Sunday, March 17, 2013

China:  Freer in some ways; less free in others

Libertarians and those with free-market inclinations don’t want to accept the idea that an officially communist country has achieved human progress at a combined scale and rate that is unprecedented.

I actually find myself very free in China. You can drink openly in public (as you can in most of Asia). You can trade, and even scam people, right in front of the police, who are not trained to be busybodies. In many places cute girls approach you with scams, offering to take you to bars. They talk openly within hearing distance of the police. In major cities, there is a rampant market in fake diplomas or ID cards. At night, I often saw several business cards shoved under the door of my hotel room, offering the service of an evening rendezvous.

Chinese traders always seem to say, “Yes, I have what you want. Now, tell me: what do you want?”

There has been much talk about the X-ray machines that check your bags at Chinese subways and at the entrance to Tiananmen Square. In my experience, the authorities are never serious about checking your bags.

“But you can’t protest against the government in China.” There are hundreds of thousands of recorded protests every year in China. You ought to see the Chinese protesting. I have seen them hurling abuse at policemen, shouting and screaming, throwing their arms and legs around. Yes, they can’t make a democratic change in China. But in Canada, my vote — one among millions of other votes — wasn’t worth spare change. In my view, “democracy” is a farce at best. It has a strong tendency to degenerate into the dictatorship of the masses. Compared with that, Chinese protest is real. People who protest in Canada mostly lobby for government favors — they protest to steal from me. And people like me are always on the sidelines, refusing to make jackasses of themselves, worried about any inconvenience their protests might cause to others.

Every time I deal with a bureaucrat in China, I am offered the chance to participate in a quick electronic assessment of his performance: Was he courteous and efficient? Where else in the world are you asked to evaluate a public servant? When I don’t care to participate in the survey, I often see the hand of the bureaucrat himself coming out of the window to do the assessment on my behalf — ironic proof that the surveys have real value.

Having been in Guangzhou for a week, I have seen virtually no foreign tourists. Yet downtown Guangzhou is among the most modern cities I know. Its skyline competes with the very best in Hong Kong, New York, and Singapore. Yet a closer inspection of those modern buildings shows that a lot of them are partially or fully empty. And the quality of buildings falls off rapidly once you are outside the downtown area. BMWs and Audis parked outside the grim apartment buildings in the outskirts show how important the public face is for many Chinese. The hazy air, the expensive shops, where rich people likely won’t shop unless they overpay, and the massive Pearl River, which for all practical purposes is the main sewage and industrial-waste artery, all remind me that I am in China.

Chinese women have probably shed their clothes faster than any other women in history, so much so that during my initial visits I thought more than once of asking them if they had forgotten something. Yet ugly buildings are often hidden behind massive posters or some other kind of façade. Packaging is more important than substance in China. The well-dressed people on the streets often share a room with several others — no air-conditioning, and the bathing facility in an adjoining building, with hot water carefully rationed.

The ultra-modern subway systems and extremely modern buildings calibrate people’s thinking, leading them to assess China as if it were a fully modern economy. Alas, China is still a developing economy, which can best be judged by comparison with where it was (a mere) two decades ago.

There is much talk about increasing nationalism in China, yet it is hard to believe that a society that had grown as fast as China would not at the same time grow nationalistic. A local acquaintance tells me that a mere 15 years back there were cows roaming the streets of what is now the modern city of Guangzhou. You can see how Guangzhou changed over the last few decades using the time-function on Google Earth.

This is a society that thinks in herds, and I have had neither the occasion nor the courage to discuss these issues in a group.

Was there a lot of pain involved in these sweeping changes in the city? Yes. Of course. The property of poor people was confiscated for little or no compensation. Such people increasingly protest, sometimes with violence against public officials. And property confiscations can be worse in democratic countries, where short-term politicians have incentives to cater to their corrupt connections, fund-providers, and lobbies.

The Chinese do have a visceral anti-Japanese sentiment. They are heavily indoctrinated, through movies and the educational system, to hate Japan. But when I challenge people about their views, I have never seen an individual refuse to engage in a rational discussion. I say “individual,” because this is a society that thinks in herds, and I have had neither the occasion nor the courage to discuss these issues in a group.

The political systems of China, the Koreas, and Japan have been heavily influenced by Confucian culture. In these hierarchical societies, creative thinking doesn’t have much place. Their culture and social systems make people shining cogs in a big machine, the better for them to work diligently and unworryingly in their boring jobs and studies. Even in Vancouver, the library is packed with Chinese students, cramming away from books. Libraries in China are similar.

