A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.


"Down With the Nihilists!" and "Love Thy Country"
"T.J. Ma." Chublic Opinion. (31 & 6 August 2015).

I was led to this blog by the recommendation of Kaiser Kuo and instantly knew that it needed to be on the blog roll. "T.J. Ma" writes a weekly report on issues of public debate and controversy in China, especially as argued on the internet. Mr. Ma has a remarkably good handle on the currents of Chinese public opinion, the ins and outs of China's national media, and the country's many political subcultures. The first of the two articles I highlight here--though I could have recommended many more--focuses on changing perceptions of the CPC and KMT's role in Second World War; the second is a deep dive into China's warring nationalist internet forums and their real world spillover.

"Old School Europeans Were Old School Thugs"
Razib Khan. Gene Expression. (19 August 2015).

The Jewish people have been critical in the development of a universal ethical monotheism in the West, part of the broader evolution away from the supernatural systems of the Bronze Age that occurred across the Axial Age. But the Hebrew Bible preserves within it a world far removed from the divine Logos, a God of law and morality. The angry and jealous sky god of the Hebrews also enjoins upon them genocide of other tribes. Though the Hebrew Bible is pregnant with the possibilities of religious ethical universalism, the voice of the prophets’ righteous indignation raw with rage alive in our age, and channeled through the gentler voices of Hillel and Jesus, it also is a record of a parochial and peculiar people, who wash their hands of their atrocity by attributing it to the capricious and vindictive will of their god. If Moses and Joshua did exist, they almost certainly would have more in common with the war-chiefs of early Neolithic Europe, 4,000 years before their time, than men such as Constantine, who 1,300 years later promulgated a universal religion for a universal empire.....

But as per Fisher’s model, mutants with deleterious consequences invite their own response. They are tamed and civilized by a scaffold of modifiers. The brutal gods which were but reflections of human vice and caprice were drafted in the service of primal human psychological impulses forged during the Paleolithic, reciprocity and egalitarianism arose against the background of brutality beyond imagining unleashed by the social dislocation that was a consequence of agricultural society. The men and women shaped by the Hebrew prophets and Christian Church Fathers, the rishis of the Upanishads and the Chinese sages, they are all closer to us 2,000 years later, then they were to their own forebears only a few hundred years earlier in their own past....

See Also: Christian Meyer, Christian Lohr, Detlef Gronenborn, and Kurt W. Alt, " The massacre mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals new insights into collective violence in Early Neolithic Central Europe", PNAS (July 2015).

Azar Gat, "Proving communal warfare among hunter-gatherers: The quasi-rousseauan error," Evolutionary Anthropology 24, iss. 3 (2015)

"Roadblocks to Computational Modeling and Theory Development in Strategy — and a Potential Way Forward"

Adam Elkus. Strategies of the Artificial. (2 September 2013).

Adam has assigned himself the daunting task of building computational models that perform strategic calculations similar to those Clausewitz wrote about. This means integrating a vast array of fields: classical strategic theory,  IR bargaining and game theoretic models, cognitive science and AI research, software engineering, organizational theory, and lots of mathematics. All together it is an impressive bit of research. This post--mostly a statement of the problems he wants to solve--shows how has managed how to integrate it all into one cohesive whole.

It is also a convincing explanation for why standard bargaining models are not enough to answer the most interesting questions in strategic theory. I strongly recommend it to readers interested in formal modeling of social systems.


"The Coddling of the American Mind."
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. The Atlantic. (September 2015).

See also: Kevin Carey, "The Fundamental Way Universities Are An Illusion,"The New York Times (23 July 2015).

"Aggregation and the New Regulation."
Ben Thompson. Stratechery. (19 August 2015). 

"@Hillary Clinton: How Does Your Student Debt Make You Feel? Tell Us in 3 Emojis or Less" 
Nathan Tankus. Naked Capitalism. (14 August 2015). 
...In other words, what matters is the emotions you or your children feel being educated, not concretely what they do for you. Notice that she says “America should be a place where those achievements are possible,” not that everyone should be guaranteed an education. In our current neoliberal order I guess it is hopelessly idealistic to think everyone should have a good education, it shouldn’t merely be “possible.”

