China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘New York Times’ tag

David Brooks’ Specious and Trite Op/Ed on Chinese Education

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David Brooks wrote an embarrassingly clueless New York Times op/ed a couple days ago comparing Chinese and American learning styles, making conclusions that wouldn’t line up if you had even spent a minimal amount of time in the Chinese educational system. Brooks seems to think that the Chinese educational system exists as some sort of Confucian utopia:

“Westerners tend to define learning cognitively while Asians tend to define it morally. Westerners tend to see learning as something people do in order to understand and master the external world. Asians tend to see learning as an arduous process they undertake in order to cultivate virtues inside the self.”

But in reality this doesn’t reflect modern Chinese education at all. Education in China today is more free than it used to be but it is still heavily influenced by Mao: education’s purpose is largely defined as fulfilling a set of political goals, not cultivating virtuous individuals. Kids grow up with explicit “values lessons” in elementary school, but instead of cultivating a love of learning and a sense of citizenship, they learn obedience to authority and rote memorization. Then when they get to high school and college they transition to political education emphasizing traditional Marxism-Leninism. I suppose this is one kind of moral outlook, but normatively it certainly isn’t one that I would establish in schools.

The structure of the system itself squelches creativity and independent moral thought: the gaokao (the national standardized college admissions test) is morality-free, largely cognitive/instrumental, and serves as the main admissions standard, thus eliminating more whimsical criteria like admissions essays. Once students get into college, they must choose a major (often in a technical field that they are not interested in) and are never allowed to switch majors. Furthermore, they face academic dishonesty at all levels: among students and among faculty (hardly encouraging of independent thought!). Finally, no actual Chinese student would define their learning goals the way Brooks does. Brooks likes to think Chinese students emulate the Confucian ideal:

The idea is to perfect the learning virtues in order to become, ultimately, a sage, which is equally a moral and intellectual state. These virtues include: sincerity (an authentic commitment to the task) as well as diligence, perseverance, concentration and respect for teachers.

But in fact almost every Chinese student will tell you they work hard in order to a) Satisfy parental expectations, and b) If they’re a male, find a good job so they can buy an apartment and a car, get married, and support a family, or if they’re a female, attract a husband who will support them. This is but one more example of what Wang Hui calls “the de-politicization of politics”: “commercial logic is replacing political reasoning, a developmentalist discourse is replacing political participation, and a restructuring of interest relations of capital is replacing a debate on political values.” Framing education first as a method to drill in obedience and second as a way to create happy capitalist pawns strengthens the power of the CCP twice over.

A friend of mine describes what is most disappointing about this op/ed, however: “In the usual tunnel-vision view of the West as Wall Street and Hollywood, the whole tradition of moral learning going back to Aristotle and Aquinas is overlooked.” One would think that, even though David Brooks is no China expert, he might have a pretty good understanding of pedagogy and the philosophy of education in the West. The inculcation of virtue has been one of the principle pedagogical aims of education in the West all the way up until being deemphasized in the second half of the 20th century. In my view, while Confucianism has historically emphasized virtue, the virtues taught in the West have generally been normatively superior (this is especially true of the concepts of citizenship taught in Western public school systems–systems that are under attack in the U.S. by low funding and voucherization). I agree with Brooks that a moral impulse in education is good and that we should re-imagine what it means to teach citizenship today, and even that Confucianism might have something valuable to teach us in this regard. But he is completely wrong in looking to modern China for inspiration.

SOEs Must be Reformed, But Whither the Political System?

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The new leadership has just as many ties to state-owned enterprises as the old. The brother of Li Keqiang, who is expected to become the prime minister, is one of four deputy directors of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration. With 98 percent of the Chinese market for cigarettes, the state-owned tobacco administration generates taxes and profits that total 7 to 10 percent of the entire revenue of the central government, according to a report in October from the Brookings Institution in Washington.

