The Chinese government shoots itself in the social media

Glenn Reynolds, writing about the Chinese government’s handling of the Coronavirus outbreak:

The Chinese government continues to censor news and social media. This not only keeps the rest of the world from knowing what’s going on, it also makes it harder for the government itself to keep track of what’s really happening, as opposed to what underlings are reporting to their superiors.

Interesting way of looking at social media, I think. What this is saying is that the government in the world that is most keen on mass surveillance has totally crapped all over the world’s greatest ever system of mass surveillance, and rendered it useless for that purpose. Ironic, when you think about it.

FaceID

Back in my Alternative Bookshop days, I and my libertarian pals used to joke about things that were both compulsory and illegal. It would appear that face masks in China are pretty close to being that, because of the conflicting demands of plague protection and facial recognition.

But at least, according to this report (at the top of which appears the above photo), I have (when displaying photos like these ones here) been getting how “FaceID” does and does not work approximately right:

Most complaints are about unlocking mobile devices. Apple confirmed to Quartz that an unobstructed view of a user’s eyes, nose, and mouth is needed for FaceID to work properly. Similarly, Huawei says that its efforts to develop a feature that recognizes partially-covered faces has fallen short. “There are too few feature points for the eyes and the head so it’s impossible to ensure security,” explains Huawei vice president Bruce Lee, in a Jan 21 post on Weibo.”We gave up on facial unlock for mask or scarf wearing [users].”

Or have I? The software used by mere people, for unlocking their mobile phones, may not now work if you are wearing a face mask. But what if the governments of the world have graciously permitted themselves to use far better software, which can easily see past a face mask?

The Hong Kong news is good (for now)

Hong Kong just had two big reasons to celebrate. First, there was the result of their recent elections, which Hong Kong won and the Chinese Communists lost. And second, the USA just passed a law supporting the HongKongers, with wide support across the political spectrum. American politicians can agree about very little just now, but they do agree about what the Chinese Communists are doing to Hong Kong. They’re against it. Pretty much all of them.

Here’s the photo at the top of a piece about how Hong Kong is now celebrating this law:

And, since this is my blog, let me mention also that I too have today expressed my displeasure at the behaviour in Hong Kong of the Chinese Communist government of China, by posting a posting at Samizdata entitled How to defeat the Chinese Communists.

That’ll show them.

I have a meeting about Hong Kong at my home, tomorrow night. Judging by the RSVPs so far, the room will be comfortably full, and maybe even uncomfortably full.

Is Communist China now losing its future?

If even slightly true, this, by David Archibald, is remarkable:

Lawyer Dan Harris writes that Chinese companies are now acting very short-term in their dealings with foreign companies. The situation reminds him of Russia in the 1990s. The Russians then, straight out of communism, would sign a deal but then immediately renege and run off with the cash, foregoing a large future benefit for a much smaller immediate gain. They did so because they did not expect there to be a future.

Harris’s words: “I am writing about this now because China today is feeling a lot like Russia in the 1990s. I am getting the sense that many Chinese companies are pessimistic about their futures and they are acting accordingly.”

And: “On top of the economic issues, many Chinese companies have become both wary of and angry at the West, particularly the United States. This too makes things riskier for foreign companies. We are seeing the results of all this in many ways.

Practically every week, one of our China lawyers will get an email or a phone call from someone who bought product from China and received nothing in return or nothing even approaching what they actually ordered. This sending of ‘junk’ instead of real product has spread to pretty much every industry in China.”

Further from Harris: “Sinosure is China’s state-owned export insurance company that pays Chinese manufacturers that were stiffed by their foreign buyers and then seeks to collect from the foreign buyers that allegedly failed to pay. … We are now seeing Sinosure cases where the Chinese manufacturer has made what we think are fraudulent policy claims to Sinosure because they are desperate for cash and they don’t care about maintaining their relationship with their foreign buyer.”

Yet more: “Lastly, our China lawyers are dealing with an increasing number of situations where the Chinese side of a China joint venture has essentially taken over the joint venture and stops communicating with its foreign joint venture partner.”

So Chinese companies are burning their bridges and attempting to monetize the last scraps of goodwill left in the system. They are effectively eating their seed corn. …

In the 1980s I and some mates based around the then Alternative Bookshop – in Covent Garden, a short walk from the Opera House – ran a little thing called the Anti-Soviet Society. We said that Russia should stop being communist and should become a liberal democracy. One-and-a-bit out of two (Russia is now a democracy of sorts but hardly a liberal democracy) ain’t bad. You can never know about such things, but this little enterprise may have shortened the Cold War by as much as a few fractions of a second. I think I still have some pamphlets that it dished out around then.

