End of Month Notes

Posted on October 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Me. No Comments

First off, apologies for the recent power outage caused by exceeding my bandwidth allotment. As it happened, I was so busy with midterms that I wouldn’t have had time to post anything anyway. The problem has been solved though so this site will remain bright for the foreseeable future.

– US mid-term elections happen on Tuesday, and even the most optimistic Democrat would have to admit that our side is in for a long night. The causes are obvious: the economy remains poor, and unemployment is still very high. The recovery that looked imminent last fall stalled and then dissipated. The conservative narrative that this election is somehow transformative, in the vein of 1994, is off-base. Should the economy recover, so should the fortunes of Obama and the Democrats.

– That being said, the Republicans will do their best to keep the recovery from happening. Think that’s too cynical? Look at this comment from Mitch McConnell, the party’s Senate majority leader: ‘The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president’. Such a statement should be shocking, but it fits perfectly with the behavior of the Republican Party since Obama was elected.

– With that in mind, I agree with James Fallows and Paul Krugman that the pending Republican victory in the House will not somehow work out for the best. If Obama found it difficult pushing his agenda through Congress before, he’s going to find it nearly impossible now. I sincerely hope the president channels his inner Bill Clinton and learns how to make his political opponents look petty and amateurish.

– Christine O’Donnell is an idiot and has no business serving as a US Senator. I find her position on social matters abhorrent. But this story published by Gawker, in which a dude recounts his near one-night-stand with her, only makes her seem more sympathetic and human. Voters want to empathize with their political leaders. This is why George W. Bush’s admission of a drinking problem, Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes, and Barack Obama’s struggle to kick a cigarette habit help endear them to the public at large. The fact that Christine O’Donnell got drunk and got it on with a guy she thought was nice is hardly unacceptable behavior in our culture. I doubt this story will make a difference in the polls- O’Donnell is still likely to lose- but if the goal was for her ‘hypocrisy’ to be exposed, then I’d say it backfired.

– On a related subject, the reason why people don’t like Mitt Romney despite his reasonably successful pedigree isn’t because he’s too moderate, it’s that he really seems to be the do-gooder Mormon that he says he is. And that creeps people out.

– Oh, and I happen to agree with the Superficial’s take on the matter here without going into detail.

– A lot of people here are headed south for the day to attend the twin Washington, DC rallies held by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I’ll be going the opposite way, visiting a friend in Boston. But the rallies should provide the requisite hilarity.

– And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that my heart is firmly in San Francisco at the moment due to the success of my beloved San Francisco Giants. I’ve been a Giants fan since the age of 8, when in 1989 they met the cross-Bay Oakland A’s in the World Series. Of course, in the moments prior to Game 3 the massive Loma Prieta earthquake shook the area and suspended the Series by 10 days. The Giants were vastly inferior to the A’s that year and were swept resoundingly.

Since then, this is only the second time they’ve been back. In 2002, they lost to the Anaheim Angels in heartbreaking fashion. But 2010 feels different so far. The Giants lead the Texas Rangers 2 games to 0 after a pair of drubbings in San Francisco. The series now heads to Texas for Games 3,4, and if necessary 5. The Giants simply need to win 2 of the next 5 to win their first ever World Series since moving to San Francisco from New York in 1958.

I’ve never seen San Francisco get behind its team so much before. The 2010 team is as kooky as the city itself; Brian Wilson’s beard, Tim Lincecum’s shaggy haired stoner look, the Aubrey Huff rally thong, and even Barry Zito’s yoga obsession all fit into the SF id like never before.

The series resumes tonight in Texas, and I’ll be watching from somewhere in Boston. Here’s a little something to whet the appetite:

Chinese-Style Internet Censorship in SE Asia?

Posted on October 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Technology & Society. No Comments

Earlier this week I attended a panel discussion on internet censorship in China featuring Xiao Qiang, the prominent Tiananmen Square dissident and editor of China Digital Times, and the Chinese social scientists Dr. Lu Xiaobo and Dr. Wang Guomin. All three men were optimistic that the Great Chinese Firewall’s days were numbered, and that the rise of liberal thought on the Chinese internet augured well for the future.

