China, technology superpower

The US media have been buzzing today about China having created the world’s most powerful supercomputer, which takes up a third of an acre. I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t stir up yet another wave of panic that China is emerging as a threat.

A Chinese scientific research center has built the fastest supercomputer ever made, replacing the United States as maker of the swiftest machine, and giving China bragging rights as a technology superpower.

The computer, known as Tianhe-1A, has 1.4 times the horsepower of the current top computer, which is at a national laboratory in Tennessee, as measured by the standard test used to gauge how well the systems handle mathematical calculations, said Jack Dongarra, a University of Tennessee computer scientist who maintains the official supercomputer rankings.

Although the official list of the top 500 fastest machines, which comes out every six months, is not due to be completed by Mr. Dongarra until next week, he said the Chinese computer “blows away the existing No. 1 machine.” He added, “We don’t close the books until Nov. 1, but I would say it is unlikely we will see a system that is faster.”

We all know the dichotomies, that China is now a technology superpower while also being largely impoverished and, some big cities aside, a third-world country. But this does help put to rest the notion that all China can produce are shoes and toys you buy at WalMart. (And I promise, I know some people who still view China that way.)

So once again China successfully invests a huge amount of money and effort to become No. 1, at least for the moment. They have to be given credit for achieving this, and from all I heard on National Public Radio tonight, this is a truly dramatic achievement, one that must be taken seriously. Now we just have to see what they do with it, and whether they can hold onto their No. 1 spot. No matter what, this was a PR coup and a big boost to China’s ego.


Edgar Snow comes to Kansas City

Living up to its reputation for insightful, intelligent, beautifully written posts, Mark’s China Blog offers us a treat with its description of the Edgar Snow Symposium held this week in Kansas City. (h/t Danwei.) Why don’t things like this come to Phoenix?

He described taking the train from Beijing to Xi’an and then heading into northern Shaanxi Province to find the mythical communist stronghold (some people, apparently, didn’t even believe the place existed). This was probably my favorite part of the conversation last night. It is also probably my favorite aspect of Edgar Snow’s life. I appreciate the story of a KC boy going to Xi’an and Shaanxi Province for the adventure of a lifetime (even if his story and mine are completely different in just about every way imaginable).

A beautiful description of Bao’an, the lush, low-lying valley where the communists had settled, was painted. Snow recounted meeting Mao and the subtle details of the man that would fifteen years later become the leader of China. He also talked about the general sense of camaraderie and excitement that one felt being at the camp.

The Symposium did not ignore the dark side of Snow’s legacy, which has become all but a dictionary definition of apologism.

Kemper [an interviewer] asked Snow to explain himself – “How did you not see this famine that historians estimate killed 35 million people?” The actor playing Snow did a wonderful job here. One could see the pain, embarrassment, and anguish on his face. He couldn’t come up with a good explanation. He knew that this mistake was one of the defining moments of his career and that history had punished him for it. After stammering a bit, Snow conceded that he’d been betrayed.

Oh well, we all screw up sometimes.

Read the entire post. I especially enjoyed the description of the Red-Color News Soldier exhibit; the book by the same name is one of my all-time favorites. Please read the entire post.


Why political reform in China is inevitable

Tom Friedman, one of my least favorite columnists, has a worthy enough (if typically simplistic) column today about the need for China to embrace political change. It all boils down to economics. The country simply can’t prosper until it’s instituted meaningful political reform.

Can China continue to prosper, while censoring the Internet, controlling its news media and insisting on a monopoly of political power by the Chinese Communist Party?

I don’t think so. To be sure, China has thrived up to now — impressively — by permitting its people only economic liberty. This may have been the sole way to quickly take a vast country of 1.3 billion people from massive poverty to much-improved standards of living, basic education for all, modernized infrastructure and even riches for some urbanites.

But the Nobel committee did China a favor in sending the tacit message with its peace prize: Don’t get too cocky and think that you have rewritten the laws of gravity. The “Beijing Consensus,” of economic liberty without political liberty, may have been a great strategy for takeoff, but it won’t get you to the next level. So this might actually be a good time for Beijing to engage peaceful democracy advocates like Liu [Xiaobo], who is now serving an 11-year sentence, or the 23 retired Chinese Communist Party officials who last week published an open letter challenging the government to improve speech and press freedoms.

