The BBC's James Reynolds tries to get himself and a cameraman into Tiananmen Square on June 4th:
Bizarre. But still an improvement over tanks and rubber bullets.
H/T to Michael O'CC for the Twitter update.
Steve Chapman looks at the progress in China since the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests 20 years ago:
It was an intoxicating moment that didn't last. By the morning of June 4, the government had reversed course, sending the army to crush the long-running student demonstration in the capital's Tiananmen Square, leaving hundreds dead, and the Beijing Spring was over.
Since that day, China has undergone such a broad transformation that it is almost unrecognizable. The economy has opened up to markets, private property, and foreign trade. Living standards have soared. The government that once preached world revolution now provides credit to sustain American consumption. Chinese students go abroad to attend universities in bastions of capitalism.
China has indeed come a long, long way from 1989, and it's difficult to put it into perspective: few other countries could have changed that much without a bloody and destructive revolution or six. I may still have my issues about China's official statistics, but I do acknowledge and applaud the progress toward greater freedom for ordinary Chinese people:
By now, [the Communist Party] has had to abandon its own ideology and invoke Western principles. In his 2007 speech to the national party congress, President Hu Jintao used the term "democracy" some 60 times, while calling for the government to be more open, accountable and limited.
This declaration should not be taken on faith, but it's not just lip service. Democratic elections have become common at the village level. The government clearly strives to take public sentiment into account in making policy. When an earthquake devastated Sichuan province a year ago, foreign reporters were allowed unprecedented freedom to cover the aftermath. A system of law is emerging.
Democracy is better than dictatorship, but it's not a panacea. The rule of law, protection of the person and of property, and ease of redress are all more significant to the individual, and they are still not up to western standards. It does, however, make it much harder for governments to go back to older, more tyrannical practices. This is all to the good.
Lester Haines notes that Google Maps has blanked out all the details of North Korea:
We're not quite sure what's going on down at Google Maps, but the search monolith's cartographical service has decided that the world would be a better place if North Korea were one big blank:
If you want to explore the great blank hermit, try North Korea Economy Watch instead.
According to a report by Sachiko Sakamaki and Takashi Hirokawa, Japan's government may be seriously considering dumping their post-WW2 pacifist constitution in order to attack North Korea:
"North Korea poses a serious and realistic threat to Japan," former defense chief Gen Nakatani said today in Tokyo at a meeting of Liberal Democratic Party officials. "We must look at active missile defense such as attacking an enemy's territory and bases."
One option would be to equip navy ships with cruise missiles, Nakatani said.
Japan should change its policy and permit attacks on hostile areas, an LDP panel proposed last week following North Korea's April 5 ballistic missile test. Under Japan's pacifist constitution, drafted by the U.S. after World War II, the country is forbidden to use force to settle global disputes.
North Korea said yesterday it conducted its second nuclear explosion since 2006 and fired three short-range missiles. The Stalinist country last month said it would strengthen its nuclear deterrence after the United Nations Security Council criticized North Korea’s April missile launch.
If any nation could be said to be fully aware of the dangers of nuclear weapons, it is Japan. While it is scary to other nations that a rogue state has demonstrated the ability to use atomic bombs, Japan is the only country that has been the target of nuclear warfare.
If you've read the blog for a while, you'll know that I'm pretty skeptical about how believable the official statistics coming from the Chinese government may be. The Economist is somewhat undecided on the matter . . . sometimes publishing articles that treat the official numbers as legitimate and other times, showing more doubt:
Part of the recent optimism in world markets rests on the belief that China's fiscal-stimulus package is boosting its economy and that GDP growth could come close to the government's target of 8% this year. Some economists, however, suspect that the figures overstate the economy's true growth rate and that Beijing would report 8% regardless of the truth. Is China cheating?
Economists have long doubted the credibility of Chinese data and it is widely accepted that GDP growth was overstated during the previous two downturns. In 1998-99, during the Asian financial crisis, China's GDP grew by an average of 7.7%, according to official figures. However, using alternative measures of activity, such as energy production, air travel and imports, Thomas Rawski of the University of Pittsburgh calculated that the growth rate was at best 2%. Other economists reckon that Mr Rawski was too pessimistic. Arthur Kroeber of Dragonomics, a research firm in Beijing, estimates GDP growth was around 5% in 1998-99, for example. The top chart, plotting the official growth rate against estimates by Dragonomics, clearly suggests that some massaging of the government statistics may have gone on. The biggest adjustment seems to have been made in 1989, the year of political protests in Tiananmen Square. Officially, GDP grew by over 4%; Dragonomics reckons it actually declined by 1.5%.
Of course, The Economist doesn't want to lose sales in China, so the last paragraph of the article blithely re-assures readers that things are improving and that the official numbers are much harder to fudge now than they used to be. That may well be true (I rather hope it is), but in the same way that you can get much more impressive growth from a very small base, you can become much more honest with your numbers when you're starting from pure fiction.
Bowing to the inevitable (and the fearsomely effective Joanna Lumley), the British government has now officially stated that the Gurkha veterans and their families can stay in Britain:
All Gurkha veterans who retired before 1997 with at least four years' service will be allowed to settle in the UK, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has said.
Ms Smith told MPs she was "proud to offer this country's welcome to all who have served in the brigade of Gurkhas".
It comes after a high-profile campaign by Joanna Lumley and other supporters of Gurkha rights — and an embarrassing Commons defeat for the government.
Some 36,000 Gurkhas who left before 1997 had been denied UK residency.
Ms Lumley, the actress who has been the public face of the campaign on behalf of the Gurkhas, said: "This is the welcome we have always longed to give."
It's amazing how hard the British government was willing to fight against plain justice, decency, and common sense. But that's one of the things governments do. Ms. Lumley must be allowed her occasional flight of hyperbole:
She called Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who she had met earlier, a "brave man who has made today a brave decision on behalf of the bravest of the brave".
Brave? The man had to be winkled out of his bunker. He was fearless in pursuit of a bad policy — as long as nobody noticed. Which, of course, is what politicians also do.
Well, having been delayed from getting out of downtown yesterday for over an hour, thanks to illegal marches by Tamil Tiger supporters, I guess I've been converted . . . to supporting the Sri Lankan government. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has moved from relative indifference to active detestation of the protesting group, but I doubt that it will manifest itself in anything other than angry letters to the editor . . . and futile blog posts like this one.
Between the protests opposite the US consulate and yesterday's march, I've been prevented from visiting my client's office downtown for several days . . . and that takes money out of my pocket, as I can't bill them for time spent trying to get to their offices.
I still don't understand the logic behind the protests. Canada is not and never has been involved in political or military action in Sri Lanka. Anything the Canadian government might say on the matter will have precisely zero weight with either side in the conflict. It's not like we have a squadron of the Navy ready to swoop into action in the Indian Ocean, or any other form of power that could be projected into that area of the world. We are, literally, powerless to intervene.
Canada's diplomatic and humanitarian "voice" in that region is also non-existent, so just what is being achieved by the protest groups? Disrupting economic activity in large parts of downtown Toronto — during a period of economic hardship — garners media attention, but it's not making the Tamil cause more attractive to ordinary Canadians.