What of her concrete proposals? They are as milquetoast as this ending summary implies. For existing student debt she thinks that the existing loans should be refinanced at current rates. In the future she says that the government shouldn’t profit from student loans. At first glance this is very appealing, but what does this mean in practical terms? In practice it means tying the interest rate on student loans to the interest rate on government bonds.

Since this rises and falls with federal reserve policy, such a policy would directly vary the affordability of college based on Fed decisions. This is lunacy from a public policy perspective. A major federal initiative that is profoundly changed by what unelected supposedly independent bureaucrats do is at best a bad one.


"Bill Bishop: The Exodus."
Kaiser Kuo, David Moeser, and Bill Bishop. Sinica. (1 September 2015). 

Bill Bishop's Sinocism Newsletter is universally regarded as the best China watching site on the internet. He is moving from Beijing to the States this month, and the folks at Sinica invited Mr. Bishop for one last discussion about China and China watchers. Bishop's pessimistic take on the future of Chinese-American relations is very close to my own view of the situation. 

"If We Don't Understand Both Sides of China's Balance Sheet, We Understand Neither" and "Do Market Forces Determine the Value of the RMB?"  
Michael Pettis. Chinese Financial Markets. (1 September & 18 August 2015).

"A Guide to Chinese Intelligence Operations."
Peter Mattis. War on the Rocks. (18 August 2015).

"Welcome to maternity Hotel California."
Benjamin Carlson. Rolling Stone. (19 August 2015).

Read Paper Republic
We at Paper Republic are a collective of literary translators, promoting new Chinese fiction in translation. Our new initiative, Read Paper Republic, is for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water.

Between 18th June 2015 and 16th June 2016, we are publishing a complete free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer, one per week for a year, 52 in total. Readers can browse them for free, on their computer, tablet or phone.

The Most Venerable Book (Shang Shu). 
Translation by Martin Palmer. New York: Penguin Books, 2014.

The Shang Shu or Shu Jing, usually translated as Book of Documents, is one of the Confucian "Five Classics," the central curriculum for Confucian thought during its first thousand years. It is also contains the few extant sources we have from the early Zhou period of Chinese history. I did not become aware of this translation of the Documents until this week; the last translation was done by James Legge in the 1890s. It is very exciting to see a newer version! 

"Oldest Koran Fragments Found at Birmingham University."
Sean Koughlan. BBC News. (22 July 2015).

"Biased samples yield biased results: What historical heights can teach us about past living standards"
Howard Bodenhorn, Timothy W. Guinnane, Thomas Mroz. VoxEU. (22 July 2015).

"The Hollow States of Islam."
"Lorenzo." Thinking Out Loud. (8 August 2015).
....Islam remained dominated by ruler-and-agents states where political processes and decision making were essentially entirely interior to the state apparatus.
Hence, until the late C19th, Islam never moved (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire, of which more below) beyond the fluid warlord states analogous to those of Christian Europe in the centuries immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. For example, there was continuously a state in Egypt; the FatimidAyyubid and Mamluk states from the Fatimid conquest in 969 to the Ottoman conquest in 1517. But the ruling dynasties, their soldiers and warriors were all overwhelmingly (and continually) foreign. There was a state in Egypt, but there was no Egyptian state.


"Scientists Replicated 100 Psychology Studies, and Fewer Than Half Got the Same Results."
Brian Handwerk.  Smithsonian. (27 August 2015).

"Is the Romantic-Sexual Kiss a Near Human Universal?"
William Jankowiak, Shelly Volsche, and Justin Garcia. American Anthropologist. (6 July 2015).


"Is This The End of Christianity in the Middle East?"
Eliza Griswold. New York Times Magazine. (22 July 2015).

This is a very compelling--heart rending even--account of Christianity's travails in the Near East.

"The Mystery of ISIS."
Anonymous. New York Review of Books. (13 August 2013).
The thinkers, tacticians, soldiers, and leaders of the movement we know as ISIS are not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous; regardless of whether their government is, as some argue, skillful, or as others imply, hapless, it is not delivering genuine economic growth or sustainable social justice. The theology, principles, and ethics of the ISIS leaders are neither robust nor defensible. Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast.

