Overcoming the lack of trust between China and the US

We don’t trust China, and they don’t trust us.  Which makes it very difficult to find solutions to diplomatic disputes.  Our deep mutual suspicion is based on a history of misunderstandings and broken agreements between the two most powerful countries on Earth. 

Last year, I wrote a post describing seven cultural differences that complicate US-Chinese relations, including “the relativity of truth.”  The key to understanding this difference was summarized by Robert Conrad in his book Culture Hacks (p. 166):  “China has one set of [ethical] rules for conduct within the extended family or clan group and a much different set of rules for those outside of the group.” 

One area where it is particularly easy to see the effects of this cultural difference is in education.  For example:

  • Chinese students in the US “might think it’s acceptable to collaborate on homework or to find the answers to a test online in advance… They think it’s a gray area, but in the U.S. it’s [not].”
  • A Chinese company that helps students apply to US colleges estimated that “90 percent of recommendation letters and 70 percent of college essays submitted by Chinese students are fraudulent.”
  • Some Chinese who want to study in the US but whose English is weak hire other people to take the TOEFL English proficiency exam for them.
  • Problems with cheating on the Chinese university entrance exam, known as the Gaokao, have gotten so out of hand that it is now a criminal offense punishable with a seven year jail sentence.”

Differences in the definition of truth that are troublesome in the classroom become much more serious when they are involved in foreign policy.  For example, consider what happened when  China was accepted as a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001. 

While negotiations were underway, both sides saw this as a win-win.

Hu Jintao, then President of China, said China wanted “access to new trading partners… raising prospects for improved living standards domestically and giving China a seat at the table in a globalizing world… This “major strategic decision [was taken] to push forward China’s reform and opening-up.”

On the US side, President Clinton seemed even more enthusiastic in describing this as “an agreement which will open China’s markets to American products made on American soil.”  He went on to predict the agreement would lead to “a China that is more open to our products and more respectful of the rule of law at home and abroad.” 

How did that turn out for us? 

Not well, according to most experts.  In 2018, the White House issued a report with the ominous title “How China’s Economic Aggression Threatens the Technologies and Intellectual Property of the United States and the World.”  It documented China’s many violations of WTO rules, including “physical theft, cyber-espionage, evasion of U.S. export control laws, counterfeiting, [forcing] technology transfer from foreign companies, typically in exchange for limited access to the Chinese market… and talent recruitment of business, finance, science, and technology experts.” (page 2)

I summarized some of the effects of this cheating four years ago in one of the first posts in this blog:  “The biggest theft in human history.”  The title was based on a quote from the director of the US National Security agency describing how China steals as much as $600 billion per year by ignoring international law protecting patents and trademarks.

For example, according to former FBI special agent Kevin Brock, in America, “we pay for software licenses, the lifeblood of today’s economy.  In China, 99 percent of Microsoft licenses are counterfeit and unpaid for.”  The result, he continued is that since China “didn’t have to recover the considerable sunk costs of R&D or pay for valuable products, [they] could undercut prices and build massive trade imbalances in their favor.”

Another example of diplomatic deception can be seen in one of the key flashpoints of the relationship: the South China Sea.  Since 2014, China has been building artificial islands on top of rocks and reefs, identifying them as Chinese territory, and using them to defend its broad claims over international shipping waters.

When President Obama and Xi Jinping held a summit in 2015, Xi stood in the Rose Garden and said: “Construction activities that China [is] undertaking in the… Nansha Islands do not target or impact any country, and China does not intend to pursue militarization.”

Again, that’s not how things turned out.  “China has fully militarized at least three of the islands it built in the disputed South China Sea, arming them with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems, laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets.”

The result of these and many similar experiences is that there is a “long-running view formed over many generations among American officials… [that China] is not only opaque but also has zero moral compunction about actively lying to foreigners whenever its political needs so dictate.” (Paul Rudd, The Avoidable War, Kindle loc 1141)

So, from our perspective, it’s easy to see why the US doesn’t trust China.  But why don’t they trust us?