This from an article on China’s SOEs by Keith Bradsher in the New York Times. This is an insane method of revenue collection. In contrast, the U.S. federal government relies on tobacco taxes for about 0.2% of its total revenue (of course individual states make much more revenue from tobacco taxes, but it’s generally not more than 4-5%). I think it is inevitable that the new PSC will undertake some form of economic reform, particularly of SOEs, if only because such economic reform has precedent and many influential backers. I don’t see a great chance of real political reform, however. The fact that people like Jiang Zemin and Li Peng still have major influence and are sitting on the dais while Hu Jintao delivers his work report signals to me that no individual, however well intentioned, can have much of a liberalizing influence on the Chinese political system in the near future.

Written by Will

November 10th, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Official Reaction to Wen Jiabao Scandal and Ningbo PX Protests Illuminating


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has hit some serious speed bumps in the run-up to the 18th National Congress and the highly anticipated transfer of power to Xi Jinping and a new Politburo Standing Committee. The New York Times published an investigative article exposing Premier Wen Jiabao’s estimated family fortune of  $2.7 billion, and over the past few days, protests and riots have erupted in the coastal city of Ningbo over a toxic PX (paraxylene) chemical plant.

While both are serious sources of instability, the CCP’s public responses to each have differed in important ways. As for the Wen Jiabao scandal, both the English and Chinese versions of the New York Times website were quickly blocked in Mainland China. All search terms relating to the story, including Wen’s name, have been blocked on popular twitter-like service Sina Weibo and negative references to Wen have remained sanitized from the search engine Baidu. Lawyers supposedly representing the Wen family issued a strong statement condemning the New York Times article and rebutting particular facts, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the article “blackens China’s name and has ulterior motives.”

Meanwhile, the official reaction to the Ningbo PX protests has been quite different. Although Public Security Bureau (PSB) riot control squads were out in force using tear gas and batons against the crowd and making arrests, the city quickly folded Sunday evening, declaring that it would stop the PX plant from being built. Online, first person accounts of police brutality and rumors of a Ningbo University student death were suppressed; Sina Weibo even blocked photo-uploads from local Ningbo IP addresses. But the story was not censored to the same degree as the Wen Jiabao scandal. The Ningbo protests are being talked about and photos do circulate on Sina Weibo and elsewhere. The central and local governments want everyone to know that the issue had been resolved: the official announcement was trumpeted nationwide through the People’s Daily and to foreign audiences through the English-language Global Times.

What accounts for this considerable difference? In one case, the news has been thoroughly cleansed from the Internet as to make it impossible to even hear of the news. In the other case, the most egregious examples of state malfeasance have been removed, but the story itself remains. In the case of the Wen Jiabao scandal, the New York Times reporting strikes directly at the legitimacy and authority of the CCP; it goes to the very top. But cases like the Ningbo PX plant can serve as outlets for popular discontent without directly challenging the authority of the CCP.

As Rebecca MacKinnon argues in her recent book “Consent of the Networked,” netizens in China can bring attention to social injustice and can even have an impact on government policies; but ultimately these cases can serve to bolster state legitimacy when the CCP is seen as resolving the problem. There has been a raft of environmental protests recently that have been resolved in similar ways: the Shifang copper plant protests in July, Dalian PX plant protests in August 2011, and the Xiamen PX plant protests in 2007, among many others. The environment is not the only issue handled with relative kid gloves: the Party also emphasizes efforts to fight corruption in cases where the target of an anti-corruption sting is an expendable cadre; food safety is handled much the same (see the death sentences handed out as a result of the melamine tainted-milk scandal). And of course, nationalist protests are skillfully manipulated to further particular narratives and claims to legitimacy.

Hardly any of the actions of the PSB or the Propaganda Department are completely predictable during times of protest and damaging news, but there is a recognizable pattern. The Wen Jiabao and Ningbo cases are indicative of a larger truth: Chinese real-life activists and ordinary netizens are occasionally able to affect real social change in China, but they do so within the confines of acceptable political dialogue that the CCP has already laid out for them.

#1 Reason Why Political Reform in China is a Far-Off Prospect

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Duan Weihong, a wealthy businesswoman whose company, Taihong, was the investment vehicle for the Ping An shares held by the prime minister’s mother and other relatives, said the investments were actually her own. Ms. Duan, who comes from the prime minister’s hometown and is a close friend of his wife, said ownership of the shares was listed in the names of Mr. Wen’s relatives in an effort to conceal the size of Ms. Duan’s own holdings.

