14 October, 2019

China's Vision of Victory?



Over at Foreign Policy I have a new column out reviewing Jonathan Ward's China's Vision of Victory. The column is not actually new; it has been on the news-stands for several weeks now in Foreign Policy's print edition. But it only went online two days ago. I use the review as a chance to open up some very broad questions about American policy towards China and Chinese policy towards America.

This book will not be pleasant reading for some. It is built on a hard foundation of official PRC and CPC statements, white papers, laws, and pronouncements—together these documents suggest that China's ambitions are far less limited than many Americans hope:
China’s Vision of Victory is a useful antidote to the popular delusion that Chinese leaders seek nothing more than to roll back U.S. hegemony in the Western Pacific—or that they will be sated by becoming the dominant East Asian power. Despite presenting modest and peaceful ambitions to foreigners, the Chinese Communist Party leadership transparently communicates its desire for primacy to internal audiences. By guiding readers through a barrage of official documents, excerpted liberally throughout the book, Ward shows just how wide-ranging these ambitions are. 
To start with, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) already defines its maritime forces as a “two-ocean navy.” Chinese energy demands have led the PLA to extend its reach to Pakistan, Africa, and the disputed waters of the South China Sea. White papers spell out Chinese ambitions to be the primary strategic presence not just on the East Asian periphery but in Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the Southern Pacific. China’s leadership claims that it has core economic interests as far abroad as Europe, Latin America, the Arctic, and outer space. With these economic interests come road maps for securing Chinese relationships or presence in each region. 
By 2050, the Chinese aim to have a military “second to none,” to become the global center for technology innovation, and to serve as the economic anchor of a truly global trade and infrastructure regime—an economic bloc that would be unprecedented in human history. In their speeches and documents, Chinese leaders call this vision of a China-centered future—a future where a U.S.-led system has been broken apart and discarded—a “community of common destiny for mankind.” That ambition debunks the myth of a multipolar future: China seeks dominance, not just a share of the pie.[1]
Ward demonstrates all of this very well, document by document.

One of the more frustrating things about China's Vision of Victory, however, is that Ward often strays from these official springs to less credible sources:
Ward peppers the book with conversations he has had with Shanghai street sellers and Qinghai truck drivers. He supplements these anecdotes with translations from Chinese books and think tank reports that support his broader characterization of the Chinese people. 
But China is vast. Look hard enough, and you will eventually find a Chinese person willing to say anything you need him or her to. Ward has no way to prove he has not cherry-picked. A similar problem plagues a section of the book devoted to China’s premodern “tributary system,” in which subordinate states like Korea made regular payments in return for protection, with the questionable assumption that Ming and Qing diplomacy gives us a clear idea of Chinese intentions. Ward relies on a model of the tributary system first developed in the 1940s. This model has been rejected almost entirely by historians who study the issue today. And while Ward is welcome to argue that the current historical consensus is wrong, the critical issue is not what Western historians believe about premodern Chinese statecraft but what the minds in Zhongnanhai believe about the country’s past and its relevance to China’s future. On this, Ward has nothing to report.[2]
I understand Ward's desire to add color and spice to the bland Party-speak of the documents he quotes. I am sure this is part of the reason he includes so many anecdotal stories of Chinese businessmen and street sellers who tell him how they yearn for the bloody death of so many Americans. I do not doubt that Ward has had these conversations. I have had many such conversations myself. When I wrote two weeks ago that the average Chinese has a late 19th century mentality, I meant it! But I question the wisdom of including them in this book. These anecdotes will be most convincing to those who do not need convincing. The dovish sort will seize on them to unfairly dismiss the entire book as a methodological mess.

But this is not my only disagreement with Ward. The other reason Ward includes these conversations is because he believes that the Chinese Communist Party is only an "expression" of a more fundamental problem. The collision course between China and the rest, he argues, is a product of the Chinese people's earnest desire for global dominance. The Communist Party is just one expression of this desire; were it to disappear tomorrow, not much would be different.

I disagree with this. This is the crux of my problem with Ward's book. It is important to figure out which of us is right. As I write in the review:
There is, however, a more serious problem in viewing the challenge posed by China’s growing power in purely national terms. The implicit question posed throughout Ward’s book is whether the United States should acquiesce to China’s vision of victory. Can Americans live in a world where the Chinese possess the largest economy, greatest industrial base, most powerful military, and the leading centers of technological and scientific innovation? Can Americans live in a world where the Chinese possess the largest economy, greatest industrial base, most powerful military, and the leading centers of technological and scientific innovation? 
Technically, yes. The United States is a nuclear-armed state with no near enemies. It is flanked by two vast oceans and directly controls the approaches to the North American continent. It is endowed with an enormous population with net positive migration. In times of crisis, the United States can rely entirely on internal resources to keep its population fed, clothed, and warm. No other nation has been dealt such an enviable hand. Even a China that militarily or economically dominates Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America would not pose a credible geopolitical threat to the U.S. homeland. For many Americans, quietly ceding victory to the Chinese would be an acceptable cost for averting decades of nuclear brinkmanship. 
But this logic has its own problems. It dodges a deciding source of tension in the Sino-American relationship. Communist Party leaders believe they are locked in what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called “fierce competition … in the ideological sphere” with the West. They assert that this ideological competition threatens the existence of their party and imperils the road to national rejuvenation. They describe historians, researchers, dissidents, and Chinese-language media outlets in countries like Australia, Germany, and the United States as dangers equal to anything U.S. Indo-Pacific Command can throw at them. This is the root motivation behind what are now being called “interference” and “influence” operations in Western countries. 
This is a blind spot in Ward’s analysis. The term “United Front” (the party’s favored moniker for institutions that co-opt or turn people to serve the party’s objectives) does not appear in China’s Vision of Victory. “Influence operations” shows up just twice, with the gloss that these operations are “meant to distort a country’s discourse on China and to constrain action against Beijing.” Framing these operations purely in geopolitical terms misstates the challenge they pose. These operations are not just about shaping the opinions of foreign-policy elites but about controlling and coercing enemies of the Communist regime who live outside China’s borders. They are part of the same effort that has led to ever tightening censorship; sweeping crackdowns on Chinese law firms, media outlets, and religious organizations; and sent a million-plus Uighurs to detention centers inside China. 
So-called influence operations are aimed at the enemies China’s leaders fear most: the ones who pose an ideological, not a geopolitical, threat to the Communist Party. These are the hostile forces that threaten the stability of the Communist regime, and many of them—from Christians and Uighurs fleeing religious persecution to Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, and others of Chinese descent who dare imagine different futures for their people—live in America. As long as these groups can safely assemble and freely speak within the United States, America will be seen as a threat to the Chinese party-state. Similar fears have already led Beijing to demand ideological fealty from its foreign debtors. China’s leaders do not ask clients to change their system of government but to squelch criticism of Chinese communism inside their borders. Thus, the leaders of Muslim-majority countries pretend that their faith is not being crushed in Xinjiang, and the Thai government turns a blind eye to Chinese security kidnapping dissidents inside its borders. The Chinese leadership does not compel the same behavior from the United States only because it lacks the power to do so.
Accommodating the geopolitical ambitions of the Chinese people is comparatively easy. Easing the ideological insecurities of the Communist elite would demand far more drastic changes to U.S. politics and society.[3]
I encourage you to read the full thing.

I wrote and submitted this review before the controversy over the NBA and Blizzard Games began. Events have kindly demonstrated my larger point. It is not because the Chinese Communist Party fears the might of US Pacific Command that they feel threatened by corporations likes Blizzard or Apple. It is not because of the American threat to their energy supply lines that they brow-beat these corporations into silence. They treat lesser countries no better than they treat these corporations. They seek the wealth and power to treat all countries thus. Ward's geopolitical framework does not provide him with the tools to explain these things, and that is his greatest error.

This is not to say that geopolitics should be writ off altogether. It should not. Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean and Africa are clearly driven by geoeconomic imperatives. For these reasons I advise you to buy the book. My only suggestion is that you temper what you have learned with other sources that take the ideological drivers behind Beijing's behavior more seriously—say, François Bougon's Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping. Someone who has read both Bougan's book and Ward's will have a very good sense for what motivates the leaders of the PRC and what potential there is for Washington to reach any sort of lasting accommodation with them.