But one must take a walk to the multi-story bookstores in China. They have scores of self-improvement books, proving that Chinese people increasingly read outside assigned academic works. You see covers showing the faces of Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Dale Carnegie, and Stephen Covey. In a country where illegal copying is believed to be rampant, there must still be considerable profit from legally marketed translations. Could the Chinese be becoming more creative? I have no doubt they are. Even if you look through the lenses of “communism” (with all kinds of fancy connotations) that you might wear in China, you cannot ignore the fact that there are many modern, creative solutions to be found in predominantly Confucian countries.

People are forever comparing China with India. Thirty years ago, when China had a per capita GDP that was lower than India’s, this would have made sense. It no longer does. Today, an average Chinese is three times richer than an average Indian. And strangely, I find India a lot more expensive than China, and a lot less free. India is stagnating. China continues to grow. China wants to make money.

But am I not over-romanticising China? I witnessed an old lady, who was selling fruit at a corner in the small city of Lijiang, being hit hard on her stomach by Chengguan, government goons — a vivid reminder that all is not well. It is very hard to trust the quality of food in China. I love the 30 cent, nicely-cut pineapples, but I do ask myself if they are unnaturally sweetened. Cheap massages, usually for less than $10, are great for me. But what about the people who render those services? What about all the people who live in extremely congested spaces? What about all the people who work in extraordinarily exploitative situations under “greedy” businessmen? What about the sweatshops? What about the ruthless abortion of the second child?

I am not in a situation to compare China with truly stateless societies, because today’s world offers no examples. But China has very little regulatory control — the biggest reason behind its low costs. And, yes, I do feel for small children living and working under tough situations, or my masseurs who work for a pittance. But I gladly use their services, for the choice they have is not between a good job and a bad job. If they had that option they would have chosen the good job. Their choice is between a bad job and hunger. Trading with them, I get my massage and they get food. China understands this concept well. And that is the only way to move up economically.

China has moved up. Chinese salaries are rising much faster than the nation’s growth rate or inflation rate, meaning that the benefits of continued growth are accruing increasingly to the workers. Workers are fighting for better conditions. People are increasingly resisting work in factories where other people have been used like automatons. In fact, the increasing worry is that as China becomes a more expensive place to operate, some manufacturing is moving back to the West. A lot of clothing factories have already moved to Vietnam and Bangladesh. This is how human conditions improve. Not by increasing demand, in the way that Keynesian Western governments think things happen, but by working hard, by slogging along and creating the supply first. Sweatshops then go away naturally.

My guess is that manufacturing that is moving back to the US is not necessarily doing that for economic reasons but to keep Obama happy and possibly to access earmarked money. It would be erroneous to think that China had lost its competitive advantages and that the short-term, democratic Western world had learned anything, for that world continues to do more of what created its current problems. I continue to be bullish about the future in China.



In honor of Pat's day


Useful idiots

Jeff Jacoby

ON THE 60th anniversary of Josef Stalin's death last week, the Associated Press reported that admirers of the Soviet dictator, one of history's bloodiest tyrants, were flocking to the Kremlin to venerate him as a great leader despite his ghastly record of repression. With polls showing a rise in Russians' admiration and nostalgia for Stalin, observed AP, "experts and politicians puzzled and despaired over his enduring popularity."

As many as 7 million Ukrainians were deliberately starved to death under Josef Stalin. That didn't deter prominent Americans from hailing Stalinist rule as the "moral light at the top of the world."

That some Russians express approval for a despot who has been dead since 1953 is distressing, though perhaps not surprising given the ongoing campaign to burnish Stalin's image by Russia's autocratic president, Vladimir Putin. But even more of a reason for puzzlement and despair is the enthusiastic applause for Stalin by influential American liberals when he was at the height of his bloody reign -- and the willingness of similar propagandists, naifs, and true believers today to sing the praises of other thugs and dictators.

In the 1930s, as millions were being murdered in Stalin's terror-famine and Great Purge, Walter Duranty was assuring readers of The New York Times that the Soviet ruler was "giving the Russian people … what they really want, namely joint effort, communal effort." The renowned literary critic Edmund Wilson extolled Stalinist Russia as the "moral light at the top of the world." Upton Sinclair, who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, vigorously defended the integrity of the "confessions" extracted by the secret police from many of Stalin's victims: It "seems obvious," Sinclair wrote, that they would not have "confessed to actions which they had not committed."

