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Letting China be China: Retelling a Tale of Two Storms

Probably a good place to start this is with The Wall Street Journal comparing Hong Kong’s recent typhoon to Beijing’s flood, under the headline Hong Kong vs. Beijing: A Tale of Two Storms:

At least 37 people died in fierce rains that lashed China’s capital city over the weekend, prompting flooding in various neighborhoods and structures to collapse in the downpour. Many residents were highly critical of how the city’s infrastructure failed to successfully weather the storm, with many asking why the city, with its all its investments in dazzling Olympic facilities, could still experience such deadly floods. By contrast in Hong Kong, while a handful of scattered flooding incidents were reported, Vicente appeared to pass through without doing any serious damage.

Let’s leave aside that these were two very different storms. Though wet, tropical cyclones are mostly wind events and most damage comes from storm surge. Hong Kong never went over an Amber rainstorm signal during the recent typhoon. That’s the lowest of the three rainstorm signals.

Let’s instead talk about comparisons and expectations.

Flooding in Yunnan, photo by Dennis Kruyt http://www.flickr.com/photos/phantagom/

Before I left to teach English in China, I sat on the porch with one of my best friends who had recruited me into the job and was trying to cover every base, so to speak, of what to expect in China. I tried getting a fifteen-minute Chinese lesson and walked away with “ni hao” and “xie xie.” I also asked her what her best piece of advice was: let China be China.

I quizzed her on what she meant by that. “Don’t judge China by American standards. Also, you’re not going to change anything. Just accept it for what it is,” she told me. And it was great advise. I’ve also come to understand it works both ways – don’t judge China by American standards, but also be careful not to expect China to be like other “third world”/developing countries. I had at least two teachers in my employ who flew into Shenzhen expecting rice fields and conical hats. I personally expected a police state and endless grey factories. Beyond the superficial, there are a lot of similar issues that look and behave differently in China than they do elsewhere.

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[Open] Letter to the Editor for the South China Morning Post

One of the principal lessons we should impart on this Establishment Day is the value of Hong Kong’s diversity. Thus, it is of great concern to me when I hear our president, Mr Hu Jintao, say that Hong Kong’s political leaders should oppose foreign forces interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. The colonialists packed up and left fifteen years ago. The “foreign forces” in Hong Kong today are entrepreneurs, teachers, students, business leaders, writers, and employees that want to make Hong Kong a better place for everybody. Even what is “local” in Hong Kong has a dozen shades of Punti, Teochew, Toyshan, Hakka and multi-generation non-Chinese families. This diversity of differences mesh and merge to give this a city a vibrancy in economy, character, and culture that no other city in the People’s Republic has. I left the mainland for Hong Kong two years ago in part because I would always be “foreign” – always a “them.” In Hong Kong, I am a small part of the “us.” Being different here is normal. Mr. Hu needn’t pit citizens against each other to make those of Chinese descent identify more as mainland Chinese, a task they empirically fail at more each year. Both Mr Hu and other “foreign forces” can all be part of the “us” coming to a big table with small pieces to complete the puzzles Asia’s World City faces. In this regard, leaders from Zhongnanhai would be better advised to come to Hong Kong with fresh ideas during their next visit instead of the overt displays of force – in rhetoric and ceremony – that have defined this trip.

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Mark Bray: UNESCO Chair ceremony and Shadow Education

My academic adviser, Mark Bray, was awarded a UNESCO Chair professorship in Comparative Education last night. His focus will be shadow education, a term for private supplementary tutoring. Here’s a (free) book he and Chad Lykins just published for the Asia Development Bank on the topic.

Below is the text from a SCMP story on his research and the ceremony. I’m only providing it here because it’s behind a paywall.

Preliminary results of a survey of Hong Kong pupils show most have tutors, but a former education chief at the United Nations says this is not a recipe for success.

Mark Bray, who is now a professor of comparative education at the University of Hong Kong, surveyed 1,720 pupils in 16 schools this past academic year, and found that 54 per cent of Form Three pupils have tutors, and an alarming 72 per cent of Form Six students have tutors.

Bray said the pervasiveness of private tutoring creates social inequalities. “If you’re rich, you have a one-on-one tutor, and if you’re not so rich, you can go to King’s Glory and it won’t cost a lot.”

