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 ( 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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iPloitation: What Does It Mean to be Exploited in the iPad Age?

For the free-market oriented China-watcher, the three arguments usually come out in regards to factory workers. The first is that the factory workers are usually better off with the work than they would be without it. This was the thrust of Nick Krisftof’s controversial essay “Where Sweatshops are a Dream.” Second, factory workers, for the most part, want more working hours instead of more free time. My objection isn’t that it’s not true  – it is, and anyone with experience in China knows this.

I’m upset about how fundamentally normal exploitation has become in our discourse. Chinese factory workers don’t want to work more hours, they need more take-home pay for themselves and their families. If they have to work 28 days a week, 14 hours a day to get it they’ll do it. But making that the headline of a story has as much merit as writing the headline, “sex-trafficked prostitutes want more clients.” There’s nothing meaningful that can be taken from these statements that doesn’t imply we shouldn’t be shoveling more work on them – as they wish. Instead, we need to be finding ways that empower worker voices that don’t set up binary options like these surveys (do you want less money or more of the same?) and doesn’t require the literary assistance of Mr. Daisy. We also need a post-Pareto understanding of what exploitation means.

The China Context

A few years ago I was teaching a course on globalization and development in Shenzhen. In what was probably one of my most interesting settings for such a class, we had large windows out of our fifth floor classroom looking down on a unique construction site. The city government wanted to build a high-tech industrial zone next to its polytechnic college. The problem was that there was a mountain where they wanted the factories to be.

From that vantage point we could see hundreds of mingong, the Chinese word for sub-blue collar workers, scattered around a lunar landscape blowing up and removing a mountain bit by bit. Several times a day the windows facing the construction site would shake as they set off dynamite to bring another cascade of rock down.

In two consecutive classes, I brought up the issue of exploitation. The first was when I covered the basic neo-Marxist critique of modern economics. A curious part of that class was that when I asked if any student could summarize Marx, none could. This despite all of them having had forced politics classes teaching “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, “Theory of the Three Represents,” “Scientific Socialism” and other tropes Zhongnanhai invents every decade. After explaining the classic Marxist definition of exploitation, I pointed outside and asked, “is that exploitation?” Almost all of them answered no. I tried playing the Story of Stuff and met with the same results.

Variations of “this is China” and “there are too many people in China” came from the students. Many of them made comments that showed they internalized these ideas. They were graduating from a low-tier school and would be competing with students from higher-tier schools. They expected to chiku (eat bitter, a Chinese term for hardship) after graduation. Those who didn’t graduate even high school, like those workers, would have to chi even more ku. Despite it’s recent rise in total wealth, Chinese GDP per capita sits alongside Angola and Jamaica. It might be the second largest pie in the world, but a fifth of the world’s population was eating from it. The only way for my students to justify getting a bigger bite of that pie than the mingong was to also allow for people above them to get a bigger bite too.

But did the fact they came from substantially poorer areas that systematically excluded most students from a quality education play any role? “This is China,” they responded. Indeed, it is China and exploitation is prolific. Merriam-Webster’s defines exploitation as “to make use of meanly or unfairly for one’s own advantage.” Exploitation usually isn’t spoken of today, I think, because of the idea of Pareto efficiency and optimality in rational market theory. Essentially, people won’t undertake a transaction where they come out losing more than they would if they didn’t. This is the essential idea that a worker in a sweatshop is either coming out the same as other options (Pareto efficient) or better than other options (Pareto optimal). For a high-level discussion of the problem with these assumptions, see the work that won Joseph Stiglitz a Nobel Prize in economics.

For the purposes it’s being used for here, it can be knocked down pretty easily with a thought experiment or two. I’ll use an example of someone I actually knew to set-up the experiment before going into wild fictional speculation. Samantha was impregnated by her boyfriend when she was 13. She was legally married to him by the age of 14. He was a terrible husband and they lived in squalor. Even though they were in America, they had no trash service and sometimes had no electricity. Their yard was covered with their own trash. [Begin fiction] The husband grew physically and mentally abusive with time. Eventually, Samantha ran away. She wound up living on the streets and was eating out of dumpsters for food. At the end of her first month on the streets she was offered housing, food, and clothing (though not a salary) in exchange for a contract filming pornography six days a week for the next six months. If she chooses to quit at any point, she’ll be immediately returned to the same place she was found minus the new clothes. At the end of the filming she’d be given $2000 to help her settle into a new life.

