18 February, 2014

The Economics of Sex

Social life in 21st century America  makes a lot more sense when you think of dating as a split market with separate supply and demand curves

EDIT (18/02/2014): The Austin Institute has also published a neat list of the studies it used to make this video. Many are worth perusing.

17 February, 2014

Shame and War

USGS topographical map. "Japan, Korea, and Northeast China." 2006.
Image Source: koryostudies.com.

What leads men and states to the path of war?

For centuries thinkers and strategists of the Western tradition have turned to Thucydides and his history to find answers to this question. The great historian speaks of Athenian envoys rising up in hostile halls to justify their city's course:
"An empire was offered to us: can you wonder that, acting as human nature always will, we accepted it and refused to give it up again, constrained by three all powerful motives, honour, fear, interest?" [1]
Fear. Honor. Interest. 

These three terms are the cornerstone of the Western realist tradition. They are both the bedrock upon which hard-nosed theories of world politics are built and the grounds where actual realpolitick has been decided. To Thucydides's Athenians and those who have followed them these three words were not just forces "all powerful," but impulses innate to humanity, a defining feature of man and the driving cause of man's misery.

The realists of the Sinic political tradition do not have any one phrase they can point to as the foundation of their tradition. They did not leave the question unaddressed, however. One succinct summary can be found in the ancient Warring States era strategic text, the Simafa, or The Grand Marshal's Methods. The author forgoes Thucydides's tripartite division of human nature for a description in four-parts:
"Glory, profit, shame, and death are referred to as the Four Preservations." [2]
These four, it is implied, will be the force that moves men to preserve the state and assure its victory when arms are raised. Some of these match up quite closely to Thucydides's expression. "Profit" finds its way onto both lists, while the Marshall's Methods "death" states clearly what men most "fear."  It is more difficult to find Thucydides's "honor" among the Marshal's Four Preservations. Both "glory" and "shame" seem to fit the bill, and it would be easy to conclude this matching game by concluding that the Marshal's Methods simply draws attention to two different aspects of honor and leave the matter at that. 

I ask my readers not to do this. Considering each of these elements separately exposes some of the biases in the Western--and especially, American--patterns of thought. Shame, for example, a concept so central to both daily interactions and high politics across Asia, holds little sway in America. When it does register in the public consciousness it is usually in reference to some crusade to deny it any influence: thus a recent series of viral videos featuring overweight women dancing their hearts out is titled the "No Body Shame Campaign," while the word "shaming" has been largely appropriated to mean any bigoted sort of criticism you think shouldn't be tolerated (e.g. 'slut-shaming'). 

The ancient Greek sense of honor was a very public emotion. Those living in the honor culture of Thucydides's day believed that honor not earned was shame deserved. Not so for those living a Christianized, post-Enlightenment democracy! [3] Americans have a very different conception of honor than our classical forebears, and an even weaker sense sense of shame. In American discourse, shame is something you stand up against, not something expected to move or motivate you. 

Glory is much easier to understand. The desire to win, to compete, to do great deeds and be lauded for them, permeates American culture. It is such a fundamental part of our world view that we sometimes forget that this drive to be undeniably better than the rest is not a universal desire.

Writes Richard Nisbett:

"An experiment by Steven Heine and his colleagues captures the difference between the Western push to feel good about the self and the Asian drive for self improvement. The experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus "creativity" test and then gave the students "feedback" indicating that they had done very well or very badly. The experimenters then secretly observed how log the participants worked on a similar task. The Canadians worked longer on the task if they succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed." [4]

There are large parts of the world that do not think--and more importantly--do not feel like Americans do. There are places where shame moves men to do heroic things and pressures them to committ heinous acts. As the Grand Marshal suggests, shame lies at the scarred heart of as many battlefields as interest or profit. 

I do not think American statesmen are accustomed to putting the power of shame into their political calculations. This is unfortunate. Increasingly, ours is a world where the burden of shame will mean the difference between war and peace.


[1] Thucydides 1.76. Benjamin Jowett translation (1881). See also 1.74.

[2] Simafa ch. 3. In Ralph Sawyer, trans. Seven Military Classics of Ancient China. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993). p. 136.

[3] See James Bowman's discussion in Honor: A History (New York: Encounter Books, 2007), ch. 1-3.

[4] Nisbett, RIchard. The Geography of Thought: How Westerners and Asians Think Differently... and Why. (New York: Free Press, 2003). p. 56.

