Billmon on Bill Gates on China

I’ve been meaning to comment on Bill Gates’ highly controversial remarks at the World Economic Forum about China’s new capitalism, but I’m too busy/tired to take on the task, at least tonight. In the meantime, I’d like to draw your attention to Billmon’s interesting juxtaposition of Gates’ quote and other quotes about China. I’m not necessarily endorsing Billmon’s message, but he’s a big name in the blogosphere and somewhat of a genius, and lots of people will be reading these words tonight. So check them out and draw your own conclusions. (Billmon was one of the journalists covering the WEF live from Davos; he’s nobody’s fool, though I have never seen him write about China before.)

The Discussion: 38 Comments

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February 2, 2005 @ 6:30 pm | Comment

I am also very surprised by Bill Gates’ comments. His praise may be a little bit overboard.

However, his comments may help counter balance western media’s propaganda. The case in point is information on slave labor in china on Billmon’s website. Laogai system indeed has its deficiency and CCP needs to add more check and balance into that system. But trying to explain chinese economic progress from forced labor is simply nonsense, but western media is just happy to spread that. Apparently many americans actually believe it.

The propaganda from Western media reminds me of CCP’s propaganda I received when I was young. For CCP, its old propaganda first quickly pointed out the suffering of labors and then the apprarently wealth gap between the rich and the poor. By doing so, CCP took a moral high ground and then labeled everything associated with capitalism as evil.

Well, look at what western media is doing. It usually quickly pointed out lack of political speech freedom and universal sufferage, and a few cases of dissident. Then label everything associated with CCP as evil. The only reason CCP succeeds is because it is cheating.

Those reporters are doing a disservice to their readers, at the same time, cheating themselves. In this world, people lie, but money never lie.

February 2, 2005 @ 7:49 pm | Comment

this is a cheap trick. imagine this reverse exercise.

select any famous chinese dissident writer quoted in praise of american democracy.

juxtapose quotes such as
(1) abu ghraib testimony, photos included; plus defense that it was just a fraternity prank.
(2) guantanamo bay testimony, photos included.
(3) nyc rikers island prison testimony, photos included.
(4) callous american general dismissing the shooting of iraqi wedding party
(5) condi rice saying asian tsunami was a great opportunity for america.
(6) … you can fill it the rest.

there is no sense of proportion here at all, as these quotes do not represent the complexity of american democracy.

billmon was great when he was willing to write and expound. but this is a cheap trick this time, because there is an infinite number of quotes out there that can be used both ways.

p.s. p.s. there is a much better example of how juxtaposition can be used:

February 2, 2005 @ 8:19 pm | Comment

Eswn, I felt very iffy about linking to this, and tried to express my hesitancy in my post. I went with it because I’ve always loved Billmon and he never writes about China. It’s a gimmick Billmon employs often (especialy recently), but it can be used to make any point he wants, since he can always find a quote using Lexis-Nexus to creat an ironical juxtaposition.

February 2, 2005 @ 8:26 pm | Comment

ESWN’s right – these days especially it’s not particularly hard to find a few quotes to juxtapose. The post you link to actually says nothing at all. For all those people who read it as one of their few experiences of China, it will only go to confirming their prejudices and stereotypes. In fact much of what Gates said is understandable and at least partially right. I discussed it here the other day.

We all know China’s human rights record is terrible. It has very little to do with what Gates said.

February 3, 2005 @ 1:29 am | Comment

We’ve long known that you can’t trust one competing power to talk levely about another, and that groups who rely on donations will always talk up their particular cause.

The truth is that you need to look very closely at what anybody says about human rights abuses or other issues, becasue the people who shout the loudest usually wave the biggest collecting tin under your nose, or have the most to gain if ‘the other guy’ is discredited.

February 3, 2005 @ 3:00 am | Comment


While I agree most of what you said, you overestimated the probability that a Western reader can be misled. I don’t think most consumers believe that what they buy are laogai products. They are not even aware that these products are often made under unacepatable labor conditions, though not in labor camps.

