05 June, 2019

It Is Not Like That Black Mirror Episode

Last month the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Intelligence held a public hearing on Chinese influence activities and the risks of a global Chinese-led technological regime. I found the prepared statements by Samantha Hoffman and by Peter Mattis to be particularly valuable, and both are good resources for understanding why this issue is important. One of the themes that unites both of their testimonies is the preemptive nature of the Party's internal threat model. Party leaders do not want to manage risks; they want to preemptively eliminate risks before they bloom into a crisis. A great of the Party's behavior, both inside its borders and outside, start to make sense when you understand it through this lens.

I invite you to read their statements in full. In this post I want to focus on the actual hearing itself. The discussion was wide ranging, but there were two moments in particular that are worth plucking and presenting here for future reference. Both have to do with the broader issues raised by the social credit system, Chinese "smart cities," and the expansion of Chinese digital infrastructure. To quote:

REP. TURNER:
And pause for a moment. Let me ask you about that. So I participated in the House Government Oversight's hearings with respect to the OPM breach where it is alleged Chinese hackers came in and stole over 4 million individuals' pieces of data, clearly an attempt to expand its reach into the United States. And perhaps, Dr. Hoffman and Mr. Mattis, you could talk about that effect on the authoritarian regime's reach into the United States. 
 MR. MATTIS:
So the important piece of this is that -- and it goes to Dr. Hoffman's point -- that this doesn't change party policy. It amplifies their capacity to execute it. And if you look at China's intelligence collection going back decades, you see a focused effort on retired officials, and talking with retired officials. Because they don't have the same security briefings, they don't have the same background checks, they can speak much more freely. And a lot of the questions that get put to them are essentially building a roadmap. 
 And OPM is not unique. You have the effort to go after Anthem, which handles a lot of Federal employees' health data. The attack on United. In Taiwan, there have been a lot of focused attacks on district databases, and these are databases that everyone has to register in. For example, my daughter, who was born in Taiwan, had to be registered in them so that she could get her immunizations. And because there are certain parts of Taipei and other cities where there are government-owned apartment buildings and others, you know which databases are going to have a lot of government employees for the Ministry of National Defense, the National Security Bureau, many others. And so instead of just interviewing officials or going on exchanges, they are able to break into the databases and get all of that on their own. And when you put those pieces together and you bring them along with the delegations and the other forms of contact, you can actually get a pretty good idea of how to shape U.S. policy and how the different social relationships in the U.S. function when it comes to the making of China policy.
 MS. HOFFMAN: 
 And I suspect that eventually -- part of what something like the social credit system is supposed to do is it is really about integrating data, and you assign individuals a code where records are made. It is not the Black Mirror episode where people have numbers that are going up and down based on a social interaction happening in real time. It is more that part of the system is this unified social credit code. And you have those for companies. So the airlines case last year, for instance, each airline would, according to Chinese law, by January 1 last year have to have updated their business registration to have a unified social credit code attached to it. And the same with entities, other organizations and people will have unified social credit codes. And then there is a central government database and also provincial databases where you can use those codes to look up a person or entity's record.  
I strongly suspect, based on some various things that I have been reading, that that could extend overseas, particularly to overseas Chinese, certainly overseas Chinese who plan to return to China. The MPS is reportedly, according to a government document that I came across, developing codes for those individuals, the ones that are returning to China, as well as overseas Chinese federations based in China which also have overseas branches. So then the question is, in the long term how will this information, which right now is probably incredibly dense and difficult to go through, eventually be organized to become more useful? I think right now that is hard to see, but I think we need to have the imagination to think what could be possible in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years from now (emphasis added).[1]
I think this is a useful way to understand many of the digital initiatives that the Party is pursuing. Many forecasts for where the social credit system is heading focus on the automation of control. Perhaps, as Hoffman suggests here, they are more about making an ever larger part of private activity legible to the government. That does not diminish the potential of these systems--if you've read anything by James Scott, you know that simply making behavior legible has a powerful effect on the way decisions are made and societies are shaped. [2] But it does put us on firmer footing to understand why the Party has been enthusiastic about implementing these systems since the early 2000s, long before the technology existed to do so.

The limits of this system will be defined less by technology than with politics. To quote a different exchange:

REP. HECK:
 Dr. Hoffman, you said something earlier that I thought was very provocative -- I hope I wrote this down correctly -- regarding social credit: Over the long term, I don't know how successful it will be. Gosh, you have to say another couple of words about what doubt you are casting over the efficacy of this approach long term. 
MS. HOFFMAN:
The doubt is more that social credit is a technology-enhanced form of what the Chinese Communist Party has been doing for decades. Sometimes you will read that social credit is an electronic version of an individual record system or an electronic version of an individual black listing -- or a black listing system. And those are elements of social credit, but what social credit really is is the automation of what the Chinese Communist Party -- and sorry for using the term that they use -- it is called social management. And social management is something that the party has always been engaged in, but the problem with that is really the contestation for power within the party. You know, we often talk about power as if it is the Chinese Communist Party's power over society, and we miss the dimension that you are also talking about the contestation for power within the party. And I think that is the number one -- 
REP. HECK:
I have no idea what you just said.
MS. HOFFMAN:    
Okay. Sorry. 
REP. HECK:
The question is, you cast doubt as to whether or not it will succeed.
MS. HOFFMAN: 
Yeah. 
REP. HECK:
Why may it not succeed? 
MS. HOFFMAN:
 It is the problem that you always have to overcome the fact that there are going to be officials who are trying to stake their claim for power. 
REP. HECK:
 Internal power struggle within? 
 MS. HOFFMAN:
 Internal within the CCP. And that is always recurring. Every generation has a major political crisis. And even if you look back, now we are heading to the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, and you look back at those documents and you see that it took two weeks, just over two weeks to implement martial law. Deng Xiaoping had to go around to each individual military region to demand that the military step up. Falun Gong in 1999 involved using early electronic resources to organize a protest in front of the government headquarters in Beijing. So you always have this happening. The leadership transition now, there was an alleged coup attempt -- or in 2013 -- alleged coup attempt. So you have that happening. 
And what social credit relies on, and the reason that I say that this power dynamic is important, is it relies on the integration of resources, government agencies cooperating, and not only government agencies, but also the various levels of government cooperating to some extent. Incrementally, the party has been trying to improve data sharing and information sharing for many years and decades, and that is a long-term process and it is not ending. So social credit isn't going to be constructed by 2020. There is an objective to meet certain points by 2020. Now, if social credit -- 
REP. HECK:
 What factors, if any, are limiting the velocity of dissemination? 
MS. HOFFMAN:
 Sorry? 
REP. HECK:
 They say they want to get this done by 2020. You just seemed to imply that they are not going to get it done by 2020. What is limiting them? 
MS. HOFFMAN:
Yes. 
 So 2020 isn't the goal. There is a document, 2014 to 2020 construction of the social credit system, and that is more like a 5-year plan where within this period of time we have these objectives, that we are going to work on meeting these particular standards. But the way the party describes it itself, social credit, is that it is an unending process. Social credit is never going to be complete. That all being said -- 
REP. HECK:
 Well, put another way, what is limiting them from having smart cities in all major cities sooner rather than later? 
MS. HOFFMAN:
 The technology has to catch up with the ideas. That is one thing. But then the other thing that I want to say is, even if these systems aren't completely effective, it doesn't mean that they aren't going to achieve some incremental results.
The more people feel like they are being judged or the more they feel like every part of their life is connected to the system. So if you have all of your records being put into one place and you know that the consequences could be more far-reaching, it is not that that is a new concept, but technology increases. It will eventually increase the effectiveness of that. And then it is also the idea that it can be effective. So then you are changing how you behave. But I don't think that ultimately the CCP will be able to completely normalize people according to their version of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and that is what the goal is. 
REP. HECK:
 Thank you.[3]

Representative Heck narrows in on power struggles and coups, and the question of internal power struggles occupies a great deal of the committee's focus in the questions that follow. My version of the problem Hoffman describes is more prosaic. It is not hard to imagine old-fashioned bureaucratic competition over who gets to steward what data not altogether different from the sort of bureaucratic stove-piping and infighting seen in the U.S. intelligence community (especially before 9-11). To get a sense for why this is a plausible outcome, readers will want to go back to my earlier writing on the Belt and Road Initiative, which had degraded into a wild, uncoordinated feeding frenzy as a mass of SOEs, local governments, and various bureaucracies tried to divert funding to their pet projects by branding everything they did as part of the Initiative.[4] Many agencies and enterprises adopted projects that worked at cross purposes with each other. Given the profits that will come from the digital surveillance market, it is easy to imagine a similar fiasco in the realm of 'social management.'

