Archive for the ‘Politics’ category

Can China afford to eliminate pollution?

March 3, 2015

It’s very good news that so many Chinese are so concerned about pollution (Google “Chai Jing documentary”) but I’m worried that under their present system, they have no way to really change it. I think the problem isn’t just political corruption or insufficient transparency: it’s that the level of debt throughout the society is already too high. The more companies control pollution, the lower their profits. The more the government tries to eliminate pollution, the more it’ll spend. But over the past 7 years, China’s debt level has already nearly quadrupled, so if it slows the economy to take on the pollution problem, will it afford to pay off its debts? Using debt to power an economy is like running on a treadmill whose speed you can’t adjust. Once you slow down, you fall. I still think China has to face the pollution problem (I refuse to live there because of it) but if it really wants to do that, I fear it’ll have to go through a financial crisis and recession first.



Judicial independence is the basis of Hong Kong’s economic value

October 2, 2014

This is my translation of the first half of this post by chenglap on a Taiwanese forum. I think it’s a strong rebuttal to the argument (which many people share) that HKers should throw all their effort into making money and not get involved in politics.

You misunderstand. The importance of Hong Kong, when you come down to it, isn’t its substantive “economy”; it’s the liquidity of transactions there. Hong Kong is indeed a major economic city, but not for economic reasons: for political ones. Not even Hong Kongers themselves understand this. Hong Kongers commonly believe their value, and the reason they’re rich, comes from their understanding of economics and how to do business. On the contrary, Hong Kongers don’t really understand economics, and something else is the foundation of Hong Kong’s value: Hong Kong’s independence.

If you keep your eyes open, you’ll discover that all Western systems separate Hong Kong and China and treat them differently. Obviously China cares a lot about this, so it always demands that the word “China” be appended to the name “Hong Kong.” You won’t see them doing that with Shanghai or Shenzhen.

I’m not saying Hong Kong is an independent nation. I’m saying Hong Kong’s value is in its independence in external affairs, toward the world outside the ethnic Chinese community, that is, in the eyes of the world.

To become a financial center, having a big economy is just an entry ticket. Global credibility is the core question. To put it bluntly, it’s a question of how chaotic local governance is. Some places produce oil and diamonds and are very wealthy, but that doesn’t mean they can become economic centers. If you don’t have a government and legal system that meets international standards and is globally recognized, you simply have no way to guarantee the safety of the assets kept in your city.

Hong Kong is trusted because its systems are all independent from the People’s Republic of China. It has an independent currency and independent financial system. It follows the UNCLOS. It has a different judicial system than mainland China, one with the same source as the U.S. and U.K. It basically preserves separation of powers, so the executive cannot control judges’ legal decisions. It has a citizens’ jury system, lawyers, and a legal system that are all recognized by countries following the U.S.-U.K. framework.

Hence, companies are willing to line up and take a number to put their assets in Hong Kong, and extend credit there, -not- because Hong Kong has a “good economy”, but because they believe that Hong Kong will protect these things. The courts are the defender of everything. No matter how good the economy is, if the government can seize your assets at will there, and the courts that are supposed to defend you are on the government’s side as well, then that place is a “paradise of risk” and can never become a financial center. Finance is built on credibility.

Unless East China undergoes major governmental change, Shanghai will never have the conditions of a true financial center, no matter how much it develops. It won’t have its own currency, its own financial network, its own laws, nor credibility, because its credibility is equivalent to the People’s Republic of China’s. Chinese judges are appointed by the Chinese government. They don’t have independence. Foreign businesses that have business disputes in China with Chinese businesses do not believe that the courts there will protect them.

If Shanghai’s legal system cannot regulate the government, and the government can do whatever it wants there, independent credibility cannot be built there.

When Shenzhen was made a Special Economic Zone, the architects considered this point and thought about establishing a “Shenzhen Dollar”, and midway through seemed to want to strengthen the area’s autonomy as well. This is because they realized that the trust placed in Hong Kong stemmed from its autonomy, and from the government not being able to do whatever it wants there. However, Shenzhen was unable to win these rights. Hong Kong has the Internet domain .hk, and Taiwan has .tw, but could Shenzhen have .sz? Sadly, no; that’s Swaziland.