Money never lies. It’s long overdue to end American complacency and cope with this *new* capitalism, which pollutes like hell, wastes like hell, and condemns people to hell.

February 3, 2005 @ 3:27 am | Comment

In regards to “new capitalism” as Bill Gates describes it, I think I would more accurately describe it as “old capitalism” or even un-regulated capitalism. The stage of economic maturity is in his infancy in China and the conditions are much like they were in the early 20th century in the United States.

February 3, 2005 @ 3:50 am | Comment

I would have to agree with Jing on this one. What is Bill Gates on about anyways?

I don’t see much new in China’s pollution-intensive, labour exploiting industrial capitalism. Sure sounds like 19th century Marxism fodder to me, the only difference is now they are making tvs and cheap Wal-Mart crap instead of widgets.

February 3, 2005 @ 4:34 am | Comment

I guess the novelty is in 1. sheer volumn 2. China now owns 500 billion US treasury bond. But those are not necessarily what Gates described as *new*.

February 3, 2005 @ 4:48 am | Comment

I think, for once, we’re all in agreement. I think Billmon was being facile, not insightful. And I think Bill Gates was being a moron. It was perhaps his very worst moment.

February 3, 2005 @ 6:46 am | Comment


“I don’t see much new in China’s pollution-intensive, labour exploiting industrial capitalism. Sure sounds like 19th century Marxism fodder to me, the only difference is now they are making tvs and cheap Wal-Mart crap instead of widgets.”

What is Marxism fodder? The Chinese situation right now is more like England during the industrial revolution.

February 3, 2005 @ 7:57 am | Comment


“Money never lies. It’s long overdue to end American complacency and cope with this *new* capitalism, which pollutes like hell, wastes like hell, and condemns people to hell.”

Yes trade is very bad for the Chinese people, so America should stop trading with China to stop wastage and abuse of its own people.

February 3, 2005 @ 8:02 am | Comment


By Marxism fodder I just mean the sort of working conditions and exploitation that gave rise to Marxism in the first place way back when (I was not saying what is happening in China is Marxist), ie the ones that were found in the English industrial revolution (like you said).

February 3, 2005 @ 11:09 am | Comment

Just one thing. How is possible in 2005 to read such a statement about a gulag system?

“Laogai system indeed has its deficiency and CCP needs to add more check and balance into that system”.

“Deficiency”? “More check and balance”? In a slave camp? In a lager?

Is it so difficult to call a spade a spade when the subject is China?

Of course, history is so full of tyranny apologists…

February 3, 2005 @ 1:20 pm | Comment

Is it so difficult to call a spade a spade when the subject is China?

Yes, it absoutely is.

February 3, 2005 @ 1:36 pm | Comment

Really depressing.

February 3, 2005 @ 1:47 pm | Comment

One of Gates’ worst moments? Nah. Gates is infamous for completely missing the boat as a pundit. About the only thing he does understand is illegally leveraging the few things he has to get more.

China will be a major player in the world in the 21st Century. It will change the balance of power as it stood in 1990 as the Soviet Union collapsed.

Is it a brand new capitalism? Not really. As other folks have pointed out it does resemble the late 19th century capitalism of the US… pre-legalisation of independent labour unions and the company town exists for some of the coal mines in China.

To toss out legitimate criticism because it is mixed with tainted criticism is tossing out the baby along with the bath water. There will be those that want to throw out the baby because it is is in the Party’s best interests to distract from its stifling of development of independent civil institutions.

Could Billmon have done a better entry? Yes. Is it complete crap to be completely dismissed? No.

February 3, 2005 @ 9:54 pm | Comment

“Just one thing. How is possible in 2005 to read such a statement about a gulag system?

“Laogai system indeed has its deficiency and CCP needs to add more check and balance into that system”.

“Deficiency”? “More check and balance”? In a slave camp? In a lager?”

Laogai camp = slave camp?

give me a break!

why there are so many know-nothings trying to talk about china?

