As Uri Friedman has chronicled elsewhere at FP, yesterday Dennis Rodman took to Twitter to engage in some outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with respect to an American "tried" for espionage in the Hermit Kingdom:
I'm calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him "Kim", to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.— Dennis Rodman (@dennisrodman) May 7, 2013
Now I can only assume that "Kim," will react to such a moving plea by releasing Bae immediately.
This got your humble blogger to thinking: If only Twitter had been invented earlier, think of the humanitarian catastrophes that celebrities might have helped avert. Had Twitter arrived with, say, the end of the Cold War, this alternative history would likely have produced the following example of preventative celebrity tweets:
1) "Yo yo yo Saddam, don't bake in the Kuwaiti dessert when you could be chillin' with me in Cabo!! Peace out!!" -- Vanilla Ice (@VanillaIce), January 3, 1991
2) "The Big Aristotle knows that Hutus and Tutsis can get along. So I'm asking them to stop the madness. And go see Kazaam two years from now!!" -- Shaquille Oneal (@SHAQ), April 23, 1994.
3) "The Muscles from Brussels is asking my old drinking buddy "Slobo" to pay up on his bar bet and negotiate a peace deal for Bosnia." -- Jean-Claude Van Damme (@JCVD), November 1, 1995.
4) "WHASSSSSSSSSSSUP???!!! Hopefully no more anthrax attacks. Seriously, whoever's doing that should stop, man." -- Jonathan Taylor Thomas (@JTTtruth), September 30, 2001.
5) "I'm really happy for you, imma let you finish, GWB, but Putin is one of the best strongmen of all time, and he should stop cracking down." -- Kanye West (@kanyewest), May 3, 2005.
Readers are welcome to suggest other lost tweets out there in the comments.
An out-of-control shadow banking system that's been barely reformed. A housing sector that's been booming but seems primed for a bust. And despite a recent election that seemed to make it clear who was in charge, gridlock and short-term thinking appear to be hobbling the country's political elite.
I'm talking, of course, about ... China. Well, not me so much as Fitch Ratings, which has turned just a bit bearish on Chinese debt. Why did Fitch downgrade their debt?
China's growth since the re-launch of market-based economic reform in 1992 has been globally as well as domestically transformative. However, the investment-led growth model faces tightening constraints as the share of investment in GDP approaches the level of domestic savings. The process of rebalancing the economy towards consumption could lead to the economy's performance becoming more volatile.
Some underlying structural weaknesses weigh on China's ratings. Average income at USD 5,988 in 2012 and the overall level of development remain well below 'A' medians despite China's phenomenal growth. Standards of governance lag 'A' range norms according to the World Bank's assessment framework....
Risks over China's financial stability have grown. Credit has grown significantly faster than GDP since 2009. China experienced the second-fastest expansion of credit in real terms, behind only Qatar, between end-2009 and end-June 2012. The stock of bank credit to the private sector was worth 135.7% of GDP at end-2012, the third-highest of any Fitch-rated emerging market.
Fitch believes total credit in the economy including various forms of "shadow banking" activity may have reached 198% of GDP at end-2012, up from 125% at end-2008. Only 55% of new social financing took the form of bank lending in the 12 months to February 2013, down from 76% in 2009. The proliferation of other forms of credit beyond bank lending is a source of growing risk from a financial stability perspective....
The ratings assume there is no significant deterioration of geopolitical risk, for example a conflict between China and Japan or an outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula.
China has faced concerns over debt levels since 2009 when state-owned banks unleashed a surge of loans to power the economy through the global financial crisis. The credit wave succeeded in keeping Chinese growth on track, but it led to bubbly housing prices and also saddled local governments with mountains of loans that they are still struggling to repay.
Beijing has spent the past three years trying to manage these problems. It has waged a long campaign to rein in the real estate sector, raising mortgage downpayments and barring people from buying second homes in the hottest markets. Partly as a result, China recorded its lowest annual growth rate for a decade last year.
Reuters tells a similar tale on China's shadow banking system.
China's banks are feeding unwanted assets into the country's "shadow banking system" on an unprecedented scale, reinforcing suspicions that bank balance sheets reflect only a fraction of the actual credit risk lurking in the financial system....
But the key question is no longer how much risk banks are carrying. Rather, it's how many risky loans have been shifted to the lightly regulated shadow banking institutions - mainly trust companies, brokerages and insurance companies.
The risk to the overall financial system is not clear, because of insufficient data about the quality of credit in the shadow banking sector.
To be fair to Chinese authorities, they're quite aware of what they're going through. Indeed, the entire China 2030 exercise, as well as last month's China Development Forum, is predicated on the notion that China's growth model needs to change. But as Martin Wolf notes in his column, as China enters "middle income trap" territory, there are significant problems with such reforms:
First, if expected growth falls from over 10 to, say, 6 per cent, the needed rate of investment in productive capital will collapse: under a constant incremental capital output ratio the fall would be from 50 per cent to, say, 30 per cent of GDP. If swift, such a decline would cause a depression, all on its own.
Second, a big jump in credit has gone together with reliance on real estate and other investments with falling marginal returns. Partly for this reason, the decline in growth is likely to mean a rise in bad debts, not least on the investments made on the assumption that past growth would continue. The fragility of the financial system could increase very sharply, not least in the rapidly expanding “shadow banking” sector.
Third, since there is little reason to expect a decline in the household savings rate, sustaining the envisaged rise in consumption, relative to investment, demands a matching shift in incomes towards households and away from corporations, including state enterprises. This can happen: the growing labour shortage and a move towards higher interest rates might deliver it smoothly. But, even so, there is also a clear risk that the resulting decline in profits would accelerate a collapse in investment.
I'd add only two things at this point. First, as far as I'm concerned, one of the great mysteries in comparative political economy is why it's so bloody difficult for countries like Germany, Japan, and China to change their growth models. High-saving export-oriented economies don't change their ways all that much. To be fair, neither do low-saving, high import countries like the United States. This could be a "varieties of capitalism" story, but that seems ... inadequate as an explanation.
Second, it's worth remembering that the conventional wisdom about China's government was that annual growth below eight percent a year would spell trouble for the government. The implicit contract over the past three decades was that the Chinese Communist Party would supply the growth in return for political quiescence. The end of high growth would imply that this social contract is in trouble.
Except that China's growth has been below that rate for the last two years and running. During that time, Beijing has weathered one major political scandal, a raft of minor political scandals, and a leadership transition without a hint of regime collapse. So while China's economy does seem to merit greater attention, I'm not sure that China's political economy will trigger the kinds of instability that have been predicted for so long.
What do you think?
Ellen Barry reports in the New York Times that the Russians see the handwriting on the wall in Syria:
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, Russia's top envoy for Syria, said on Thursday that President Bashar al-Assad’s government was losing control of the country and might be defeated by rebel forces.
“Unfortunately, it is impossible to exclude a victory of the Syrian opposition,” he said — the clearest indication to date that Russia believed Mr. Assad, a longtime strategic ally, could lose in a civil war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
“We must look squarely at the facts and the trend now suggests that the regime and the government in Syria are losing more and more control and more and more territory,” said Mr. Bogdanov, in remarks to Russia’s Public Chamber carried by Russian news agencies.
This comes a day after Syria launched Scud missiles at opposition forces -- which everyone and their mother seems to think is a desperate move by the Assad regime -- and the United States announced it would recognize the new Syrian opposition council.
Now, as someone who has been expecting Assad to go for quite some time now, these appear to be pretty powerful signs that the regime is, if not facing the end, the beginning of the end. On the other hand, as Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith note in Foreign Policy, Assad still seems able to command the necessary resources to fund his coercive apparatus.
