10 August, 2018

Taiwan's Past Matters Less Than Taiwan's Present

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The time was, sir, when we loved the King and the people of Great Britain with an affection truly filial. We felt ourselves interested in their glory. We shared in their joys and sorrows. We cheerfully poured the fruits of all our labour into the lap of our mother country, and without reluctance expended our blood and treasure in their cause... We felt ourselves happy in our connection with her, nor wished it to be dissolved; but our sentiments are altered. 
Malden, Massachusetts "Statement of Independence" (1776)

But admitting, that we were all of English descent, what does it amount to? Nothing!
Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)

United States Naval War College professor Lyle Goldstein has an uncharacteristically snide piece out in the National Interest this week. His piece is a response to an earlier essay by Gordon Chang that the National Interest published the week previous. At issue is the posture the American people should take towards the inhabitants of Taiwan. Let's quote the section that drew my attention:
Chang and I do somehow agree on a few things, however. We are evidently in agreement that “… war can start over Taiwan.” We both apparently assess that “… the People’s Republic [of China is not] … the Third Reich …” Our geographical reckoning is likewise similar enough that he does admit that Taiwan is indeed “on the other side of the planet.” He even concedes that “At one time, the leaderships of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China were linked by the same race, culture, and language.”

The last point is actually a rather powerful statement, considering that identities are not “constructed” overnight (even allowing for their considerable malleability). Indeed, that fact of history flies in the face of Chang’s bizarre claim that the Taiwan issue is not a “family quarrel” as I put it in the penultimate line of my original piece. Indeed, he reveals what many Taiwan nationalists would like to cover up and what few Americans seem to know: that to the present day, “… Taipei formally maintains it is the legitimate government of China.” Chang’s claim that this is not a “family quarrel” is nonsensical based on his own candid admissions. One may sympathize with the aspirations of the people of Taiwan to control their own destiny, of course, but the polls Chang cites cannot change the above facts of modern history.

And yet since the vast majority of Americans are completely unfamiliar with Taiwan history—quite understandably given it’s on the other side of the planet—let’s review a few basic points that are always omitted from standard pro-Taiwan independence polemics, such as Chang’s. After Ming remnants fled to Taiwan in the mid-seventeenth century, the ascendant Qing dynasty invaded the island and solidified Chinese rule in 1683. In other words, Beijing formally ruled Taiwan for almost a century before the American Revolution. That makes for a rather strong historical claim. Speaking of historical claims to territory, Americans probably do not want to delve too deeply into the details surrounding certain American annexations like Hawaii. It’s best to probably leave those bones where they are buried.

In 1895, not many years after the Chinese government designated Taiwan as its own province (separate from Fujian Province), Japan conquered the island. As a colony of Tokyo, many Taiwanese tragically fought and died for the losing Japanese side in the Pacific War. The bottom line, as our great President Harry Truman realized and stated unequivocally in early 1950 (see introduction), is that the Cairo Declaration is very clear: all territories conquered by Japan should be returned to China—including explicitly the island of Taiwan (then called Formosa). Of course, many in Japan (and more than a few in Taiwan) have nostalgia for the “good old days,” and a hint of this is indeed revealed in Chang’s critique when he states: “There are Japanese islands south of Taipei, and on a clear day one can see Taiwan’s mountains from Japanese soil.” While Japanese nationalists may sigh with emotion at such florid descriptions, Americans are rightly skeptical. What about all the Americans who suffered grave atrocities at Japanese hands and have never seen any kind of justice? Japanese nationalism and related threat inflation tendencies are unlikely to stir Americans to take massive risks for Taiwan. Then again, there is the other inconvenient fact of geography that the main islands of Japan (e.g. Kyushu) are some 700 miles northeast of Taiwan, and the soil Chang mentions with such reverence (Ishigaki island) amounts to barely a speck.

Perhaps Henry Kissinger also understood the stark fact of the Cairo Declaration when he went about the arduous but nonetheless vital process of dismantling the U.S. relationship with Taiwan during the 1970s in an effort to open formal diplomatic relations with the PRC. To conclude this historical discussion, Americans need to realize that, given Truman’s clear decision not to intervene, it was only the actions of North Korean leader Kim Il-sung in June 1950, of course, that made Taiwan into a semi-permanent protectorate of the United States. If not for that decision by Pyongyang, Taiwan’s fate would have been similar to Hainan —another sizable Chinese island. [1]
There are folks who will dispute Goldstein's historical claims point by point. I will let them strain at such gnats, if they wish to do so. Here I want to narrow in on Goldstein's larger problem.

On the eve of American Revolution, somewhere between 15% and 20% of Americans were Tories. This percentage varied by region. In places like South Carolina it is likely that one in four colonists identified more with the British government than the American revolutionaries. Their commitment to Britain should not surprise: most American colonies had been British possessions for more than a century. The free inhabitants were overwhelmingly of British stock (though the Mid-Atlantic colonies were already taking on the character of large immigrant melting pots), they spoke the English language, worshiped at the Church of England (congregationalism, another English invention, was almost as common), and praised the glories of English race and their British heritage. [2] 

Contrast this with the Taiwanese situation. As Chang reports, the percentage of Taiwanese that identify as Chinese (中国人) is comparable to the number of loyalist Americans in 1775. The percentage of Taiwanese under 35 who identify with the mainland is even smaller. It has been more than a century since the Taiwanese were ruled by the same regime as the people across the strait. Among other things, this is important because—as the generation of reformers and intellectuals that came to power in the early 1900s recognized—national identity and cohesion was extremely weak under the Qing. A strong sense of shared Chinese identity had to be built from the ground-up. Built it was, but the Taiwanese were never part of that building (Chiang Kai-shek's attempts to instill the same sense of national identity in Taiwan that he had successfully fostered in many parts of the mainland were fatally undermined by the massacres and terrors that accompanied them; even the imposition of the Mandarin language upon the populace, the symbol of modern Chinese national identity par excellence, is slowly being rolled back). The nature of the institutions that divides the two places is stark. The gap between the political values and practices of modern Taiwan and modern China is far and away more different than those which divided the Americans from the British in 1775.

