11 September, 2020

Why I Fear For Taiwan

Hat tip to Paul Huang for finding this comic.
Two years back I wrote an article for Foreign Policy with the title "Taiwan Can Win a War With China."  In a recent interview with Jordan Schneider (for his podcast ChinaTalk) I stated that I can no longer endorse the declaration in that title.[1] While I discuss my change of heart on the podcast, I think it is best if I fully write out why my assessment has changed.

I wrote that article in the early Spring of 2018. Around 70% of its contents reflected research presented  in Ian Easton's book, The Chinese Invasion Threat, another 15% or so was drawn from a journal article published by Michael Beckely in the International Security Review, and the last 15% or so drew from my own analysis.[2] A lot of the writing and research behind Easton's book comes from 2015-2016. Things have gotten worse, not better, since then, and if Easton's more recent op-ed pieces are a fair judge of his opinions, he has also grown more pessimistic in the years since.[3]

My pessimism is grounded in the nine months I spent in Taiwan in 2019.[4] During my time there I had the chance to interview two dozen recently discharged conscripts, meet with security folks in the DPP (Taiwan's governing party), security researchers in both the partisan and non-partisan think tanks in Taipei, engineers working on Taiwanese arms development, and members of the ROC Navy and Army officer corps.  I traveled across the island to visit potential invasion sites in person and to get an assessment of how ordinary people across the country thought about defense issues. I had the chance to talk with a substantial number of visiting experts from other countries. More important than the security experts, however, was my exposure to Taiwanese democracy itself. I traveled to rallies for both the DPP and the KMT, I met PhD students conducting research on the Taiwanese political system, met up with local journalists, and watched Taiwanese political news every night with dinner. Now that I have returned to the United States I do not pay nearly as close attention to weekly ins-and-outs of Taiwanese politics as I did when I was living there. I do not consider myself and would certainly never bill myself as a "Taiwan expert."  But my 2019 experiences have caused me to fundamentally rethink my confidence in Taiwan's ability to preserve its own autonomy. 

A few analysts and researchers have been key to shaping my understanding of this issue. I don't think any of them will endorse all of what follows--and one or two might object to the broader argument of the entire post--but I want to give credit where credit is due. Among Taiwanese, this includes Kitsch Liao, Crystal Tu, Paul Huang, and 'Yuster' Yu; among foreigners, Wendall Minnick and Tom Creedon deserve special mention. There are two or three others who cannot be named without causing them trouble with their current employment. They know who they are.

In the Foreign Policy article I penned in 2018, I described certain advantages Taiwan would have in any armed conflict. Many of these advantages still hold true. Taiwan is a mountainous island. A proper invasion of Taiwan would mean the largest amphibious invasion in human history. An operation on this scale could not be disguised or hidden. We would know about it weeks, and perhaps months, in advance. The weather in the Strait is treacherous; there only a few months every year where such an invasion could occur, and only a few beaches where an invading force could safely land. Our era is defined by a precision-munitions weapons regime. This sort of weapons regime heavily favors the defense. The same "AD/A2" logic that keeps the U.S. Navy away from Chinese shores can work to scare PLAN vessels away from Taiwanese shores. Missiles, drones, and mines can destroy invading ships many times their cost (and for what it is worth, my friends in the U.S. Navy judge that Taiwan's anti-ship missiles are better than ours). The PLA is an organization with human-capital problems. I have met kids in the PLA; I naively expected them to exude the confidence, competence, and intelligence of America's enlisted servicemen. They don't. The PLA is an organization with no combat experience, and having told their people for so long that Taiwanese "reunification" is inevitable and pacification easy, it is not clear to me PLA peasant-soldiers and the broader Chinese public will be all that resilient in the face of military setbacks or disruption. The ROC military has spent decades preparing for a Chinese invasion. Some of these preparations (like the nuclear-proof air hangers built into the Hualien mountainside) are impressive

All of that is still true. Even in a worse-case scenario, an invasion is a risky gamble for the Communists. The inherent advantages of the Taiwan's geography and current technology mean that if the Taiwanese willed it, they could make their island an impenetrable fortress. 

But there is the catch. The Taiwanese must will it.

