fareed Zakaria summed it up:  “Beijing’s elites know that their country has prospered in a stable, open world. They do not want to destroy that world.”

We don’t either, so that’s a start.  In my next post, I’ll provide a five minute review of what experts say about how a better approach to US-China relations could be formulated in the future.

From Gucci to mud huts: China’s income inequality

A Chinese billionaire recently commissioned a team of jewelers to design the most expensive pandemic fashion accessory in the world:  the $1.5 million N95 mask shown below.  It may feel a little heavy since it weighs about 100 times as much as a standard surgical mask.  That could be because it includes the 250 grams of 18-carat gold, or maybe it’s the 3,600 black and white diamonds.   But the anonymous buyer was not thinking about practicality; he or she was thinking about style.  I’d feel a little silly wearing it to a party, but then I can’t remember the last party of billionaires that I was invited to.

This mask could be an extreme example of a trend Blomberg News reported a few weeks ago:  “Bored after months of strict social distancing measures and unable to vacation overseas, wealthy Chinese consumers are seeking comfort in retail therapy.”

A $1.5 million Covid mask

According to a recent report in Forbes, about one out of every five billionaires on the planet now lives in China.   To be exact, there are 455 billionaires in mainland China and Hong Kong.  This is 22% of the total 2,089 billionaires worldwide, a percentage exceeded only by the 29% in the US.

That’s in addition to China’s 4,400,000 millionaires.  Here too, the US is still ahead with 18,600,000 millionaires according to a Credit Suisse report.

But the Chinese are catching up.  The same report notes that another way to measure comparative wealth is to look at how many of the “top 10% of the world’s richest people” live in each country.   (If you are wondering whether you qualify, according to Credit Suisse’s definition, you need $109,430 or more in personal savings.)  By that criterion, “The number of wealthy Chinese people has overtaken the number of rich Americans for the first time.”

That’s one of the reasons that some experts describe China as the future “driving force of luxury brands.” According to Gartner, the top ten luxury brands in China are, in order:  Louis Vuitton, Bulgari, Cartier, Gucci, Montblanc, Coach, Tiffany, Piaget, Burberry, and Chow Tai Fook.  If you’re like me, you recognize the names of the first nine brands, but have never before heard of the last.  Chow Tai Fook is a jeweler based in China.  It represents the start of another emerging trend:  the number of luxury brands based in China is expected to grow.   

For a picture of the other end of China’s wealth spectrum, consider the story of “Ice Boy” who became an internet sensation two years ago after the picture below went viral.  It was taken by his teacher after the student arrived at school on a day when the temperature was 16 degrees F, and he had walked more than an hour to school. 

At the time, the picture was taken, “Ice Boy” lived in a mud hut with his grandmother.  He is among the 60 million “left behind children” in rural China, whose parents moved to cities to get jobs, and can visit home only once or twice a year.  The internet uproar that resulted from the picture led to numerous newspaper articles, and to charitable and government contributions to help “Ice Boy” and his classmates. 

“Ice Boy”

By the following year, according to a Washington Post follow-up story entitled “China’s ‘Ice Boy’ Has a New Home” he had moved to a two story home closer to school.   The government also built a new school with heaters in each class, and a dormitory “which has new thick quilts and mattresses for the 73 students who live there [during the school week] … They are [also] given medicine to prevent frostbite.”

It is always heart-warming to see the outpouring of human concern and help for individual cases like this, but as one Chinese social media commenter put it, at the end of the day “helping one is only helping one.”

In my previous post, I described how China has lifted 850 million people from extreme poverty over the last few decades.  But one of the side-effects has been a substantial increase in the gap between rich and poor.  As the International Monetary Fund put it, “Income inequality in China increased sharply from the early 1980s [when Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms  began to have an effect] and rendered China among the most unequal countries in the world by 2013.”  Since then, China has slowly reduced inequality, but it still has a long way to go.

The best way to compare China’s income equality to other countries is to look at their Gini coefficients, figures which varies from 0 for a totally equal economy where everyone earns exactly the same amount, to 1where a single individual has all the wealth.  (For the mathematicians in the audience – including my brother – here’s how it is computed:   “The Gini coefficient is equal to the area below the line of perfect equality… minus the area below the Lorenz curve, divided by the area below the line of perfect equality.”  Have you got that?)

According to a 2020 comparison of the Gini coefficients of 172 countries, China is toward the middle of the list, more equal than the US (ranked the fourth most unequal country in the world in this list), but less equal than such countries as France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium and Japan.  (An aside — that same article pointed out that worldwide inequality has been growing for the last 200 years: “In 1820, the Gini coefficient was 0.50 and in 1980 and 1992, the figure was 0.657.”)  In short, at this time “the huge inequality in China does not fit into the title of socialist country and its socialist extent is far less than the European’s, [and] even inferior to typical capitalist countries.”