Goldstein privileges historical precedent and cultural kinship above all else. As an American, he should know better. If historical precedent and cultural kinship truly did decide the fate of nations, America would not exist. By these standards very few modern countries would exist. The national identities, borders, and ideologies of the majority of states on this earth are 20th century creations. Historical accident has played a grand role in the creation of these peoples and nations. Goldstein would strip the people of Taiwan of self government because their regime would not exist today except by dint of Kim il-Sung's decision to march south in the early days of the Cold War. But curious path dependency is a mainstay of international affairs. The division of the Arab world into a dozen different states, the fracturing of Gran Columbia, the existence of India as a centralized state—in all these cases and more, the borders of today were the result of arbitrary political maneuvers of decades past. The accidental nature of these borders does not make the nationalist yearnings of those whose lives are ordered by them any less real. Goldstein's cant is not too different from the declarations of that blinkered sort who call Palestinian nationalism a terrible conspiracy, for the Arabs of Palestine lacked a strong and distinct identity until recently in their history. In either case, even if the claim is true it hardly matters. We do not live in the 1940s. The world has changed in the eight decades that have passed since the victors of Second World War divvied up the world between them. Our policy towards Taiwan should reflect the realities of Taiwanese society today, not its character decades or centuries ago.

Goldstein's general attitude towards history is a bit mysterious to me. In both his editorials and his book he is fast to accuse Americans of not knowing or caring about Asia's history, but he is extremely selective in the history he chooses to call his readers attention to. [4] In this piece, his digression on Japanese war atrocities is odd and largely irrelevant to his thesis. Why is it there? One of the great accomplishments of the post-war order was the United States and Japan's ability to build a truly cooperative relationship despite the evils each inflicted upon each other years before. We are now decades past that rapprochement. Most who lived in the age of anger, fear, and racist rage that defined U.S.-Japanese relations in an earlier era are now dead.  In 2018, how could the Bataan Death March conceivably be a useful lens through which to view Asian politics?

I will not speculate about Goldstein's motives for focusing on the atrocities of Japan's imperial past, especially in an article that is ostensibly about Taiwan. I will, however, point out its consequences: Goldstein's framing obscures imperial Japan's actual relationship with modern Taiwanese identity. For fifty years, Taiwan was a part of the Japanese empire. Japanese imperialism was not destructive in Taiwan the way it was in most of the mainland. It was accompanied with little violence but a great deal of mutual trade, investment, and economic exchange. That does not make it right. But it does give substance to the notion that the Japanese occupation is just as much a part of Taiwan’s heritage as Qing suzerainty was. Even today, decades later, Taiwan has a cultural affinity with Japan that China proper does not. You see this in everything from the apps they use (e.g., the Taiwanese forgo WeChat and use the Japanese app Line instead) to the Taiwanese skill at queuing in quiet, well ordered lines. My personal impression is that the Taiwanese feel a stronger sense of kinship with the Japanese than they do with their "brothers" in mainland China. There are lots of ways to measure this (I'm partial to the LA Times writer who pointed out that one in three children books published in Taiwan are by Japanese authors), but lets stick with a financial one. After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, Taiwanese sent $95 million dollars across the strait. In response to the Tohoku tsunami, Taiwanese donated more than $250 million dollars of relief, more than half of it from individual donations. [5] I would wager (though I admit I have not seen any polls that confirm it) that if the Taiwanese were forced to choose between a political union with Japan and political union with the mainland, they would opt for the former by a large margin.

None of this really matters to Goldstein. For him nothing a Taiwanese feels or thinks ever matters. My frustration with Goldstein is that in his strivings to understand minds in Beijing he forgets that Beijing is not the only place that gets a say in the affair. As I wrote in my review of Goldstein's book:
Goldstein is curiously dismissive of [America's Pacific] allies’ concerns. One can sympathize with the time constraints that shaped his treatment of them—a titanic amount of research was required simply to survey the existing debates inside Washington D.C. and Beijing, and it would be too much to expect Goldstein to provide a thorough survey of the debates being had in Seoul, Manila, Taipei, Tokyo, Singapore, and New Delhi as well; but this unwillingness to consider events as seen by anyone outside of Beijing or Washington leads Goldstein to bizarre places. He outright dismisses Taiwan’s 23 million citizens with the curt (and unsubstantiated) claim that those who seek to put Taiwanese opinion first in discussions of their future “lack an objective view of history, culture, and identity.” Goldstein dismisses other allies’ fears that Beijing’s growing strength might harm their interests by comparing them to children’s “talk of monsters hiding under the bed or in the closet.” Patronizing comments of this sort undermine the spirit of mutual understanding Goldstein claims is central to successful strategy for peace. Meeting China Halfway begins with an earnest appeal to not treat the Chinese with arrogance, paternalism, or undue hypocrisy. This appeal would be far stronger if he avoided these same vices when discussing the lesser powers in the region. [6]
Years later we find Goldstein making the same errors. He still does not ask and does not know how people in Tokyo, Seoul, New Delhi, Hanoi, or Taipei think about the fate he has decided for them. He writes as if their actions will not matter. He sees the world as a place to be divided between Washington and Beijing, and cannot conceive of local powers working to subvert that end. His "cooperation spiral" approach to ending Sino-American conflict assumes that these countries will do whatever the U.S. and Beijing agree on. This is lunacy. That is the real lesson of 20th century international history. American foreign policy ventures have rarely failed because Americans did not understand their enemies. They failed time and again because Americans did not understand the true interests and intentions of their allies. Goldstein would have us make the same mistake again and again.

Given all of this, the insult Goldstein decided to end his piece with is poorly chosen:
Chang wrote a book in 2001 titled The Coming Collapse of China. This asinine title causes most genuine China specialists to chuckle—though many journalists and ideologues have admittedly been quite enraptured by the notion. No doubt, the book has sold well. But American diplomats and defense officials know better than to rest strategies on proven failures of judgment. [7]
Look folks: Gordon Chang gets a lot of flack for his book. And you know what? His book was clearly wrong. But in being wrong Chang really is not that different from any other analyst. I have written about political psychologist Philip Tetlock's pioneering work in this field before. [8] The short version: the average analyst, regardless of whether he is a famous pundit, think tank bottom feeder, academic egg-head, CIA stiff, or military desk jockey, is no better at predicting the course of world affairs than a dart throwing chimp. The difference between Chang and the rest is that Chang had the gumption to make his prediction so public and so unambiguous that he cannot avoid being judged for it.

Gumption alone does not make a good analyst. Accuracy matters. But given the rate of human failure in this domain, it makes little sense to judge an analyst solely for the accuracy of his or her predictions. A better metric: a good analyst is the one learns from past mistakes. Ideally, an analyst's internal models of the world should change as the international situation does. If new inputs are not changing outputs, then they have a problem. The analyst too committed to a favorite proposition, policy, or ideology to see the world transform before him is not an analyst that deserves to be taken seriously.  

I will be honest: I have not followed Chang close enough to know if the wares he has for sale are simply old brews in new bottles. I don't know if the Party's success in overcoming one challenge to their rule after another has changed the way he understands Chinese affairs. If the events of the last two decades have not caused him to update his priors, then he deserves all the derision folks like to pile on him.