“When I invested in Ping An I didn’t want to be written about,” Ms. Duan said, “so I had my relatives find some other people to hold these shares for me.”

But it was an “accident,” she said, that her company chose the relatives of the prime minister as the listed shareholders — a process that required registering their official ID numbers and obtaining their signatures. Until presented with the names of the investors by The Times, she said, she had no idea that they had selected the relatives of Wen Jiabao.

The New York Times’ expose on Wen Jiabao’s family fortune is nothing but incredible, but the details are just completely absurd and at times hilarious. For example, if you were a shell investor for Wen Jiabao’s family, why in the world would you ever allow yourself to be interviewed by the New York Times?! The above passage is mind-blowing.

Written by Will

October 25th, 2012 at 7:48 pm

Libyan Islamist Incidentally Freshly Recreates Deliberative Democracy

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“We used to think that removing oppression and imposing justice are the same thing, but justice requires dialogue,” Mr. Qaid added. In prison, he said, he and many of his fellow Islamist inmates decided that just as they rejected Colonel Qaddafi’s suppression of dissent, they should never try to impose their own views on others. “We want to derive our way of life from the teachings of our religion, without forcing anyone else to do it,” he said. “These are the principles that never change.”

The whole article in the New York Times also has some very useful suggestions for American policy makers on not treating all combat-age Muslim teenagers as enemy combatants.

Written by Will

October 6th, 2012 at 6:26 pm

Posted in Justice

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Chinese State Capitalism Exported Abroad, and How the U.S. Should Respond

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The China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) is about to commence a copper mine at Mes Aynak, Afghanistan: 

This site is called Mes Aynak and is nothing short of awe-inspiring: a massive walled-in Buddhist city featuring massive temples, monasteries, and thousands of Buddhist statues that managed to survive looters and the Taliban. Holding a key position on the Silk Road, Mes Aynak was also an international hub for traders and pilgrims from all over Asia.

Hundreds of fragile manuscripts detailing daily life at the site are still yet to be excavated. Beneath the Buddhist dwellings is an even older yet-unearthed Bronze age site indicated by several recent archaeological findings.

Mes Aynak is set for destruction at the end of December 2012. All of the temples, monasteries, statues as well as the Bronze age material will all be destroyed by a Chinese government-owned company called China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC). Six villages and the mountain range will also be destroyed to create a massive open-pit style copper mine.

The $3 billion mining deal, signed in 2007, represents the largest foreign investment in Afghanistan’s history.

Source: Xinhua

Meanwhile, Zhou Yongkang, Politburo Standing Committee member, head of the Politics and Law Commission/law enforcement, and supposed erstwhile ally of Bo Xilai (tip: be highly skeptical of sensationalist news coming out of Taiwan or the Falun Gong) just made a surprise visit to Afghanistan. Is there a direct connection? Hard to say.

But the mining deal and Zhou Yongkang’s surprise visit is emblematic of a few things relevant to Chinese foreign policy in Central Asia, and the developing world in general. China’s interests in Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia involve: co-opting corrupt, crony capitalist elites in neighboring authoritarian states so that Chinese state-owned corporations (and Chinese workers, protected by armed Chinese security guards) can extract resources; developing alternative supply chains to the Persian Gulf-Indian Ocean-Malacca Straits shipping route, especially by building oil pipelines from Kazakhstan into Xinjiang; and cooperating with said Central Asian states (especially through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) to fight terrorism aimed at splitting Xinjiang from China. China’s interests in Africa and other parts of the developing world are similar, minus the fighting terrorism part.

In my mind, all of this very invasive economic activity calls into question the entire bedrock of Chinese foreign policy: non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Apparently, MCC’s actions have incited Afghani villagers near Anyak to partner with the Taliban to attack the mine and the archaeologists still working to preserve the Buddhist site. China, through its state-owned enterprises (SOEs), simultaneously lends military support to various odious regimes (including Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, obviously North Korea, and to some extent, although this is now changing, Burma), enriches the elites of those and other countries with vast resource extraction deals, and screws over locals by almost exclusively employing imported Chinese workers and spoiling the local environment. In return, the Chinese compensate in-country locals with a few infrastructure projects, worth far less in proportion to the benefit China accrues from such deals. China cannot hide behind any facade–China’s SOEs are implements of Chinese foreign policy.

