China Law Blog on Shaun Rein

I’ve written about Forbes columnist and China-based marketer Shaun Rein before, notably here, here and here. All I tried to do in these posts was to throw his own words back at him to show why I disagree with him so strongly. My approach may have been “colorful,” but I tried to be fair. In the last of those links I don’t even say a single word about what Rein wrote: I let his own column speak for itself so readers can draw their own conclusions.

A perennial supporter of all things CCP who states as fact that real poverty in China has been wiped out, that the Chinese people are happy, that Google declared war on China, that Deng should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, that China is like a teenage boy clumsily flexing its muscles (and must therefore be given lots of space to grow and develop), Rein has, I admit, irritated me no end. Nothing is ever China’s fault or responsibility. All blame for China’s problems get pinned on “the West” (read the US), and any attempt to call China to account, be it on its currency manipulation or lack of response to IP violations, seems to make him bristle. He is unfailingly hostile to any in the West who have the temerity to criticize China. He frequently uses straw men, along the lines of “Many in the West say…” He also, without fail, promotes his own marketing company in just about every column he writes, whether it’s for Forbes or CNBC or Seeking Alpha and often seems to slip in self-promoting nuggets (“Many of my classmates from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences have been actively recruited…”). It’s okay to promote your company sometimes, and it’s okay to remind people you went to a Harvard grad school and that you go fishing with high-ranking CCP officials, but must it be so often and so blatant?

I could write an exhaustive analysis and prove these things point by point, but luckily Dan Harris of China Law Blog has done it for me. In a painstakingly detailed but typically professional post, Dan goes through a recent Rein column line by line to make the point that Rein “categorizes all those who disagree with him as spewing ‘rhetoric,’ and implying that the only reasons for their doing so are political.” He also points out the typical Rein straw man (“[m]any attribute China’s boom as a result of stealing American jobs and intellectual property, rather than efficient economic policies and hard work ethic”] and then goes on to two of Rein’s most annoying devices, (1) insisting that everyone who criticizes China is wrong while he and he alone is right, and (2) using dubious statistics from his marketing company to draw conclusions that are questionable at best.

Mr. Rein then suggests how it is that he is right and America’s Commerce Secretary and its leading investors and economists are all wrong:

In fact, more than 70 percent of big American multinationals operating in China told my firm they did not want the renminbi to appreciate too much because it will cut into their profits. The majority also said they would increase costs to the American consumer or move to cheaper production areas if it rose.

What does Mr. Rein even mean when he says “more than 70 percent of big American multinationals operating in China told his firm” of their views? What constitutes a “big American multinational operating in China? Something like 80 percent or more of the Fortune 1000 operate in China. Did Mr. Rein really hear from all 800 of these? Who at these big multinationals was doing the talking? I very much doubt it was the CEOs, so who? What led these “big American multinationals” to reveal these views to Mr. Rein’s firm? Were the “big American multinationals” really asked if they wanted the renminbi to appreciate “too much”? Does not the phrase “too much” itself have negative implications? If someone were to ask me whether I wanted the renminbi to appreciate “too much,” I would say, “no, I do not want it to appreciate ‘too much,’ I want it to appreciate just ‘the right amount’ and no more.”

Mr. Rein’s claim that the majority of these “big American multinationals” said “they would increase costs to the American consumer or move to cheaper production areas if it [the renminbi] rose” also means nothing. Is Mr. Rein saying that the majority of these “big American multinationals” would increase costs to the American consumer if the renminbi were to increase by .0001%? Or is Mr. Rein saying that the majority of these “big American multinationals” would increase costs to the American consumer if the renminbi were to rise “too much”? Without a specific percentage rise in the renminbi as a reference point, the views Mr. Rein attributes to these “big American multinationals” are extremely vague.

…I am also troubled by Mr. Rein’s final sentence, which seems to say that because “China has played a critical role in helping the world’s economy recover from the financial crisis and is making great strides in protecting intellectual property and promoting more gender equality,” anyone who expresses disapproval of Chinese policy is “ill-informed.” I too am impressed by what China has accomplished, but I would never claim it is above criticism or that those who criticize it are “angry,” “ill-informed,” or “strikingly wrong.”

This is a long, detail-rich post and I encourage all of you to read the whole thing.

Already on Twitter Rein is showing his usual maturity and professionalism:

Shaun Rein
Not sure why Dan Harris seems so mad at me personally. Criticisms seems more personal than rationale [SIC]. Maybe his business is slow.