So, how can we really tell that Assad -- or any other leader facing an insurrection -- is actually on his way out? In the spirit of David Letterman, might I suggest the following:
TOP TEN SIGNS THAT YOUR REGIME IS IN TROUBLE:
10) Your Minister of Transportation decides to cash in all his frequent flyer miles.
9) Barbara Walters bumps you from her Most Fascinating People of the Year special in favor of a boy band;
8) Your press agent tells you, "I don't know what happened, but we can't find that Vogue profile of you anywhere on the Internet!"
7) The RSVPs for your year-end holiday party don't seem to include anyone from the Defense Ministry.
6) Fox News interrupts its War on Christmas coverage to actually report on your country
5) Your last name, as a hashtag, is trending higher than a Kardashian.
4) For no apparent reason, your radio station is playing this song nonstop.
3) The traffic jam to your international airport is far worse than usual.
2) All those posters of you in the downtown are now covered by posters of the latest Liam Neeson film.
and the #1 sign that your regime is in trouble...
1) The U.N. Security Council says so!!
In today's paper the New York Times has two long stories on the two largest countries in the world: one on China and one on India. What's interesting is that both stories talk about the tensions between national and regional governments -- but their interpretation of the behavior of these local governments is very different.
Let's start with China, where Andrew Jacobs notes that political paralysis at the national level combined with the economic slowdown is causing regional governments to double down on their debt-driven growth:
Local governments, alarmed by a slowdown they fear could lead to mass unemployment and the kind of sluggish growth that can dent political careers, have decided to take matters into their own hands. In recent months, a number of cities have proposed extravagant infrastructure projects they hope will be financed in part by newly liberalized bank loan policies.
Tianjin claims $236 billion will be spent in the petrochemical, aerospace and other industries. Xi’an, home of the famed terra cotta warriors, plans to invest tens of billions of dollars on nine new subway lines. In Guizhou, one of China’s poorest provinces, officials said they hoped to funnel $472 billion into tourism-related development.
In Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan, officials brag of 12.9 percent growth as they spend billions of dollars on a new subway system, a ring road, an intercity rail line and a pair of bridges to knit together its transportation system.
“We haven’t felt any impact from the crisis in Europe,” said Liu Maosong, chairman of the Hunan Economics Association and an adviser to the Changsha government. “Our guiding philosophy is ‘investment, investment, investment.’ ”
Even if many such projects turn out to be wishful thinking, economists have expressed alarm that municipalities are still chasing debt-financed growth. “It almost scares me to death,” said Mao Yushi, a prominent economist. “Local governments are using the people’s money for investment, but when they can’t repay the banks, the financial system will snap.”
And Liao Jinzhong, an economist at Hunan University, worries that much of the spending is misplaced. “What we really could use is a functioning sewage system,” he said, speaking from his sixth-floor apartment in a crumbling faculty building that has no elevator.
Mr. Liao said he gave frequent lectures at the local party school about the dangerous fixation on propping up growth figures at all costs. He said officials often congratulated him on his frank views.
“But then they admit they can’t change the way they do things,” he said. “Given that the whole system is oriented toward bolstering the careers of officialdom, I just don’t see things changing any time soon.”
Interesting... so because of the political incentives that exist within the Chinese Communist Party, provincial and urban leaders have an incentive to prime their pumps to seek advancement.
Now let's turn to India, where Jim Yardley notes that -- wait for it -- seeming paralysis at the national level and a sagging national economy are causing unaffiliated leaders at the regional and local level to muse about things like forming a third party and compete at the national level. Yardley notes that the likelihood of success is low. What's interesting, however, is the question of why these local leaders are so popular:
Regional bosses, once in decline, are becoming kingmakers again: the squat, sleepy-eyed Mulayam Singh Yadav, who oversees the powerful Samajwadi Party, is even publicly musing about himself as a future prime minister.
“The incentive for every single party from the opposition to the allies is to send a signal that the Congress can’t govern,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “That’s the election plank.”....
“Indian politics will have to live with bargains and negotiations with regional parties,” Ashutosh Varshney, a political expert, said in an e-mail interview. “A third front may or may not emerge, but both national parties will have to negotiate and bargain. That also means that India will find it harder to make firm assertions of power on the international stage, à la China. Its power will grow, but more gradually.”....
In the meantime, India’s regional leaders will continue to press for advantage. Ms. Banerjee is planning a huge demonstration in New Delhi on Monday against the government’s new economic measures. Even as [Bengal Chief Minister Ms. Mamata] Banerjee is often criticized for being intemperate and unpredictable, her influence is undeniable: this week the American ambassador, Nancy Powell met with her privately, just as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a point of visiting her during a trip to India in May.
Other regional leaders are also increasingly powerful national figures. Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of the state of Bihar, has hinted that his regional party could join any coalition that granted his state special status. Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Orissa, has expressed support for a third-front coalition. Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, has also spoken suggestively about a new political alliance.
Most of them have won political support by delivering economic growth and, to varying degrees, improved government. This is one reason that even as India’s politics is again fragmenting, some analysts believe that the country’s economic modernization can continue. In recent years, as policy logjams paralyzed the central government, many international and domestic business leaders shifted their focus to negotiating with individual state leaders.
So, if one buys both of these stories, there's an interesting contrast. Both countries appear to be dealing with feckless national leadership and a slowdown in their national economies. In China, regional leaders are pursuing reckless "growth now" policies that could harm the national economy in the long run. In India, it's the competent economic leadership at the regional level that's bailing out a dysfunctional national government (emphasis added).
The thing is, I don't know if I completely buy Yardley's story on India. I've read enough on China to know that Jacobs' assertion about bad regional policy seems to be pretty accurate (not to mention the out-and-out distortions in economic statistics coming from China's provinces) I wish he had pushed a little bit deeper to see exactly how these regional political bosses had delivered better economic growth. If they did it using variants of what China's leaders did -- short-term measures that accelerate growth now at the expense of growth later -- then what's interesting is that regardless of regime type, local leaders can make life hell for national economic policymakers. If, on the other hand, India's regional leaders have done a genuinely better job at governing, then it's a really interesting story.
What do you think? Psst... in this case, by "you," I mean India experts.
Opening up my Gmail account yesterday, I saw the following announcement across the top encased in a pink banner:
We believe state-sponsored attackers may be attempting to compromise your account or computer. Protect yourself now.
As FP's Josh Rogin and others have reported, this is part of Google's new policy of warning users specifically of "state-sponsored attackers." It should be noted that Google's advice is essentially the same as it has always been -- follow good email hygeine and be careful about opening up attachments.
So, this warning doesn't really change things on my end all that much. I do wonder, however, if this will be yet another signifier that wonks inside and outside the Beltway will use to measure their "influence". I can all to easily imagine the following exchange taking place this morning at a DC Caribou Coffee:
WONK 1: So did you get the Gmail warning? Isn't that pink header a little creepy?
WONK 2: What pink header? What are you talking about?
WONK 1: You know, the Gmail notification saying that you account might be the object of a state-sponsored attack.
WONK 2: No, I didn't get that.
WONK 1: Oh.
[Long, awkward pause]
WONK 1: I'm sure it's just an oversight by the Chinese/Iranian/Russian/American authorities!
WONK 2: I can't believe this. My Klout score is higher than yours!
WONK 1: This just shows how inept the security apparatus is in Beijing/Tehran/Moscow/Washington.
WONK 2: Just you wait. After my Washington Post op-ed runs tomorrow, I'll be getting that pink banner!
WONK 1 [pats WONK 2 on the back]: Atta boy.
Of course, us academics would never have this kind of conversation. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to polish my cv.
Your humble blogger has been banging on about how China's weaknesses are significant and its strengths have been badly overestimated. So you would think I'd be happy to read this Edward Wong front-pager for the New York Times:
After the economies of Western nations imploded in late 2008, Chinese leaders began boasting of their nation’s supremacy. Talk spread, not only in China but also across the West, of the advantages of the so-called China model — a vaguely defined combination of authoritarian politics and state-driven capitalism — that was to be the guiding light for this century.