The actual study referenced is:  Steven J. Heine, Shinobu Kitayama, Darrin R. Lehman; Toshitake Takata,  Eugene Ide, Cecilia Leung, and Hisaya Matsumoto, "Divergent consequences of success and failure in Japan and North America: An investigation of self-improving motivations and malleable selves." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 81, Issue 4. (Oct 2000).

08 February, 2014

Visions of the Coming Future -- John Robb's New Project

As Lexington Green says, if you are not reading John Robb's new website, then you should be.

Mr. Robb has a unique biography. Titles like USAFA cadet, SERE school grad, Yalie, astronautical engineer, counter-terrorism operator, military theorist, tech analyst, software executive, and best selling author have been given to Mr. Robb at one point or another. While working as an analyst for Forrester Research in the early 1990s he predicted that search engines and social networks would rule the internet, a decade later he was CEO of the company that developed the first RSS feeds, and soon after that Mr. Robb coined the term 'open source warfare' (a concept expanded in his influential book, Brave New War) long before the Bush administration had begun to admit the U.S. military was facing a kind of insurgency in Iraq no one in the military was prepared for. His most famous work over the last decade has centered on the changing nature of war and terrorism n the 21st century.

 His new website is devoted to a different theme, focusing on political economy and the "future of the American Dream."

Long term readers of the Stage know I that I am quite skeptical of--if not downright hostile towards--all futurists and thinkers pretentious enough to think they can accurately forecast our future. With John Robb I make an exception. When he talks about the America soon to be, I shut up and listen.

Here are a few excerpt from some of his most recent posts:
John Robb. HomeFree America. 4 February 2014
...Technological change is rapidly killing entire industries and job categories without replacing them. Across the board, incremental productivity improvements are making it possible for employers to get by without hiring new people (even the head of the biggest employer in the World has plans to replace most of his workers with robots). However, that won’t be where we see the greatest losses. Those losses will occur in the industries that are completely gutted from the arrival of products and services that make them obsolete.

As this trend strengthens, we may see results similar to what we saw with the agrarian economy. If that occurs, the extreme endpoint of this decline may be a world where most of the commercial activity in goods and services we see today — from education to health care to manufacturing to transportation to retail to legal services — is accomplished by less than 1% of the people it used to require.

That means only 1 of the hundred jobs being done currently will be left. More strikingly, it’s very likely this won’t take the 200 years it took agriculture to go from 95% of the population to less than 1%. It’s going to be much, much faster this time due to the speed at which improvements can be distributed (software/data). Given this catalyst, we may find ourselves more than half of the way there within twenty years....

John Robb. Home Free America. 6 February 2013.

IN New York, the hotel industry is a big business. Beyond the taxes it pays to the city, both real estate taxes and by occupancy/sales taxes (~15%), it employs 30,000 unionized workers.

Airbnb arrives and gets a “toe-hold” of 1% in the hotel market and already enables 4,850 people that live in the city to host guests that provide that provide them with $7,530 a year in income. 62% of these hosts use that money to pay their rent or mortgage (much of which flows back to the city in real estate taxes). Further, over the long term it generates much, much more income to self-sufficient home owners than it does workers doing it as a full time job in the industry.....

Like most of the tech change going on in this wave, it’s going global from the start, creating It’s an ongoing reworking of the massive hotel industry on a global level.

Despite the obvious socioeconomic benefits it offers and a growing demand, it faces stiff opposition. Entrenched companies, employees and governments see it as a threat, with good reason.

It’s particularly threatening to government. All layers of government — city, state, and federal — want the old, bureaucratic economy to continue, unchanged. They can’t imagine a world without plentiful flows of taxes levied on corporate profits and withholding from personal incomes.

Without this flow of tax income, the entire edifice of the current economy falls. It is the source of the financial life-support to the increasingly obsolete bureaucracies – from the civil bureaucracy to education to national security to banking to health care — that still offer traditional jobs. The rest is spent providing services, from health care to retirement income, in an attempt to keep the existing economic system alive....

John Robb. Free Home America. 28 January 2013.
...The wealth of the West, particularly the US, is being spent on the wrong things year after year, decade after decade. We are now as fragile as the Soviet Union in the late 80′s.

What happened?

Central planning took over the decision making process in the US. This process started with an increase in government sprawl. It accelerated under the management of clueless central bankers. But it became disastrous when wealth concentration became so extreme, at the expense of the majority of citizens, that it reduced economic decision making to an elite few.

