The Beer Election

Posted on May 30th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 2 comments

In the middle of John Heilemann entertaining feature on the 2012 election, this paragraph stood out:

“Romney really, actually thinks that if you just take care of the folks at the top, it’ll trickle down to everybody else,” says another Obama operative. “But no one believes that stuff—no one! And once you puncture that, there’s nothing left. He’s not likable. He’s not trustworthy. He’s not on your side. You live in Pittsburgh and you’ve got dirt under your fingernails, who do you want to have a beer with? It ain’t fucking Mitt Romney. You’re like, ‘Shit, I’d rather have a beer with the black guy than him!’ ”

I’ve always been interested in how this question- which guy would you rather have a beer with?- has loomed so large over recent presidential elections. You could make a case that the winner of the last five elections- dating back to Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992- would have won the proverbial “beer election”, too. The metaphor reached its peak in 2000 during George W. Bush’s campaign against Al Gore. It wasn’t uncommon then to hear people on television say a variation of the following:

“Yeah, Gore might be smarter, the better politician, and probably even the better leader- but you wouldn’t want to have a beer with him”.

On the face of it, this concept is absurd: very few people get to actually drink beer with the president of the United States, so why would it matter who would be more up to the task? The answer is that people tend to drink beer with people they like and can relate to, and people correspondingly prefer a president with those qualities, too. In 2000, even Al Gore’s voters found him stiff and unappealing; something of a moralizing policy wonk. He had none of Bush’s easy charm on the campaign trail. Given how close that election turned out to be, the Bush “beer factor” (ironic considering that Bush himself is a teetotaler) may have played a decisive role.

Ditto 2004, when John Kerry came across to voters as being something of a haughty, wind-surfing aristocrat while Bush (the actual aristocrat) slipped comfortably into the role of the man of the people.

Now let’s turn to 2012, when the beer-summit holdin’ President Obama is facing up against Mormon Mitt Romney. As the afore-referenced article says, the election promises to be a close one. Polls show a dead heat, and Romney seems to be gaining momentum. Unless the economy suddenly and conspicuously begins to pick up or collapses Greece-style, it’s difficult to see either candidate winning in a landslide.

The beer election, though, won’t be close. Has there been a candidate in memory you’d less want to drink beer with than Mitt Romney? Never mind the fact that Romney doesn’t drink. His social awkwardness alone would turn away even the most ardent Nick Carraway among us. The Republican primary wasn’t exactly loaded with heavy personalities: Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul wouldn’t exactly comprise a knee-slapping Thursday night poker group. But each of them would probably win the beer election over someone as unlikable as Romney.

So does Romney’s ascent mean that the beer election is finally meaningless? For the sake of the country, it’s probably best that the less affable candidate wins some of the time. But in 2012 I sincerely hope the results in the actual election mirror those in the beer election to a tee.…

A Few Thoughts on Yang Rui

Posted on May 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 7 comments

On May 16th, the Chinese television personality Yang Rui wrote the following message on his Weibo account (links via Charlie Custer):

The Ministry of Public Security is getting rid of foreign trash right now, arresting foreign scum and protecting innocent Chinese girls from them; but in order to do that, we need to focus on Sanlitun and Wudaokou, and target those who frequent the areas and its event organizers. Foreigners who can’t find a job in their home country come to China and get involved in illegal business activities such as human trafficking and espionage; they also like to distribute lies which discredit China to persuade locals to move abroad. A lot of them  look for Chinese women to live with as a disguise to further their espionage efforts. They pretend to be tourists traveling around the country while actually helping Japan and Korea make maps and collect GPS data for military purposes. We need to take action, first kick that crazy foreign journalist from Al Jazeera out of the country and close their Beijing office, and then shut everybody up, all the members of the foreign press who demonize China.

Yang’s comments, while inflammatory and exaggerated, are unremarkable. Many Chinese people would probably agree with him, and the practice of media personalities demonizing foreign nationals is hardly exclusive to China. (Lou Dobbs, anyone?). Plus Yang, for all of his pretenses as an urbane, sophisticated journalist (check out this embarrassingly fawning profile of Yang by Philip J. Cunningham) has always been a reliable spokesman for Chinese conventional wisdom. Anyone who has seen an episode of “Dialogue”  knows the drill: Yang harangues his foreign guests with an artfully packaged version of the Party line. (Here is James Fallows, himself a former guest on the show, with a version of this story). The whole charade becomes tedious after awhile and as a result, I have met very few foreigners in China who take “Dialogue” seriously at all.

So why would Yang Rui’s statement be a big deal? The answer relates to something international relations geeks refer to as “soft power”. CCTV News, the station that airs “Dialogue”, represents part of China’s strategy to sell itself to the outside world. China is keen to show that it can produce an international television network that can compete with CNN, BBC, and al Jazeera. The network would have a Chinese-centric viewpoint, of course, and would counter-act what China perceives to be negative and inaccurate coverage of the country in the “Western” media. But for that to work, it would  have to maintain professional standards. By offending the audience that CCTV News purportedly seeks, Yang Rui undermined this goal and, by extension, China’s attempt to build its “soft power”.

The question though is this:  is China capable of producing a television network as good as al Jazeera or BBC? This isn’t a question of resources, of which China has plenty, but rather of limitations within the Communist system. Television networks gain respect through their editorial independence, but no network owned by China can be independent simply because it would remain subservient to the Propaganda Department. No amount of journalistic talent can change that equation.

