Happy Birthday, PRC!

Check out these delightful videos. No one can fault them for a lack of creativty. Where else but China?


Last post on FGM, for now


For whatever reasons, the topic of female genital mutilation always brings out an odd type of commenter, always male (of course), usually someone who insists on seeing it as the equivalent of male circumcision (which is like comparing what Van Gogh did to getting one’s ear pierced) and/or who vigorously defends multiculturalism, a warped argument because you cannot defend torture and trauma. And even if the procedure is carried out antiseptically and with plenty of pain killers, the procedure itself constitutes a trauma by its very nature. Of course, the mutilation is usually not performed antiseptically.

We went through all of this in the at-times painful thread below. The post was noticed by an organization that alerted me to their new film on this topic, and I’m posting this let you know where you see the film. If you want to argue further about this topic, first go to this site and download the file. (It’s kind of long, so be patient.) Then watch it. It is not hysterical or emotional. It explains the deep roots of the practice and how many girls look forward to it as a right of passage, celebrated by the community. But the filmmakers then make it clear that the procedure leaves every victim traumatized and in pain, and it has life-long consequences. As a girl who refused to be mutilated explains, if the other girls had the slightest understanding of what it actually entails. they would refuse as she did.

Surf through some of the links over there. You’ll see that this is not about intolerant Westerners sneering at an honored cultural tradition. Those objecting with the most passion are either victims of the mutilation or girls who have refused to undergo it. The protests are coming from African women, not arm-chair snobs blogging from their air-conditioned living rooms.

The issue raises all sorts of questions of freedom – the freedom to choose what is done to your body, the freedom to observe your thousand-year culture, the freedom to be left free of meddling from outsiders. And I don’t claim to have answers to all of these issues. What I do know is that if men in their teens had to undergo similar mutilation, they would be a lot less enthusiastic about the “cultural” argument. And if more of the girls knew exactly what was being done to them and all the grief it would cause them in the future, they too would be a bit less delighted to stand there while the knife is sharpened and… Well, watch the film.

There is a reason why all these groups have formed and why so many African women are speaking out. Maybe those who want it done should be permitted to preserve their tradition and choose their own path. But since it is mainly done in a state of ignorance, I would argue that we should do everything possible to at least educate them as to the reality of their choice. And again, that’s not the arrogant belief of a snobby white guy looking down at disgust at something in another culture he finds disconcerting. It’s what thousands of African women and global health workers are fighting to do. It’s about saving lives, about protecting women from unbearable pain and suffering.

As we are seeing in Iraq, there is a deep-seeded cultural attitude toward gays that justifies murdering them (my US tax dollars at work). “It’s their culture.” Same with honor killings. Does the mantra, “It’s our culture” excuse all behavior no matter how sadistic and unjust? Tough call. What is not a tough call is what Western nations should do when their citizens wish to participate in these activities in any way, whether it’s on their soil or during weekend trips home. The answer must be “No, that goes against the social contract you made with this country when you sought its citizenship. And some things are non-negotiable.” It’s not like getting annoyed at someone for spitting watermelon seeds on the restaurant table. It’s about cruelty to and subjugation of women.

Thanks for your patience. This has been a subject that has bothered me for years and I can’t be silent. Now, I’ll try to get back to China and the US.


Scandinavia stands up to female genital mutilation

Norway, Sweden and Denmark do the right thing.

Scandinavians — rather than quietly recoiling as immigrant mothers take their Europe-born daughters on vacation to Africa be circumcised — are fighting the traffic in female genital mutilation (FGM).
Sweden, Norway and Denmark are doggedly pursuing perpetrators of FGM, practiced by African and Middle Eastern cultures. Those perpetrators are mostly the immigrant mothers of the young girls.

Jail sentences, record damages and controversial immigration laws are Scandinavia’s weapons in this war. Meanwhile Africans — who have immigrated with their families for a better life in northern Europe — wring their hands, imploring Westerners to understand that they are doing what they think is best for their daughters.