This extreme concentration of wealth at the center of our market economy has led to Capitalist politburo — a group that is out to lunch ideologically, protected from the real world by layers of privileged, and loyal only to their peers.

With a Capitalist politburo in place, it’s easy to see why the economy is doing so badly. It’s impossible to make good decisions when there are only a few thousand extremely wealthy people making all of the decisions over the allocation of our collective wealth....

I strongly recommend Mr. Robb's work to everyone who wants to understand how today's economic and technological trends are shaping the future, but are tired of the superficial discussions that pass for serious analysis on most editorial pages. His analysis will not dissapoint.

06 February, 2014

The United States Doesn't Know What to Do With the East China Sea

The famous "nine-dash line" that marks China's territorial claims in the South China Sea

Source: "Q&A: South China Sea Disputes." BBC News. 15 May 2013.

Earlier this afternoon The House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific held a hearing devoted entitled "America’s Future in Asia: From Rebalancing to Managing Sovereignty Disputes." The key testimony was delivered by Daniel Russel, a career FSO currently serving as Assistant Secretary over the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Mr. Russel was one of the architects of the 'pivot to Asia' schema and has had extensive experience as an FSO in both Korea and Japan. Mr. Russel's testimony was a chance to explain in plain terms the Obama administration's policy towards territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas and spell out exactly "what [the State Department] mean[s] when the United States says that we take no position on competing claims to sovereignty over disputed land features in the East China and South China Seas." [1]

The Assistant Secretary's remarks are interesting. At seven pages they are a quick read (those pressed for time can skim the first two pages, for the most part diplomatic platitudes of the standard sort) that reveal a lot about the state of U.S. policy towards China and the various nations of maritime Asia. As if often the case with official government statements, the most striking aspect of Mr. Russel's testimony was not the things he said, but the things he did not. Mr. Russel's description of the State Department's line on the disputes in the South China Sea was detailed, lucid, and well thought out. His remarks on China's dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands was much more vague, uncertain, and brief. 

Consider his description of the American position on the East China Sea disputes:
And in the East China Sea, we remain concerned about the serious downturn in China-Japan relations.  We support Japan’s call for diplomacy and crisis management procedures in order to avoid a miscalculation or a dangerous incident.  It is important to lower tensions, turn down the rhetoric, and exercise caution and restraint in this sensitive area.  China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies and have a shared interest in a stable environment to facilitate economic growth.  Neither these two important countries nor the global economy can afford an unintended clash that neither side seeks or wants.  It is imperative that Japan and China use diplomatic means to manage this issue peacefully and set aside matters that can’t be resolved at this time. 

China’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea in November was a provocative act and a serious step in the wrong direction.  The Senkakus are under the administration of Japan and unilateral attempts to change the status quo raise tensions and do nothing under international law to strengthen territorial claims.  The United States neither recognizes nor accepts China’s declared East China Sea ADIZ and has no intention of changing how we conduct operations in the region.  China should not attempt to implement the ADIZ and should refrain from taking similar actions elsewhere in the region
.  [2]
Now compare this with the length and detail of the State Department's position of the South China Sea disputes:
There is a growing concern that this pattern of behavior in the South China Sea reflects an incremental effort by China to assert control over the area contained in the so-called “nine-dash line,” despite the objections of its neighbors and despite the lack of any explanation or apparent basis under international law regarding the scope of the claim itself.  China’s lack of clarity with regard to its South China Sea claims has created uncertainty, insecurity and instability in the region.  It limits the prospect for achieving a mutually agreeable resolution or equitable joint development arrangements among the claimants.  I want to reinforce the point that under international law, maritime claims in the South China Sea must be derived from land features.  Any use of the “nine dash line” by China to claim maritime rights not based on claimed land features would be inconsistent with international law.   The international community would welcome China to clarify or adjust its nine-dash line claim to bring it in accordance with the international law of the sea. 

We support serious and sustained diplomacy between the claimants to address overlapping claims in a peaceful, non-coercive way.  This can and should include bilateral as well as multilateral diplomatic dialogue among the claimants.  But at the same time we fully support the right of claimants to exercise rights they may have to avail themselves of peaceful dispute settlement mechanisms.  The Philippines chose to exercise such a right last year with the filing of an arbitration case under the Law of the Sea Convention.   