In today’s Guardian comes a more sobering view: not only does the firewall have staying power in China, it is acting as a model for Southeast Asian governments keen to control the media:

Governments across south-east Asia are following China‘s authoritarian censorship of the digital world to keep political dissent in check, the Guardian can reveal.

VietnamBurmaThailandCambodia and the Philippines have all moved or are moving towards monitoring internet use, blocking international sites regarded as critical and ruthlessly silencing web dissidents.

• In Vietnam, the Communist party wants to be your “friend” on the state-run version of Facebook, provided you are willing to share all personal details.

• In Burma, political unrest can be silenced by cutting off the country from the internet.

• In Thailand, website moderators can face decades in jail for a posted comment they did not even write, if the government deems it injurious to the monarchy.

While much is made of China’s authoritarian attitude towards internet access, a majority of south-east Asian governments have similar controls and , rather than relaxing restrictions on internet use, many are moving towards tighter regulation.

Notice how this list includes nominally democratic regimes like Thailand and the Philippines as well as the usual autocracies in the region.

The obvious implication, as the Guardian mentions, is that the internet won’t necessarily lead to press freedom as everyone once thought it would. Governments across the world are proving far more adept at developing censorship tools than users are in circumventing them.

But despite these constraints it is simply impossible for all information to be censored. Even in Myanmar, where less than 1 percent of the population goes online, the government occasionally has to shut the internet off completely in order to stifle dissent. And while the GFW used to annoy the hell out of me in China, in practice it never prevented me from obtaining valuable information of any kind.…

Hating on New York and San Francisco

Posted on October 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in US Politics. 3 comments

To all the Republicans- and even some Democrats- portraying New York and San Francisco negatively in your election campaigns, please keep going. The last thing we need are the yokels from flyover country moving to either city.…

A Revealing Ad

Posted on October 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

This ad, showing a smug Chinese room musing over America’s failure in the year 2030, has attracted some accusations of anti-Chinese racism. The ad isn’t racist, but it does provide an insight into how the reactionary American electorate thinks. To wit:

1. Most Americans believe that China is either our economic equal or superior, a belief that would shock the hell out of the Chinese. In fact, the US economy is still several times larger than the Chinese one on an aggregate level and many, many times higher on a per-capita basis. By 2030, say, the China’s GDP should be on a par with the US GDP. But they’ll still be way behind on a per capita basis.

2. Many people have an irrational fear of government debt and think that high levels of debt will doom the economy. This belief derives, I think, from the idea that governments really ought to behave like individual households and thus should avoid accruing a lot of debt if possible. In fact, the fear of debt has a pernicious effect on Democratic leaders who fail to implement Keynesian measures to their proper extent as a result. Paul Krugman, for instance, has argued that Roosevelt’s policies combating the Depression only failed once he tried to balance the budget, and that Obama’s stimulus has not helped more because it was simply too small.

3. The American electorate simultaneously supports low taxes, low government spending, and government-funded goods. Most people do not see the contradiction in this premise.

4. As a corollary, most of the loudest whining about government spending come from people who said nothing during the profligate Bush years, when government spending skyrocketed well past levels established by Clinton. Likewise, these people for some odd reason do not consider ridiculous levels of defense spending as part of government’s waste.

5. China’s role as the bogeyman shouldn’t startle anyone. It’s easy to forget that in the 1980s, Japan occupied the same role in the American public consciousness as China does  now. Two decades of stagnation later, nobody worries about Japan anymore. This isn’t to say that China will somehow fail to grow over the next 20 years- not even the most devoted Sino-skeptic predicts that. But there’s nothing particularly unique about China’s position as the great threat from the East in the public’s imagination.

The economy is bad, and people are scared. It’s an election year. Sounds like a ripe combination for an ad of this sort.…

Anti-Japanese Protests

Posted on October 19th, by matt_schiavenza in Useful Links. No Comments

The anti-Japanese fervor in China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands hit the Sichuan capital Chengdu recently, leading to a fairly major demonstration. Here is a post from Chengdu Living with photos and videos. This is one of the videos they included. The characters on the ground, 日本, is ‘Japan’ in Chinese.

I remember in 2005 witnessing an anti-Japanese protest in Shanghai. I can’t even remember what the issue was then, but it was far more minor than the recent disagreement between the two countries. Seems like this sort of thing could become more common in the future.