You might divide the challenges Taiwan faces into two parts: problems of military strategy and problems of training, culture and morale. These problems can be laid at the feet of the ROC military (especially the ROC Army), but behind them lies another, more serious layer of dysfunction. This layer is more serious because it infects not the military but the civilian leadership tasked with reforming the defense system. Responsibility for military strategy and morale ultimately lies with Taiwanese politicians, and to a lesser extent, the voters who bring them to office. But Taiwan is marred by a dysfunctional civil-military relationship, destructive partisan infighting, and a spirit of defeatism. These political dynamics make it difficult for Taiwan to make the reforms that might guarantee its safety and autonomy.

The problems with Taiwanese military strategy are well known. The essential issues are these:  for the last decade, Taiwanese force procurement has been weighted towards expensive, high-end platforms that are high on prestige but of limited utility in an actual conflict with the PLA. 20 years ago doubling down on the high-tech edge made sense, as it was seen as a force multiplier that might counteract the weight of numbers China could throw into the fight. But the situation has changed: the PLA has parity on just about every system the Taiwanese can field (or buy from us in the future),  and for some systems they simply outclass the Taiwanese altogether. The Chinese thus not only have more equipment, but better equipment on top of it. 

The solution to this problem is not to double down on buying expensive items like M1 Abrams tanks, which have difficulty maneuvering in the jungle, rice-paddy, and dense urban patchwork that is Taiwan (and which will be difficult to use once the PLA has gained air superiority, the necessary precursor to the amphibious invasion in which these tanks might be used), but to instead to adopt the military model of other small and middle powers  facing large threats. That is the Iranians, the Israelis, and the Eastern Europeans. The Iranians keep the US Navy at bay through investments in sea mines, missiles, drones, and fast attack boats. In Poland and the Baltics, normal citizens are trained in sabotage and insurgent tactics to provide a deterrent beyond the normal line of battle. The logic behind Iran's A2/AD screen is obvious. The Baltic countries do what they do not because they think guerilla fighting will be enough to destroy the Russian army, but because they understand how critical it is to keep the fight going for as long as possible. It might take a while for NATO to get troops on the ground; they must do everything in their power to prevent the Russians from taking their country in one fell fait accompli. They also know that the Russians face a different calculation if they must worry about putting down an insurgency while also fighting a conventional war with the rest of NATO at the same time. 

In an ideal world the Taiwanese would be able to make a similar set of threats. "Invade us," they might tell Beijing, "and it means cyber attacks on your critical infrastructure and missiles screaming towards sensitive targets as far away as Shanghai. If you are willing to bear that cost, and think you have the missile stores to degrade our own air defenses while reserving enough to use against the Americans, then you might be able to launch an invasion. But  know that your invasion fleet will face thousands of mines and hundreds of missiles and drones before your first troops can make landfall. They will be faced with a military prepared to fight backwards inch by inch, using jungle, mountains, and cities for cover, specially trained to drag this fight out for weeks. Know that if even you manage to beat most of them, you will then be faced with an entire populace that has been trained insurgent tactics, with ready access to weapons stored all across the island. You will be forced to spend months putting down an insurgency in terrain perfect for insurgents.... all while fighting a conventional fight with the Americans and Japanese in the airspace and oceans of the entire Indo-Pacific!"

The interesting thing about all that is that everybody knows this is what the Taiwanese need to do. Every single study of every single think tank that travels to Taiwan comes away making these recommendations. Every touring academic from some American defense university makes these recommendations. Every ex-military attache or civilian appointee who has manned the Taiwan desk at the Pentagon makes these recommendations.[5] I was struck by the lunacy of it all last July when I talked to a hard green ex-official  one week, and then had a meeting with a National Policy Foundation defense intellectual the next week, and was surprised to find that their recommendations for Taiwan's defense were exactly the same! (By way of context: a hard green would be a critic of Tsai Ying-wen from the pro-independence side, and the NPF is a KMT affiliated think tank). These guys would have trouble having a civil conversation with each other, but here they were identifying the exact same problems and endorsing almost identical solutions to them. 