“The reasons given for female circumcision are traditional, cultural and religious. It is believed to encourage cleanliness, to control promiscuity, enhance the males’ sexual pleasure, preserve virginity and protect against unwanted pregnancies,” said Timnit Embaye of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Kenya.
But Scandinavian leaders refuse to interpret tolerance of female circumcision as politically correct.

FGM “is a very serious assault on children,” said Norway’s Secretary of Justice Knut Storberget. “It is important that they will be given a chance to value this independently when they are old enough to understand.”

Excellent. I know, these people want to do what is best for their children. But the countries in which they have chosen to live won’t succumb to the moral relativism argument and I salute them for it. If you wish to be a citizen of these countries, female genital mutilation is non-negotiable – it is inhumane and intolerable. I hope the entire world takes note and realizes there is no room for political correctness when it comes to this act of barbarism.

I know, I’m outspoken, but I see this as a crime – and a heinous one at that, on the same level as honor killings. That argument that it’s a “cultural thing” that requires our “sensitivity” won’t wash. Murder is murder. Mutilation is an assault of the most devastating variety.

I’ve always had a great admiration for the Scandinavian countries, ever since as a boy I read about how they responded to Hitler’s demands for them to hand over their Jews. (And yes, I know about Sweden’s ambiguous relationship with the Reich, but also know they accepted Denmark’s Jews after they were ferried out of the country.) I see this response to an evil act as a continuation of this spirit of humanity, and this article reaffirms a belief I’ve always held that there is a lot we can learn from them.


Photos of PRC’s 60th Anniversary Rehearsals



NY Times: China’s economy is back while US bleeds

This is the most outspoken article I’ve seen to date in a non-Chinese media proclaiming the bounce-back of China’s economy, in sharp and painful contrast to the ongoing mayhem in America.

Just eight months ago, thousands of Chinese workers rioted outside factories closed by the global downturn.

Now many of those plants have reopened and are hiring again. Some executives are even struggling to find enough temporary staff to fill Christmas orders.

The image of laid-off workers here returning to jobs stands in sharp contrast to the United States, where even as the economy shows signs of improvement, the unemployment rate continues to march toward double digits.

In China, even the hardest-hit factories — those depending on exports to the United States and Europe — are starting to rehire workers. No one here is talking about a jobless recovery.

Even the real estate market is picking up. In this industrial town 90 miles northwest of Shanghai, prospective investors lined up one recent Saturday to buy apartments in the still-unfinished Rose Avenue complex. Many of them slept outside the sales office all night.

“The whole country’s economy is back on track,” said Shi Yingyi, a 34-year-old housewife who joined the throng. “I feel more confident now.”

The confidence stems from China’s three-pronged effort — a combination of stimulus, liberal bank lending and broad government support for exports.

For those of us, like me, who wondered out loud hw China could possible come back so strong so soon when it’s economy was so dependent on exports to the US, the article says not to worry.

…American trade data shows that imports from China only eroded 14.2 percent in the first seven months of this year while imports from the rest of the world plunged 32.6 percent. China’s trade surplus, already the world’s largest, was $108 billion for the first seven months of this year.

No, the article says, China isn’t entirely out of the woods, and the heavy stimulus spending today could be sowing the seeds for trouble tomorrow. But the fact remains (the reporter says): China’s economy is roaring ahead while America’s appears more moribund than ever.

In a style unusually flippant for the NYT, the reporter notes the concerns about all of the fast and loose loans being made by China’s banks, to which he replies in the closing line, “But such concerns are so 2008.”

Maybe it’s all a show, a mirage. But I wouldn’t put any money on China’s economy crashing anytime soon, or on the US economy getting better. I’m here in America, and I can safely say that the mood here is grim, bordering on hopeless. And our suite of very special problems – trillions of dollars of toxic debt, the new wave of upcoming home foreclosures and the steady drop of the US dollar – have yet to deliver their wallop. (Which begs the question, what am I doing here? I’ll let you know once i figure it out.)


Swine flue deaths in China – are there any?

[Update: Welome, MIT BBS readers! Always glad to see you. Please note that comments are monitored – if you leave a comment, it may not show up for several hours Thanks.]