The difference between the Belt and Road and social management, however, is that social management directly touches on the core interests of the Party. They survive or they die based off of what they do here. The Party leadership has a strong motivation to get this right. That might lead to more effective centralization and integration than we see in the economic sphere.

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If you found this post on China's security politics useful, you might also find the posts "Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy," "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II and "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] U.S. House of Representatives,Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, "Digital Authoritarianism: Surveillance, Influence, and Political Control," hearing transcript (uploaded 17 May 2019).


[2] This theme runs through all of Scott's work, but it is expressed most forcibly in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed (New haven: Yale University Press, 1998). More concise explications of  his concepts can be found here and here.

[3] Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, "Digital Authoritarianism,"

[4] Tanner Greer, "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road," Scholar's Stage (8 May 2019); "One Belt, One Road, One Big Mistake," Foreign Policy (6 December 2018).

02 June, 2019

Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy

Illustration by Craig Stephens (2017)
Image Source
Two months ago Qiushi, the central "theory" journal of the Communist Party of China, published a speech originally given by Xi Jinping several days after he was named General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. The speech is Xi's attempt to answer questions that are smack-dab in the center of the Party's current problems: why does the Communist Party exist? What is 'socialist' about socialism with Chinese characteristics? What should the Party's attitude towards its Maoist history be? Is China in an ideological competition with the Western world, or not?

The minute I read it, I realized it needed to be translated into English.Yesterday Palladium Magazine published my translation of the speech and an introduction I wrote to contextualize it.  From my introduction to the piece:
One of the most striking aspects of this speech is the language Xi Jinping invokes: party members must have “faith” (xìnyǎng) in the eventual victory of socialism; proper communists must be “devout” (qiánchéng) in their work; and Party members must be prepared to “sacrifice” (xīshēng) everything, up to their own blood, for revolutionary “ideals that reach higher than heaven” (gémìng lǐxiǎng gāo yú tiān). 
Behind this religiously charged language is a man deeply worried that the cadres of his generation are not prepared to make the sort of sacrifices their parents and grandparents did for China’s revolutionary cause. Xi’s verdict is that such people do not have enough faith in the “eventual demise of capitalism and the ultimate victory of socialism.” Their “views lack a firm grounding in historical materialism,” leading them to doubt that “socialism is bound to win.” This has practical consequences. The cadre without communist convictions will act “hedonistically” and “self-interestedly.” Worst of all, he might begin to believe “false arguments that we should abandon socialism” altogether. 
For Xi, this would be a grave betrayal of the Party’s heritage. The Communist Party of China is tasked with “building a socialism that is superior to capitalism” whose economic and technological prowess will give it “the dominant position” in world affairs. And though Xi asserts that this is inevitable, “the road will be tortuous.” Party members must fiercely fend off ideological attacks on socialism with Chinese characteristics. The most pressing ideological problems identified in this speech are two ‘false arguments:’ First, that the mass death, cruelty, and poverty of Maoist China undermines the credibility of the Party leadership today, and second, that socialism with Chinese characteristics is not really socialism at all. 
More significant than Xi’s use of Marxist theory to justify any particular policy is his conviction that he leads an ideological-political system distinct from that of the capitalist world. Threats to this system are not framed in military or economic terms, but ideological ones. The Soviet Union fell, he declares, “because ideological competition is fierce.” If the faith of its cadres remains fervent, Xi believes his Party will succeed where the Soviet Union could not.  [2]
I encourage you to go and read the full thing. Based off of reactions on twitter, this has been an eye opening document for many. It was less eye opening for me, for I am about halfway through Xi Jinping's two-volume Governance of China, and he repeats many of the same themes throughout that work. The difference is though is that in Governance these ideas are spread about his speeches a bit haphazardly--a paragraph here, a paragraph there, and then another paragraph five pages down the line. They are also often translated in a way which downplays the explicitly Maoist and Stalinist terminology that Xi is fond of using. This speech, in contrast, is a very concentrated dose of Xi's communist convictions.

One thing which I did not emphasize in the introduction I typed up, but probably should have, is the intended audience for this document. The original speech was given behind closed doors to the Central Committee; this version, which may or may not be the same as the original, was published in the Party's main theory journal. The average Chinese does not read Qiushi. Cadres read Qiushi. This speech is not intended to persuade the masses but to instruct and guide Party leadership. One practical consequence of this is that some passages are difficult and boring to read. Xi slips easily into sloganeering, replacing coherent thought with a stream of sloganized summaries of policy platforms and institutional arrangements of China's party-state. I think Timothy Heath has offered the clearest explanation for why the Party leadership does this when they speak:
[In the Chinese theory system there are many] specialized concepts designed specifically to drive policy on very specific issues. For example, “socialist harmonious society.” There’s a major strategic concept. It is a very important term that the Chinese identified as an ideal that had the Marxist vetting and was grounded in Marxist theory needed to­­­­­ allow their bureaucrats to develop policy to address social welfare issues: healthcare, retirement, education. That’s all wrapped up in this word ‘socialist harmonious society.’ It is designed primarily for bureaucrats, officials and decision makers. It is not really designed to mobilize the people. In fact most people ridicule, deride, and make fun of these archaic sounding Marxist concepts. But here is the thing: the Communist Party does not really care all that much. What they really care about is that their officials get it. That they understand what to do with these concepts, how to develop them into policies, and how to implement them. That is really where a lot of the CPC’s energy is focused on today. Informing the bureaucratic elite instead of mobilizing the entire people.[3]
When Xi speaks to non-Party audiences, especially foreign ones, he goes lighter on the slogans and heavier on allusions to classical sources. (I also suppose you will not hear Xi talking much at Davos about the ultimate defeat of the capitalist system either!)

There is still a lot to be done in this space. In the future I hope to tie together the things you read in this speech with other things Xi has said in interviews, other speeches, and other documents of note. Nor is Xi alone in this story—the importance of China's revolutionary heritage matters to many of the Party's current leaders. By and large it was their parents who made revolutionary China possible. It is naive to think that this has no bearing on their children's ideological commitments today.


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If you found this post on China's political ideology useful, you might also find the posts "Where is the Communism in the Communist Party of China?" and "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] 习近平 [Xi Jinping], "关于坚持与发展中国特色社会主义的几个问题 [Concerning Some Issues in Upholding and Developing Socialism with Chinese Characteristics]," Qiushi, (1 April 2019)

[2] Tanner Greer, trans. and introduction, "Xi Jinping In Translation: China’s Guiding Ideology," Palladium Magazine (31 May 2019)

[3] Timothy Heath, “China’s New Governing Party Paradigm,” speech at the USC U.S.-China Institute," youtube video (uploaded 19 Feb 2015).