On the other hand, I have followed Goldstein quite closely over the last few years. I am disappointed to find that nothing that has happened since he published his book has caused him to reassess his policy formula. Consider what has happened in just the last year and a half: we have seen the Hong Kong's independent institutions strangled. We have witnessed the slow erosion of Hong Konger's liberties. We have seen the Party construct a surveillance state unlike anything that has ever existed in human history. Most ominously for the Taiwanese, we have learned exactly how the Party deals with provinces full of separatist ideologues. These events have raised the stakes. One searches in vain for any recognition of this in Goldstein's writings. If you want to argue that Taiwan is impossible to defend, or that this defense would create an unacceptable risk of nuclear war—well, fine, go ahead and do so. But at this point the game, any analyst who argues that the United States should retreat from the defense of Taiwan needs to be brutally honest about the fate they are consigning the 23 million people of Taiwan to.


[1] Lyle Goldstein, "The United States Must Be Realistic on Taiwan," National Interest, 7 August 2018.

[2]  For the classic investigation of these numbers, see Paul Smith, "The American Loyalists: Notes on Their Organization and Numerical Strength," The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 25, No. 2 (Apr., 1968), pp. 259-277

[4] On this point, see the following passage from my review of his book here:
This hypocrisy is most glaring in Goldstein’s discussions of history. Goldstein states that his “book is built on the premise that history cannot be overlooked or papered over,"(14) and to drive the point home, he devotes an entire chapter to the history of U.S.-Chinese relations, driving in on the history of U.S. imperialism in China and the psychological after effects America’s imperial presence has in the China of today. This contrasts greatly with his treatment of China’s own foreign adventurism. Goldstein’s gloss of the Sino-Indian war of 1963, for example, devotes several paragraphs to the CIA attempt to arm and train Tibetan rebels, something the Chinese still remember. What he does not emphasize in this account are the events at the center of India’s historical memory—Nehru’s generous and unilateral concessions in favor of China in the 1950s, made in hope of a new partnership between the two countries, spurned by Mao on the grounds of domestic struggle. In India this rejection of Nehru’s offers is known as the “great betrayal,” and the culmination of this “betrayal” in the surprise attack on Indian forces in 1963 still defines Indian images of China today. This history as surely as important—I would argue far more important—to the future of Sino-Indian security than the CIA’s attempts to infiltrate Tibet. It is not mentioned. Readers also learn nothing about the violent legacy of China’s cold war policies in other countries discussed, despite the that every regional single power of note either fought a war directly with China or fought an insurgency funded and trained by Beijing. Goldstein describes attempts to stoke the flame of Maoist insurgency across southeast Asia in the 60s and 70s are as “certain errors in diplomacy,”(266) but anyone remotely familiar with the countries in question know they have left much larger historical scars than this. These wars lie within living memory; their influence on contemporary Asian politics is far clearer than the early 20th century imperialism Goldstein devotes so much time to. Goldstein either does not know about this history or he does not care about it.
[5] Ralph Jennings, "Taiwan finds a lot to like about its former colonizer, Japan," Los Angeles Times 6 November, 2017; The wikipedia page has a lot of information about Taiwanese donations to Japan; my numbers for the aid to China comes from the Chinese Red Cross, who report substantially larger numbers than international media did.
[6] Tanner Greer, "#Reviewing Fire on the Water & Meeting China Halfway," Strategy Bridge, 7 November 2018.

[7] Goldstein, "The United States Must Be Realistic on Taiwan,"

[8] Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgement: How Good is it? How Can We Know? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); See also Tanner Greer, "The Limits of Expertise," The Scholar's Stage, 18 January 2018; Louis Menard. "Everybody's an Expert: Putting Political Expertise to the Test.The New Yorker, 5 December 2013. 

05 August, 2018

Notes From All Over 04/08/2018 (WEIRD Catholics, Chinese Intimidation Tactics, and Human Genetics)

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


"The Origins of WEIRD Psychology"
Jonathan Schulz, Duman Barahmi-Rad, Jonathan Beauchamp, and Joseph Henrich. PsyArXiv. 2 July 2018.
Recent research not only confirms the existence of substantial psychological variation around the globe but also highlights the peculiarity of populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD). We propose that much of this variation arose as people psychologically adapted to differing kin-based institutions—the set of social norms governing descent, marriage, residence and related domains. We further propose that part of the variation in these institutions arose historically from the Catholic Church’s marriage and family policies, which contributed to the dissolution of Europe’s traditional kin-based institutions, leading eventually to the predominance of nuclear families and impersonal institutions. By combining data on 20 psychological outcomes with historical measures of both kinship and Church exposure, we find support for these ideas in a comprehensive array of analyses across countries, among European regions and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds.
I have a hard time containing my praise for this paper. It is long--almost 100 when the bibliography is added on--but it is one of though most thorough and compelling pieces of historical social science I have read. The statistical tools Schulz et. al. use are as simple as they come, but these fellows found so many independent ways to measure the things they are interested in (differences in both psychology and family structure of global populations) that it is very, very difficult to pick apart their argument. This is a model of clever social science research design.

 It is also one answer to a set of questions that have been dodging political economists, historians, and comparative sociologists for the last two decades. I do not think this study closes the book on the question of "Why the West over the Rest?," but any new research in the field will be required to deal with Schultz et. al.'s results.

"When Rio Tinto Met China's Iron Hand"
Kit Chellel. Franz Wild. David Stringer. Bloomberg. 12 July 2018.

How should a company respond when Chinese policemen have thrown your executives in jail and Chinese hackers have stolen $1 billion from your coffers? Like this, I suppose:
Albanese and another Rio executive met in London with Chinese ambassador Fu Ying. “You embarrassed China and China’s people in front of the world,” Fu told them, according to two people familiar with the conversation. But she offered them a way forward, however vague: Show the people of China Rio Tinto’s human side, and build a more cooperative relationship.

"Can We Please Have Science Without the Science Journals?"
Pascal Boyer. Cognition and Culture. 27 June 2018.

Related: David Cyranoski, "Top Chinese University to Consider Social Media Posts in Researcher Evaluations," Nature (18 October 2017).


"Trump Diary: Cortisol Politics."

