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.
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.
Without the financial support that many white families can provide, minority young people have to continually make sacrifices that set them back.
The year after my father died, I graduated from grad school, got a new job, and looked forward to saving for a down payment on my first home, a dream I had always had, but found lofty. I pulled up a blank spreadsheet and made a line item called “House Fund.”
That same week I got a call from my mom—she was struggling to pay off my dad’s funeral expenses. I looked at my “House Fund” and sighed. Then I deleted it and typed the words “Funeral Fund” instead.
My father’s passing was unexpected. And so was the financial burden that came with it.
For many Millennials of color, these sorts of trade-offs aren’t an anomaly. During key times in their lives when they should be building assets, they’re spending money on basic necessities and often helping out family. Their financial future is a rocky one, and much of it comes down to how much—or how little—assistance they receive.
Maya Arulpragasam is a famous rapper, singer, designer, producer, and refugee. When she was 9, her mother and siblings fled violence in Sri Lanka and came to London, and the experience was formative for her art. As she explained to The Guardian in 2005 after the release of her debut Arular, “I was a refugee because of war and now I have a voice in a time when war is the most invested thing on the planet. What I thought I should do with this record is make every refugee kid that came over after me have something to feel good about. Take everybody’s bad bits and say, ‘Actually, they’re good bits. Now whatcha gonna do?’”
That goal—to glorify people and practices that the developed world marginalizes—has been a constant in her career. Her new music video tackles it in a particularly literal and urgent way, not only by showing solidarity with refugees at a moment when they’re extremely controversial in the West, but also by posing a simple question to listeners: Whose lives do you value?
To solve climate change, we need to reimagine our entire relationship to the nonhuman world.
Humans were once a fairly average species of large mammals, living off the land with little effect on it. But in recent millennia, our relationship with the natural world has changed as dramatically as our perception of it.
There are now more than 7 billion people on this planet, drinking its water, eating its plants and animals, and mining its raw materials to build and power our tools. These everyday activities might seem trivial from the perspective of any one individual, but aggregated together they promise to leave lasting imprints on the Earth. Human power is now geological in scope—and if we are to avoid making a mess of this, our only home, our politics must catch up.
Making this shift will require a radical change in how we think about our relationship to the natural world. That may sound like cause for despair. After all, many people refuse to admit that environmental crises like climate change exist at all. But as Jedediah Purdy reminds us in his dazzling new book, After Nature, our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time. People have imagined nature in a great many ways across history.
Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other presidential contenders appease Donald Trump at their own peril.
Give Donald Trump this: He has taught Americans something about the candidates he’s running against. He has exposed many of them as political cowards.
In August, after Trump called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists” and vowed to build a wall along America’s southern border, Jeb Bush traveled to South Texas to respond. Bush’s wife is Mexican American; he has said he’s “immersed in the immigrant experience”; he has even claimed to be Hispanic himself. Yet he didn’t call Trump’s proposals immoral or bigoted, since that might offend Trump’s nativist base. Instead, Bush declared: “Mr. Trump’s plans are not grounded in conservative principles. His proposal is unrealistic. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.” In other words, demonizing and rounding up undocumented Mexican immigrants is fine, so long as it’s done cheap.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
The generation has been called lazy, entitled, and narcissistic. Their bosses beg to differ.
Yes, many Millennials are still crashing on their parent’s couches. And there’s data to support the claim that they generally want more perks but less face time, and that they hope to rise quickly but don’t stick around for very long. Millennials have also been pretty vocal about their desire to have more flexible jobs and more leave time.
But does all of this mean that all Millennials are actually worse workers?
Laura Olin, a digital campaigner who ran social-media strategy for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, says that’s not been her experience. “You always hear about Millennials supposedly being entitled and needing coddling, but the ones I’ve encountered have been incredibly hard-working and recognize that they need to pay their dues.”
What I learned from attending a town-hall meeting and listening to students’ concerns
Sometimes it takes a group of young people to set you straight.
For months now, I’ve been reading about college students who’ve been seeking “safe spaces.” They’ve often been met by derision—even the highest ranked Urban Dictionary definition is mired in sarcasm, describing them as having “pillows” and “soothing music” that “allows them to recover from the trauma... of exposure to ideas that conflict with their leftist professors.”
I also had some mid-life skepticism about teenage hyperbole, that is, until I attended a town hall meeting at Duke University (my alma mater) earlier this month. The “community conversation,” as it was called, had been hastily convened to discuss the rash of racist and homophobic incidents on campus. Listening to those students—and watching their expressions—I realized that what’s been happening at Duke is serious, and no amount of sarcasm can disguise the pain and anger on campus, or cover up the real dangers lurking there.
Places like St. Louis and New York City were once similarly prosperous. Then, 30 years ago, the United States turned its back on the policies that had been encouraging parity.
Despite all the attention focused these days on the fortunes of the “1 percent,” debates over inequality still tend to ignore one of its most politically destabilizing and economically destructive forms. This is the growing, and historically unprecedented, economic divide that has emerged in recent decades among the different regions of the United States.
Until the early 1980s, a long-running feature of American history was the gradual convergence of income across regions. The trend goes back to at least the 1840s, but grew particularly strong during the middle decades of the 20th century. This was, in part, a result of the South catching up with the North in its economic development. As late as 1940, per-capita income in Mississippi, for example, was still less than one-quarter that of Connecticut. Over the next 40 years, Mississippians saw their incomes rise much faster than did residents of Connecticut, until by 1980 the gap in income had shrunk to 58 percent.