But now, with the recent political upheavals, and a growing number of influential voices demanding a resurrection of freer economic policies, it appears that the sense of triumphalism was, at best, premature, and perhaps seriously misguided. Chinese leaders are grappling with a range of uncertainties, from the once-a-decade leadership transition this year that has been marred by a seismic political scandal, to a slowdown of growth in an economy in which deeply entrenched state-owned enterprises and their political patrons have hobbled market forces and private entrepreneurship.
“Many economic problems that we face are actually political problems in disguise, such as the nature of the economy, the nature of the ownership system in the country and groups of vested interests,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University in Beijing. “The problems are so serious that they have to be solved now and can no longer be put off.”
Wong didn't even delve into the state of China's big banks, which Bloomberg's Jonathan Weil examines and concludes that they're facing a world of hurt, or China's civil-military conundrum, which I blogged about earlier in the week.
So China is doomed, right? The bubble is gonna pop big time, right?
Well... maybe. Whenever I get too bearish on Beijing, two things drag me back from the brink: 1) China's sheer size means it can muddle through and still increase its relative power; and 2) it's possible for China to experience a severe downturn and still recover quite nicely. As I pointed out a few years ago:
[I look] at China and see the parallels with America's rise to global economic greatness during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From an outsider's vantage point, America looked like a machine that could take immigrants and raw materials and spit out manufactured goods at will. By 1890, the U.S. economy was the largest and most productive in the world. As any student of American history knows, however, these were hardly tranquil times for the United States. Immigration begat ethnic tensions in urban areas. The shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy led to fierce and occasionally violent battles between laborers, farmers, and owners of capital. With an immature financial sector, recession and depressions racked the American economy for decades.
It is not contradictory for China to amass a larger share of wealth and power while still suffering from severe domestic vulnerabilities.
China-watchers tend to be divided between the Bubblers and the Extrapolators. I'm still more sympathetic to the Bubblers, but if the "China is doomed" meme goes mainstream, I might have to defect.
When we last left off with Bo Xilai, he and his family were in a spot of trouble for myriad crimes and misdemeanors in Chongqing, including the possible poisoning of a British national. According to this New York Times story by Jonathan Ansfield and Ian Johnson, however, that's just the beginning of Bo's crimes:
When Hu Jintao, China’s top leader, picked up the telephone last August to talk to a senior anticorruption official visiting Chongqing, special devices detected that he was being wiretapped — by local officials in that southwestern metropolis.
The discovery of that and other wiretapping led to an official investigation that helped topple Chongqing’s charismatic leader, Bo Xilai, in a political cataclysm that has yet to reach a conclusion.
Until now, the downfall of Mr. Bo has been cast largely as a tale of a populist who pursued his own agenda too aggressively for some top leaders in Beijing and was brought down by accusations that his wife had arranged the murder of Neil Heywood, a British consultant, after a business dispute. But the hidden wiretapping, previously alluded to only in internal Communist Party accounts of the scandal, appears to have provided another compelling reason for party leaders to turn on Mr. Bo.
This is both interesting and unsurprising. The leadership in Beijing has every incentive to tar and feather Bo to ensure that his residual popularity in Chongqing does not lead to a revival in his power. It's now gotten to the point where Bo's son had to issue a statement to the Harvard Crimson in an attempt to shed the image of being a spoiled princeling driving around in a red Ferrari. I don't doubt the wiretapping story, but let's face it, Beijing's ruling cliques are going to have an incentive to... let's say embellish Bo's perfidy.
And we here at Foreign Policy want to help!!
At this point, the accusations being hurled at Bo Xilai, his wife, and his son are flying so fast and furious that the hashtag #BoXilaicrimes is now rising on Twitter. Look at the list yourself -- here are my faves so far:
RT @_dpress Tore Jeremy Lin's meniscus
Let's face it, far more Americans associate the name "Bo" more with Barack Obama's dog than with Bo Xilai, the now-disgraced former Communist Party chief of Chongqing (my generation of Americans will, of course, forever associate Bo with this). That might be about to change, however, because Bo is at the center of the most serious post-Tiananmen political scandal in China.
To recap: Bo was pushing hard for an appointment to the nine-person Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) Politburo -- the most powerful decision-making body in China. He might very well have received it too, based on the combination of his "princeling" ties, his populist, Maoist-style campaigns and the flock of high party officials visiting Chongqing to see how he was doing it.
Two months ago, however, Bo's police chief Wang Lijun showed up at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu seeking asylum. He left the consulate, but the reverberations haven't stopped. First Bo disappeared from public view, then his "Jackie Kennedyesque" wife Gu Kailai was charged with the murder of British citizen Neil Haywood, and then Bo was formally put under investigation and stripped of all his party posts.
So, what the hell happened? Slowly, details are starting to trickle out about Bo's methods in Chongqing and exactly what led to his downfall. In order, I'd suggest reading the following:
3) On how U.S. officials handled Wang's request for asylum, check out the New York Times' Steven Lee Myers and Mark Landler's excellent reconstruction of events in Chengdu.
5) Finally, read John Garnault's excellent FP Long Read on whether a Bo-style scandal is about to break out in the People's Liberation Army.
OK, now you know everything I know. So what do I know about Bo? Not much, except for four things:
A) For the past decade there was a lot of talk about how China had managed to routinize the authoritarian selection process. The transfer of power from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao seemed seamless. Well, say what you will about what's happening now, but it ain't seamless.
B) I tend to agree with Minxin Pei (and disagree with Cheng Li) that Bo's arrest is not an example of the system working, but rather the system coming veeeerrrrry close to a catastrophic failure. The fact China's official apparatus has clammed up after Bo's arrest is a clear sign that there's still a lot of infighting going on. The notion that this will therefore lead to a real reform/anti-corruption trend strikes me as based on hope more than reality (though see this previous post of mine as a hedge).
C) Despite the official no-comments, the fact that Chinese officials are now leaking like a seive to Western reporters is interesting, and suggests the ways in which a purge in this decade will not resemble pre-Tiananmen purges. It's not that there will be more rumors and conspiracy theories now than thirty years ago -- it's that all this stuff will not be on the Internet -- which will force the CCP to respond more than it would like.
D) Based on how things played out, the U.S. State Department deserves a tip of the cap for how it handled Wang's sojourn to Chengdu. The fact that there were no press leaks until yesterday is good -- anything the U.S. government says publicly about this episode needlessly embarrasses and angers the Chinese government. That said, given the current attitudes in Beijing about the United States, even the Times story is going to raise some hackles. Indeed, given the current strife inside China, it would be easy to envision Beijing making life difficult for the United States elsewhere as a way of using nationalism to paper over elite divisions.
Am I missing anthing? Oh, I'm missing plenty, and I strongly urge China-watchers to proffer their comments!
I think the world of the Financial Times' Jamil Anderlini. His China reportage is always fresh and interesting. But I confess that I approach his latest story with more than a touch of trepidation:
Mr Wen’s persistent mentions of the violent chaos unleashed by Mao Zedong were a clear rebuke to populist “princeling” politician Bo Xilai, who was purged a few hours later as party chief of Chongqing, one of China’s largest cities....
But for those reading between the pauses in the premier’s painfully deliberate oratory, the speech signalled more than the downfall of the maverick Mr Bo, who may still be charged with unspecified crimes.
According to people close to top-level internal party discussions, Mr Wen was tentatively laying the foundation for a move that would blow apart the established order in China and kick-start the political reform he has agitated for in recent years.
That move would be the rehabilitation and re-evaluation of the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests and the massacre that followed on June 4, when party elders ordered the People’s Liberation Army to open fire on unarmed demonstrators.