I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information. But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.

See also: Natasha Bertand, "Western leader: Links Between Turkey and ISIS Now Undeniable," Business Insider (28 July 2015).

Patrick Cockburn. "Turkey Duped the U.S., and ISIS Reaps the Rewards." The Telegraph. (30 August 2015).

Jacob Poushter, "The Turkish People Don't Look Favorably Upon The U.S., or Any Other Country Really," Pew Research Center: Fact Tank (31 October 2014).

"Pakistan's Strategic Shift is Pure Fiction."
Christine Fair. War on the Rocks. (13 August 2015).


"Thucydides on Policy, Strategy, and War Termination."
Karl Walling. Naval War Review 66, no. 4 (2013).

"Manea Interviews Galeotti on Hybrid War at SWJ."
Mark Safranski. Zenpundit (23 August 2015).

"Interview: Thinking About ISIS in Strategic Terms."
Robert C. Ford. Small Wars Journal (9 August 2015).
I specifically do not say “state” as a system of governance can be as small as a family or as large as a nation, with many variations, formal and informal, foreign and domestic. In fact, it is not inaccurate to look at the US policy of global leadership in the post-cold war era as the largest example of a “system of governance.” I find Clausewitz’s social trinity of “Government-Army-People” as a helpful simple model of a system. So long as one has leadership, enforcement, an affected population and some defined space where that leadership and enforcement is applied, one has a system of governance. So, I think we do not error when we apply our Clausewitzian instincts when we deal with political conflict between two or more such systems – but that doing so to a political conflict within a single system has proven to be a huge error over and over again, and counterproductive to resolving the root drivers of instability...


"How Complex Systems Fail."
Richard I Cook. Cognitive Technologies Laboratory (2000).

"The bachelor’s to Ph.D. STEM pipeline no longer leaks more women than men: a 30-year analysis"
 David Miller and Jonathan Wai. Frontiers in Psychology 6, iss. 27. (2015)


"Down the Rabbit Hole."
Scott Weingart. Scottbott. (12 July 2015).

On why you should never, ever, ever trust infographics passed around on Twitter... or included in national media publications. 

"Depends on What You Want" a review of The Masnavi, Book I
Abi-Ru Shirzan. Amazon.com. (9 August 2009).

This is my candidate for 'best review ever written for Amazon.com."

"This Video Proves That Every JPRG Has Exactly the Same Plot."
College Humor. (5 August 2015).


Ends and Means  

Posted by T. Greer in , ,

"The military’s purpose is not to kill people and break things. This idea is factually, historically, professionally, and philosophically wrong — and must itself be remorselessly killed and violently broken. This 11-word platitude has no place in modern society. To suggest the military’s purpose is to break and kill confuses purpose and task, ends with means."
--Major Matt Cavanaugh, "The Military's Purpose is Not to Kill and Break Things," War on the Rocks (26 August 2015

"So Nathaniel, tell me, what is it you do? All Miranda said is that it is something too techie for her to understand."

He smiled. 

"I reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small."

Confusion flashed across her face. 


"Well its not all I do!" he said, a little too quickly. "I also 'promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom' and help  'employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples'."

She thought about excusing herself then and there, but Miranda had worked so hard to pair the two off... she least had to at least give him shot.  

"That sounds so... interesting. How do you do it, exactly?"

"I work at the United Nations," he said, brightly, trying hard to impress. "That is part of their mission statement--it is in the preamble of the U.N. charter. I memorized it so I never forget the real purpose of my work."

"That's pretty impressive. So are you a diplomat then, or some kind of negotiator?"

His face dimmed. "No."

"What do you for the U.N. then?"

His eyes narrowed. "I told you: I reaffirm faith in the dignity and worth of the human person."

"Well yes, I believe you, I just want to understand how exactly you do that. I mean, it must be pretty cool. Are you a translator? Do you direct one of those global poverty reduction programs?"

"I..." He slouched. "I am in IT. A computer information systems manager."

"I have a friend who does that. He had to get an MS in IT, makes buckets now.  I am sure you must do fairly well for yourself too."