26 May, 2019

How to Save the (Institutional) Humanities

The large majority of our fellow-citizens care as much about literature as they care about aeroplanes or the programme of the Legislature. They do not ignore it; they are not quite indifferent to it. But their interest in it is faint and perfunctory; or, if their interest happens to be violent, it is spasmodic. Ask the two hundred thousand persons whose enthusiasm made the vogue of a popular novel ten years ago what they think of that novel now, and you will gather that they have utterly forgotten it, and that they would no more dream of reading it again than of reading Bishop Stubbs’s Select Charters.
 — Arnold Bennet, Literary Taste (1907)

Humanities departments are not doomed to oblivion. They might deserve oblivion, but they are not doomed to it. This post is going to suggest one relatively painless institutional fix that has the potential to dam the floods up before they sweep the entire profession away.

I am prompted to write this post up because another series of articles on the "death of the humanities" has been making its way across the internet. The article that started this round is written by Andrew Kay, who has a PhD in English literature from UW-Madison. The imagery he uses is fantastical. Here is his impression of the MLA:

How can I conjure MLA 2019 for you?

Have you ever seen that viral picture from 2017 of a party of Oregon golfers calmly putting while, in the near distance, a wildfire consumes the landscape? Trees blacken; smoke, pinkish-gray, shrouds everything in impasto blots; nature itself seems to creak, groan, and at last give way. But the golfers go blithely on. The conversion of this Edenic place into Dantean incandescence won’t interfere with the genteel game they know and love — or, if it will, they are determined to get in one last round before the region is razed. “Eye on the ball, Chet!” one can hear them saying. “Not on the cataclysm!”

Thus MLA 2019.[1]
You can read the whole thing here. It is self-absorbed and at times a tad on the silly side, but broadly correct in the picture of the academy it offers. The article caused a great ruckus — enough to cause a cabal of tenured lit-studies doyens to write up a response, accusing Kay of terrible sexism. If Kay's narrative is a tad silly, their response is nothing but. Its only redeeming feature is that it inspired Anastasia Berg to pen her own rebuttal to their rebuttal. Berg's counter-rebuttal is the finest thing you will read this week. Really, go read it. Wesley Yang called it a "masterclass in methodical annihilation."  I will call it the most satisfying bit of criticism I have read this year. [2]

I don't really have a dog in this fight. Most of us don't. And that is the central problem with every piece of this type. "The humanities" are not the same thing as humanities departments in American universities. Literature, history, philosophy, and even literary criticism preceded the American university system. They will continue long after the American university system is gone. Arnold Bennet  Hazlitt did not have tenure. Duan Yucai did not have a 2-3 teaching bloc. Emily Dickinson never went to college at all. As long as there is, in Arnold Bennet's words, a "passionate few... [who] enjoy literature as some men enjoy beer," then these things will persist into the future.[3]

Confusing a subject with the narrow band of institutions currently devoted to credentializing those who study it clouds our thinking. The collapse of humanity departments on university campuses is a best an indirect signal of the health of the humanities overall. At times the focus on the former distracts us from real problems facing the latter. The death of professorships in poetry is far less alarming than American societies' rejection of poetry writ large. In as much as the creeping reach of the academy has contributed to poetry's fall from popular acclaim, the collapse of graduate programs in literature and creative writing may be a necessary precondition for its survival.

Academics don't want to hear this, of course. But the truth is that few academics place "truth," "beauty," or "intersectional justice" at the top of their personal hierarchy of values. The motivating drive of the American academic is bourgeois respectability. The academic wants to continue excelling in the same sort of tasks they have excelled in since they were 10 years old, and want to be respected for it. The person truely committed to the humanist impulse would be ready pack things up and head into the woods with Tao Qian and Thoreau. But that is not what academia is for. Academia is a quest for status and certitude.

If pondering on these things you still feel the edifice is worth preserving, then I am here to tell you that this possible. The solution I endorse is neat in its elegance, powerful in its simplicity. It won't bring the halcyon days of the '70s of back, but it will divert enough students into humanities programs to make them somewhat sustainable.

A few years after I graduated my alma mater decided to overhaul their generals program. After much contentious wrangling over what students should or should be forced to study, the faculty tasked with developing the general curriculum settled on an elegant compromise: there would be no generals. Except for a basic primer course in mathematics and writing, general credit requirements were jettisoned entirely. Instead, faculty made a list of all majors, minors, and certificates offered at the university, and placed each into one of three categories: science and mathematics, the humanities, and professional skills.

From this point forward all students would be required to gain a separate qualification in each of the three categories.

A selection of majors, minors, and certificates available at BYU-Hawaii.

Getting three separate majors in four years is beyond almost all students. But some students might pull off a double major and a certificate. Even more manage one major paired with double minors. Some settle for two certificates, while some will do one minor, one major, and one certificate a piece.

The list above —which is by all means not a comprehensive listing of every major, minor, or certificate offered by the institution — gives you an idea what some of these combinations might look like.

The logic of this system impresses me. From the vantage of actually imparting knowledge to students, this system is superior to the way things are normally done, with students taking one course in this and one course in that until their generals and elective requirements are filled up. Many love the sense of freedom this gives them, but the problems are obvious. An education determined by the whims of curiosity is an education that teaches nothing much at all. Better to learn a few things well than many things not at all.

"Many things not at all" is what the current system teaches. The structure of generals and elective courses struggles to produce any other outcome. Learning something well depends on a cumulative process of practice and recall. Memories not used soon fade; methods not refined soon dull; facts not marshaled are soon forgotten. I remember the three credits I took in Oceanography as a grand experience (not least for field lab at the beach), but years later I find I cannot recall anything I was tested on. And why would I? After that class was over the information I learned was never used in any of the other classes I took.

This sounds like an argument against learning anything but one carefully selected major. That takes things a step too far. There is a benefit to having expertise in more than one domain. I am reminded of Scott Adam's "top 25%" principle, which I first found in Marc Andreeson's guide to career planning:
If you want an average successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths:

Become the best at one specific thing.
Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things. 
The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

....Get a degree in business on top of your engineering degree, law degree, medical degree, science degree, or whatever. Suddenly you’re in charge, or maybe you’re starting your own company using your combined knowledge.

Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty goods” until no one else has your mix...

It sounds like generic advice, but you’d be hard pressed to find any successful person who didn’t have about three skills in the top 25%. [4]