Is this or is this not exploitation?

In rational market theory, it is not. She made a free choice to film the movies and her situation was, by many measures, objectively better – thus making it Pareto optimal because both Samantha and the pornographer are better off with the contract than without it. The contract might well be legal in many countries and American states. A closer look at the contract, though, shows that she’s essentially an indentured (sex) servant.

Aside from how you feel about the morality of pornography, is it fair? I think almost everyone would agree that it isn’t. Samantha would not have agreed to that contract if it weren’t for a horrible situation that was mostly not of her making. Much of her situation was institutional. Upper-middle class white kids where I grew up don’t get pregnant at 13 or 14 with any regularity. They don’t live in trailers without trash service or electricity. Police there arrest eighteen year olds who prey on pre-teens. Fifteen miles away in Green Cove Springs, where I worked at McDonald’s with this eighteen year old mother of a five year old, these situations are a lot more common for a lot of complex reasons (her mother lived next door and worked with us and, so far as I could tell, saw nothing awful about the situation).


I’m also reminded of a quote from a Benjamin Barber book;

 [We are] seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but the power is in the determination of what’s on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers.

If one’s choice is sex work or living on the streets, that’s not much of a choice, is it? So what of Chinese construction workers or the Foxconn workers who build iPads? For your typical factory worker, it’s a choice of factories, the service industry, or back to the farm. I’ll speak of the latter in a moment, but within those the factory and service industry jobs, for wages, it’s a choice of working 70 hours a week or 50. 28 days a month or 25.

At the spa where my wife and I used to get massages, the masseuses would get roughly 13rmb for every 40 we paid to the cashier and they only got paid when they had customers. Apple is thought to pay between 1-3% of the final retail price of an iPhone on wages at the pre-retail level. I’m not a business student or a businessman, but I think it’s an extremely difficult argument to make that Apple couldn’t afford to even double the pay at the bottom and still have a healthy profit. In fact, a recent New York Times story was about how their most difficult choice lately was where to spend their $100 billion in cash. Sending bonuses down the commodity chain was never an option.

I’m arguing that it is explicitly the case that (a) companies have a choice to pay more without threatening the survival of their business, and (b) that most workers in bad work situations have few meaningfully better choices but that almost all of the work is Pareto optimal. Yes, workers are usually are “better off” ways that they value but that the situation is built of institutional unfairness where almost any option is better. In my fictional case of Samantha, it is only the absolute clarity of her background situation and choices available that make the exploitation clear to the average reader. As I want to show in more detail, I don’t think the average factory worker is coming from a much better situation as Samantha.

The Institutional Context

The argument that exploitation is rampant, if not the bedrock of our economic order, only makes sense in context to the prevailing conditions that workers are coming from. My example of Samantha might seem clear to a lot of readers: she was poor, suffered misfortune, was victimized by common gender issues in development (i.e., early pregnancy to an older, dominating, often abusive spouse), and the things that went wrong in her life happened before she was old enough to have much agency over them.

Undoubtedly, factory workers are in an analogous situation – meaning, they’re in bad jobs because they came from poor places. I don’t like the term poverty, so let’s use a better terms: marginalized and vulnerable. They are intuitionally marginalized in ways that make it look like the purpose of the education system is to create a pliant (if not grateful), low-skilled, cheap labor force. Less than 2% of rural Chinese students make to tertiary education. Because they are marginalized so effectively, they are vulnerable. I find Mark Mason’s argument that school systems are often “designed to fail students” persuasive.

An education system deliberately designed for failure may seem a contradiction, but the policy ensured this through the desperately poor resourcing of black education. Black teachers [in South Africa] were under-qualified and overworked: in rundown schools with no electricity, no water, hardly any desks, and virtually no textbooks or stationery, they often had to deal with classes of up to 80 or 100 students, almost all from poverty-stricken backgrounds. Authoritarian teaching styles, dominated by transmission modes of teaching and rote learning of content, were consequently the order of the day.

