Saturday 31 December 2011

Gordon Chang: The pundit who cried wolf

I first read of Gordon G. Chang back in my Taiwan days when various editorialists in the Taipei Times used to trumpet his claim that the government of the People's Republic of China was facing inevitable collapse due to an imminent financial crisis which would be caused by non-performing loans lent out by state-owned banks. After arriving in Nanjing in 2003, I very quickly decided that Chang and others were exaggerating the degree of opposition to the government in mainland China, and that the financial crisis predicted by Chang was unlikely due not least to the financial strength of the government.

However, Chang is now back with fresh predictions of impending doom within the next year:

"Since late September, economic indicators -- electricity consumption, industrial orders, export growth, car sales, property prices, you name it -- are pointing toward either a flatlining or contracting economy. Money started to leave the country in October, and Beijing's foreign reserves have been shrinking since September.

As a result, we will witness either a crash or, more probably, a Japanese-style multi-decade decline."

I agree that all the indicators look bad at the moment, but the fundamentals that have kept the Chinese economy chugging forward - most notably a cheap, well-educated workforce - are still there. Even the relatively pessimistic forecasts show an average per capita GDP growth rate of 5% year-on-year by 2016 - something that is far from a disaster.

More to the point though, Chang's prediction of collapse of the Chinese government within the next year has several conceptual problems that need examining:

  • Firstly, if China is due for a "a Japanese-style multi-decade decline", then this does not at all mean that a massive crash of the kind that would shake the government will occur next year.
  • Secondly, countries with communist political systems such as mainland China's have weathered very harsh economic crises without the government falling. Cuba and North Korea in the wake of the collapse of the USSR are stark examples of this, but we also see examples in Central Europe - Poland during the 1970's being one.
  • Thirdly, even if serious unrest does occur, the Chinese state has overcome such movements in the past and would stand every chance of doing so again. In 1989 there was essentially no limit to the willingness of the Chinese leadership to use force to suppress opposition, even if great bloodshed resulted, and there is every reason to believe that the leaders due to take power next year are of the same temperament.

Put simply, whilst I do think pessimists like Chang may have a point and that at some point their predictions may come true (hence the title) I don't think it will be any time soon, at least not in the next year.

Anyway, now for a G&T and a mince pie to ring in the new year!

[Picture: A photo of only the second public statue of Mao Ze Dong I have seen in seven years on-and-off of travelling in China. Taken during my trip to Chengdu in June, about which more later]

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Shaun Rein: "Shame on CNN . . I have no idea if Chen’s being wronged or not"

This latest piece by ultra-apologist Shaun Rein on Christian Bale getting roughed up on-camera really does take the cake:

"CNN’s China team, in a complete failure of journalistic integrity, decided last week to become the news rather than just report it. The actor Christian Bale called CNN to follow him as he drove for eight hours to confront police to try to see Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist being held in his home in the eastern Chinese village of Linyi. Bale was in China to promote his movie about the Rape of Nanking by Japanese troops in 1937.

CNN did Bale one better. It became complicit in Bale’s activism by actually planning the trip and driving him to Linyi. CNN reporter Steven Jiang then translated for Bale as he argued with Chinese police officers and refused to comply with their directives to leave.

. . . .

Bale and CNN’s publicity stunt indicts an entire political system without delving deeper into the reality of Chen’s detention and the interplay between the central and local governments. I have no idea about Chen’s detention, and if he is being wronged or not, but if there are issues with his case, I am not convinced that calling the entire political class “disgusting,” as Bale does, can help."

Let's leave aside Rein's plugging elsewhere in the article of his yet-to-be-published book which (at least judging by the title) has nothing to do with the issues discussed in the piece. Let's also leave aside the fact that the "police men" in the video never identified themselves as such, and delivered their "directives to leave" with their fists.