It's also, sadly, likely to create problems for Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi immigrants, as most Canadians have no idea who is or is not a Tamil (unless they're waving the banners of terrorist groups).
Update: Ottawa's chief of police is getting "racist e-mails" about the Tamil protests that blocked Wellington St. for several days.
Update, the second: Of course, we needed no further evidence of our deep unwillingness to confront terrorists and their supporters than the final sentence of this news report, "Police will be investigating the airplane message as a possible hate crime."
The possible hate crime message reportedly read "Protect Canada, stop the Tamil Tigers". Even under Canada's various anti-hate speech laws, I cannot comprehend how that message could be construed as hate speech. The Tamil Tigers were officially added to the Canadian government's list of terrorist organizations in 2006. How can it be illegal to advocate wanting to stop them?
Update, the third: Jon, my virtual landlord, sent along this rather depressing answer to my last question:
The banner mentions a protected group by name: Tamils
The phrase "Protect Canada" implies that Tamils pose a threat. The implication may lead people to distrust and possibly hate Tamils.
The fact that the Tamil Tigers organization is recognized as a terrorist group by several governments is irrelevant. Under the HRC rules, the truth is no defense.
So there you go: according to the OHRC and CHRC, the banner is a hate crime.
And you know what I am finding just a little disturbing here? The fact that I instantly came up with those points in my head as I read your question. I totally understand the logic behind this.
I do not remember drinking the KoolAid, but I am indeed full of it.
I understand how, but I do not understand why.
So it turns out that the overblown rhetoric of certain Imams is actually true — the "crusaders" really are trying to convert Afghan civilians to Christianity:
US Army chaplains in Afghanistan have called on American soldiers to spread the word of Jesus to Afghanistan. They're distributing Bibles printed in local languages, too — though the Army subsequently confiscated a bunch of the Bibles and reprimanded some of the soldiers involved.
If there's anything more likely to rile up the undecided and provide great recruiting material for the Taliban than this — except, of course, burning the top cash crop in the country — I can't think of it.
Ralph Peters is advocating a volte face in US relations in the subcontinent:
WHAT Washington calls "strategy" is usually just inertia: We can't imagine not supporting Pakistan because we've "always" supported Pakistan.
No matter how shamelessly Pakistan's leaders looted their own country, protected the Taliban, sponsored terror attacks on India, demanded aid and told us to kiss off when we asked for help, we had to back the Paks.
Because that's just the way things are.
Well, now that Islamist marauders are sweeping the country with violence as the generals in Rawalpindi mull "To be or not to be" and President Ali Asif Zardari knocks back another scotch behind closed doors, perhaps we should consider an alternative approach to this splintering, renegade state.
A better strategy's obvious. But Washington has trouble with the obvious. At our pathetic State Department, habit trumps innovation every time. And the Pentagon can't seem to see beyond the immediate battlefield.
What should we do? Dump Pakistan. Back India.
Given the state Pakistan is in, it's hard to imagine a positive outcome to the current situation: the Taliban and their ilk are taking over larger and larger areas, the military is at odds with the government, and everything seems to be moving towards greater instability. India, for all the problems they face, is significantly more stable politically and is a much more democratic and economically free country now than Pakistan.
The big reason for not switching to supporting India is the Pakistani nuclear arsenal, and the fear that it — or the technology to replicate it — will fall into the wrong hands. Given the states that Pakistan has already aided with nuclear weapon technology, it's hard to imagine how things could get worse.
There are other geo-political issues to consider:
Of course, there's also the issue of the Pentagon's bewildering incompetence in placing 50,000 of our troops at the end of a 1,500-mile supply line through Pakistan, rendering our forces virtual hostages of Islamabad.
The answer's another dose of common sense: Instead of increasing our troop numbers in Afghanistan, cut them. Instead of embracing the hopeless task of building a modern nation where no nation of any kind has ever existed, concentrate exclusively on killing al Qaeda terrorists and the hard-line Taliban elements who help them.
If Washington pays attention to Peters' advice, this is the last call for the current Afghan mission.
A report from The Daily Mirror on the British government's defeat over rules restricting retired Gurkha soldiers from living in Britain:
The Government suffered an embarrassing defeat today when MPs voted to give all Gurkha soldiers equal right of residence in Britain.
The Liberal Democrat motion to scrap new settlement rules for Gurkha veterans was supported by 267 to 246 MPs, a majority of 21.
Actress and pro-Gurkha rights campaigner Joanna Lumley, who was watching from the Commons public gallery as this afternoon's result was announced, said she was "elated" by the outcome.
"Just before this vote was taken our spirits were nearly at zero," she said.
"When it came through we saw it on the screen and I can't tell you the sense of elation, the sense of pride - pride in our country, pride in the democratic system and pride in our Parliament."
It was the first major reverse for Gordon Brown since he became Prime Minister but has no legally binding effect on Government policy.
Hurrah for the Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs who voted this government measure down. It's not a confidence motion, so the government survives the defeat in the house, but I certainly hope the prime minister changes course on this issue.
The British government is doing a fine job of portraying themselves as ingrates, as their latest move to "help" the Gurkha veterans illustrates:
With a treacherous swing of the political axe the Government ruled that only those awarded for bravery or at death's door would be allowed to settle in Britain.
Campaigners condemned new rules supposed to give more former Gurkhas the right to live in the UK as a "disgrace". Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said the changes — ordered by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith — would allow 4,300 more Gurkhas to settle here out of the 36,000 who served in the British Army before July 1997.
But supporters of the soldiers’ campaign attacked the criteria as "unattainable", with actress Joanna Lumley describing the Government's actions as “despicable”.
Critics argue that fewer than 100 people will meet the new requirements and campaigners have vowed to return to the courts. David Enwright, a solicitor representing the Gurkhas, said: "This Government should hang its head in shame".
It's typical that (as was reported last year, but denied by the government) the Royal Navy can't take captured pirates aboard one of Her Majesty's ships for fear that the pirates will be legally entitled to claim refugee status in Britain, yet Gurkha soldiers who volunteered to serve in Britain's army are being actively denied permission to live there after their service is completed.
Update, 29 April: Government defeated in the house over the Gurkha issue. Details linked from here.
Some people are starting to ask if Google has gone too far in trying to adjust its way of doing business in order to get access to the Chinese market. L. Neil Smith has this to say in the current issue of Libertarian Enterprise:
Somewhere on this page, you'll find an unusual logo for Google, created for us by the fabulous artist Scott Bieser. The pair of Os in the middle are handcuffs. This was inspired by two events.
The first, of course, is that company's continued willingness to "embed" itself with repressive governments like that of the People's Republic of China. The Chinese mistakenly believe that they can enjoy the benefits of economic freedom, while stifling personal and political freedom. Google is enabling them in this delusion by censoring what the Chinese people can connect to on the Internet. We thought it was shameful and disgusting when it first happened, a few years ago, and we still think it's shameful and disgusting.
Now we're told that Google is manufacturing "smart monitors" for the Obama regime, devices that will spy on you and your home and tattle on you when you're using more energy — energy that you paid for — than the God King and his flying monkeys think you should.