Time for something similar to be done to the Chinese Communists, who look like they may now be losing the mandate of heaven. Or to put it another way, time for me to find out about such enterprises that already exist, if they do.

To those who say that the Chinese economy now is far more impressive than the Soviet economy ever was, I say: True, but what matters is the direction in which things are heading, or feel like they’re heading, rather than the absolute level of affluence (or lack of it). These Chinese Communists feel to me like they’re losing the future, just as the old USSR did.

A tyranny collapsing always seems impossible. Until it collapses.

LATER: On the other hand … How China Sees the Hong Kong Crisis. He reckons they’re pretty relaxed about it.

Gimbal

Until recently, I had no idea what a gimbal is. But, recently, I attended an ASI event. Clearly, the important photos from that night were those I photoed of fearless Hong Konger Denise Ho. But I also took these photos, of the official Real Photographer for the event, in action, with a peculiar stick which I took to be something to do with stabilisation-while-videoing:

I asked him: What’s that? He said: It’s a gimbal. I said: Excuse me while I write that down. So, how do you spell gimbal? He said: g-i-m-b-a-l.

When I got home, I looked it up, because basically I didn’t believe this. I mean, really. Gimbal? But no, it’s true. Wikipedia establishes its reputation for truth telling, which it then applies to politics by telling lies, by telling the truth about things like the gimbal. So, I believe this account.

If you look at Photo 1, you see the word “Ronin”. So, is the gimbal in my photos, this gimbal? There appears to be just the one sort of Ronin gimbal, so: could well be.

Photos of Denise Ho at the ASI

Earlier this evening I attended an event at which Denise Ho answered questions put to her by an ASI guy, about the unfolding situation in Hong Kong. I photoed her:

Very impressive.

Short summary. The protests continue, and the way for her side to win is to universalise the struggle, turning it from a merely local battle, which China is bound to win, into a global argument, which China is a lot less likely to win. Hence her presence in London (and many other spots around the world) to tell people about what’s happening in Hong Kong.

I heard another talk about Hong Kong on Monday that covered a lot of the same ground. My question then (which I thought rather than actually asked) was: What can we do to help? Answer, from Denise Ho this evening: a lot. Because “we” means everyone else in the world who wants to help.

Because-Now-We-Can! architecture

You can seldom tell where an item of modern architecture is in the world just by looking at a photo or fake-photo of it. But, if you know your modern architecture, you can usually date it. This is because what look-at-me architecture looks like depends on what can, at any particular moment in architectural history, be done. When a new technique is devised, this new technique is used to make a kind of architecture that has not been seen before, and which hence attracts maximum attention.

Zaha Hadid is the firm that most perfectly exemplifies this latest phase of architectural modernity, because they are the people who have taken the latest new-thing-we-can-now-do to its most extreme limits:

Picture (hard to tell if it’s fake or real – guess: bit of both) found in this dezeen report on a new mega-airport in China.

What-we-can-now-do is keep track of lots of different bits and bobs in a building, so different that almost all these bits and bobs are unique in shape, with … computers. Time was when, if the Big Boss said: I want it to look like … this (draws weird shape on back of restaurant menu) there then followed a long to-and-fro argument between Big Boss and the Underlings (speaking on behalf of what is doable as opposed to merely dreamable), until the slightly weird but usually deeply disappointing and mis-shapen object finally appeared. Occasionally, something truly weird, like the Sydney Opera House, did emerge, looking remarkably like the back-of-the-restaurant-menu original. But, mostly the fantasy-versus-actually-doable back-and-forth took all the juice out of the original. It would have been simpler to scrap it and do something a bit more creative than usual with easily drawable and trackable rectangles.

Now? Big Boss can draw the weird shape, and then the massed slaves can duly construct the Big Thing, so that it really does look like the cover of a science fiction story.

Computers can now draw, and – crucially – redraw, anything. When a curve needs to change a bit, to fit in – I don’t know – some more luggage handlers or passport inspectors or a bigger private lair for airport surveillance creeps – the computer can redraw the new design, as re-ordained by the Big Boss on the back of another restaurant menu, in seconds. That kind of rejigging used to take months and frankly, couldn’t be done without costs crashing through the weirdly but in the end rather disappointingly shaped roof.

Give it a few years, and this Because-Now-We-Can! style will look horribly passé. For many, I’m guessing it already does. But for now, we now build buildings like this … because now we can!

Stephen Davies on the eflorescences that were stopped and on the eflorescence that was not stopped

I continue to struggle to find ways of communicating my enthusiasm for Stephen Davies’s new book, The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity. But I now think I know one of the reasons why I am struggling.