Through investment in industry and cheap labor, these cities can develop better economies than Hong Kong and have higher commodity prices, but how could they build independent credibility or a financial system that isn’t controlled by the government? How would they create an independent judiciary? It’s not that Shanghainese and Shenzhenese aren’t as hardworking or talented as Hong Kongers; they are, actually. But the systems that have already been established there stem from political issues and their issues cannot be resolved simply by making more money.

Outsiders don’t believe in Chinese Hong Kong’s economy; they believe in its credibility. Obviously, many often say that if you have strong fists you don’t need to defend your credibility. Yes, you could then shout at your people that you can do whatever you want and they can’t stop it, but foreigners won’t go for that. The business environment would be like a casino where you could win money easily but couldn’t leave with your winnings.

Stephon Marbury: Beijing’s Model Migrant

September 1, 2014

Stephon Marbury is one of the three most significant basketball players in the world. As a star of the two-time-champion Beijing Ducks and active cultural ambassador, he’s arguably doing more for America’s image in China than any other individual[1], and the acceptance he’s received there is especially heartwarming considering the reception other people of African descent have received in the country[2].

The stone the builders rejected became a cornerstone. So it makes sense that he’ll be the protagonist of a new musical in Beijing[3], surreal as it may be for NBA fans who remember his feuds and losing seasons at home. Hopefully ESPN or NBA TV blows up Twitter by playing a subtitled recording of the show in the States. Here[4] is the playbill, including photos of Marbury, who will appear on stage, and Mike Sui[5], who will play him for the speaking roles.

Nothing in the public sphere is truly apolitical in China, though, and that’s also sadly the case here. The musical presents Marbury as a model migrant worker and implies that if only the others worked as hard as him, they’d be that successful too (the paucity of their legal rights go unmentioned).

“The play, which will run for 11 consecutive nights [during the National Day vacation], centers on the idea that Marbury is a successful Beijing vagabond, or beipiao — a Chinese term typically used to refer to the millions of migrant workers who flock to the capital in search of employment without official Beijing residence permits,” says the New York Times. “The plot follows the story of a musician, a beipiao himself, who arrives in Beijing in search of fame and is inspired to beat the odds by watching Marbury lead the Ducks to their first-ever championship during the 2011-12 season.”

In the playbill, Director Zhou Wen-hong says: “Regarding Marbury’s success, his spirit has even greater social significance. Overcoming difficulties, never giving up, never compromising: everyone says these inspiring phrases, but how many people really accomplish them like Marbury has?”

Starbury is hardworking and he does come from afar, but presenting him as a model for China’s migrant workers is like lauding Mario and Luigi and questioning why the rest of the world’s plumbers aren’t that rich and famous. Even Horatio Alger would furrow his brow at the comparison.

It’s not just that Marbury was already a rich and famous basketball star when he came to China, meaning he had orders of magnitude more capital, leverage, and connections than any average person, and he joined an inferior league. It’s also that under China’s household registration system, migrant laborers are quasi-illegal immigrants within their own country and are mostly shut out of receiving any social services.

Basically, in China wherever your family was based in the 1950s determines where you and your children “belong” now. It’s like if you moved to Boston from Iowa but couldn’t put your kids in Boston schools or participate in the state pension or medical insurance system. “Only 1 in 7 of [China’s 262 million migrant workers] is participating in any form of pension and only 1 in 6 has medical insurance. In combination with this lack of access to most forms of social security, migrant workers are disproportionately employed in dangerous jobs, and as a result migrant workers accounted for 70% of all work related deaths in China in 2012 (according to the China Labour Bulletin).”[6]

Children normally inherit their parents’ hukou, regardless of where they are born, and are often barred from the public schools in the places they grow up[7], even in Beijing[8]. Changing your registration is possible but very difficult; you typically have to strike it rich first. Scrapping the system is out of the question; cities oppose changes proposed by the center; reform is slow; and even this year’s proposed changes are incremental[9]: i.e. “the very largest cities – defined as those above 5 million in population, which covers a dozen or more Chinese conurbations [including Beijing] – are still advised to ‘strictly control the scale of the population,’ using a points-based system to give priority to those with college degrees or who have studied abroad.” In the meantime, social activists and parents across the country will keep pushing for systemic reform.