DigitalGlobe, a satellite imaging firm, has released a photo of what appears to be the next North Korean rocket:
The image, released by commercial satellite Earth-imaging firm DigitalGlobe, shows the North Korean launch gantry at Musudan-ri, where the country's larger missiles and rockets are test fired. In commercial satellite images produced in recent months, the gantry has stood empty: but in the DigitalGlobe image — taken yesterday — a large multistage rocket is clearly visible.
[. . .]
Both the US and Japan have deployed warships equipped with SM-3 ballistic missile interceptors to the area. However, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said there are no plans to interfere with a North Korean launch; this suggests that the warships will only shoot if the rocket's trajectory appears to offer a threat to Japan. North Korea has previously test-fired a shorter ranged missile across Japan into the Pacific.
Apparently, it's not just because it's a World of Warcraft expansion, but because it shows too much bone:
Stupendously popular online game World of Warcraft's second expansion, "Wrath of the Lich King" is being blocked by Chinese censors for showing too much bone.
According [to] JLM Pacific Epoch, China's General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) has twice rejected applications from Blizzard Entertainment and its domestic operator, The9, because of the game's all-too-frequent depiction of skeletons.
The original release of WoW had required Blizzard to modify undead characters and enemies in the game to pass Chinese regulator muster. Among the changes were giving the walking dead extra meat and using graves to show where players have died rather than skeletons.
China had issued the usual People's Republic governmentspeak, stating this is it's way of promoting a healthy and harmonious online environment.
The Chinese navy (formally called the People’s Liberation Army Navy) appears to be stepping up their program of harassment:
The incident happened on Sunday as the USNS Impeccable was on routine operations in international waters 75 miles (120km) south of Hainan island, a US statement said.
The ships had "aggressively manoeuvred" around the Impeccable "in an apparent co-ordinated effort to harass the US ocean surveillance ship while it was conducting routine operations in international waters", according to the Pentagon.
[. . .]
When the Impeccable radioed requesting a safe path to leave the area, two Chinese vessels dropped pieces of wood in its path, forcing the US ship to make an emergency stop, the Pentagon said.
"The unprofessional manoeuvres by Chinese vessels violated the requirement under international law to operate with due regard for the rights and safety of other lawful users of the ocean," said Pentagon spokesman Marine Maj Stewart Upton.
Whole thing here.
Update: Longer CNN version of the incident here.
The 281.5-foot Impeccable is one of six surveillance ships that perform military survey operations, according to the Navy. It is an oceanographic ship that gathers underwater acoustic data, using sonar.
It has a maximum speed of 13 knots — or about 15 mph — but it travels 3 knots, or 3.5 mph, when towing its array of monitoring equipment. It carries a crew of 20 mariners, five technicians and as many as 20 Navy personnel.
The Chinese ships involved were a Navy intelligence collection ship, a Bureau of Maritime Fisheries Patrol Vessel, a State Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel and two small Chinese-flagged trawlers, the statement said.
Roger Henry sent some interesting images (either originally from Rick Udris, or forwarded to Rick from someone else):
Guess which one has your stuff still on it. During the Iraqi/Iran war it was all oil-tankers parked there and also off Brunei. The area is out of the hurricane belt and security is pretty good.
A couple of very large images after the jump.
Ships being stored in Singapore.
Looking like a modern recreation of the WWII invasion fleet, hundreds of merchant ships wait for better economic times.
Another view of some of the vast fleet of idle merchant vessels.
If you haven't already watched the recent Reason.TV clip on Slumdog Millionaire, click here. The situation in India has dramatically improved for vast numbers of people:
"In the 1990s India started liberalizing its economy," says Dalmia, "and it did three things: cut taxes, liberalized trade, and deregulated business." Although they failed to cut the kind of red tape that entangled Slumdog's orphans, the reforms did make it easier for more Indians to start businesses and hire employees.
"One IT company doesn't just employ computer professionals," says Dalmia. "It also needs landscaping services, cleaning services, and restaurants. There was this tremendous spillover effect that allowed people to lift themselves out of poverty."
Since the early 1990s, India has cut its poverty rate in half. About 300 million Indians—equivalent to the population of the entire United States—escaped the hunger and deprivation of extreme poverty thanks to pro-market reforms that increased economic activity.
Yet here in America we're turning away from market reform. Says Dalmia, "It's just this great conundrum that at the same time that deregulation and markets have produced such dramatic results in India, they are falling into suspicion in America." Dalmia's prescription for India is at odds with what politicians have chosen to "stimulate" the United States. "What India needs to do is continue apace with its liberalization effort, but expand it to include the poor. Release them from the shackles of government corruption and government bureaucracy."
There's an article at The Economist today that shows a touching belief in the magic of the Chinese economy. The reported Gross Domestic Product has fallen to "only" 5.8%. The Economist's writer spends much of the article worrying about this gloomy report:
New figures show that China's GDP growth fell to 6.8% in the year to the fourth quarter, down from 9% in the third quarter and half its 13% pace in 2007. Growth of 6.8% may still sound pretty robust, but it implies that growth was virtually zero on a seasonally adjusted basis in the fourth quarter.
Industrial production has slowed even more sharply, growing by only 5.7% in the 12 months to December, compared with an 18% pace in late 2007. Thousands of factories have closed and millions of migrant workers have already lost their jobs. But there could be worse to come. Chinese exports are likely to drop further in coming months as world demand shrinks. Qu Hongbin, an economist at HSBC, forecasts that exports in the first quarter could be 19% lower than a year ago. 2009 may well see the first full-year decline in exports in more than a quarter of a century.
Economists have become gloomier about China’s prospects, with many now predicting GDP growth of only 5-6% in 2009, the lowest for almost two decades.
I've blogged about the Chinese economy on a few occasions (most recently here), generally with the same concern: that the numbers reported cannot be relied upon. The same is true here. Interestingly, the Economist article I linked to back in May makes this point quite well, yet today's article appears to treat the Chinese government's numbers as solid.
China has changed substantially from twenty years ago, and in many ways for the better. Most ordinary Chinese today are more free — economically anyway — than they were a generation ago, and there is a lot more opportunity for individuals to set up businesses and to succeed without needing Party connections. All this is indisputable . . . yet vast swathes of the Chinese economy are a legacy of the worst command-and-control period. It's not an exaggeration to say that we can expect to discover the "official numbers" have absolutely no relationship to reality, because the numbers are compiled from various sources including both freer quasi-capitalist companies and tottering government-owned (and often People's Liberation Army-owned) conglomerates which cannot be depended upon to report anything accurately.
An example from this article: "a fall in electricity output of 6% in the year to the fourth quarter, down from average annual growth of 15% over the previous five years." That's not just a reduction in the rate of growth, that's a reported drop in output of 6%. Imagine what the state of a European or Japanese/Korean economy running at only 94% of electricity . . . it'd be something you'd only see at times of severe economic contraction, not as a sign of a slow-down in growth.
Tyrannical dictator, action star (Team America: World Police), and opera theorist Kim Jong Il has reportedly named number-three son his successor to lead the world's worst country. As of press time, it was not immediately clear what the twentysomething Kim Jong Un had done to warrant such punishment.
Nick Gillespie, "Change North Koreans Can Believe In", Hit and Run, 2008-01-15
Congratulations to my friend Damian "Babbling" Brooks, who will be the first embedded blogger with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan:
This has been in the works for awhile. Years, in fact. Memos went up the chain of command, and back down again. Never any luck. And then, just recently, approval.