The Chinese government has repeatedly stated its goal of reducing this embarrassingly non-Communist income gap.  For example, one of the goals of its Twelfth Five Year Plan in 2011 was “speeding up the formation of a reasonable pattern of income distribution . . ., and reversing the widening income gap as soon as possible.” In 2016, the Thirteenth Five Year Plan repeated this goal and its intent to “eradicate rural poverty” by this year, 2020.

Eradicate rural poverty?  How could a country with 1.3 billion people verify that every single one of its rural residents had been lifted above the poverty line?  Especially since, as one review put it:  “Estimating the number of people in poverty in China is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.. There’s no one standard definition of poverty across all of China.” 

That’s not stopping loyal Communist Party members from trying.  For example, according to a 2020 BBC article, when Jiangsu province reported its latest statistics to Beijing, it claimed that out of its 80 million plus residents, only 17 were still living in poverty.  The government even offered details on these unfortunate few: “The 17 still living below the poverty standard are all capable of working, according to authorities who spoke to Chinese media, although four ‘have diseases.’”  The BBC article also quoted a social media user on Weibo – China’s equivalent of Twitter – who asked skeptically “How could they be so accurate?”

Well, one way bureaucrats meet their “poverty targets [is] administratively: certain areas have stopped logging residents as ‘impoverished’ since the start of the year.”

2020 has proven to be an unfortunate target date for this long running initiative, since it could easily be “undermined by the coronavirus outbreak that has shaken the world’s second largest economy.”  But, as Kerry Brown, Professor of Chinese Studies at London’s King College, put it, you can be sure that “somehow or other, this [poverty] target will be declared to have been achieved.” 

China has 90 million Party members whose job is to make it succeed, even if that means an occasional fudged figure or two.  Or maybe three.  So you can be sure there will be a “mission accomplished: rural poverty eradicated” celebration no later next July at the 2021 centenary celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

In an excellent article published a few months ago entitled “Inside China’s race to beat poverty” the Financial Times noted that “the true level of poverty may be impossible to gauge in a system not designed to admit mistakes.”  But as the same article also noted, this should not overshadow the fact that hundreds of millions of Chinese are much better off economically than they were a few decades ago:  “the rapid rate of [poverty] alleviation is real.”

Criminal “justice” in China

Last March, senior Communist Party official Ren Zhiqiang criticized President Xi Jinping’s handling of the coronavirus in Wuhan.  Writing in his social media account to tens of millions of followers, Ren said he hoped the party would “wake up from ignorance” and oust the leaders getting in its way. “I see not an emperor standing there exhibiting his new clothes,” he went on, “but a clown who stripped naked and insisted on continuing to be an emperor.”

Soon after calling Mr. Xi a clown, Mr. Ren disappeared.  A few weeks later, an official statement was released reporting that he was being investigated, but the announcement “did not provide Mr. Ren’s whereabouts, give details about the status of his case or make mention of [his social media post].” 

China experts assumed that Ren had fallen victim to “shuanggui,” a system which NYU Law Professor Jerome Cohen described as allowing officials “to indefinitely confine Party members incommunicado in secret… facilities. There, for as much as a year or two, the detained members have undergone investigation and have been interrogated [including]… torture… until their captors decided what to do with them…  So feared has been this secret process of indeterminate length that some who have been summoned have committed suicide rather than endure it.”

Note that the harsh realities of shuanggui apply only to the 92 million members of the Communist Party.  As Richard McGregor has noted in his book The Party (p 137)  “Senior Party members… cannot be arrested by civilian law enforcement bodies… until… allegations have been investigated by the Party first.”

In Mr. Ren’s case, the initial investigation was completed in July.  He was expelled from the Communist Party for “‘smearing the party and country’s image’ and resisting the party’s investigation into him — phrasing that suggests he has refused to admit any wrongdoing…”

Next, Mr. Ren will almost certainly be sent to the criminal justice system for trial. 

The good news about China’s criminal justice system is that there is one.  When Mao Zedong was in power (1949 – 1978), “the legal system was attacked as a counter-revolutionary institution and the concept of law itself was not accepted. Courts were closed [and] law schools were shut down.”  But since Mao’s death there has been a gradual attempt to create a fair and transparent criminal justice system.  For example, in 2012, the national Criminal Procedure Law was revised to ban the use of illegally obtained evidence in trials.  Limits were also set on how long the police can detain civilian suspects:  three to 30 days, depending on the type of offense. 

