A charm offensive from the U.S. ambassador and a few fumbles from the Chinese government were amplified this year through the growing power of microblogging
U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, second left, shakes hands with bystanders outside Shuibu kindergarten in Taishan, Guangdong province, southern China. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)
Authoritarian regimes' days were supposed to be numbered in a web 2.0 world. Indeed, it has long been hypothesized that the proliferation of communication technology would lead to the demise of illiberal and strong-handed autocrats. It seemed impossible for any cabal of powerbrokers to remain immune to a public fitted with new tools of protest and collective action. The instantaneity and velocity of truths, pictures, and videos speeding across vast transnational networks made life very difficult for governments not accustomed to responding to the demands of the people. This year, it seemed that the cyber and technology utopians were proved prescient.
In the fertile crescent, a war concluded just as a revolution spread, toppling regimes more effectively in several months than the bloody and misplaced military adventure that lasted nearly a decade. From London to Athens, discontent sprung from unnecessary brutality and necessary austerity. From DC to San Francisco, occupiers and 99 percenters became disillusioned by how all men may be created equal, but grow into inequality. In Moscow, a popular indictment on crony capitalism proved that Putin's seeming invincibility is a canard. A unifying force is present in these uprisings and protests: the penetration of social media. Yet in China, apart from the current "contained" protests in Wukan, the state appears to be the exception to the political paroxysms afflicting numerous corners of the globe.
But it would be a mistake to believe that the Chinese government is not shaken by the unpredictable anti-incumbent contagion that has infected regions as diverse as Tunisia and the United States. Although the Chinese political establishment remains intact, it is facing popular pressures unprecedented in the regime's recent history, precisely because of the rapid adoption of new media that undermine its traditional information monopoly. In fact, 2011 was arguably the year in which the Chinese Twitterati found a voice and flashed its teeth, not to overtly challenge the state's legitimacy, but to hold it more accountable than it prefers. In the absence of a robust legal system, the government is now being forced to answer itself in the court of public opinion.
Several issues stand out for me in the past year:
1. The high-speed rail crash: It became a sensation in the Chinese microblog universe, triggering a tsunami of criticism at government handling of the incident and the larger issue of crony capitalism that is all too common in today's China. The episode prompted the government to undertake a comprehensive safety evaluation, sack the rail minister, and pledge more transparency.
2. The controversy over air quality measurements: The horrendous pollution in Beijing in recent months lit up on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblog, where many inveighed against a government withholding crucial air-quality information from its citizens. The story even contained a minor wrinkle in U.S.-China relations. As the U.S. embassy's own twitter feed tracked the PM2.5 pollution particle, it earned the trust of the Chinese public, embarrassing a Chinese government that tried, but failed, to convince the public that it is yet another American ploy to destabilize China. Under intense pressure, officials had to concede that it must make more information public.
3. Gary Locke's unintended charm offensive: A rock star before he even boarded a plane for Beijing, Ambassador Locke became an overnight celebrity among the Chinese Twitterati. Photos of him purchasing Starbucks coffee with a coupon and carrying his own luggage drew wide approval among the Chinese public. As I have noted, trumpeting an US official's "average-ness" is a reflection of the Chinese public's own displeasure at the braggadocio, elitist attitude, and unchecked authority of its own officials.
Just as it is apparently en vogue these days to use "China" as a mirror for our own considerable dysfunctions (I'm looking at you Tom Friedman), we often forget that the Chinese public, too, deploys "America" as an instrument to reflect on their own shortcomings. And in each of the above cases, the unspoken but obvious deficiency is that the Chinese regime is facing a growing credibility gap in governance, in large part because it can no longer construct a singular reality, for it is being coopted by individuals weibo-ing, blogging, and YouKu-ing. At its most elemental, it is evolving into a contestation of truth between the state and society.
So far, the power of social media in China primarily resides in its seeming capacity to hold the government accountable, incrementally influencing its behavior. It has not been a regime-wide destabilizing force, not least because the state has overwhelming capacity to control the system. At the same time, however, social media has a disproportionate impact in the Chinese context because it is perceived as one of the only unfiltered channels of information. Its exponential growth clearly unnerves the Chinese government, which is already taking action by requiring real name registration on weibo. Yet weibo is almost "too big to fail"—shutting it down would exact too high of a cost. To give a sense of the size of the internet and social media penetration, I found this series from "We are Social" mind-boggling (h/t to China Hush):
Scale matters. These numbers are dizzyingly large, and they certainly look frightening to the Chinese government. To be sure, the regime has been particularly adept at preventing sparks from setting the prairie on fire. The Great Firewall was supposed to be the all-enveloping fire-proof net, though it was never without leaks. And can it contain 350 million+ sparks, or how about half a billion? The key question, then, is whether the Communist Party, wading into the uncharted waters of controlling social media, double down on its current approach of ham-fisted repression or adapt to the inevitable reality by becoming more open and publicly accountable.