I'm going to Afghanistan.
I can't say when, but it will be shortly. I can't say exactly where, nor how long I'll be gone for. DND is understandably picky about that sort of thing. But if the creek don't rise, I'll be posting from over there at some point in the fairly near future, so watch this space.
This is a first for a Canadian blogger. A fairly narrow first, but a first nonetheless: bloggers have served, but not really written about it; American bloggers have embedded with Canadian troops; Canadian bloggers have gone over unilaterally. But to the best of my knowledge, a Canadian blogger has never before been invited on a CF-sponsored visit.
He'll be out-of-pocket a few thousand dollars (he doesn't work for a media firm that might pick up his expenses), so if you can afford it, please make a donation to help defray his costs.
Anthony Randazzo warns that we haven't paid enough attention to Japan's asset crisis (and aftermath) of the 1980s:
Killing zombies isn't typically the responsibility of America's president or treasury secretary. But if the country is going to get through the current financial crisis, President-elect Barack Obama and his economic team better get out their shotguns and aim for the head.
Today, our economy is plagued by struggling markets, liquidity concerns, and frozen credit. Twenty years ago, Japan faced nearly the exact same problems. Then they fell prey to the zombies.
After Japan's asset bubble burst in the late 1980s, their economy took a sharp downturn, prompting government officials to try bailing out banks and investing in infrastructure, much like the activity and proposals floating around America today. The results were terrible.
With the government propping up poor business models rather than allowing further job losses, firms wound up operating over the long-term without making a profit or adding any value to society. Their utter lack of vitality earned these perpetual money-leaching entities the moniker "zombie businesses." And unless American policymakers understand the failures of the Japanese response, we will suffer the same zombie fate.
Jon (my virtual landlord) sent me a link to a visual explanation of how they came up with the Beijing Olympic logo.
It's becoming almost a daily news item for something else at the Beijing Olympics to be revealed as lip-synched, photoshopped, staged, or — in this case — impersonated:
KE FIREWORKS, fake singers and now fake ethnic minorities. Beijing Olympics organisers have admitted that children from China's dominant Han population were used in the opening ceremony last week, not youngsters from all 56 ethnic groups as previously claimed.
The news brings the issue of China's treatment of the minority ethnic groups within its borders back into sharp relief, following accusations that Beijing has sought to drown out dissenting voices from different ethnic groups during the Games.
The Han ethnic group accounts for more than 90 per cent of China's 1.3 billion people and is the dominant cultural group.
The 56 children who carried out the Chinese flag in a moment intended to showcase national harmony were all Han Chinese, but organisers played down the significance of using Han children to represent China's ethnic diversity.
Jon sent me this link with the comment "the apple really doesn't fall far from the tree, does it?". I find it amusing that Albert Speer, son of Nazi architect Albert Speer, has been deeply involved in the design of the Beijing Olympics.
I guess he was able to just dust off his dad's old designs from the 1936 Olympics, scrape off the swastikas, add a few distinctive Chinese motifs and hey, presto!
Helicopter parents? You've got a new standard of overprotectiveness to measure yourselves against: did you make sure your daughter got to star as Snow White?
The stage was set, the lights went down and in a suburban Japanese primary school everyone prepared to enjoy a performance of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The only snag was that the entire cast was playing the part of Snow White.
For the audience of menacing mothers and feisty fathers, though, the sight of 25 Snow Whites, no dwarfs and no wicked witch was a triumph: a clear victory for Japan's emerging new class of "Monster Parents".
For they had taken on the system and won. After a relentless campaign of bullying, hectoring and nuisance phone calls, the monster parents had cowed the teachers into submission, forcing the school to admit to the injustice of selecting just one girl to play the title role.
Across Japan teachers are reporting an astonishing change in the character of parents, who, after decades of respectful silence, have become a super-aggressive army of complainers. The problem is that nobody can decide whether this is a good thing or not. Japan's mass media has opted to demonise them: a lavish television drama starting next month will present the monster parents as a vile symptom of a society that has lost all respect for its traditions and decorum.
So, if your precious little snowflake didn't star in the school play? You're a failure as a parent.
This was posted last month by Tian at Hanzi Smatter:
With two previous posts about the same incorrect tattoo, one would get the hint this does not mean "courage":
[The characters actually translate as] (n) serious error; gross mistake; big mistake or shortcoming; (punishment in school, etc.) a major demerit.
. . . at least, it will be if a Singapore-based company wins this patent infringement case:
"A Singapore firm, VueStar has threatened to sue websites that use pictures or graphics to link to another page, claiming it owns the patent for a technology used by millions around the world. The company is also planning to take on giants like Microsoft and Google. It is a battle that could, at least in theory, upend the Internet. The firm has been sending out invoices to Singapore companies since last week asking them to pay up."
File this one under "good luck with that" and "it'll be a cold day in hell".
Mark Steyn gets to the biggest danger in any potential reduction of trade between China and the west:
I don't mean the moments when he [Obama] gets carried away and announces that his Administration would "stop the import of all toys from China". As it happens, that's a policy I'm not unsympathetic to. Over 80% of American toys are made in the People's Republic and, while that may well be appropriate given the whiff of totalitarian coerciveness that hangs around Barney the Dinosaur, I can't say I'm entirely comfortable with contracting out US innocence to the butchers of Tiananmen. For one thing, come the Sino-American War, Beijing will have the ultimate fifth column inside the west: the nation's moppets, resentful at having their Elmos and Spongebobs cut off the duration, will be shinning down the drainpipe after dark in ski masks and blowing up power stations to hasten the day of liberation.
In 1990, the Burmese were asked to choose between a viable pro-democracy party and the status quo. (There were many pro-democracy parties but none with the national appeal of Suu Kyi's NLD.) Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a significant majority of seats, which indicates that the significant majority of Burmese were tired of living under a military dictatorship. The U.S. had not yet imposed comprehensive sanctions at this point. But even if they had been a prominent topic of debate, it would be strange to assume that a vote for Suu Kyi's party were a vote for sanctions rather than a vote for regime change. It's as if Americans were asked to choose between McCain and Kim Jong-il, and every voter who went for McCain was then assumed to support a gas-tax holiday.
I don't want to make too much of my personal experience, but I found that near-universal admiration for Suu Kyi in Rangoon existed alongside some gentle criticism of the NLD's disorganization and general ineffectiveness. You might, in conversations with actual Burmese people, find that they are capable of both supporting Suu Kyi and disagreeing with her on various things. But that would require envisioning them as rational individuals rather than as a nebulous glop of misery.
Kerry Howley, "Do the Burmese Support Sanctions?", Hit and Run, 2008-05-20
Kerry Howley looks at the country and notes that even before the tragedy inflicted by Cyclone Nargis, things were trending towards the awful:
In the mid 1950s, denizens of Burma, Thailand, and South Korea were about equally wealthy, but one nation seemed especially likely to prosper. In contrast to the others, Burma was already an exporter of rice and oil, had a relatively high literacy rate, and seemed well on its way toward a parliamentary system of government. It was full of teak, gems, and rich soil. As David Steinberg points out in Burma: The State of Myanmar, any observer "would have pointed to Burma as the potential economic and political leader of the three." War-torn, resource-poor South Korea "would not have been a contender in anyone's imagination." In 2006, South Korea's GNP per capita was $24,500; Burma’s was $1,800.