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If you want to read more about what make the Party tick, you might also find the posts "Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability," "Two Case Studies in Communist Insecurity," 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] Tanner Greer, "Can American Values Survive in a Chinese World?," Foreign Policy, Fall 2019 iss (published online 12 October 2019)

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

13 October, 2019

On Adding Phrases to the Language


A man who added phrases to the language

George Orwell was a fantastic essayist. One of my favorite of his small essays is his response to an essay by T.S. Eliot that assessed the life and work of Rudyard Kipling. I am not sure what it was about Rudyard Kipling that brought out the best in so many other intellectuals, but the attempts of Kipling's contemporaries to summarize and respond to what they thought Kipling symbolized always produced interesting results. Orwell covers a lot of ground in his little essay, but I want to focus today on an observation Orwell makes about Kipling's linguistic legacy:
Kipling is the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language. The phrases and neologisms which we take over and use without remembering their origin do not always come from writers we admire. It is strange, for instance, to hear the Nazi broadcasters referring to the Russian soldiers as ‘robots’, thus unconsciously borrowing a word from a Czech democrat whom they would have killed if they could have laid hands on him. Here are half a dozen phrases coined by Kipling which one sees quoted in leaderettes in the gutter press or overhears in saloon bars from people who have barely heard his name. It will be seen that they all have a certain characteristic in common:
East is East, and West is West.
The white man's burden.
What do they know of England who only England know?
The female of the species is more deadly than the male.
Somewhere East of Suez.
Paying the Dane-geld.
There are various others, including some that have outlived their context by many years. The phrase ‘killing Kruger with your mouth’, for instance, was current till very recently. It is also possible that it was Kipling who first let loose the use of the word ‘Huns’ for Germans; at any rate he began using it as soon as the guns opened fire in 1914. 
But what the phrases I have listed above have in common is that they are all of them phrases which one utters semi-derisively (as it might be ‘For I'm to be Queen o' the May, mother, I'm to be Queen o' the May’), but which one is bound to make use of sooner or later. Nothing could exceed the contempt of the New Statesman, for instance, for Kipling, but how many times during the Munich period did the New Statesman find itself quoting that phrase about paying the Dane-geld? The fact is that Kipling, apart from his snack-bar wisdom and his gift for packing much cheap picturesqueness into a few words (’palm and pine’ — ‘east of Suez’ — ‘the road to Mandalay’), is generally talking about things that are of urgent interest. It does not matter, from this point of view, that thinking and decent people generally find themselves on the other side of the fence from him. ‘White man's burden’ instantly conjures up a real problem, even if one feels that it ought to be altered to ‘black man's burden’. One may disagree to the middle of one's bones with the political attitude implied in ‘The Islanders’, but one cannot say that it is a frivolous attitude. Kipling deals in thoughts which are both vulgar and permanent. This raises the question of his special status as a poet, or verse-writer.[1]
Some of these phrases ("paying the dane-geld") have subsequently gone out of fashion, but there are others that Orwell does not list which are still uttered quite frequently today (e.g., "law of the jungle," "the unforgiving minute"). Orwell was right: Kipling has added many phrases to the English language, while many "better" writers have failed to add a jot.

Adding a phrase to the language is the crowning reward a poet, novelist, or essayist can attain. It is an objective measure of value, a tricky problem for literary sets. Mathematicians, Adam Smith notes, are far less prickly than poets, because "they have the most perfect assurance of the truth and of the importance of their discoveries" irregardless "the reception which [their work] may meet with from the public." In contrast, "the beauty of poetry is a matter of such nicety, that a young beginner can scarce ever be certain that he has attained it. Nothing delights him so much, therefore, as the favourable judgments of his friends and of the public; and nothing mortifies him so severely as the contrary." From this flows so many of the plagues that blot literary life:
Mathematicians and natural philosophers, from their independency upon the public opinion, have little temptation to form themselves into factions and cabals, either for the support of their own reputation, or for the depression of that of their rivals. They are almost always men of the most amiable simplicity of manners, who live in good harmony with one another, are the friends of one another’s reputation, enter into no intrigue in order to secure the public applause, but are pleased when their works are approved of, without being either much vexed or very angry when they are neglected.
It is not always the same case with poets, or with those who value themselves upon what is called fine writing. They are very apt to divide themselves into a sort of literary factions; each cabal being often avowedly, and almost always secretly, the mortal enemy of the reputation of every other, and employing all the mean arts of intrigue and solicitation to preoccupy the public opinion in favour of the works of its own members, and against those of its enemies and rivals.[2]
Kipling was—and remains—the target of literary faction. He was not above responding in kind:
But I consort with long-haired things
In velvet collar-rolls
Who talk about the Aims of Art
And 'theories' and 'goals',
And moo and coo with womenfolk
About their blessed souls.[3]
But Kipling has outlasted almost all of his critics. The "aesthetics" lampooned in that last bit of verse are forgotten entirely today. Kipling is not. There is a magnetic quality to Kipling's verses; untutored minds not taught before hand to reject the poet as an avatar of the hackneyed and the evil invariably find themselves drawn to his mesmerizing mnemonics whenever they first hear them.

But this post is not an apology for Rudyard Kipling. Orwell was right to credit Kipling for adding phrases to the English language. He was wrong to claim that Kipling was the only English writer of his time to do it. There is some irony in finding this claim in an essay by George Orwell which attacks the criticism of T.S. Eliot. Eliot would add several phrases to the language ("not with a bang but a whimper," "April is the cruelest month," "hollow men"). Orwell, though not a poet, would add even more:
Some animals are more equal than others
Big Brother is watching you
We have always been at war with Eastasia
Who controls the past controls the future
War is peace / Freedom is slavery / Ignorance is strength
Thought Police
Newspeak
To which might be added a dozen allusions to "2+2=5,""doubleplusgood," "Ministry of Truth," and boots stamping eternally on the human face that all educated Anglophones can reasonably be expected to recognize. George Orwell is not the only novelist to achieve these feats; Lewis Carol gave us almost as many ("through the looking glass”, “down the rabbit hole”, “Cheshire cat smile”, “off with her head," "mad as a hatter"), and as late as 1962 Joseph Heller was able to add "catch-22" to the English lexicon. But adding phrases to the language is first and foremost a poet's game.

So when did poets stop doing it?

There are different ways to mark when poetry left the public scene. One might ask, as I have just done, what is the last piece of verse to have "added a phrase to the language?" One might ask, as I recently did on twitter "what is the last poem that a plurality of educated American can be expected to recognize?" Or one might ask "who was the last poet who was a nationally or internationally known public intellectual (in their own lifetime)?" Or even, "Who was the last poet well known enough to have a caricature, a public persona?"

Moving backwards, Sylvia Plath is the most obvious answer to the last question; she is better known today for this persona than for any of her individual poems, none of which are popularly recognized. W.H. Auden was the last poet-as-public-intellectual with the learning or the skill to deserve that title, but I'll concede that Allan Ginsberg and his beat brethren, none of whom were especially talented poets, were especially talented at leveraging their reputation as poets for public influence. The public controversy surrounding Ginsberg's poem "Howl" was the last time the world of American letters cared about a poem. That poem (published in 1955) is one of the contenders for "the last poem educated Anglophones  can be expected to recognize." Yet as something of a cultural touch-piece for rebels boomers, "Howl" seems to have limited purchase with more recent generations. I question whether it will be remembered in a decade or two. Certainly none of its phrases have been added to the language. Two poems come to mind as the last to definitively add a phrase to the English lexicon. The first is Langston Hughes' "Harlem":
What happens to a dream deferred? 
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run? 
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet? 
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load. 
Or does it explode?
That poem was published in Hughes' 1951 Montages of a Dream Deferred. All American school children study this poem at some point or another; the phrase that sticks is found both in the title of Hughes' book and the first line of his poem: "a dream deferred."

Also published that year was Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night":
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
One suspects that had this poem not been a villanelle, repeating "do not go gentle into that good night" and "rage, rage against the dying of the light" incantation-like, neither phrase would have entered the general lexicon. But the genius of poetry is in matching sentiment to form, and few poets chose their form so well as Thomas did here. Quoted liberally in 21st century science fiction films and TV serials,  both the poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" and its two injunctions have been elevated into pieces of our language.

But Thomas was the last poet to succeed so brilliantly. This was with a poem published in 1951. His competitors for fame and memory—I have mentioned W.H. Auden, Langston Hughes, Allen Ginsberg, and Sylvia Plath, though a few more of the first generation to write after modernism might be added—wrote in the same era. Sylvia Plath was dead by 1963; Hughes died in '67 and Auden in '73. Ginsberg outlived them all for a few decades more, but his role at the center of the national conversation did not survive the hippies. The 1950s was the last decade that poets existed as more than a punch-line.