To that question we anxiously await the answers. And so are the villagers in Wukan.
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.
When the government shuts down, the politicians pipe up.
No sooner had a midnight deadline passed without congressional action on a must-pass spending bill than lawmakers launched their time-honored competition over who gets the blame for their collective failure. The Senate floor became a staging ground for dueling speeches early Saturday morning, and lawmakers of both parties—as well as the White House and political-activist groups—flooded the inboxes of reporters with prewritten statements castigating one side or the other.
Led by President Trump, Republicans accused Senate Democrats of holding hostage the entire government and health insurance for millions of children over their demands for an immigration bill. “This is the behavior of obstructionist losers, not legislators,” the White House said in a statement issued moments before the clock struck midnight. In a series of Saturday-morning tweets, Trump said Democrats had given him “a nice present” for the first anniversary of his inauguration. The White House vowed that no immigration talks would occur while the government is closed, and administration officials sought to minimize public anger by allowing agencies to use leftover funds and by keeping national parks and public lands partially accessible during the shutdown—in effect, by not shutting down the government as fully as the Obama administration did in 2013.
Their peaceful premises and intricate rule systems are changing the way Americans play—and helping shape an industry in the process.
In a development that would have been hard to imagine a generation ago, when video games were poised to take over living rooms, board games are thriving. Overall, the latest available data shows that U.S. sales grew by 28 percent between the spring of 2016 and the spring of 2017. Revenues are expected to rise at a similar rate into the early 2020s—largely, says one analyst, because the target audience “has changed from children to adults,” particularly younger ones.
Much of this success is traceable to the rise of games that, well, get those adults acting somewhat more like children. Clever, low-overhead card games such as Cards Against Humanity, Secret Hitler, and Exploding Kittens (“A card game for people who are into kittens and explosions”) have sold exceptionally well. Games like these have proliferated on Kickstarter, where anyone with a great idea and a contact at an industrial printing company can circumvent the usual toy-and-retail gatekeepers who green-light new concepts. (The largest project category on Kickstarter is “Games,” and board games make up about three-quarters of those projects.)
Allegations against the comedian are proof that women are angry, temporarily powerful—and very, very dangerous.
Sexual mores in the West have changed so rapidly over the past 100 years that by the time you reach 50, intimate accounts of commonplace sexual events of the young seem like science fiction: You understand the vocabulary and the sentence structure, but all of the events take place in outer space. You’re just too old.
This was my experience reading the account of one young woman’s alleged sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, published by the website Babe this weekend. The world in which it constituted an episode of sexual assault was so far from my own two experiences of near date rape (which took place, respectively, during the Carter and Reagan administrations, roughly between the kidnapping of the Iran hostages and the start of the Falklands War) that I just couldn’t pick up the tune. But, like the recent New Yorker story “Cat Person”—about a soulless and disappointing hookup between two people who mostly knew each other through texts—the account has proved deeply resonant and meaningful to a great number of young women, who have responded in large numbers on social media, saying that it is frighteningly and infuriatingly similar to crushing experiences of their own. It is therefore worth reading and, in its way, is an important contribution to the present conversation.
Entertainment glorifying or excusing predatory male behavior is everywhere—from songs about “blurred lines” to TV shows where rapists marry their victims.
Edward Cullen. Chuck Bass. Lloyd Dobler. Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That guy from Love Actually with the sign. The lead singers of emo bands with their brooding lyrics. Many of the romantic heroes that made me swoon in my youth followed a pattern and, like a Magic Eye picture, only with a little distance did the shape of it pop out to me. All of these characters in some way crossed, or at least blurred, the lines of consent, aggressively pursuing women with little or no regard for their desires. But these characters’ actions, and those of countless other leading men across the pop-culture landscape, were more likely to be portrayed as charming than scary.
Romance often involves a bit of pursuit—someone has to make a move, after all. And there’s certainly a spectrum of pursuit: Sometimes supposedly romantic gestures in pop culture veer toward the horrendous or illegal; sometimes they’re just a bit creepy or overzealous. But revisiting some of these fictional love stories can leave one with the understanding that intrusive attention is proof of men’s passion, and something women should welcome. In a number of cases, male characters who were acknowledged to have gone too far—by, for example, actually forcing themselves on women—were quickly forgiven, or their actions compartmentalized and forgotten.
The website made a name for itself by going after Aziz Ansari, and now it’s hurting the momentum of #MeToo.
Fifteen years ago, Hollywood’s glittering superstars—among them Meryl Streep— were on their feet cheering for Roman Polanski, the convicted child rapist and fugitive from justice, when he won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Director. But famous sex criminals of the motion picture and television arts have lately fallen out of fashion, as the industry attempts not just to police itself but—where would we be without them?—to instruct all of us on how to lead our lives.
