The Chinese leadership will face daunting challenges in the coming year
It is appropriate that the year began with the Tiger Mom and closed with an official indictment of the management of the Chinese high-speed rail program. The book ends of this year's China narrative capture the zeitgeist in 2011: the ever fiercer duels between the China bulls and bears. Yes, Amy Chua is American, but her story became instantly linked to the general competitive fears that Americans had about what appeared to be an unstoppable juggernaut -- perhaps one of the most overused nouns in describing China. From raising future Ivy Leaguers to clocking the fastest bullet trains, the Chinese can do it all and with exacting efficiency. It was a year in which many latched onto the China story, many more traveled to China for days or weeks and commented on it, and many used the country as a reflection of America's own debilitating dysfunctions. A "juggernaut" it may be, but China's size is also its curse. The country is no longer under the proprietary province of China specialists -- it is now subject to Saturday Night Live parodies and Gary Shteyngart's literary satire. For better or worse, 2011 saw the democratization of the China narrative.
This debate is due in large part a consequence of this democratization, leading to a proliferation of "takes" on China that make it difficult to separate the good from the bad. Each camp can marshal enough evidence to support their respective cases. To be sure, the China bulls had plenty of ammunition entering into 2011. China was the indisputable growth engine in the wake of the financial crisis, just as the Eurozone was lurching from fiscal to political crises and the U.S. faced abysmal employment figures. Formally assuming the #2 spot in the global economy, China took on some swagger. President Hu Jintao's January state visit in Washington was popularly viewed as a debt-collection exercise (call that the "SNL effect"). I recall watching Hu's motorcade, regaled in Chinese flags, descending Connecticut Avenue as a random passerby quipped, "you know what that means, he's gonna want his money back."
Of course, Hu wasn't asking for his money back and in fact continued to pile China's foreign exchange reserves into U.S. Treasuries as the export sector boomed amid a global downturn. Yet support for an export-led strategy had already waned and was clearly de-prioritized as Beijing finally unveiled its long-awaited 12th Five-Year Plan in March, as I have previously discussed. (Also see here, here, and here.) The rebalancing agenda incorporates a major effort to restructure China's energy landscape, including a commitment to nuclear energy. And so, despite initial concerns over the prospects of China's nuclear program in the immediate aftermath of the tragic Fukushima disaster, China never intended to ditch its ambitious program. The Chinese position lent some cheers for those hoping for a nuclear renaissance.
Things appeared rather swell, even as the perception on China began to shift. For the next several months, China was walloped by investor bears, who overwhelmed the bulls. Few were as colorful as investor guru Jim Chanos in describing China as running on a "treadmill to hell". But the compounded effect of stubbornly high inflation, a clampdown on the property sector, cleaning up the stimulus hangover, a deadly bullet train crash, and embarrassing discoveries of fraudulent Chinese IPOs all made China appear much more wobbly than many had thought. And all of this took place as the Arab Spring reached a crescendo, prompting the arrest of activist Ai Weiwei -- the Liu Xiaobo of 2011 -- and as the mood over Eurozone prospects grew darker than ever. "Pork prices," "ghost cities," "hard landing," "political repression," and "debt-laden local governments" became the watch words for the rest of the year.
So did the Beijing mandarins over-tighten as it was heading into a double dip because of Europe? In other words, was China repeating the mistakes of the 2007-08 period? For markets, China was the remaining leg in the tripod of global growth -- the other two being the U.S. and EU -- and any sputtering of its economic engine could prove disastrous. Beijing responded by signaling a looser fiscal and monetary policy to put a floor on growth, even as it is determined to keep the screws tight on the housing market to prevent another bout of irrational exuberance. Why? Because despite the preference for full-throttle growth by some, the Chinese public still ranked inflation and housing prices as top issues in 2011, according to a recent survey by an influential state think tank (h/t China Smack):
Indeed, nearly 60 percent of respondents believe that inflation was the #1 issue, while housing costs ranked #6. Healthcare and education costs, employment, social security, wealth gap, and corruption all made the top ten. These are largely bread-and-butter issues that have little to do with demanding Western-style political liberalization, though corruption and the income gap would require political solutions. What transpired in "Occupy Wukan" over the last month or so was not an urgent demand for democracy, but is emblematic of the worsening rural-urban divide and local government malfeasance. Wukan alone won't bring down the Chinese government, but the two structural maladies, if left untreated, could, not least because they have before.
That is precisely what the rebalancing agenda seeks to solve. It is meant to rescue the party-state from defeating itself by allowing these problems to fester. I think what I wrote in last year's wrap-up remains valid as we head into 2012:
...But the outstanding question remains whether China's leaders will pursue the right policies with the kind of urgency necessary. Major economic adjustments are usually never pleasant, and most leaders would prefer to minimize the pain on the largest swath of the population possible during that process. The Chinese are no different in this regard, but how much heavy-lifting can they tolerate?
Yu and a similarly reform-minded lot are advocating temerity over timidity, likely in a bid to influence the direction of debate as there are forces inevitably arrayed against them. Plenty of interests in China eschew these changes that will involve taking away some of their wealth, likely prompting a vigorous defense of the status quo...
To me, one of the biggest questions next year is whether China can create the necessary political conditions, amid one of the most important transitions in a decade, to forge ahead with its restructuring. With the anticipated slow down in growth and a shrinking export surplus, there appears to be an opportunity to steer the ship of state in a different direction. Yet with a political leadership still unsettled, I find it hard to be optimistic over the extent of progress next year. But I am fully open to being surprised.
Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
When two black holes collide, the noises scientists hear are birdlike.
This morning, scientists from the Laser Interferometer Gravity Observatory announced that LIGO had detected gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes, an event so cataclysmic that it converted the mass of three solar systems into pure energy in about a tenth of a second.
Scientists have been trying to figure out how to “listen” to gravitational waves—and to prove their existence—ever since Einstein predicted them in 1915. But until September 14, 2015, when the colliding black-hole event was first detected, this was beyond our technical abilities. In the words of Scott Hughes, “Gravity is a weak force. Measuring these things is bloody hard.”
Hughes is a theoretical physicist at MIT who has been contemplating LIGO since its inception in 1992. He has struggled with a question at the heart of the observatory program: Once we do hear gravitational waves, how will we know where they come from? How can we use them to explore the mysteries of the cosmos? To this end, Hughes has modeled the “sounds” of a host of astrophysical events, including colliding black holes. (You can listen to his impressions of these sounds below.)