“Americans typically believe,” Rudd also wrote in his book (Kindle loc 999), “that [our] approach to China has been driven by high ideals in defense of democracy, free trade, and the integrity of the global rules-based order.”  But the Chinese government sees things differently.   According to Stanford researcher Thomas Fingar, they have “decided that we’re out to get them, and that we will not tolerate China’s rise to a point at which it could be a peer competitor, let alone displace us as king of the mountain.”  China also believes, according to the South China Morning Post, that “the US is manipulating the concept of national security to conceal its true agenda of containing China’s rise… [and] it is the US that is provoking military tensions in Asia, particularly over Taiwan.”

Chinese diplomats often point to the US hypocrisy which justifies such wars as Iraq and Afghanistan efforts to build democracy while we simultaneously embrace dictatorships which are allies, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey.  (You have to admit, they’ve got a point on that one.)

As Xi Jinping summarized this view in a speech last March “Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented grave challenges to our nation’s development.”

Given this fundamental mutual mistrust, what can be done to begin to thaw relations between the countries?

In the 1980s, when President Reagan was negotiating arms reduction with the Soviet Union, he frequently quoted the old Russian proverb:  “Trust but verify.”  In 2013, when US Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated to a treaty to destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, he went a step further and said that “President Reagan’s old adage about ‘trust but verify’… is in need of an update. And we have committed here to a standard here that says ‘verify and verify.’”

That is exactly the approach that the US and China could use today.  For now the diplomatic motto in both countries could be:  don’t even try to trust each other.  It won’t work.  But do engage in diplomatic discussions in areas of mutual interest such as climate change, pandemics, terrorism, and the global economy.  And when you reach an agreement, make sure that it can and will be verified. 

In February, US-China relations may have hit a new low when “a 200-foot-tall Chinese airship, which U.S. officials said was a spy balloon designed for eavesdropping, traversed the U.S. for several days before it was shot down by a U.S. fighter jet.” 

This led US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a planned visit to Beijing.  Even worse “more than 100 communication channels between different government ministries and agencies are dormant, depriving each side of mechanisms that can defuse smaller disagreements and disputes.”

As Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale’s China Center put it: “If a balloon can derail this relationship the way it did so swiftly, it just tells you how damaged and distrustful the two nations are of this relationship.”

But there is hope.  Last week at the G7 meetings, President Biden predicted that tensions with China are going to “begin to thaw very shortly.”   Let’s hope he’s right. 

Is war over Taiwan inevitable?

There is an enormous amount of controversy about if and when China will invade Taiwan. “In one recent poll… of top specialists on China… 63 percent of respondents believed an invasion to be ‘possible within the next 10 years.’”  Note that this survey did not ask whether it was probable, just whether it was possible.  So, by implication, over a third of this group of experts (the remaining 37%) thought that invasion was NOT POSSIBLE in the next decade.

While many experts do think an invasion is coming, they disagree strongly about when.  At one extreme, Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan was in the headlines a few months ago when he a released a memo arguing “that China cannot be deterred from invading Taiwan.  ‘My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.’”   At the other extreme, many point to 2049 as the final deadline, since it’s the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Revolution.   

Still, if current threats to world-wide peace could be ranked, Taiwan would probably be #2, just behind the Ukraine.  The basic issues of the conflict have remained the same since I wrote my 2021 post on “The Taiwan Conundrum.” What’s changed in the last two years is that the temperature has gone up.

A Taiwan-China war is harder to predict than most conflicts for two reasons.  The first is the lack of transparency into Chinese politics, making it hard to define the gap between what Chinese politicians say, and what they may actually do.  The second is the United States’ longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity.” Under this purposely vague policy, the US strongly supports Taiwan both politically and militarily, but does not guarantee that it will help defend Taiwan if it is attacked.

In contrast, there can be no doubt about China’s long-term intentions.  At the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party last October, the 2,300 delegates voted to add these words to the Party Constitution: “resolving the Taiwan issue and achieving the complete reunification of the motherland is a historical task to which the Chinese Communist Party will never relent.”

So the key question is not about China’s goal, but rather about whether it will lead to war.  Some Taiwanese political parties favor a peaceful re-unification with the mainland.  However, their popularity declined dramatically a few years ago, after Hong Kong’s freedoms were slashed when the island was forcefully taken over by Beijing. 

Still, as Kevin Rudd wrote in his excellent book The Avoidable War (Kindle loc 1318):  “Xi’s objective is to secure China’s territorial claims in… Taiwan without ever having to fire a shot.”  Similarly, a recent CNN article put it this way: “The Chinese are going to do everything they can… to avoid a military conflict with anybody… To challenge the United States for global dominance, they’ll use industrial and economic power instead of military force.”

