Saturday, February 18, 2012


If I found Mr. Li's analysis of China's superiority to be a bit simplistic and wanting, the same must be said of Mitt Romney's latest in the Wall Street JournalWhile an op-ed isn't necessarily the place for detailed nuance, this one doesn't even come close to being consistent or demonstrating any sort of clear path to get to Romney's stated goals. Examples:
--Blame Obama for the fiscal crisis and government debt but insist on greater military spending to counteract China's rising might.
--Criticize Obama for resorting to "empty pomp and ceremony" but promise to designate China a currency manipulator, an empty ceremonial declaration if there ever was one.
--Criticize the "pivot to Asia" but then promise even more pivoting.
--Raise the perennial (and very real) issue of human rights in China but provide no workable solution save from yelling at the Chinese about the issue.

I could go on but this will suffice for now.

Nearly every U.S. presidential candidate talks tough on China on the campaign trail but most find it prudent to be much more realistic when actually in office. One can only hope that a President Romney will do the same.

Friday, February 17, 2012


is explained by Eric X. Li a venture capitalist from Shanghai in the New York Times.

Li engages in some pretty simplistic invocation of a monolithic "China" that can "see" things and move on a path predicated by "larger national ends" (who defines these ends? are the terms of this debate any less elite dominated than the money-dominated democracies that Li is so quick to castigate?) and can't avoid the temptation of comparing the relatively short-lived democracies of Greece and the West with what he sees as the broad unbroken continuity that is "China." Of course in such a comparison, the West comes off as "far more ephemeral than all but a handful of China’s dynasties." I expected him to trot out the Zhou Enlai "too soon to tell" canard next.

Nonetheless, Li raises some interesting questions and issues. He cogently points out some of the shortcomings of a representative system, particularly one in which money can wield so much power and in which all too many people clamor for benefits without cost. He also correctly notes that the Western faith in democracy as the be all and end all of human existence can hardly be said to be rooted in long-term experience. It may very well be the case that humans will look back in a century our two on our time as a brief, atypical one in which the Enlightenment-inspired democratic experiment turned out to be a short-lived success or perhaps even an out and out failure.

But at this point I remain unconvinced that the PRC's track record is any better of an indication of the "superior" model, whether one limits one focus to China alone or considers the issue more broadly. Li praises the stability and growth of the last two decades:
The resulting stability ushered in a generation of growth and prosperity that propelled China’s economy to its position as the second largest in the world.
Fair enough (and it should be noted that Li does acknowledge Tiananmen Square and appears to conclude that it was a high but justified price to pay for the ensuing stability and growth).

But Li, the putative Oriental who takes the long view, appears to have suffered from some short-term historical amnesia and neglects to consider the disastrous Great Leap Forward (which, if Frank Dikotter's recent book is to be considered, was even worse than we thought it was) or the Cultural Revolution. Where was the far-seeing, national-interest promoting Chinese nation during the early PRC? Perhaps 200+ dead in and around Tiananmen might be, in a cold realpolitik sort of way, an accetpable price to pay for the next two decades of growth and development. But forty million dying of famine? Not to mention hundreds of millions brutalized and dehumanized with almost nothing to show for it.

Many in the PRC (not to mention on the op-ed pages of the NYT) favor an authoritarian system that can make the tough decisions and get things done. Perhaps, but without the Enlightenment-based checks on the power of the state, the possibility of Mao-era madness seems much greater, at least to me.

My last, off the cuff, thought on this op-ed is the observation that Mr. Li surely feels much more secure and confident in his ability to publicly criticize the democratic system of the West without any fear of punishment or repercussion than he would if he were to level a similar criticism of his own system. If the marketplace of ideas has any relevance or salience in the world (and perhaps Li would dismiss this too as a parochial, fleeting Western chimera) then a system that accepts and even encourages disagreement, criticism, and dissent will likely end up faring better than its closed counterpart.