To this I would add a more general statement about the purpose of a university education. In my days as a teacher in history and literature, I used to give a lecture to the Chinese students I had helped prepare for American university life. This lecture would touch on many things. This was one of them. I would usually say something close to this:
Students who go to America usually fall into one of two groups. The first group is focused like a laser beam on grinding through coursework that will easily open up a new career to them upon graduation. You will know the type when you see them--they will be carrying around four books on accounting or chemical engineering, and will constantly be fretting over whether their GPA is high enough for them to land an internship with Amazon. In many ways those students will spend their university years doing the exact same thing they are doing now: jumping through one hoop after another to get good grades and secure what they hope will be a good future. 
On the other hand, you have many students who arrive in America and immediately devote themselves to the pleasures they could not chase at home. These students jump at the obscure class in 19th century French poetry, glorying in their newfound freedom to learn about something just because they want to learn about it. They follow their passions. Such passions rarely heed the demands of a future job market. 
Which student should you be? 
My advise: be both. 
The trouble with our new expert in Romantic poetry or classical Greek is that even if she is smart enough to do just about any job out there, she has no way to prove that to her potential future employers. Her teachers will have her write term papers and book reviews. Your ability to write an amazing term paper impresses nobody outside of the academy (even if the research skills needed to write one are in demand out there). If you do not have a technical skillset they can understand — or even better, a portfolio of projects you have completed that you can give them — you will struggle greatly when it comes time to find a job. Your success will not be legible to the outside world. You must find ways to make it legible. You must ponder this problem from your very first year of study. It is not wise to spend your entire university experience pretending that graduation day will not come. It will, and you must be prepared for it. 
On the flip side, I cannot endorse the path of Mr. I-Only-Take-Accounting-Classes either. He lives for the Next Step. My friends, there will always be a Next Step. Life will get busier, not easier, after college. You may never again be given such grand opportunity to step back and think about what is most important. 
What is wrong? What is right? What is true, and how will I know it? What is beauty, and where can I find it? What does it mean to be good? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? Your accounting classes will not answer that question. Now the odds are high that your literature, art, and history classes won't really answer them either—but they will ask you to develop your own answers to them. That is truly valuable. 
I will say it again: you may have another period in your life where you have the time, resources, and a supporting community designed to help you do this. If you are not having experiences in university that force you to spend time wrestling in contemplation, then you have wasted a rare gift. 
So that is my advice. Do both! 
I cannot tell you exactly how to do both — that will be for each of you to decide. But recognize which sort of student you are, and find ways to counter-act your natural tendency. If you have no desire greater than diving into a pile of history books, perhaps take three or four classes of GIS on the side, and create skins for Google Earth that draw on your data. If you are driven to find a career in finance, go do so — but then arrange to spend a semester abroad in Spain, or Japan, or somewhere that let's you experience a new culture and lifestyle. 
Prepare for your career. Expand your mind. Find a way to do both.[5]

Far fewer students have taken this advice than I hoped. I am partially fond of my alma mater's new system because it forces all of its students do exactly what I advocate they should. But the logic of the system is compelling on its own grounds. By requiring a science based minor, all students are required to master the basics of statistics and the scientific method. They do this not through a series of university-required, general-purpose, mind-numbing courses, but through a minor they choose themselves. All students are required to master a professional skill that will give them options on the post-college job market. They will learn how to make their work and talents legible to the world outside of academia. And all students are required to round this education out with an in-depth study of art, history, or culture.

From an organizational sense, the system's greatest boon goes to the humanities departments. The prime reason students do not take humanities courses is that college is too expensive to afford a degree which does not guarantee a career. That is it. As the number of people graduating from college increases, merely having a degree is no longer a signal of extraordinary competence. Any student that goes hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt for the sake of a degree which will not provide them with the skill-set they need to pay it back is extremely foolish, and most of them know it.

There is a lot of noise about making changes to humanities curriculums to end this dismal situation. In the abstract I think this is an excellent idea, and have even written memos to department heads describing adjustments that could be made to ensure their students remain employable. But this is not realistic for most professors or programs. They cannot teach what they do not know. This path is far less difficult for these departments to tread. It will be easier to ask history graduates to get a minor in GSS or data visualization than it will be to ask history professors to start teaching or grading those same skills.

The enrollment benefits of the system are clear. Students afraid to major in a humanities program will be able to use their professional studies or STEM training to provide a bankable back-up. Students who wouldn't think about taking a course in literature or art, on the other hand, will now be forced to choose half a dozen credits in it.

This doesn't solve all problems. The adjunct hiring model is barely touched on here. But the central problem facing humanities departments is declining enrollment numbers. This solution will not be enough to bring these institutions back to their high water marks in the post-war boom decades. But it will be enough to stabilize the free-fall Kay dramatizes in his piece.

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If you found this post on modern humanities worth reading, you might also find the posts "Modern Universities are an Exercise in Insanity"and "Teaching the Humanities as Terribly as Possible" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] Andrew Kay, "Academia's Extinction Event," Chronicle of Higher Education (10 May 2019)

[2] Wesley Yang, tweet of 3:37 PM, 20 May, (url: https://twitter.com/wesyang/status/1130603402373865473 ). The original piece is Anastasia Berg, "Fanning the Flames While the Humanities Burn," Chronicle of Higher Education (20 May 2019).

[3] Arnold Bennet, Literary Taste: How to Form It (1907), ch. III. Accessed at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bennett/arnold/literary-taste/chapter3.html

[4] Quoted in Marc Andreeson, "Career Planning: Part II," pmarca.com, accessed 26 May 2018. 

[5] Tanner Greer, "Advice for the Chinese Student About to Go to America," unpublished manuscript.

22 May, 2019

Are We Ready For What Comes Next?

"We must maintain a holistic view of national security. We take the people's security as our ultimate goal, political security as our fundamental task, and economic security as our foundation." 
—Secretary General Xi Jinping, April 2014.
Are we ready for what comes next?

The news this week is that the United States of America has decided to destroy Huawei. Hikvision is next on the chopping block. Magnitsky Act sanctions on Xinjiang officialdom are the logical next step. The sudden strengthening of Taiwan against PRC military aggression is now possible.

No trade deal is happening. Now that the hope of finding a deal has gone, a host of initiatives aimed at hobbling the Chinese surveillance state and military machine that had been put on hold for months are falling into place.

I am glad. These are—in my mind at least—good things. Necessary countermeasures.

But are we ready?

I am deeply concerned that we have not prepared the American people for what is coming, nor why it comes.

The Chinese will respond. They are smart people. They are clever—clever and outraged.  I cannot foresee the exact nature of that response yet. It might be with rare earths. It might be with something else entirely. What it is in particular does not matter so much. The Party will find a chink in our economy and twist the screw. They will find a way to take something of ours down. They have been attacked. They will attack back.

This will not be like negotiating imports with Japan. With the attack on Huawei we have entered a new phase in Sino-American relations. Understand: the Party will read what is happening as the sharp edge of an economic, social, and ideological assault on their system of government. This is what their theorists have long said must happen.[1] For better or worse, they now believe we are playing for existential stakes.

The word they will use is struggle. Party leadership has spent the last week preparing its people for a hard and vicious struggle. That is what all this Korean War and Long March brouhaha is all about. It is not an attempt to signal anything in particular to Western observers. The intended audience is the Chinese themselves. The People's Republic of China is about to jump headfirst into a bitter struggle with the United States. This conflict will hurt the people of China. They are being prepared to bear that burden.

What burdens are our people prepared to bear?

There is widespread support in Washington for taking the actions needed to damage China’s surveillance-industrial complex. There is no such support among the broader American public. The harsh truth is that the American public does not care about China. At this point in time they do not care much about anything outside of America's borders. This is obvious to anyone who has stepped outside of the Beltway, or barring that, looked at the poll numbers collected by those who have. [2] No one is getting elected this cycle because of their tough stance on China.

That is the political reality of the present moment. We will ride through this conflict not with the people we want, but with the people we have. But that people can be prepared. This is not the first time Americans have stood indifferent to the maneuvers of rising tyrannies. Indifference can be changed. It has been changed many times before.

But not by accident.

We do not face war. But we do face something like unto it. Economic weapons will be drawn and used. We will face a rough time. Before us lies an escalating circle of punishment and counter-punishment. The Chinese people will hurt dearly.

But so will ours.

Victory won will be worth its price. But that price will be paid. The Chinese understand this. They prepare their people for the contest that is coming.

We would be wise to follow their example.

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If you enjoyed this caustic warning about China and national security, you might also find the posts "You Do Not Have the People""Moral Hazards and China," and "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] See my earlier post, "You Do Not Have The People," Scholar's Stage (3 March 2018). For more recent data see John Halpin, Brian Katulis, Peter Juul, Karl Agne, Jim Gerstein, and Nisha Jain, America Adrift: How the U.S. Foreign Policy Debate Misses What Voters Really Want (Washington DC, Center for American Progress, May 2019). Note also the Reagan Foundation's finding that two in five Americans believe China is an ally of the United States.