The bad news is that, according to Professor Cohen, the police have “demonstrate[d] their mastery of the art of distorting legislative attempts to curb their arbitrary powers…  they routinely allow themselves 30 days whenever they choose, regardless of the circumstances of the case.”

In addition, Cohen continued, for cases involving national security, terrorism or bribery, police frequently add “‘residential surveillance’ in a police-designated incommunicado location on suspects for up to six months… before deciding whether to treat them in accordance with the detention time limits prescribed for ordinary criminal cases…  in some cases that they regard as unusually important or difficult, [police] may repeat the initial extraordinary six-month detention.”    

This is one of many examples of the gap in China between the theory of law and its practice.  Another can be seen the fact that the practice of “re-education through labor” was banned in 2013.  For the half-century or so before that “it had empowered the police, without meaningful opportunity for defense or review by other official agencies, to detain people in the equivalent of a prison or a labor camp.”  However, the one million Muslim Uighurs and others who are currently being held in labor camps know that in fact “re-education through labor” is still very much alive and well.

So, put it all together, and Mr. Ren’s future prospects are not looking bright. The evidence collected in his investigation will next be turned over to civilian prosecutors who will decide whether the evidence is sufficient to proceed to trial. 

When it goes to trial, there will be no jury, no right to remain silent, and there may not even be a defense lawyer.  A panel of judges will ask all the questions. According to a website for defense lawyers compiled by International Bridges to Justice “Witness statements are merely read aloud in court, depriving either the prosecution or the defense of the opportunity of cross-examination.”  Defense lawyers “are rarely allowed by police to collect evidence or to conduct any other activities that would help [them] develop a solid defense case.”

Altogether, “Lawyers often play a small role in Chinese trials… [they] rarely dispute anything that the prosecutor alleges against the defendant or actually defend the client…” Their role is “usually limited to asking for more lenient sentences…”

The result of all this is that, as noted in an article entitled “China’s deeply flawed criminal justice system,” the conviction rate in China’s criminal courts is 99.9%.

With a rate that high, you might guess that not everyone who is convicted in China is actually guilty.  Of course you’d be right, but you’d have a tough time proving it.

In one highly publicized case, a man confessed under torture to killing his wife and was sent to prison.  Eleven years later she showed up alive.  This man was released, but in a second well known case, the evidence of innocence came too late.  In 1995, 21 year old Nie Shubin was convicted of murder, then executed.  His family fought for years to clear his name, to no effect.  Finally, in 2005 another man admitted that he had committed the crime.  But it still took another 11 years after that for lawyers, journalists, and Nie’s family to officially clear his name. 

Like most red blooded Americans, I am appalled by these examples.  This criminal justice system clearly violates the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights:  “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

Many US politicians have taken up this cause, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who recently said that: “We, the freedom-loving nations of the world, must induce China to change …” 

Good luck with that.

As I’ve been emphasizing since the first post in this blog, cultural differences often lead Chinese citizens to see the same facts in a very different way from Americans.

As Harvard Professor Graham Allison has noted “Chinese culture does not celebrate American-style individualism… Indeed, the Chinese term for ‘individualism’—gerenzhuyi—suggests a selfish preoccupation with oneself over one’s community…  For China, order is the highest value, and harmony results from a hierarchy in which participants obey Confucius’ first imperative: Know thy place… China’s equivalent of ‘give me liberty or give me death’ would be ‘give me a harmonious community or give me death.’”

In mainland China, most citizens seem to care less about liberty than about nationalism and the economy.  In their view, it is “social stability… [that] enabled China to lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in a mere few decades, generate huge economic growth, and peacefully re-establish China as a major power among nations.”  In addition, “there have been intense campaigns against what have been condemned as ‘Western’ or ‘universal’ legal values, such as… judicial independence, the separation of powers, [and] political and civil rights.”   

As China becomes more powerful, the US would be well advised to put less effort into exhorting Chinese politicians to think and act like Americans, and more effort into protecting world peace.  Once the State Department has world peace under control, then they can decide whether to encourage Chinese citizens to think and act more like Americans.

Climate change and China

Were you as alarmed as I was by the fact that much of Siberia, north of the Arctic Circle, just had a six month heat wave?  It was capped by a record high temperature over 100°F, and accompanied by record wildfires.  According to a recent Washington Post article, a team of “climate researchers from multiple institutions in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom [concluded this] would have been virtually impossible without human-induced global warming.”

If current trends continue, the Earth’s average temperature will increase somewhere between 2.5 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.  Which, I guess, should not be surprising since “97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree [that] climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.”   

Unless we change our greenhouse gas emitting ways, our children and grandchildren will continue to see ever more damaging effects from climate change, including stronger and more intense hurricanes, more droughts and heat waves, more frequent wildfires, and sea levels rising 1-8 feet by the year 2100, threatening hundreds of millions of people who live in coastal areas.

