Election Trends

Posted on June 29th, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 5 comments

Even though the election is still four months away, even though neither candidate has chosen a running mate, even though neither convention has been held, it’s still difficult not to be excited about this November, especially if (like me) you’re a Democrat. According to electoral-vote.com (an indispensable site, by the way), Barack Obama is poised for a solid if somewhat narrow victory over John McCain, while the Democrats are predicted to gain five or so seats in the Senate and a half-dozen or so in the House. Latest polling suggests that Obama will retain every state that John Kerry won in 2004 while adding Colorado, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, and Virginia to the blue column. Florida, of course, is still in a dead heat.

Recently, Obama decided to opt out of public financing, which will allow him to amass an enormous warchest through private donations. He plans to use this largesse to finance a 50-state operation, working in states that Democrats have feebly conceded in the past. Why is he doing this?

-Several southern states, such as Mississippi, have large black populations that reliably vote Democratic. Unfortunately, only a relatively small percentage of the black population is registered to vote, so the Obama campaign hopes that by adding tens of thousands of new voters, he’ll be able to force John McCain to pay attention to a state that he’d ordinarily count on.

-Former Congressman Bob Barr (R-Georgia) is the Libertarian Party nominee for President. While Barr won’t get more than a few percent in the general election, his presence on the ballot in certain states might attract disaffected Republicans and thus help Obama.

– Recent special House elections in traditional Republican strongholds such as Louisiana, Mississippi, and the Chicago suburbs have been captured by Democratic candidates, leading Obama to believe he can capitalize on the general national unpopularity of the Republican Party.

Will it work? Certainly, most signs are favorable for Obama. He’s an appealing, attractive candidate running against an aging opponent whose base supporters are somewhat less than enthusiastic. Then again, the electoral college is a fickle friend. Losing Mississippi or Georgia by three points will be of small comfort if he cannot take key swing states such as Ohio, Missouri, and Florida. A landslide victory and political realignment in the Democrats’ favor would be nice, but after eight years of Bush, Obama would be wise to follow Al Davis’ advice: “Just win baby”.…

Loan Words and Language Needs

Posted on June 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. 2 comments

I came across an interesting thread at the excellent Marginal Revolution blog that wonders how “loan words”, or foreign words inserted into conversation for particular effect, are used in various languages.

In English, the majority of our borrowed words and phrases come from French. Some are more useful than others. For instance, the term “faux pas” is far more succinct than its English meaning “social blunder”, and as a result its application in English conversation has proven quite durable. Others, though, like “je ne sais pas” to describe an undefinable yet existent quality, tend to reek of snobbery.

Quite a few foreigners like to joke that the Chinese borrowed “humor” (幽默) and “logic” (逻辑) from English because neither concept exists in China. This, of course, is untrue (unless you’re dealing with government bureaucracy), but it is rather curious. Young Chinese will use “cool” but leave off the “l”, which can be confusing because you’re never sure if they’re saying “very cool” or “very bitter (苦)”.

Then, of course, are those phrases in Chinese that foreigners here use. Some time ago, I wrote that everyone says the Chinese term for loose bowels “la duzi” rather than diarrhea, mostly because the condition occurs far more frequently here than in our home countries. Another term I use often is “厉害”, which can mean fierce, terrible, awful, awesome, excellent, or skilled.

My level of Chinese isn’t advanced enough to comment on the language’s inherent deficiencies, but it seems to me that there are few concepts that cannot be adequately expressed in Mandarin.

English, on the other hand, has a major grammatical deficiency: the lack of second-person plural. Technically, one is supposed to just say “you” and the meaning will be clear through context, but hardly anyone uses it this way. In California, where I grew up, the awkward “you guys” is most common, while of course in the American south “y’all” is the term of choice. Friends of mine in the UK seem to tend toward “youse”, which I like but doubt I’ll be using anytime soon.

One would think we’d figure out how to address more than one person before worrying about importing foreign words, but I suppose language evolution occasionally lacks logic.…

More on Chinese vs. Japanese

Posted on June 26th, by matt_schiavenza in Language. No Comments

Six weeks ago, I wondered which language was more difficult to learn for the English native speaker- Japanese or Chinese. A friend in Kunming told me that getting “OK” at Japanese didn’t require that much effort or time but at more advanced levels the language starts to get really difficult. Meanwhile, in Chinese it’s very difficult just to get the hang of it, but at more advanced levels the language becomes easier and easier (in terms of understanding the grammar, etc.).

At Sinosplice, John has produced a couple of nifty charts analyzing acquisition of pronunciation and grammar within the languages. His conclusions seem to dovetail with mine, though John has studied Japanese before while I haven’t.…

Fallows on the Olympics

Posted on June 24th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World, Current Events. 2 comments

Excellent post by James Fallows articulating his thoughts about China and the Olympic Games.