The Golden Globes ceremony had the angry, unofficial theme of “Time’s Up,” which quickly and predictably became unmoored from its original meaning, as excited winners tried to align their entertaining movies and TV shows with the message. By the time Laura Dern—a quiver in her voice—connected the nighttime soap opera Big Little Lies to America’s need to institute “restorative justice,” it seemed we’d set a course for the moon but ended up on Jupiter: close, but still 300 million miles away. And then Oprah Winfrey climbed the stairs to the stage, and I knew she wouldn’t just bat clean-up; she’d bring home the pennant.
401(k) fees are costing you hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime.
Humans are horrible at understanding compound interest, and it's making our golden years much less so.
Think about your 401(k). The first thing you probably look at when you pick your funds is their returns. It's only human nature. Everybody likes to think about their nest eggs growing and growing and growing—especially if they're growing a little bit faster than everybody else's. But, in this case, human nature is costing you hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The sad fact is that returns aren't certain, but fees are. Now, maybe everything will go according to plan, and your 401(k) will be partying like it's 1999. Maybe the 1 percent—or more—that you're paying in fees will actually buy you market-beating returns. But probably not. You can see this in the chart to the left from Vanguard. It shows the percentage of actively managed funds that have underperformed index funds over the short and longer hauls, net of fees. Which is to say, most of them. It's hard enough for funds to beat their benchmarks over just one to three-year periods. But that gets damn near impossible the longer you go. Once you account for survivorship bias—that bad funds go bust, and disappear from the sample—almost 80 percent of actively managed funds don't beat simple index funds over 10 to 15-year periods.
Stories of gray areas are exactly what more men need to hear.
The story of Aziz Ansari and “Grace” is playing out as a sort of Rorschach test.
One night in the lives of two young people with vintage cameras is crystallizing debate over an entire movement. Depending on how readers were primed to see the ink blot, it can be taken as evidence that the ongoing cultural audit is exactly on track—getting more granular in challenging unhealthy sex-related power dynamics—or that it has gone off the rails, and innocent men are now suffering, and we are collectively on the brink of a sex panic.
Since the story’s publication on Saturday (on the website Babe, without comment from Ansari, and attributed to a single anonymous source), some readers have seen justice in Ansari’s humiliation. Some said they would no longer support his work. They saw in this story yet another case of a man who persisted despite literal and implied cues that sex was not what a woman wanted.Some saw further proof that the problems are systemic, permeating even “normal” encounters.
Guillaume Dumas attended classes, made friends, and networked on some of America's most prestigious campuses—for free. What does this say about the value of a diploma?
If you want to start taking classes at an Ivy League university unenrolled and undetected, says Guillaume Dumas, a 28-year-old Canadian, start with big lecture courses. If you must sit in on a smaller seminar class, it’s important to show up consistently starting with the first session, instead of halfway through the semester. Also, one of the best alibis is that you’re enrolled as a liberal-arts student. “That's the kind of program that's filled with everything and that you expect people to be a bit weird, a bit confused about what they do,” he says.
From 2008 to 2012, Dumas claims he did stints on a number of elite North American universities—Yale, Brown, UC Berkeley, Stanford, and McGill, to name a few—sitting in on classes, attending parties, and living near campus as if he were an enrolled student. This deception may sound like a lead-up to a true-crime story, but Dumas’s exploits appear to be harmless, done in a spirit of curiosity. "A lot of students are bored in class," he observes, "so if you participate, if you ask questions, if you are genuinely interested in the class, I think the teacher will like you."
After viewing news photographs from China for years, one of my favorite visual themes is “large crowds in formation.”
After viewing news photographs from China for years, one of my favorite visual themes is “large crowd formations.” Whether the subject is military parades or world-record attempts, mass exercises or enormous performances, the images are frequently remarkable. The masses of people can look beautiful or intimidating, projecting a sense of strength and abundance. Individuals can become pixels in a huge painting, or points on a grid, or echoes of each other in identical uniforms or costumes. I've gathered some of these images below, taken around China over the past several years. (Note: A few of these images can create a dizzying effect when viewed while scrolling, which is fun, but could be surprising.)
An infamous gap in Interstate 95 will finally be closed this summer.
PENNINGTON, N.J.—The past few years have been thick with promises of shiny new infrastructure and the revival of American greatness.
Funny, then, that so little has been made of a quiet victory for U.S. infrastructure due later this year. By September 2018, one of the country’s most famous civil-engineering projects will finally complete construction, six decades after work on it began.
Interstate 95, the country’s most used highway, will finally run as one continuous road between Miami and Maine by the late summer. The interstate’s infamous “gap” on the Pennsylvania and New Jersey border will be closed, turning I-95 into an unbroken river of concrete more than 1,900 miles long. In so doing, it will also mark a larger milestone, say transportation officials—the completion of the original United States interstate system.