The Yang Rui incident also provides a glimpse into how micro-blogging has changed how the media operates in the country. In a previous era, Yang’s impolitic remarks would never have seen the light of day due to editorial constraints. With Weibo, though, Yang can simply take a deep breath and hit “publish” and make his ideas accessible to his more than 800,000 followers. The Yang Rui incident, thus, neatly illustrates how social media has thrown a wrench into message discipline in China. This lesson- rather than that of “soft power” may be what we take from this incident in the end.



Chen Guangcheng Update

Posted on May 4th, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. 3 comments

Well, well. It isn’t every day that a blog post becomes obsolete as soon as it’s published, but Wednesday was no ordinary day. Let’s consider the latest development in the Chen Guangcheng saga:

Liu Weimin stated that should Mr. Chen wish to study abroad, as more than 300,000 Chinese students do, he “can apply through normal channels to the relevant departments in accordance with the law, just like any other Chinese citizen”.

On the surface, this represents a deft political compromise after 48 hours of chaotic bungling on both sides. But to me this solution raises more questions than answers. First, where is Chen going to stay while waiting for his application to study abroad be processed? Will he return to his compound in Shandong Province, which remains surrounded by several dozen local thugs? Will he be allowed to live freely elsewhere, say, in Beijing or Tianjin (the city previously handpicked to be Chen’s destination)?

Also, the Chinese government would be under no obligation to accept Chen’s application, would it? Many Chinese students who apply to study abroad are rejected, so couldn’t Beijing simply say that Chen didn’t meet the requirements? The US would not have the diplomatic ability to ensure Chen’s safety and safe passage out of the country once he has been released back into Chinese hands.  Won’t Chen just go back into a precarious state of limbo, as before?

One thing worth keeping in mind is this: the Chinese public is not necessarily on Chen’s side. State media coverage in the country is emphasizing the usual “U.S. meddling in Chinese affairs” canard, and few ordinary people know or care much about Chen’s particular grievances. The Party understands that it faces little risk in public backlash in detaining Chen indefinitely, and that over time foreign interest in Chen’s welfare will surely decrease. Time is on Beijing’s side.

The U.S. was motivated to resolve the Chen crisis as quickly as possible due to the looming China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogues summit . As a result, American diplomats were too eager to accede to Chen’s wishes to release him, leading to the standoff at the hospital. Now I wonder whether they’re making a similar error in trusting China’s permission for Chen to apply to study abroad. In any event, I don’t think the Clinton State Department has handled this Chen case well at all.

More information, without a doubt, is forthcoming.

UPDATE:  Chen Guangcheng has arrived safely in the United States, and will apparently be studying at NYU here in New York City. I’m happy to be proven wrong, in this case.


China, the US Embassy, and the Rule of Law

Posted on May 2nd, by matt_schiavenza in Uncategorized. No Comments

For the second time in less than three months, a prominent Chinese citizen has sought protection at a U.S. diplomatic facility inside the country. To say that this is unusual would be an understatement; the last high-profile Chinese defections to the United States occurred nearly 23 years ago following the Tiananmen Square massacre.

It is tempting to view Wang Lijun and Chen Guangcheng’s actions through a traditional Cold War lens. For one, Americans are fond of the belief that all the world’s citizens would move to our country if they had the chance. China is no less brutal a police state than it was in 1989, and in many respects the political climate has become less liberal in recent years. Could Wang and Chen’s flight reflect a traditional desire for political asylum?

Not likely. Wang, for one, was no dissident. As Bo Xilai’s consigliere (first in Dalian and later, most prominently, in Chongqing) Wang helped re-introduce Maoist-era policies as well as heavier State involvement in the economy. He also assisted Bo in cracking down on Chongqing’s notorious criminal gangs, a process which involved no small amount of skulduggery. Wang’s personal political beliefs and feelings toward the United States are unknown,  but in practice he is about the furthest thing from a Western-style liberal as you can get in Chinese politics.

Chen Guangcheng, on the other hand, does fit the classic mold of a Chinese dissident. A self-taught lawyer and blind from birth, he rose to prominence through his persistent criticism of China’s draconian rural forced sterilization policy, eventually leading to his virtual house arrest. Yet after his miraculous escape and appearance at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing last week, Chen repeatedly insisted that he had no desire to leave China. He now apparently has been released from the embassy and is being treated at a Beijing hospital.

What do these two incidents tell us? First, both Wang and Chen sought protection at American diplomatic facilities because they reasoned – with much justification- that they were among the safest places in the country. One wonders what might have happened had either man approached a different consulate or embassy, such as one belonging to a regional power like Japan or India. Perhaps nothing- but it’s certainly important for symbolic reasons that Wang and Chen chose the U.S.

The second lesson drawn from these incidents is that the rule of law remains decidedly absent in China. Throughout Hu Jintao’s decade in office, the Communist Party has explicitly promoted the rule of law in Chinese society, a move interpreted by some observers that China was moving toward political liberalization. But then, you have speeches like the one given by Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, asserting the truism that the government exists to serve the Party, not the other way around.

It bears repeating that there’s little reason to take the Communist Party at its word when it trumpets concepts like democracy and the rule of law. However, the appearance of two prominent Chinese nationals in American diplomatic facilities is a major embarrassment for the Chinese government, whose international reputation is one of corporate competence.  The Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng cases are unlikely to spur political reform in the short run, but they are an indication that more challenging times  may lie ahead for the Party.