Like Fallows, I want the Olympics to succeed, and for the most part I think it will. Yet China’s public relations problems are largely self-inflicted* because it is trying to have it both ways: gain the respect and admiration of the world while maintaining its airtight control of the media and intolerance of dissent. This relates to a point I made earlier: development means far more than a booming GDP and brand-new skyscrapers. Or even the rights to hold the Games.

*For the record I hold no quarter for the idiotic boycott movement or for comments by Hollywood airheads like Sharon Stone.…

Go Go Kunming

Posted on June 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Self-Promotion. 1 Comment

Recently I was invited to join the team of gokunming.com, the city’s premier English-language news and listings site, as an occasional contributor. My first article is now up. Go look!…

Shaping Chinese Perceptions of the World

Posted on June 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in China and World. 4 comments

In conversations with Chinese friends, I often surprise them by saying that the vast majority of Americans (or British, Australian, etc.) lead lives that are not entirely different from their Chinese counterparts. Most of us, for example, never stray far from home due to financial or practical considerations. Many marry within their social group, often a classmate from high school or college. Many choose to enter the same industry as a parent or close relative, sometimes even within the same company. Some face familial pressure to marry and rear children at a relatively early age, and many Westerners feel trapped by circumstance.

Yet these Westerners, for obvious reasons, rarely spend time as expatriates in countries like China. As a result, the typical Westerner a Chinese person might meet cuts a very different profile from the norm in their home countries. From personal observation, these qualities describe quite a few of us laowai:

-Many foreigners come from comfortable to affluent backgrounds. As a result, few feel any need to contribute to the financial well-being of their families back home. In any case, salaries for most laowai in China are not high enough to be of much help in developed countries, anyway. Foreigners who work in Asia for financial reasons typically head for Korea or Japan where they can earn far more money. In my years in China, I have never met a single non-businessman who came here for the money.

-Most foreigners here are reasonably well-educated. Few lack a university degree, and those that do are usually in the process of obtaining one. After all, it is quite difficult finding work in China without at least a Bachelors.

-Many foreigners have extensive prior travel experience, and have often worked or lived in other countries before coming to China. Experienced travelers tend to be very independent by nature and not as tightly bound to the conventions and norms of their home country. A corollary to international experience is linguistic ability. Many of the expats I know speak at least one foreign language, even those from infamously monolingual countries such as the United States.

Certainly, few of us foreigners in China are entirely footloose and fancy-free; we have issues just like everyone else. I do believe, though, that as a whole we do not fit the profile of the “average” Westerner, and it is easy to see how the perception of Western life among Chinese people can become rather skewed.

A brief footnote for my Chinese readers: if you want to know what true Americana is, go to Las Vegas. …

RIP George Carlin

Posted on June 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

One of my favorite comedians, George Carlin, passed away today at the age of 71. What made Carlin unique among comedians was his use of the English language for material, most notably in his legendary “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” routine that lampooned prudish American censorship laws. Carlin objected to the dumbing-down of the English language, once asking aloud why the term “shellshock” became sanitized into “post-traumatic stress disorder”. He also railed against modern words like “networking” or “state-of-the-art”, preferring more literal, traditional usage.

In his later years, Carlin went from being irreverently raunchy to boorishly crude, to the detriment of his comedy. Nevertheless, all comedians post 1970 owe him an enormous debt of gratitude, and he will be missed.

Some Carlin lines:

-Why is prostitution illegal? If selling is legal, and fucking is legal, why isn’t selling fucking legal?

-Do you want to know what a stupid word “lifestyle” is? Just think, in a technical sense, Attila the Hun lived an active, outdoors lifestyle.

-What does legally drunk mean? If it’s legal, what’s the fucking problem? “Hey officer, leave my friend alone, he’s legally drunk!”

-I stopped voting around the same time I stopped taking drugs, when I realized both were examples of delusional behavior.

Rest in peace.…

China’s Sphere of Influence

Posted on June 20th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World, World Affairs. 8 comments

Robert Kaplan has an interesting article up at The Atlantic concerning Beijing’s relationship with its far-western province, Xinjiang. In the text, he touches upon an issue that occasionally flies under the radar in international coverage of China:

As China’s zone of influence expands westward, a network of north-south roads through Pakistan, India, and Burma will one day connect both Xinjiang and Tibet with ports on the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, economically liberating landlocked inner China. A new Silk Route will form, in which Lhasa will be linked with Kolkata, Kashgar with Karachi, and so on.