The U.S. and other interested partners need to work more actively to call out not only China’s abusive actions in the developing world, but also this obvious contradiction in China’s foreign policy. China is particularly weak ideologically on this front, given that its policy of non-interference aims to thwart others who would interfere in China’s own internal affairs. Forcing China to explain its actions and apparent hypocrisy would:

  1. Strengthen the U.S. case for Chinese participation in greater sanctions against Iran (which it apparently has not been successful at doing).
  2. Reduce threats to U.S. interests and human rights generally through squeezing supply chains to China’s client states.
  3. Improve the competitive advantage of U.S. corporations in bidding against Chinese SOEs. If U.S. corporations can present themselves as environmentally-friendly and ethically/socially-responsible in an environment where developing countries are pressured to value those things, then they can win contracts even when Chinese SOEs underbid them. This could possibly improve the U.S. domestic economy (unless most profits are held overseas).
  4. Generally improve U.S. relations with the developing world, and set up a stark contrast between U.S. and Chinese actions in the minds of the Global South. U.S.-China relations are not necessarily zero-sum, but in Africa and elsewhere, every resources-for-infrastructure deal the Chinese sign is a deal not made by the U.S.. The Chinese, with the help of locally-based state-owned media such as Xinhua and CCTV, are telling one narrative to the populations of their trading partners. We can tell a different narrative, especially if our actions respect the environment, improve the local economy, and maintain local culture.
  5. And possibly (however unlikely), push China to revise its stated foreign policy to align with its actual practices, which would remove the ideological pretense behind its arguments on a whole host of issues, including humanitarian interventions, territorial disputes, and U.S. policies in East Asia.

The U.S. should use the U.N. as an outlet and work with human rights and minerals-certification NGOs, but it must also speak to the American domestic audience. Mark Landler’s recent piece in the New York Times describes the Obama administration’s tougher stance on China, especially in regards to US-China trade and the Pivot to Asia. The Obama administration needs to add this issue to the growing list of arguments made in front of domestic audiences, because average Americans can also play a pivotal role in an influence campaign (and it would of course also improve President Obama’s reelection chances).

Even if China doesn’t revise its foreign policy wholesale (which again, is nigh impossible in the short term), the U.S. can advance its interests in credible and measurable ways. Not to call China out on its hypocrisy abroad would be a huge missed opportunity.

What’s Wrong with the Israel-Iran Nukes Story?

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The United States news media’s coverage of the possibility of Israel or the U.S. targeting Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program is not really about Iran; it is about us. Just as Herbert Gans noted that Vietnam was primarily a domestic news story in the 60’s and 70’s, the Iranian nuclear threat is also. (Gans, 37) Most recent news coverage has devolved into a few dominant narratives, representing different political factions. Different media outlets either report on or explicitly represent the factions, and they generally make arguments that have very little to do with the substantive evidence for or against the existence of Iran’s nuclear capability; rather, the news follows election year trends, the possibility of war as it relates to the Jewish population in the United States, and criticism of the political actors involved.

The first narrative, representing the contingent of neoconservatives who pushed for war with Iraq in 2003, also supports not only a limited tactical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, but even a large-scale war. This perspective mainly shows up as representing the policy positions of the GOP presidential candidates or as the author’s view in opinion pieces. And then there is the narrative told by the traditional news sources such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. Most major news organizations were embarrassed by the general failure to “get it right” on Iraq a decade ago, when they almost uncritically accepted the administration’s arguments that Saddam Hussein possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). This time around, mainstream news is slightly more cautious in tone, but it still rarely publishes explicitly foreign-centric stories or stories with a serious consideration of the evidence on both sides, for and against Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons. The mainstream media much prefers to focus on the domestic political situation. Finally, there is the more liberal coverage, which often focuses on politics or criticisms of the neoconservatives for being so blithe about war.