Look closely enough at the pictures of destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis, and you begin to realize how very little there was to destroy. There, a bamboo house in shambles; here, a thatch roof torn off; there, a dirt road obscured by scattered palm fronds. When the cyclone struck, tens of thousands of people had no solid structure to cling to, and the cyclone's ghastly death toll is as much a function of the country's poverty as is the storm's strength. Had the same cyclone hit the prosperous Burma that might have been, the death toll would have been far less dramatic.
The South Korea comparison matters because Burmese poverty is so often treated as an inevitability rather than a byproduct of bad governance. The imprisonment of activist Aung San Suu Kyi is well known and roundly denounced; the junta's punishing monetary policy, which maintains an official exchange rate 200 times lower than the market rate in order to benefit state-owned businesses, is less often noted. Burma's banking system is barely functional, and the government tightly controls trade. According to the Progressive Policy Institute, Burmese rice exports have dropped by 99 percent since 1950. The junta says it is committed to a market-oriented economy, but it has reversed most of the gestures it has made in that direction.
The situation in Burma, already tragic, is being made significantly worse by the ham-fisted actions of the ruling junta. People are literally suffering even worse privations because the authoritarian government does not dare be seen to need help from outside — it might weaken their grip on power. There isn't a hell special enough for this kind of inhuman behaviour.
Update: Brian Micklethwait considers the question of whether an invasion threat would help or hinder.
Well, whatever. What is definitely true is that if, during a natural disaster, a government treats its own people as hostages rather than anyone they are supposed to help, then helping those people means shoving the government aside, at least for the duration of the disaster. Trouble is, smashing up a government does not, to put it mildly, necessarily mean helping its people. It's one of those necessary-but-insufficient situations. I actually think that if these generals did fear an old-fashioned invasion, a bit more than they do now, they might tolerate an NGO invasion instead. Surely, a threatened invasion, a real one, might accomplish something here. Trouble is, if you threaten something, it is better to mean it.
Regular readers will know that I've been a long-term skeptic about the economic figures reported by the Chinese government (for example, here and here back in 2004). As a result, this post at the Economist is not very surprising:
As China's importance in the global economy increases, investors are paying more attention to its economic numbers. Yet the country's official statistics are notoriously ropy. Some commentators accuse China's government of overstating GDP growth for political reasons, others complain that the official inflation rate is fraudulently low. So which data can you trust?
One reason to be suspicious of GDP figures is that China is always one of the first countries to report them, usually only two weeks after the end of each quarter. Most developed economies take between four and six weeks to produce them.
However, the Economist still feels that the Chinese economy is larger than reported. My sense of distrust in the figures argues for it being neither as big nor as robust as the reported figures indicate. They're professional economic reporters . . . I'm a guy typing a blog entry. I wonder what the long-term odds are for either of us to be closer to the truth?
It's tough to disagree with this, though:
The prize for the dodgiest figures goes to the labour market. The quarterly urban unemployment rate is meaningless because it excludes workers laid off by state-owned firms as well as large numbers of migrant workers, who normally live in urban areas but are not registered. Wage figures are also lousy. There has recently been much concern about the faster pace of increase in average urban earnings. But this series does not cover private firms, which are where most jobs have been created in recent years.
Now that China is such an engine of global growth, it urgently needs to improve its economic data. Only a madman would drive a juggernaut at full speed with a faulty speedometer, a cracked rear-view mirror and a misty windscreen.
With the possible exception of Disney villains, Imagethief cannot think of a group of people that more richly deserve their miserable fates than Hong Kong celebrity Edison Chen and his cavalcade of cupcakes.
If I sound unsympathetic here, that is because I am unsympathetic. Really, how dumb do you need to be? On all sides? Girls, here's a free piece of advice for you from your friendly neighborhood PR man: If you let a guy take digital nudie pix of you, sooner or later those pix are going to end up on the Internet. Not maybe. Not could be. Inevitably. The Internet is like a gravity well for nudity, and there is a 100 percent chance those pictures will end up there someday. Probably the week of your wedding.
[. . .]
But — and I say this with affection for my gender — dudes are stupid. We're especially stupid when it comes to managing technology effectively. We like to portray ourselves as masters of technological realm, with amazing powers of digital wizardry. But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and in reality we're as screwed over by modern technology as your grandmother. Probably worse, because at least she doesn't pretend to understand it. We'd rather die — or inflict crushing humiliation on our girlfriends — than admit weakness.
"ImageThief", "Let me tell ya about Edison Chen's dirty photos", ImageThief, 2008-02-13
. . . there's this.
China Dispatch: Using the Squat Toilet
Rule One: Exhaust all other possibilities.
If you are truly in need and condemned to use the squat toilet, comfort yourself with the knowledge that you are several thousand miles from friends and family. No one has to know.
Proceed as follows:
Most stalls do not have toilet paper. This is the best time to realize this. Either take paper from the general dispenser in the bathroom area or preferably bring your own as it will be made of tissue and not plywood carpaccio.
It gets much, much worse.
Link courtesy of "Da Wife", who clearly isn't planning a trip to that part of the world in the near future.
I can't possibly improve on the title of the post at Hit and Run, "Bullwhips vs. Octopi in Japan":
The land of tentacle porn considers loosening up on Robert Mapplethorpe [. . .]
Colby Cosh finally admits to feeling similar concerns about the widespread belief in official Chinese economic figures:
Are the spectacular Chinese economic growth numbers of the post-Deng era reliable? The West has been tricked into bad policy decisions before because economists foolishly trusted Communist growth estimates. The George Mason economist Bryan Caplan has just voiced what I've been thinking since the early 1990s (which is admittedly a long time to wait for data to be falsified)
[. . .]
The two-headed creature so often talked of as "Chinanindia" (I think at this point we can just start calling it "Chindia") has taken over from Japan in our imaginations as the next "obvious" successor to the economy supremacy of the West. Japan turned out to be the wrong horse to bet on, and still hasn't fixed all of its macroeconomic issues. And it is often forgotten that even by official numbers China's economy is still much smaller than the U.S.'s and is dwarfed by the combined size of NAFTA and the EU.
Katherine Mangu-Ward reveals the dirty secret behind sushi:
For traditionalists in 19th-century Japan, a new sushi place was a sign the neighborhood was going to hell. In 1852 one writer grumped about the proliferation of sushi stalls in booming industrial Tokyo. The McDonald's of their day, the stalls offered hungry factory workers a quick, cheap meal of fish and sweetened, vinegared rice. If the fish wasn't top of the line, well, a splash of soy sauce and a dab of spicy wasabi perked up a serving of fish gizzards nicely, with some antimicrobial benefits to boot.