King’s Glory Education Centre is one of the many “cram schools” that have become lucrative businesses and provide exam tips. He said this system was churning out “robots” that excel in exams, but have scant time for non-academic activities.

Bray, who was director of Unesco’s International Institute for Educational Planning in Paris between 2006 and 2010, compared his results to those of other countries.

He found that the Hong Kong results were closest to South Korea – considered the country with the most competitive academic culture – where 72 per cent of middle school pupils have tutors, and 60 per cent of high school pupils have tutors. He also interviewed hundreds of pupils and teachers, and the study results will be released later this year.

The problem of private tutoring – or “shadow education” – is global, but Bray said the four places with the most pupils receiving tutoring were South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, though the number in mainland China is rapidly growing.

The numbers are far lower in Europe – where 8 per cent of British secondary school pupils and 33 per cent of French upper secondary pupils have tutors, but the problem was severe enough that the European Union commissioned Bray to write a report on the implications of private tutoring on its member countries.

“I would like our schools to be strong so [the pupils] don’t need to go [to tutors], but the reality is, they are going,” said Bray.

He said Hong Kong public schools, compared with other countries’, were considered well funded so the government should have no excuse for not raising standards.

Bray is one of 74 Unesco chair professors in the world who are charged with achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Bray’s role is pushing for equal and high-quality education for all children worldwide. There are now three Unesco chair professors in Hong Kong.

“We are in a competitive society and it is getting more competitive, and that is shaping our education system,” said Bray.

He urged parents not to neglect the personal development of their children. “Parents need to have an overview of the child’s development and realise there are other things in life.”

Another issue, he says, is that it is difficult to assess the quality of education in tutoring centres, as they are not regulated by the government. “While teachers have to be trained, you don’t have to be trained to be a tutor,” he said.

He urged the government to look to Finland, where pupils are just as successful as their Asian peers but without the help of tutoring. He said this was because schools cater to a diverse group of learners, low achievers can get remedial help, and parents and pupils trust their teachers.

 

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South China Sea Legal Differences Redux

After my original post, I learned through comments and Twitter discussions that I got the Philippines position a little bit wrong and that the legality is even more nuanced. So the Philippines does claim the islands as sovereign territory, but claims them as a “rock.” A “rock” is different than an “island” in the UN Law of the Sea – a distinction I would have not thought of. Islands must have an “economic life of their own” if they have no permanent human population. Unlike an island, rocks get no extension of Economic Exclusion Zones (EEZ). Though Taylor Fravel says that if the rock still peaks over the water during high tide, they can get a 12 mile radius territorial sea.

What makes all of this interesting is that, technically, a court could rule that the “rocks” are Chinese but most the water around it belong to the Philippines. What it really does, though, is significantly weaken China’s case for the South China Sea claims. Even if they were to “belong” to China, their economic rights via the EEZ wouldn’t be nearly as large as they’re claiming because most of the shoals, sandbars, and reefs they claim would just be “rocks.”

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Legal Differences Between Claims to the South China Sea

[Please see a revised version of this here]

I commented to a friend a few days ago that there was something “natural” looking to the Philippines territorial claims map, while the Chinese map looked distinctly phallic – it just jutted out into the ocean with seemingly no other logic than “mine!” I was digging around Wikipedia trying to understand the history of the different claims and came to an interesting realization. There’s a reason for that: the Philippines isn’t claiming more than what what most would already recognize as the Philippines.

The legal basis for each country’s claim is different, which is why the maps look so different. The Chinese are claiming Scarborough Shoal (and the Spratley’s, and the Paracels, and every other uninhabited rock and reef in the South China Sea) as integral parts of China’s territory. They’re as Chinese as the neighborhoods inside third ring of Beijing. Each island then has a 12 mile territorial claim around it and an Economic Exclusion Zone extending up to 200km outwards, but usually stopping at the halfway point between it and another country’s territory.