A Whopper from Friedman

Posted on October 17th, by matt_schiavenza in China and World. No Comments

I understand Thomas Friedman gets paid to summarize his world-view in pithy 800-word columns, and that given his focus on the Middle East you can’t really expect him to have that much particular knowledge about China. But his most recent column about democracy, Liu Xiaobo, and the Chinese economy was a real head-scratcher.

Friedman starts off by arguing that China cannot realize its full potential unless it liberalizes its political system. He then states that China may face a economic and demographic crisis when the country grows old before it grows rich. Neither of these points are particularly controversial.

But then Friedman tries to connect the two issues, and writes that the key to the new service economy is unfettered social networks:

But, and here’s the rub, today’s knowledge industries are all being built on social networks that enable open collaboration, the free sharing of ideas and the formation of productive relationships — both within companies and around the globe. The logic is that all of us are smarter than one of us, and the unique feature of today’s flat world is that you can actually tap the brains and skills of all of us, or at least more people in more places. Companies and countries that enable that will thrive more than those that don’t.

Friedman’s implication is that because China blocks access to social networking websites like Twitter or Facebook, social networking  doesn’t exist in the country. This view, of course, is absurd. China may not allow Facebook, but virtually everyone I know in that country uses 开心网, has a QQ account, and networks like crazy. Anyone who has done business in China knows that the Chinese are assiduous about following-up, exploring joint-ventures, and maximizing their benefit through cooperation. Facebook and Twitter are blocked, yes, but they aren’t the only two social networking sites in the world.

But this is vintage Friedman: take a theme, in this case his thesis that the service economy will become dominant and that people around the world must compete with each other blah blah (The World is Flat, The World is Flat The World is Flat!), and beat it to death. This is the prism through which he sees all international affairs, and here he simply tries to graft it onto China’s contemporary political and economic situation. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work.

UPDATE: Foreign Policy’s Daniel Drezner makes additional criticisms of this Friedman column that I hadn’t thought of.…


Posted on October 16th, by matt_schiavenza in Housekeeping. 1 Comment

Just a brief housekeeping note: I’ve established a Tumblr account, which you’re all encouraged to visit. Those of you that have Tumblr accounts, please give me a follow!

For those of you wondering what the hell I’m talking about, Tumblr is a micro-blogging platform- think Twitter or Google Buzz- that looks like a blog. Like Twitter, your posts are loaded onto a page where everyone you ‘follow’ appears also, but unlike Twitter there are no limits to the amount of characters you can have in each post.

I’m not sure how much I like it yet, but it’s intriguing so I’ve decided to give it a shot.

I’ve added a widget to the right sidebar of this site that shows my Tumblr content. I’m not sure if it’s suitable just yet and at any time might remove it. I would like to solicit your opinions though- does having the micro-blog on the right side of the blog clutter things up too much? Or is it just right?

I’ll do my best not to make the content redundant, so look to my main blog for more serious fare and look to my Tumblr blog for more light material. The feed’s name- Miscellaneous Marginalia- should aptly describe its content.

Anyway- feedback welcome, either here in the comments or by e-mail.…

Democracy, the “West”, and China

Posted on October 16th, by matt_schiavenza in China and the US, China and World, Current Events, US Politics. 2 comments

Chris commented below:

And because the West loves them. Westerners still generally believe “Western democracy” (scare quotes, because that should be plural, but everybody seems to assume the entire West -whatever that is- is a monolith) is the best of all possible systems. And so any Chinese (Iranian, Vietnamese, North Korean…) espousing values generally consistent with “Western democratic” ideals gets a lot of airplay.

This is an important distinction and I’m glad Chris brought it up. Many Westerners, particularly Americans, confuse and conflate concepts of ‘democracy’ and ‘pro-West’. What makes many people in the US nervous about China isn’t that China’s an authoritarian state per se, but rather that China is beginning to challenge American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region.

In the Bush years, democracy promotion became the ostensible theme of American foreign policy, but in reality it masked Washington’s real intentions: building pro-American regimes. This hypocrisy was exposed quite blatantly in the 2005 Gaza elections, when the Bush Administration cheered for democratic elections up until the moment that Hamas won them.