Below is an email I received today from a reader in Australia. I am neutral on the topic, at least for now, but quite curious. Maybe someone in the know can contradict or verify it. If its numbers are accurate, they raise some important questions.

I work in the health sector and I have been monitoring the rates of H1N1 pandemic influenza in Asia since the infection appeared in May. I have been puzzled by the odd disparity in cases and fatalities in China compared to the rest of Asia. Here’s why, based on my own figures compiled on reported deaths in each country:

H1N1 influenza deaths/population (millions) = deaths per million

India 212/1,148 = 0.18
South Korea 5/49 = 0.10
Hong Kong 13/7 = 1.85
Taiwan 11/22 = 0.5
Vietnam 6/86 = 0.07
Philippines 28\96 = 0.3
Thailand 153/65 = 2.3
Japan 20/127 = 0.15

China 0/1,330,044,544 = 0

See a pattern emerging here? Very rough figures, but most countries seem to have a H1N1 pandemic flu mortality rate in the range of 0.1-0.5 per million population. Based on these rates, we would expect China to have 100-650 H1N1 deaths by now, or around 200 deaths as seen in other countries in the region with a similar population, such as India. And yet China has reported no H1N1 deaths at all, except for one in a woman from Zhejiang who was said to have recovered from the flu.

There are several possibilities here.

1. Have China’s quarantine policies been successful?
2. Is there a H1N1 influenza virus with Chinese characteristics that is less virulent?
3. Do Chinese people have some special immunity or life-saving treatment for influenza that other Asians lack?
4. Is China not reporting its 200+ swine flu deaths – perhaps because of a desire to avoid bad news in the run up to the forthcoming October 1 Anniversary?

I am surprised that none of the medical experts at WHO has commented on China’s immunity to swine flu. I would have expected SARS veteran Dr Margaert Chan to be very interested in any country that managed to achieve a zero mortality from what she described as a possible calamity.

I would be interested in what your readers have to say, and whether anyone ‘on the ground’ in China has other information.

I did a quick search and noticed a dearth of coverage of any swine flu deaths in China. Zero, to be precise. I did find a blog that had been questioning this, only to be blocked in China for its efforts.

Yet Xinhua’s reports are almost always just body counts: how many people are reported ill in one country or another. (For decades, Chinese media have been happy to report on disasters outside China.) And while Xinhua’s reported over 9,000 H1N1 cases in China itself as of mid-September, it still claims no one has died from the disease. Hong Kong, meanwhile, has reported over twice as many cases and 13 deaths.

(Currently, it appears China is actively blocking my site — and my other blogs as well. And all I’ve done is express surprise, not disbelief, at the lack of deaths.)

I’ll remain neutral until I know for sure whether mainland China has really reported no deaths from H1N1. If that turns out to be accurate, I’ll lean toward No. 4 on the list above, which strikes me as most likely considering both the improbability of the other three possibilities, coupled with China’s past history of lying about not being totally upfront about disease on the mainland. Is there a 5th possibility?

Update: It’s apparently true that China has registered zero deaths from H1N1. Striking that – link referred to Beijing, not all of China.


Cheerleading on steroids

This is not the kind of link I would normally post (team sports are not my thing), but when I watched this video I was totally blown away. Let’s never mess with Korea.


Ayn Rand

In 1998, I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged back to back. I admit, I was intrigued. It sounded good, at least on first reading. The story of the titans, men of iron will and vision and ruthless compassion (never sentimental sympathy or pity or altruism), working against the cold, wicked establishment machine that rewards sloth and conformity and imitation. Howard Roark. Henry Reardon. (What’s up with the love of those initials?) So virile, so flawless, so committed to their ideals. Of such single purpose, and so perfectly disciplined.