The Philippines is making a much more subtle claim. They’re claiming the Shoal and the Spratley’s they fall under Philippine jurisdiction rather than being a “part” of the Philippines, per se (though it does seem they’ve made that claim at times). They’re arguing they have the same legal rights to the shoals as they would an offshore oil field. They claim this under terra nullius – that the islands don’t belong to anybody. They are, after all, just some rocks standing above the waves. So while China is claiming “mine!”, the Philippines claim is more nuanced “not yours” to her neighbors. They’re nobody’s rocks but they’re more ours than yours. They’re also not claiming anything more specific than open ocean 200 miles out from their coast.

In so much as the shoal is a point of interest it is a Chinese interest. It’s just part of the sea to the Philippines. If the Philippines were claiming these as territories like the Chinese were, then the EEZ would jet out from each of these islands another 200 miles and their territorial waters would also cover much of the South China Sea, much as the Chinese map does.

A big difference is that an EEZ is still “international waters” in a lot of ways. Ships, even military ships, are allowed to sail through it without permission. A countries claims would seem to end at the right to use resources from the area. Think of it this way: if some enemy fleet were sailing towards your country you wouldn’t have the right to sink it until they crossed the twelve mile line. Thus, China’s claim of the shoal being territorial waters make claims of Filipino transgressions technically more provocative – on par with enemy ships sailing around inside the Pearl River Delta. Even if the Philippines did have a powerful military to counter Chinese claims, the Chinese sending a fleet to the area is a lot less provocative for them than the other way around.

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Lacking Danger in the South China Sea

I’ve tried a few times putting these thoughts on Twitter but I think it doesn’t fit the format. My analysis of the recent situation is relatively short, but not conducive to the medium. Here goes:

The first thing to understand is that, for a variety of reasons, the Philippines has almost no military projection power. Projection meaning being able to do things that are not on Philippine soil. Their air force consists of a few Vietnam-war era  recon planes and their navy’s flagship is a former US Coast Guard cutter built when Kennedy was president. The most powerful weapon in its inventory is a 3″ diameter gun. Meaning, it would be outclassed and sunk by even the meekest time traveling World War I warship.

So now there’s a war of words. China, apparently, is sending a small armada to deal with the Philippines. One of the Beijing Twitterati commented that, “sentiment on Weibo seems to overwhelmingly favor using force to solve Philippines South China Sea issue. Either the Philippines caves or there will be blood.” His rationale was that, the “government [is] already in midst of credibility crisis. Showing weakness, especially to a ‘little country’ like Philippines over sovereignty issues not an option.”

I understand where this is coming from. And in almost any other context this would make sense. But I don’t think this makes sense in context to the Philippines precisely because of that military issue. “There will be blood” implies combat. But combat with what where? And what, precisely, is the Philippine supposed to “cave” on?

So first, what is there for the Philippines to “cave” on? I only see three things: claiming the shoal as their own, patrolling the area, and harassing Chinese fishermen. An armada wouldn’t be able to stop the claims unless it went on to burn down Malacañang. Regime change and diplomacy are the only two ways to change the position of a recalcitrant foreign government. An armada could (and would) temporally stop the second and third issues. But then they’d just start again a few weeks or months later. It’s a soft, adaptive issue that can disappear and reappear at will.

His analysis would make more sense if there were Filipino marines on one of those reefs. They either move or they get shot at. There’s a pressure point in which military force can be allowed to work either through force or intimidation. But I don’t see any such fixed pressure point in those three issues. There’s nothing here that an armada can permanently change even if it went in with guns blazing. The Chinese armada will arrive and float around and… float around. The solo ‘blue water’ Filipino ship will wisely keep a distance. The Gregorio del Pilar is not going to charge into a 21st century fleet with 19th century weapons in its first year of commission.

Which leads to the most important point – I don’t see any way the Chinese could draw blood without wrecking three decades of careful diplomacy. They would be firing guns or missiles to stop a patrol, as the Philippine government has already demonstrated that it will back down during a dispute over illegal fishermen. It wouldn’t be a “war” or “combat.” If it rose to that level it it would just be a “sinking” and the entire event could last less than five minutes.

It would be cold-blooded murder and an international incident on par with North Korea’s unprovoked sinking of the Cheonan in 2010. But the difference is the world expects more of China than it does North Korea because China has worked so hard to build up it’s image of a “peacefully rising” giant. It doesn’t matter what the domestic pressure on Sina Weibo is. The international damage would take a decade to undo.