David Auerbach. Waggish. 8 July 2018.
Opposition to Trump personally has become the unifying thread. Standard Republican policies are far more terrifying under the auspices of Trump than they otherwise would be. 
Even more remarkable than Trump’s grip on his supporters is his hold on his opponents. I lived through the terror and paranoia following September 11, 2001, and I swore to myself never to fall into such a mental trap again. In this country, such mass hysteria hasn’t happened again among the left until now, and social media has amplified it tenfold. Compared to the ravages of the Iraq War, the human consequences of the Trump administration have been comparatively small so far. 
There is much ink and breath spilled on why Trump has already exceeded Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld’s worst excesses. He hasn’t. The Global War on Terror, and the Iraq War in particular, have had far-reaching and deeper consequences than anything Trump has yet achieved. This could change in a day: nuking North Korea or rounding up immigrants en masse could immediately propel Trump into the front ranks of tyrants. But the opposition’s inability to gauge threats, reacting to everything from the North Korea “summit” (a joke, mostly) to ICE abuses (terrible) to Anthony Kennedy’s retirement (lousy, but far from the worst of our problems) with identical (or indistinguishable) levels of fear and doomsaying. 
...Trump’s charisma exacerbates what I call Cortisol Politics, the basing of politics on the lowest instinctive fight-or-flight reactions of the brain. Trump has caused everything to seem like an emergency. Much of the right already felt this way thanks to the efforts of Rush, Hannity, and Fox over the last 20 years. Now the left feels that way too.
"Why Identity Politics Benefits the Right More than the Left"
Sheri Burman. The Guardian. 14 July 2018.
...Perhaps because straightforward bigotry has declined precipitously while more subtle, complex resentments remain, understanding how intolerance shapes politics requires examining not just beliefs, but also the relationship between beliefs and the environments people find themselves in. This distinction has important implications for how we interpret and address contemporary social and political problems. 
Rather than being directly translated into behavior, psychologists tell us beliefs can remain latent until “triggered”. In a fascinating study, Karen Stenner shows in The Authoritarian Dynamic that while some individuals have “predispositions” towards intolerance, these predispositions require an external stimulus to be transformed into actions. Or, as another scholar puts it: “It’s as though some people have a button on their foreheads, and when the button is pushed, they suddenly become intensely focused on defending their in-group … But when they perceive no such threat, their behavior is not unusually intolerant. So the key is to understand what pushes that button. 
What pushes that button, Stenner and others find, is group-based threats.


"Spy For Us — Or Never Speak To Your Family Again"

Megha Rajagopalan.  BuzzFeed News. 9 July 2018.

Related: Charles Rollet, "In China's Far West, Companies Cash in on Surveilance Program that Targets Muslims," Foreign Policy (13 June 2018).

"How E-Commerce is Transforming Rural China"

Fan Jiayang. New Yorker. 23 July 2018.

"Payment due: Pacific islands in the red as debts to China mount"
Charlotte Greenfield and Jonathan Barrett. Reuters. 30 July 2018.

Communist Youth League. Bilibili Video, 17 March 2017.

In case you were wondering what Communist Youth League propaganda looks like in the 21st century... now you know.


The Insight
Razib Khan and Spencer Wells have created an excellent podcast on human genetics they've named The Insight. Their topics range from behavioral genetics to the future of genetic technology, but I include the podcast in this category because many of their most interesting episodes have to do with historical and population genetics. Historical genetics is sweeping away many traditional takes on ancient history. These two are a superb guide to this genomic revolution. I recommend the following episodes in particular:

Barbarian Genetics
The Evolutionary Importance of Mothers and Grandmothers
Genetic States of America
The Genetics of China, Han, and Beyond
Paradise Lost

Review of Zhao Dingxin. The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History.
Yuri Pines. Early China, vol 39. (2016) pp 311–320.

This is an accurate, but vicious review of Zhao's book. Writing a social science based account of Chinese history that Pines cannot tear to smithereens would be a very good life-goal.

"Material security, life history, and moralistic religions: A cross-cultural examination" 
Benjamin Purzycki, et. al. PLoS ONE vol 13, iss 3. March 2018.

This paper looks like it is the final nail in the "life history" theories of religious behavior (if you don't know what "life history approaches" mean, read the lit review section of the paper carefully; it is a cogent introduction).

"Behavioural variation in 172 small-scale societies indicates that social learning is the main mode of human adaptation"
Sarah Mathew and Charles Perreault.  Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol 282, iss 1820. 7 July 2015.
Cultural history has a larger effect than ecology in a majority of the traits in the categories of technology and material culture, marriage and family organization, economic organization, ceremonies and rituals, supernatural beliefs, kinship system, political organization, warfare, settlement patterns and sodalities (figure 2a). Conversely, the effect of ecology is larger than that of cultural history in a majority of the traits related to subsistence. Cultural phylogeny is a stronger predictor than ecology for a majority of the traits in all categories of traits, except for technology and material culture, and subsistence (figure 2b). It is also a stronger predictor than spatial distance for a majority of traits in all categories (figure 2c). Finally, ecology is a stronger predictor than spatial distance for a majority of traits in all categories (figure 2d)…. The results indicate that behaviours can persist over millennia within a cultural lineage. We detected a positive effect of cultural history at every phylogenetic level, including the deepest level, phylum. This is striking, since phylum divides the tribes into two groups, Na-Dene and Amerind, a split that may be as old as 15 000 years.

The results also suggest that groups diverge linguistically more rapidly than they do behaviourally… The importance of Levels 6 and 7 imply that the behavioural repertoire of a tribe is strongly influenced by that of its ancestors that lived hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago. Levels 6 and 7 may represent shared ancestry more than 1000 years ago. For instance, the speakers of Salishan languages share a common ancestor at Level 6 and may have begun to diverge about 3000 years ago…The fact that cultural phylogeny has a stronger effect than spatial distance on the presence of behavioural traits indicates that learning from group members is a more important process than learning from members of other groups.
"The Social Dynamics of Sorcery"
William Buckner. Traditions of Conflict. 6 July 2018.

See also: William Buckner, "A Tale of Sorcery and Marriage Among the Gebusi," 9 June 2018.


"After Last Year's Hurricane, Carribean Lizards are Better at Holding on For Dear Life."
Ed Yong. The Atlantic. 25 July 2018.

This is a dramatic example of evolution in action. Original paper here.


"Meet the Navy’s new ‘mothership’ that fights with unmanned drones and vessels"
Aqil Haziq Mahmud. Channel News Asia. 6 June 2018.

"The Spy Who Drove Me"
Julia Ioffe. GQ. 24 July 2018.

"Behavioral Consequences of Probabilistic Precision: Experimental Evidence from National Security Professionals” 
Jeffrey Friedman, Jennifer Lerner, & Richard Zeckhauser. International Organization. 2017. pp. 1-24


"Pos Shawarma: On Avengers Infinity Wars"
Aaron Brody. LA Review of Books. 2 May 2018.

"What Makes a Story Wuxia? The Grace of Kings vs. The Black Trillium""
"Sarah K." Notes That Do Not Fit. 25 May 2018.

22 July, 2018

Why Didn't China Give Birth to Democracy?