When you want to enthuse about a book on an historical subject, you probably want also to be summarising it, so that those who read of your enthusiasm but who won’t actually be reading the book itself (what with there being so much else to read (thanks to Modernity)), at least get an idea of what the book is about and why the guy who wrote it is so worthy of praise. I have come to realise that part of the reason for my difficulty in saying how much I liked and continue to like reading The Wealth Explosion is that this book is not only itself about Modernity, but is also a heroically succinct summary, of a big clutch of debates among historians generally about Modernity. What Modernity has been and is, what made it happen when it did and where it did, whether it’s a good thing (Davies thinks it very much is a good thing (as do I)), and whether Modernity will continue. That sort of thing. Almost every paragraph of this book is quotable, because it says so much, and alludes to so much, about so much, with so few words.

Here is a fascinatingly typical example of what I mean, which is to be found under the heading “Why the Later Eighteenth Century” (pp, 53-55):

… [T]here are two big questions that any explanatory account of modernity has to address and try to answer. The first is chronology. Why did the elements of modernity start to occur in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century and not before? One obvious argument is that the critical factor. whatever it might be. appeared just before the takeoff and so led to it directly – this might be the cultural and intellectual changes posited by Mokyr and McCloskey for example. There are however other candidates for that role. Many authors however reject this and argue that the breakthrough after 1750 had deeper roots. going back into previous history.

This is a challenging argument to make at first sight, given that what we have to explain is not a change produced by a continuous process but rather one where there is a sudden change of gear or state that took place in a relatively short pace of time by historical standards. One way is to argue that what we have is a slow, cumulative process that at a particular point in time reached a tipping point where there was a sudden shift to a different level and kind of change. An analogy would be a pot of water on a stove. The temperature of the water will rise slowly but the change from water to water to steam will happen in a matter of minutes once boiling point arrives.

An even closer analogy is that of a primitive atomic pile: as more and more blocks of fuel are added to the pile nothing much happens at first apart from a gradual rise in heat until suddenly there is a critical mass of fuel, i.e. enough material in sufficiently close proximity to sustain a continuous chain reaction. This means that the breakthrough to modernity could not happen anywhere until the various preconditions were in place (either locally or globally) and that this came about as the result of a gradual build-up. Therefore, for example, Julian Simon argues that the key factor was simply the number of people and that the population levels needed for all of the other changes were not reached
until the later eighteenth century and could not have been sustained earlier because of the inability to mechanise agriculture in any significant way.

The other approach is to argue that the breakthrough to modernity could have happened earlier and may even have started to happen, but was stopped. Eric Jones for example argues strongly for this approach. He points out that the central phenomena of intensive growth and innovation are, or should be, the natural result of economic exchange. Moreover we do indeed see them arising at various points in history before the eighteenth century. The biggest example (for which see the next chapter) was China under the Song dynasty and indeed at some other points in its history but there are other instances, such as the central Middle East under the early Abbasids in the eighth and ninth centuries, or the classical Mediterranean civilisation during both the second century AD and the Hellenic era after the death of Alexander. In addition there are also episodes throughout history of what we may call ‘ages of reason’, which see the development and articulation of materialist and sceptical thought – these can be found in the history of China, the Islamic world, India, and classical civilisation. (Their extent is often underestimated because frequently little has survived of their written work because of later reactions).

The point here is that we have earlier episodes of many of the central features of the modern revolution, such as intensive growth, technological innovation, and the ideas of critical rationalism but that these ‘eflorescences’ (as Jack Goldstone calls them) were not sustained. Instead, something choked them off. This is of course compatible with the first approach – the fact that these episodes were not sustained would on that view show that there was, by analogy, not enough fuel in the reactor to keep the chain reaction going. The alternative is, to continue the analogy, that there was already enough ‘fuel’ in the ‘reactor’ long before the reaction finally sustained itself in the later eighteenth century but that before then there was a control mechanism (analogous to the absorbent control rods in an actual reactor) that suppressed the process and stopped it from continuing when it could have.

This explanation in turn can take two different forms. One is that the ‘controls’ that prevented such earlier episodes from sustaining themselves were features of the social, political, and economic order of traditional societies that could have been changed but were not, for various reasons. The strongest candidate is the set of institutions described in the previous chapter, which arose as a response to the Malthusian constraints facing traditional agricultural societies, along with the need to have between eighty and ninety per cent of the population engaged in agriculture. These social practices and institutions seem to have proved very resilient and they had the effect, above all, of preventing sustained innovation. The other way of explaining the termination of ‘eflorescences’ is to emphasise, in addition to wider social obstacles, deliberate policy by rulers or rather the way that the interests of certain social groups and above all ruling classes led them to follow a course that had the effect of terminating such episodes and making them less likely to start in the first place. This is the view of a number of scholars such as Goldstone himself, Eric Jones, and Mark Elvin. The key historical episode for those who take this view is that of China under the Song and it is the failure of that particular ‘efflorescence’ to sustain itself that has attracted the most attention.