He gave a bland smile. "Enough to afford my apartment in Manhattan."

"But why not just come out and say it? Your job, I mean? Why all this 'dignity and worth' stuff?"

"Well, that is  what I do. This is why working IT for the U.N. is so rewarding--I know I am working for a greater cause. Not just for a buck, you know? Really if you think about it, all the troubleshooting and security updates  I do is just a means to an end. We should focus on ends of my efforts, not their means."

"That's admirable way of looking at your job. It explains why you are so enthusiastic." He beamed. "But... don't you think explaining your job this way is it a bit....silly?"

"No, I-"

"Wait, just here me out. I acknowledge that global peace is the purpose of what you do. But how you do that matters, right? How many thousands of people does the U.N. employ? They all are working towards the same general ends--or at least I like to think so. But they are all quite different from each other. One is a translator, another does field surveys, some are crisis mediators, and then there is you, working IT.  You could explain your job as "preserving world peace"--but so can they. And if that is true, if that is all there is too it, why bother with the distinctions at all? Why have information systems managers in the first place?"

"We are important! This is the 21st century. Without us-"

"Exactly!" she said, "You are important.  But it isn't just the end goals that makes you important. Your value comes from the actual work you do to accomplish them. The U.N. needs people to maintain their systems. They need IT experts. Only IT specialists can do what they need done. By describing yourself with all these lofty words about global ends and epochal goals, you devalue the unique part you play in making all that come to pass. You undersell yourself."

He looked down, brow furrowed. After a moment's silence he sighed, and said,"Maybe you are right... but people don't understand what really goes into this. You heard Miranda: "some techie job" is how she described it. Its not approachable. And sometimes...." he took a deep breath, "well its not exactly like techies are at the top of the social totem pole. You don't know what it is like, being tortured and teased for years. High school was a nightmare. College wasn't much better. I want to move past that."

 Again he went silent, this time staring over her shoulder. "Look," he said at last, "I don't know why I am telling you this, I just met you. But I don't want to be associated with all that... hate. I wished I would never be called 'nerd' ever again. I just want to leave all that behind."

She laughed.  "But you are a nerd! Please, don't get mad, please--don't leave," she said quickly as he rose out of his seat. "I think there is nothing wrong with it. Really, I don't. And you shouldn't either." 

He stared at her for a long while, shrugged, and moved to sit back down. "Does the United Nations need nerds?" she asked.


"You heard me: does the U.N. need nerds?"


"Then own it. You are a "nerd," and that is exactly what they need you to be in order to--how was it you said--'preserve the dignity of the human race?'

"Dignity and worth of the human person."

She grinned. "Yes, that. If being a nerdy computer systems manager is what the U.N. needs to reaffirm the dignity and worth of the human person, then why try to describe yourself in any other way?"

He didn't answer. He still looked rather morose. She didn't know what memories she had stirred up inside him, but they couldn't be as bad as hers."I think I can understand how you feel. I sometimes feel the same way about my job."

"What do you do?"

"I am a Marine." He looked surprised. "And if anyone else asks what me I do, I will say "I am a Marine.'" She added with a wink, "Unless of course they are from the Air Force, in which case I'll say "harder work than a zoomie like you ever thought possible."  

He didn't laugh.

"I could say," she continued, "that my job is 'to protect American interests,' or 'to implement American foreign policy,' or 'to make the world a better place.' It is just as true as your U.N. preamble quotes. But it is the same problem, isn't? Diplomats work to protect American interests. USAID officers implement American foreign policy. What person employed by the government doesn't try and make the world a better place? We all do. What matters is how we do it."

"And how do you do it?"

"You've heard  "every Marine is a rifleman," right? I don't think much more needs to be said. With a rifle."

 He contemplated this. "And if some bloke comes around and tries to state it as rudely and crudely as possible? "Your job is to kill and break things, you get paid to maim and destroy." What would you say?"

"What would I say? I would tell him that my job isn't to kill, break, main, or destroy things. My job is to kill, break, maim, and destroy things better than anyone else on the entire damn planet." 