So everyone knows what real deterrence would require. But it is not what is strategized, nor what is trained for. Every year the Legislative Yuan drags the Minister of National Defense in to grill him on defense issues.  He is invariably asked, "How long can we hold out in a war with China?" Every year whoever holds the position gives the same answer: "two weeks." This reflects a belief on the MND's part that the war will be decided on the landing beach. This is not an odd belief; the PLA shares it, and historically speaking amphibious invasions not stopped on the beaches are usually not stopped at all.[6]  But this is no longer a sufficient deterrence posture. It will likely take far longer than two weeks for the Americans to pop the formidable AD/A2 bubble China has built to keep INDOPACOM forces away from Taiwan, and the Taiwanese must be prepared to fight for as long as that will take.[7]

Taiwan's 2019 National Defense Strategy made some formal motions towards the strategy I discussed a few paragraphs ago, endorsing a conceptual shift from a decisive fight on the berm towards a posture which allows for a more multi-layered defense. The problem is that the ROC Army is not training for this. Or at least they weren't in December 2019, when I last asked Taiwanese soldiers if they had ever trained in the tactics of a coordinated, fighting retreat or in using land based platforms to hit targets in the near littoral. The sad truth is that the ROC Army has trouble with training across the board.  I have met artillery observers who never seen their own mortars fired, and shared drinks with an infantry officer who traveled to Thailand on his own dime to get basic TCCC training his own military did not offer. Those were professional soldiers; the situation with the conscripts is worse. 

When people outside of Taiwan talk about the problem with the conscript system, they tend to focus on its dwindling size.[8] Yes, the inability of the ROC military, especially the Army, to fill its own ranks is a problem. But the trash they fill it with is an even larger one. I would ask ex-conscripts questions like, "Would you know how to find cover if you were ambushed?",  "Were you ever trained on how to move around if the other side controlled the skies?", "Were you ever taught what to do if the guy next to you was shot in the arm?," "Did they ever tell you anything about the weapons, organization, or tactics of the PLA?" or "Did they teach you how to get from point A to point B without cell service, you know, using a map?" Negatives across the board. What they could tell me were stories of officers communicating orders through Whatsapp, time spent learning Army songs and doing yard-work instead of on maneuver drills, and how the totality of their marksmanship training consisted of firing one magazine from a single (prone) position on some eight to ten occasions.

 One reason for the lax training is a shortage of supplies. The ROC Army has a shortage of bullets. Again and again I was told stories of officers who would fake training exercises in order to save on spare parts. [9] Han Kuang is a joke put on for propaganda purposes, not serious training. The military is risk adverse; real training might lead to training accidents, and a series of high profile accidents that led to unnecessary deaths has led them to soften training for the entire force. While reservist weapons stores are scattered across Taiwan, the million reservists that are supposed to use them are not drilled. Official reservists reported to me that they have no idea what they are supposed to do if ever actually called up. These troops exist only on paper. The problem is broader: the Taiwanese population is not seriously trained or mentally prepared for conflict. Nor do they take care of their soldiers. A military career is a low status profession ("好 鐵 不 打 釘...."). Military pensions were just slashed; military basing often does not provide housing for family members. Unlike service in the U.S. military, service in the Taiwanese military rarely provides marketable skills that can be used in different career fields. Most of Taiwan's best minds flee service altogether. Officers willing to challenge outmoded tactics, or who study abroad in an attempt to learn from foreign militaries, are seen as a threat by the upper brass  and side-lined.

Not all of the ROC Armed Forces fare so bad. The ROC Air Force, in particular, is highly esteemed by those who work with it, and their pilots are trained in the United States. The real stinker is the Army. The trouble is that this worst branch of the ROC Armed Forces is precisely the branch the population of Taiwan has the most exposure to. The vast majority of conscripts serve in the Army. Many enter the Army excited, hoping they might serve their country, or barring that at least become tougher men. Their disappointment is captured by the comic I have placed at the beginning of this piece. The first panel reads, "What I assumed military service would be like." The second reads, "the reality." This reality is demoralizing. Of the two dozen ex-conscripts I interviewed last year, only one was more confident in Taiwan's ability to resist China after going through the conscript system. Most left their service more cynical and defeatist than when they entered it. I will go out on a limb: the greatest danger to the security of Taiwan is not the PLA Navy or Rocket Force, but Taiwan's own demoralizing system of national service.