Yuhua Wang and Mark Dincecco have an interesting paper out in the Annual Review of Political Science. The paper offers and tests a new hypothesis for why European governments developed "political representation" while China did not. The paper is interesting and the data they have collected is fascinating. However, the case they have made is flawed in a few important ways. The most interesting of these flaws is conceptual—and as I read the paper I could not help but think that it is a good example of how the normative-focused 'political theory' subfield of political science can contribute to live debates in the 'empirical' side of their departments. I submit that the categories we have developed to make sense of Western history are sometimes a poor fit for the history of China. Analyzing Chinese history means taking Chinese conceptions of their own institutions seriously. Failure to take Chinese political philosophy with the seriousness it deserves may cause us to miss some of the most interesting patterns of China's political history.

I'll go through my logic and highlight the other flaws I see below, but before I do, let's bask in the wonderfully presented data set Wang and Dincecco (or their graduate students!) have given the world:

Figure I in Yuhua Wang and Mark Dincecco, "Violent Conflict and Political Development Over the Long Run: China Versus Europe," Annual Review of Political Science (2018), vol 28, 344.
Figure I in Yuhua Wang and Mark Dincecco, "Violent Conflict and Political Development Over the Long Run: China Versus Europe," Annual Review of Political Science (2018), vol 28, 345.

It is a bit fun simply to look at these maps and try and pick out patterns. (Wang has a few more maps of this type in a different working paper, where he breaks down the battles into rebellions and fights against non-Chinese foes). As Wang is a Harvard professor, my hope is that these battle locations will be added as a skin on Harvard's ChinaMap project. The applications are endless. But what do Wang and Dincecco use the data for?

I will let them explain:
Our simple model suggests that warfare may have diverse implications for political development depending on the underlying political geography context. Namely, the model predicts that political representation is more likely to emerge in the context of political fragmentation. Here, the elites may credibly threaten to move abroad if the ruler does not meet their demand for a political freedom. Furthermore, the ruler may be more vulnerable to external attack by military rivals emanating from multiple directions, enhancing the value that she places on elite loyalty. For both reasons, the elites may be in a strong enough bargaining position vis-a-vis the ruler to demand ` political representation. In the context of political centralization, by contrast, the elites’ threat to exit is less credible, due to the difficulty of moving abroad. The ruler, moreover, may place less value on elite loyalty, both because of the smaller chance that elites will move abroad and because of the greater probability that foreign attack threats will be unidirectional in nature, thereby reducing her vulnerability. The ruler’s bargaining position versus elites should thus be stronger, making the emergence of political representation less probable. [1]
With this thesis Wang and Dincecco are wading into a debate that is now about three decades old. It was kicked off when sociologist Charles Tilly advanced the claim that "states make war and war makes states." [2] Tilly's basic case (further developed in his book, Coercion, Capital, and European States) is that the creation and strengthening of political institutions in Europe c. 1000-1900 AD was driven by warfare. The demands of warfare drove political leaders to extract greater and greater resources from their domains. Wringing more wealth from society at large meant building political institutions capable of more vigorous wringing. Tilly hypothesized that the pre-existing shape of a given society (e.g., is its wealth held mostly in cities, in a landed aristocracy, etc.) determined the strategy political leaders would adopt when building these institutions. If you want to understand why some states had parliaments while others had czars, then you must turn your gaze back to the expedients kings resorted to in order to fund their wars centuries ago.

In the three decades since Coercion, Capital, and European States was published a cottage industry has sprung up investigating whether there really is a relationship between war and state strength on the one hand, or war and regime type on the other. The problems comes when you attempt to apply Tilly's famous framing outside the European experience. War is a constant of human history. Strong states are not. Strong states with representative institutions are even more difficult to find. If Tilly's "bellicist" model of state formation is valid, then why doesn't it work outside of Europe? For some researchers, the simple answer is that bellicist models are not valid, and some other model of state formation should be defended.[3] Others have suggested that bellicist models are correct given certain conditions—the wars fought must reach a certain intensity, the states must not have access to external credit, they must not be divided along ethnic lines, or what-have-you, for the model to hold.[4]

Wang and Dincecco are political economists, not historical sociologists, but their model fits neatly into this debate. What makes their case different from—and in my eyes more promising than—most of this literature is the object of their analysis. Most bellicist theories focus on aspects of the states themselves, or more rarely, aspects of the wars fought between them. The general claim is that variable Y or variable X (hopefully something that can be easily measured and thrown in a regression analysis) is what causes the different patterns of state development across the world. But in focusing in on ease of exit and vulnerability to attack from multiple directions Wang and Dincecco are shifting the object of analysis from the state to the state-system. They do not really frame it this way, of course, but this is what they are claiming: in a state system where states face geopolitical pressure on many fronts, and in which it is easy for wealthy elites to decamp to other states, war will drive leaders to compromise with local elites instead of driving leaders to coerce them. The end result of such compromise will be "representative" political institutions like parliaments and congresses.

I am strongly in favor of (and have argued strenuously for) systemic theories of state formation. [5] But if we are going to go down this road we must travel its full length. Imperial China and Early Modern Europe are not the only two state systems that have existed in human history. More important still, Europe is not the only state system that was full of political units that faced geopolitical pressure on many fronts and which political elites could easily exit from one kingdom to another. I have written before about how these aspects of the Early Modern European system also describe Sengoku Japan and Warring States China. I am less familiar with early-modern India, but Roberto Foa makes a very strong case in his PhD thesis that similar statements can be made about the states that emerged in the wake of the Mughal collapse. [6]  Despite this fact, Western-style representative institutions are not to be found in post-Mughal India, Warring States China, or Sengoku Japan (the closest thing we have are the ikko-ikki leagues in Japan, but they were squashed quickly). It turns out Wang and Denecco face the same challenge that bellicists always face: how do you explain the model's failure to predict outcomes outside of Europe?

I have a few other quibbles. Was it really so easy for European elites to take their wealth with them from one state to another? More importantly, was it so hard for Chinese to escape the grasp of the state? As Wang and Denecco note, in late imperial times the Chinese state was a weak thing. The historical record is rife with tales and accounts of clans, families, and disgraced officials fleeing to the hinterlands or the borders where they knew they would be beyond the reach of imperial control.[7] The inability of emperors to control their empire presents another puzzle. The historical consensus is that the Qin Dynasty—born out of the Europe-like geopolitical competition of the Warring States Era—was the era when state-society relations tilted strongest towards the state. Some authors have gone so far as to describe the Qin regime as "totalitarian." Never again in imperial Chinese history would the state have such strong grip on the Chinese elite. [8] How can Wang and Denecco's theory account for this? If their hypothesis is correct, why would Chinese in later eras have a stronger bargaining position vis-a-vis their emperor when China was a unitary state than when it was divided into warring states?