By and large, Chinese migrants are improving their lives and giving themselves better futures despite all this, but they’re doing so in spite of the system, and they’ve never received the protection or opportunities they deserve. So, while it’s nice that Marbury and the city want to inspire them—Marbury has also been chosen as an “official role model in a citywide campaign encouraging people to ‘work hard and live morally'”—migrants are already doing everything he is and just don’t get the same opportunities. Paradoxically the message “work hard and live morally” seems crafted to give a mistaken impression people aren’t doing that now.

There’s a lesson here for Americans as well. Just as Marbury is presented as a model migrant worker despite having privileges no Chinese migrant would dare dream of, commentators like Bill O’Reilly compare Asian-Americans to African-Americans despite the chasmic differences between these two groups and then argue the wealth disparity between them proves African-Americans just aren’t working hard enough. Eddie Huang has already sautéed O’Reilly[10] about the speciousness of the comparison; in short: US immigration policy ensured Asian immigrants to the U.S. typically had particularly high levels of wealth and education; they had large family and social networks as they had generally suffered less state violence; and they and their descendants have received better treatment here from law enforcement and other institutions. Thus, while Asian-American success should be celebrated, using it against African-Americans is a divide-and-conquer strategy fit for colonialists.

It’s great to see people beat the odds, but their stories are remarkable for a reason: environment and history still determine what your odds are. Stephon Marbury deserves the accolades he’s received, but his Beijing career shouldn’t be likened to the struggles of the disenfranchised. Revel in Starbury’s fame, but dunk on politically motivated mythmaking whenever you see it.

James Smyth is a translator in Taiwan.











Has America Been Saved from Racism?

August 28, 2014

After reading Ezekiel Kweku’s piece ( I felt some Americans’ view of racism mirrors some Christians’ view of sin: we once suffered under it but have now been saved and sanctified.

Under this model, people suffer under sin, but after they accept Christ they are saved and bound for heaven. In the same way, America was plagued by racism, but the forces of good conquered and now equality is on the march. Even some who are not Christian have absorbed this way of thinking, and it can be innate: in Taiwan the lifting of martial law and first presidential election are the moments some say the nation “became free, period.”

The “I Have a Dream Speech” and Obama’s Election are two of the most commonly recognized moments of the USA’s racial salvation, and it’s no coincidence that Martin Luther King and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama have been deified in the process.

We can all be Christlike, yes, and thanks to his leadership and many astute statements King in particular can be considered a national prophet. That said, we must remember that no one and nothing can “change everything” the way we would like it to. After the Resurrection itself sin persisted, even among Church members, as Acts and Revelation make clear, and people who once accepted Christ can still fall away, as Judas did. In US history, meanwhile, we can see clearly that African-Americans steadily -lost- rights and status between the end of the Civil War and the first World War, and that on police violence we’ve made zero progress at best since “Do the Right Thing” 25 years ago.

Personal conversions are real and moments of social change happen. On an absolute, universal level Christ has triumphed over sin. But on this earth nothing is final. Not the ultimate destination of our souls, nor the ultimate destination of our society either. We want a conversion or an election to decide everything. To be inspired by such moments afterward is good and natural. But our daily works, day after grueling day, are themselves crucial, as are daily examinations of conscience to reorient ourselves.

How Asia Works: Success and Failure in the World’s Most Dynamic Region

August 23, 2014

Amazon Link

I’m extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon this book. It reconstructed my views on developmental economics and doubles as a strong rejoinder to dogmatic laissez-faire.