To this day the party officially regards the democracy protests as a “counter-revolutionary riot” and the entire episode has been painstakingly scrubbed from the collective consciousness of the nation.
In calling for a re-evaluation of the cultural revolution, Mr Wen was in fact signalling his intention to do the same for Tiananmen in order to finally begin the healing.
Mr Wen has already suggested this on three separate occasions in top-level secret party meetings in recent years, according to people familiar with the matter, but each time has been blocked by his colleagues.
One of the most vehement opponents of this proposal was Bo Xilai....
As Mr Wen prepares to step down at the end of this year as part of a once-in-a-decade political transition, he may be gambling that the time has come to right historical wrongs as a way of launching political reform.
The potential reputational damage to powerful interest groups, particularly within the military, could still easily block such a spectacularly bold manoeuvre.
But in purging Mr Bo the Chinese leadership has cleared away a major impediment and sent a signal to others that spring could be in the air again in Beijing.
Now, a few notes of skepticism. First, we've heard this song-and-dance routine about Wen before. He's talked about political reform a lot, and every time he does it gets covered in the foreign press and squelched in the domestic Chinese press.
Second, while the CCP elite might be in agreement on not wanting to return to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution , it's quite a stretch to go from that consensus to an agreement to revisit 1989. I have every confidence that a large swatch of the CCP elite looks at Tiananmen as identical to the Cultural Revolution in terms of instability and chaos.
So this seems like yet another CCP episode of Lucy yanking away the democratic football from hopeful liberals... and yet.
Anderlini makes two persuasive points and omits an even more persuasive argument. He correctly observes that Wen is approaching lame duck status and that his primary political impediment has been removed. So maybe he is less constrained than in the past.
The omitted argument is a bit tangential, but bear with me. It relates to this Keith Bradsher story in the New York Times about China's relaxation of foreign capital strictures:
The Chinese government has begun making it much easier for foreign investors to put money into China's stock market and other financial investments, in a slight relaxing of more than a decade of tight capital controls.
The move, not publicly announced but disclosed by some private money managers, indicates that Chinese officials are eager to counter a rising flight of capital from the country, a worsening slump in real estate prices, a weak stock market and at least a temporary trade deficit caused by a steep bill for oil imports.
Those concerns have evidently started to offset fears of the potentially inflationary effects of big inflows of foreign cash (emphasis added).
Both the inward rush of capital and the capital flight by affluent Chinese are interesting. They could force the central government to start making credible commitments with respect to property rights. Only such commitments will ensure that the locally wealthy Chinese will not immediately have their capital move to the exit whenever possible. Oddly, Wen deciding to open up Tiananmen might be a way of signaling to investors that Beijing intends to be a bit kinder and gentler than it's been over the past decade.
The international diversification of China's wealthy elite has another effect. Via Erik Voeten, I see that John Freeman and Dennis Quinn have a new paper in the American Political Science Review that concludes, "financially integrated autocracies, especially those with high levels of inequality, are more likely to democratize than unequal financially closed autocracies." Why?
[M]odern portfolio theory recommends that asset holders engage in international diversification, even in a context in which governments have forsworn confiscatory tax policies or other policies unfavorable to holders of mobile assets. Exit through portfolio diversification is the rational investment strategy, not (only) a response to deleterious government policies. Therefore, autocratic elites who engage in portfolio diversification will hold diminished stakes in their home countries, creating an opening for democratization.
Freeman and Quinn might as well be talking about China right now. Soo.... maybe the "princelings" are less worried about democratization than they used to be.
To be honest, I still think the football is going to be yanked. But it's worth considering.
What do you think?
UPDATE: Mark Mackinnon has an excellent essay in the Toronto Globe & Mail explaining why reporters in China have so little to go on when they need to report on high-level politics or put down coup rumors.
The theme of Western decline was still running through my head as I perused the New York Times website this AM. In his Damascus dispatch today, Neil MacFarquhar dutifully details the Syrian government's position on the cause of the sustained unpleasantness in the country:
Rather than responding to the motivations and demands behind the antigovernment uprising, opponents and political analysts say, the government has stubbornly clung to the narrative that it is besieged by a foreign plot....
Senior government officials — including Mr. Assad — and their supporters reel off a strikingly uniform explanation for the uprisings, blaming foreign agents and denying official responsibility for the violence.
“Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa,” Mr. Assad said in an interview with ABC News broadcast on Wednesday. In the interview, Mr. Assad denied ordering a crackdown. “We don’t kill our people,” he said. “No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.”
Virtually no one in the Syrian government links the uprisings to the sentiment inspiring revolutions across the Arab world, to a public fed up with the status quo. Instead, they say the United States and Israel, allied with certain quisling Arab governments, are plotting to destroy Syria, to silence its lone, independent Arab voice and to weaken its regional ally, Iran. To achieve this aim, they are arming and financing Muslim fundamentalist mercenaries who enter Syria from abroad, Syrian officials say.
“Syria is one of the last secular regimes in the Arab world, and they are targeting Syria,” said Buthaina Shaaban, a presidential political and media adviser, warning that the West would rue the day that it enabled Islamist regimes.
And then I read David Herszenhorn's update on Vladimir Putin's thinking on the causes behind Russian protests earlier this week:
With opposition groups still furious over parliamentary elections that international observers said were marred by cheating, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday accused Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton of instigating protests by baselessly criticizing the vote as “dishonest and unfair” and he warned that Russia needed to protect against “interference” by foreign governments in its internal affairs.
“I looked at the first reaction of our U.S. partners,” Mr. Putin said in remarks to political allies. “The first thing that the secretary of state did was say that they were not honest and not fair, but she had not even yet received the material from the observers.”
“She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal,” Mr. Putin continued. “They heard the signal and with the support of the U.S. State Department began active work.”
Mr. Putin’s assertions of foreign meddling and his vow to protect Russian “sovereignty” came after three days in which the Russian authorities have moved forcefully to tamp down on efforts to protest the elections, arresting hundreds of demonstrators and deploying legions of pro-Kremlin young people in Moscow to occupy public squares and to chant, beat drums and drown out the opposition.
Wow, I had no idea that the United States was this powerful!! Hillary Clinton is apparently capable of getting thousands of Russians in the streets with just a few sentences.
Now clearly, actual American influence over events in Russia and Syria is pretty limited. Still, if the perception of power is a form of power in and of itself, I wonder if the Secretary of State -- perhaps after consuming too much egg nog at the State Department holiday reception -- would be tempted to give the following address to the diplomatic press corps:
I'd like to take this oppportunity today to admit that the United States, is, in fact, responsible for the nine-month uprising in Syria and the recent unrest in Russia. Oh, hell, who am I kidding -- we're responsible for the entire Arab Spring! It's true, the whole thing started about a year ago, at the Policy Planning Staff's Secret Santa party. One of them said, "hey, you know what would really advance American interests in the Middle East? If we destabilized secular authoritarian despots and empowered Islamist parties across the region! Those parties would really be more likely to back American policies in the region! Oh, and we should start with Egypt too, because of their peace treaty with Israel."
That initiative was sooooo successful that, again, my Foreign Service Officers came up with the brilliant concept of instigating the Occupy Wall Street movement, so we could demonstrate a template for how protests should naturally germinate in other countries. Did you like how some of the policy forces overreacted to those movements? Yeah, that was the State Department's idea too. We were hoping to encourage authoritarian leaders to overreact and crack down -- because without our inspiration, they would never have brutally repressed on their own.
Now, some of you might wonder, "if the United States was really this all powerful, why not target countries that pose even bigger security concerns, like Iran, or China, or even Venezuela?" Well, they're next. Think of the Middle East and Russia as just the out-of-town premieres before a show gets on Broadway. We've been working out the kinks to our methods, and now we think we've really perfected a universally applicable formula to apply to all our enemies in one fell swoop. Remember the baptism scene in The Godfather? Well, Hugo Chavez will wish he was Moe Green when we're through with him.