Let’s hope CNN is right on this one, because if the US and China ever do go to war, the effects would fall somewhere between disastrous and the end of the world.

In January, The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a fascinating white paper with the ominous title The First Battle of the Next War.  It summarizes the results of 24 elaborate war games that simulated a Chinese amphibious assault of Taiwan, with the US and Japan coming to its defense.  The headline conclusion was “China is unlikely to succeed in an invasion of Taiwan in 2026.” (p. 83)  But the cost is extremely high to both sides.  China would suffer tens of thousands of casualties, plus similar numbers of prisoners of war, and its navy would be left “in shambles.” (p. 3)

Taiwan would suffer even more.  “While Taiwan’s military [would be] unbroken, it [would be] severely degraded and left to defend a damaged economy on an island without electricity and basic services.” (p. 83) As a result, Taiwan’s economy would be crippled for years.

Finally, the report concluded, “The United States might win a pyrrhic victory, suffering more in the long run than the ‘defeated’ Chinese… In three weeks, the US would suffer about half as many casualties as it did in 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.” (p. 4)  We would also lose dozens of ships and hundreds of aircraft. 

Given that both sides would prefer not to fight, at least in the next few years, what could spark a US-China war?  Grandstanding politicians.  For the most prominent recent example, see the post I wrote last year entitled “The Sheer Stupidity of Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.”  In August, while still Speaker of the House of Representatives, Pelosi became the first speaker to visit Taiwan since Newt Gingrich toured the island in 1997.  In a Washington Post op-ed, Pelosi described the purpose of her visit as “reaffirming that the freedoms of Taiwan — and all democracies — must be respected.”

China considered this an insulting and hostile act, and responded by “holding its largest military drills in decades and, in a first, sending a missile over the island.”  The Taiwanese public weren’t exactly grateful for the trip, they were scared by it.  Taiwanese surveys conducted soon after the visit found that “respondents overwhelmingly believed that Pelosi’s trip and the large-scale People’s Liberation Army exercises created a serious threat to Taiwan.”  In another sign of trouble, “Goldman Sachs’ Cross-Strait Risk Index, which gauges the intensity of geopolitical risk between Taiwan and mainland China, hit a record high last August after… Pelosi’s trip.”

So what have American politicians learned from this fiasco?  Nada.  Not to be outdone, current House Speaker Kevin McCarthy visited with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Los Angeles on April 5.  Which was followed by another increase in Chinese military drills around Taiwan.

All this activity has increased the chances of accidental war.  According to Taiwanese professor Chieh Chung, “Chinese air and naval forces have occasionally acted in a more provocative manner — such as with aggressive midair maneuvers that force Taiwanese fighter jets to jockey for advantage — ‘and there is no cross-strait mechanism or communication channel on how to avoid military accidents.’” 

Recent military exercises around Taiwan are increasing the risk of accidental war.

Even worse, according to classified documents recently leaked by Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira, “China’s intensifying military activity around Taiwan is undermining the intelligence community’s ability to accurately track what is normal and what is escalatory, raising the risk of accidents and miscalculation.”

As Paul Rudd, Australia’s ambassador to the US, put it in The Avoidable War, it seems “less and less a question of if Beijing will have to handle the operational and diplomatic consequences of an unintended collision between Chinese, American, or Japanese military vessels or aircraft in the future, but when.” (Kindle loc 5809)

As explained in my post “Avoiding a US-China war,” Rudd’s book contains numerous detailed suggestions to reduce the risk of war over Taiwan, accidental or intentional.  “First, the United States and China must both develop a clear understanding of the other’s irreducible strategic redlines in order to help prevent conflict through miscalculation,” Rudd wrote.  Then China and the US should “channel the burden of strategic rivalry into a competitive race to enhance their military, economic, and technological capabilities.”

This great power rivalry is unlike any in past history, and not just because of the ultimate threat of nuclear war.  As Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times a few weeks ago: “Neither China nor America has ever had a rival quite like the other… [the two] nations have become as economically intertwined as the strands of a DNA molecule.”