[2] There is no one single summary of Chinese documents on threat perception. Samantha Hoffman, "Programming China: the Communist Party’s autonomic approach to managing state security," PhD diss, University of Nottingham (2017), chapter 2 and Matthew Johnson, "Securitizing Culture in Post-Deng China: An Evolving National Strategic Paradigm, 1994–2014," World and Local Conflicts, vol 4, iss 1 (2017), pgs. 62-80 cover a fair bit of it, even though neither of them focus on the importance the regime gives to "economic security" or "financial security."

12 May, 2019

Against Human Sexual Selection

The opening scene of 'A Catch of Shadows' 1998 production of '
A Midsummer Night's Dream' 

(image source)

HERMIA: 
I would my father look'd
but with my eyes.
THESEUS: 
Rather your eyes must
with his judgment look.
A Midsummer's Night Dream

William Buckner has published a small but superb essay over at Quillette under the title "A Girl's Place in the World." By my reading, Buckner is the best essayist Quillette has. In each piece he writes, Buckner draws on a few dozen ethnographies and comparative studies in evolutionary anthropology to survey a question of interest—in this case, male violence against and dominance of  women over the long course of human history.

The basic take-away from Buckner's essay is that  male dominance is not a product of the agricultural revolution. It is near omnipresent in foraging societies, and is upheld in such societies mostly through violence. Concubinage, mass rape, and domestic violence were continuations and exaggerations of the sort of behavior seen in other primate and simple hunter-gatherer societies. Only in modernity has male violence receded. Only in modernity have the females of our species have been given the opportunity to achieve rough parity with the males.

Now all of this is interesting, but it is ancillary to the main thrust of this post. Because Buckner summarizes much of the relevant evidence in one essay, I am going to take the opportunity his essay provides to grouse about one of my bug-bears: the inapplicability of sexual selection theory to human evolution.

I need to be more specific. Not all sexual-selection theory is bunk. I have fewer objections to the theories as applied to male preferences. I have more trouble with theories that try to explain female mate preferences and male phenotypes (for the uninitiated: that means something close to "things that women are 'naturally' attracted to, and by extension, behaviors or traits that have been selected for in the present male population") through the frame of sexual selection. This is the stock and trade of evo-psych. Sillier, more grotesque versions of these theories often trickle down into the arguments you read on pick-up artist and MRA boards. But be they scientific or far less so, all such theories run aground on the same shoals: the model they posit for female mate selection does not reflect how human mate selection actually worked for most of human history.

PROBLEM #1: WHO SELECTED MATES—CHILDREN OR PARENTS?

One of the problems I have with most accounts of human sexual selection starts here. The phrase 'mate choice' presupposes that mates are the ones doing the choosing. In most species this framework works out most of the time, but in humans it hits a snag. Humans are not frictionless, autonomous mate calculators on two legs. They live embedded in a social organization that has immense control over everything they do—including who they mate. We call these organizations families.

In American society the norm is for both daughter and son to leave the homes of their childhood and create a new household upon marriage. Both men and women choose their partner freely. This style of marriage and home-building has a long history. It stretches back to England and Netherlands in the Early Middle Ages.[1]  (As the world modernizes, more and more of it looks like America). But this is not how most of the world has worked for most of its history. For most of human history, marriage was an arrangement between families, not individuals. Married children were generally expected to live with one of the families from which they sprung. Parents and grandparents had a veto of matches they did not like, and usually had the authority force a match the principals did not like, especially if the principal in question was a woman.

It turns out this was not only true for agrarian societies, but hunter-gatherer societies as well. We return to Buckner:
In his work examining ethnographic evidence from 190 hunter-gatherer societies, evolutionary psychologist Menlaos Apostolou notes the prevalence of arranged marriages, writing that across these societies “the institution of marriage is regulated by parents and close kin. Parents are able to influence the mating decisions of both sons and daughters, but stronger control is exercised with regard to daughters; male parents have more say in selecting in-laws than their female counterparts.” As anthropologist Janice Stockard writes of !Kung hunter-gatherer populations in southern Africa, “Traditionally in the !Kung San, marriage is a relationship among a husband and wife and the wife’s father and is at the outset firmly based on compatibility between the two men.” 
Apostolou further reports that female age at first marriage tends to be at the onset of puberty or earlier across the vast majority of the societies in his sample, and notes that these “Arranged marriages usually take the form of parents or close kin “giving away” their female relatives after negotiations with the male or his relatives. As such, males are allowed much more autonomy to exercise mate choice than females.” Anthropologist Lewis Binford’s 2001 volume Constructing Frames of Reference includes data on age at marriage across nearly 200 hunter-gatherer societies, and across these societies the average age at first marriage is recorded as 14 for girls, and 21 for boys. [2]

This is a problem for sexual-selection theories of male behavior. If the girls were not choosing their matches, what selection pressures on male traits could there be? Perhaps instead of speaking of the psychology of sexual selection, we should be speaking of the psychology of parental selection instead.

PROBLEM #2: CHOICE OR FORCE?

The second issue I have with human sexual-selection theory is more straightforward. Rape, plunder, slavery, and coerced marriages fill the annals of human history. The victims of these crimes—women—did not choose to be so victimized.

Once again, this is a facet of human life that precedes written history:
Similarly, the common pattern of warfare across small-scale societies is that while opposing adult male warriors tend be killed, women and children are often captured and incorporated into the group. I have previously discussed the widespread evidence of wife capture found across hunter-gatherer societies all over the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. 
Anthropologist John J. Honigmann discusses an example among the Kaska foragers of British Columbia, writing that, “Women and children formed the bulk of the prisoners. Mostly the children were killed during the homeward journey… Women captives became wives who initially had to be carefully watched or tied lest they seek to escape.” 
...These patterns are further reflected in genetic data. In his 2016 book Who We Are and How We Got Here, geneticist David Reich discusses the phenomenon of sex-asymmetric population mixture during human history, noting that “the common thread is that males from populations with more power tend to pair with females from populations with less.” And, as Reich makes clear, these patterns were often the result of highly coercive pairings enforced by men, in contexts where women had limited ability to exercise choice. [3]
Whether a woman wanted to have sex with a man was often irrelevant. Whether she wanted to be paired with him for years of her life was irrelevant. In the world of flesh no Puck arrives in nick of time to grant history's many Hermias the attentions of the men they most desired. A woman's refusal only went so far. She could be stolen and forced into servitude; her family could be killed and she raped; or she could be married off and left defenseless against sexual assault by her partner. If things came to blows, it was the man who would be choosing the circumstances of reproduction, not the woman.

Any evolutionary narrative of sex-based traits must take these realities into account before I will take it seriously. Occasionally I see that sort of work out there, but it is few and far between. [4] In the lingo of the discipline, parent-offspring competition and violent intersexual competition are quite real. The psychologist who doesn't work them into his or her theories is not trying hard enough.

I can forgive them for the omission. The majority of scientists who developed theories of sexual selection came from societies calmer and more equitable than the human norm. In their world women have the freedom to reject or accept who they will. Most have never had to worry about the possibility their daughter might be stolen from their homes. They live with the expectation that both their daughters and their sons will choose their mates with little regard of what their parents think of them.

But this story is not the human story. Had Darwin invented his grand theory in another world, one where the science of evolution developed in some land where humans married and mated as most humans have, I doubt theories of sexual preference would have the allure they now do. These theories match the intuitions of our age. Sometimes those intuitions are WIERDER than we realize.