Happy holidays, authoritarian cabals!!
A few months ago I blogged about how the Putin-Medvedev two-step caused some grumbling among Russian elites. Russian parliamentary elections were held over the weekend, and as it turns out there was some grumbling among the public as well:
Russians voting in parliamentary elections apparently turned against the ruling United Russia party in large numbers Sunday, exit polls and early results suggested, to the great benefit of the Communist Party.
In what only months ago would have been a nearly unimaginable scenario, the party dominated by Vladimir Putin was predicted to get less than 50 percent of the vote, while polling organizations put the Communists at about 20 percent, nearly double their count in the last election.
Not long ago, anything under the 64.3 percent that United Russia won in 2007 would have been seen as unacceptable failure for the party and Putin, who has relied on its control of government and bureaucrats across the country to deliver ever more votes and entrench his authority.
But now its aura of invincibility is badly dented, and opponents may begin to sense an opportunity. If United Russia falls short of 50 percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament, it will turn to the nationalist Liberal Democrats, or even the Communists, for support. Those parties have been pliable up to now — Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democrats never vote against the government — but could start testing the limits of their power, given a chance.
Well.... that's the odd thing about how this plays out in Russia. On the one hand, elections like these do matter, because they dent the veneer of an effective authoritarian being in control. Despite rigging the game, it appears that Putin and his loyalists couldn't secure the desired result. Any time an authoritarian aparatus demonstrates fallibility is not a good day for the authoritarian apparatus.
On the other hand.... Putin and his cronies have two to three serious advantages going into the presidential elections. First, they can use this election as a wake-up call. By turning up the public spending taps (which high oil prices will allow them to do) they can probably buy some more loyalty. Second, they can be more ruthless in rigging the electoral game to ensure Putin's victory. In trading off the international legitimacy of elections vs. winning, I suspect Putin will opt for winning.
Third, and most important, Russia is not like the Middle East, in which a grass-roots organization has been waiting in the wings to challenge the corrupt authoritarian state. I suspect that what will save Putin is the existing alternatives to Putin -- namely, the communists and nationalists. Russians might not like the status quo, but it's not like the opposition has covered itself in glory either. The Liberal Democrats have done no real governing, and the Communists have done way too much governing in its past. These are not really desirable alternatives.
Unless a genuine grass-roots democracy movement sprouts up in the Russian tundra, I suspect Putin and his allies will muddle through the presidential elections. What's more interesting is whether this event triggers some longer-term planning on the part of Putin or his opposition.
What do you think?
Travel and the associated jet lag from the travel have left me a bit befuddled and confused about the foreign policy discourse of the last week. I keep having to re-watch or re-read things just to make sure I'm understanding them correctly. I mean, did Rick Perry actually give the answer he gave on the Pakistani nukes question? Did John Mearsheimer seriously claim that a self-hating Jew can provide an accurate analysis about the state of modern Judaism?
My biggest confusion, however, is over the announced Putin-Medvedev switcheroo over the weekend. Indeed, my confusion operates at many levels. First, I was flummoxed that, well, any Russia-watcher was surprised by this move. Second, I was at a loss as to explain why any Washington-watcher would be fretting about the effect of this move on the "reset" of Russian-American relations. As Walter Russell Mead correctly observed today, "There is a good case for a businesslike US-Russian relationship no matter who runs Russia."
What has really confused me, however, is the possibility that this planned transition might hit a few bumps in the road.... like the actual departure of a powerful cabinet official:
Dmitry Medvedev, Russian president, sacked the country's finance minister on Monday, in the clearest sign yet that a deal between Mr Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin to swap jobs next year is provoking a furious backlash in Moscow political circles.
Alexei Kudrin, the finance minister, had said at the weekend he would refuse to serve under Mr Medvedev if he became prime minister next year. In dismissing the mutinous minister, Mr Medvedev sought to demonstrate that he still has authority, analysts said - despite the humiliation of voluntarily standing down as president in favour of Mr Putin.
Mr Kudrin, a fiscal conservative, is respected by investors and widely credited with seeing Russia through the 2008-09 financial crisis. His dismissal came after Russian financial markets closed but the rouble earlier lost more than 1 per cent against the dollar, partly due to apprehension about the conflict with Mr Medvedev....
At a meeting of a government commission in the town of Dmitrovgrad on Monday, the two men faced off when Mr Medvedev told Mr Kudrin that his statement on Saturday "appears improper ... and can in no way be justified. Nobody has revoked discipline and subordination."
"If, Alexei Leonidovich, you disagree with the course of the president, there is only one course of action and you know it: to resign."
Mr Kudrin responded with a jibe: "I will take a decision only after having consulted the prime minister."
"You can get advice from whoever you want, with the prime minister if you want," snapped back Mr Medvedev. "But as long as I am president, these decisions I will take myself."
A few hours later Mr Medvdev's spokesperson announced Mr Kudrin's departure for reasons "that were laid out clearly in the commission meeting".
The humiliating public swipe from Mr Kudrin is a measure of how far Mr Medvedev's authority has eroded since he announced at the annual congress of the ruling United Russia party on Saturday that he would stand down next year to make way for a return of Mr Putin for a third term as president, assuming the role of prime minister under Mr Putin.
Could this kind of elite discord lead to even greater political discord in Russia? Reading Joshua Tucker's collection of expert commentary, as well as Julia Ioffe's FP observations, my initial answer would be no. Kudrin quit because he wanted to be the next prime minister and was therefore the odd man out of the Putin-Medvedev exchange. That would not seem to be a great foundation for a mass backlash against this move.
On the other hand.... in the case of Russia, mass backlash might be less important than elite backlash, and Kudrin is hardly the only member of the elite to be on the outside of the Putin-Medvedev axis. The self-interested reasons for the backlash matter less than the very public signal that the leadership transition is not playing out so smoothly after all.
In the short term, the most likely outcome is that this contretemps will blow over, and the worst-case scenario for Putin is that he decides to ditch Medvedev for someone a Kudrin clone/deputy. In the longer term, however, I do wonder if this move will push the Russian regime towards greater instability.
So, as I said, I'm pretty confused right now. What do you think?
[Note to readers: we are pleased to report that Dan bout with Friedman's Disease appears to have passed quickly. Due to difficulties with accessing the FP site, however, he has sent us his latest blog post via Gmail. Given recent accusations, we can neither confirm nor deny that this post has been edited or altered in any way, which we print below without alteration. Enjoy the read!--ed.]
I cannot emphasize how hospitable and gracious my Chinese hosts have been at this conference. From the excellent logistics to the delicious food that I have consumed in massive quantities in a perfect demonstration of excessive American consumption, I have been made to feel like an honored guest.
The only annoyance, not surprisingly, is accessing the Internet which is so filled with sedition and lies with respect to the People's Republic of China. It's one thing to read about how ordinary Chinese are blocked from accessing Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and various Wikipedia pages out of concern than members of U.S. Congress do not use these pernicious social media to send lascivious photos to vulnerable, unsuspecting Chinese women, but it's another thing to confront that fact in person.
The odd thing is the capricious but nevertheless wise nature of the censorship. I can access the Financial Times but not the Economist because the latter is written in a much more condescending, supercilious tone. Even with baseball sites, for several days I could access Baseball Prospectus but not FanGraphs because the latter site's Wins Above Replacement statistic relies on dodgy defensive metrics.
In the end, the irony is that many English-language news-sites are accessible -- it's the social networking sites that are unavailable to encourage our students to pay attention in class unlike their decadent western counterparts.