These problems are understood in Taiwan. I am not claiming some unique insight in typing them all out here. Anyone who spends a month in-country digging into these issues finds the rot. The harder question is what to do about it. I have lost confidence in the Taiwanese political system's ability to manage the problem without some sort of external intervention. I described some of these issues in a piece I wrote for Foreign Affairs last year.[10] You can read excerpts from that piece here. But there are additional sources of dysfunction. The ROC Army's sorry state flows in part from its past job as the iron fist of the Chiang dictatorship. The DPP old guard remember the ROC Army as torturers and murderers; the second generation does not bear these scars, but has inherited their mistrust. This is seen even at the level of the general population: one of the grimly amusing results of Dean Karalekas' opinion surveys is that the portion of the populace most eager to fight for independence is also the group that is least willing to let their children devote a career to the ROC Armed Forces.[11] The upshot is a party run by activists, academics, and lawyers who do not understand the ROC national security state and have a poor working relationship with most of the blue-leaning generals and bureaucrats who man it.

Taiwan's authoritarian legacy also makes it hard for Taiwanese political leaders to employ useful tools for shaping public opinion and preparing their country for crisis.[12] In the old days, conscription was a tool of ideological indoctrination. Democratization defanged the Political Warfare Bureau, and made it illegitimate to use conscription as an explicit system for boosting morale or building a sense of national identity. Public education campaigns whose rhetoric or imagery is too militarized are difficult sells for very similar reasons. Authoritarian rule casts a long shadow in Taiwan. Anything too reminiscent of the dictatorship is a non-starter—especially for the Greens now in power.

Behind all of that is a more fundamental problem. Taiwan's leaders are afraid to ask their people to make meaningful sacrifice to preserve their freedoms. Deterring away the PLA has costs. It will require taxes. It will require a real conscription. It will require real reservists. It will mean turning Taiwan into something like a garrison state. Inspiring the Taiwanese people to make these sacrifices is the job of President Tsai and the leading members of her party. Thusfar she has elected not to do this. Indeed, her administration has focused on almost everything but this. There are sound electoral reasons for this. The details of national defense do not push any Taiwanese identity culture-war buttons. Real preparedness would bring with it real costs. It is far easier to settle for pageantry and symbolism and hope that if there ever is a crisis, the 7th Fleet will come to save you. 

Should we so easily promise that the 7th Fleet will be there to save them?

At this point an admission is due: it is easy for me to write all that. It is easy for me to judge, to pontificate on why some other country needs to militarize its society. The costs are not my own. I will not be called up for a year's conscription. I will not be paying higher taxes; it is not my culture at stake. But the call is now going out for America to commit itself to Taiwan's defense. I cannot advocate sending American servicemen to die for the sake of a country that is not serious about defending itself. Unless American diplomats deliver a similar ultimatum to the Taiwanese, I am not sure they ever will be.

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For more writing on Taiwanese military affairs, you might also like the posts  "Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power," "Taiwan Will Be Defended by the Bullet or Not At All," and "Losing Taiwan is Losing Japan." 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, "Taiwan Can With a War With China," Foreign Policy (25 September 2018).

[2] Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (Washington DC: Project 2049 Institute, 2017); Michael Beckely, "The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia," International Security Vol. 42, No. 2 (Fall 2017), pp. 78–119.

[3] For example, see Ian Easton, "America Should Put Troops in Taiwan," Taipei Times (9 March 2020). Included in that piece is the following statement, stark in its judgement:

 Neither America nor Taiwan seems to have a realistic strategy for responding to an all-out Chinese attack. Both countries have defense plans for raising the costs China would have to bear to conquer Taiwan, and there is little doubt they could wage a bloody war of resistance, but these defense plans are reportedly uncoordinated, underfunded, and uncertain. No one seems to know how they would actually win the war. Sinking the first few hundred ships to cross the Taiwan Strait is necessary, but hardly sufficient, for victory. 
[4] I spent an earlier stint in the country for language learning purposes in 2015-2016. For the curious, I think Taiwan is a far better place to learn Mandarin than the mainland is. That may be a topic for a different day.

[5] This clarion call was first sounded in English 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; Lauren Dickey, "Reestablishing Deterrence: A Guide for Taiwan's New President," War on the Rocks (20 Jaunary 2016); 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.

[6] On the PLA's two week timeline, see Easton, The China Invasion Threat, ; on the historical success rate of amphibious operations generally, see Theodore Gretchel, ,At the Water's Edge: Defending Against the Modern Amphibious Assault (Annapolis: USNI Press, 2013), passim.

[7] To say nothing of the political requirements of rallying the American public in favor of Taiwan's defense.