But these days, he continued “Relations between our two countries have soured so badly, so quickly… that we’re now like two giant gorillas looking at each other through a pinhole. Nothing good will come from this… [In fact], the smallest misstep by either side could ignite a U.S.-China war that would make Ukraine look like a neighborhood dust-up.”

The hawkish statements now increasing in both China and in the US certainly aren’t helping.  In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the fear of war can actually increase its likelihood.  As one Rand consultant put it, “An exaggerated sense of danger can exacerbate tensions and aggravate perceptions of hostile intent.”  What we need is more communication, better communication, and a sense of calm.

As to the question of inevitability, I agree with Friedman’s conclusion: “I don’t buy the argument that we are destined for war. I believe that we are doomed to compete with each other, doomed to cooperate with each other and doomed to find some way to balance the two. Otherwise we are both going to have a very bad 21st century.”

Xi Jinping – A five minute bio

Xi Jinping has been called “the most powerful person in the world” by Forbes Magazine. Kevin Rudd, Australia’s ambassador to the US and the author of “The Avoidable War” put it this way:  “Mr. Xi has in effect become the ‘Chairman of everything’ across the machinery of the [Chinese] state, the party and the military.” 

As another expert said in “The Prince,” a recent series of podcasts on Xi’s life:  “The future of China’s 1.4 billion people, and maybe world peace, hinge on the mind of one man.” 

When that one man was born in 1953, his father Xi Zhongxun was China’s propaganda minister.  Like almost all senior leaders in China at that time, Xi’s father had fought under Mao Zedong in the Chinese Revolution.  That gave the younger Xi a unique privileged position as a potential leader of the next generation, what the Chinese call a “princeling.”  He lived in an affluent private community, and went to a school where students “compared one another on the basis of whose father had a higher rank [and] whose father rode in a better car.” 

All that began to change when Xi was nine, and his father was accused of supporting a novel about the Chinese revolution that was not sufficiently enthusiastic about Mao’s role.  The elder Xi was purged from senior leadership and sent to manage a tractor factory hundreds of miles away from his four children.

Four years later, when Xi was 13, life got worse again at the start of China’s “Cultural Revolution” to root out intellectuals and enemies of the people who threatened the socialist revolution.  Mao said that many senior leaders and intellectuals had become bourgeois, and he urged China’s students to rise up against them.  Which they did, with a vengeance.

Many students formed groups of Red Guards to enforce Mao’s wishes by attacking everyone they suspected for any reason, no matter how flimsy.  They gleefully shut down schools and  attacked first their professors and personal enemies, and later attacked other competing Red Guard groups.  It was a dream come true for teenaged bullies and anyone with a grudge.  The military stood aside and it seemed there were no longer any adults in charge. 

Hundreds of thousands of people, or maybe millions, were killed in the ensuing chaos; no one will ever know the true death toll.  Countless others, including Xi Jinping’s father, were publicly beaten, tortured and humiliated in “struggle sessions” in which they were forced to describe their crimes, real and imagined, while large crowds shouted slogans and taunted them.

During the Cultural Revolution, Xi Jinping’s father was beaten, tortured, and humiliated in a series of “struggle sessions” after he was purged by Mao. In this photo, a sign covered with slogans was hung around his neck, while a large crowd taunted him for hours for such imagined crimes as owning a secret radio and “having gazed at West Berlin through binoculars during a visit to East Germany years earlier.” 

Xi Jinping’s entire family was targeted so frequently that, according to the New York Times, one of his sisters committed suicide.  Xi himself became the target of struggle sessions with crowds shouting ‘Down with Xi Jinping!’  His own mother was sometimes required to attend and when the crowd “yelled, his mother was forced to raise her arm and shout the slogan along with everyone [else].”

The impact on Xi was overwhelming.  “When the pandemonium of the Cultural Revolution erupted, he was a slight, softly spoken 13-year-old who loved classical Chinese poetry. Two years later, adrift in a city torn apart by warring Red Guards, Xi Jinping had hardened into a combative street survivor.”

By 1968 the entire Cultural Revolution had spun out of control.  To avoid further disorder “Mao ordered the Red Guards and other students to the countryside, to be ‘reeducated by the poor and lower-middle-class peasants.’” Xi was sent to Liangjiahe, a small village in northwest China where he “lived in a cave dwelling with villagers, slept on a kang, a traditional Chinese bed made of bricks and clay, endured flea bites, carried manure, built dams and repaired roads.”