As China ages, Friedman contends, it has to move from low-wage manufacturing jobs to more “knowledge- and service-based jobs.” Has to. So you have the usual conflict: a government that wants to control everything and shape its people’s thinking, countered by market forces – China’s growth can only go so far without a problem-solving, innovative workforce.

Dovetailing with this column today is this new piece by my friend and fellow blogger Paul Denlinger on why Wen Jiaobao is thinking along the same lines, and why he will push for more political reform. Denlinger argues that you can’t balance so much social change with so little political change. I’ll just snip two of his seven reasons as to why this is so.

4. China’s president, Hu Jintao, is obsessed with social harmony and stability as his legacy, but Wen thinks that this is a pipe dream. Wen thinks that social change is happening faster than the party, government leadership understand.

5. Wen feels that the current leadership continues to think that economic growth is the answer to China’s problems when past growth rates are no longer possible.

This topic seems to be taking on a life of its own. I think that Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize will continue to fan the flames, and that those who said Oslo’s choice would have no ramifications in China are dead wrong. China’s fate depends on more liberty. Wen knows it, Liu knows it, I know it. Manufacturing can’t and won’t soar forever. What’s next? China has to prepare for the inevitable.


Communist Party elders call for free speech. Seriously.

I don’t expect this to get very far, but you really do have to read it.

On October 11, 23 Chinese Communist Party elders known for their pro-reform positions, including Mao Zedong’s former secretary Li Rui (李锐) and former People’s Daily editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), submitted an open letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, formally China’s highest state body, calling for an end to restrictions on expression in China.

The letter urges the Communist Party to abolish censorship and realize citizens’ right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Seizing on the opportunity afforded by the awarding of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) with the Nobel Peace Prize last week, the letter refers explicitly to prior statements on reform and free speech made by both President Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) and Premier Wen Jiabao (温家宝).

You can read the entire translated letter at the link above. I think this takes the wind out of the sails of those who’re been chirping that Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize wouldn’t have any effect in China. These people are almost as annoying as those chirping that Liu Xiaobo is an American agent because he’s supported by the NED, a claim that is patently absurd. Just because someone gives you some money doesn’t make you their spy or agent. Lots of US NGO’s give money to the Dalai Lama, and he is still an outspoken and self-avowed Marxist. The fenqing have their long knives out for Liu and will grasp at any straws they can. For some interesting debates about this see the comments to this post and this post. Our friend pugster is really banging the NED drum on both threads, and probably others as well. 50 mao here, 50 mao there.

Meanwhile, I strongly recommend that no one hold their breath while waiting for censorship in China to go away. But it’s encouraging to see Liu’s prize embolden others who want to make China and its government freer, more transparent and more accountable.


Was Liu Xiaobo the right choice for the Nobel Peace Prize?

This reporter columnist for the Guardian seems to think he’s not, and contends the choice may hinder the reform efforts of those in China who are more deserving of the prize.

But there are many unsung heroes – within the Communist party and “official” media, as well as among NGOs and the academy – who are working for incremental political reform, increased “public participation”, greater economic and social equality and negotiated compromise between competing interests in the complex and stratified society that is developing. These are China’s real peacemakers. They typically eschew the adversarial approach of activists like Liu – whose Charter 08 movement threw a gauntlet down to the authorities – not out of fear, but because they feel there are more constructive ways to achieve peaceful change in the Chinese social, cultural and political context.

The Nobel award will embolden those in China who are most inclined to confrontational tactics. It may well also prompt renewed state security surveillance of reform-minded academics and NGOs, which may, in turn, nudge some more of them over the line from pro-reform advocacy to outright dissidence.

Beyond doubt, though, it will strengthen the argument, within China, that the west is determined to derail China’s progress by promoting internal strife.

Like Hu Jia before him, Liu Xiaobo has done a masterful job of capturing the eye of the media. Despite the relatively small number of signatures on his Charter 08 petition, a day hasn’t gone by in the past year (when I started getting Google alerts for Charter 08) without at least one, and usually more, stories in the international press about it.

As for the complaint that the selection of Liu Xiaobo will only reinforce the CCP-cultivated mindset that the West is “against China,” all I can say is that shouldn’t be a consideration in the selection of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Just about everything the West does confirms they are “anti-China” in the eyes of the Chinese, and once we let our sensitivity to this type of charge determine our actions you’ll know the West has totally sold out. I mean, should Aung San Suu Kyi not have received her Sakharov Freedom Award because it would turn Myanmar further against the West?