Huang Jiezheng recently had a funny riff on the whole issue which captures MND's frustration with this question:

國防部長每每在立法院被逼問「國軍可以撐多久」,專家名嘴跟進點評,其實根本找錯對象。倘若兩岸開戰,就不只是媒體上「漢光演習戰力展示」的那些景象。台灣的涉外折衝、經濟金融、民生物資、水電油氣、網路通信、醫護救傷、警消民防、民心士氣可以撐多久?

各位立院諸公,兵者,國之大事,兩岸發生戰事「台灣可以撐多久」,往後請質詢行政院長。

Huang is correct here. The oft-asked question is a dodge on the part of civilian officials, an attempt to pin the military with problems they have not been willing to try and solve themselves. And yet.... "two weeks" is still the wrong answer to give! 

黃介正, "拜託不要再問國防部長「台灣可以撐多久」了!" 風傳媒 (25 August 2020)

[8] For examples, see Paul Huang, "Taiwan’s Military Is a Hollow Shell," Foreign Policy (15 February 2020); Vanessa Molter, "Taiwan’s All-Volunteer Force Transition Still a Challenge," The Diplomat (31 August 2019. 

[9] Paul Huang recently wrote an excellent piece on this topic. See "Taiwan’s Military Has Flashy American Weapons but No Ammo," Foreign Policy (20 August 2020). See also Wendell Minnick, "How To Save Taiwan From Itself," National Interest (19 March 2019).

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

[11]  Dean Karalekas, Identity and Transformation: Perceptions of Civil-Military Relations in the Republic of China (Taiwan) (PhD Dissertation, National Chengchi University, 2016)

[12] For a similar analysis see Philip Caruso, "Taiwan Needs More Than Election Victories to Fend off China," Foreign Policy (17 January 2020). 

08 September, 2020

On Diplomats-in-Chief


Here is a question that has fascinates: how to account for the disastrous foreign policy of George W. Bush, when his foreign policy team returned to office in 2001 as the most credentialed and accomplished group of foreign policy professionals Washington had seen in the modern nat-sec era? How did the men and women who won the Cold War, shepherded the reunification of Germany, managed the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, secured democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin America, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and orchestrated two successful wars (in Panama and in the Persian Gulf) under Reagan and Bush I manage to mess up things so badly under Bush II?

One potential answer is that not all of the Bush I team made it into Bush II. Brent Scowcraft's apprentice Condoleezza Rice inherited his position, and other members of his team (such as Richard Haas) also found plum spots; Dick Cheney returned to office himself, and many of those who worked closely with him at the Pentagon (Wolfowitz, Khalizad, Feith, Hadley, Libby) also found places in the new Bush administration. Colin Powell returned, and brought Richard Armitage along with him. But one faction that seems to have been left out the spoils was that of James Baker and his apprentices. The only Bakerite to reach prominent office under Bush II was Robert Zoellick, who initially was installed as the USTR Rep, and thus was isolated from the national security issues that dominated the the younger Bush's presidency. 

How much did James Baker matter? Dennis Ross, who saw the diplomatic angle of Cold War's conclusion up close as one of Baker's senior deputies at the State Department, believes that the personal attention paid by Baker and Bush I to diplomacy was critical to that administration's victories. One way he measures this attention is through the time both men spent in personal contact with other heads of state. Ross describes what this required of Bush and Baker in his 2007 book Statecraft: And How to Restore American Standing in the World. Here is his description of the diplomatic labor that went into the reunification of Germany and its inclusion in NATO:

The diplomatic efforts at the highest levels of the administration were remarkable for their extensive, intensive, and time-consuming nature. The president and the secretary of state conducted a highly personal diplomacy that involved an extraordinary number of face-to-face meetings with other leaders. Certainly phone calls were made, especially in the interim between meetings or to brief other leaders on meetings that had just taken place with their fellow leaders. This was especially true with both Kohl and Gorbachev. Following a meeting with one, President Bush would place a call to brief the other on where things now stood. These were not perfunctory phone calls; they were highly substantive and were designed to move the process along or undo a false impression that might otherwise become rooted and create problems. Though these calls,  and meetings at lower levels, were an essential part of the diplomacy, there can be no doubt that the face-to-face meetings at the president’s and secretary’s level were the heart of the effort.