There are many reasons for why poetry from thence began dramatic decline. One of the more important is best grasped with a question: what now adds phrases to the language? Who has taken the poets place? It is not the novelists; I strain to find any who have added a catch phrase since Heller penned Catch-22. Nor is it the rappers, singers, and rock-stars that many claimed have replaced poetry in popular life. What actually replaced poetry was film. Review a few of the hundreds of lines from film scripts you unthinkingly reference or hear referenced every month:
I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse
We're not in Kansas anymore
Here's looking at you, kid
Go ahead, make my day.
Love means never having to say you're sorry.
I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship
What we have here is a failure to communicate
There's no place like home
I'm walkin' here!
You can't handle the truth!
Round up the usual suspects.
I'll have what she's having.
Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges!
Life is like a box of chocolates
'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?
Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.
Elementary, my dear Watson.
Get your stinking paws off me!
You ain't heard nothin' yet!
That escalated quickly
Hasta la vista, baby.
I feel the need—the need for speed!
This is just a sliver of the hundreds of film scenes that are quoted and contorted every day. I used to actually teach many of these phrases—including the tone of voice with which they should be said—to Chinese students coming to America. Knowledge of the right time and the right way to say "I'll be back" is a powerful form of cultural capital in modern American life—a cultural role that would have been played in past eras with quotations lifted from the Bible, Shakespeare, and the major English poets.

I will leave to it to the reader to determine which is to be preferred.


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If this post on the social role of literature has caught your interest, consider reading my earlier posts "Shakespeare in American Politics" or "History is Written by the Losers." 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] George Orwell, "Rudyard Kipling," in Critical Essays (London: Secker and Warburg, 1946), essay originally published Frbruary 1942 fr Horizon magazine. Accessed here.

[2] Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 144-145.

[3] Rudyard Kipling, "In Partibus," Civil and Military Gazette (23 December 1889); accessed at the Kipling Society website, 14 October 2019.

[4] Excerpted in total from Scott Challener, '"Poetry Guide: Langston Hughes: “Harlem”,' Poetry Foundation Website (25 September 2019). Challener's short narrative includes a half dozen interesting facts about the poem and its publishing history that I did not know, and which are worth reading. 

[5] Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," poets.org (accessed 14 October 2019). 

05 October, 2019

I Choose Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt
(image source)

Yesterday Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin asked the following question on twitter:
Name your top three public figures you wish were still alive right now to comment on what’s happening in our country. I’ll go first (in no particular order): John McCain, Christopher Hitchens, Hunter S. Thompson. [1]
A lot of people were making fun of Rogin's answer: we can have anyone from history, and these are three we choose? You choose Christopher Hitchens over Jesus?

I would not choose Jesus. I don't dispute the pressing need to take the ancients seriously. Evaluating our lives in terms of what Aristotle, Cicero, Epictetus, Al-farabi, Aquinas, Mencius, Du Fu, Sima Guang, or Zhu Xi would have thought about it is an exercise I advise every reader to try (see my earlier post on this topic, "Escaping the Echo Chamber of Modernity").  But Rogin wants to bring back three people to hear their comments on Trump and impeachment. Great minds resurrected from so far a remove would not be good for this. Plato and Confucius would not want to talk about what the public should do with President Trump—they would want to talk about whether it is a wise idea to have a democracy at all. Trump and his problems would seem like minor squabbles when arrayed against the macro-trends that have transformed human life over the last two millennia.

For a similar reason I would not want to resurrect many figures from the cusp of modernity. Enlightenment philosophers, American's founding fathers, brilliant observers like Tocqueville or Tolstoy all would have useful things to say about our times, but I doubt they would care so much about the political decisions of 2019. If you are Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, the most alarming thing you could learn about 21st century America is that the vast majority of its citizens work as wage laborers. By this fact alone almost every American statesman between Franklin and Lincoln would condemn modern America as a land stripped of its liberty—regardless of the result of impeachment proceedings. They would be correct, in their own way: our political economy is incompatible with their understanding of what republican life and liberty meant. But that political economy has been firmly in place since the 1920s. It will not change now.

Choosing someone like John McCain has the opposite problem. John McCain is not far enough removed from the current moment to offer anything uniquely valuable to us today. We can easily guess what John McCain would be saying about every issue of public import in 2019. They would not be that different from what he was saying about all of these issues in 2018. Josh Rogin's own views are not that different from what we must imagine McCain's being. This perspective is not missing.

That is the challenge. Ideally you would want to resurrect someone who is familiar enough with shapes and shadows of modern society that they could offer intelligent comment on the issues being debated, but far enough removed from the present that they could offer surprising insights into the contemporary moment. In my mind that means someone who is already familiar with mass democracy, professional media, industrialized society, and the intellectual origins of today's partisan divides—or at least familiar enough that they will think these things do not deserve special comment. We want a person familiar with the social conditions of post-modernity, but not party to current political debates. The obvious era of interest then is that which belonged to the public intellectuals whose public presence peaked in between 1940 and 1970.   In essence, the era of letters that people like George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, Malcolm Muggeridge, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir took part in.

This is the logic behind my choice. If I were to resurrect one person to comment on our current dilemmas, that person would be Hannah Arendt. 

What issue of importance today did she not ponder?  How should Western countries understand and respond to authoritarian states? What makes meaningful community possible? Does bureaucracy, technology, and settled life diminish our freedom?  Why do politicians lie—and what consequences should there be for lying in office? How do political institutions decay? Should we forgive our political enemies? When is violence justified, and when is it not? How can it be controlled or avoided? What should the 'justice' in phrases like 'social justice' actually mean? What role should guilt, rage, and fear play in our political lives? How should we translate abstract political principles into living realities?

Arendt wrote about all of these things and more. She would have the intellectual background needed to say something useful about the biggest political and social challenges we face today: America's relationship with China, technology's encroach upon democracy, the unsettled relation between the sexes, the collapse of American social capital and community life, the strengths and foibles of social justice campaigning, partisanship and 'post-reality' politics, and of course, the presidency of Donald Trump.

I wish we could hear her opinions on these things. I wish this because I honestly do not know what her opinions would be. I recognize positions she would not adopt, but I can only guess what she would make of Facebook or consider the proper political grounding for impeachment.

Alas, Hannah Arendt will not revive to comment on American politics! From the gates of eternity none return. But if you have not read any of her work, I encourage you to do so now. Here is a passage I return to several times a year, a snippet of her thought, a sampler for those still deciding if she is worth their time:
The dividing line between those who want to think and therefore have to judge by themselves, and those who do not, strikes across all social and cultural or educational differences. In this respect, the total moral collapse of respectable society during the Hitler regime may teach us that under such circumstances those who cherish values and hold fast to moral norms and standards are not reliable: we now know that moral norms and standards can be changed overnight, and that all that then will be left is the mere habit of holding fast to something. Much more reliable will be the doubters and skeptics, not because skepticism is good or doubting wholesome, but because they are used to examine things and to make up their own minds. Best of all will be those who know only one thing for certain: that whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.[2]

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If you would like to read more about philosophers and historians I especially cherish, consider reading this piece on Ibn Khaldun, this one on Sima Qian, this one on Thucydides, or my 2014 post on Quantum Libraries.  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] Josh Rogin, tweet, 3 October 2019. Accessed 5 October 2019: https://twitter.com/joshrogin/status/1179828363277549568 3 October 2019

[2] Hannah Arendt, HA Papers at the Library of Congress: Essays and lectures---"Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship," lecture---1964 (Series: Speeches and Writings File, 1923-1975), p. 45.

01 October, 2019

Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability

image Source

Today is a grand anniversary for the Communist Party of China. You will read many things about its meaning and significance. In the eyes of Party members themselves, I suspect one particular fact will stand out: this is the year the Communist Party of China outlasts the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

In the current Communist quest for survival there is a tension between competing priorities that did not exist (or rather, were not acknowledged) in the Maoist era. Understanding this tension is fundamental to interpreting why China's leadership does what it does.

In 1949 the leaders of the Party made a strategic choice to seal their country off from the world. This was not quite how the Party leadership conceptualized what they were doing; expelling all foreign influence was but one of several radical restructurings of old China. It was done piece-meal, one life-rending decision at a time, with little reference to any over-arching plan. In the early days some places, newly flooded with Soviet advisors, actually had increased contact with the outer globe. But the Soviets were soon kicked out themselves, and by the late 1960s all the Chinese masses learned of the broader world was mediated by the Party's propaganda machine.[1]

If the goal was ideological purity and internal control, this worked well enough. But the Chinese have always had grander ambitions than that. The Party's quest for revolutionary purity derailed China's quest for national glory. This would change. Thirst for glory was soon paired with fear of falling behind. A recent twitter thread by Zhang Chenchen describes how the second problem has been reduced to a school room catechism:
Thinking about how history is taught in China. We learn the destruction of Yuanming Yuan (old summer palace) by British and French forces, the occupation of Beijing by the Eight-Nation Alliance, concessions and territorial loss, massacres. Then what is repeatedly taught is “the backwards will be beaten” (落后就要挨打), taken as one of the important historical lessons. Because that's what the 'century of humiliation' showed us, it's framed as an inescapable logic: "就要", the backwards will surely be beaten.