Today that writer's spiritual descendants dwell on food chat boards like Chowhound, where calling a new Japanese place "inauthentic" or deriding it as "strip mall" or "food court" quality is the kiss of death. When we think of high-end, "authentic" sushi today, we envision rich, fatty slices of smooth tuna and creamy salmon arranged on a pristine plate — the height of elegant Japanese cuisine. But sushi wasn't always elegant, and salmon and tuna are relatively recent additions to the menu. In that sense, sushi's appearance in food courts worldwide is more a return to the dish's common roots than a betrayal of authenticity. Sushi has always been in flux, with new ingredients and techniques added as convenience demanded. Globalization has sped up that process exponentially, bringing novelty to an old food and bringing traditional food to new places. The story of sushi is the story of globalization writ small — very small, on tiny slivers of raw fish.
I am watching Flags Of Our Fathers, which I believed was a gritty, realistic, reverent account of the battle of Iwo Jima. It may yet become that. So far, aside from some horrifying battle sequences, it is movie about the cynical, callous exploitation of the famous flag-raising picture. Apparently every state-side government employee was a brittle, shallow, two-faced, glad-handing PR-minded ass who regarded soldiers as ignorant cattle. I also have the Japanese version of the movie, Letters from Iwo Jima. I have this odd feeling it will concern itself very little with the issues raised in this movie. I have the feeling I’ll be hearing a lot about honor. I have the feeling that I will be informed that war is hell on everyone, and the enemy are human as well - two things that never occured to me. I do know that the state-side PR effort for WW2 was phony and false, because the way the movie lit the Andrews-Sisters wannabees and had them sing patriotic songs with exaggerated cheer tells me all I really needed to know. This strange stark contrast to the grim realities of war makes me question the premises of the war against fascism! Why, they're selling the war! The bond drives should have consisted of grim dour matrons urging a negotiated settlement to the strains of a Kurt Weill song. Anything's better than a perversely calculated ad campaign designed to elicit voluntary contributions.
James Lileks, The Bleat, 2007-10-03
The State Peace and Development Council derives its legitimacy from public support for Buddhism, and in recent years has leaned even more heavily on approving pronouncements from prominent religious officials. Theravada Buddhism is the establishment religion under a repressive military regime. No actual Burma scholars dispute this, as far as I know. Anyone with doubts should check out the military’s propaganda paper, which is a dual attempt to showcase the devotion of military officials and advocate peaceful, Buddhist complacency on the part of the Burmese. It adopts the tone of an authoritarian yoga instructor for a reason.
The monks, known as the sangha, regularly accept extravagant and highly publicized gifts from well placed military officials; this is a desperately poor country filled with solid gold pagodas. The rebuilding of Buddhist shrines can be a public project, with villagers force to participate. Monks have in the past refused to perform ceremonies for NLD members. It's difficult to define complicity when everyone may be acting out of fear, but you can't call a religion that confers legitimacy on a bunch of thugs (and advocates passivism in response) entirely helpful.
Yes, the Burmese monks have a history of peaceful protest, as in 1990 and 1962. But you wouldn't want to define the monks by these protests any more than you would a pope by his opposition to communism. It's rather more complicated than that.
Kerry Howley, "Buddhism Is Not a Democracy Movement", Hit and Run, 2007-10-01
In one of history's more absurd acts of totalitarianism, China has banned Buddhist monks in Tibet from reincarnating without government permission. According to a statement issued by the State Administration for Religious Affairs, the law, which goes into effect next month and strictly stipulates the procedures by which one is to reincarnate, is "an important move to institutionalize management of reincarnation." But beyond the irony lies China's true motive: to cut off the influence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual and political leader, and to quell the region's Buddhist religious establishment more than 50 years after China invaded the small Himalayan country. By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering.
Matthew Philips, "BeliefWatch: Reincarnate", Newsweek, 2007-08-20
. . . imagine coming in to a job like this every morning:
Frankly, I have to admit in general that push systems are to working steam railways what pornography is to real sex, both are great in moderation but neither is quite as good as the 'real thing'. The 300mm (!) gauge colliery railway at the top end of Sichuan's Shibanxi railway is, however, a little bit special. I make no claim to originality, others like Hiromi Masaki have been here before. Being extremely committed in other directions, I had not bothered to check their sites before I came, I just noted some advice from John Raby to check it out during my visit. Thanks are due to all concerned for pointing me in the right direction.
Makes the old 9-to-5 seem positively sybaritic, doesn't it?
Paul Marks does his bit to balance the historical record on one of the key movers in the Partition of India, Jawaharlal Nehru:
With the 60th anniversary of the end of British rule in the sub continent, there is the normal talk of whether the vast numbers of rapes and murders during partition could have been prevented. The British will, perhaps quite rightly, get the blame for not delaying independence and for not using enough force to try and prevent the violence on partition.
However, it is almost forgotten that Nehru (the leader of the Congress party and first Prime Minister of India) was demanding that the British leave (every day we stayed was a day too many for Nehru), and even claimed that it was mainly where the British were that violence took place.
This was the exact opposite of the truth (and Nehru knew it) — as it was where British forces went in (sadly much too rarely) that the mass rapes and killings were prevented. Nehru had "form" in letting his "get the British out of India" obsession cloud his judgement.
Guy Sorman talks about the state of China:
The Western press is full of stories these days on China's arrival as a superpower, some even heralding, or warning, that the future may belong to her. Western political and business delegations stream into Beijing, confident of China's economy, which continues to grow rapidly. Investment pours in. Crowning China's new status, Beijing will host the 2008 Summer Olympics.
But China's success is, at least in part, a mirage. True, 200 million of her subjects, fortunate to be working for an expanding global market, increasingly enjoy a middle-class standard of living. The remaining 1 billion, however, remain among the poorest and most exploited people in the world, lacking even minimal rights and public services. Popular discontent simmers, especially in the countryside, where it often flares into violent confrontation with Communist Party authorities. China's economic "miracle" is rotting from within.
I've had my own concerns about the real issues of the new Chinese economy.
Everyone must have heard many different variations on how incredible the Chinese economy is: spectacular growth, innovations galore, etc., etc. And there's much truth to it — China has been industrializing at a mind-croggling pace. At least, the visual evidence says so. The economic data coming out of China is, to be kind, not as dependable as similar data from most other countries.
[From August, 2004]: While there is no doubt that China is a fast-growing economy, the most common mistake among both investors and pundits is to assume that China is really just like South Carolina or Ireland . . . a formerly depressed area now achieving good results from modernization. The problem is that China is not just the next Atlanta, Georgia, or Slovenia. China is still, more or less, a command economy with a capitalist face. One of the biggest players in the Chinese economy is the army, and not just in the sense of being a big purchaser of capital goods (like the United States Army, for example).
The Chinese army owns or controls huge sectors of the economy, and runs them in the same way it would run a division or an army corps. The very term "command economy" would seem to have been minted to describe this situation. The numbers reported by these "companies" bear about the same resemblance to reality as those posted by Enron or Worldcom. With so much of their economy not subject to profit and loss, every figure from China must be viewed as nothing more than a guess (at best) or active disinformation.
Three years on, I must retract a tiny bit there . . . Enron's and Worldcom's figures, while deliberately misleading, were refutable (and the culprits taken to court).