Before one can even approach these narratives, one thing is glaringly clear: the news does not focus on the fact that the U.S. Intelligence Community still stands by its 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stating that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and that Iran continues to only enrich nuclear fuel, which could be used for a variety of peaceful purposes. This was reported on once in February by The New York Times, and scarcely appears in any of the related articles that I surveyed, either at the New York Times or at any other news organization. Much more common is the domestic political news story: “U.S. Backers of Israel Pressure Obama Over Policy on Iran.” This story is far more newsworthy. Why write about the intelligence community when you can report on Eric Cantor at the meeting of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC): “We must stop following mirages in the Middle East and start following through on this reality: our mission in the Middle East is to drive our stake in the sand with our values—to proclaim our values rather than apologize for them.” If the news chose to highlight Senate testimony by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper saying that Iran is not building the bomb, the media would kill the most profitable and long-lasting angle by which to view a possible war with Iran. Political squabbles can extend on forever. The story will never end—according to Paul Begala (writing in The Daily Beast), war with Iran is one of the GOP’s biggest strengths going into this election year.

One factor complicating Israel’s and the United States’ decision to strike is the two countries’ on-and-off-again relationship. And it has become “a complication” in this otherwise calculating story of whether to strike Iran precisely because the media has made it so. President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have notoriously not gotten along—it is mentioned in almost every newspaper article where the two are discussed in tandem. And they are supposed to disagree: President Obama comes from the center-left party in the United States while Netanyahu’s conservative Likud Party is partnered in a coalition government with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist and ultra-conservative Yisrael Beiteinu Party. But instead of focusing on the conflict between two governments based on legitimate policy differences, the media casts this as an acrimonious personal dispute between the two men. Why cast this as a story of, “If Mr. Obama trusted Mr. Netanyahu more, he might issue a more muscular statement of military threat to Iran…And if Mr. Netanyahu trusted Mr. Obama more, he would be less jumpy over every statement of caution emerging from Washington,” as so many stories do? Surely the entire diplomatic decision-making process does not rely solely on a pop-psychology assessment of the two.

And when the media cannot play up “Bibi” and Obama’s disagreements, they focus on how the President and every other mainstream politician must remain unswervingly loyal to the state of Israel. One might think that these are two contradictory narratives. But this oath of support to Israel is apparently the sole metric by which Jewish Americans decide who to vote for. Obama, even after clashing with Netanyahu over military action against Iran and even after denouncing the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, cannot completely rebuke Israel (when push came to shove, he did not even follow-through with support of a UN resolution officially rebuking Israel for the “illegal” settlements). For the Republican Party, “fealty” to Israel is a solemn vow. For the Democratic Party, “fealty” to Israel is (mostly) a solemn vow. At this past week’s AIPAC meeting, President Obama assured the attendees that he is behind Israel every step of the way: “So there should not be a shred of doubt by now — when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.” In a blog post by Colum Lynch on, President Obama’s Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is quoted as putting it in even more emotionally charged terms, relating her memories “as a 14 year-old tourist where she floated in the Dead Sea,” of a visit with then Senator Barack Obama where she touched the “charred long remnants of the rockets that Hamas continues to fire at the brave unyielding citizens of Sderot,” and of her favorite psalm, “’Hinei ma’tov u’ma-nayim, shevet ach-im gam ya-chad’ — or ‘how good it is and how pleasant when we sit together in brotherhood.’” Rice went even so far as to say: “Last October, when the Syrian regime’s ambassador, speaking in the Security Council, had the temerity — the chutzpah — to accuse the United States and Israel of being parties to genocide, I led our delegation in walking out.” (Ital added) How is this any different than when Obama delivers a sermon in a Black church speaking Ebonics? What is surprising about this whole episode is not just that Susan Rice quoted psalms in Hebrew that have an almost comically transparent political effect and chose to sprinkle in some Yiddish to play up the schtick—it is that the blogger, Lynch, not only thought to make a whole post revolve around that schtick but also to entitle it, “Has Susan Rice found her cojones moment?” And this happens in the media all the time. Do politicians say these things because they think the AIPAC attendees and the American Jewish population will simply accept it uncritically, that it won’t sound like pandering? And do journalists dutifully report these speeches because they don’t know any better? Or do they not want to make a fuss over a common political trope, so they pass it along with a nudge and a wink? Or did Lynch write that post because he actually supports these theatrics, and didn’t stop to think that his title might be misogynistic? It is hard to accept the last conclusion, but it is probably the most correct (perhaps a combination of the latter two).