How does this apply to China? Being a quasi-optimist, I’d say that over time odds are that the government will embrace some form of democracy. But as Chris points out, this democracy may not be as friendly to perceived Western interests as many Westerners might hope.

Ultimately, a realist would say that notions of democracy and autocracy are quaint compared to the overall dynamic taking place. As China grows, and it will continue to grow, it will begin to challenge US dominance in its region. The historical moment of American unipolarity is beginning to end, and in a few decades we’ll see a new world where Washington will be forced to share influence with Beijing, Delhi, Brasilia, Moscow, and elsewhere.

But democracy is still worth supporting in China, if only so that people like Liu Xiaobo do not languish in prison for voicing aspirations that many of us simply take for granted.…

Winds of Change in China?

Posted on October 14th, by matt_schiavenza in Current Events. 3 comments

In recent weeks, there have been three interesting political developments in China.  Most notably has been the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, the prominent dissident and Charter 08 signatory. For those looking for extensive coverage of Liu, look no further than the guys at the China Beat, who have really outdone themselves with their work on this issue. In particular, both  Jeremiah Jenne of the Granite Studio and Gady Epstein of Forbes have written excellent posts about the Peace Prize.

While the politically sentient world has no doubt heard the news of Liu Xiaobo’s victory, there have been two other recent developments that have attracted some interest from China watchers. First, Wen Jiabao seemed to stray a little bit off message in an interview with the journalist Fareed Zakaria, calling out for freedom and democracy in China. Most recently, 23 Communist Party elders have submitted an open letter to the Beijing leadership calling for an end to censorship and for more media freedom. This piece, by the Globe & Mail’s Mark Mackinnon, indicates that the letter is tied in some ways to Wen’s recent remarks.

It is unusual in China for events of this sort to occur within a short time span, so one might be tempted to think that the winds of change are blowing in the country. But as always, there are always a few caveats to consider.

First of all, the percentage of Chinese who are actively concerned with political liberalization in the country remains very small. This doesn’t mean that the rest of the population actively supports the Party, but rather that for most people issues such as media censorship are annoyances that ultimately have little effect on their personal lives. The intellectual class in China is still a very, very small minority. They merely seem larger because many of them have become savvy at using new media tools such as Twitter to publish their thoughts.

In respect to Wen’s remarks, the premier has always seemed to be more a ‘man of the people’ than the wooden, charisma-free Hu Jintao. Prior to his ascension to his current post, he was best known as a top aide to Zhao Ziyang, the premier purged in 1989 following his opposition to the Tiananmen Square crackdown. If there was a current Chinese political figure capable of making such remarks, it would be Wen.

Even still, ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ mean different things to the Chinese Communist Party than they do to everyone else. Not even a relative ‘liberal’ like Wen would advocate anything resembling multi-party elections in China, and the notion of a free-wheeling media landscape where criticism of the Party is tolerated remains out of the question for the foreseeable future.

Given the long view, though, change is inevitable. It’s difficult to remain a cool-headed rationalist when considering the plight of Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, who have been harrassed, imprisoned, (probably) tortured, and treated like enemies for what amounts to non-violent questioning of their country’s political system. And it would be unfair not to recognize the very many other brave Chinese dissidents who risk their lives for the type of justice we in the West take for granted.

Charter 08, the document that Liu Xiaobo steered toward publication, was based on a similar document compiled by Czech intellectuals in 1977. One of the main authors of Charter 77, the poet Vaclav Havel, found himself the democratically elected leader of his country scarcely a decade and a half later. History can work in funny ways, sometimes.

I cannot foresee the future, but I believe that when China has a government worthy of its people, Liu Xiaobo and the countless others like him will be seen as national heroes.…

Some China Book Notes

Posted on October 8th, by matt_schiavenza in Books. No Comments

Not long after moving back to the US, I indulged in a book buying spree. Unsurprisingly, China-related books was the theme of my new purchases, and after several weeks of grad-school induced fatigue I finally got around to reading the first one of these.

China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know is more a very long FAQ list than a work of non-fiction prose, but for its content this format works well. Jeffrey Wasserstrom has cobbled together a comprehensive list of misconceptions that blur Sino-American mutual understanding, ranging from historical events to issues that dominate contemporary politics.