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If you enjoyed this post on psychology and evolutionary anthropology, you might also find the posts "Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously,""Psychology Makes the Strategist," and "The Marvelous Machiavellian Mind Readerof interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] The classic statement of this is Emmanuel Todd, Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social Systems. trans. David Garroch. (New York: Blackwell Publishing). 1989. See also Craig Willy, "Emmanuel Todd’s L’invention de l’Europe: A critical summary, "craigjwilly.info (7 July 2013).

[2] William Buckner, "A Girl's Place in the World," Quillette (9 May 2019).

[3] ibid.

[4] An excellent example is David Puts, "Beauty and the Beast: Mechanisms of Sexual Selection in Humans," Evolution and Human Behavior, Volume 31, Issue 3 (May 2010) pp. 157-175

08 May, 2019

The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road

Image Source

It is not luxury and pomp that make a king a king. It is when his orders are never disobeyed that he has entered a title such as yours.
Mudrarakshasa 3.99 [c. 300 AD]

The always excellent Stella Zhang directed me to a newish paper by political scientists Lee Jones and Zeng Jinhan on the domestic politics of China's Belt and Road. Long term readers will remember that I am bearish on Xi's grand dream. Here is how I described the central problems with the scheme for Foreign Policy:
There is also a gap between how BRI projects are supposed to be chosen and how they actually have been selected. Xi and other party leaders have characterized BRI investment in Eurasia as following along defined “economic corridors” that would directly connect China to markets and peoples in other parts of the continent. By these means the party hopes to channel capital into areas where it will have the largest long-term benefit and will make cumulative infrastructure improvements possible.
This has not happened: one analysis of 173 BRI projects concluded that with the exception of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) “there appears to be no significant relationship between corridor participation and project activity… [suggesting that] interest groups within and outside China are skewing President Xi’s signature foreign policy vision.” 
This skew is an inevitable result of China’s internal political system. BRI projects are not centrally directed. Instead, lower state bodies like provincial and regional governments have been tasked with developing their own BRI projects. The officials in charge of these projects have no incentive to approve financially sound investments: by the time any given project materializes, they will have been transferred elsewhere. BRI projects are shaped first and foremost by the political incentives their planners face in China: There is no better way to signal one’s loyalty to Xi than by laboring for his favored foreign-policy initiative. From this perspective, the most important criteria for a project is how easily the BRI label can be slapped on to it..... 
The problems China has had with the BRI stem from contradictions inherent in the ends party leaders envision for the initiative and the means they have supplied to reach them. BRI projects are chosen through a decentralized project-management system and then funded through concessional loans offered primarily by PRC policy banks. This is a recipe for cost escalation and corruption. In countries like Cambodia, a one-party state ruled by autocrats, this state of affairs is viable, for there is little chance that leaders will be held accountable for lining their pockets (or, more rarely, the coffers of their local communities) at the entire nation’s expense. But most BRI countries are not Cambodia. In democracies this way of doing things is simply not sustainable, and in most BRI countries it is only so long before an angry opposition eager to pin their opponents with malfeasance comes to power, armed with the evidence of misplaced or exploitative projects. [1]
The key points to take away from my account is that the failures of the BRI seem to factor back to a few central points: first, that project selection is mostly driven by the priorities of folks working in SOEs, provincial governments, and a plethora of different policy banks. The central government in Beijing has difficulty directing their efforts. Secondly, that these people do not have a good understanding of the countries in which they are investing, and face little incentive to gain this understanding. This leads to the sort of corruption and 'predatory' funding that has given BRI its poisonous reputation in countries long exposed to it.

Jones and Zeng agree with this general picture, but provide a far more detailed account of what is happening 'behind the scenes' when BRI projects are chosen and funded. The process they describe is not unique to the Belt and Road. It starts as Communist high leadership paints bold words in the sky:
Foreign-policy steering happens through several important mechanisms. The first is top leaders’ major speeches, which are usually kept vague to accommodate diverse interests and agendas. Rather than ‘carefully-worked out grand strategies’, they are typically ‘platitudes, slogans, catchphrases, and generalities’, offering ‘atmospheric guidance’ that others must then interpret and implement. Examples include: Deng’s tao guang yang hui, whose meaning is ‘debateable’; Hu’s ‘harmonious world’ – ‘more of a narrative than a grand strategy’; and Xi’s ‘new type of great power relations.’ As discussed below, Xi’s vague 2013 remarks on the ‘silk road economic belt’ (SREB) and ‘maritime silk road’ (MSR) exemplify this tendency. [2]
But bold words are not policy. The Party often has difficulty transforming grand visions into detailed policy proposals. This is sometimes quite intentional—in a closed system like the People's Republic, it may be better to have politicos arguing over how to make the Core's vision possible, instead of whether the Core's vision is worth making possible in the first place. 

The down-side to this approach is obvious: everybody and anybody with an institutional axe to grind or a quick buck to make will take this opportunity to turn the Party's newest slogan into a vehicle for advancing their personal or institutional interests:
These steering mechanisms elicit diverse responses from subordinate actors. To survive and thrive, officials must at least appear to be enthusiastic implementers of central directives. Hence, they typically rush sycophantically to embrace leaders’ vague slogans, creating the misleading appearance of a tightly-controlled, top-down governmental machine. However, they may simultaneously manoeuvre to serve their own sectional  interests and agendas, rather than simply implementing a detailed grand strategy imposed from above. First, they may influence emerging policy plans. Because top leaders generally rely on disaggregated bureaucracies, party-state think-tanks and universities to develop their vague slogans into policies,  other  actors  can  often  insert  their  own  interests  into  evolving  policy  platforms. Remarkably, this occurs even with respect to China’s core interests, which were left to academics, think tanks and bureaucracies to define, prompting them to identify their concerns as core interests to acquire more power and resources. 
Actors can also lobby through LSGs, the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference, the National People’s Congress (NPC), sectoral ministries, policy banks and state-linked policy institutes. In some cases, top leaders’ slogans themselves emerge from this bottom-up advocacy – as was the case with BRI itself (see below). 
Secondly, actors interpret leaders’ slogans, and subsequent policy platforms, in ways amenable  to  their  particular  interests,  sometimes  skewing implementation significantly.  Interpretation often follows leaders’ speeches immediately, before they are even developed into vague policy outlines, with unfavorable elements facing ‘resistance’ and ‘distortion.’ Finally,  actors  can  even  ignore  central  guidelines.  Although  CCP  controls  minimize  open  defiance, there are many documented instances of agencies taking action overseas without approval,  or  violating  national  laws  and  policies  to  pursue  their  particular  interests.  This includes SOEs, local governments, and the security forces. [4]
This was seen on full display with the roll out of the Belt and Road, with macro-economists of various stripes, military strategists, think tankers, and financial reformers all rushing out studies showing how the Belt and Road justified their pet policy preferences. This is a useful reminder from Zeng and Jones. I also think this is correct frame to understand the sort of material covered in reports like this one by Joel Wuthnow, which details debates held in China about the security implications of the Belt and Road. Many of the reports included are less useful for understanding the actual 'strategic' or 'military' rationale of the Belt and Road than the Chinese nat/sec establishment's desire to claim ownership of the initiative.