But we were not told that it was wrong.[2]
They are not taught it was wrong because most Chinese do not believe powerful countries picking on small countries is wrong. It just is. Talk with Chinese intellectuals today and be transported to the Europe of the 1890s! Current attitudes in Beijing (to say nothing of Chongqing) towards the volk, the underclasses, democracy, technology, progress, national honor and the purpose of military power would not be out of place in Wilhelmine Germany. There are exceptions and dissenters, of course, but that was true of pre-war Europe as well.[3] 

In Party circles the fear of being left behind took special valence in the late 1970s. Historians have focused on Deng Xiaoping's 1975 trip to France as a crucial step here. Deng had lived in France in the 1920s; he was stunned by how much France had changed in the meantime. This tour—and a few others made by other leading officials in the late '70s and early '80s shocked Beijing out of complacency. Distracted by internal conflict and buoyed by successful resistance to the American and Soviet super-powers, Communist leadership had no idea just far China had fallen behind. [4]

You know the story that comes next: it has been told many times, and by scholars more talented than myself. What I want to draw out from this history is the conviction—in this case one shared by most of Chinese society—that China must secure itself on the bleeding edge of science or see the country perish. Technology is the sole and only shining path towards national safety and security.

This is not a new idea. In the 19th century, Chinese military leaders shifted blame for their defeats onto the gap between Western and Chinese military technology. The early 20th century reformers famously called for Chinese to turn their back on "Mr. Confucius" and find national salvation in "Mr. Science" and "Mr. Democracy." Current leaders of the CPC are less enamored with Mr. Democracy than its founders were, but remain a fan of Mr. Science.[5] One might say their regime sees national power as resting on the shoulders of Mr. Science and Mr. Stability.

But the prerogatives of Mr. Science and Mr. Stability differ. There is a dangerous tension between the two. Science, high technology, and economic growth mean exposure to the world and its contagions. It means sending millions of Chinese abroad every year. It means allowing millions of foreigners to live inside China itself. It means the exchange of ideas and information unmediated by the Party.

All of that is dangerous.

But then again, so is falling behind.

There are different ways to try and resolve this tension. Around 2008 or so the Party recognized that the scale between openness and control had tipped too far towards the former. Many of their policies since then have been a repeat of old 1950s tactics of division and control, just with more selective targeting.[4] Here Mr. Science has played his part: 21st century technology has allowed the Communists to selectively terrorize and censor without provoking national hysteria or instability.

But that is only half the problem. In the Mao days the Communists could defend against ideological contagion through a policy of strict quarantine. The Great Firewall, re-education camps, and the like are more targeted version of the same strategy.  But this is insufficient in world where millions of Chinese leave the borders of the PRC every year. That flow cannot be cut off. Those millions must leave, or China risks falling behind. Complete quarantine means dangerous stagnation.

The Party's solution has been to deal with these ideological threats at the source. They cannot keep Chinese out of the world, so they will use violence, surveillance, blackmail, and bribery to shape the world these Chinese travel to. Thus the concerns we hear over "influence," "interference," and "united front" activities.

For these reasons I doubt a long-lasting accommodation between Washington and Beijing is feasible. You will occasionally hear calls to divvy the Pacific up between the two new super-powers, each with their own special sphere of influence. If the problems between the two powers were geopolitical, that might work. But what if they are not? What if the Party is just as concerned with ideological security as it is with geopolitical heft?

Propping up Beijing's sense of ideological security might be possible. But until there is an honest statement of the costs involved with that course, talk of "grand bargains" and "spheres of influence" is wasted breath.

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If you found this reflection on Chinese history and politics worth reading, you might also find the posts "Two Case Studies in Communist Insecurity," 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] John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 29-59; Frank Dikotter, The Tragedy of Liberation (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 103-128.

[2] Zhang Chenchen, twitter thread, 28 September, accessed here: https://twitter.com/chenchenzh/status/1177895312331030529 

[3] The other analogy worth pondering, more offensive to Chinese ears but useful nonetheless, is post Meiji Japan. Considering the two cases quickly pops the Economist's view of the world: Japanese aggression in the '30s was seen by Japanese leaders as essentially defensive in nature, designed to safeguard industrial resources Japan would need if it had any hope of surviving a show-down with the Soviet Union.

[4] For a summary of the entire period, see John Garver, China’s Quest, 349-383.

[5] The Communists have not repudiated democracy. They have simply reinterpreted it to mean something very different from the earlier understanding. See my discussion in "Where is the Communism in the Chinese Communist Party," Scholar's Stage (29 December 2018).

25 September, 2019

The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood

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Citizens are not born. They are raised.
—Frank Bryan

Wesley Yang has a new series out over at Tablet Magazine on the history of the Title IX bureaucracy. Like Yang, I see Title IX as one of the crucial stepping stones on the journey to our present moment. He is a tad more apocalyptic than I am:
The story, I will argue in this and subsequent columns, is about the rise and bid for hegemony of a new ideology. This ideology is a successor to liberalism. It brandishes terms that superficially resemble normative liberalism—terms like diversity and inclusion—but in fact seeks to supplant it. This new regime, in which administrative power has been fashioned into a blunt instrument of deterrence, marks off a crucial distinction—between the liberal rule of law, and the punitive system of surveillance rooted in identity politics known as “social justice.[1]
If you are a long term reader of this blog, you can guess where I differ from Yang. Yang sees the administrative power of Title IX as the end product of social justice ideology; I see social justice as an ideological political project adapted specifically (though not always consciously) to administrative power.

I have laid out this case at some length before. The thirty second version is that over the second half of the 20th century American society began to fray. Problems once handled at lower levels of society by self-governing citizens were passed upwards to impersonal bureaucracies. The largest of these bureaucracies is the federal government. But the problem is not limited to the federal government—these bureaucracies dominate large swaths of American life, from the global conglomerates that dominate our economy to the universities that crown our education system. One of my favorite ways of tracking this has been to look at the ratio of students:school boards. School boards used to be as close and as responsive to the interested citizen as politics could get, but many school boards now manage the education of hundreds of thousands of students.[2] At this scale, citizen voice is diminished.

While this was happening, the civic and religious institutions that Americans traditionally relied on to manage their own affairs were quietly disappearing. Some organizations, like religious boards, unions, and bowling clubs, declined in number; others, like charities and NGOs, switched from a model of mass participation to a model of mass donations. Add it all together and you find that the percentage of Americans expected to be familiar with Robert's Rules of Order shrunk precipitously. Making the situation worse was the collapse in settled family life at the bottom of American society, and the growing social isolation and friendlessness of the people living at its top. [3]

By the dawn of the 21st century then, America had been reduced to Tocqueville's nightmare. American culture had once been possessed with a can-do ethic of self resilience and civic respect. When a problem emerged, they quickly gathered together the people needed to solve it. That America is gone. Atomized and isolated, Americans do not have the knowledge, personal experience, or institutional means to solve their own problems. Problems are solved by impersonal bureaucracies. Politics—and so much else in American life—has shrunk to petitioning the powers that be.

The emotional tenor of the last three decades is best understood through this lens. The existential listlessness of the '90s and the terror that gripped America in the early aughts are natural by-products of Americans' belief that they do not control their own destinies. Victimhood culture is another by-product of this world. It is a cultural movement tailor-made for this new social milieu. In the 21st century, the main question in American social life is not "how do we make that happen?" but "how do we get management to take our side?" This is the difference between the tactics of the civil rights movement and today's social justice warriors, the secret behind the success of call-out culture, and the reason why the social justice movement's first impulse on campus was to build the Title IX bureaucracy (and why their current impulse is to create a national version of the same thing).

There is a positive feed-back loop here.  But I have trouble chalking the habits of mind campus activists take advantage of entirely to new progressive ideology. The truth is that these habits are taught to Americans much earlier and in a much more intimate setting than the activists ever had access to. This thought was impressed upon as I listened to a recent episode of the Art of Manliness podcast. [4] The podcast host interviewed Mark Lanza, whose book Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into a Place for Play, describes Lanza's successful attempt to change the culture of his suburban neighborhood and transform it into a place where children play with each other outside and in the street. If you are a parent of a child below the age of 12, I strongly recommend you listen to this podcast episode. There is a lot of wailing about the decline of American community among the commentariat, but precious little time is spent figuring out how to go about building new communities with healthier norms. Lanza did just that; his advice and stories are a remarkable set of tools for every community builder—every parent—in the nation.