With China's Internet entrepreneurs being forced to go Red so as to crush all treacherous curs, the Great Fireweall won't be going away anytime soon. Then again, from the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) perspective, in makes some sense. The repeated outbreaks of social unrest over the past decade -- or the past week -- leaves the CCP with no choice but to continue its censorship policies if it wants to keep its hold on power and guide Chinese citizens towards a peaceful, harmonious world with Chinese characteristics.
It is for this reason that I look forward to returning to the United States so that I might rot my midget brain even further with more blog posts about stupid, bourgeois zombie-themed news.
Joshua Kurlantzick argues in The New Republic that despite the surface appeal of the Arab Spring, global trends are moving against the democratic system of government:
The truth is that the Arab Spring is something of a smokescreen for what is taking place in the world as a whole. Around the globe, it is democratic meltdowns, not democratic revolutions, that are now the norm. (And even countries like Egypt and Tunisia, while certainly freer today than they were a year ago, are hardly guaranteed to replace their autocrats with real democracies.) In its most recent annual survey, the monitoring group Freedom House found that global freedom plummeted for the fifth year in a row, the longest continuous decline in nearly 40 years. It pointed out that most authoritarian nations had become even more repressive, that the decline in freedom was most pronounced among the “middle ground” of nations—countries that have begun democratizing but are not solid and stable democracies—and that the number of electoral democracies currently stands at its lowest point since 1995. Meanwhile, another recent survey, compiled by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, spoke of a “gradual qualitative erosion” of democracy and concluded that the number of “highly defective democracies”—democracies so flawed that they are close to being failed states, autocracies, or both—had doubled between 2006 and 2010.
The number of anecdotal examples is overwhelming. From Russia to Venezuela to Thailand to the Philippines, countries that once appeared to be developing into democracies today seem headed in the other direction. So many countries now remain stuck somewhere between authoritarianism and democracy, report Marc Plattner and Larry Diamond, co-editors of the Journal of Democracy, that “it no longer seems plausible to regard [this condition] simply as a temporary stage in the process of democratic transition.”
Reason's Jesse Walker thinks Kurlantzick is making a "democracy meltdown" out of a few molehills:
It's a dramatic story, but it isn't really accurate. We aren't on the road to Planet Burma. More likely, we're witnessing freedom's growing pains....
Kurlantzick's claim that freedom has "plummeted" for five years running. I'll accept Freedom House's ratings as a rough measurement of civil liberties and self-rule: You might quibble with their judgments on some specific countries, but the group gets the broad trends right. And those trends just don't show a plummet. The political scientist Jay Ulfelder, former director of the Political Instability Task Force, notes that what the Freedom House figures actually describe is "a period of major gains in the early 1990s; a period of slower gains in the late 1990s and early 2000s; and something like a plateau to minor slippage since the mid-2000s." He illustrates that with a chart showing the group's average scores over the last three decades.
[T]he recent trend looks more like a stagnation than a substantial shrinkage. And with anti-authoritarian activists still marching in the Middle East and elsewhere, there's a reasonable chance—not a certainty, but a chance—that we're about to see another big bump in the right direction.
Jay Ulfelder has more in his blog post [Full disclosure: Jay and I got our Ph.D.'s in political science together. We were even officemates for a year -- and Jay was the most polite and quiet officemate I ever had.]
Looking at the data, I'm inclined to say that Walker/Ulfelder win this argument. Consider this paragraph from the Freedom House press release linked to by Kurlantzick:
A total of 25 countries showed significant declines in 2010, more than double the 11 countries exhibiting noteworthy gains. The number of countries designated as Free fell from 89 to 87, and the number of electoral democracies dropped to 115, far below the 2005 figure of 123. In addition, authoritarian regimes like those in China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela continued to step up repressive measures with little significant resistance from the democratic world.
The move from 89 to 87 could be noise, and 115 is not "far below" 123. There's some adjectival abuse going on here. These modest trends away from democratization across countries can be easily reversed by a successful Arab Spring -- a big "if," admittedly.
Kurlantzick and Freedom House do make one point, however, that neither Walker nor Ulfelder rebut. The most disturbing trend is the "lock-in" of authoritarianism in so many medium and great powers. China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia -- these are countries that have trended towards the "not free" category for many a year now, and these regimes are getting better at stifling dissent. Walker argues that, "the know-how for building freedom is still spreading," but the know-how for squelching it can also spread. Indeed, the Arab Spring itself has led to genuine regime change in some countries, but in others it has been a testing ground for how to crack down.
Even if the democratization wave continues, there are enough big authoritarian countries around that will not be transitioning anytime soon. That is a significant change from twenty years ago, and it's worth thinking about the implications for the future. \
UPDATE: Jay Ulfelder responds to my point on new and improved forms of authoritarianism:
Actually, I think the cases Dan mentions — China, Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia — support the view that the roster of democratic governments will continue to expand. Where Dan sees regimes that are “locking in” authoritarian rule by “getting better at stifling dissent,” I see regimes that are facing still-growing pressures to expand civil liberties and hold fair elections–pressures that should eventually help tip those countries onto the democratic side of the ledger....
I think it’s unlikely (but not impossible) that any of these regimes will cede power to democratically elected governments in the next year or two. At the same time, I think it’s also evident that these regimes are increasingly struggling to contain the same forces that have propelled the diffusion of democracy elsewhere in the past two centuries. What I learn from the trajectories of prior transitions is that those forces cannot be contained forever. The processes of political change spurred by those forces are often choppy, frustrating, and even violent, but the long-term trend away from self-appointed rulers toward elected government is remarkably strong and consistent, and the forces driving that trend are already evident in many of the world’s remaining “hard” cases of authoritarian rule.
I hope he's right -- but stories like these make me wonder if he's underestimating the innovations of "smart" authoritarian institutions.
As Laura Rozen, Michael Peel, Farah Stockman, Jon Wiener, John Sides, Siddhartha Mahanta & David Corn, and various reporters have observed, an awful lot of high-powered academics and academic institutions have some 'splainin to do about their relationship with Libya's Qaddafi family.
The Monitor Group ferried a number of high-profile international studies scholars, including Joseph Nye, Robert Putnam, Michael Porter, Francis Fukuyama, Nicholas Negroponte, and Benjamin Barber to the shores of Tripoli in an effort to burnish the regime's image. The London School of Economics and some of its faculty were deeply involved with Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi, as he earned his Ph.D. there in 2007 with a dissertation on -- wait for it -- liberal democracy and civil society. Even FP's own Steve Walt went for a brief visit in 2010.
As the Qaddafi family has morphed from pragmatic strongmen to bloodthirsty killers, the fallout in the academic world has been uneven. On the one hand, Howard Davies resigned as the head of LSE in the wake of the Libyan revelations. The Monitor Group acknowledged in a statement that, "We … believed that these visits could boost global receptivity for Mr. Gaddafi's stated intention to move the country more towards the West and open up to the rest of the world. Sadly, it is now clear that we, along with many others, misjudged that possibility."
On the other hand, Benjamin Barber sounds totally unapologetic in his interview with FP. His basic message is that "second-guessing the past, I mean, it's just 20/20 hindsight." Then there's this response:
I mean, did LSE take Saif's money -- the Gaddafi Foundation money -- improperly? No, they all took it properly. And promised a scholarly center to study the Middle East and North Africa. And offer scholarships to students from the region. Just the way Harvard and Georgetown and Cambridge and Edinburgh have done -- not with Libyan money, but with Saudi money (look at Prince Alwaleed bin Talal). By the way, not just Monitor, but McKinsey, Exxon, Blackstone, the Carlyle Group -- everybody was in it. The only difference for Monitor was that it actually had a project that was aimed at trying to effect some internal change. Everybody else who went in, which is every major consultancy, every major financial group, went in to do nothing more than make big bucks for themselves. But now people are attacking Monitor because they took consulting fees for actually trying to effect reform and change.