But no class of people have been more successful in appropriating the initiative for their own ends than the provincial governments and their lackeys:
The most important influencers, though, were state-linked economic interests and provincial governments. The real impetus for expanding infrastructure programmes through OBOR was the long-term fallout from the 2007–2008 global financial crisis. China rode out the crisis only through a US$586 billion stimulus package, mostly involving local government borrowing to finance infrastructure projects. By the early 2010s, the stimulus was spent and many local governments were virtually bankrupt. Overcapacity exceeded 30% in the iron, steel, glass, cement, aluminium and power generation industries. Many SOEs faced a major profitability crisis, with returns on domestic infrastructure turning negative. Meanwhile, Chinese banks faced their own over-accumulation crisis, with US$3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and dwindling domestic lending prospects. For these interests, OBOR represented an opportunity to internationalise their domestic surplus capacity. Unsurprisingly, these politico-economic actors lobbied furiously to influence the translation of Xi’s slogans into concrete policy, in order to grab part of the spoils.  
Only 14 provinces were invited to the NDRC’s initial OBOR symposium in December 2013, indicating a relatively tight circle of beneficiaries. Excluded provinces, however, quickly lobbied for inclusion, through  forums  like the NPC. Provincial  universities  and  think  tanks  were  encouraged to demonstrate locales’ historical links to the ancient silk road – generating the aforementioned publications boom. Local media were also enlisted, leading to a profusion of stories mentioning OBOR, from 543 in 2014 to 5935 in 2015, with coverage in virtually every provincial outlet. For example, Shaanxi and Henan provinces waged an intense public battle over which of them contained the start of the historical silk road Competition over the MSR’s ‘starting point’ was even fiercer, with rival claims from Fujian, Jiangsu, Guangdong and Guangxi. Provinces with weaker claims invented ‘starting points’ linked to geographical locations or commodities, like porcelain or tea, then even squabbled over these. Shandong and Hebei, for example, both claimed that their cities, Qingdao and Huanghua, were the ‘northern starting point.’ [5]
But in the scramble to land deals, provincial governments often worked at cross-purposes from each other. Jones and Zeng include several examples to this effect, but I found the following story to be particularly humorous:
In 2013, Guangxi and affiliated business interests agreed  with  Malaysia’s Pahang state  government  to  upgrade  Kuantan  port,  including  by  developing a cross-country railway, road links and a US$3.4 billion industrial park. Guangxi subsequently leveraged  BRI  to  expand  its  involvement.  However,  in  September  2015, Guangdong province  signed  a  rival  agreement  with  Malaysia’s  Malacca  state,  including  a  US$4.6 billion industrial park and a US$10 billion port upgrade. 
There is little economic rationale for developing two world-class ports on the Malay Peninsula. These projects reflect not a coherent master plan but  rather competitive, sub-national  dynamics in both countries.  Moreover, these micro-level dynamics clearly do not–indeed, cannot–add up to a coherent, macro-level network of infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, statistical analysis reveals no correlation between Vision and Actions [the official policy document guiding the BRI] six ‘corridors’ and projects on the ground, suggesting that the plan is failing even to guide investment activity in a broad sense. [6]
They also include several examples of provincial governments simply re-branding existing proposals to get them passed under the 'Belt and Road' label:
Moreover,  some  provinces  had  clearly  ‘uploaded’  their  pre-existing/preferred  projects  into Vision and Actions. For example, Vision and Actions instructed Guangxi to develop the Beibu Gulf Economic Zone–which Guangxi itself initiated in 2006 under GWD. Similarly, Yunnan was tasked to develop the Greater Mekong Subregion–a grouping initiated by the Asian Development Bank in 1992 and subsequently the major focus for Yunnan’s GWD activities. Vision and Actions also incorporated the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) ‘corridor’ into BRI, which Yunnan initiated in 1998.  As  one  MFA-linked  scholar notes,  Vision and Actions is  less  a  ‘top-level  design’  than  a  collation  of  provincial wish-lists, with top leaders telling provincial leaders: ‘if you have a scheme or plan, give it to us, and we will put it into the basket.[7]
These are not the only examples of this practice that Jones and Lee discuss (I mention a few others in my essay for Foreign Policy as well). But you do not need to browse a detailed list of each and every one of these projects to grasp their central problem: with the provinces, SOEs, and policy banks acting as the driving force behind individual BRI schemes, Beijing has immense difficulty using these projects for geopolitical ends. In their interviews with officials in Beijing, Jones and Zeng found this sentiment expressed again and again:
Officials in the Ministry for Public Security’s think tank concede [that] the ‘different departments and agencies involved in foreign aid’ have created ‘chaos and disorder,’ permitting ‘bad conduct by Chinese companies. Different departments are ... following their own interest, not following our national interest of getting better relations. They only think about making money for themselves or interest groups’ 
....As [another] policymaker concedes, governance is BRI’s ‘biggest difficulty’: ‘there is no unified department  to  manage  [it].’  Responsibility  is  instead  spread  across  diverse  party-state  agencies including, in addition to the aforementioned financing agencies: the MoF, which influences  financial  disbursements;  the  NDRC,  which  regulates  large-scale  infrastructure  projects;  MOFCOM,  which  regulates  ODF,  investment  and–with  the  State-owned  Assets  Supervision and Administration Commission and various functional ministries–SOEs; and the relatively weak MFA, which struggles to promote wider foreign-policy goals. 
In practice, one frustrated MFA-linked scholar complains: the ‘MFA should be the hub for everything, but it is not.’ The economic agencies dominate and ‘provincial  SOEs  have their own projects ...It makes the MFA really embarrassed.’ [8]
At this point one is tempted to ask: how do we square all of this with Xi Jinping's centralization drive? Is not Secretary Xi the most powerful man to rule China since Deng and Mao? Why can't he put things in order?

Zeng and Jones have an answer for this as well:
It is more accurate  to  say  that  Xi  has  made  unusually  strong  use  of  [existing] coordinating  mechanisms,  particularly  those  relating  to  cadre  discipline  and  ideological  control. While this has elicited widespread public displays of loyalty, it does not necessarily guarantee strong control over policy outputs. This is not least because Xi’s policy frameworks remain as vague as those of his predecessors. For example, at a 2013 diplomatic work conference, Xi used the vague slogan fenfa youwei, usually translated as ‘striving for achievement.’ Other party-state actors have interpreted this as meaning anything from totally disregarding other countries’  interests to a modest increase in proactivity. Competing maritime agencies exploited this vaguenes to intensify their activities in  the  South China Sea, generating clashes with neighbouring countries. To rein them in, Xi created a new China Coastguard, but by March 2018 the merger of maritime agencies remained incomplete, with continued coordination  problems, resulting in the coastguard’s reallocation  to  the Central Military Commission and the abolition of its previous overseer, the State Oceanic Administration. 
...This constant institutional reshuffling – six years after he took power–-implies that Xi has not yet surmounted China’s formidable coordination challenges. Indeed, his new coordinating bodies also ‘need coordination;’ Naughton suggests that their proliferation has only made decision-making ‘more  erratic,’  with  ‘yawning  gaps’ between  policy  intent  and  implementation.  Indeed,  many of Xi’s signature policies encounter routine noncompliance. 
...Vision and Action translated Xi’s slogans into a ‘plan’, but this remains extremely loose, with others explicitly invited to ‘draw up implementation plans and roadmaps for advancing the BRI’ and ‘work out plans and measures for regional  cooperation’.  This  enables  dozens  of  agencies  to  interpret  and  implement  BRI  according to their sectional interests, not a centrally-defined strategy. Xi’s ideological control has strengthened,  since  to  gain  resources  and  policy  support  all  of  these  interests  must  present their agendas as ways to implement his fabulous schema. But this certainly does not translate into detailed control of BRI outputs. [9]
Reading this, one is reminded of the constant failure central organs have had in their attempts to force provincial, city, and county governments to reign in spending and wean themselves off of Local Government Financing Vehicles. As Andrew Batson put it in a recent blog post, "The Belt and Road is really the expansion of a specific part of China’s domestic political economy to the rest of the world." His explanation is worth quoting in full:
Local governments discovered they could borrow basically without limit to fund infrastructure projects, and despite many predictions of doom, those debts have not yet collapsed. The lesson China has learned is that debt is free and that Western criticisms of excessive infrastructure investment are nonsense, so there is never any downside to borrowing to build more infrastructure. China’s infrastructure-building complex, facing diminishing returns domestically, is now applying that lesson to the whole world.