The story of Xi’s years of back breaking peasant labor in Liangjiahe have become a key to the myth of Xi Jinping, protector of the peasants and man of the people.  Patriotic tourists now flock there on vacation to see such sites as “an underground chamber that Xi is said to have hand-dug, a place to ferment human and cow feces into natural gas.”

The Cultural Revolution led many Chinese at home and abroad to question their faith in Communism. Xi went in the other direction and re-dedicated himself to the CCP.  “When I went to the countryside as a 15-year-old, I was perplexed and lost,” Xi wrote in a 2002 essay. “By the time I left at the age of 22, I had a clear life goal and was filled with confidence.”  As one analyst summed it up in The Prince podcasts, Xi “does not want the chaos he saw as a young person to return to China, and he sees the Party as the one institution that can prevent that from happening.”

When Xi was still in the countryside, he applied to join the Communist Youth League of China and was rejected due to his father’s history.  So he applied again.  And again.  On his eight try, he was accepted.  His path to becoming a full Party member was no easier, with nine applications rejected before he finally became a member in 1974 on his tenth try.  From there, his rise in the party proceeded slowly and steadily, including a series of increasingly important political posts around the country.

In his personal life, at the age of 33 Xi married Peng Liyuan, one of the most famous singers in China.  It was the Chinese equivalent of Joe Biden marrying Beyonce or Taylor Swift back when he was a virtually unknown junior senator from Delaware.  (An aside:  for historical realism, a better analogy might be to say it was as if Biden had married Stevie Nicks or Dolly Parton, since they were both famous when he was 33.  Neither Beyonce nor Swift had been born yet.)  These days, both Xi’s wife and his daughter and only child keep a low public profile.  The daughter – Xi Mingzhe – currently lives in the US.  She earned a BA in psychology from Harvard in 2014 (using a pseudonym), then returned to China until 2019, when she re-enrolled in Harvard’s graduate program.

Back in the world of politics, Xi ascended to the national stage in 2002, when he became a member of China’s 200 person Central Committee.  In 2007, Xi was elected to the highest political group in China, the CCP Politburo, which then had nine members, and in 2012 he ascended to the top position.

A few years later, a profile in the New Yorker described Xi’s “essential project as a rescue: he must save the People’s Republic and the Communist Party before they are swamped by corruption; environmental pollution; unrest in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and other regions; and the pressures imposed by an economy that is growing more slowly than at any time since 1990.”

Xi has also been obsessed with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and avoiding a similar scenario in China.  In 2009, he commissioned a study of the topic, which included this joke: When Leonid Brezhnev was one of the last General Secretary’s of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he proudly gave his mother a tour of his Kremlin apartment, his limousine, and his many luxuries.  “I’m so proud of you, Leonid Ilyich,” his mother said, “but what happens if the Communists find out?”

This is one mistake Xi will not make.  Instead, he has “associated himself with an earthier generation of Communists, a military caste that emphasized ‘hard work and plain living.’”

When Xi first took over the country’s top position in 2012, the Chinese constitution limited the presidency to two five year terms.  So Xi had the constitution changed, and on March 10 he was officially elected to an unprecedented third term by the National People’s Congress by a vote of 2,952 to 0. 

As a recent Foreign Affairs article summed up the current situation: “Now, as under Mao, China is a one-man show.” 

Who will come after Xi, and how will it affect China and the world?  The US may have to survive several decades of co-existing with Xi before we find out.  There is no sign that he has chosen a successor, and “as a lifelong student and practitioner of Chinese politics, he knows full well that if he did leave office, he and his family would be vulnerable to retribution from his successors. So Xi is likely to lead the country for the rest of his life.”

At “just” 69, Xi is younger than 1/3 of the members of the US Senate. If he lives as long as his 96 year old mother, it could be the 2050s before there is a change in leadership.

Reducing income inequality:  China vs US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who said the CCP is like the Mafia:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sheer stupidity of Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding a US-China war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rudd summarizes his advice in three major suggestions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do children in China study harder than Americans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feminism in China

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

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

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

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

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

Uh huh.

Beijing residents demonstrate against sexual harassment in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chinese diaspora

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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