February 3, 2005 @ 10:59 pm | Comment

if you go to do some research, you will find some americans try to learn from laogai system to improve their systems in the US.

true, some of the laogai camps are badly managed, but basically the idea is that punishing a person is not a good way to make him reintegrat into the society, simply putting a criminal into a jail doesn’t make him change towards the goo d direction. the laogai camp trys to copy the society inside of the jail, in which prisoners can work and live like a normal person but under supervison. as we all know, an american criminal who was jailed before will very likely to commit a crime again in the future, but prisoners of laogai has a lower ratio of commiting crimes again.

actually i read some articles by americans comparing this two systems before, and they attributed that to confucisu tradition and asked their american counterparts to learn from “laogai philosophy”

February 3, 2005 @ 11:09 pm | Comment

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February 3, 2005 @ 11:26 pm | Comment

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February 4, 2005 @ 12:54 am | Comment


I don’t disagree that having an environment “in which prisoners can work and live like a normal person but under supervison” is a good idea, at least better than just locking someone up in solitary confinement or cages. But the criticism of the Laogai camps is something else. According to Human Rights Watch:

There are five major problems with reeducation through labor: the lack of any kind of procedural restraints, the use of reeducation to incarcerate political and religious dissidents, the problems of appeal; the conditions in the camps, and the system of “retention for in-camp employment” that permits authorities to keep prisoners in the camps after the expiration of their sentences.

The criticism of the Laogai camps comes from the fact that prisoners are sent there directly by the police, according to HRW, with no hearing, legal representation or judicial process. Rules on work hours, discipline and release are routinely ignored. Perhaps, since I can’t find anything specifying how common this is, only a minority of laogai camps work in this fashion. But in a camp that did do all this stuff, the term “slave camp” is not too far a stretch. Even if most laogai camps treat their prisoners fairly, the fact that no prisoner is guaranteed access to a lawyer, a court or any other judicial mechanism doesn’t make it sound like anything I’d like to replicate anywhere.

BTW, there is labor in US prisons as well. The US govt has been hypocritical in condemning Chinese prison labor while simultaneously setting up joint venture prison labor operations in the US. The question in the US is the same: is it being humanely done, and moreover, is it right at all for prisoners to be working for private companies like Dell? (Sometimes for as little as 19 cents an hour)

February 4, 2005 @ 2:01 am | Comment

“BTW, there is labor in US prisons as well. The US govt has been hypocritical in condemning Chinese prison labor while simultaneously setting up joint venture prison labor operations in the US. The question in the US is the same: is it being humanely done, and moreover, is it right at all for prisoners to be working for private companies like Dell? (Sometimes for as little as 19 cents an hour)”

By comparing China and America, Dave brought out a good point. You just cannot afford not to compare China and America for better or worse, especially if there are parallels existed between the two. For examples, There are unscrupolous Chinese merchants hurting consumers in China, but there were also crooked Enron executives and employees hurting comsumers and investors alike in the US. There were criminals selling fake milk and killing babies in China but there was also that greedy criminal pharmacist who diluted expensive cancer drugs to sell to his cancer patients resulting in multiple deaths in the US (reported in 20/20). IMO, even though America is a first-world country, whereas China is still a struggling third-world country. With GOOD intentions and respects for cultural differences, it may be beneficial to hold high standard for China for improvement in the future.

February 4, 2005 @ 6:22 am | Comment


i agree with you that laogai camp system have a lot of improvement opportunities.

it’s useless to just label it as “slave camp” and then attack it fiercely. this kind of american style confrontation doesn’t work, neither to china nor to the attacker.

it’s true that laogai camp system has been developed in a period of strong ideology, but it is not a tool of ideololy any more. most defects of this system, like many others in china, are not related with ideology, but related with this infant period of development of a country.

to me, a person living in china, it is just so stupid to lable anything bad as “CCP” or “communist” or “tyrant” or “dictatorship”.

i can understand those cold-war minds’ hatred to communism, but except giving vent to their anger, i can’t see anything positive resulting from this kind of labeling game. it doesn’t help china to improve, and doesn’t help the west to gain anything from china.