This, of course, is what he did with me, crying out that I was unprofessional and was personally attacking him. Shaun, these are your words, it’s what you said, it’s what you always say, and it’s why bloggers like Dan, FOARP, Modern Lei Feng and me have called you to the carpet. I don’t know who you are, I have nothing against you, and I even have said that when you write about marketing in China your columns can be quite good. It’s when you step out of your area of expertise and wag your finger at Google or the US Secretary of Commerce that you leave yourself vulnerable to criticism. And you never seem to learn. Same old same old. (And to readers who haven’t read FOARP’s excellent deconstruction of a recent Rein column, please go there now. Same with Modern Lei Feng’s post.) Shaun, don’t you wonder why so many commenters and bloggers make the same criticisms of your columns over and over and over again? Are we always wrong, while you are always right?

I want to thank Dan Harris for taking the risk to stand up to Rein and call him to account. This is what good blogging is all about. Just be prepared for Rein to bad-mouth you and call you unprofessional. Pot, kettle….

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Not again! The Shaun Rein Chronicles continue

The geniuses bringing us the Sinica podcasts over at Popup Chinese continue to outdo themselves, with this week’s discussion touching on one of my favorite topics, The Peking Duck and its commenters. More on that in a moment.

The first half of the podcast is an examination of the bizarre story of the fall of the popular Chinese comedian Guo Degang, yet another case study of the excesses of the Chinese media, the group-think of the news manipulators, the effect of the Chinese internet in increasing the decibel level, etc. Listen to the podcast just for that. (And if Guo Degang is the same comedian as the one I referenced in this post from 2.5 years ago, I can confirm that he is truly hilarious; scroll down for the photo.)

It’s in the second half of the podcast, about 16 minutes in, that the issue of China apologists in general and Shaun Rein in particular comes up, with a few references to my post from last week. It appears to have put the estimable Mr. Rein on the defensive, and he delivers an audio “postcard” toward the end of the podcast, explaining, to his satisfaction, why he is no China apologist.

Much of Rein’s defense revolves around the dust-up over this notorious column from seven months ago, published under the Forbes banner and including the usual obligatory plugs for his marketing business. Go back and read it now if you haven’t already. You can’t really understand why Shaun is an issue without studying this column (or my post about it). In particular, his assertion that real poverty has been nearly eradicated touched a number of nerves, an assertion he clarifies in his postcard, explaining he meant there is no longer severe malnutrition and starvation. And I accept his clarification, and I basically agree with him. The only problem is that he didn’t make this clear in his touchy-feely column, which read like a love ballad to China. Had he thrown in the explanation about malnutrition this might have been a non-issue. But this was just one aspect of how Rein tends to whitewash China’s problems and consistently put forward an image of China that must give the CCP multiple orgasms. From the same column:

Like many teenage boys, China still has a few pimples. It needs a few more years in college to fully emerge as an adult. It has new muscles, but it also has much to learn from the U.S. and the rest of the world.

You can’t blame China for its wrongs. Like a teenage boy with raging hormones, it doesn’t have the capacity for good judgment. Let’s give China space. Let China be China.

As for the rest of the postcard: Rein and I actually are more in agreement about China than you’d think. I completely agree with him that the government has done a great deal of good and made huge strides since reform began. I agree that a lot of people in China are happy. I agree that the Chinese people enjoy a high level of personal freedoms (as long as they remember their boundaries). I have posted countless times here that in terms of social freedoms China is up there almost with the US, and in some ways seems even more liberal. (Of course, there are “on the other hands” for each of those claims.)

The problem is when Rein makes gob-smacking and bewildering assertions, as we see in the very first sentence of his column on North Korea:

Perhaps she was spending too much time planning Chelsea’s wedding, but Hillary Clinton’s recent announcement of a strategy to institute more economic sanctions against North Korea was misguided and half-baked.

FAIL. As multiple commenters have pointed out in the comments there, on the comments here and the comments at Modern Lei Feng, this demonstrates shockingly poor judgment for a columnist writing for Forbes. It’s challenging to think of a more sexist opening to an article. Imagine if we were critical of an Obama decision, and started off our critique by saying it was perhaps due to his being too caught up in planning for his daughter’s wedding. Yet this kind of WTF out-of-left-field whopper permeates Rein’s columns – whenever he writes about topics outside his area of expertise.