I do not have a suitable hypothesis to answer this question. To start us off, however, I do think it is helpful to consider how elite Chinese managed to subvert the emperor's will in late imperial times. One of the guiding assumptions of much comparative history and social science work on imperial China is that the Confucian bureaucracy were faithful executors of the imperial will. But nothing could be further from the truth. In imperial times, Chinese politics often devolved into high-stakes competitions between the civil service on one side and eunuchs (or in the Qing Dynasty, imperial bondsmen) on the other. Eunuchs and bondsmen were the hand of the throne. Their loyalty was to the emperor. Confucian literati, in contrast, were loyal to the dynasty. Saving the dynasty often meant doing everything they could to limit the power of the emperor. These elites self consciously described themselves as pleading the cause of the common people of China. They were not entirely wrong to make this claim. The estates of bureaucrats were scattered across the empire; unlike the emperor, they had family members in the lower economic strata, and had personal contact with farmers living in poverty. More important still (and unlike the eunuchs) bureaucrats were selected and promoted by a system that was not entirely under the emperor's control. The resulting throw-downs between  the literati and the eunuchs was as dangerous as any parliamentary censure of the king. Both contests pitted the empire against the throne. What differed was the structure and philosophy of each regime's 'representative' institutions. [9] 

Treating the Confucian bureaucracy as representative institution engaged in constant bargaining with the throne puts an interesting spin on this entire topic. If this is a valid way of framing things, and if political bargaining worked in China more or less as it did in Europe, then I would predict that potential Chinese monarchs would try to use access to the bureaucracy as a tool to win over elite support for their regimes. A cursory look at Chinese history suggests that this is exactly what happened. Conquest dynasties like the Jin and the Yuan were not considered legitimate until they recreated the bureaucratic system; one of the decisive moments in Zhu Yuanzhang's campaigns against Zhang Shicheng was his decision to hold imperial examinations. Wang and Denecco provide a similar example in their paper:
 During [the Taiping Rebellion] event, the Qing government ran out of funds for its antirebel efforts. To defeat the rebels, the emperor asked local gentry for financial help. In exchange, public school quotas were adjusted in the gentry’s favor, increasing the odds that their sons would later be admitted to the imperial civil service. Wang (2017) finds that gentry located in zones nearer to the so-called Taiping Heavenly Kingdom—the revolutionary regime established by the Taiping—contributed significantly more to the emperor’s military efforts. This evidence suggests that, rather than exploit the ruler’s need for quick funds to bargain over local political freedoms, as was common in Europe, the gentry agreed to remain loyal in exchange for a greater chance for their offspring to gain entrance to the imperial civil service. [10]
Another possible way to frame this is that the gentry exploited the ruler's need for quick funds in order to increase their share of power. There was little desire to make the imperial civil service democratic, but there may have been efforts to make it more "representative."

This is a question of political philosophy—or to use the parlance of political science, it is a question of political theory. Whether Chinese conceived of the civil service system as an explicit check on the throne, whether there was a theory of representation built into the political ideals of Neoconfucian philosophy, and whether the limits of the word "representative government" are too narrow to include the imperial civil service inside them is a question for political theorists and historians to debate. The need to ask such questions at all is a reminder that the work of normative political philosophers cannot be so easily separated from more empirical analyses of human political behavior.


[1] Yuhua Wang and Mark Dincecco, "Violent Conflict and Political Development Over the Long Run: China Versus Europe," Annual Review of Political Science 2018, 21:341-358.

[2] Charles Tilly, “Reflections on the History of European State-Making,” in Formation of National States in Western Europe, ed. Charles Tilly. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 75.

[3] For a few examples, Scott Abrahmson, “The Economic Origins of the Territorial State.” Mimeo (2013); Michael Niemen, “War Making and State Making in Central Africa," Africa Today, (2005) vol 53, iss 3: 21-39; Thierry Gongorra, “War Making and State Power in the Contemporary Middle East,International Journal of Middle East Studies (1997), vol 29 iss 3: 323-340. Miguel A Centeno, “Blood and Debt: War and Taxation in Nineteenth-Century Latin America," American Journal of Sociology (1997), vol 102, iss 6:1565–605.

[4] For example, Keith Jaggers, “War and the Three Faces of Power: War Making and State Making In Europe and the Americas.” Comparative Political Studies (1992), vol 25, iss 1: 25-62; Anna Leadner, “Wars and the Un-Making of States: Taking Tilly Seriously in the Contemporary World,” in Contemporary Security Analysis and Copenhagen Peace Research, eds., Stefano Guzzini and Dietrich Jung. (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), 69-80; Brian Taylor and Rozana Botea, “Tilly Tally: War-Making and State-Making in the Contemporary Third World.International Studies Review (2008) 10: 27-56;

[5] Tanner Greer, "Darwin and War in Ancient China, Sengoku Japan, and Early Modern Europe," Scholar's Stage (5 November 2015).

[6] See the working paper embedded in Ibid; Roberto Foa, "Ancient Polities, Modern States," PhD diss (Harvard: 2016), esp. ch. 3 and 5.

[7] For example, see Wang Wensheng, White Lotus Rebels and South China Pirates (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 37-114.

[8] On the difference between Qin and later imperial practice, see Yuri Pines, Review of Zhao Dingxin, The Confucian-Legalist State: A New Theory of Chinese History. Early China 39 (2016), 311-320. The "totalitarian" title comes from Fu Zhengyuan, China's Legalists: The Earliest Totalitarians and Their Art of Ruling (Routledge: New York, 1997); for a more measured assessment of Qin authoritarianism, see Yuri Pines, Gideon Schelach, Robin Yates, and Lothan von Falkenhausen, “General Introduction: Qin History Revisted” in Birth of An Empire: The State of Qin Revisted (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 1-36.

[9] This is one of many themes pursued in Frederick Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003). Mote traces the theme throughout his history of later imperial China, but is most clearly presented in his chapters on the politics of the later Ming emperors, pp. 598-685, 

[10] Wang and Dincecco, "Violent Conflict and Political Development Over the Long Run," 350.

11 July, 2018

Being vs. Doing in Ancient Chinese Thought--A Note

Yesterday's excerpt from the Zuo Zhuan is an excellent case study in the difficulty of translating classical Chinese into English (or into modern Chinese, for that matter). Here is the sentence of interest, as translated by Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Lee, and David Schaberg:
Having watched from her bedchamber, the girl said, “Gongsun Hei is handsome, to be sure, but You Chu is manly. For the man to be manly and the wife wifely: that is what is fitting." [1]
 Mark Edward Lewis translates Lady Xu’s judgement of the two men slightly differently:
“Gongsun Hei was sincere and fine, but You Chu was a man. For a man to be a man and a woman a woman is what we call true order.” [2]
The trouble comes with the phrase “for a man to be manly and a wife wifely/”for a man to be a man or a woman to be a woman.” In the classical Chinese, this entire sentence is only four words long: 夫夫婦婦 (in modern Mandarin: fū fū fù fù). If you translate it literally, all Lady Wu says is: “man man, woman woman.”