from what i know, a laogai camp is totally different from a slave camp, not mention to compare to the evil gulag islands.

actually there are two types of this system – lao-gai (change through working) and lao-jiao (education through working). here “working” only serves as a tool to re-mold the prisoner into a useful person to the society without hurting his self-respect, the basic idea is that unlike just jail a person, work is not a punishment that makes a prisoner feel that bad.

i don’t know how much goods from the laogai camps went to the market, but i don’t think making profit is the purpose of the system. sure, people with a strong of morality feel guilty to buy such goods and feel angry that laogai camp use prisoners to produce goods for market, but this is rather a very complicated issue involving value judgement.

i have a post in my blog to discuss this kind of morality dilemma.

so basically there are three issues in this “laogai camp” discussion:
1) related with ideology
2) related with the philosophy of this system
3) related with the implementation of this system

to point 1), i can’t see convining argument that we should label it as “slave camp” due to “communist tyranny”

to point 2), the philosophy behind this system has some controversey, but also there are some in the west who said they could learn sthing from it

to point 3), no doubt there are many mismanagement in different levels, some are serious and some are crimes

February 4, 2005 @ 8:05 am | Comment

So, W laogay system! W illuminated communist rulers for giving chinese people the wonderful opportunity to be ideologically re-educated! Next stop? To reassess North Korean gulag?

But… don’t you know anything about XX century history? Don’t you know what “re-education through labor” has meant in every communist regime?
It’s stunning to see how simply some of you deal with such arguments. How simply some of you deal with one of the last systems of collective repression in the world. How simply some of you dismiss the injustice and pain that a criminal ideology produce.

When you see a dictator, you should call him “a dictator”. When you see a gulag, you should call it “a gulag”. It’s not difficult. On the contrary you are morally accomplice.
It’ stunning to see how many of you are steadily in denial, how many of you excuse or back, how many of you hide themselves behind idiotic comparisons (US system and laogai system: the problem is not that prisoners work, guys, the problem is why and how they have been imprisoned. Don’t you get it? really?).

I don’t know if it’s fear, naivety, ignorance, indifference or conscious support for the regime but what is clear is that this is a depressing spectacle.
It’s you who “don’t help china to improve”, it’s you who “don’t help the west to gain anything from china”.

History repeats itself as a tragedy (for the victims) and as a farce (because of the cheerleaders and the deniers).
This is very sad indeed.

I’d have many other thoughts. But this “light” debate is getting a bit too “heavy” for me.

Thank you.

February 4, 2005 @ 12:53 pm | Comment

Anonymous, please don’t go — I am truly enjoying your comments and believe you have a lot to bring to this conversation. I admire JR and bingfeng and bellevue as well, but it’s nice to have a fresh voice, especially when the voice is as intelligent as yours.

February 4, 2005 @ 1:30 pm | Comment

I think there are 3 orthogonal issues that we are talking about here:

1. imprisonment of people for political beliefs and expressions

2. prisoner rights (including due process, right to appeals, etc)

3. having prisoners perform labor

I think everyone would agree that 1 and 2 is wrong no matter what (well, maybe not the Bushies). Would Chinese prisons be a better place if 1 and 2 continue to happen while 3 is abolished? IMO, the answer is clearly no. I don’t see any one in this discussion defending 1 and 2. From what I see, Bingfeng and JR are arguing that 3 is not necessarily evil in its own right, while other commenters like Dave and anonymous are attacking 1 and 2, which are issues separate from 3.

February 4, 2005 @ 5:58 pm | Comment

Just one more thought. It seems that some of the commenters here are arguing under the assumption that the entire Chinese laogai system is designed for the “re-education” of political dissidents. While it’s certainly true that there are prisoners of conscience in China (hundreds to thousands according to Amnesty International), they are a miniscule part of the total prison population of 1.4 million.

BTW, according to the accounts of the numerous Chinese dissidents released into exile in the last few years, such as Wang Dan, Xu Wenli, etc, they were not involved in performing labor while in prison in China.