This would only be a slight exaggeration of the educational conditions most mingong are coming from. The larger point though was that they’re not supposed to make it through to college, as there’s already too many of those. While South Africa might have chosen skin color to sort and brand students, the Chinese system uses the hukou to sort rural students from urban students. It doesn’t matter what changes you make to the gaokao, it will remain a “neutral” instrument to sort students by social class, at least at the aggregate level. The few poor rural students who actually take the test will almost always fail it. Most of them are getting swept up in these factories in what has become the largest peacetime migration in human history.

And what will have to be another post, the rural context most of these workers come from needs to be explored in detail. It is not, as many like to argue, that farms are simply boring and cannot sustain livelihoods. Most governments have an active agenda to suppress food prices, which help the urban poor at the expense of the rural poor. The Green Revolution, despite its rhetoric, was never meant to help poor farmers. It helps large landowners and urban factory workers and slum-dwellers. As a few hours in Manila or Jakarta will attest, it’s often decided by the rural poor that moving to the slum is a better idea than involuntarily being at the ‘helping’ end of an intervention to feed slum-dwellers and prop-up cheap industrial labor. The cheaper food is, the less you have to pay workers, the more competitive your labor prices…

Further, the nature of the current development paradigm makes it almost impossible to be a subsistence smallholder farmer. Instead of being public services, health care and education come with fees despite the numerous laws and UN declarations for “free and compulsory basic education”. Paying fees requires growing cash crops. Cash crops leave you dependent on and exposed to the wild swings of global markets. The price of rice, for instance, has hit a twenty-year high and a twenty-year low in the space of four years.

Who to Blame and What to Do About It

The first time I heard an example of the fragmented nature of postmodern ethics, it was Mark Mason describing the accidental bombing by NATO planes of Afghan weddings (where families shoot automatic weapons into the air in celebration, which look quite a bit like Taliban soldiers from 30,000 feet). Do we blame the pilots? The forward air controller who gave permission to drop the bombs? The wedding celebrants firing guns? Osama bin Laden for starting the war that brought the American jets there? George Bush for fighting it as he was? “All of them, in part” is just as easy an answer as “none of them, individually.”

My first instinct is to blame Foxconn and other manufacturers, but they’re running very tight profit margins. Because Apple wants all the profit. As the New York Times reported:

Apple typically asks suppliers to specify how much every part costs, how many workers are needed and the size of their salaries. Executives want to know every financial detail. Afterward, Apple calculates how much it will pay for a part. Most suppliers are allowed only the slimmest of profits.

So blame Apple, right? Not so fast. I buy the argument that corporations are, by their nature, sociopathic. The structure and purpose of the modern corporation is the make money for shareholders within the bounds of the law. That’s it. At that, Apple is doing remarkably well. They’re breaking few, if any, laws while reaping a market share larger than the GDP of Hong Kong. Part of this comes from the fact that they moved to places where the laws are much more relaxed or only loosely enforced.

Should we blame the consumer? I don’t think individualizing responsibility will get us anywhere and I think it detracts from the larger problem, the system itself. We need to think like citizens, not just consumers. In the words of Annie Leonard, of Story of Stuff fame:

Let’s stop thinking like consumers and think like citizens. By all means let’s shun products from companies whose behavior offends. But let’s also realize we can work to change not just the way they act but the way they’re allowed to act. Only when every manufacturer of Stuff is required to make it safely and fairly will we know that no matter what we buy, the important choices have already been made.

David Harvey says in The Enigma of Capital that when we think of class struggle we often imagine workers rising up against the forces of capital, “when, in fact, it’s the other way around.” The global economic system has brought increased earnings to the rural poor, but at nothing near a fair share of the value of the products they’re creating. The entire system is set up against them from taking any more than the minimum markets would allow for. So, yes, we see wages rising across China – but it’s only because of labor shortages. The political voice of the workers has been intentionally castrated, such that we all clamored to our headphones and speakers when Mr. Daisey said he’d actually heard from a few of them.