Instead, let's simply focus on what Rein's saying here. Basically, Rein feels quite qualified to pass judgement on what exactly the journalistic standards are that CNN should obey. He also feels perfectly qualified to say whether a camera team that follows an activist is "complicit in [their] activism". However, on the question of whether it is correct to keep an innocent man and his family under house arrest without charge or acknowledgement of arrest, and to beat up those attempting to see him, he suddenly does not feel qualified to pass judgement.

That's right, a man who feels free to comment on everything from the levels of 'real' poverty in China, to who should win the Nobel Peace Prize (answer: Deng Xiaoping, no, really), to whether or not Chelsea Clinton's wedding affected her mothers diplomatic activities, suddenly finds himself unable to say whether an innocent blind man should be imprisoned without charge.

Is this informed commentary? Is this even the attitude of a responsible adult? Or is it instead transparent, self-interested, and cynical shilling for the PRC government - the government that Rein has elsewhere boasted of his connections with, and which is keeping a blind man and his family under house arrest without justification?

I'm not saying that Rein should necessarily have to write about Chen Guangcheng. I'm also not saying that CNN's tactics did not have a certain element of theatre in them - although in my opinion this was justified given the circumstances, since the best way of showing that everyone who tries to see Chen Guangcheng is attacked is to do it yourself.

What I am criticising here is the thinly disguised attempt by Rein to use his Forbes column as a platform to attack Bale and CNN whilst claiming total ignorance of the circumstances surrounding their actions - circumstances which even casual observers of China are already quite aware of. Both the piece itself and Rein's apparent motives for writing it are utterly discreditable, and he should disown them.

Tuesday 20 December 2011


Since I'm now on holiday back in (not very) sunny old Blighty, I thought I'd take the time to describe some of my travels from earlier this year. First off is the visit I made to Beijing as part of a business trip in June.

I'd last visited the city when my parents came to visit China in 2005 when, to say the least, my impressions of the city had been somewhat mixed. Whilst I had enjoyed my visit to the museums and the Forbidden City - which was then still in a slight state of disrepair but also a wonderful oasis of quiet in the city - I had found the pollution and politicised atmosphere of the city a bit oppressive compared to, say, Shanghai.

Fast-forwarding six years to the post-Olympics age the city had changed in some ways but not in others. The politicised atmosphere of the capital is still there, the pollution is seemingly worse (at least to my totally untrained eyes), but the new construction in the city has led to obvious benefits in terms of improved transportation, if not always in terms of aesthetics.

However, once business was concluded, my experience of the city this time was rather more laid back. Without the rush to take in all the sights, I was first able to spend an enjoyable lunch with a fellow former Nanjingtonian, and then an evening enjoying the peaceful vibe down at edge of lake Houhai - very touristy for sure, but as a tourist I could hardly complain.

After that, as well as after several misadventures with taxi drivers who did not seem to know the first thing about their city's layout, I met up with some friends at Nearby The Tree, a Beijing expat bar, and whiled away the hours until quite late shooting pool and drinking Belgian beers with the owner. I got on to my flight back to Poland over a stunningly beautiful Siberia the next day hung-over but contented.

So has my experience sold me on Beijing? I'm afraid I'm still something of a sceptic - the pollution is still a bit of a problem for me, but I can see myself being converted.

[Picture: The Beijing skyline as seen from my hotel window]

Vaclav Havel on the tears in Pyongyang

Right on the money:

“The manager of a fruit and vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?


That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper ‘decoration’ in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life ‘in harmony with society’, as they say.


Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan, ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient’, he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth.”

Watching the pictures of North Koreans crying over the death of Kim Il-Sung on the BBC here in the UK where I'm back for my Christmas holiday, I, and everyone in the room with me, could not prevent ourselves from laughing at the obvious fakeness of it all. It is impossible to believe that any of those crying are doing so genuinely, instead the tears communicate a distinct message: ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient’.

[Picture: Vaclav Havel (5th October 1936 - 18th December 2011), photo by Henryk Prykiel, via Wikicommons]