Say anything

This is an open thread, presuming I have any readers left who may want to chat. Apologies about the post below. Talk about Chen Guangcheng’s incredible escape, or the Bo Xilai soap opera or anything else.


Bo Xilai Through the Eyes of the Chongqing People

I am traveling now and will be for nearly the entire month. But let me direct you to a brilliant post by one of my favorite bloggers about a topic all of us are interested in. Xujun, who’s from Chongqing, puts into perspective a complex story in a truly must-read post.


Guest Post: What Will China Look Like?

By commenter t_co

In many ways, the world’s most important election is happening out of sight. Even though there’s been plenty of coverage on the upcoming 18th CPC National Congress, the Bo Xilai scandal has risked overshadowing the more meaty and substantive issues at hand. Taken together, these issues sum up the what ought to be the raison d’etre for this Congress: What should the China of 2022 look like, and how can China get there?

1. How will China move past an investment-driven growth model without fumbling the ball like Japan in 1990 or South Korea in 1997? How can China move past an investment-driven growth model when, right now, every single important interest group in China is tied to the construction/real-estate/investment triad? Can you teach an old dog new tricks? Can you teach an old dog new tricks without giving the dog a heart attack?

2. Who will bear the pain of an economic transition? Basically, the accounting losses from failed projects have to end up somewhere–if not on seizure of assets from local governments, then as NPLs on bank balance sheets; if not as NPLs, then as a hidden tax on household wealth in the form of negative real interest rates on household savings. each of these forms of losses has a different rhythm and pitch to it–short, sharp pain and the feeling of “冤枉” (unjust punishment) on a crop of rising cadres if you seize assets; Japan-style stagnation if you keep it all as NPLs; the possibility of household capital flight if you further lower the real rate of return available to China’s household savings pool.

3. How will the government bridge the credibility gap it has with the populace? Right now, China’s government has the dubious distinction of having substantial credibility issues with every segment of the people. farmers have land seizures and government price hikes in fuel and fertilizer; the urban poor have general inflation as well as a lack of social mobility; the middle class worry about corruption, an invisible ceiling in advancement caused by nepotism, and food/product safety; the upper class fears arbitrary forfeiture of assets and becoming pawns in political struggles. More than ever, the upcoming leadership needs to build trust not only within the apparatus but also amongst the people.

4. How will China create sustainable and flexible safety valves for discontent? Right now the only common safety valve available is for Chinese rich people to pack up their assets and move abroad. The other safety valves (petitioning, protesting, rioting, making angry posts on sina weibo) are all either ineffectual, highly risky, or both–and people are aware of that, so they are losing their efficiency as safety valves. And even moving assets abroad is more of a curse than anything, as it means that wealthy Chinese increasingly have no stake in their country’s future.

5. How can China build up an internal “infrastructure of trust”? China has done a wonderful job building up physical infrastructure–roads, railways, ports, airports, a world-class telecom network–but the soft infrastructure is missing. Soft infrastructure, meaning things like universities that aren’t viewed as merely second-rate stepping stones to graduate school abroad; accounting firms and ratings agencies that are impartial and trusted; a capital market that allocates capital based on economic viability rather than political connections; consumer protection agencies that actually do their jobs; a media that seeks truth from facts rather than seeking profit from rumor; etc…. resting on the bedrock of a people that actually trust each other. Something needs to be done to build social faith between people and institutions and people themselves, or else nefarious forces will take advantage of that drought of faith to create trouble like the Taiping Rebellion did in the 19th century.

6. How can China assert itself on the international stage without causing its neighbors to ally against it? From 2010 onwards we saw an increasing amount of Chinese power being displayed both in its near abroad, the Western Pacific, and as part of multilateral forces in Somalia. China now has its own fifth generation stealth fighter, its own aircraft carrier, guided ballistic missiles, and a cyberwarfare capacity second only to the United States. In and of themselves, all of these systems are great for expanding Chinese reach and influence; but if they cause all of China’s neighbors to bandwagon against it, they may end up paradoxically weakening China. more than anything, as China’s power increases, Chinese diplomacy must become even *more* polite to offset it. Also, given that the United States has pretty much declared its intention to remain the regional hegemon of the Western Pacific, and has forged a coalition with Australia, Japan, and South Korea in doing so, China needs to formulate a strategic response. Its current course will take it into direct conflict with 4 other countries with much more combined power.

7. A subquestion of #6 is what to do with North Korea. North Korea is a long-running strategic liability for china: dependent on food and fuel aid while angering every single neighbor it has, constantly risking a collapse and an exodus of refugees and wholesale domination by the South. North Korea’s role as a buffer against South Korea and the US is rather illusory given that South Korea/the US could annihilate the North Korean military within months if they chose to accept the loss of Seoul and Inchon to artillery. On the other hand, a unified Korea would be a great counterweight to Japan, and would remove one of the key reasons for a forward-deployed US military presence in the Western Pacific. Furthermore, contrary to what might be expected, a unified Korea would not necessarily be anti-China, either–consider that even though Germany and Russia have at times been the worst of enemies, after Russia let Germany reunify, the two nations became decent allies with many areas of cooperation ranging from keeping Europe addicted to Russian natural gas to sharing weapons technology to coordinating the anti-US half of EU foreign policy.

8. What is the contingency plan for Chinese stability? what if China experiences mass instability–does the administration have a plan that doesn’t involve international embarrassment or a mass reduction in the credibility of the government?

Note that none of these questions relate to what most speculation has tended to focus on–*who* gets the 9 standing committee seats. In the end it matters little which combination of cadres wins, because every one of the candidates has been nominated for their ability to execute on policy. Therefore any policy that comes out of the congress has a decent chance of being executed to the best of the ability of the Chinese government. What *is* important is the party line and policy that comes out of this meeting (even if that policy is hidden from public view).