So blame the system, then get to work fixing it by demanding higher legal standards across the commodity chain. It’s not “free” trade, much less fair trade, if an American company is outsourcing to a country that jails labor organizers and crushes any attempt to build civil society amongst the most marginalized members of society. The difference between being empowered and disempowered can be the difference between life and death, or health and sickness. The Pearl River manufacturing machine is ripping off 40,000 fingers a year. While Australian miners make upwards of $100,000 a year for their labor (and their companies remain competitive), Chinese coal miners died at war-like rates. 7,000 died in 2002 alone. The situation, of course, has gotten much better. Only 2700 died in 2009. Which averages to seven a day and more than the total of all US military deaths in Afghanistan.

I’ll end with my preferred policy prescription. We either need to be rethinking minimum wages or thinking about maximum wages. Either idea would need to be connected more closely to actual market conditions. In my alternative minimum wage scenario, the final retail price of product makes it way back down the value chain. You would set a percentage, perhaps 20%, which would be required to work its way back to the people who made the product. With the iPad, that would ne the miners, cargo ship workers, the factory workers, and even salespeople who are absolutely essential but are altogether disposable and replaceable in market-thinking. Distributing $80 of every iPad purchase away from Apple’s shareholders and towards workers at the bottom of the commodity chain would do more for economic fairness and development than any aid program ever dreamed of. Even a smaller number like 10% would raise wages (and fairness) by orders of magnitude.

The maximum wage idea would be similar, you would follow the full value chain from miner to CEO and set a cap – any cap – on how much more the highest paid worker can make compared to the lowest. It could be extremely high, say even 10,000, and still bring a lot of money back down to the workers. If a CEO is making $20m/year, then the lowest paid worker on the commodity chain would need to make at least $2,000/year. This would force us to confront the inequity when we actually set the number. How much is one human being actually worth compared to another? Those are precisely the kinds of conversations we’re not having right now when we let market conditions and personal backgrounds set prices for us.

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Expertise, -hands, and Language: The Foreigner in a Foreign Land

I want to add my $.02 to a discussion already covered by Cam and Stan about who/what is and isn’t a “China expert.” I want to take a jab at it from two different points of view, that as an academic who has published on China and as a China news junkie / amateur China sociologist. To start, “are you a China expert” has as much currency as the question “do you speak Chinese?” The answer for most non-Chinese should be the same, “it depends on the context” and “compared to who?” I think that’s the only way to answer the question. I’m sure I sounded as “fluent” as locals  to my mother when I was ordering cabs around Shenzhen a few years ago when she visited. In my mind’s eye, my accent was even more biaojun / standard than our “Fulan”-ese cabbies. But the real answer is that I’ve only met a handful of expats who could comfortably pick up a Chinese newspaper or academic book and extract the same level of meaning as a local.

Foreigners knowing “more/better than” a local doesn’t stop at pronunciation. The outsider learning a new subject rarely wants to take things at face value, which would be more common when you learn something as a child or student in a classroom. I know more about Chinese teas than abou 3/4s of my Chinese friends and students by virtue of it becoming a hobby and language-learning tool. Most well-read expats likely know quite a bit more about national politics and modern history than even well-read Chinese because of the strict limits of this sort of knowledge in the public sphere in China. The first three China books I read dealt with the Cultural Revolution as a central theme. No such books would be found in Shenzhen’s giant government-run book stores. Curiously, I noted that when the author of the latest & greatest book on the Cultural Revolution was giving his talk at HKU, none of my Chinese classmates wanted to go and the auditorium wound up being about 2/3s Caucasian. There’s more to this than just scarcity of information.

To answer the first question I posed, one answer is that well-read foreigners and China-watchers often know more about modern events in China than even well-read Chinese people do. To nuance that, I would also say that it’s the sort of surface-level regurgitated book knowledge – of names, numbers, dates, short descriptions –  that foreigners often knock the Chinese education system for prioritizing. There are deeper “why” and “how” questions that only legitimate China experts or most Chinese can really understand (note, I didn’t say explain). As two quick examples, think of Chinese conceptions of medicine or time. Both are clearly different from how your typical American thinks. But how much deeper can the average foreigner go than listing differences? I only know of a handful of Westerners who I think truly “get” Chinese medicine – and they’ve had to spend years trying to understand it as a full-time job.