In Belt and Road projects, foreign countries simply take the place of Chinese local governments in this model (those who detect a neo-imperial vibe around the Belt and Road are, in this sense, onto something). Even the players are the same. In the 1990s, China Development Bank helped invent the local-government financing vehicle structure that underpinned the massive domestic infrastructure boom. Now, China Development Bank is one of the biggest lenders for overseas construction projects.

Those who defend the Belt and Road against the charge of debt-trap diplomacy are technically correct. But those same defenders also tend to portray the lack of competitive tenders and over-reliance on Chinese construction companies in Belt and Road projects as “problems” that detract from the initiative’s promise. They miss the central role of the SOE infrastructure-complex interest group in driving the Belt and Road. Structures that funnel projects funded by state banks to Chinese SOEs aren’t “problems” from China’s perspective–they are the whole point. [10]
What to make of all this?

I am still comfortable with my earlier declaration that (from China's perspective) the Belt and Road has been "one big mistake." Many investments have been poorly chosen; the greatest beneficiaries are SOEs and local government officials who profit—financially and politically—from BRI projects but do not have to deal with the political and diplomatic blowback created when opposition parties in BRI countries take power and begin to investigate deals made by their opponents. For this reason I am far less concerned with BRI's global reach than many other observers. I simply don't think this is going to bring the PRC the sort of political returns Xi Jinping was hoping for when he first laid out his grand vision of a continent spanning infrastructure regime.

I am not ready, however, to declare that the Belt and Road fiasco is evidence that Xi Jinping is incapable of controlling the Party, or that the Party is incapable of long term policy. This is what Jones and Zeng argue we should take away from their research:
China’s complex, multilevel governance system still makes it extremely difficult for Beijing to pursue a coherent, consistent grand strategy. In the IR literature on China, grand strategy is frequently used to denote a long-term, coherent plan, usually aimed at countering US hegemony. Some even identify a capacity to plan and execute policy over an entire century.... In reality, the Chinese party-state’s transformation makes it very hard for China to formulate and execute grand strategy according to any of the definitions. Chinese leaders–even Xi, as shown more fully in the empirical discussion below–generally cannot generate ‘detailed grand plans,’ preferring vague slogans and ‘atmospheric guidance.’Far from priortising key interests and goals, this leaves even the definition of ‘core interests’ to others to contest and decide. Even if leaders could devise a ‘grand plan’, they would struggle to coordinate actors and resources to pursue their chosen ends....  
China’s ‘strategic vision’ is vague, its meaning determined less by top-level strategic thinkers than the actors it is ostensibly ‘guiding.’ Furthermore, the process by which ‘the principle is translated into a plan’ involves complex, multi-level bargaining, not the ‘top-level design’ that Chinese commentators and official statements frequently emphasise.  
Even then, the ‘plan’ will not necessarily substantively ‘guide’ other actors’ behaviour, because they may interpret or ignore it according to their preferences, or even influence it, such that it is they who are ‘guiding’ the plan, rather than vice-versa. Accordingly, their conduct may not even amount to a ‘long-term pattern’, failing to meet even the woolliest, ‘grand behaviour’ definition. The term grand strategy thus conveys an impression of coherence that may not–and oftentimes cannot–exist in the Chinese context. ....Rather than a ‘well thought out grand strategy’, BRI is clearly a far looser policy platform, reflecting the ongoing transformation of China’s party-state and the emergence of regulatory-style governance. 
...Our analysis challenges mainstream discussion of Chinese policymaking under Xi Jinping. Xi is widely portrayed as the ‘new Mao’, concentrating all decision-making in his own hands. As Xi’s signature foreign policy, BRI is an important test case for this perspective, with Chinese analysts particularly emphasizing his personal role and ‘wisdom’ in crafting the ‘well-designed,’ ‘top-level’ plan.... With BRI, at least, Chinese behaviour clearly does not simply express Xi’s personal vision. [11]
Jones and Zeng argue that the phrase "grand strategy" conveys a sense of coherence that cannot exist in the Chinese foreign policy making context. I agree, but would go even further: the phrase "grand strategy" conveys a sense of coherence that cannot exist in any foreign policy making context. I tend to agree with Lucas Milevski that "grand strategy" is a conceptually questionable term that does not reflect how policy is actually made, and celebrated "grand strategies" are almost always post-hoc narratives imposed by historians decades after the fact.[12]

This does not mean, however, that long-term planning is impossible, nor that the Chinese are unable to do it. It might be useful here to compare the troubled history of the Belt and Road with the modernization and centralization of the People's Liberation Army over the last two decades. Xi Jinping has taken an intimate interest in these two campaigns—and both have had stunning success. The military gains China has made in the last decade are not vanities. They are real. So are the losses various institutional factions have sustained as the command structure was streamlined and increasing emphasis has been placed on the PLA Navy, Air Force, and Rocket Force.

Why has Xi Jinping been more successful in this domain than the reforming SOE financing? There are a few potential answers. The simplest is that Xi Jinping simply has better grasp of or interest in the details of military command. I believe this is plausible, and am surprised at how little analysts think about how the personalities and interests of China's central leadership might shape their priorities. A second explanation is that the stakes here are much higher: Xi has focused on consolidating and modernizing his hold on the Party's ideology, internal discipline, and defense systems because these are the levers of power. Losing control of BRI projects has much less immediate consequences.

My final guess is institutional. The People's Liberation Army is a very old institution. In many ways, Secretary Xi tamed the PLA by following tactics from the Communist playbook of the '40s and '50s. The anti-corruption campaign, crackdowns on non-sanctioned social groups (religious organizations, Uyghurs, etc.), changes in the censorship and propaganda systems, and the growth in 'united front' style campaigns both abroad and at home also fit rough patterns established in the Party's early history. The tools for managing this sort of problem are a part of the institutional and ideological heritage Xi has inherited from his fathers. This same heritage has little useful to tell him about how to reform Local Government Financing Vehicles. Nor are there any easy leverage points for reform. Removing figures like Guo Boxiong, Xu Caihou, Zhou Yongkang was critical for his ability to ram potentially unpopular programs down the throat of the PLA. Just who do you remove to reform BRI? Which bureaucracy must be torn apart before Xi can unleash his will on China's economy? Where can he intervene without scaring markets into a recession? There is no easy answer to that question—and until there is, I expect problems like these to stick.

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If you enjoyed this post on China's political economy, you might also find the posts "Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of Red Capitalism" and "Bootlicking in Beijing" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] Tanner Greer, "One Belt, One Road, One Big Mistake," Foreign Policy (6 December 2018).

[2] Lee Jones and Zeng Jinghan, "Understanding China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”: Beyond “Grand Strategy” to a State Transformation Analysis," Third World Quarterly (2019), p. 3.

[3] Jones and Zeng, "Understanding China's Belt and Road," p. 4.

[4] ibid., p. 8.

[5] ibid. p. 11.

[6] ibid., p. 9

[7] ibid., p. 10

[8] ibid., p. 13

[9] ibid., p. 11

[10] Andrew Batson, "The Belt and Road is About Domestic Interest Groups, Not Development," Andrew Batson's Blog (2 May 2019).

[11] Jones and Zeng, "Understanding China's Belt and Road," p. 2-3; 14.

[12] Lucas Milveski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). There is an article version of his argument out there somewhere, but I am a tad too busy to go hunt it down now.