It explains how Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China have advanced so much economically–by following the 18th century English and 19th century American and German models of protected development, best described by Friedrich List–and how Southeast Asian nations have struggled despite taking far more of the neoliberal prescriptions of Adam Smith and the World Bank and IMF than their northern counterparts. There’s much to learn about here but we can summarize the three steps to prosperity as follows:

1. Peasant farmers must be given ownership of their land and receive infrastructure and technical support to increase productivity and build wealth. Fair land redistribution spreads wealth so much better than trickle-down economics.
2. During industrialization, infant industries must be protected from foreign multinationals, but there must also be enough domestic firms in each field to allow genuine competition, as monopolies degenerate into rent-seeking. Deals with foreign firms must require technology transfer in exchange for market access to allow the nation to build its knowledge base. Promising companies need sufficient capital to undertake long-term investment. To determine which firms deserve funding, use export performance as a benchmark because it is an objective indicator of competitiveness.
3. Finance must be directed toward productive development, not real estate and stock speculation.

Again, it’s not what race you are that determines how well your country does; it’s how effective its policy is. Learn about what’s been proven to work by reading this.

Pope Francis’s Wakeup Call in Korea

August 20, 2014


Pope Francis rarely gives speeches in English (like Asian youth, he is worried his English is too poor!) but he did for us in Korea and the above was the exhortation that he wanted to stick in our minds. For great reason.

But first let’s rewind a bit: I spent the weekend in Seoul to attend Masses Pope Francis said there. They were amazing. Most attendees came from countries where there are relatively few Catholics, so it was a joyful time for everyone to celebrate their shared faith, not just explain it, and make new friends from all over the place. There were spontaneous songs and dances all around, including some by a troupe of indigenous people from Hualien, Taiwan in traditional garb, and people from different countries so high they were jumping into each other’s pictures to say hello (so now our group is in the group photo for a big Korean seminary.) Many non-Catholics came to be a part of it all as well, and they were welcomed.

I saw the Pope with my own eyes thrice. The first time was as he was driven to the Seosumun shrine just outside Seoul’s old city walls to commemorate 124 martyrs who were killed there (echoing St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome). After that ceremony, he drove to the central plaza of Seoul to beatify the martyrs at a Mass with 800,000 attendees, and I followed him there on foot. We who were too far behind all watched the proceedings (Latin Mass, Korean subtitles) on giant Samsung LCDs mounted around the square.

At Seoul the police presence was extremely heavy, as if they thought we had all come to protest him: it seemed clear the Force’s methods and traditions had not significantly changed since the rule of the dictator Park Chung Hee. However, I was able to get much closer the next day, in a distant castle where thousands of Catholics had been killed over the course of a century of persecution.

He passed by on the Popemobile on a path 10-15 feet in front of me at the Asian Youth Day closing Mass for 40,000 people at Haemi Fortress. Each time he blessed us all (looking past cameraphones to people’s faces) and each time he was warm. As he approached youth would run toward the car yelling “Papa, Papa!” (He also said an Asian Youth Day Mass in a packed World Cup soccer stadium in Daejeon on Korean Liberation Day. He traveled there by high speed rail and only after the train got going did the conductor tell the hundreds of other passengers they were sharing a ride with the Pope!)

But the amazing thing about his trip is that his small-scale events had an even larger social impact than the aforementioned large-scale ones. When he wasn’t at Mass praying and blessing, he was meeting and a long lineup of the marginalized–families of children killed in the April ferry disaster, women forced into sex slavery during World War II, the elderly, disabled, and sick–and giving them love and concern. He spoke about social problems close to home like youth suicide–old as he is youth relate to him because he knows what they’re worried about. He met the President of Korea as well, but mostly the pontiff was with the least of our brothers, bringing journalists along with him to get them in the headlines, and saying loud and clear whom he wanted to receive more attention.

Korea is getting richer and richer and the Pope came and spoke about emerging problems people had started to feel and to tell them to do something about it, the way their forefathers risked their lives for faith. “Do not be afraid to bring the wisdom of faith to every aspect of social life,” he said. He also urged us to discern “what is incompatible with your Catholic faith … and what aspects of contemporary culture are sinful, corrupt and lead to death” and instructed us to look out for the elderly, poor, and sick.