Before jumping into more difficult issues, I’d like to propose my favored term for a knowledgeable China-watcher who isn’t the kind of expert David Palmer (my last link) is: a Chinahand. A reputable Chinahand fits Stan’s bullshit test by being accurate and would likely have the range of experiences that Cam brings up. There are little or no other tests – like language, which I’ll get to next. It’s about being familiar with China, having a few China-specific topics that you can “go deep” on, and being  well-read and up to date. It sits in a similar category as “news junkie” and has a decidedly amateur connotation.

This isn’t to denigrate the idea of a “-hand”. It’s exactly the category I feel most comfortable putting myself into. When Cam and I came up with the idea of having a “China Brunch” in Hong Kong, it was centered around the idea that Chinahands like being around other Chinahands. We’re looking to Twitter to recruit people. It stands in sharp contrast to an academic conference of China “experts,” who likely aren’t following the latest political intrigues unless it’s their job to know. A modern Chinahand likely would be ‘in the know’ because they’re probably on Twitter or some other social network following these events with other Chinahands. Or maybe they prowl newspapers online for China news like I did in my pre-Twitter days.

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The  correlation between language and expertise is a tricky one. A few years ago I would have told you that you had to speak and read Mandarin as a second language (note I don’t say “fluent”, which is a much lower bar) if you wanted to be considered a “real” China expert. This view was reinforced by my rejection to a PhD program with a very China–specific thesis proposal. The person most responsible for that rejection – an American who does speak Chinese as a second language and edited perhaps the canonical book on modern Chinese education – said his rationale was that I “would probably never understand China.”

My proposal was for follow-up research on my Master’s study of an independent NGO working in the aftermath of the Wenchuan Earthquake. I took it to heart and assumed that my mediocre Chinese language skills meant that I was missing something big. After all, I might as well have had headphones on while I sat in on important meetings. I spent a month in the field working with the NGO  and their Chinese staff, particularly the leadership, frequently implied or explicitly said I was looking at the wrong things, that I wasn’t “getting” it. During one of my questions I was told, “there’s something wrong with your head!”

Then something funny happened. After that PhD proposal rejection, my Master’s thesis was accepted for publication in the best journal in my field. I painted a very pessimistic picture for NGOs working in China and said that 2008 was the beginning of political closure, not the political opening everyone else seemed to have expected (because of the Olympics and the initial openness to foreign assistance after the earthquake). Last year I met with the leader of that NGO  and she told me my analysis was spot-on. Almost anything you read today about NGOs in China paints a very similar picture to my analysis in 2008.

When I started that study I wasn’t an expert on Chinese politics or civil society – much less China as a whole. I was just a foreign English teacher following the advice of a great teacher who encouraged me to jump into something I thought was out of my depth. But I was deeply interested in Chinese society and politics, had a Working Theory of China (Politics & Society Ed.) in my head, and what I saw in the field challenged what I expected and thought I knew. I got to work resolving the conflicts between my expectations and reality, partly by trying to deconstruct how I came to have those expectations so I could see what needed adjusting.

In some ways, being outsider gave me a much clearer picture than the insiders had. The faculty member who rejected my proposal was deeply invested in the “everything is getting better” narrative and could only see my experience and analysis as either wrong or an outlier. But the larger point, one becomes an expert through experience, reflection, and analysis.

I’m pretty sure even Shaun Rein would grant me the title “expert” on the topic of civil society in China, even though I only lived in the Mainland for four years. At that, I was foreign English teacher the entire time – the lowest of the low! I can even give myself a break for not being a superb language learner. But, by the toughest standard around – academic peer review  and writing accurate scholarly analysis – I was considered expert.