She smiled again. "Especially those suckers in the U.S. Air Force."

To Taiwan  

Posted by T. Greer in ,

In four days I will be moving to Taipei. The last two weeks have been busy for me; I expect the next two will be equally hectic. This general state of business has prevented me from posting anything new here at the Stage. I expect to return to a regular posting schedule by the first week of September.

If any readers live in the Taipei area and would be interested in meeting up, please send a note to the e-mail address on the side-bar to the right. We can probably make it work.

Which Wars Are Most Important?  

Posted by T. Greer in ,

Kurz and Allison, "The Battle of Franklin," chromolithograph (1864).
Image source.

Not too long ago I listed "the conflicts discussed most in China's strategic literature and portrayed most often in contemporary Chinese pop culture." [1] Individual wars were included on the list because of their prominence in the historical memory of popular Chinese culture, or because they were (and still are) cited often when Chinese strategists need to cite a precedent or case study to prove their point. This was my list:
  • The Imjin War (also called the "Japanese Invasions of Korea," 1592-98)
  • The Second Sino-Japanese War (also called the War of Resistance Against Japan, the China-Japan War, or simply World War II, 1937-1945)

One could quibble with these bullets. The Opium Wars are not listed; given the many tears today's Chinese shed for the Gardens of Perfect Brightness, this may be a mistake. The many stories and battles from the Spring and Autumn (771-453 BC) and Warring States (453-211 BC) periods that are cited regularly in discussions of strategy are also omitted. These battles and stratagems are not presented in the original historical sources as full campaigns with operations that can be parsed and analyzed, but as individual episodes teaching some strategic or moral principle. It did not seem proper to include them. And of course, I ignored the wars fought outside of China, such as the First Gulf War, that have had an enormous impact on current Chinese strategic thinking. [EDIT: See my comments in the thread below on other Western wars often found in Chinese debates].

Yet overall I think this list is solid. If you want to understand how the Chinese think about war--either at the level of popular attitudes towards conflict or in the more sophisticated debates had among military men about strategy and diplomacy--a working knowledge of these wars will be useful. An American wishing to get inside the head of a Chinese strategist would find no better place to start than here. 

But what about the Chinese man who wishes to get inside the head of an American strategist? What wars would they need to study in order to understand popular American attitudes towards war or foreign policy, Western international relations or strategic theory, and contemporary debates in American policy circles? I suggest the list would look something like this:

  • The First and Second Indochina Wars (1946-1954; 1955-1975)
The ways in which these wars are used and remembered are not uniform. The Vietnam War and  World War II provide demagogues of all stripes with the simple metaphors they need to bludgeon their domestic opponents. All Americans with a university education recognize terms like "Munich" or "Pearl Harbor" instantly. In contrast, conflicts like the Boer Wars, the Malayan Emergency, and the First Indochina War are virtually unknown to the broader American public, but have been intensively studied and analyzed by defense analysts who sought to find lessons that could improve America's own counter-insurgency campaigns. The First World War and the Napoleonic Wars fall between these two extremes.

Which level of war is emphasized also varies from conflict to conflict. The tactics of the Hoplite armies that waged the Peloponnesian War are rarely referenced; if Thucydides is cited, it is for his insights on the political and grand-strategic levels of conflict. The antithesis to the Peloponnesian war is the Falklands Crisis, which is mostly studied and referenced when discussing naval tactics or operational art. The Civil War is the rare conflict (matched only by the Second World War) that has something for everyone. Its echoes ring strong in modern American pop culture and politics. Yet it has more than mass appeal: the American Civil War is subject to intense study by academics and professional strategists alike. These studies range in scale from assessments Lincoln's international diplomacy to  small unit leadership lessons gleaned from the Battle of Gettysburg. 

In sharp contrast to the Chinese list, the wars central to American strategic theory do not span the centuries.  With two exceptions, none occurred more than three hundred years ago. This should not be surprising. Western strategic theory is a much newer invention than its Chinese counterpart, and the American nation is less than two centuries old. The geographic distribution is more interesting. With the two conflicts from the ancient Mediterranean again excepted, either France, Great Britain, or the United States was involved in every war listed here. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these were wars waged by Americans. Interest in our own history at the expense of the history of others' is an ideological blinker that dims the brilliance of American strategic theory. However, this weakness is quite natural and likely inevitable. More telling are the conflicts from our own history that are missing from list: the War of 1812, the U.S.-Mexican War, and the myriad small campaigns with Native American tribes are rarely debated in American military circles, despite the trauma of the first and the epochal consequences of the latter two. 