At the same time, something struck me as being decidedly “off” about this scenario. (And it’s the exact same scenario in both books.) The characters are embarrassingly one-dimensional, right out of a comic book. They are good or bad. The one character who hovers and hesitates, never sure whether he should give in to the dark side or stand up for what he knows is right, Gail Wynans in The Fountainhead, ends up blowing his brains out. (He is the only character I can think of in the two books who isn’t either godlike or utterly despicable.) And the stories are inane, patently ridiculous, and yet they definitely hold your interest. There is something archetypal about them, absurd but archetypal, figures that are symbols: Leeching Bureaucrats, Hangers-on, Idealistic Achievers, Weak-kneed Corporate Yes Men, Genius Inventors (or Architects), etc. I admit, I was riveted. At the same time, I was sickened. What Rand glorifies above all else,of course, is money, which must be earned with no help from others. Altruism, any sense of charity are weaknesses, bad things. We have our right to it because we worked hard for it, and any talk of owing anything back to society is the work of venal, sluggish bureaucrats and lascivious, cynical celebrators of conformity (think Ellsworth Tooey in Fountainhead) plotting to sabotage men of hard work, to rob them and bleed them dry in the name of altruism.

Okay. As a believer in the social contract and the notion that we are all in this together, and as someone who knows from first-hand experience that giving to others, contributing to them and helping them succeed are, above all else, the things that make life truly meaningful and great – as this kind of person, I knew fairly quickly that Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” was anathema to my nature. And ironically, those who choose her as their guiding light, those who swallow her simplistic snow job of rugged individualism, the power of the will, the joys of not caring about or even considering others as we strive to attain our goals – these people nearly always struck me as social misfits, fanatics and, well, kind of creepy. (A lot of engineers I knew in Silicon Valley were Randian purists who met all these criteria.) They include, of course, the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck, whose primary message is that “they” – those who are not Randian uebermenschen – want to take away what is rightfully “ours,” and that giving is a sign of weakness, and that we must engage in a constant struggle against the leeches, the Ellsworth Tooeys.

Which is all just a run-up to an article I read today, a superb review by the talented Jonathan Chait of some new biographies of Ayn Rand that helped me better understand just how vile and fraught with hypocrisy her “Objectivism” is. It is wonderfully relevant to the current political climate. It is wonderful reading, not just for insights into Rand’s intellectual dishonesty but into the current right-wing hysteria over healthcare. Just a brief snip (and this is kind of random – it’s all great reading):

For conservatives, the causal connection between virtue and success is not merely ideological, it is also deeply personal. It forms the basis of their admiration of themselves. If you ask a rich person whether he ascribes his success to good fortune or his own merit, the answer will probably tell you whether that person inhabits the economic left or the economic right. Rand held up her own meteoric rise from penniless immigrant to wealthy author as a case study of the individualist ethos. “No one helped me,” she wrote, “nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.”

But this was false. Rand spent her first months in this country subsisting on loans from relatives in Chicago, which she promised to repay lavishly when she struck it rich. (She reneged, never speaking to her Chicago family again.)….

The final feature of Randian thought that has come to dominate the right is its apocalyptic thinking about redistribution. Rand taught hysteria. The expressions of terror at the “confiscation” and “looting” of wealth, and the loose talk of the rich going on strike, stands in sharp contrast to the decidedly non-Bolshevik measures that they claim to describe. The reality of the contemporary United States is that, even as income inequality has exploded, the average tax rate paid by the top 1 percent has fallen by about one-third over the last twenty-five years. Again: it has fallen. The rich have gotten unimaginably richer, and at the same time their tax burden has dropped significantly. And yet conservatives routinely describe this state of affairs as intolerably oppressive to the rich. Since the share of the national income accruing to the rich has grown faster than their average tax rate has shrunk, they have paid an ever-rising share of the federal tax burden. This is the fact that so vexes the right.

One reality-based blogger who read the same review remarks:

Jonathan Chait reviews two (!) biographies of Ayn Rand, an astoundingly muddled thinker who was, apparently, also an astoundingly unpleasant human being. She’s worth studying, as any pathological phenomenon is worth studying, and her thinking (if it can be called that) still has influence over part of the Right; her very shallowness has a deep appeal for adolescent males of all ages and both sexes.

What’s most astounding is how completely unoriginal it is. A college friend showed me some Randite document just after I’d finished reading Also Sprach Zarathustra for a course.