[From October, 2004]: Much of the problem is that even now, the Chinese economy is not particularly free: the official and unofficial controls on the economy provide far too many opportunities for rent-seeking officialdom to play favourites and cripple antagonists (and for once, "cripple" is not just a bit of hyperbole). Any numbers provided by the Chinese authorities can not be depended upon, and should probably only be viewed as an indication of what the Chinese government wants the outside world to believe.
Even in a relatively free economy like Canada, the underground economy can be huge, with plenty of economic activity happening out of reach of the taxman. In China, where everybody was raised in an environment where providing the "wrong" answer to your leader could get you imprisoned (or executed) as an economic criminal, the numbers upon which the bankers and financial officials depend can only be described as extremely unreliable.
...of the 3,220 Chinese citizens with a personal wealth of 100 million yuan ($13 million) or more, 2,932 are children of high-level cadres. Of the key positions in the five industrial sectors - finance, foreign trade, land development, large-scale engineering and securities - 85% to 90% are held by children of high-level cadres.
That's even higher than I expected. But it's an excellent example of what I originally wrote about back in 2004: the economy isn't free, and the beneficiaries are disproportionally those who are politically well-connected. Caveat investor.
The art and science of eating sushi . . . a much more intricate and culturally sensitive topic than you might think.
Samizdata Illuminatus has some interesting thoughts on the recent economic disruptions emanating from China:
In spite of a widespread belief in China's embrace of free-market capitalism, enormous economic distortions characterise modern China's economy. For example, why is it that, relative to China's economic footprint, the Chinese stock market is rather pathetically stunted — especially in light of the vast savings pool the Chinese people have accumulated? As mentioned in the above article, the Chinese are great savers and they tend to deposit these savings into bank accounts because alternative investment opportunities are limited compared to those offered to a Western investor. Consider the following:
Why does the Chinese investor not sink his surplus funds into foreign commodities? Because he is restricted from doing so.
Why does he not invest in Chinese stocks? Because he (probably correctly) views the Chinese stock market as being distinctly ropey.
In light of these state-imposed distortive realities, what does one do with one's savings? One puts them in the bank, of course. Predictably, the banks are awash with deposits. Under these circumstances, the principles of fractional reserve banking have been taken to the extreme in China, allowing the central government to durably zombify huge segments of the otherwise bankrupt state-owned industrial sector by forcing the "big four" state-owned banks to continuously loan depositors' money to these failed state enterprises, in the full knowledge that these loans will never be repaid.
Anime hit it big outside Japan, due, in large part, to becoming an underground phenomenon:
The global sales of Japan's animation industry reached an astonishing $80 billion in 2004, 10 times what they were a decade before. It has won this worldwide success in part because Japanese media companies paid little attention to the kinds of grassroots activities — call it piracy, unauthorized duplication and circulation, or simply file-sharing — that American media companies seem so determined to shut down. Much of the risk of entering Western markets and many of the costs of experimentation and promotion were borne by dedicated consumers.
[. . .] in the east the so-called guang gun — "bare branches": since China introduced its "one child" policy in 1978, the imbalance between the sexes has increased to the point where there are 119 boys for every 100 girls, the most gender-distorted demographic cohort in history. The pioneer generation of that 20 per cent male surplus is reaching manhood now. Asked about this on the radio a year or two back, I suggested that maybe China's planning on becoming the first gay superpower since Sparta, and promptly received a ton of indignant emails.
Mark Steyn, "The future is spelled C-H-I-N-A", Macleans, 2006-05-26
If you like vending machines, Japan is the place to go:
PhotoMann recently decided to 'collect' images of unique vending machines found in Japan. They are everywhere. Estimates suggest there are 5.6 million vending machines which works out to be one for every 20 people in Japan. Sales from vending machines in 2000 totaled $56 billion! The most common are drink and cigarette machines followed by machines with pornography.
Of course, no post on Japanese culture is complete without the obligatory "you've got to be kidding me" entry:
This vending machine has truly bizarre contents... 'used' schoolgirl panties! We had heard that such machines existed but had never seen them. A colleague came across this machine in suburban Tokyo just recently (May 2002). This particular machine is a converted cigarette machine that now takes 10,000 yen notes (about US$80 bills). The current contents run from 1000 to 3000 yen.
Hat tip to "JtMc" for posting the link.
Craig Zeni sent this link along with the following advice:
[. . .] pull the slider to 1:30 to get past the anime howling and be amused by Rube Goldberg in Japan.
Feel free to watch the anime introduction if that sort of thing appeals to you. I jumped straight to 1:29, personally. ;-)
This is something I'd have expected to find referenced at Ghost of a Flea; it has all the necessary elements for passing the Flea-worthiness test (Japanese pop culture, media tie-in, and hilarious understatement):
Maid cafes dot Akihabara, which has become a second home for Tokyo's "otaku" — roughly translated as "geeks". They're known for their devotion to comics and computer games and can easily be identified by their standard outfit of track suit, knapsack and spectacles.
In the cafes, girls dressed in frilly frocks inspired by comic-book heroines wait hand and foot on customers, mostly male, who might have once been obsessed with naughty schoolgirls and nurses.
Emphasis added. "Might once have been", eh?
H/T to Fark.com, where the comments include a very funny image comparing Anime to real life.
Update: I should know better than to try to jump on a Flea topic before the Flea himself does. I am so PWNED.
Nick Packwood has little patience for the expected flood of "Japan as victim" noise on the anniversary dates of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings:
Fifty years after the end of the war the democratically elected and representative government of Japan still refused to assist in war crimes proceedings regarding biological warfare. In addition to the tens of thousands killed by Japanese germ warfare, Unit 731, Unit 100, Unit 516, Unit 1855 and other research facilities were directly responsible for the deaths of ten thousand people in the course of medical experimentation. Live un-anesthetized vivisection was a common practice.
This is to say nothing of the remaining grotesquerie of Japanese war crimes. Hundreds of thousands raped and forced into sexual slavery, the mass torture, abuse and murder of prisoners of war and atrocities such as the Nanjing Massacre that manage to exemplify the actions of imperial Japan's people while being entirely unexeptional.
I have little patience for much of what is going to be said about Hiroshima on August 6 or Nagasaki on August 9. More particularly, with everything people will choose not to say.
No amount of retrospective angst, regrets, and belated second thoughts on the part of the allied nations of World War Two seems to be enough. No amount of contrition or genuine remorse on the part of the successor government of Japan seems to be too little. There's a moral disconnect there, wouldn't you say?
Myrick calls for help tracking access for Chinese blogs, as several Chinese blogs have become inaccessible from major cities in China.
"Sponsors of the current crackdown include . . ."
Victor got a henna tattoo at the Brooklin Spring Fair a couple of weeks ago. It's long gone now, but it was a set of Chinese characters on the back of his hand. He assured me that it meant something like "Strength and Courage", but he was just taking the word of the girl operating the booth. If you wonder what some Chinese or Japanese characters might actually mean, you'll want to bookmark Hansi Smatter, subtitled "Dedicated to the misuse of Chinese characters (Hanzi or Kanji) in Western Culture".
I especially recommend visiting that blog before you pay the tattooist for your full-torso tattoo full of cool oriental symbols. . .
The Chinese market for cigarettes is 99% state-controlled. As a result, the government spends a lot of time and effort pushing the benefits of cigarette smoking:
Cigarettes, according to China's tobacco authorities, are an excellent way to prevent ulcers.