The above is one of a number of passages in The Wealth Explosion where Davies is (to me) irritatingly coy about the ways these eflorescences ran out of puff. Let me give the game away. Europe, at the moment when it mattered, was politically divided, while all those other places, and China in particular, was not. China’s rulers could and did end their eflorescence. Europe’s rulers couldn’t, and because they continued competing with one they instead encouraged their eflorescence to continue. Hence the wealth explosion of the tile of this book.

I supplied another slightly longer summary, complete with the punch line that Davies keeps omitting, in this posting at Samizdata.

On the above matter, I wish that Davies had been less succinct. Consider the bit where he says – in brackets, like it’s just a throwaway thought – this:

(Their extent is often underestimated because frequently little has survived of their written work because of later reactions).

These eflorescences, in other words, were a bigger deal than most people think, even quite educated people, because the memory of them was deliberately expunged. I would have liked a whole chapter about the various eflorescences he’s talking about, together with much more in the way of argument to effect that they were indeed big deals, and that lots of evidence of their bigness was indeed expunged. As it is, we have to make do with the one fascinating chapter about just one of these eflorescences, the one that efloresced in Song China. But the scale and significance of each of these eflorescences is central to what this book is all about. Modernity did not get created only in Europe. Modernity was created all over the place. Europe is merely where Modernity was not suppressed.

Read more bits from this terrific book here, here, and here.

Michael Jennings on China – as seen from Nepal and from Australia

I have one of my Last Friday of the Month talks at my home tomorrow evening. See the next posting for news about that. Meanwhile, here are some thoughts that Michael Jennings jotted down, concerning the talk he’ll be giving in the same series on October 25th. While writing this, he didn’t know he was writing a blog posting. That only happened when I asked him if I could stick it up here, and he said … okay, yes:

In April and May this year, I spent a month in Nepal. I spent a fair portion of this in very remote areas – places (such as the region of Upper Mustang) that were almost literally medieval kingdoms only 30 years ago. These places are no longer medieval and no longer kingdoms, but they are still very poor, agricultural communities. At least, the ones without roads connecting them to the outside world are very poor, agricultural communities. Communities with roads connecting them to the outside world are different. Still poor by international standards, but much richer. The roads are being built with Chinese money and expertise.

These places are also very close to the border with Tibet. These places have always been close to the border with Tibet, but of course, these days this means the border with China. As China has become economically more powerful in recent years, the Chinese influence on these places has become stronger. The locals have mixed feelings about that. The Chinese have resources and get things done, whereas governments of Nepal – and governments of their nearer and friendlier neighbour India – are not known for this. On the other hand, if you cross the border you had better not be carrying a picture of the Dalai Lama, and if a Chinese policeman tells you to do something, you had better do it. (Nepali policemen are fairly amiable, mildly corrupt, and not people to worry about that much). The Chinese are building roads and power stations, which is making people richer. This is generally considered to be good. The Chinese bring money and wealth, but they also bring an extremely authoritarian political model with it, and you can see this in one small, poor country of a very different culture to theirs

This is one relatively small, poor country case of the interactions that a rising China is having with much of Asia and much of the world. At the other end of this are things like the interactions of my native Australia with China. Australia was always rich, but is now very rich due principally to selling iron ore and coal to China for the last 20 years. Australia has a large Chinese community, that has arrived in the country mostly in the last 50 years. 30 years ago, Australia would have been unequivocal in its support for the present demonstrators in Hong Kong, if events such as that had been happening then. These days, the Australian government says nothing. Meanwhile, Chinese students in Australia are spied on by Chinese secret police, Chinese language newspapers in Australia – there are many – are intimidated into taking a pro-Beijing line, and other similar things. Do Australians like this – not much, although Australians do generally like Chinese people and Chinese immigrants individually. Australia is now in an uncomfortable position of gaining much of its prosperity from people with an extremely authoritarian political model that we don’t particularly like.

Two extreme examples, but a great many countries in Asia and Africa (and elsewhere) face the same questions, to varying degrees. I will be giving a talk in which I discuss what this means for the world and where this may all lead.

There’ll be another talk about China on the last Friday of November, which is November 28th, by Hong-Konger-now-based-in-London Katy Lau. No apologies whatever for the “duplication”. First, it won’t be. These will be two completely different takes on China. And second, could any subject in the world be more important just now, or more vast in its scope and significance?