I have one issue with an assertion made on the podcast by Jeremy Goldkorn. Jeremy is not a good friend of mine, he is a great friend, and for many reasons he is one of those people I would follow off a cliff. But I must take issues with this:

There was a knee jerk reaction on the part of many commentators, and I’m thinking mainly of Richard, who’s a friend of mine at Peking Duck and his followers, who were like, “Obviously this guy is totally insane” – because, for all of those people Kim-Jong Il is the guy who was in Team America, he is a completely ridiculous dictator. North Korea is completely beyond any hope of redemption, and the ony thing to do is put them back in the Stone Age.

For your reference, here is the entire post Jeremy is referring to:

Modern Lei Feng fisks Shaun Rein’s latest creation. (For those of you who are new to this site, here’s my first post about Rein from half a year ago.) Go read the new post now,

I’ve enjoyed several of Shaun’s columns about marketing in China and I respect his obvious intelligence and experience. But he should never, ever be allowed to write about foreign policy or politics or global economics. He’s great when he’s writing about stuff like the 8-story Barbie Doll shop in Shanghai. When he writes about economic sanctions against North Korea, however, he only embarrasses himself.

(And let me add: I embarrass myself every day, and rarely know what I’m talking about. But I’m not writing columns under the Forbes banner. As I make clear in the legend up at the top, this blog is a bastion of “dilettantish punditry and pseudo-philosophy.” I warn everybody about that before they start reading.)

Okay. My question is, what did I say in this post that corroborates what Jeremy said? I mean, even a little bit? Where is my “knee-jerk reaction” to North Korea or any claims about North Korea at all? I looked for it in the comments as well, and I can’t see anything at all that backs up Jeremy’s description. The most people say is they support or don’t support the sanctions. Nothing about Kim or life in North Korea. Maybe I’m missing something. For the record, the position Jeremy attributes to me on North Korea is simply wrong. Apologies if I wrote something to make him or anyone else think otherwise.

Back to the podcast, I found Gady Epstein’s analysis at the start of the “Apologist” discussion to be the most spot-on:

What am I annoyed by with China apologists? When they talk down to people who make critiques by saying, “It’s much more complex than that, you don’t understand – it’s not black and white.” Well, we know it’s not black and white. It starts there, with this kind of patronizing attitude toward anybody who makes a critique of the system.

He doesn’t name names, and I can’t say for sure to whom he’s referring, but his point is an excellent one, If you’re going to make dramatic claims about China, you don’t knock down your critics by saying they don’t understand China, and blocking them on Twitter and dismissing them. You can read Gady’s blog post on the podcast here.

Let me close by saying I’ve had to deal with being called an apologist for three years now. I always strive to give a balanced picture of what I perceive to be happening in China, explaining in my Tibet posts, for example, that you absolutely must look at it from Chinese eyes and put aside romantic Western stereotypes. To some, any positive words about the Chinese government makes you an apologist. So it’s not a term I toss around lightly. I urge you to read Shaun’s teenage boy column and determine whether it crosses the boundaries of admiration and wades into the waters of unabashed apologism. Your call. I won’t say a word.

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The latest from Shaun Rein

Modern Lei Feng fisks Shaun Rein’s latest creation. (For those of you who are new to this site, here’s my first post about Rein from half a year ago.) Go read the new post now,

I’ve enjoyed several of Shaun’s columns about marketing in China and I respect his obvious intelligence and experience. But he should never, ever be allowed to write about foreign policy or politics or global economics. He’s great when he’s writing about stuff like the 8-story Barbie Doll shop in Shanghai. When he writes about economic sanctions against North Korea, however, he only embarrasses himself.

(And let me add: I embarrass myself every day, and rarely know what I’m talking about. But I’m not writing columns under the Forbes banner. As I make clear in the legend up at the top, this blog is a bastion of “dilettantish punditry and pseudo-philosophy.” I warn everybody about that before they start reading.)

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Good to see I’m not alone

Another blogger shares his thoughts about everyone’s favorite Forbes columnist. Go there.

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Holy crap. Shaun Rein does it again.

Words totally fail me. And I won’t say another word. Just go and see for yourself.

Am I really reading this?

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Shaun Rein writes the single most irritating article on the Google-China calamity

[UPDATE: Rein has once again outdone himself. Check the comments and the links to the original blog post by Modern Lei Feng. Yikes.]