Some people don’t want to get too involved in society or in politics, which is the structuring of society. They just want to live their lives. However, I’ve often thought, of late, that in free societies the people who can most afford to do this are those who haven’t yet felt politics and society crushing them. In other words, politics is abstraction for the fortunate, but it’s urgent for the unfortunate.

I think Francis in telling us to wake up was saying anyone who can afford to come out and see him can also afford to act. And I pray we all do! Perhaps I’m paranoid but my reading of social trends tells me that not only is there more than enough for Christians to do for others; there are also vises tightening on everyone, and we need to recognize them for what they are. Youth, wake up, and don’t despair. The Cross has the same power over death as ever.

2014 Taipei Metro Attack / 鄭捷隨機殺人事件 (中英)

May 22, 2014

For the first time ever, there has been a mass stabbing on the Taipei metro.

Four people were killed and some 25 injured this afternoon when a deranged college student took advantage of one of the longest stretches between stops (a 4-minute ride under a river) to fulfill a childhood fantasy by stabbing other passengers with a fruit and Swiss Army knife until he was finally subdued inside the next station.

The TV news stations here have learned from the best (CNN): breathless coverage, and some announcers have even baselessly speculated the killer was a protester. But among my Taiwanese friends on FB the conversation has been much realer. Here’s what I had to add:

May the departed rest in peace, the injured quickly recover, and the killer repent and believe in the Gospel.

So, there’s this slogan for the metro system, “We are all metro passengers” [note: it’s a pun because the word for that is “Jack”, a character in an ad for the metro] and it’s easy to shrug off but it really hit me today.

Today didn’t just remind us of how fragile our lives are; it also reminded us how important trust is.

Every public transportation system, every city, every society needs people to trust each other to function. Taiwan has an extremely low crime rate and an extremely high amount of mutual trust, but Taiwanese people are still people. We all have free will, and any one of us could kill someone. No matter what mode of transportation you use, how many policemen are stationed there, whether or not there are metal detectors, or whether or not we have the death penalty, the need for trust will not change. So I’m still going to trust you all and keep staking my life together with you by riding the metro every day.

People say the death penalty deters crime, but sociological research shows that is not the case. And besides, three weeks ago our government killed five people (two of whom were convicted based on decidedly doubtful evidence). Frankly, the people on death row are just our scapegoats (using the ancient meaning of the word). I’m not saying they’re innocent, or that if they all lived they would come to regret their actions. Rather, I’m saying that they are shaped by the societies from which they came.

If we could look back over death row prisoners’ whole lives, we would definitely see:
-Many have mental illnesses. Why didn’t we do more earlier to treat them?
-Many have had painful experiences, and have been abused and rejected before. Where were the people to comfort them?
-Many had done several small bad things leading up to their big crime. Who was there to correct them then?

In an urbanized time, especially a smartphone society, it’s actually easier and easier to cut oneself off from the world. If you want to pass a totally lonely/independent life, you can. But the more one is alienated from others, the stranger one’s thought process will become. And the less love a person receives, the less valuable he will think his life is. Moreover, it will then be easier for him to believe other people’s lives don’t have value, either, so killing them wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Among these unhappy people, some (I’m not certain about this case) will want to do something really big, to let the world get to know them, to let the world know they exist. To be honest with you, I’ve thought before that the easiest way to get famous in America is to kill a bunch of people. Extremely lonely people have likely thought this too.

Taiwanese people were originally rice farmers–indigenous were hunters–they had to work together, and they all had to resist colonizers together. In order to survive this kind of life, you have to preserve good relationships and trust each other. Some families knew each other for generations.

But in present-day society, from kindergarten to retirement it’s all competition, and we’ve all left our hometowns and those long, deep relationships behind to pass our days in Taipei. “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City”.

For this reason, now more than ever everyone has to try hard to make new friends, treat strangers well, be concerned for the loneliest among us, and pay special attention to the health of those with mental illnesses. That’s the only way we can lower the probability of this kind of tragedy from happening again.