Both legal and diplomatic processes will take time to play out.  The effort to reach agreement on a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct has been painfully slow.  However, there are important steps that the relevant parties can take in the short term to lower tensions and avoid escalation.  One line of effort, as I mentioned earlier, is to put in place practical mechanisms to prevent incidents or manage them when they occur.  Another common-sense measure would be for the claimants to agree not to undertake new unilateral attempts to change the status quo, defined as of the date of the signing of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, that would include agreement not to assert administrative measures or controls in disputed areas.  And as I have indicated, all claimants – not only China – should clarify their claims in terms of international law, including the law of the sea.   

In the meantime, a strong diplomatic and military presence by the United States, including by strengthening and modernizing our alliances and continuing to build robust strategic partnerships, remains essential to maintain regional stability.  This includes our efforts to promote best practices and good cooperation on all aspects of maritime security and bolster maritime domain awareness and our capacity building programs in Southeast Asia
.  [3]
Other than a firm stand against the new Chinese ADIZ, the Assistant Secretary has nothing substantive to say about the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute other than "China and Japan cannot afford an unintended clash." In contrast, Mr. Russel clearly articulates how the United States wants the territorial conflicts of the South China Sea resolved, both outlining the means through which he believes this goal can be attained and openly stating the steps the United States and other countries must take to make this vision a reality. 

This pattern is repeated throughout the testimony--time and again, the Assistant Secretary's position on the South China Sea is both clearer and more nuanced than his position on East Asian disputes. The South China Sea is given double the space. The words "Japan" or "East China Sea" are used 12 times in the testimony; the words "South China Sea" or "ASEAN" occur 21 times.

There are three possible reasons why the State Department discusses the South China Sea disputes with greater depth than the dispute in the East China Sea:
1) The Obama administration is more concerned with disputes in the South China Sea than the East China Sea.

2) The Obama administration does not want its position on the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute known publicly.

3) The Obama administration does not yet have a coherent position on the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute.
I suspect that the third option comes closest to the truth. The administration assumed that a declared 'pivot to Asia' would bring stability to East Asia. But as discussed here before Tokyo has only been emboldened by America's rhetorical support, and relations between China and America's most audacious ally have soured since. [4] Japan and China's dispute poses a problem that American statesmen do not know how to solve.


[1] Daniel Russel. "Maritime Disputes in East Asia." Testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific (5 February 2014). p. 6.

[2] Ibid. 4

[3] Ibid. 5-6.

[4] T. Greer. "Asian Geopolitics: Spring 2013." The Scholar's Stage. 19 May 2013.

03 February, 2014

Notes From All Over (3/02/2014): Ghosts, Empire, and Tribal Honor

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


"'The standard of living in ancient societies: a comparison between the Han Empire, the Roman Empire, and Babylonia"

Bas van Leeuwen, Reinhard Pirgruber, and Jieli van Leeuwen-Li. Working Papers 50, Utrecht University, Centre for Global Economic History. The global and long-term development of real wages: methods, problems and possibilities (Amsterdam, Netherlands, Version 2). March 2013.
...this development of the welfare of laborers even underestimates actual welfare development in English society as a whole. In ancient societies, the income of unskilled laborers was representative for the bottom 80% of society (in a pessimistic scenario). Broadberry et al. (2013 forthcoming) calculated a value of 70%15 for England in 1290, a number not much different from that of ancient societies a thousand years earlier. However, a rapid change took place the following centuries: In 1688, the proportion of the population living at or below subsistence had already decreased to 45%, after which it declined even further to 40% in 1759. Hence, whereas the welfare ratio of the common labourer increased strongly, their relative share in total population decreased. This suggests that society as a whole witnessed even stronger economic growth than evidenced by the welfare ratio. This phenomenon did not occur in, for example, China. Even though there is little direct evidence, we may conclude for China, based on a sample of occupations collected by Wang (2000, p. 50) that around 77% of the population earned the income of a common labourer or less at the end of the 18th century. Hence, in China the relative proportion Chinese society stagnated between Han times and the 19th century. All in all, this evidence implies that the Great Divergence started already around the Black Death rather than around the 17th/18th century as claimed by scholars like Frank (1998) or Pomeranz (2000).

Sounds oddly familiar, doesn't? Dr. van Leeuwen and company also have a few interesting things to say about the average living standard during the Han Dynasty in comparison to both the contemporary Roman Empire and later Chinese dynasties. Strongly recommended.

 "Purim & My Bangladeshi Friend"
Seth Tillman. Gadfly Online. 11 February 2013.
One day M. asked me a question. It was a question he probably did not intend to ask. Our conversation went something like this.

M.: You know, I have known Pakistanis my whole life. But I don’t understand them.