About 15 minutes into his interview, Lanza noted an interesting change between the way he was parented and the way most children being raised today are. Children of days past, he observed, spent most of their free time out of eye sight and ear-shot of parents. When they got into fights, they had no choice but to resolve these fights by themselves. Thus all of the inventive rules and games child would make up to govern themselves. Childhood was a hands-on education in dispute resolution. Today's children do not receive this education. They rarely are out of the parental view. When they have a dispute, their first impulse is to bring it to nearby authority figures and have them declare the right and the wrong of things.

Lanza noted this in an off-hand sort of way. It was an observation incidental to his larger program. But his observation has stayed with me. Our children are barely out of the cradle and here we are, teaching them petition politics!

The old way had its disadvantages. Children left to their own devices often act cruelly. They have the freedom to bully. They are almost never "fair." But they also learn how to survive in a social world of equals who must face each other as equals. They learn what it means to embark on new endeavors without outside guidance. They learn how to resolve vicious disputes without a higher authority playing referee.

Which is to say, they learned how to act like the adults who raised them. That has not changed. Today's children also learn to act like the adults who raise them. From their schoolyard days, we teach our children the way our world works. In light of this, one must forgive the excesses of the helicopter parent: he is only preparing his child to thrive in the America of Title IX.


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If you found these thoughts on American community and politics worth reading, you might also find the posts "Pining For Democracy" and "Honor, Dignity, Victimhood: Three Centuries of American Political Culture" 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] Wesley Yang, "America's New Sex Bureaucracy," Tablet Magazine (24 September 2019)

[2] For the record, we have gone from 120,000 school districts in 1940 to 20,000 today. The City School District of the City of New York is the largest in the nation; it manages the education of some 1 million children. 

Tanner Greer, "The Decline of American Democracy (in one Infographic!)," Scholar's Stage (10 October 2017).

[3] The key texts here are Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1999); Robert Putnam, Carl Frederick, and Kaisa Suelman."Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness Among American Youth", Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America (8 August 2012); Theda Skopal, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013); Charles Murray,  Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010); Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, "Micro-Agression and Moral Cultures," Comparative Sociology 13, iss 6 (2014).

[4] Mike Lanza and Brett McKay. "Podcast #532: How to Create a Neighborhood Where Kids Play Outside," Art of Manliness, podcast episode (7 August 2019).

17 September, 2019

Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power

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How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniencies. They contrive new pockets, unknown in the clothes of other people, in order to carry a greater number. They walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles, in weight and sometimes in value not inferior to an ordinary Jew's-box, some of which may sometimes be of some little use, but all of which might at all times be very well spared, and of which the whole utility is certainly not worth the fatigue of bearing the burden.
—Adam Smith (1759)
If you spend any time studying Taiwan defense issues you quickly realize something has gone wrong. Almost every single American defense expert who comes to the island agrees on a rough picture of what the Taiwanese military needs to do if they want to deter a Chinese invasion force. They will have disagreements on the margins—some will be for that weapons system here, or against that one there—but the big picture is always the same. The people drawing this picture are a coterie of think tankers, war college professors, military reporters, military intelligence officers, and defense bureaucrats. Their consensus has been summarized in numerous interviews, congressional testimonies, open-editorials, think tank reports, and policy briefs.[1] It has been communicated to the Taiwanese in innumerable track-1 and track-2 discussions. Throughout it all, American analysts are insistent that Taiwan's defense is not hopeless. If Taiwan is willing to change, it can be saved.

It is a great message. There is only one problem: the Taiwanese do not want to hear it.

I have a new piece out in Foreign Affairs that takes a stab at explaining why this is so. Here is my summary of the kind of changes American defense thinkers who have taken the time to analyze Taiwan's situation in depth tend to advocate:
In light of these advantages, a broad consensus has emerged among U.S. defense analysts who have visited the island: Taiwan can successfully deter a Chinese invasion—but only if it radically retools its military. Instead of allocating its limited defense budget on expensive equipment such as stealth fighters, tanks or submarines, the Taiwanese military should invest in cheap, expendable, mass-produced weapons systems that can be easily moved, disguised, and deployed against an amphibious invasion force. In practical terms, this means a navy composed of missile patrol boats, mine-laying ships, small semi-submersibles, and underwater drones; an air defense component reliant on mobile surface-to-air missile batteries; ground forces armed to the teeth with aerial drones, land mines, and antiship and antiarmor guided missiles; a reserve force and civilian population fluent in guerilla tactics; and an industrial policy focused on developing breakthroughs in missile and drone technologies.

...In the eyes of many U.S. defense analysts, Taiwanese leaders face what should be an easy choice: They can ensure their nation’s survival through the mass production or procurement of low-cost, low-profile armaments. Or they can continue to waste their resources on what the analysts Colin Carroll and Rebecca Friedman Lissner have called “‘prestige’ capabilities ... with no tangible benefit in deterrence or war.” [2]

You only need to look at the Persian Gulf to understand the logic behind the American arguments. America has had her wealth exhausted fighting multi-year insurgencies against poorly armed insurgent forces in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. The Iranian military has shot down American drones and hijacked international shipping, yet has successfully scared the United States away from armed retaliation with exactly the sort of weapons mentioned above: with fast attack craft, drones, short range ballistic missiles, and SAMS. This very week some combination of Iranian missiles and drones  was able to half Saudi Arabia's oil output.[3] 

That is the basic idea here. Build a force optimized towards destroying as much of an invasion force as possible, and if that fails, one that can drag China into weeks, months, and perhaps even years of costly military operations. In an earlier era, when Taiwanese technology and training were superior to what the PLA could muster, the Taiwanese could afford to match strength with strength. Now they cannot. Instead of trying to beat Communists in an arms race they cannot possibly win, the wise choice for Taiwan is to opt of the race entirely. This is what Iran has decided to do with America. For them it has been enormously successful. It is what the Estonians, Latvians, and Poles are doing with Russia.