But some in the media have commented on the absurdity of AIPAC and the reversal of Israel’s “client state” dynamic with the United States. Israel, after all, receives nearly three billion dollars annually in foreign aid from the United States. Why does the U.S. President, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and politicians of all political stripes have to speak in emotional terms of their undying loyalty to the state of Israel, when it is in fact Israel that needs us more than we need them? In his blog at The Atlantic’s website, James Fallows noted (speaking of the President’s AIPAC speech), “I can’t think of another situation where an American president, speaking to an American audience on American soil, would find it necessary or dignified to plead his bona fides in a similar way.”

And in the latest issue of Washington Monthly, Paul Pillar makes the same meta-argument that this paper is making—that the rhetoric surrounding a possible war with Iran is not aligned with the evidence: “Strip away the bellicosity and political rhetoric, and what one finds is not rigorous analysis but a mixture of fear, fanciful speculation, and crude stereotyping…we find ourselves on the precipice of yet another such war—almost purely because the acceptable range of opinion on Iran has narrowed and ossified around the ‘sensible’ idea that all options must be pursued to prevent the country from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

The media is an intentional accomplice to political actors who want to sensationalize impending war with Iran. The media is interested in GOP conflict with the President over Israel and Iran because it is a better story, a more relatable story to the American public. The media cares about and politicians pander to the Jewish-American population because they are a substantial portion of their readership and electorate, respectively. But the media also forgets the essential truth behind any future war with Iran, as articulated by the President in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg: “[I]f people want to say about me that I have a profound preference for peace over war, that every time I order young men and women into a combat theater and then see the consequences on some of them, if they’re lucky enough to come back, that this weighs on me — I make no apologies for that. Because anybody who is sitting in my chair who isn’t mindful of the costs of war shouldn’t be here, because it’s serious business. These aren’t video games that we’re playing here.”

What is News?

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I’m taking a class on journalism that requires us to blog (not a journalism class, but a class on journalism). So I thought I would put those posts here too. Readings from the class will be referenced (but don’t worry, the references are quoted and explained).

In asking, “What is news?” I was reminded of a question recently posed in the form of a blog post by Arthur Brisbane, the New York Times Ombudsman: “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?” Should newspapers point out that X politician made Y and Z false statements? The obvious answer is yes (Jim Fallows at The Atlantic generally summed up my views). Fallows’ critique of the media is common today, and has been common for a long time: that many journalists engage in superficial “horse race reporting” (where facts are presented without context and meaning) and “false equivalence” (where two opposing truth claims are treated as equally plausible). This critique is even mentioned in one of the readings, “If you call to mind the topics which form the principal indictment by reformers against the press, you find they are subjects in which the newspaper occupies the position of the umpire in the unscored baseball game.” (Lippmann, 50)

Some of our readings make the opposite case. According to Halberstam, news is not about providing context or explanation: “News reports, on the other hand, need not be explanatory and those explanations which do appear in news account are often adscititious intrusions.” (Halberstam, 13) Halberstam’s definition of the news would seem to rule out a lot of important news. Financial reporting on the recession, for example, would be useless without context and explanation of the causes and actors involved in the crash. Similarly, Halberstam’s emphasis on events as news would rule out most news stories concerning global warming, or other long-term patterns that impact us in dramatic ways.

I know that personally, I would like to believe that journalists exist as the fourth estate, uncovering malfeasance and inserting themselves into the political process in a way that makes everyone else more informed and better citizens. This sort of reporting would require context and explanation of events and long-term patterns. Lippmann argues strenuously against this idealistic vision: “If the newspapers, then, are to be charged with the duty of translating the whole public life of mankind, so that every adult can arrive at an opinion on every moot topic, they fail, they are bound to fail, in any future one can conceive they will continue to fail.” (Lippmann, 117-118) That might be a straw-man argument. I don’t think that the media, by fulfilling its public purpose, will hand down the truth from on high to the masses. Every person makes autonomous judgments. Rather, news media should seek to make people better-informed citizens, regardless of the political conclusions those people make. After all, Morson’s example of the degraded conditions at the Ridge Home nursing center could lead someone to conclude the government should improve the center, or that the government should abolish the center.