The adulation of left-wing dictators and strongmen by Western intellectuals, journalists, and celebrities didn't begin with Stalin (in 1921 Duranty had hailed Lenin for his "cool, far-sighted, reasoned sense of realities"), and it certainly didn't end with him. Mona Charen chronicled the phenomenon in her superb 2003 book Useful Idiots, which recalls example after jaw-dropping example of American liberals defending, flattering, and excusing the crimes of one Communist ruler and regime after another. Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tse-tung, the Khmer Rouge, Leonid Brezhnev, Kim Il Sung, the Sandinistas: Over and over the pattern was repeated, from the dawn of the Bolshevik Revolution to the collapse of the Iron Curtain – and beyond.

And the useful idiocy lives on.

When Venezuela's America-hating caudillo Hugo Chávez died last week, Human Rights Watch summarized his legacy starkly: "a dramatic concentration of power and open disregard for basic human rights guarantees." Over his 14-year rule, Chávez succeeded in rewriting the constitution to abolish the Venezuelan Senate and repeal the one-term limit for presidents. He stifled judicial independence, cracked down on freedom of speech, and used his power to "intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans" who opposed his political agenda. Chávez cemented Venezuela's alliance with Cuba – "the only country in Latin America that systematically represses virtually all forms of political dissent," Human Rights Watch noted – and vocally backed dictators elsewhere, including Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Libya's Moammar Qaddafi.

Hugo Chavez, an America-hating megalomaniac, stifled human rights, jailed critics, vocally supported dictators, and ravaged Venezuela's economy. But useful idiots in America gushed over him as a humanitarian and a moral hero.

None of that troubled the ideologues who raced to praise the dead bully. Chávez "understood democracy and basic human desires for a dignified life," gushed US Representative José Serrano of New York. Former President Jimmy Carter saluted his "commitment to improving the lives of millions of his fellow countrymen." And former Massachusetts Congressman Joseph Kennedy II, a longtime Chavez booster, eulogized Chávez as a humanitarian who cared about the poor.

All this was preceded by Dennis Rodman's return to the headlines, as the former basketball star traveled to North Korea, where the planet's most ghastly regime presides over a Stalinist hellhole in which hundreds of thousands of people are imprisoned in slave-labor camps. But Rodman, whose trip was financed by Vice Media, an American documentary production company, wasn't there to see a human-rights nightmare. He came to watch some basketball, to hang out with the country's new dictator, Kim Jong Un, and – in a country where starvation is a leading cause of death -- to eat 10-course meals that participants described as "an epic feast."

All in all, the trip's organizer said, "they had a grand old time." So much so, apparently, that before a crowd of thousands, Rodman assured Kim: "You have a friend for life."

Indeed. It's a shameful thing, but dictators like Kim always do.



The old America is not yet dead

There are certain people that catch your eye in day-to-day life for a variety of reasons. Last year, a guy named Sal was someone I noticed, although it would have been difficult not to. Sal is about six feet tall and weighs 290 pounds. Moreover, Sal wore an apron and name tag in his job at the corner sandwich shop. It's a friendly place with okay sandwiches (too healthy for my taste) but great staff. It's one of those New York establishments where nearly 200,000 workers get fed, fueled and ready for the day ahead. I'm not sure how much the people in this one spot earn, but I would be shocked if Sal made more than $30,000 a year.

That's why he caught my eye-he was different in that he wasn't young, wasn't from a foreign country, and his personality was extremely outgoing. I initially wonder how he got to this place; surely he had a higher position in life at some time. Did he commit a crime? Was he in some kind of management training that had him learning all facets of the business? Something wasn't right, this guy was something else - bigger than the person lugging a tray of fresh made sandwiches from the back and placing them in the open refrigerator. Well, as it turns out Sal was something else, and what made him big was his willingness to tough out a rough patch in this place in order to take care of his family.

Yesterday Sal told me this was his last week. He told me his business was back and he had business but made sure to give me a card in case I needed work done.

Yes, Sal had his own business all this time, but there was no business for him, so he took what was out there. We often talked about family, and he always greeted me and everyone else with a smile. I'm going to miss him but will not forget. I know too many people personally that would take the same punch in the gut and wait at home collecting government checks until things turned around. I know people that would have spewed resentment at others, joining the chorus of those that think the sweat and blood of others should be part of a wider public domain.

When Sal asked me how my day was you could sense he wanted to hear only good news.

Guys like Sal make America great. He is a man's man dealing with a winding road of life with a smile on his face and no chips on his shoulders. I looked at his card as I approached the elevator and could only smile. It read:

Sal C Principal
The rest of the card reads:

15 Years Experience/Free Estimates
Custom Interior Lighting, Audio/Video Home Systems, Cable TV/Telephone Lines, Security Camera Systems, Service Upgrades, Circuits, Central AC and Landscape Lighting.

I'm going to call Sal for a few projects but mostly to see his smile, upbeat manner and hope some of his perseverance rubs off.




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