One would think that this guide book of sorts wouldn’t be appropriate for someone who has lived in China, but I found Wasserstrom’s writing to be highly informative. In discussing why Westerners and the Chinese have divergent views about Mao Zedong, Wasserstrom writes that the American historical figure most comparable to the Chinese leader was actually Andrew Jackson:

Though admittedly far from perfect, the comparison is based on the fact that Jackson is remembered both as someone who played a significant role in the development of a political organization (the Democratic Party) that still has many partisans, and as someone responsible for brutal policies toward Native Americans that are now referred to as genocidal.

Both men are thought of as having done terrible things yet this does not necessarily prevent them from being used as positive symbols. And Jackson still appears on $20 bills, even though Americans tend to view as heinous the institution of slavery (of which he was a passionate defender) and the early 19th-century military campaigns against Native Americans (in which he took part).

At times Jackson, for all his flaws, is invoked as representing an egalitarian strain within the American democratic tradition, a self-made man of the people who rose to power via straight talk and was not allied with moneyed interests. Mao stands for something roughly similar.

Wasserstrom, whose blog The China Beat is a great resource for learning more about China, devotes much of the last part of the book to explaining why Americans-or Westerners more broadly- do not understand how the Chinese think, and vice versa. I won’t spoil more of the book’s contents by summarizing his conclusions, but needless to say his take on the issue is interesting and worth reading in full.

If there is one criticism I could make of the book, it’d be that Wasserstrom spends too little time discussing issues such as the rural-urban divide, internal migration, and other economic issues that threaten to become major problems for China in the very near future. Of course, it would take far more than 130 pages to mention every salient factor concerning contemporary China, and Wasserstrom clearly was going for brevity over thoroughness. I bring up the issue because (it’s your pet issue, duh- ed.) I think commentators too often neglect it and focus too much on the urban elite.

I’d recommend Wasserstrom’s book to anyone, but particularly for people who want to learn more about China but are reluctant to dive straight in without obtaining basic knowledge about the country. Even old China hands would benefit from Wasserstrom’s succinct, even-handed writing style.


If James Fallows‘ work at the Atlantic had a theme, it was to ‘explain what you can’t learn about a place until you’ve been there’. Most who followed his reporting from China over the past four years would agree that he succeeded in this regard. Fallows’ writing on issues both grave and mundane has garnered significant praise from Sinophiles and laypeople alike.

While Fallows lived in China he was accompanied by his wife, the linguist Deborah Fallows. With the singular task of mastering Mandarin at hand, Fallows learned to use the language as a window into the dynamic, complex, and rich culture and society in China. Her observations now appear in book form, under the title Dreaming in Chinese. I can’t wait to find the time to tackle it.

I recently had the opportunity to see both James and Deborah Fallows and the prominent Sinologist Orville Schell appear on Deborah’s book tour, which stopped in New York City on Tuesday. Though the event was ostensibly intended to promote Dreaming in Chinese, the format consisted of the two Fallows’ describing their China experience with Schell in an easy, conversationalist style. Though the event was held in the auditorium of the Asia Society, it had the cozy feel of sitting in someone’s living room. At several points I was tempted to pipe in with my own observation yet thankfully managed to wait until question time to butt in.

From Left: James Fallows, Deborah Fallows, Orville Schell. Couldn't zoom in, sorry.

Much of the conversation revolved around the day-to-day life of the Fallows’ in both Shanghai and Beijing, a topic that both recounted with great humor. Yet the conversation also touched upon China as a whole, and mainly China’s relationship with the US. Orville Schell mentioned that what some Americans view as the ‘menace’ of China is truly the country’s inexhaustible energy, while James Fallows said that how other Americans perceive China: dynamic, exciting, futuristic- mimic European attitudes about the US a generation or two ago.

The other day I read that the lunatic Republican senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell spoke of a secret Chinese plot to invade and occupy America, a plot made privy to her that she couldn’t reveal for national security reasons. Even a cynic like me doubts that most Americans hold similarly acute fears. But there’s certainly a tendency in this country to view China in an adversarial way. The efforts of people like Jeffrey Wasserstrom, James and Deborah Fallows, Orville Schell, and countless others to provide a more accurate portrayal of the country cannot be underestimated.…