At once I saw the relationship: Rand is Nietzsche for stupid people

Another says of the review:

It’s great and I don’t have much to say about it. One thing that does always strike me about Rand, however, is that there strikes me as something particularly odd about the Randian tendency to assume that the business executive class generally constitutes the most intelligent segment of society. As if an Albert Einstein is just a kind of middleweight hack but the VP for Marketing at Federal Express is one of ubermenschen.

If you want to understand the America of Beck-Limbaugh, this is absolutely essential reading. Ayn Rand is a uniquely American phenomenon, and unfortunately, whoever wants to understand present-day America must first know Ayn Rand.



China’s migrant workers hit by economic meltdown

An excellent multimedia look at how they are surviving, and the difficult future tens of millions face as they trudge back to their villages unable to find work. As I read the articles and listened to the testimonies, I was reminded how the slightest nudge of inflation means a life-altering calamity for these people. And I think of where it seems we are heading, and I wonder what these people will do if prices soar (as I think they will). Can the state possibly summon the resources to shelter the hundreds of millions living on pennies a day?

The section on migrant workers who’ve lost their jobs making the one-way trip home by train struck closest to home, from the opening soundbite of someone clearing his throat in the bathroom to the quiet, resigned conversations of people who know their options, limited to begin with, are shrinking even further. And still, they laugh and smile and move on. (At the risk of succumbing to a bout of sentimentality, I have to say, this piece reminded me how much I miss everything about China and want to go back, if only to visit, as soon as I can.)


China: All that glitters…?

My friend Dror has put up an interesting post on Thomas Friedman’s controversial column that I wrote about yesterday. Dror fears that many of us, dazzled by gushing reports of China’s success a la Friedman, will get a distorted picture of a country that’s not really doing quite as spectacularly as Friedman would have us believe.

As Ian Buruma points out in a recent article, ‘China’s economic success is convincing too many leaders that citizens… want to be treated like children’. This ideological shift is already showing itself in the calls for increased government planning in the US, as well as the shift of geopolitical power towards China. Taiwan, for example, recently announced that it will not apply for a UN seat this year, for the first time in 17 years. We can expect to see more and more political and ideological deferral to Chinese interests as we progress deeper into the crisis.

All this has happened before. In 1929, American pundits were mourning the failure of capitalism and listing the achievements of central planning in other countries. Back then, commentators were impressed by the Soviet Union’s high employment rate, and its incredible environmental and infrastructure initiatives. These included the Dnieprostroy hydroelectric plant (the largest of its kind in Europe), the 950 mile Siberian-Turkestan railway, and the Volga-Don water canal. Other achievements of that period included Nazi Germany’s 100% employment rate, Hitler’s autobahn (highway) projects, and Fascist Italy’s train system and efficient cooperation between government and business.

(Go to Dror’s post for the many links he incudes to back up is argument.)

Dror and I have had an ongoing argument for months about how strong China’s economy actually is, and how it stands up to America’s. I tend to think China is in better shape than he does. If you are watching its behind the scenes maneuverings, like shoring up its natural resources by cutting deals with Iran, Iraq and African countries, or its nearly silent investment in gold, you can’t help but see that they do have a blueprint for wielding the kind of global influence that for decades we imagined only the US could. China and the US are both pulling out of their recessions, but the US is going to get pulverized by the next wave of home foreclosures and the ticking time bomb of CDOs, all of which must (not might) pull down the dollar and weaken our financial system. China, while faced with its own staggering problems, is relatively unaffected by America’s mess, especially as it quietly moves away from the dollar.

China’s economy is so fragile, making predictions about it is dicey at best. I do think it’s safe to say that its global influence will continue to expand as America’s contracts, and it will be increasingly better poised than we are to cut deals, win friends and influence people. And yes, I know the huge problems China faces. But it’s faced many of these problems for the past 30 years (and some for far longer) and has continued to move ahead, or at least to plod along. And China has what we don’t – money in the bank. And nothing else talks like money. Maybe they will screw it all up and go crashing down. But for now, I see them as having the upper hand. Which, considering how America’s fallen, doesn’t really say very much, but still….