February 4, 2005 @ 6:21 pm | Comment

While many political prisoners may not have performed hard labor, the interviews I’ve read with several of them said they served most or all of their sentences in solitary confinement. I think I’d prefer hard labor.

February 4, 2005 @ 6:28 pm | Comment

That’s exactly the point. Prison labor is not necessarily an evil by itself. If given the choice of being locked up in a tiny cage all day or being able to go outside, socialize with some people while doing some work, I think most people would chose the latter. I’m not sure if the situation has changed or not, but when I was still living in China in the 80’s, one of the most common scandals involving prisons was the bribery of prison officials by prisoners (or their families) in exchange for being put on prison work teams which were supposed to be chosen according to good behavior.

February 4, 2005 @ 7:06 pm | Comment

Hui Mao:

You clarified most part of the subject. Yet there is an important one that should not be left out.

In China, Lao Gai or more precisely Lao2 Jiao4 (Education through force labor) is referred to a sentence of jail term up to 5 years without court proceeding. Yes, WITHOUT court – can you imagine it in any civilized nation? I bet you can’t. It happens in China.

China’s public security (police) bureau can sentence you up to 5 years. You cannot have an attorney to defend you, or have a jury to hear the case. China’s judicial system has many flaws, but this is a system level corruption which open a wide door to police abuse of power.

Therefore, China fails to meet the minimum standard of human rights.

February 4, 2005 @ 11:25 pm | Comment

Hui Mao made a good points to separate the issue here. The problem with Laogai system is more about due process and prisoners’ rights than about forced labor.

Even in China, many legal experts are advocating changes and I believe the system will be improved over time.

To label the leader in China as dictator is an over-simplification. There is so many interest group and even top leaders in china has to balance interest group within CCP. The over-simplification of a complex issue is one indicator of propaganda.

February 4, 2005 @ 11:28 pm | Comment

Steve, what is a dictator in your eyes? You may argue that the CCP is broken down into factions and localities, but when there is one-party rule and anyone who speaks out for a multi-party system is arrested, and when the government can arrest and hold anyone at will, and when there is no avenue for complaint or fair representation — well, if that isn’t a dictatorship, what is?

February 5, 2005 @ 8:46 am | Comment

Is is oligarchy? I think Steve meant that Hu or Wen or anyone else nowadays no longer holds the absolute power that Mao (not always) and Deng (to a much lesser degree) had enjoyed.

Dictatorship cannot dessolve itself overnight. If Chinese history is moving to the right direction, then maybe CCP is in the middle of the process. In that optimistic light I can accept another label.

February 5, 2005 @ 9:59 am | Comment


Don’t be ashamed of the word ‘dictatorship’. Chairman Mao never was. Mao once retorted proudly : “Call us dictators? You are right, We are.” Remember, Mao’s official governance philosophy is Proletariat Dictatorship (wuchanjieji zhuanzheng).

If you start losing Mao’s confidence, you may be starting losing this dictatorship!

February 5, 2005 @ 10:05 am | Comment

Well, I am not the person in power and have no relatiohship to those guys in power. Therefore I have nothing to feel ashamed of.

Bellevue, it is degrading of you to launch personal attack. I am just looking at things from a perspective different from yours.

CCP has many sins and is trying to redemp themself. Roman catholic used to burn 20,000 people alive. It is still a respectable institution today. The progress in China is a evolution process. I whole-heartedly agree with many of your criticism toward to CCP. What we need is to analyze the fact instead of labeling. Come to Shanghai and live for a few month. Then criticize.

Just a short 30 years ago, America has apartheid, “one of the most disgusting system in the world”, to borrow a writer’s word. This system was supported by the majority of Americans at that time. Does that mean America was evil, or American people was evil? Well, that was the impression I got from CCP’s propaganda. I am just reminding you that what you are practicing is similar to what CCP did, which is one type of propaganda.

February 6, 2005 @ 9:17 pm | Comment

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February 26, 2005 @ 3:18 pm | Comment

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