A.: What do you mean? What is it about Pakistanis that you do not understand?

M.: They treat us oddly. Sometimes when I meet Pakistanis, they treat us like long-lost brothers. As friends, almost as family. But other times, not so much. Sometimes it is quite obvious that they look down on us. But who are we that they should look down on? Their attitude just doesn’t make any sense. After all, we won the civil war. And that’s why there is an independent Bangladesh today.

A.: Yes, I think you are probably right about that. I could explain it to you.

M.: You could explain it, to me?

A.: Well, um, yes, I am afraid so.

M.: A., I have known South Asians and Pakistanis my whole life. I have friends and family all over Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan too. How many Pakistanis have you ever known?

A.: Not many, less than a dozen, maybe less than half a dozen.

M.: OK, I am all ears. (laughing gently) Tell me why you think Pakistanis act the way they do.

...A: OK, but, again, you are not going to like it.

I suspect that the reason some Pakistanis look down on some Bangladeshis some of the time . . . is that they think Bangladeshis are . . . are . . . the children of raped women."

A poignant, painful essay that shows well how much of the Middle East, Central, and South Asia works. Necessary reading for anyone hoping to understand these regions. 

H/T to Lexington Green.

"Ghosts of the Tsunami"
Richard Lloyd Perry. London Review of Books, vol 36, no. 3 (6 February 2014). p. 13-17.

No single passage from this essay can adequately convey what a fascinating, eerie read it is. Perry opens a window into a Japan--or perhaps a humanity--that is rarely seen. I am grateful London Review of Books has made this available to the public.


"Inequality and the Masters of Money"
Alex Tabberok. Marginal Revolution. 14 January 2014.

Tabberock analyzes the biographies of the President's nominees for the top spots at the fed. His conclusions about the nature of American 'meritocracy,' inequality, and economic scale will be familiar to readers of the Stage.

 "Modern Liberalism and the Paternalism of Things"

Jason Kuznicki. Libertarianism.org. 23 January 2013.
"But I think that for many modern liberals the reality is much simpler. They like the surveillance state because modern liberalism sooner or later requires it.

If it wants to succeed, or if it even wants to be taken seriously in many of the claims that it makes, modern, paternalistic liberalism requires watching people. A lot. The state must watch so that we the people don’t violate any the tens of thousands of rules in the Federal Register. The state must watch so that we exercise and eat properly. The state must watch so that no one makes a racist joke or fails to serve a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. The state must watch so that we don’t seek alternate medical care or put any otherwise wrong substances in our bodies. The state must watch so that we all comply minutely with every one of the state’s vast array of commands."


"Ancient Egypt: Cultural Continuity"
Al West. West's Meditations. 2 January 2013.
"Ancient Egypt' is a term that serves to cover three millennia of time.  Here's a startling reminder of the extreme longevity of this civilization, if that's what you can call it: you are closer in time to Cleopatra (died 30 BCE) than Cleopatra was to the builders of the Pyramid of Khufu (completed 2560 BCE).  Tutankhamun was about midway between the two, living as he did in the fourteenth century BCE.  You are closer in time to the Visigothic kings of Spain than Tutankhamun was to Khufu."

"Red Guard Betrays Family in 1976 Comic"
Translated by "Joe." ChinaSMACK.  15 January 2013.

"The Key to Arctic Survival: Improvised Implements of Excrement"
Peter Lee. China Matters. 22 January 2014.


"Why You Want To Avoid Getting Blown Up By a Landmine"
Nate Thayer. Excerpt from Sympathy With The Devil: A Journalists Memoir From Inside the Khmer Rouge (unpublished doc.). NateThayer Archives. 28 January 2014.

Last week I wrote that Nate Thayer's biography was a "truly remarkable" one. The more excerpts Mr. Thayer posts from his memoir the more this of an understatement this description seems to be. This excerpt relates the story of a 1989 raid the CIA-equipped KPNF forces made against the sitting regime. Thayer accompanied the guerrillas on the way in... and as the title suggests, had an (incredibly lucky!) encounter with a land mine on the way out.

"The Fourth War: My Interview With a Jihadi."
Eliot Ackerman. The Daily Beast. 21 January 2013.

"Dark Lands: The Grim Truth About the 'Scandinavian Miracle"
Michael Booth. The Guardian. 27 January 2014.

"U.S. Asia-Pacific Strategic Considerations Related to P.L.A. Naval Forces Modernization"
Various authors. Hearing for the Armed Services Committee of the United States House of Representatives. 11 December 2013.

