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.
More on the F-16 and Cessna crash, and whether the collision of a military and a civilian aircraft was also a collision of cultures
Early this month an Air Force F-16, under the command of an experienced Air Force pilot, rammed into a small-civilian Cessna 150 propeller plane, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; both people aboard the Cessna were killed.
The next three paragraphs are background for the pointed and interesting reader-messages I am about to quote. If you’re already up to speed with previous installments (one, two, three), you can skip ahead to the messages. They highlight an aspect of the modern military-civilian divide I had not considered before this episode.
In an original item on the crash, I noted some of the perils civilians could face when flying near designated military areas—even though this crash happened in ordinary uncontrolled airspace. That is, it occurred when neither plane was within a Military Operations Area (MOA), where civilian pilots are warned about risks from high-speed military aircraft, nor inside the controlled “Class C” airspace that surrounds Charleston’s airport. (Medium-sized commercial airports like Charleston’s typically are ringed by Class C airspace, so the controllers can sequence in the airline, cargo, civilian, military, and other traffic headed toward their runways. The very busiest airports, like LAX or JFK, are surrounded by larger zones of Class B airspace for their more complex traffic-control jobs. In case you’re wondering, Class A airspace is the realm above 18,000 feet where most jet travel occurs.)
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
U.S. officials are turning to Russia for help with Iran and Syria, even as the Ukrainian conflict persists.
If you believe all the talk out there lately, Vladimir Putin is not only duplicitous and hypocritical—the Russian president’s also been pretty damn busy recently. Busy cutting secret deals with the same Europeans and Americans he has been vilifying for years. And if you believe the rumors, the Europeans and Americans have also been busy selling out Ukraine to the Russians.
Not that any of this would be unusual or particularly surprising. Cynicism, duplicity, and hypocrisy are often the reserve currencies of politics, where interests tend to trump values.
There have long been suspicions that the United States and Europe might give Ukraine up in exchange for Russia’s support in securing a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Additionally, Washington has been seeking Moscow’s backing in securing a managed, orderly, and negotiated exit for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, which would go a long way toward ending the conflict in that country.
The agreement doesn’t guarantee that Tehran will never produce nuclear weapons—because no agreement could do so.
A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.
On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.
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.
Orr: “Sometimes a thing happens. Splits your life. There’s a before and after. I got like five of them at this point.”
This was Frank offering a pep talk to the son of his murdered former henchman Stan in tonight’s episode. (More on this in a moment.) But it’s also a line that captures this season of True Detective so perfectly that it almost seems like a form of subliminal self-critique.
Remember when Ray got shot in episode two and appeared to be dead but came back with a renewed sense of purpose and stopped drinking. No? That’s okay. Neither does the show: It was essentially forgotten after the subsequent episode. Remember when half a dozen (or more) Vinci cops were killed in a bloody shootout along with dozen(s?) of civilians? No? Fine: True Detective’s left that behind, too. Unless I missed it, there was not a single mention of this nationally historic bloodbath tonight.
Has the Obama administration’s pursuit of new beginnings blinded it to enduring enmities?
“The president said many times he’s willing to step out of the rut of history.” In this way Ben Rhodes of the White House, who over the years has broken new ground in the grandiosity of presidential apologetics, described the courage of Barack Obama in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the Islamic Republic of Iran, otherwise known as the Iran deal. Once again Rhodes has, perhaps inadvertently, exposed the president’s premises more clearly than the president likes to do. The rut of history: It is a phrase worth pondering. It expresses a deep scorn for the past, a zeal for newness and rupture, an arrogance about old struggles and old accomplishments, a hastiness with inherited precedents and circumstances, a superstition about the magical powers of the present. It expresses also a generational view of history, which, like the view of history in terms of decades and centuries, is one of the shallowest views of all.