I’ve been wondering for a couple months now how Shaun Rein got one of the sweetest deals in China – a column in Forbes that lets him link to and plug his own marketing company in nearly every column as he tells readers how great business is in China and how rosy things look there. In one recent column, modestly titled, Yes, China Has Fully Arrived As A Superpower, he takes James Fallows to task for pointing out that while China is rising fast it is still far too poor and wracked with internal challenges to be considered a true superpower along the lines of the US, a not-so-outlandish assertion. These are the lines from the article that jumped out at me:

“China is certainly not altogether as wealthy as the US or Japan, as Fallows correctly observes. But it is emerging confident and relatively unscathed from the financial crisis.

Not altogether as wealthy as the US?? As if it’s almost as wealthy as the US? China’s great. I love China. But hundreds of millions of Chinese are still dirt-poor, and while China is improving and getting wealthier, to compare its society’s wealth with that of the US and Japan, even with all of their problems, is irresponsible. “Not altogether as wealthy as the US”?? But let’s get back to Google.

If Rein’s column on China emerging as a great superpower was awful, his new column on Google with the provocative title Google’s Act Of War Against China is way worse. Like all of Rein’s columns, it echoes the party line and is resoundingly “pro-China,” always playing up the great market potential of China, (where, coincidentally, Rein heads a marketing company). It’s fine to be pro-China. I consider myself to be pro-China. But we expect to read stuff like this on Chinese BBS’s, not in Forbes:

Has Google really thought through the implications of its actions, beyond just giving up the world’s fastest growing digital advertising market and the welfare of its employees and legal representatives in China? Or is this the impulsive move of an arrogant and immature leadership team used to getting its way?

Looking beyond the implications of what is, in effect, a new mode of statecraft, we should ask whether Google isn’t using censorship and cyber terrorism as an excuse to get out of China because of business failings there. If Google were making more money in China, would it necessarily have taken this stand?

Here’s what James Fallows, a real journalist who writes consistently great posts on China, has to say about the argument Rein is embracing (that Google was creating an excuse to leave China because it was trailing in market share).

Sky Canaves of the WSJ in Beijing has saved me a lot of time (and done readers a favor) by producing a catalogue of the biggest “misstatements and misunderstandings” people have promulgated about this situation.She starts with the most preposterous: that Google deliberately picked an extremely public fight with a notoriously thin-skinned government, merely to distract attention from its commercial struggles in a market where it enjoys “only” a 35% share. That Chinese officials and “netizens” would claim this is understandable. The Westerners who took it up reveal their preference for the counter-intuitive and “clever” rather than the believable.

Rein goes on to wag his finger at Google, as if he has a better grasp of their situation – as though Google is stumbling and bumbling and screwing up, with no idea how they’re damaging themselves. He almost makes it sound as if they need a good China marketing company.

Its mistakes may have long-term effects on its bottom line. Beyond giving up search for China’s 380 million netizens, the company may now find handset makers being pushed not to carry its Android operating system. That could mean a serious long-term loss of revenue in a country with 720 million mobile phone users.

Google’s China experience also illustrates that anyone operating in China needs to empower local employees to make decisions early and fast. You also need a head of your business in China who has the credibility and headquarters support to champion such decisions.

I assure you, Shaun, Google has taken the possible loss of potential revenue from its Android phone into account, but I’m sure they appreciate the free advice.

Earlier on in the article, Rein tells us, ominously,

If other foreign firms and activist investors in companies conducting business in China banded with Google, they could launch a serious threat to the stability of China, or of any country.

You see, this is Google “declaring war on China.” There is one bad guy here, the one declaring war, and other companies might follow suit leading to a potential crisis for China (which would be bad for marketing companies in China, no?). But has China no say in this matter? Why is there not a single word about what foreign companies need to go through to enter the China market? Not a word about the actual reasons Google spelled out for its decision? Instead, we are fed pablum like this:

They [China's leaders] have also seen how 30 years of economic growth brought happiness to the Chinese population. Let’s not forget that the Pew Center has found that 86% of Chinese are happy with the direction the government is taking the country.

Normally I wouldn’t bother writing a post like this about an article that’s so blatantly one-sided and suck-uppish. But this is Forbes, and they have such a great Beijing bureau chief and the quality of most of their articles is so outstanding – I am at a loss as to how self-advertising puff pieces like this are allowed to run. I read it with disbelief.

Updated with cosmetic edits, January 17 1PM Mountain time.

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