But the Taiwanese have different plans:
On June 6, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense announced a $2.25 billion arms purchase from the United States.  package was broken down into two parts: $250 million for a consignment of Stinger missiles, and $2 billion for 108 main battle tanks. The first part of the package fits well enough within a distributed “anti-access” defense posture. The second purchase does not.  
Taiwan is a piebald of jungle-covered mountains, muddy rice paddies, and densely populated urban cores—terrain that frustrates tank maneuver. The most likely use for tanks like these would be in formation near beaches for counter-landing operations, where they would be extremely vulnerable to attack from the air. As Chinese commanders would never land an invasion force unless they first secure air superiority, these tanks will never amount to anything more than 108 very expensive sitting ducks.
The purchase fits a longstanding Taiwanese pattern: prioritizing high-prestige platforms over people. The Ministry of National Defense has cut military pensions and failed to pay volunteer soldiers a competitive wage or provide them with necessary benefits, and it doesn’t have enough bullets on hand for conscripts to practice riflery more than a few times in their entire course of duty.  
Yet in addition to buying the tanks, President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration has promised to find $8 billion—equivalent to 70 percent of Taiwan’s 2019 military budget—to purchase 66 new F-16 fighter jets (even though in the event of a conflict with China most of these would be destroyed by PLA missiles while still on their runways). The Taiwanese navy  also regularly promotes plans for an indigenously constructed helicopter carrier and Aegis-style destroyer. Billions have been poured into developing indigenous jet engines and fighters. Most disastrous of all, around one-tenth of the defense budget has been earmarked for the development of Taiwan’s indigenous submarine program. According to the wildly optimistic government projections, the very first of these submarines will be seaworthy in 2025. Only a few more could be built before the decade’s close, at an estimated $1 billion per ship.[4]
So what is going on here? Why are the Taiwanese committing themselves to an arms race they cannot win? Why the rush to buy platforms that will be of limited utility in time of war?
But there is a different lens through which to view these purchases, one that few U.S. observers consider in their analyses.  Within the context of Taiwan’s hyper-partisan political and media environment, Taiwanese leaders' defense priorities make a perverse sort of sense.... 
The Taiwanese are isolated on the international stage, not officially recognized by any of their most critical economic and defense partners, and constantly subjected to a crippling Chinese propaganda campaign designed to undermine public confidence in Taiwan’s diplomatic standing and military strength. As a result, any international incident—anything that could be seen to diminish Taiwan’s position in the world—is an opportunity to score political points against the party in power.  
Consider Taiwan’s competition with China for official diplomatic recognition. Whether small countries officially recognize Taiwan has no material effect on the country’s economy or security. The impact is psychological and political. When El Salvador severed ties with Taipei in 2018 and transferred recognition to Beijing, a spokesperson for the Kuomintang (KMT), the main opposition party in Taiwan, accused the ruling Democratic Progressive Party of cultivating disaster: “The DPP must take full responsibility for Taiwan’s isolation and apologize to our people,” the spokesperson thundered. “I would like to personally ask Tsai Ing-wen: Just where is it you are leading the Republic of China to?”  
Military mistakes trigger similar media firestorms. One scandal began in 2016, when an antiship missile was accidentally launched at a Taiwanese fishing boat, killing its captain. Within a day, KMT spokesmen were calling the incident a “national security crisis” and demanding that Tsai cancel her planned trip to the United States. Tsai shifted the blame downward, accusing the military of “utter contempt of discipline and a complete lack of competency.” The subsequent media bonanza followed the normal Taiwanese pattern, with forced apologies up and down the Taiwanese chain of command providing fodder for days of outrage on Taiwanese television.  
This is the context in which Taiwanese procurement strategy must be understood. Taiwanese leaders have a powerful political incentive to raise Taiwan’s stature on the international stage and publicly resist Chinese attempts to cut it away from its allies. Similarly, they are incentivized to show that under their leadership, the Taiwanese military remains a world-class fighting force. Purchasing fancy military equipment makes little strategic sense, but it accomplishes both of these objectives. 
In an anonymous interview, one DPP official told me why he believed the purchase of the tanks was so important: “The purchase is a signal that the DPP can lead on defense. It will give the people more confidence that we are not being outclassed by the Chinese. And most important, that Tsai’s good relationship with the Americans is the reason for that.” A senior official interviewed by a Center for Security Policy Studies research team justified Taiwanese requests for F-35 fighter jets, rather than less expensive drones, with similar logic: “You can’t create a hero pilot of a UAV.” The CSPS team concluded that for most of the Taiwanese officials they interviewed, “buying advanced aircraft from the United States was at least as much about assuring the public as it was about improving war-fighting capability.” 
This is especially important given Taiwan’s lack of a formal alliance with the United States. For Taiwanese leaders, weapons sales are one of the few metrics available to judge the U.S. commitment to their cause. Taiwanese leaders can trumpet their purchase of American-made weapons systems as something their party has done to raise Taiwan’s international stature. A tank or fighter jet is prized not for its practical utility but its symbolic value.[5]
While this frustrates me, I cannot say I particularly blame the Taiwanese leaders for doing what they need to do to stay in power. It is important for Americans to understand that no number of op-eds or think tank presentations will change their behavior. Incentives matter more here than ideas do. If Washington wants Taiwan to take its defense more seriously, than it needs to change the incentives Taipei politicians and generals face.

There are lots of ways to do this. In this piece I suggest just one. Joint military training:
The easiest way to do this would be to channel the Taiwanese desires for prestige away from procurement and toward military training. The U.S. Department of Defense should establish joint military exercises with the Taiwanese air force, army, and navy. These exercises should be regular, well publicized, and at least initially, held on U.S. soil.[6]
You can read the full piece to see some of the examples of the kind of joint training exercises we might invite the Taiwanese to. Inviting Taiwanese units—and importantly, it must be full units, not individuals—to join training exercises would give military leaders the face they need, politicians the signs of American commitment they crave, and would allow us to train these soldiers in the sort of fighting the ROC Armed Forces actually need. Joint training would be the sort of symbolic boost Taiwan needs—and having attained it, Taiwanese leaders may be less inclined to waste their nation's resources on symbolic weapon purchases that will do them little good once war begins.

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If you found this analysis of Taiwanese politics of great interest, you might also like the posts "Taiwan's Past Matters Less Than Taiwan's Present" and "Taiwan Will Be Defended by the Bullet or Not At All." 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] This strand of thought began in 2008 with William  S. Murray's article, “Revisiting Taiwan’s Defense  Strategy,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 61, no 3 (Summer 2008). Several dozen reports, testimonies, op-eds, etc. have been written on the same theme since then. For a selection of recent examples, see J. Michael Cole, "How Taiwan Can Defend Its Coastline Against China," The National Interest (30 June 2019); Colin Carrol and Rebecca Friedman Lissner, "Forget the Subs: What Taipei Can Learn From Tehran About Asymetric Defense," War on the Rocks (6 April 2019); Drew Thompson, "Hope on the Horizon: Taiwan's Radical New Defense Concept," War on the Rocks (2 October 2018); Michael A. Hunzeker, Alexander Lanoszka, Brian Davis, Matthew Fay, Erik Goepner, Joseph Petrucelli and Erica Seng-White. A Question of Time: Enhancing Taiwan’s Conventional Deterrence Posture (Arlington, VA: Center for Security Policy Studies, 2018), pp. 63-105; Michael Bekely, "The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia: How China's Neighbors Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion," International Security, vol 42 , iss 2 (2017) pp.78-119; Ian Easton, Mark Stokes, Cortez A. Cooper III, Arthur Chan,  Transformation of Taiwan's Reserve Force (Santa Monica: RAND, 2017), pp. 55-59; Michael J. Lostumbo, David R. Frelinger, James Williams, Barry Wilson, Air Defense Options for Taiwan: An Assessment of Relative Costs and Operational Benefits (Santa Monica: RAND, 2016), 73-91.

[2] Tanner Greer, "Taiwan’s Defense Strategy Doesn’t Make Military Sense," Foreign Affairs (17 September 2019).

[3] It is not yet clear whether these weapons were launched from Yemen or from Iran. But whether Houthis or Revolutionary Guards fired these weapons, Iran was clearly their original source. 

[4] Greer, "Taiwan's Defense Strategy,"

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

16 September, 2019

Public Opinion in Authoritarian States

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.
—James Madison
Dean Karalekas writes the following in his PhD thesis, Identity and Transformation: Perceptions of Civil-Military Relations in the Republic of China (Taiwan):
In late May, 2016, the newspapers in Taiwan reported on a poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation in which 80 percent of respondents reported that they identified as Taiwanese, with a mere 8.1 percent identifying as Chinese (7.6 percent identified as both). This is in stark contrast to similar polls conducted in the late 1980s and early 1990s in which the vast majority reported identifying as Chinese or both. What happened in the short span of a single generation that could change an entire nation's self-perception so radically?

In fact, no such sea change ever took place. Indeed, neither historical roots nor system-level changes are sufficiently able to influence group identity on the scale of what has been measured (Chu 2004: 498). Rather, according to researcher Frank Muyard (2012), what happened in the 1990s was not a rising Taiwanese identity, but rather a newfound freedom to express that sentiment, including in polls. As with many oppressed and/or colonized peoples throughout the world and throughout history, the Taiwanese identity can be conceptualized in opposition to an external “other.” Before the era of democratization, Taiwaneseness stood in opposition to the KMT and that party's authoritarianism, White Terror, and Leninist efforts to control all forms of social expression by subsuming Taiwaneseness into a subset of Chineseness. For evidence of the expression of this phenomenon one need look no further than the political accretion of opposition forces who chose the name Tangwai (黨外), or literally ‘outside the party’.

In the 1990s democratization opened up new avenues for exploring the idea of Taiwaneseness and what it means. Several things happened in the 1990s. First, the DPP established itself as a legitimate and legal alternative to the KMT and standard bearer of Taiwan-centered politics. The rise of democratic politics meant that the Taiwan identity could no longer be defined as resistance to the System: the Tangwai were now part of the system in the form of the DPP and its allies. Further, the KMT under Lee Tung-hui, who was president throughout the entire decade, co-opted many DPP programs and positions, and thus appeared to be Taiwanizing. That made it difficult to oppose the KMT as an anti-Taiwanese party (Wang & Liu 2004: 577). Survey results from the late 1980s and early 1990s show a high number of respondents identifying as Chinese because, according to Muyard (2012), the Taiwanese had long learned that it was safer to lie to the State. As society opened up through democratization and the end of the authoritarian era, people felt more comfortable publicly admitting to a sense of Taiwaneseness, and telling the truth in such surveys. Therefore there was no real “emergence” of a Taiwanese identity in the 1990s, but rather the uncloaking of a theretofore hidden one. [1]
The historical context for this passage was a weak, and in some cases non-existent, sense of nationalist identity among Han Chinese in the Qing Dynasty. In those days, Han Chinese tended to identify with the village or (if in the south) clan first, Han-ness (made more relevant in the Qing by the rule of an alien Manchurian power and the privileges granted Westerners in the concessions) second, and regional identities (which mapped onto linguistic divides inside China itself) third. Those who identified with the Chinese state were almost exclusively intelligentsia—first Confucian literati, shuffled across the Qing Empire as agents of the state, and then later the thinkers, activists, and statesmen enraptured with the ideals of the May Fourth movement, the sort of people who read national political journals and Herbert Spencer. These intellectuals believed that the weak sense of national identity then prevalent among the bulk of the Chinese people was one of the central reasons China had suffered through so many bitter misfortunes in modern times. When these same folks seized power in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, they put building a coherent national identity at the front of their political programs.