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My final point is that we learn deepest through resolving cognitive conflicts – when the reality in front of us is different than our expectations. More specifically, we learn by successfully explaining those conflicts. There’s a saying in academics that if you visit someplace for a week, you write a book. If you visit for a month, you write a journal article. If you visit for a year, you write nothing. That’s because those cognitive conflicts wane with exposure. There’s a great amount of learning that takes place in those first days, weeks, and months. But, eventually, China gets less and less weird. There’s less you think is interesting worth writing or thinking about. Party politics like Bo Xilai’s fall are like sugar-highs recreating those initial days of confusion, when you were busy putting together a Working Theory of China (Everything Ed.) in your head. Or at least something that explained why you were being given hot water on a melting summer day in restaurants.

Now I think it takes experiences like I had to be a “real” expert on a specific China topic. An experience where you leave your comfort zone to encounter something truly weird, something that produces a cognitive conflict. It doesn’t even have to be in the countryside – it can be in your own neighborhood. I had endless theories about why bicycle repairmen would do and say some of the things I witnessed. Try to crack it open and understand it. Read some Fei Xiaotong to see if he helps explain it. Read what other people have said about it. Come up with a theory then return to the Weirdness and see if you’ve got a workable theory. Do that a few times and I think you’ll have something approximating expertise.

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A Farce of a Farce: Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Election

:::  My apologies for typos. I recently suffered a hand injury and this is my first essay using voice dictation :::

I wanted to write for a moment about the issues concerning the latest Hong Kong Chief Executive election. People are clearly upset about the results. The issue, I feel, is that the election was a farce of a farce. This will take a moment to explain because Hong Kong politics are difficult to understand. Even as a Political Science major and former American Government teacher, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the nuances and math of the system. The same can be said for Hong Kong education system(s), but that’s for another day.

The first farce was election itself, meaning that it’s a word that sounds something quite like democracy but in reality it isn’t. But we had a full show with debates and candidates and arguments inside of free press. While Hong Kong copies most institutions from the United Kingdom, the political system is shaped a little more like America’s: meaning is not unitary government, there are separate branches. We have a legislative and executive branch. The legislative assembly is often shortened to Legco. Half of the seats on the Lecgo are voted and in a way familiar to most Americans in that the representatives represent certain districts of the city.

The other half are a different political beast entirely and something I’ve not seen in any other polity. They’re called Functional Constituencies and they represent various sectors of the economy and local governance. Information technology companies get a vote, as does the transportation industry, as do the banks and the tourism sector. In some ways I like the blunt honesty of the system. While American companies and special interest groups are forced to indirectly buy and influence votes, Hong Kong simply gives them the vote in proportion to their actual power.

Unlike the Legco, neither districts nor people have any voice in the Chief Executive election. Instead, the Functional Constituencies choose a 1200 member Election Committee who in turn choose the Chief Executive. So what we have is institutionally enshrined oligarchy wrapped in the veneer of limited democracy (the first farce). The saving grace is that the choice is at least in Hong Kong, with an autonomous local oligarchy, instead of Beijing. So while Hong Kong people aren’t exactly happy with this arrangement, the choice of Chief Executive at least seems to be local.

This election threw that farce out. Arguably, this happened because Beijing was trying to be more democratic. The issue was that the oligarchy supported Henry Tang while common people seemed to despise him. Only a week ago he seemed to have all the votes he needs lined up. That was before Xi Jinping called a meeting of important oligarchs in Shenzhen and informed them that Beijing wanted CY Leung, the more popular of the three (unpopular) choices. This is because Beijing wanted the next Chief Executive to have popular support.

So therein lies the second farce. In trying to correct for the first farce of faux democracy, Beijing exposed the second farce of local, autonomous decision-making. In so doing it became a farce of farce.  The decision was neither democratic nor local.  Instead, we had sloppy popularity contest with an incompetent and indecisive puppet master pulling the strings behind the stage.

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Zones of Improbable Progress

From Keith Lewin’s Taking Targets to Task Revisited: How Indicators of Progress on Access to Education can Mislead

In reality financial and non financial bottlenecks often result in progress falling behind an on-track pathway of dates and milestones. Year on year the gradient of what needs to be achieved steepens. The planning and implementation system can then enter a “Zone of Improbable Progress” (ZIP). Either the goals fall into disrepute because they are unachievable and there is no confidence in making more and more rapid progress, or the goals are redefined and shifted forward in time (Lewin, 2007a:30)

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