[1] T. Greer, "The Chinese Strategic Tradition: A Research Program (II)," The Scholar's Stage (28 May 2015)

Chinese Journalism and Chinese Soft Power  

Posted by T. Greer in , ,

I was inspired to write this post by a recent episode of Sea Control (the Center For International and Maritime Security's podcast) that focused on the future of Chinese journalism and the role Xinhua News Agency plays in promoting Chinese soft power. Dean Cheng, senior research fellow for Asia policy at the Heritage Foundation, was the central guest of the show. Mr. Cheng is a fairly astute observer of Asian affairs; his thoughts here are worth listening to.  There are a few points I would like to add to his discussion.

Unlike many aspects of Chinese politics, there is a substantial body of reliable research on the way  Chinese information media works. This is particularly true for newspapers and news television programs, both of which have far larger number of consumers (proportionally speaking) than in America. We probably have a better understanding of how newspapers like People's Daily and Global Times work than we do any other national institution created or sponsored by the Chinese state. We can thank the good work of social scientists like Daniela Stockmann and Maria Repnikova for this. A lot of what follows is the distillation or application of ideas and conclusions they expressed in earlier presentations, articles, and books.

A screen shot of the Global Time's Chinese web page

1. The most important thing to understand about the Chinese press is that the majority of Chinese newspapers are commercialized entities. Commercialization is not privatization. "Official" Party papers are of course owned by the Party, but even nonofficial papers are not allowed to let more than 49% of their ownership pass into private hands. Likewise, every paper, official or otherwise, cannot publish without an official sponsor. The position of sponsor determines the possible distribution of the paper.  For example, the People's Daily and the Global Times, which are sold across China, are sponsored by the Central Propaganda Department under the CPC Central Committee. Local papers with more limited distribution--say, the Hainan Daily or the Yangtze Evening Post--would be sponsored by the Propaganda Department under supervision of the CPC committee at the provincial or municipal level. 

When I describe the Chinese press as "commercialized," therefore, I do not mean that it is completely privatized, or that it is free from government regulation and interference.  Rather, I mean that Chinese newspapers must respond to market incentives to stay solvent. The majority of Chinese newspapers were stripped of state economic support two decades ago. Most of these make their money today through selling advertisement space. If they fail to turn a profit they will be closed down. Official papers (sometimes described as "Party mouthpieces") like the People's Daily are a bit sheltered from these pressures--while they are still expected to be profitable, everyone in the business knows that the Party unit responsible for them would not allow them to pass out of circulation unless it was facing bankruptcy itself. Because the non-official (sometimes described by China-hands as 'tabloid') newspaper business is quite lucrative, many media outlets that produce party papers will also publish non-official, purely-for-profit papers on the side. This is the story behind The Global Times,  which is published by the People's Daily Newspaper Group as a non-official money making machine.

This has had a predictable effect on media content. Chinese newspapers are now in strict competition with each other to grab most readers. This means writing the kinds of articles that grab the attention of the masses: the more lurid, titillating, sensational, or nationalistic, the better. Even the distinguished Xinhua News Service is not immune from this sort of thing. I couldn't help but chuckle when the podcast host Scott Peters worried whether or not the American press corps' obsession with non-stories like Kim Kardashian and Bruce/Catelynn Jenner would give it a strategic advantage in the contest to control global media narratives. My guess is Mr. Peters doesn't read Xinhua too often. If I had few dollars every time Xinhua placed a photo collage like "Beautiful Female Soldiers From All Over the World," "Singer Valen Hsu Poses For Fashion Shots," "Sleeping Babies With Their Cutest Pets," on their front page, I would be able to buy my own copy of Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States instead of searching fruitlessly for a library that can lend it to me.