The Taiwanese missed out on all that. They went directly from control by the minimalist (one might even say "night watchman") Qing empire, in which they were an imperial backwater, to direct control by Japan in 1895, well before popular nationalism began to blossom on the mainland. Japanese colonialism was benign by contemporary imperialist standards; economic investment in the island and the early, conscious co-option of local elites into the Japanese colonial system gives the era a sort of rosy glow. Many Taiwanese are still nostalgic for this era today. Very few native Taiwanese are nostalgic for the era that followed.

The Kuomingtang ("Nationalist Party"), leadership felt far less secure than the Japanese colonial administrators did. They came from a realm of rebellion, subversion, and Communist plots; they saw these things where ever they went. They initially treated the Taiwanese people as a treasure trove to be plundered for the sake of winning the war across the strait; that, combined with the distinctive corruption of the 1940s KMT, led to genuine popular resistance to KMT rule. This resistance was extinguished through massacre. Taiwan became a Leninist police state. The Nationalists embedded themselves into the military, industry, media outlets, and the educational system. Through violence, surveillance, corruption, and terror they got the native Taiwanese to fall in line.

The Nationalists also began imposing their Chinese nationalist program on the people in Taiwan. Had this new nationalist identity not been associated with the terrors of martial law and the stifling control of a Leninist state it would likely have had a warmer reception. Even today, for many Taiwanese appeals to Chinese identity carry with them the flavor of martial law.

That is the context. Now for my question: did Taiwanese identity spring up out of nowhere in the 1990s because it was always there, just hiding? Was it a strong current rushing just beneath the surface, only concealed because "the Taiwanese had long learned that it was safer to lie to the State"?

There are many authoritarian regimes in the world today about which we might ask similar questions. To take an easy example, consider Tang Wenfang's 2018 essay for American Affairs, "The 'Surprise' of Authoritarian Resilience in China." Tang uses reams and reams of Chinese polling data in his arguments about the nature of the PRC regime.[2] But this data comes from country where having the wrong opinion can get you in trouble. In countries like China, what can polling really tell us?


The purpose of censorship and thought management differs from regime to regime. The contention of this post is that for many of the most effective authoritarian systems, controlling the thoughts of the ruled is secondary to shaping social cleavages in the population.

We began by looking at the rapid transformation of Taiwanese public opinion once the KMT's old instruments of censorship and coercion had been dismantled. Consider another example of opinion change, one far faster than the dramatic growth of Taiwanese identity in post-martial law era:

Image source: Mark Fahey, "Free Trade: Americans Inconsistent
But Like it More Than Their Leaders 
," CNBC (12 August 2016).

Witness an incredible transformation! In less than two years an entire wing of the Republican Party metamorphosed from a collection of free trade zealot into a cartel of pro-tariff troglodytes! Why did this happen? Did the Trump administration dismantle a national system of spies, censors, and political prisoners? Were the Republican masses really anti-trade all along, but afraid to proclaim their opinion until their man was in power?

Political convictions do not work the way most people think they do.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something," quipped Upton Sinclair, "when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" [3] It is easy to see the truth behind this statement. But also easy to see are its limitations. Very few Americans have a direct financial stake in same-sex marriage, nuclear power, the size of the American military, or a balanced budget. The number of Americans whose salary is dependent on a particular understanding of affirmative action or global warming is very small. Even when an issue of public importance has a direct and undeniable impact on household finances (say tax rates or health care), members of that household will often vote against the party whose policies would save them the most money. If asked to guess an American's opinion on tax cuts, you are would be better off knowing whether that person is pro-life or pro-choice than you would knowing their income.

This is all very odd. A man's opinion about tax rates should not have anything to do with his opinion about abortion, but in the American context they often do. A woman's conclusions on the life history of Brett Kavanaugh should hold no relation to her opinions about conservationism. One's convictions about transgender bathrooms should tell you very little about one's attitude towards Russia or Iran. Yet they do!

Economists Eric Gould and Esteban Klor published an interesting paper a few weeks ago that analyzed American voters who believe that abortion is the single most important issue in American politics. In the 1980s abortion was a relatively non-partisan issue. People on both sides of the issue could be found on both sides of the isle. This has changed. The issue is now highly partisan. If your priorities are pro-life, you join the GOP. If pro-choice politics drives your value system, you sign up with the Democrats. In the late '80s and '90s many Americans switched parties or became affiliated with a party for the first time precisely for this reason.

That is not too surprising. "One-issue voter chooses the party that agrees with them on their one issue!" Nothing shocking there. But Gould and Klor were not interested in the decision to join one of the two parties. They were looking at something different: how a one-issue voter's view of other issues changed after they joined their new party. Did Republicans who joined the party solely because of its position on abortion end up changing their views on taxes and regulation? Was a person who signed up with the Democrats purely because of its pro-choice platform influenced by that platform's positions on oil, Iraq, or education?

A few excerpts from their study:
The results show that individuals not only changed their party as of 1997 in accordance to their abortion views in 1982, but this party realignment led individuals to shift their preferences over other policy dimensions accordingly. That is, as people switched parties due to their initially held abortion views, their other political views tended to follow suit. These findings hold for a variety of political, economic, and social issues that are not directly related to abortion, but are stronger for issues that are more partisan nature.... Individuals with pro-life attitudes in 1982 are 14.5 percentage points more likely to hold a conservative view in 1997 than pro-choice individuals even after controlling for this attitude in 1982... The size of the coefficient implies that a standard deviation increase in the likelihood of supporting the Republican Party increases the chances of holding a conservative view by 0.44 percentage points...

We see that a pro-life view in 1982 causes an increase of almost 11 percentage points in the likelihood that individuals oppose the legalization of marijuana and that women should have an equal role in society as men, both measured in 1997. A pro-life view in 1982 increases the chance that a person supports prayer in public schools in 1997 by 14 percentage points...

A priori, there is no reason to believe that views on abortion are correlated with views on unions, big business, or the size of the government. If anything, individuals supporting the right of the government to interfere with a person’s reproductive decisions by restricting or banning access to abortion should also be a likely candidate to favor bigger and more intrusive government interventions in other areas. This, of course, is contrary to reality, where individuals that have pro-life attitudes also tend to favor a smaller government. We argue that this correlation is caused by these views being bundled by the Republican Party. Of course, the same argument applies to having a pro-choice attitude and preferring a bigger government, which are bundled into the platform of the Democratic Party. The reduced form estimates in Table 7 show that there is a positive correlation between pro-life views in 1982 and holding a Republican point of view on economic attitudes (see columns 2, 6,and 10).... Finally, the results of the second stage confirm that identifying with a given party increases the likelihood that the individual adopts the party’s view on unions, big business, and the size of the government. [4]

Political convictions are not a careful calculation of interests. They are rarely grounded in an ideology cannily crafted from first principles. Like most of our beliefs, the reasons for political convictions are constructed after we have settled on them.[5] Attempts to make the tangle of positions endorsed by Republicans or Democrats congeal into one coherent ideology are post-hoc justifications. Ideological coherence ultimately matters less than commitment to a coalition.

At the broadest level, the level which speaks equally to hunter gatherer bands and mass democracies, political ideology is a product of what psychologists have dubbed "coalition psychology."[6] Humans form alliances. We are primed to identify with groups. It is second nature to divide our social world into various groups of 'us' and 'them.' These groups are distinguished by shared symbols, signals, and norms. These can be obvious: slang, dress codes, extreme behavior. They can also be subtle. Our sense of what is a 'proper' or 'odd' opinions or behavior fit in this last category.

Most of the time, humans act normally. We believe normal things.

"Normal" is another way of saying, "What is considered acceptable within my in-group." Changes in political convictions usually have more to do with a shifting sense for what is normal (or in the parlance of opinion, "reasonable") than with some killer argument delivered at a debate podium. If you think about your own experience the truth of this will be rather obvious. Almost no one changes their mind because of one day's argument. Instead, we slowly start to see ideas we once would have rejected out of hand as "reasonable" only after we have been exposed to other people whom we respect or identify with who believe them. (Though I have not seen any research on it, I suspect that this applies equally well to people we only know through their written words. Once we respect an author or come to identify with her—even if she is dead—we will take her augments for uncomfortable ideas more seriously).