My personal feelings about the prize going to Liu Xiaobo: He’s a courageous man and he has to be credited with turning the spotlight on human rights and political reform in China. Was he the best choice for the prize? I’ll leave that up to you. What I will say is that I find articles like this to be irritating in that they follow the Shaun Rein model of treating China like a teenage boy and advocating that we tiptoe around any destruction the adolescent with raging hormones leaves in its wake. How low must we bow in order not to “hurt the feelings” of China?

Most irritating sentence in the article:

But it is hard to see what contribution he has made to peace, in China or beyond, or how this award will further peace.

Dude, it’s about awareness. What did Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa do that contributed to world peace? What they did was elevate the consciousness of millions around the world to injustices. While Liu may not have been my No. 1 pick for this honor, it should be clear why he was chosen: like him or not, he brought the need for political reform and human rights in China to the forefront of the global psyche. His selection may not have been the best, but it can easily be justified.

H/t to Danwei for the link.

Update: For a splendid piece on Liu Xiaobo and the Peace prize please go here. The journalist, Gady Epstein, first notes that there are many unknown dissidents languishing in the maze of China’s legal apparatus. Most of these activists who disappear are all but forgotten. Living in China, where authoritarianism is taken for granted, it’s easy for us to become “desensitized” to their plight. From there, Epstein arrives at a splendid conclusion:

This has been the unfortunate fate of most Chinese dissidents, to be remembered by only a few and known to very few of their own countrymen. Chinese writer Zha Jianying wrote movingly of this in a 2007 New Yorker article about her imprisoned dissident brother Zha Jianguo, posing the existential question of what good her brother’s sacrifice has done.

This Nobel Peace Prize helps answer that existential question. It has been awarded to one man, and his wife, Liu Xia, is rightfully proud of her husband. She will never have to worry that her husband will be forgotten, and she knows that many around the world and some within her country will learn what he stands for. But the award also confers a proud legacy to so many other Chinese dissidents who have been forgotten. More people around the world and inside China will know what they all stand for, and for a time will remember them and their cause a little better. That is one deeper meaning of this prize.

Who can say it any better? I hope the Guardian columnist finds time to read it.

Update 2: You must read Xujin Eberlein’s level-headed and insightful post on Liu’s winning the Peace Prize. One of the most idiotic memes running around among the fenqing is that Liu advocated China being “colonized” by the US. Of course, there’s no context for this remark, made nearly a quarter of a century ago. Xujun gives us the context and demolishes this nonsensical argument. Go read it now.


China’s mystifying holiday system

Last week I arrived in Beijing after a few days in Hangzhou and met up with some old colleagues, at our old office. It was a Saturday, but they were all working – the price they had to pay for the three-day Mid-Autumn Festival holiday. Get three weekdays off, but pay back one of those days by working on the weekend. One Chinese colleague lashed out at the government for what she called the world’s most irrational holiday system.

I was delighted to see a piece in yesterday’s NY Times that captures just how strange a system it is.

Beyond the frustration of overloaded transportation and jam-packed tourist attractions, there is the problem of figuring out what has become a decidedly confusing rubric of work and vacation days.

According to a government-mandated holiday schedule that took effect in 2008, workers were given three consecutive days off last week for the Mid-Autumn Festival, but they were required to make up two of those by working the Saturday and Sunday on either end of the holiday.

This give-and-take arrangement is then repeated for the National Day holiday, with employees enjoying seven straight days off — Friday through Oct. 7 — except only three of those are official free days. (The four “gifted days” will be made up over the weekends before and after.)

If you have trouble with the math, you are in good company…. A cheat sheet that has been making the rounds on the Internet sums up the pattern as such, beginning Sept. 18: One day off, three days on, three days off, six days on, seven days off, two days on, one day off.

Confusion aside, many Chinese resent having to pay back some of their vacation days.

The article does a good job of explaining how China’s “Golden Weeks” got started and how they’re being changed, and why so many Chinese feel exasperated with such a complicated mess.

I first experienced Golden Week-induced culture shock back in October 2002, and it never really went away. Being forced to work on weekends to make up for mandatory holidays was something I’d never fully get used to.