Time will tell.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Perhaps you might think that a totalitarian (or Stalinist, or despotic, or insert your favorite adjective here) regime such as North Korea's wouldn't tolerate difficult to control individual media devices like cell phones. Well, think again.
Smuggled mobiles have been used on Chinese networks near the border for years, but now business is booming for Koryolink, the North’s only official cellular network, based in the capital, Pyongyang.

The service—75%-owned by Orascom, an Egyptian firm, and 25%-owned by the North Korean state—has gone from 300,000 to 1m subscribers in 18 months.

Of course the state does try to limit the potentially liberating nature of cell phones:
Koryolink is a walled garden: users are not able to make or receive international calls, and there is no internet access. It would be hard to imagine that calls and text messages are not monitored. As in China, the network is even becoming a means by which the state disseminates propaganda. Rodong Shinmun, the government mouthpiece, sends out text messages that relay the latest news to phone subscribers.
North Korea will likely be an interesting case study for the ongoing debate about whether information/communication and the technology that increases one's access to it is inherently liberating or whether the same technologies can be used to monitor and control.


in action. Today's exhibit: Valentine's cards in India.

Interesting images.


Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, both on horseback, now up in P'y├┤ngyang.
Coat flying open, reins in hand, Kim Jong Il is depicted astride a galloping horse in a larger-than-life statue unveiled Tuesday as part of birthday celebrations for the late North Korean leader.

The statue is the first bronze casting of Kim, who during his lifetime shunned proposals to erect a bronze like the massive statue of his father, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, that towers over downtown Pyongyang.

UPDATE: Video here.

Monday, February 13, 2012


declares James Church of The Orphan Master's Son, a work of fiction set in North Korea that has attracted some significant media attention of late (note the "opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea" line at the end of the NYT review).

One might blithely accuse Church of jealousy, as he has dominated the fiction set in the DPRK scene for any number of years. But I think Church is spot on in his observations:
We might begin with a simple fact. The author of the book admits he knows next to nothing about North Korea. That would be the end of the problem, except he doesn’t follow through and simply clam up on the subject in his public remarks. How could he set a book in North Korea and say nothing about the country in all the interviews and book tour appearances? That’s a dilemma, but solving it by letting North Korea be the sizzle for the book isn’t the answer.
As Church cogently concludes, simply because we don't know much about the DPRK (and I would add that "we" actually know more, or at least can know more, than we think) doesn't mean that we can inscribe on the blank slate of our ignorance whatever we think, hope, wish, or fear about the North Korean "other."

There is, I think, a larger problem at work here: The book is presently #15 on the NYT bestseller list. This means that many (thousands? millions?) will read the book and at least think they know something about the DPRK when in reality what they really know something about is the mind of the author, Adam Johnson.

The sad reality is that fiction (and movies, and video games etc.) often does far more to shape our understandings of other places and peoples than the more careful, sober scholarship and analyses that are usually still trying to lace up their boots while millions of copies of the fiction flit around the world at the speed of light. Sigh.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


isn't just for Arizona any more.
At least some folks in Hong Kong seem as exercised about the threat posed by migrating "others" as some folks on the southern border of the U.S. seem to be.


The Anglosphere's favorite Chinese North Korea expert, Shen Dingli, weighs in on the DPRK. Some snippets:
A month after the demise of Kim Jong-il, the DPRK seems internally stable, which should come as no surprise. Domestically, elites in North Korea benefit from sustaining the regime, despite the change of a specific leader.
Given all of the difficulties the DPRK has faced, expecting it to have a hard-landing is unrealistic. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the DPRK has disappointed those who wish or expect it to collapse. Instead, it has succeeded in conducting two nuclear tests without bogging down its economy. The DPRK today is less likely to face a preemptive attack. Reasonably, the leadership in Pyongyang could be expected to continue its current style, running both a shabby economy and a rudimentary nuclear deterrent.
Fairly conventional but worth reading nonetheless.