Finally, there is an important background controversy here: It is about whether academics should stay in the ivory tower and do research and write books? Or engage in the world on behalf of the principles and theories their research produces? Do you simply shut your mouth and write? Or do you try to engage? This is an old question that goes back to Machiavelli, back to Plato going to Syracuse: Do you engage with power? Sometimes power is devilish and brutal; sometimes it's simply constitutional and democratic; but in every case, it's power, and to touch it is to risk being tainted by it.
My answer is that each person has to make their own decision. I don't condemn those who prefer the solitude of the academy, though they lose the chance to effect change directly; and I don't condemn those who do try to influence power, risking being tainted by it, even when power doesn't really pay much attention to them, whether its legitimate power like in the United States or illegitimate, as in Libya. The notion that there is something wrong with people who choose to intervene and try to engage the practice of democracy -- that they are somehow more morally culpable than people who prefer not to intervene -- is to me untenable.
Rereading his 2007 Washington Post op-ed, I think it's safe to say that Barber embraced sucking up to power juuuuuuuuust a wee bit more fervently than everyone else.
That said, the man has half a point here. As Ben Wildavsky has chronicled in The Great Brain Race, Western universities have been racing across the globe to set up
additional revenue streams satellite campuses in authoritarian countries. Those schools that had no dealings with Libya likely do have dealings with the Gulf emirates, or China, or Russia, or … you get the point.
Furthermore, if you believe what Charles Kupchan writes in How Enemies Become Friends, it's precisely this category of interactions that potentially leads to reduced tensions between rival nations. Bear in mind that by 2006 Libya had renounced its WMD program and did seem somewhat interested in integrating itself into the West. Surely that's a moment when these kinds of interactions could havehad an appreciable effect on a country's trajectory.
Another ethical question comes down to exactly how a scholar is engaging with a country. Engagement at the elite level, for example, has a greater potential for change, but also a great potential for "capture" by the authoritarian elite. Engagement with the population might have fewer moral quandaries (if there's a choice between teaching Saudi women* and not teaching Saudi women, for example, is not teaching really the morally correct option? ) but fewer opportunities for change.
There's an interesting quote in Farah Stockman's write-up that does stand out, however:
“The really nefarious aspect of [Monitor's parade of academics] is that it reinforced in Khadafy’s mind that he truly was an international intellectual world figure, and that his ideas of democracy were to be taken seriously,’’ said Dirk Vandewalle, associate professor at Dartmouth College and author of “A History of Modern Libya.’’ “It reinforced his reluctance to come to terms with the reality around him, which was that Libya is in many ways an inconsequential country and his ideas are half-baked.’’
In the Libyan case, maybe that is the best criteria for assorting ethical responsibility. For a scholar, engagement with power should not be automatically rejected, particularly if it means altering policies in a fruitful manner. When the exercise morphs into intellectual kabuki theater, however, then disengagement seems like the best course of action.
Those scholars who stopped participating after it was obvious that Qaddafi wasn't really interested in genuine change don't deserve much opprobrium. By that count, Barber really has a lot to answer for, while some of the others seem to have emerged relatively unscathed.
I'm curious what commenters have to say about this because I guarantee you one thing -- the more that autocratic regimes either buckle or crack down, the more this issue is going to come up for both universities and individual scholars.
[Full disclosure: I taught a short course for Saudi women at Fletcher in the summer of 2009, and have absolutely no regrets about doing so.]
In Sayf-Al-Islam's rambling speech last night on Libyan State television, he blamed the current unpleasantness in his country on, as near as I can determine, crazed African LSD addicts.
This isn't going down as well as Sayf had intended, and Libya seems less stable than 24 hours earlier. Indeed, Sayf's off-the-cuff remarks managed to make Hosni Mubarak's three speeches seem like a model of professionalism, which I would not have thought was possible a week ago.
Indeed, it is striking how utterly incompetent leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have been at managing their media message. Speeches are announced, then never delivered on time, and then delivered with production values that woulds embarrass a public access channel in the U.S. It's like political leaders in the region have discovered blogs just as the young people has moved on to Twitter or something. [Er, no, that's the United States--ed.] Oh, right.
Having just finished a week of intense media whoring, methinks that one problem is that most of these leaders have simply fallen out of practice (if they were ever in practice) at personally using the media to assuage discontent. I've been on enough shows on enough different media platforms to appreciate that there is an art, or at least a tradecraft, to presenting a convincing message in the mediasphere. Authoritarian leaders in the Middle East are quite adept at playing internal factions off one another. That's a different skill set than trying to craft a coherent and compelling media message to calm street protestors no longer intimidated by internal security forces.
Indeed, as I argued in Theories of International Politics and Zombies, bureaucratic first responses to novel situations are almost uniformly bad. Sayf pretty much admitted this last night, as he acknowledged that the Libyan armed forces were not trained to deal with street protestors. I suspect the same is true with the state media outlets -- they excel at producing tame, regime-friendly pablum during quiescent periods, but now they're operating in unknown territory.
I also argued that bureaucracies should be able to adapt their organizational routines over time, if a regime's domestic support does not evaporate. Readers are encouraged to predict which regimes under threat in the Middle East are the most likely to be able to adapt. My money is on Iran -- not because that regime is more popular, but simply because Iran's leaders have had eighteen months to adapt and they are therefore further down the learning curve.
Today's Tom Friedman column on China's future is a pretty good one, in that it demonstrates how and why Friedman excels at a craft that flummoxes the best essayists. First, he asks a great question:
[O]ne of the most intriguing political science questions in the world today is: Can China continue to prosper, while censoring the Internet, controlling its news media and insisting on a monopoly of political power by the Chinese Communist Party?
Then, he makes a coherent argument in less than 800 words that the most populous nation in the world will have no choice but to liberalize and democratize. Friedman's thesis:
The “Beijing Consensus,” of economic liberty without political liberty, may have been a great strategy for takeoff, but it won’t get you to the next level....
My reason for believing China will have to open up sooner than its leadership thinks has to do with its basic challenge: It has to get rich before it gets old....
The only stable way to handle that is to raise incomes by moving more Chinese from low-wage manufacturing jobs to more knowledge- and services-based jobs, as Hong Kong did. But, and here’s the rub, today’s knowledge industries are all being built on social networks that enable open collaboration, the free sharing of ideas and the formation of productive relationships — both within companies and around the globe. The logic is that all of us are smarter than one of us, and the unique feature of today’s flat world is that you can actually tap the brains and skills of all of us, or at least more people in more places. Companies and countries that enable that will thrive more than those that don’t.
This argument is clear enough for the average New York Times reader to get it. It's also clear enough for
us foreign policy bloggers in pajamas online analysts to point out where and how he's wrong. In particular, Friedman makes two large errors:
1) It's not clear that China has to get to "the next level" of economic development in order to become the most powerful country in the world. China's GDP could be larger than America's while still possessing only 1/3 the per capita income of the United States. If the rest of China were to enjoy the infrastructure and living standards or, say, Shenzhen, China would be doing quite well for itself. And as Chinese consumers demand more goods and services, the domestic jobs that power the rise of middle-class professionals -- teachers, lawyers, consultants , environmental engineers, travel agents, etc. -- will start to emerge in large numbers.
Just to be clear here -- Friedman is right to say that greater liberty is likely to lead to more innovative growth. My point is that a population of a billion plus people allows the government to focus on intensive growth for an awfully long time and still prosper an amazing amount.
2) In a world of network technologies and externalities, the best and most innovative technology does not always win -- the technology used by the most customers develops the lock-in. China doesn't have to have a technological edge, it just has to ensure that the largest market in the world embraces China-friendly technologies. Hey, come to think of it, you know what institution could ensure that occurrence? The Chinese Communist Party.