2. The Chinese state and the Chinese press should be understood as two parts of single system.  Most Westerners are familiar with the way authoritarian states use media outlets to spread propaganda or telegraph its position on controversial issues to citizens and interest groups. Just as important, however, is the way the media is used by citizens and interest groups to communicate to state leaders. This is particularly important for avoiding the bane of all authoritarian systems--a danger Ronald Wintrobe called the "Dictator's Dilemma." The dilemma works as follows: Dictators want to know the effectiveness of their policies and the popularity of their decisions. If they cannot get this information, they will be unprepared for the consequences of discontent: unrest, rebellion, coups, and the like. The problem is that those who might inform the dictator (or his agents) of the truth face powerful incentives to hide it. The more control a dictator has over the country, the more vulnerable he is to disinformation. Surmounting this challenge can be very difficult. The horrors of the Great Leap Forward (and Mao's subsequent fall from grace) are a testament to what happens when a dictator fails to do so.

China's press corp provides one path out of the dilemma. They do this in two ways. The first is investigative reporting, something the Chinese state encourages as long as it is kept within certain bounds. In this China's media system is quite different from that of Russia and many other authoritarian states. The Russian state tries to isolate and bully those reporters which oppose it, doing all in its power to convince dissidents that their cause is hopeless. The Chinese, in contrast, strive to co-opt those critical of the state. The CPC gives reporters a large space in which they are free to report, and allows them to work in that space with little interference as long as they do not question the legitimacy of the CPC itself. In some cases--say, local corruption--reporters are encouraged to uncover and denounce with abandon. This allows Chinese reporters to feel like they are playing a positive role in improving Chinese society and China's government. They feel this way because they are playing a positive role--their reporting opens a window Party leaders can look through to glimpse the concerns and troubles of the Chinese people and craft policies that respond to what they see.

Normal, non-investigative reporting also helps the government keep a finger on the pulse of popular opinion. Remember that Chinese newspapers must make money to survive. This means they face immense pressure to pander to their audience and present the news of the day in the fashion their readers will find most palatable. On issues of international controversy, this means a more strident, nationalistic line than appears in government outlets. This is one of the more consistent findings of Daniela Stockmann's research over  the last decade: official papers, like the People's Daily,  present disputes with Japan, the United States, etc. in softer terms than more commercialized papers like the Global Times. This holds true both at the national level (People's Daily vs. Global Times), but also with smaller local papers like the Chongqing News and the Chongqing Evening News.

This should inform our approach to the Global Times and its fiery reporting. Chinese censors rarely tell reporters or columnists what to write. Instead, they tell them what they can't write. This usually means a blanket ban on a particularly sensitive topic, or instructions not to write too sharply about a given issue. Non-official papers play a game of fine distinctions, trying to write as sensationally as possible without stepping over the boundaries the state has set to keep things under control. So when the Global Times erupts into another one of its characteristic anti-Tokyo tirades, their stance should be understood as the upper limit of indignation the Party can prudently allow national outlets to print.

Xinhua plays a unique role in this system. Because Xinhua is supported by state funds it can afford to be a bit more measured than commercial papers like the Global Times. But Xinhua  is more conservative than most state outlets. This is because so many of its wires are used by other Chinese papers for their foreign reporting. Indeed, whenever a sensitive international issue arises that Chinese leaders fear might spark domestic instability, newspapers across China are ordered to stop independent reporting on the issue and reprint Xinhua dispatches verbatim. A good measure of how sensitive the Party considers a given international issue at a given time is the percentage of articles published by non-official outlets that were really just Xinhua reprints!

Thus while Cheng is right to note in his discussion on the podcast that Xinhua has three potential audiences (the people of China, countries with which China competes, and third parties who are not on either side), at the moment Xinhua's most important audience is certainly the domestic one.