I am still making my way through the various statements made before the Committee. The witnesses discuss Chinese naval modernization, geopolitical strategy, maritime disputes, and proposed American responses to these developments. Thus far the statements and discussion has been excellent; I was so impressed with Andrew Erickson's testimony that I added his website to the blog roll.


"The Value of Biodiversity: A Humbling Analysis"
 Mark Vellend. Review of What's So Good About Biodiversity? by Donald Meir. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, vol 30, no. 10 (2014). p. 1-2.
"No fewer than 12 theories of biodiversity value are described, although they fall into two major categories. First, we have a moral responsibility not to extinguish other species from the earth.  Second, the loss of biodiversity will  impair the ability of ecosystems to deliver the goods and services humans derive from it, such as medicines and clean air and water. As a moral philosopher and  self-described environmentalist with scientific training, Maier scrutinizes each theory in almost excruciating detail,  the  sum total of which is difficult to summarize in a short  review. To cut to the chase, he describes being ‘stunned’ that he 'could not find a single argument that does not have serious logical flaws, crippling qualifications, or indefensible  assumptions’.
"Evolution Hidden in Plain Sight"
Carl Zimmer. Phenomena: The Loom. 6 January 2014.

A fantastic read and a great example of what scientific journalism at its best should look like. 

"Sluggish Metabolisms Are the Key to Primates Long Lives"
Hal Hobson. New Scientist. 20 January 2014.

H/T to hbd*chick for the last two articles.


"Humanities as Telling Truths Beautifully"
Razib Khan. The Unz Review. 12 January 2013.

As I stated during a twitter conversation concerning this post, I generally agree with what Razib writes here. I add one caveat: the type of multiculturalism Razib discusses is inimical to any "common ethos" an education in the humanities ought to impart, but multiculturalism itself is not what killed the humanities' old aim of imparting "character." That goal was tossed out the window some 30 years before multiculturalism became a major part of academic discourse.  Extreme specialization, coupled with an infatuation for new social sciences and their statistical methods, led professors in the humanities to see their main role as conveyors of objective knowledge instead of a civilizing ethos. 

For more on this I refer readers to my earlier post, "Do the Great Books Have a Place in the 21st Century?"

"Science Fiction and Politics"
Daniel Nexon. Hylaen Flow. 21 January 2013.

Dr. Nexon teaches a political philosophy class built around a dozen science fiction novels, comic series, and films. His choices are interesting. PDF version here.

H/T Adam Elkus.


02 February, 2014

Which Chinese Ethnic Minorities are Important? Ask the Spring Festival Gala!

The annual CCTV Spring Festival Gala bills itself as the most watched television program on planet Earth. [1] I think this slightly misstates the nature of the program. It may be more accurate to describe the Gala as the most widely tolerated background noise for Mahjong-playing, dumpling eating, and hongbao giving celebrations on planet Earth. 

Notwithstanding the small amount of attention the average Chinese family actually gives to any single performance, twitter and the blogosphere is already alight with commentaries on the Gala's political overtones. A lot this commentary has focused on the performance of the ballet Red Detachment of Women, but I found the five 'ethnic minority' musical performances to be much more revealing:

Of the hundreds of ethnic minorities who live within the People's Republic of China,  only 56 are "officially" recognized by the Chinese government. Of these 56, only five were considered well known or otherwise important enough to have their own 40 seconds of fame in the 2014 CCTV Spring Gala. In order of their appearance in this video, these were the Uyghurs of Xinjiang, the Zhuang of Guangxi, and the ethnic Mongols, Hui, and Tibetans that live across China's northern and western reaches. [2]


[1] The South China Morning Post reports that some 750 million people tuned into the 2013 Gala -- for those counting, that is six times the size of the audience that watches the SuperBowl every year. Chris Luo. "CCTV's Spring Autumn Festival Gala Line Up Draws Barrage of Criticism Online." South China Morning Post. 29 January 2013. 

[2] I must thank my friend 嘉源 for helping me track down which ethnic group the author of each song belongs to. Unfortunately, we were unable to find this information for the fourth performance. We assume it is a Hui performance because of Islamic aesthetic veneer of the dancer's outfits and the performance's background visuals. We further assumed that even if the performers was not technically Hui, most Chinese would not distinguish between a smaller  Muslim ethnic minority and the Hui anyways. If  readers more knowledgeable than myself can confirm what ethnic group the performance is supposed to reflect, please sound off in the comment section!