How to make sense of this? The key is that in classical Chinese the number of word classes any one word can belong to is usually much larger than in modern English. The word “man” can be used not just as a noun, but also as an adjective, adverb, or verb. In this sentence the second “man” and “woman” is intended as a verb. This can be difficult to grasp for English speakers. We sometimes use the word man as verb in English (think of the phrases “man up” or “man your stations”), but those uses are quite particular to specific situations. We don’t talk about the need for men to go “manning” their way through life (and we certainly don’t talk about "womaning" your way through anything).

This gets to one of the key conceptual differences between ancient Chinese thought and the kind of thoughts we express in modern English. Another example, this time from the Analects, helps make this difference clear:
The duke Jing, of Qi, asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, "There is government, when the prince is prince, and the minister is minister; when the father is father, and the son is son." [3]
Literally this reads: “Qi’s Jing-duke asks [about] governing to Confucius. Confucius replies: Lord lord, minister minister, father father, son son.”

You can translate this second part in several ways. You could say that the government is doing well when “fathers are fathers.” You could also translate it as “when fathers are fatherly” or “when fathers act like fathers.” But the most faithful translation would be to treat the second father as a verb: the realm does well when fathers father. This works, because the English language recognizes that being a father is not just something you are—it is also something you do. But we don’t think this way about most nouns. Fathering and mothering are things you do—but what about sonning, dauthering, or sistering? While I am sure my readers could come up with a list of responsibilities sons, daughters, or sisters have, the fact that one must do this to even talk about what it means to do sonhood or daughterhood shows how wide the gap between the world of ancient Chinese thought and our own really is.

So which came first, the role or the language which describes it? I am not sure. At first glance the former option seems the obvious answer. Because the ancient Chinese had such firm conceptions of what it meant to be a son, daughter, man, or woman, they devised words to describe people who did each. That is possible. However, I suspect (and not having studied the current state of Sapir-Whorf inspired research, it is only a suspicion) that the causality works the other way around. Classical Chinese forces you to think in terms of doing not being. I suspect ancient Chinese had such a firm conception of what it meant to be a son, daughter, man, or woman because they did not ask “what does it mean to be a man?” but “how do we do manhood?” [4] (Readers more up to date with the state of research on linguistic relativity are encouraged to to sound off in the comments!)

This is not a new or unique observation of my part.[5] But it does provide an interesting translation challenge. You cannot explain all this every time you translate a verb, and just have to try your best and make the result something sensible in English. This is probably how I would translate Lady Wu’s judgement of her suitors:

“Gongsun Hei is both earnest and fine-looking, but You Chu is a man. For a man to act as a man and a woman to act as a woman—that follows [the true order of things].”


[1] Trans by Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Lee, and David Schaberg, Zuo Tradition, vol III (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 1317.

[2] Mark Edward Lewis, Sanctioned Violence in Early China (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 43. 

[3] Analects 12:11. On James Legge, trans, “The Analects: 顏淵 - Yan Yuan.” Chinese Text project. Accessed 5 July 2018.

[4] Classical Chinese did have copulas, so it was possible for them to say “x is y” or “Y will be z.” Indeed Lady Xu uses a copula in the first part of her assessment of You Chu: “子皙信美矣.抑子南夫也.” (“As for Zinan [You Chu], he is a man.” But they were used far less than simply smacking two terms next to each other.

[5] For a good example, read Ames's introduction in Sun Tzu: The Art of War (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993), 43-64

10 July, 2018

Manning Up in Ancient China

One of many delightful pearls found inside the Zuo Zhuan, the oldest historical narrative in East Asia:
The younger sister of Xuwu Fan of Zheng was beautiful. You Chu had already formalized his engagement with her when Gongsun Hei sent someone who insisted on presenting her with a betrothal fowl. Alarmed, Xuwu Fan told Zichan. Zichan said, “This is because the domain lacks correct governing. It is not your worry. Go with whichever one you want.” 
Fan requested the two men to allow the girl to choose between them. Both consented. Gongsun Hei entered in elegant attire, laid out gifts of cloth, and exited. You Chu entered in military attire, shot arrows got the left and to the right, leaped into his chariot, and exited. 

Having watched from her bedchamber, the girl said, “Gongsun Hei is handsome, to be sure, but You Chu is manly. For the man to be manly and the wife wifely: that is what is fitting." She married into the family of You Chu.
Zuo Zhuan, Lord Zhao 1.7 [1]
Things did not turn out too well for our ancient Chinese Chad. Shortly after this episode Gongsun Hei attacked You Chu in revenge. You Chu defended himself well, but the higher ranking and better connected Gongsun Hei was able to frame the altercation as insubordination. Zichan had You Chu exiled from Zheng. Whether he was able to take his new bride with him into exile the text does not say.


[1] Stephen Durrant, Wai-yee Lee, and David Schaberg, trans., Zuo Tradition, vol III (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 1317.

06 July, 2018

What Cyber-War Will Look Like

When prompted to think about the way hackers will shape the future of great power war, we are wont to imagine grand catastrophes: F-35s grounded by onboard computer failures, Aegis BMD systems failing to launch seconds before Chinese missiles arrive, looks of shock at Space Command as American surveillance satellites start careening towards the Earth--stuff like that. This is the sort of thing that fills the opening chapters of Peter Singer and August Cole's Ghost Fleet. [1] The catastrophes I always imagine, however, are a bit different than this. The hacking campaigns I envision would be low-key, localized, and fairly low-tech. A cyber-ops campaign does not need to disable key weapon systems to devastate the other side's war effort. It will be enough to increase the fear and friction enemy leaders face to tip the balance of victory and defeat. Singer and company are not wrong to draw inspiration from technological change; nor are they wrong to attempt to imagine operations with few historical precedents. But that isn't my style. When asked to ponder the shape of cyber-war, my impulse is to look first at the kind of thing hackers are doing today and ask how these tactics might be applied in a time of war.

Mark Cancian thinks like I do.