They also reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease, relieve schizophrenia, boost your brain cells, speed up your thinking, improve your reactions and increase your working efficiency.
And all those warnings about lung cancer? Nonsense.
You're more likely to get cancer from cooking smoke than from your cigarette habit.
Welcome to the bizarre parallel universe of China's state-owned tobacco monopoly, the world's most successful cigarette-marketing agency.
When the monopoly profits from this controlled trade go directly into the government's coffers (or, more likely, the private pockets of generals and high party officials), the chance that a dissenting view will be crushed approaches absolute certainty.
Hat tip to Jon.
The Japanese media are reporting on a Chinese diesel-electric submarine which appears to have suffered some disabling damage near the Spratly Islands:
A Chinese Navy submarine stalled apparently after a fire broke out aboard the vessel while it was submerged in the South China Sea, sources close to the Japanese and U.S. defense authorities said Monday. As of Monday afternoon, the submarine was being towed above the water in the direction of Hainan Island. The Japanese and U.S. governments have been monitoring the vessel, and it is unknown whether there were any casualties, the sources said.
The warship in question is a Chinese Navy Ming-class diesel-powered hunter-killer submarine, the sources added.
According to the sources, the accident occurred in international waters about halfway between Taiwan and Hainan Island on Thursday, and the submarine was being towed by a Chinese vessel apparently in the direction of Yulin Naval Port on the island. It is not known whether the submarine surfaced on its own, the sources added.
"I think this may be good for single men, but it could cause trouble for someone who is married," said Shingo Shibata, a 27-year-old company employee browsing at a toy store which sells the pillow.
Again this morning, I was listening to my local jazz radio station on the way in to work. As usual, they had a broker from CIBC Wood Gundy giving portfolio advice at about 9:20 a.m. Today's talk was about investing in China, and how the markets have been reacting to the recent small drop in the official GDP growth figures released by the Chinese central bank.
This time, the emphasis was on the idea that in spite of the breathtaking growth figures, Chinese firms still are not particularly profitable and that therefore there are better ways of investing your money to benefit from all that growth. Unlike the last time I addressed this issue, this time I thought that the advisor was actually making pretty good sense. The incredible transformation of China from a pure command-driven economy to a mixed economy will certainly provide lots of opportunities for people to get rich; it will also provide even more opportunities to lose big money.
Much of the problem is that even now, the Chinese economy is not particularly free: the official and unofficial controls on the economy provide far too many opportunities for rent-seeking officialdom to play favourites and cripple antagonists (and for once, "cripple" is not just a bit of hyperbole). Any numbers provided by the Chinese authorities can not be depended upon, and should probably only be viewed as an indication of what the Chinese government wants the outside world to believe.
Even in a relatively free economy like Canada, the underground economy can be huge, with plenty of economic activity happening out of reach of the taxman. In China, where everybody was raised in an environment where providing the "wrong" answer to your leader could get you imprisoned (or executed) as an economic criminal, the numbers upon which the bankers and financial officials depend can only be described as extremely unreliable.
Update 26 October: The Last Amazon asks a highly pertinent and pointed question:
In the past week, the Globe and Mail has been featuring the economic engine that China has become. It's economy is thriving so much so that Chinese government owned companies like China Minmetals Corp (which had revenues in 2003 of USD$11.7 billion) is currently negotiating to buy outright 100% of the stock of the Canadian mining corporation, Noranda Inc. The total stock is estimated at approximately CDN$6.7 billion.
If the Chinese government can afford to buy Noranda Inc. why hasn't anyone asked when China will reimburse the overburden Canadian taxpayers of this fair land for the Cdn$65.4 million that has been given to China as foreign aid?
It was bound to happen eventually — the folks at China Daily have finally gone well and truly bat-shit:
This China, would have been split and subverted into many different lands and many different slave nations for the west, if not for a group of men led by one man, and that man was the mighty Chairman Mao.
Who instead enslaved China himself.
Slave nations, under Russia and the USSR, under Japan, under, the USA, under Canada, under the UK, under France, under Germany, under even Australia and New Zealand, under Thailand and Vietnam, under India and even Pakistan.
Accepting that Japan, Britain, France, Germany and the US have some dodgy Sino-history to answer for, under Canada? Who the hell have the inoffensive Canooks ever enslaved? New Zealand? With what, an expeditionary force comprised of sheep? Pakistan? The Pakis can't even control the northern half of their own country, much less China. And finally, it takes a particularly through-the-looking-glass view of Asian history to think that Vietnam has ever posed a threat to Chinese sovereignty.
Curses! Our intended victims have divined our evil plan! I was getting used to the idea of owning Manchuria, too! Just think: we'd have nearly doubled the size of Canada, and increased our population by, er, a very big number.
Oh, well, call off the invasion: we'll resume the original plan of subverting Hollywood.
On my way in to work this morning, I heard a stock advisor doing his best to make reasonable assumptions about what the average listener needed to know about the economy. This guy has been pretty level-headed in the past, but this morning's talk just got my head ready to explode.
The topic of discussion was the Chinese economy and how the Chinese central bank was having to take greater efforts to rein in economic expansion. He talked about how many different sectors of the North American economy were, to greater or lesser degree, depending more and more on Chinese growth to increase their own investments and output. The idea that the Chinese economy was "overheating" was bandied about. He closed by indicating that a slight drop in the official growth rate from 9.8% to 9.6% showed that the Chinese central bank was seeing some results from their intervention in the economy.
There are so many things wrong here that I'm almost at a loss where to start. While there is no doubt that China is a fast-growing economy, the most common mistake among both investors and pundits is to assume that China is really just like South Carolina or Ireland. . .a formerly depressed area now achieving good results from modernization. The problem is that China is not just the next Atlanta, Georgia or Slovenia. China is still, more or less, a command economy with a capitalist face. One of the biggest players in the Chinese economy is the army, and not just in the sense of being a big purchaser of capital goods (like the United States Army, for example).
The Chinese army owns or controls huge sectors of the economy, and runs them in the same way it would run a division or an army corps. The very term "command economy" would seem to have been minted to describe this situation. The numbers reported by these "companies" bear about the same resemblance to reality as thos posted by Enron or Worldcom. With so much of their economy not subject to profit and loss, every figure from China must be viewed as nothing more than a guess (at best) or active disinformation.
Probably the only figures that can be depended upon for any remote accuracy would be the imports from other countries — as reported by the exporting firms, not by their importing counterparts — and the exports to other countries. All internal numbers are political, not economic. When a factory manager can be fired, he has his own financial future at stake. When he can be sentenced to 20 years of internal exile, he has his life at stake. There are few rewards for honesty in that sort of environment: and many inducements to go along with what you are told to do.
Under those circumstances, any growth figures are going to be aggregated from all sectors, most of which are under strong pressure to report the right numbers, not necessarily corresponding with any real measurement of economic activity. So, if the economic office wants to see a drop in the economy, that's what they'll get.
Basing your own personal financial plans on numbers like this would quickly have you living in a cardboard box under a highway overpass. Companies in the soi-disant free world have shareholders or owners to answer to. Companies in China exist in a totally different environment.
Visitors since 17 August, 2004