What’s more, it wouldn’t accomplish anything. It wouldn’t resolve the dispute. The Philippines would demand justice and wouldn’t waver on the core issue.  It would probably make Southeast Asian neighbors turn even more towards the US to form alliances against China. It would probably spark a naval arms race that the Chinese would lose. The US has a lot of old but competent ships it could ‘donate’ to its threatened friends.

But that’s not going to happen because combat isn’t going to happen. There’s not a thing to be gained from it and everything to lose.

The final point is that I think this is happening because the Philippines is so weak. The Chinese government can beat the war drums all they want, and as loud as they want, and no war is going to happen. It’s akin to bullying someone in a wheelchair that you know can’t punch back. Conversely, if the Chinese government beat war drums too loud against Vietnam or Japan things might actually get out of hand. If the PLA Navy sent a fleet to a disputed body of water with either of those countries, those countries would send their own boats out to counter them.

That would be a dangerous situation. This is not.

A end note is that this analysis only applies to China and the Philippines in the South China Sea today. Not the South China Sea in general, or China and the US, or a potentially more powerful Philippines in the future.

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Content Without Substance: Twitter and Chen Guangcheng

I just dropped off 205 pages of my doctoral thesis and want to sit on my intellectual high horse for a moment. I’ve long been an advocate of bridging the huge gap between social media and academic analysis. I think academics are losing the knowledge ‘war’ because we’re too slow, we don’t distribute our findings (and in fact lock them behind pointlessly stupid paywalls), and intentionally write in an inaccessible language. I think sledgehammers need to be taken to all three of those issues if academics want to have a seat at the table, so to speak.

The example I often use is that I did a case study of the politics and “institutional space” of NGOs working in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. It was 2012 when it finally got published. I’m not sure how useful my analysis is today. We need faster peer review and perhaps slightly lower standards to get “newsy” academic analysis out the door faster. Otherwise, we’ll always lose out to talking heads and interest groups. I don’t blame social media and the media in general for using those voices. I blame academics for not reaching out.

But I fell a little bit out of love with social media over the past two weeks, particularly Twitter. I first came to Twitter because it was hands-down the best place to get China news. And it’s interesting how the role evolved as time went on. When I started using Twitter the China-coverage boom was just kicking off as the Olympics started and there were a lot of newsworthy events occuring during the lead up (international protests, the Sichuan Earthquake, Tibet and Xinjiang riots, etc). Slowly, the coverage became overwhelming and Twitter become a filter. I read stories other people I trusted recommend. If I see two or three people repost a story I become very inclined to read it. Those who I follow on Twitter have become editors of a sort of very personal wire service. If their signal-to-noise ratio increases too high, I unfollow them.

I feel a little bit “out of love” because of the Chen Guangcheng case. Though versions differ, my version is this: Chen escaped, everyone rightly assumed he was in US embassy. US embassy says nothing. Chen says at the beginning he doesn’t want asylum, he wants a safe passage out of his situation. A lot of backroom negotiations occur at a very high level with some of the most talented diplomats in China and the US. Chen walks out of the embassy with a deal. Chen is happy with the deal. Chen, for various reasons, he gets extremely uneasy after a few hours outside the embassy and decides what he really needs is asylum. At about this time, media and social media have come to form an opinion of what happened: the US was naïve to trust the Chinese and essentially dumped Chen out in the cold. Later that same day very clear details of the deal are explained in an embassy presser and is (almost) completely ignored. The meme holds that US botched the diplomacy.

One of my friends today posted on Facebook a “brilliant analysis” of these negotiations. My response was this:

The entire analysis seems based around third-hand social media accounts the day of (to which I’m guilty). I don’t disagree with any of his points (or yours about the sudden shifts from 没问题 to 有问题 – which is why I decided after six moths to never work management in China ever again). I disagree about them being points all relevant to this case. His first point about deliverables doesn’t have a word about the actual contents of the deal. The deliverables being that Chen had a range of seven cities and law schools to relocate to with free tuition and family housing. So it’s an analysis of negotiations without a word about the specific outcomes of the negotiations, which is telling and should cause red flags to go up.