In a report Cancian wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies on how great powers adapt to tactical and strategic surprise, Cancian sketched out twelve "vignettes" of potential technological or strategic shocks to make his abstract points a bit more concrete. Here is how Cancian imagines an "asymmetric cyber-attack" launched by the PRC against the United States Military:
 The U.S. secretary of defense had wondered this past week when the other shoe would drop.  Finally, it had, though the U.S. military would be unable to respond effectively for a while. 
The scope and detail of the attack, not to mention its sheer audacity, had earned the grudging respect of the secretary. Years of worry about a possible Chinese "Assassin's Mace"-a silver bullet super-weapon capable of disabling key parts of the American military-turned out to be focused on the wrong thing. 
The cyber attacks varied. Sailors stationed at the 7th Fleet' s homeport in Japan awoke one day to find their financial accounts, and those of their dependents, empty. Checking, savings, retirement funds: simply gone. The Marines based on Okinawa were under virtual siege by the populace, whose simmering resentment at their presence had boiled over after a YouTube video posted under the account of a Marine stationed there had gone viral. The video featured a dozen Marines drunkenly gang-raping two teenaged Okinawan girls. The video was vivid, the girls' cries heart-wrenching the cheers of Marines sickening And all of it fake. The National Security Agency's initial analysis of the video had uncovered digital fingerprints showing that it was a computer-assisted lie, and could prove that the Marine's account under which it had been posted was hacked. But the damage had been done. 
There was the commanding officer of Edwards Air Force Base whose Internet browser history had been posted on the squadron's Facebook page. His command turned on him as a pervert; his weak protestations that he had not visited most of the posted links could not counter his admission that he had, in fact, trafficked some of them. Lies mixed with the truth. Soldiers at Fort Sill were at each other's throats thanks to a series of text messages that allegedly unearthed an adultery ring on base. 
The variations elsewhere were endless. Marines suddenly owed hundreds of thousands of dollars on credit lines they had never opened; sailors received death threats on their Twitter feeds; spouses and female service members had private pictures of themselves plastered across the Internet; older service members received notifications about cancerous conditions discovered in their latest physical. 
Leadership was not exempt. Under the hashtag # PACOMMUSTGO a dozen women allegedly described harassment by the commander of Pacific command. Editorial writers demanded that, under the administration's "zero tolerance" policy, he step aside while Congress held hearings. 
There was not an American service member or dependent whose life had not been digitally turned upside down. In response, the secretary had declared "an operational pause," directing units to stand down until things were sorted out. 
Then, China had made its move, flooding the South China Sea with its conventional forces, enforcing a sea and air identification zone there, and blockading Taiwan. But the secretary could only respond weakly with a few air patrols and diversions of ships already at sea. Word was coming in through back channels that the Taiwanese government, suddenly stripped of its most ardent defender, was already considering capitulation. [2]
How is that for a cyber-attack?

A few points should be made about the tactics of this sort of campaign. Consider a tactical option not included in this vignette, but one whose utility has been proven time and again in the real world: swatting. To swat properly, all you would need is a name, an address, and a way to place a phone-call. Swatting is limited in some ways. It is unlikely to kill its targets. Only a few targets living in one jurisdiction could be swatted at one time, as SWAT teams are a limited resource. And you can really only target the same family once; first responders remember places that have been swatted. But there are unique advantages to this sort of thing. Unlike, say, an assassination campaign, swatting could be used to target fairly high-level leadership (say, the NSC lead for Asia, the director of the DIA, or more locally, the commander of a place like Joint-Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham) without putting said leadership in the sort of danger that would call for lethal retaliation in your own capital. On the other hand, if your operational doctrine calls for the assassination of enemy political and military leaders from the outset (as, say, the People Liberation Army's plans for any attack on Taiwan requires), then swatting leaders who are unlikely to be caught up in the first round of attacks would be an efficient way to sow as much chaos as possible. [3]

Sowing chaos is not a goal sought for its own sake. Swatting would be most effective if conducted as part of a broader campaign. If the purpose is to distract the enemy before a surprise invasion, as Cancian's scenario imagines, then it probably would not be wise to go all-out on all fronts a week before zero-hour. That would simply tip the enemy off that an attack is coming. A more subtle and targeted approach would be more appropriate there. On the other hand, if the goal is to throw a spanner in the enemy OODA loop and throw up as much friction as possible once more traditional military operations have begun, then there would be little reason for restraint. This would be particularly true if participants imagined that the war hinged on a "decisive" campaign fought over a short time period (the PLA's belief that the fight for Taiwan will be won or lost in the first two weeks of fighting is a good candidate here). [4] An alternate rationale for extensive swatting in the lead up to a general attack would be to wear down and overtax the enemy's emergency response systems, who would not enter the coming war or battle in a state of readiness. Finally, a swatting campaign, especially if conducted in tandem with other attacks of a similar nature, could have a demoralizing effect on both the citizenship and the leadership of the enemy. The effect on the leadership is especially interesting to contemplate. Obviously decision making will be hampered if important decision-makers have to spend time in a crisis convincing policemen that there is actually no hostage crisis in their house, finding a way to pay for lunch now that their credit cards don't work, or investigating the rape threats being sent to their teenage daughters' Instagram. Less clear is how psychologically damaging this might be. The political and military leaders of many countries are not used to having their families targeted in times of war. It may very well break their nerve--especially on the short term. In the long term, however, it will likely just embitter enemy leadership and give them a very personal reason to stay committed to the fight.

The good news in all this is that some of these things can be mitigated against. This mode of thinking comes easy to me partly because I follow digital privacy and security blogs and researchers closely. They spread stories of this sort around like 7th grade girls spread rumors. The best of them also share tips on how to protect your family against many of these attacks. My favorites are Michael Bazzell and Justin Carroll, authors of the Privacy and Security Desk Reference vol I and vol II, and hosts of the Privacy and Security Podcast. My hope is that the broader world of federal employees can become familiar with these guys and their tribe. They cannot help with all of scenarios Cancian or I can come up with, but they can help with some of them. For example, if the idea of waking up tomorrow and discovering that PLA hackers have borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars in your name scares you,  Bazzell's guide on how to implement a credit freeze is worth your time.

A final parting thought. It is trivially easy to find an American's address, ruin their credit score, steal their investments, use their social media or email accounts against them, and generally ruin someone's life through digital means. America's two greatest rivals (Russia and China) do not hesitate to harass, beat up, or intimidate American personnel. But stories of this type are very rare. Why is this? It isn't because they lack the capacity. They have it now. If they are not regularly harassing Americans today, it most likely because they do not want Americans to be better prepared for the conflict of tomorrow. 


[1] Peter Singer and August Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2016).

[2] Mark Cancian, Coping With Surprise in Great Power Conflicts (Washington: CSIS, 2018), 110-111.

[3] Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia (Eastbridge Books, 2017),  ch. 4

[4] ibid, ch. 5.