Written by Will

January 24th, 2012 at 11:07 pm

Wikileaks as it Pertains to China and Korean Relations

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Over an official lunch in late February, a top South Korean diplomat confidently told the American ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that the fall would come “two to three years” after the death of Kim Jong-il, the country’s ailing leader, Ms. Stephens later cabled Washington. A new, younger generation of Chinese leaders “would be comfortable with a reunited Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a benign alliance,” the diplomat, Chun Yung-woo, predicted.

That is a bold prediction – and the Guardian (here and here) is much more direct than the New York Times in claiming this. I agree with Stephen Walt that in regards to China and North Korea, the embassy cables are much more of a wash than they are portrayed as (what an ambassador says to another ambassador is not necessarily the discussion the Politburo Standing Committee is having). Even assuming Kim Jong-eun or the military cabal is somehow incapable of successfully negotiating the power transfer, there would need to be some pretty astounding diplomacy for China to be comfortable with a unified Korea. The entire idea behind supporting a divided peninsula from China’s perspective is that, regardless of how odious the North Korean regime is (and it is a serious headache to China), any unbalancing of the status quo will ultimately hurt China’s interests. Any US or NATO military presence above the DMZ and the floods of North Korean refugees, as the article notes, would be untenable. But that’s not all.

An ascendant, unified Korea could not be a benign ally of the US, according to certain Chinese viewpoints. Already, China is boxed in on all sides by countries closely-partnered with the US: South Korea (of course), Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and India. Unification means a great deal psychologically. A unified Korea would have subtle, but greatly-expanded persuasive powers on the international stage. I hope that, as the Guardian suggests, younger leaders are no longer concerned about this, and want to work with both Korea and the US in a mutually beneficial manner. But that’s not a given.

The goal, then, is to make unification in China’s interest. China might not be able to prevent it – the regime might slide so quickly as to be unsalvageable (and China certainly is never going to war over North Korea again). But the US and Korea should want China to recognize the unified state on its own terms. Not consulting the Chinese would harm our relations with them on all fronts. Incentives for Chinese investment in Korea would help – so would significantly paring back American military presence on the peninsula. (Why, in a post-North Korean world, would we even need military bases there? Is war with China a realistic threat in this day and age? And besides, we always have Japan) We could even couple some of the things China wants with some of our own priorities (on trade, fiscal policy, climate change, energy policy, you name it). I have a feeling that this is not a zero-sum negotiation in which China and the US negotiate, tit-for-tat. Instead, an outcome in which both sides are satisfied can only be positive.

I’m having a hard time imagining how painful the reunification process would be. The North Korean state, if it did merge with the South, would probably go down in flames. The state is already a wreck with food shortages and the like, but without even minimal state assistance many more would probably starve. The military would suddenly be a loose cannon – and the nuclear material currently lying around Yongbyon would be up for grabs. Of course, South Korea and the United States have certainly drawn up coordinated response plans to rush into the vacuum when needed, and have practiced plenty of military scenarios (the current exercise with the two countries’ navies being conducted right now included). But it still boggles the mind.

Written by Will

November 30th, 2010 at 6:10 am

David Leonhardt Puts His Finger on the Button, and More Deficit Politics

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David Leonhardt at the New York Times gets it exactly right:

The reasons for the new American austerity are subtler, but not shocking. Our economy remains in rough shape, by any measure. So it’s easy to confuse its condition (bad) with its direction (better) and to lose sight of how much worse it could be. The unyielding criticism from those who opposed stimulus from the get-go — laissez-faire economists, Congressional Republicans, German leaders — plays a role, too. They’re able to shout louder than the data…

In an ideal world, countries would pair more short-term spending and tax cuts with long-term spending cuts and tax increases. But not a single big country has figured out, politically, how to do that.

This is the problem, very elegantly put. With a slight change in priorities and with the right mix of policy, wiping out the deficit is a very doable task. Only bad politics is screwing over the right policy.
I also love Paul Krugman’s refutation of David Brooks’ recent op-ed, and this wonderful deficit calculator from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which shows you just what policies would get us to a budget surplus.