The one thing to bear in mind about the resulting party line is that a simple focus on “continuing reform” or “maintaining social harmony and stability” will no longer be enough. A superficial and vague policy that comes out of the 18th congress will be the path of least resistance–but also the worst possible outcome for China. Now is *not* the time for singing songs or pithy slogans or a revival of the ideas of the 1960s or the 1980s. Now *is* the time for an actual vision on what the China of 2022 ought to be, and how to get there.


Ten Years of the Peking Duck

I realize that nothing is as dull as narcissistic bloggers going on about their own blogs. I’ll only do it once every ten years, I promise.

While I was away in the Caribbean a few weeks ago this blog reached a milestone that I was reminded of a couple days ago when I saw this post about the 10-year anniversary of Sinosplice, one of my long-time favorite blogs. I had missed my own anniversary, which I’ll try to correct now.

I launched this blog on March 21, 2002, just a few weeks earlier than John Pasden’s. To the best of my knowledge the only other English-language China-centric blog that’s lasted as long as mine is this one.

I wrote my earliest posts almost as a diary, and I had no intention or hopes that anyone else would ever read it. I’m not really sure how it happened, that other people started visiting, but soon I found myself with some very busy comment threads. (Thousands of comments from the first year were deleted when I switched from blogspot to WordPress, unfortunately, so the earliest ones are gone.)

As of now there are 92,552 comments, 5,015 posts and about 3.34 million visitors, though I didn’t have my site meter installed until after my first year blogging. If you look at the archives you’ll see the upward trajectory of postings, from 16 a year the first year to 1,123 the next. Sadly, after 2006 this number went straight down again as I got tied up in my work with the Beijing Olympics; I never really got back the old fire of the earlier years, when all I had to do was open up a thread and get 300 comments within 12 hours. Back then I also had a team of five or six co-bloggers, and for a couple of years this was a very, very busy blog.

Some of the material here is extraordinary, not because I’m a good blogger, but because the comments were so explosive, so unpredictable. This thread, for example, may be the strangest in this blog’s history, and maybe the strangest for any blog. It is so bizarre that words truly fail. Another odd thread was about OJ Simpson and the murder of Nicole Brown, which drew all sorts of fanatics out of the woodwork. For a while that thread was a circus. Another thread dear to my heart dealt with the suicide of an old friend of mine. I had presumed, wrongly, that all his friends knew of his death. Most of them learned of it through my post, and the comments they left to say their farewells are incredibly moving.

My favorite posts remain this one and this one. I felt so inspired, they kind of wrote themselves.

I started TPD after I read a post by Andrew Sullivan about how blogging was the way of the future. I had never heard the word “blog” before and decided if what Sullivan said was true I might as well get on the bandwagon. At that time the China blogosphere was dominated by a blog called The Gweilo Diaries, a biting right-wing blog that was far more critical of the CCP than I would ever be. Its writer Conrad helped get TPD off the ground by linking to me frequently. Blogging was so new then and there were so few of us. We were a tight community, until blogs proliferated and lost their novelty. We would hold “Peking Duck dinners,” which for a couple of years were a big deal. So many cool people I met at those affairs. I think about 40 showed up at the last one back in 2007.

The very first words I wrote on this blog was the legend in the upper left-hand quarter: “A peculiar hybrid of personal journal, dilettantish punditry, pseudo-philosophy and much more, from an Accidental Expat who has made his way from Hong Kong to Beijing for reasons that are still not entirely clear to him…”

I wanted everyone to know I was a dabbler, not an expert, and that nothing I wrote was necessarily true. People have accused me of presenting myself as a “China expert,” but I’ve never done that. I saw stuff, either in the news or with my own eyes, and wrote about it. Period. This is partly why I am posting so little now. I stop and wonder, “What do I have to add to this story about China?.” And I often conclude, Not much. Especially now that there are so many wonderful blogs that are devoting far more time and energy writing about China, like this one and this one and this one and this one. And so many others. And living so far from the action in Beijing, I find it increasingly pointless to post as though I’m still there.

In 2003 I was in the right place at the right time, just as blogs were starting, and after Gweilo Diaries disappeared this blog became the dumping ground for all types of commenters, CCP loyalists, John Birchers, progressives and right-wingers. Not to mention my trolls, Ferin, Math, HongXing and others, who added a lot of “color.” All of these commenters with wildly different viewpoints meant threads that were like nitroglycerine.

TPD, at least until recently, became a gathering place, even if I never meant it to be. I still get comments from readers who were here nearly a decade ago. I know at least two couples who dated after meeting on this blog, and one couple that got married.

Nothing can last eternally. I doubt there will be another ten years. But so far, despite my recently going dark, it’s been a life-defining experience.


Bo Xilai and the Dead Laowai

There has been so much written in the past 48 hours on the unbelievable twists and turns of the Bo Xilai catastrophe that it’s been hard to keep up. At the moment I feel I have little to add to the trainwreck. But my friend Jeremiah has a lot to add and has written a masterful post that manages to wrap it all up in a way that will make you laugh out loud. It’s over at my new favorite China blog, which you should all have on your blogrolls and RSS feeds.

I’ll have a real post up soon. I am finishing my Big Project that I’ll be able to tell all of you about in the early Fall. I am also having some family issues, namely a sick relative who is requiring my near-constant attention. I hate to see no posts on the Duck for 12 days in a row, since in the old days I would put up as many as five posts a day. Please be patient, and sorry to disappoint with my silence.