Here in Kunming, China’s massive investment in international road and rail links will change the face of the city within the next ten or twenty years. Before long, it will be possible to drive from Kunming to Calcutta or Kunming to Bangkok on modern, high-speed roads. As Kaplan notes, these transport links will fuel economic expansion to southwestern and western China, regions that have been slow to share in the coastal provinces’ economic prosperity.

I was chatting to a friend the other day about East Asia’s two “rogue states”: Burma and North Korea. He said that each problem will eventually resolve itself, as both countries will eventually become client states of China. In one sense, they already are: China’s imports of Burmese timber helps prop up the latter’s sagging economy and China is the only significant global power with any ties at all to North Korea. My friend believes that before long both the Kim family and the Burmese junta will be taking orders from Beijing.

Whether or not my friend’s prophecy comes true (and I suspect it might), I do believe that one of the major global trends in the next few decades will be a realignment toward great powers having regional “spheres of influence”. China isn’t necessarily a great power yet; its military and economic strength are no match for fully developed countries; but its rise as the regional power in East Asia is inevitable.

What does this mean for the United States? Its military and economic dominance will not wane for some time, but in the (somewhat) near future the American moment of unipolarity will undoubtedly recede. The US has based its foreign policy since the Cold War on being the global hegemon, leading a network of friendly, secular liberal democracies in its new world order. This policy has led to an overstretched military and ill-advised wars against regional tyrants, hardly the best use of US resources or power.

A consequence of relative US decline vs. the rise of China and the EU may be a stable series of spheres of influence, with each power having a controlling stake in its periphery. As for China, this may mean they will have to compromise in places such as Africa in order to exert greater hegemony in Taiwan, Burma, North Korea, and other neighboring places.…

Lost Laowai Profiles NeoCha

Posted on June 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Music, Technology & Society. 2 comments

Direct your browsers to Ryan’s interview with NeoCha CEO Sean Leow over at Lost Laowai. NeoCha is a site that serves as a platform for independent musicians in China, ones who slip under the radar screen of the country’s radio stations. For those who scoff that nobody produces good original music in the Middle Kingdom, NeoCha is a welcome antidote. Browse away.

Full disclosure: Sean and I were high school classmates in Atherton, California in the late 1990s. But forget all that- the site is well worth checking out.…


Posted on June 17th, by matt_schiavenza in Chinese Internal Affairs, Politics, Technology & Society. 4 comments

Jeremiah writes:

Ah the vicissitudes of a government petrified of information€¦after a brief revival this past week, blogspot is YET AGAIN blocked in Beijing. This time joined by the popular workaround site anonymouse which has, until now it would seem, been a decent way to access blocked sites. Hopefully this is all temporary and somebody will get the nanny a cocktail and a neck massage.

But for the moment can I just address (again) the purple elephant sitting in the corner: societies that block information and are afraid of alternative viewpoints cannot be considered modern and developed€¦and no amount of high rise buildings, synchronized hand claps, Audi A6s, or Olympic games will make it so.


Amen. Blocking blog hosting software only scratches the surface of media censorship in China. I used to read the China Daily until its sycophancy became depressing, and while TV news broadcasts are good for Chinese listening comprehension they don’t convey much in the way of useful news. Chinese people brave enough to challenge official government policy on virtually any issue usually end up silenced if not incarcerated.

As Jeremiah writes, the booming economy and increasingly cosmopolitan nature of the country do not mask the fact that China remains a rigid, authoritarian dictatorship that is completely controlled by one unelected political party. Admission of this fact usually elicits feeble excuses, such as that China is somehow “different” and that Chinese people are somehow not ready for participatory democracy or a free press. Some go so far as to say that authoritarian systems “work better”, belying the fact that most dictatorships crumble under the weight of their own inefficiency. China’s impressive growth has been in spite of its government, not because of it.

Some months ago I read Sam Harris’ anti-religion cri de couer “The End of Faith”. Drawing on an impressive command of epistemology, Harris argues that some ideas are better than others regardless of context. For instance, he writes that religions that practice “honor killings” are inferior to those that do not, and that atheism (or scientific rationality) ranks higher than religious faith of any kind in the hierarchy of ideas.

Whether or not one agrees with Harris’ take, I do believe that his rejection of relativism can be extended into the political sphere. Societies that allow freedom of information, protect individual rights, and limit governmental power are inherently more humane and vibrant than those that do not. I do not mean to endorse a violent overthrow of the Chinese government, but am merely pointing out that despite its glowing facade, China remains, in many ways, a deeply backward country.

A caveat or two: I would totally oppose any effort from the United States, United Nations, or any other country to attack China in order to change its political system. China’s sovereignty ought to be respected, just like those in nations whose institutions we may find more admirable.…