I’d read through Tom Lasseter’s transcript of the Gary Locke press conference if you haven’t. It was very explicit about details of the deal and the chronology of events (http://bit.ly/K0X0KR). It’s difficult for me to read and find places where I would have done things very differently. He makes clear it was Chen’s intention from day one to leave the embassy with a deal for his and his families safety. To which the embassy acquired it with what looks like great skill.

He also incorporates some now debunked rumors, like that Chen left because of threats to his family. We know now Chen left the embassy because the Chinese government moved his family out of Linyi as part of their first deliverable. The American embassy made the Chinese government make the first move. There are recordings of his phone call when he left the embassy that I heard played on NPR. Chen was excited. Six hours later he was in full panic mode.

There’s a snippet in there about “these are the same people who swore to you that he was never mistreated in the first place.” I don’t have the source readily available, but I did read that this agreement was reached with three different government bureaus (foreign ministry and two security/police) because of the local “logic” on the ground. Namely that the foreign ministry doesn’t have a lot of power and different factions can act out through different organs.

For me, my analysis of this essay sums of what I think the real lesson learned from this case was: that Twitter has killed even the 24 hour news cycle in some bad ways. We assume any details that weren’t released immediately don’t exist. We’re holding onto and writing in guesstimates instead of waiting for facts.

The guy who wrote this didn’t even bother to do some background reading because it was assumed that everything worth reading was written in those first 24 hours. And probably 90% of what *was* written was written then. Put that in context to the disagreement we had earlier was about the relative importance of initial statements. I think a few years ago they would be largely ignored. Now they’re becoming the only official statements on record when those initial articles are written. And there’s very little follow-up.

This is a great potential essay but this isn’t it. I’d love to read an informed analysis of different negotiation tactics, successes, and failures. We’re far enough away from the event that you could probably get both Chinese and American sources to speak off record candidly about what happened. But no one wants to do that story. The story today in the newspapers is only about what happens next. Is Chen going to America now or not. No one cares about what happened because we already knew what happened the day it happened, no matter how wrong we were.

Because the press and Twitterati wasn’t handed a carbon copy of the agreement memorandum the moment Chen was released, people still write more than a week later that “this beautiful bumpkin [was pushed] out into the cold” and assume that the most important diplomatic mission of the most powerful country on the planet had never “heard of risk management or decision trees.” It’s silly, really.

What I’d add is that this “brilliant analysis” couldn’t have been written had he done significant background reading. He would have been faced with the complexities and realities of what really happened – facts that don’t fit his theory. There would be no straw man meme of a “naïve embassy” to bounce off of and write those thirteen hundred words to contrast his own brilliance to. But that also, without this shallow analysis nobody would be reading him.

The more that I think about the kind of analysis I think those negotiations need, the more that I think it looks like an academic journal article. I would expect some game theory scenarios. I would expect some deep contextual background of what the possibilities are for the Chinese side to act are without them losing face and why. I would expect some historical and contemporary context and examples. In other words, something that might take a month or two to write.

And that’s something Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t take too kindly to. Twitter and Facebook are pushing a trend of minds being made in the first few hours of an event. Once made, they don’t change easily. We’ve invested in them. I was accused of “having it both ways” when I started questioning the conventional Twitterati assumptions that I bought in-to the day before. We’re getting all the wrong psychological feedbacks that promote either contrarianism on one side or groupthink on the other.

And I think back on my research in Sichuan after the earthquake. I remember how long it took me to come up with an explanatory framework that worked. I remember having to come up with a dozen different approaches just to dismiss them all. I remember the hundreds of conversations I had with people involved and people on the outside. Meeting for coffee with other people researching the same thing and bouncing ideas around.

And I think… you can’t do that in 140 characters. Framing a debate in three hundred words (writing an abstract) is often a Herculean task. And I wonder, how can something with most of the edges taken off (a proper, nuanced social science study) compete with somebody who has all the answers? Someone who “knows” before the facts have even shown themselves? Someone who ignores everything that was written after he formed his opinions? But that’s precisely the kind of content that becomes popular, praised, and re-tweeted a thousand times before the window of interest closes a few days later.

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