[Still, you hope Friedman is right and you're wrong.... right? --ed. Well, in theory yes, but...... after reading this SPIRI paper on China's new foreign policy actors, I'm not so sure. The common thread in that paper is that the more pluralist actors were also the most nationalist. It's entirely possible that a freer China is also a more reckless China.]
Over the weekend I finally saw The Social Network and read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker essay about social networks. Both Gladwell and Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter for The Social Network, have their issues with futurists who embrace these technologies as the beginning of a social revolution.
Now I'm pretty sympathetic to these arguments. In the past, I've expressed a fair amount of ambivalence about the power of Internet technologies to transform the world. After reading the essay and watching the movie, however, I can't say I'm all that convinced by their theses.
Let's start with Gladwell, because it's the lesser of the two arguments. Gladwell contrasts the relationships and connections forged on Twitter/Facebook with real-world movements. He argues that the latter work when based on a hierarchical structure with strong ties among the participants. The former is based on a networked structure with weak ties. Therefore:
This sounds good, except this doesn't describe networks all that well. Networks eliminate neither hierarchical power nor strong ties -- they're simply expressed in different ways. Actors in central nodes, with lots of dynamic density among other actors, can command both power and discipline. Not all networks will look like this, but the ones successful at fomenting change will likely resemble it. To put it more precisely: social networks lower the transactions costs for creating both weak ties and strong ties, loose collaborations and more tightly integrated social movements.
It's not either/or, a point Oliver Willis raises:
Things bubble over to real world via social networking when influencers push the influenced to do something. Social networks tend to magnify this, and the web does give some of us who would never be real-life leaders a way of having some sway. I find it odd that Gladwell misses this, because this is the whole point of his bestseller The Tipping Point.
I’ve no doubt that getting your followers to do something in the real world is more complicated than getting them to retweet or “Like” something, but I don’t think the barrier to doing that is social networking’s distributed nature but rather the intensity of the network following you. But this is the same as in the real world. Network leaders need to have leadership skills no matter the medium.
The movie The Social Network was far more interesting. There is some controversy over what's been fictionalized, what's been mysoginized, and what's been left out of the film, and I'm sympathetic to some of these arguments. Taking what was intended to be on the screen, however, The Social Network also suggests the ways in which offline and online structures intersect. There were many reasons for Facebook's rise, but I have to think that the site's initial exculsivity helped to give it something that MySpace and Friendster lacked.
The film has many great moments (if Aaron Sorkin was meant to translate any real-life figure onto film, it was Larry Summers). Both the ending and Sorkin's interviews about the film, however, suggests that there's an emptiness at the core of Facebook that hollows out 21st-century friendships.
I don't buy this. Social networking sites giveth as much as they taketh away. Speaking from my own experience, I've found myself becoming closer with some friends and less close with others based on Facebook.
More generally, there seems to be a generational effect whenever a new social technology emerges. Different generations react in radically different ways:
1) The Mature Generation tends to disdain the technology as yet another example of the world going to hell in a handbasket.
2) For the Maturing Generation, the new technology is both a blessing and a curse. The adroit learn how to use the new technology to vault to social, political or economic heights that they would not have otherwise achieved. At the same time, a new technology without new social norms inevitably creates confusion about what is acceptable and what is taboo. Some people lose status as a result.
3) For the Youngest Generation, the technology isn't new by the time they come to use it. They're savvy in the ways that the technology is both an opportunity and a risk, and can navigate those waters without thinking too hard. For this generatioon, the social technology is part of the new normal.
Sorkin has demonstrated his Oldest Generation credentials since the "Lemon-Lyman" episode of The West Wing. Which is fine. But there are other generations out there, and they're not relating to these technologies the way that Sorkin thinks.
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One of my favorite passages of fiction comes from Douglas Adams' The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:
It is a curious fact, and one to which no one knows quite how much importance to attach, that something like 85% of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynnan tonnyx, or gee-N'N-T'N-ix, or jinond-o-nicks, or any one of a thousand or more variations on the same phonetic theme. The drinks themselves are not the same, and vary between the Sivolvian 'chinanto/mnigs' which is ordinary water served at slightly above room temperature, and the Gagrakackan 'tzjin-anthony-ks' which kill cows at a hundred paces; and in fact the one common factor between all of them, beyond the fact that the names sound the same, is that they were all invented and named before the worlds concerned made contact with any other worlds.
What can be made of this fact? It exists in total isolation. As far as any theory of structural linguistics is concerned it is right off the graph, and yet it persists. Old structural linguists get very angry when young structural linguists go on about it. Young structural linguists get deeply excited about it and stay up late at night convinced that they are very close to something of profound importance, and end up becoming old structural linguists before their time, getting very angry with the young ones. Structural linguistics is a bitterly divided and unhappy discipline, and a large number of its practitioners spend too many nights drowning their problems in Ouisghian Zodahs.
As someone in transition from being a young structural IR theorist to an old one, I've now seen enough to recognize when certain patterns begin to recur. For example, I've now read enough articles about the North Korea's Worker Party Congress to know the following:
1) This was a Very Big Deal
2) Kim Jong Il's family got some promotions
And after reading all of this, I can now state with confidence the following: no one knows exactly what the f*** is going to happen in North Korea once Kim Jong Il dies. There are plausible stories that can be spun any which way. But no one really knows.
I hereby encourage all young political scientists to get excited about this Party Congress and convince me that something very important and of profound significance was revealed in the past 48 hours.
The number of Russian tourists visiting countries outside the former Soviet Union grew to 7.1 million in 2006, the last year statistics were available, from 2.6 million in 1995, according to the Russian government. A record 2.5 million Russians visited Turkey in 2007, up 33 percent from 2006, Turkish officials said. Only Germany, that paragon of European wealth, sends more tourists to Turkey. (By contrast, in 1988, a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, all of 22,000 Soviet citizens visited Turkey.) The Russian tourism boom is happening as new low-cost airlines in Europe have spurred a sharp increase in tourism across the Continent. But for the Russians, the chance to travel is especially prized. For the first time in Russian history, wide swaths of the citizenry are being exposed to life in far-off lands, helping to ease a kind of insularity and parochialism that built up in the Soviet era. Back then, the public was not only prevented from going abroad; it was also inculcated with propaganda that the Soviet Union was unquestionably the world’s best country, so there was no need to leave anyway. People who desired foreign travel in Soviet times typically had to receive official approval, and if it was granted, they were closely chaperoned once they crossed the border. Even before they left, they often were sent to classes to be indoctrinated in how to behave and avoid the perils of foreign influence. Those who were not in good standing with the party had little chance of going.Many of the states that the United States thinks of as authoritarian -- Russia, China, Saudi Arabia -- are actually pretty open about letting their citizens live, travel and study abroad. This stands in sharp contrast to the totalitarian regimes of the former Warsaw Pact or Myanmar and North Korea today). Ibring this up because it highlights how unusual those communist regimes really were. Citizens trapped in both authoritarian and totalitarian societies face mortal risks in exercising voice as a means of political protest. Citizens trapped in totalitarian societies, however, can use exit -- migration -- as an additional means of registering discontent. In sufficient numbers, migration can be just as powerful as protest in promoting regime change. One of the triggers behind the collapse of East Germany was the creation of a quasi-legal escape route through Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the late summer of 1989. Over the next month, more than 1% of East Germany’s total population fled the country –putting tremendous pressure on the East German regime to change its ways. Zimbabwe is near collapse now in part because of the same problem. Clearly, what we currently label as authoritarian states are a different animal. People can leave -- indeed, in some cases I suspect these governments are happy to have political dissidents depart their shores. What's interesting is that many people -- not just those personally invested in these regimes -- leave and come back. This is new, and as a political scientist, I find it pretty interesting. As a foreign policy analyst, it suggests that the lessons drawn from how the Soviet model do not travel into the here and now all that well.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.