So what is China doing about it?  More than you might think, and not nearly enough.

What Manhattan could look like as a result of rising sea levels from global warming.

“Since coming to power in 2013, President Xi Jinping has been calling on his countrymen to ‘build an ecological civilization’…  [and] the Chinese government has pledged more than $1 trillion dollars in air, water, and soil cleanup plans… [In the seven years since], Beijing has invested billions of dollars in green energy, including wind and solar, and is one of the largest markets for wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles. It also exports two-thirds of the world’s installed solar cells.” 

The best way to evaluate China’s impact is to compare their results to the goals for international progress which were negotiated by representatives of 196 countries at the meeting that led to the signing of the Paris Agreement. The goals of this treaty included “holding warming well below 3.6°F (2°C), and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 2.7°F (1.5°C)” over pre-industrial levels.

To date, 189 parties have signed the Paris Agreement including every country on the planet large enough to have an impact, except Iran and Turkey.  Oh yeah, you can put an asterisk next to the United States, since we did sign, but announced in 2017 that we plan to withdraw.  Advance notice is required under the terms of the agreement, so technically the US cannot withdraw until November 4, 2020, which ironically is one day after the next US Presidential election.

The Climate Action Tracker measures and evaluates “climate change mitigation commitments” to date by 32 countries which are responsible for about 80% of the planet’s emissions. Based on commitments to date, each country is categorized into one of six groups.  The group that has actually made the necessary commitments to meet Paris Agreement goals is called “role model” group. Unfortunately, this is a bit theoretical, since not a single one of these 32 countries can be classified as a role model. 

China’s results were most recently classified in the group that ranks 5th out of 6 with a “highly insufficient” response,  (The US results were even worse.  We were classified in the lowest category in this report:  “critically insufficient.”)    

China’s activities have been contradictory.  It is “both the greenest [country] in the world, [and] also the most polluting. It has more wind and solar power than anybody else, yet it is also the world’s biggest builder of new coal plants.”  

The most effective of Beijing’s green initiatives can be seen in its approach to solar power. China encouraged the development of this infant industry even before Xi Jinping made his first “ecological civilization” speech by offering a variety of financial incentives to develop solar power, including loan discounts and an above-market price for electricity delivered to the grid. They also succeeded in attracting investment from other countries, including California venture capital. 

The result was that “by the 2010s, China had a huge domestic market for solar panels and dominated the world market. It also brought the price of panels down far enough to stimulate the growth of solar energy markets around the world… [Then] with business booming, China began to reduce its subsidies to the solar industry in 2014.”

The industry has continued to grow.  As of 2018, “China [had] more solar energy capacity than any other country in the world, at a gargantuan 130 gigawatts [billion watts]. If it were all generating electricity at once, it could power the whole of the UK several times over.”

According to a study published last year, “344 Chinese cities… have solar systems producing energy at lower prices than the grid, without any subsidies.”  Experts say that “China is also driving down solar prices around the world thanks to the scale of production and learning curve effects.”   To put it another way, “in effect, China seeded the global green energy industry by lowering initial costs and creating artificial demand.”

As other countries turn to solar power, Chinese companies have also gained a huge competitive advantage in getting contracts to help build their solar farms, including the world’s largest, the Noor Complex Solar Power Plant in Morocco.  The first stages went online in 2016, and it will be fully completed in the near future.  When finished, it will “be the size of 3,500 football fields [and] produce enough electricity to power a city the size of Prague, or twice the size of Marrakesh.”

As a result of this type of progress, China is “in a very influential position as the world’s renewable energy superpower,” according to a report by the Global Commission on the Geopolitics of Energy Transformation and the International Renewable Energy Agency. 

So what does all this mean for US-China relations?  Well, you don’t have to be a regular reader of this blog to know that Americans have become increasingly aware of China’s opposition to US interests in many different areas.  But if there is one single goal that China and the US should be able to agree on, it is reducing the effects of global warming.  After all, we share the same planet, and if rising seas continue to threaten New York, they will also threaten Shanghai.

And since “China is simultaneously the world’s largest consumer of coal and the largest developer of renewable energy… the choice it makes, domestically and abroad, between the technology of the past versus the renewable future will have a lasting effect on the world’s ability to limit warming to 2.7˚F.”

This impact was underlined at a UN Climate Change conference in Madrid last year.  As the Washington Post summed it up:  “For all the good intentions of the governments gathered in Madrid, a humbling reality hangs over the latest climate change conference. The effectiveness of what is agreed and done will ultimately stand or fall on the actions of just one country: China.”

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.”

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.

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.