What I have seen research on is the role political leadership plays in all of this. There has been a lot of work in political psychology on the way in which leaders shape political preferences. [7] What they describe accords with what I have laid out above. Respected leaders can bring about great shifts in public opinion by shifting to a new position. Why? Because they are one of the few individuals who large numbers of people trust and identify with. If the leader of a party or movement adopts a new position, it will automatically seem 'reasonable' to most of those who identify with or trust that leader.

As a concrete example of what this looks like in real life, imagine a 50-something evangelical who has lent his support to Trump. He is a Republican because of the abortion issue. He reads the newspaper, but does not have any special knowledge or interest in the economics and law of international trade. He traditionally supported free trade because that is what all of the people he trusts supports. Their arguments instinctively sound the most plausible out there because they are tied in with people and explained in language he already endorses. This fellow rejects critics of free trade out of hand because those critics are associated with the opposing coalition. But then, a change! Trump moves towards trade war. Our man now has a strong reason to reconsider his position. Trump is a man whose instincts he trusts. He respects Trump's positions, even when he disagrees with them. The bounds of what was 'reasonable' just shifted. Now he is much more willing to consider arguments against the existing trade regime regardless of source. If Trump is against it, there is probably a good reason for it, and it is worth hearing those reasons out.

At this point (and this is my personal sense for where things stand in 2019) both the pro- and the anti- side of the trade issue will strike the average Republican as 'reasonable' positions to hold. But if protectionism continues on long enough, those who care about it most will abandon the GOP coalition. Free trade will be associated with the out-group, and our evangelical friend (who would not particularly care one way or the other were he left to his own devices) will harden his heart against the WTO. Expect this process to occur even quicker if the Democrat running for President in 2020 makes tearing down tariffs a centerpiece of his or her campaign.[8]

This brings us back to the question we started with. Was the sudden swing towards independence and Taiwanese identity in the '90s something new to Taiwanese politics, or just something newly uncovered once martial law had been dismantled?

I find it unlikely that a large section of the Taiwanese population secretly wanted Taiwanese independence in the 1970s. The remarkable changes we saw in the late '80s and early '90s can be explained just as easily with the mechanisms that lead to rapid changes in public opinion elsewhere. There was clearly a social division in martial law Taiwan. The new immigrants from the mainland, their children, government workers, and KMT clients had natural attachment to the sitting regime. Other parts of Taiwanese society were isolated from it. They feared it or were frustrated with it. The Tangwai movement was able to use this to their advantage. However, while a small cadre of intellectuals did conceive of Taiwanese identity in nationalist terms, their ideas were just that: ideas. Censorship and police control was effective at keeping those ideas away the social identity of masses of disaffected Taiwanese.

Once the censorship and political warfare systems were dismantled, however, there was an opening. Then anti-KMT Taiwanese were exposed to Taiwanese nationalism in an anti-KMT context. Ideas that had previously been limited to an underground elite could now be voiced to the audience best primed to hear them. The people expressing these ideas were recognized as the intellectual and political elite of the anti-KMT side. Their position quickly became reasonable, and then immensely popular. Without censorship and thought control, ideas were free to harden into identities. Taiwanese nationalism was finally married to the natural constituency most receptive to it.

If there had not been an existing social cleavage between the KMT clients and the 'old' Taiwanese this would not have been possible. The new, combative political identities of the '90s needed both of these things to emerge: a social cleavage in the population, and a set of ideas capable of politicizing that division. A subversive political platform with no constituency is powerless. A constituency with no platform is just another group of people. The role of a functioning system of thought control is to quarantine political ideas away from divisive social identities.

Return to the problem I addressed a few weeks ago: why do so many Chinese students become more nationalistic and supportive of the Communist Party when they travel abroad for work or study? How is this possible, even though they have left censorship behind? Because for them, the in-group that defines what is reasonable and what is not is other Chinese students! In 2019, the vast majority of Chinese students live in a social world comprised almost entirely of other Chinese. That is their in-group. That is the relevant population of people they respect. That is the coalition they are a part of. And when these same students are exposed to ideas which criticize the Party, it is usually in a context where the Chinese students feel personally attacked. They jump to the defense of who they are, just like Democrats and Republicans do when they face off with each other.

But there is the larger take-away from all of this. If I am correct, then Chinese public opinion now does not reflect what it would be in a more open political system. This is not because Chinese public opinion polling is all bad (though on many issues I think the numbers are clearly suspect), but because authoritarian control has frozen the underlying forces that naturally create divisive political identities in more democratic societies. In countries like Taiwan, Germany, India, or the United States, social cleavages naturally mature into political cleavages. Were China an open society the same thing would eventually happen there.

This is one reason I am a far more bullish on the prospects of integrating a Chinese democracy into a peaceful international order than I am a China ruled by the Communists. I do not have any illusions about where the state of Chinese public opinion is at the current moment. The majority of Chinese want to swallow up Taiwan, ascend to the heights of global superpower, and win a few bloody battles along the way to restore the country's lost honor. That is simply how things are. Pretending that those ideals are entirely fostered by the Communist Party is not helpful. However, the important thing is not the ideals being fostered by the Communists, but the ideals being smothered by them. An open China is a China whose social divisions would slowly become meaningful political identities. Some of those identities would be tied to liberalism and an affinity with the cultures of Japan and the West. Those are people we could work with—and they would be people that Chinese committed to a more muscular take on 'national rejuvenation' would have to compromise with to get things done.

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If you found the psychological angle of this post insightful, you might also like the posts "Chinese are Partisan Too," and "On Words and Weapons."  If you would like to read more of the recent things I have written about Taiwanese identity, consider "Taiwan Will Be Defended By The Bullet or Not at All" and "Taiwan's Past Matters Less Than Its Present." If, on the other hand, you interest is piqued by Chinese communism, the essay "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage," or my translation of an important speech by Xi Jinping may be for you. 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] Dean Karalekas, Identity and Transformation: Perceptions of Civil-Military Relations in the Republic of China (Taiwan) (PhD Dissertation, National Chengchi University, 2016), p. 15-16.

[2] Tang Wenfang, "The “Surprise” of Authoritarian Resilience in China," American Affairs Vol 2, No 1 (Spring 2018).

[3] "Upton Sinclair," Wikiquotes (accessed 16 September 2019)

[4] Eric Gould and Esteban Klor, "Party hacks and true believers: The effect of party affiliation on political preference," Journal of Comparative Economics Vol 47, Issue 3, (September 2019), pp. 5, 20, 24-25. The excerpts are from the prepint, which can be accessed here.

For an experimental test of the same phenomenon, see Geoffrey L Cohen, “Party over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs,Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vol 85, no. 5 (2003), pp. 808-822.

[5] Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier. The Enigma Of Reason (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[6] John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, ""Groups in mind: Coalitional psychology and the roots of war and morality," In Høgh-Olesen, Henrik, ed., Human Morality and Sociality: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp.191-234; Henri Tajfel and John C Turner, "The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior," in S. Worschel, ed., Psychology of Intergroup Relations (Chicago: Nelson-hall,1986).

For research that explicitly investigates the role of coalition psychology in modern electoral politics, see David Pietraszewski, Oliver Scott Curry, Michael Bang Petersen, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, "Constituents of Political Cognition: Race, Party Politics, and the Alliance Detection System," Cognition Vol 140 (July 2015), pp. 24-39.

[7] Druckman, James N., Erik Peterson, and Rune Slothuus, “"How Elite Partisan Polarization Affects Public Opinion Formation,American Political Science Review vol 107, iss 1 (2013), pp. 57-79; Martin Bisgaard and Rune Slothuus, "Partisan Elites as Culprits? How Party Cues Shape Partisan Perceptual Gaps", American Journal of Political Science, vol 62, iss 2 (2018), pp. 456-469; Alexandra Guisinger and Elizabeth N. Saunders, “Mapping the Boundaries of Elite Cues: How Elites Shape Mass Opinion Across International Issues,International Studies Quarterly 61, no. 2 (June 2017), pp. 425–41

Of course it is not always a one way transfer from leader-to-voter. Other sources that an individual may trust are just as good, and often changes in ideology begin at the grass-roots before percolating up to the top. Joshua Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff have a good summary of this in the lit review section of their "A Bottom‐Up Theory of Public Opinion about Foreign Policy
," American Journal of Political Science, vol 61, iss 3 (2017).

[8] Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Sood, and Yphtach Lelkes, “Affect, Not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization,Public Opinion Quarterly 76, no. 3 (2012): 405–31