3. But will this always be so?

Let me share a story. During the first week of 2014 Cambodia was rocked by a series of protests against the ruling Cambodia People's Party and its strong-man, Hun Sen. I speak Khmer and have several close friends in Phnom Penh so I followed the story quite closely. The easiest and most reliable source of information were the Twitter and Facebook feeds of those participating. Both those were often in Khmer, which (especially when politics is being discussed) requires great effort on my part to translate. There was no reliable and steady stream of updates in English... except from Xinhua.* That whole week Xinhua's English website was the first page I visited everyday. I used it to help prioritize the flood of materials coming in Khmer and decide which ones were worth translating. I doubt the Chinese reporters on the ground knew it, but they were shaping my perception of events far more than any Western outlet had been able to do.

Cheng describes a fairly similar process happening in Africa. He notes that Xinhua now has more reporters and bureaus on the African continent than AP, Reuters, and AFP combined. For many countries Xinhua will not just have the first shoes on the ground: they will have the only shoes on the ground. But does this really help Chinese soft power?

I am skeptical. The best case scenario is that Xinhua gains the respect held by the big three, and newspapers outside of China begin reprinting its wires as they do dispatches from Reuters or AFP. This sounds entirely plausible to me. Xinhua's reporting is usually top notch. As long as the topic isn't about China, I often prefer it to the wire reports of more famous services. But it is not difficult to see the limitations of using a news agency as an instrument of international soft power. Like Cambodia's 2014 protests, most of the issues these reporters will cover will have nothing to do with China and its rivalry with the United States, Japan, or smaller regional powers in Southeast Asia. The places and events where "shaping the narrative" matter most will be the places and events that draw droves of reporters from other countries. Expanding Xinhua's global presence will have little effect on how China's rivals or important third party observers will think about China's actions on the world stage.

Xinhua's global expansion will help China in a different way. Turn to America to understand why. Every few months some professor or think tank fellow writes up another article despairing the shrinking number of Americans with expertise in foreign cultures, or the small number of Americans studying obscure languages. They rightly point out that the small number of Americans with this sort of knowledge puts the United States at a strategic disadvantage. (Right now I am sure the United States wishes it had more people available who speak Kurdish or could navigate the details of Syrian tribal politics). What these articles never discuss are the economic incentives that keep Americans away from studying foreign languages and cultures. In economic terms it simply isn't worth it: companies that need bilingual individuals or specialists with knowledge in local cultures can always find a local who speaks the language in question as their native tongue. This person is  quite likely to speak English as good as any American; they will also work for much less than most Americans. Government work is little better. Demand for regional specialists varies too sharply from one crisis to another to commit one's career to expertise in an obscure region or culture. 

Mandarin is not the global lingua franca, so the economics of area expertise are not quite as severe for the Chinese. But Beijing faces a similar problem. Like the United States, China will be at a disadvantage if it does not have a pool of citizens familiar with the languages and cultures of the countries they deal with. By subsiding a vast assembly of reporters stationed all over the world in an era when other news agencies are shrinking, the CPC is making an investment in its human capital. Whether this investment will help China better achieve its national interests is yet to be seen. 


Daniela Stockmann, Media Commercialization and Authoritarian Rule in China (Communication, Society and Politics) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

       ———, “Race to the Bottom: Media Marketization and Increasing Negativity Toward the United States in China,” Political Communication 28, iss 3 (August 2011), 268-290.

      ———, “Who Believes Propaganda? Media Effects during the Anti-Japanese Protests in Beijing,” The China Quarterly 202 (June 2010), 269-289. 

See also: Ms. Stockmann's excellent interview for the Sinica podcast.

Maria Repnikova, "Media Oversight in Non-Democratic Regimes: The Perspectives of Officials and Journalists in China," Project for Advanced Research in Global Communication Paper 3 (April 2015).

       ———, “Limited Political Liberalisation in Authoritarian Regimes: Critical Journalists and the State in China.” PhD Dissertation, University of Oxford (2013).

      ———, "Chinese Journalists Are No Revolutionaries," Wall Street Journal (15 January 2013).

Jonathan Hassid, “Four Models of the Fourth Estate: A Typology of Contemporary Chinese Journalists," The China Quarterly 208 (2011), 813–32.

*This isn't quite true--the Cambodia Daily is a fine English newspaper based out of Phnom Penh that published even more material than Xinhua did. However, Cambodia Daily has a limit on the number of articles you can read without paying, and given the week's events I hit that limit quickly.