To give an idea of the scope and intensity of the personal diplomacy of the president and the secretary of state, it is worth noting that President Bush met Chancellor Kohl in either strictly bilateral settings or on the margins of broader multilateral events nine times over a period of roughly one year. (Four of those meetings were in only bilateral settings.) He saw Prime Minister Thatcher eight times during the same period, of which three of the meetings were for exclusively bilateral purposes. He also saw President Mitterrand eight times at many of the same multilateral events, and had two meetings set exclusively for their bilateral discussions. With Gorbachev, he held two high-profile summit meetings during this period.

The Baker meetings were far more numerous, totaling close to thirty separate encounters with each of his German, British, French, and Soviet counterparts—-many on the margins of multilateral events during this same time period Of course, in many cases he visited their capitals for meetings, or they visited Washington. When he visited foreign capitals, he would see not only the foreign minister but also the president or prime minister—and, of course, he would have opportunities to speak publicly in each location. I cite the number of meetings—which was extraordinary and certainly has no parallel with any other president—only to give an an indication of the scope of what was involved. [1]

A similar amount of work went into the preparations for the Gulf War:

Much as in the German case, the intensity and scope of the personal diplomacy conducted by the president and the secretary of state were extraordinary. While he held fewer face-to-face meetings than during the German unification process, President Bush nonetheless met all the leaders in the coalition (including Gorbachev twice), and his telephonic diplomacy earned him the nickname the “mad dialer." From the outset he was on the phone, calling our ambassador at UN to give him instructions or speaking to the Saudi king Fahd and Egyptian president Mubarak to make sure they would be responsive. These were not “check the box” calls; he sought to gain support or to reinforce the positions and confidence of those who might be wavering-and at certain points and junctures, especially on the eve of transition from air war to ground war, he held long phone conversations with Gorbachev and others.

For his part, Baker’s travels were exhaustive and exhausting. After issuing the joint statement with Shevardnadze, he returned home to take part in an NSC meeting with the president and and then turned around almost immediately and flew to Turkey to work out several understandings with Turkish prime minister Ozal. We required an agreement with Turkey over cutting the Iraq oil pipeline and using Turkish bases in the event of war with Iraq. The meeting also provided the Turk the opportunity to outline what they needed to sustain these positions, and we agreed to consult on each step should additional pressure needed to be brought to bear against Saddam Hussein. Next, Baker flew to Brussels to gain NATO endorsement of our steps vis-a-vis Turkey—a NATO member—and put the alliance on the record against Iraq. 

 Baker’s subsequent trips, most of which involved going first to the Middle East and then to Moscow and back to Europe before returning home, focused on holding the coalition together even as he pursued different purposes: first the tin-cup exercise; then the effort to discreetly  explain to coalition members why we were moving from a deterrence-only military posture to one that would allow us to use force offensively is necessary—and the additional monies and bases we would need for such an increase in forces; then the around-the-world effort to gauge support for the “all necessary means” resolution; and, finally, one last set of visits to Middle Eastern and NATO countries both before and after meeting with Tariq Aziz in Geneva to hold the line and prevent any backsliding or division in the coalition in the days leading up to the end of the ultimatum period.[2]

In Statecraft, Ross is more critical of the means the Bush II team used than the ends they pursued. Ross seems to believe that if Bush II's team had put in the diplomatic labor that Baker and Bush I did, they would have been able to create a coalition in favor of invading Iraq to equal that amassed in 1991. This assumes that all of the Bush II team would have seen such a coalition as desirable; in reality the demonstration that America could and would act alone to reshape the globe was for many a central reason for invading in the first place. But not all were so hostile to coalition-building as such. For them, the comparative lack of time given to diplomacy, consultation, and negotiation in the run up to Iraq may be more a reflection of experience than attitudes.

None of the major players of Bush II saw George H.W. Bush and James Baker's diplomatic campaign up close. The people working in the Pentagon c. '90-'91 would have been prone, by nature of their position, to take these many labors for granted. What they did not take for granted was the need to build up domestic support for any grand endeavors abroad. Those who worked in the Pentagon were acutely aware they almost did not get congressional authorization for the Gulf War. They personally experienced the bitterness of the Vietnam homefront, and what it meant to fight with a nation divided. All of them knew they had been thrown out of office in '92 because George H.W. Bush had spent more time talking with other heads of state than he did explaining to the American people what this focus on foreign affairs meant for them. This seems true even for Powell and Armitage, the most invasion-skeptical of the major players. Powell's famous UN presentation, to pick an easy example, was directed just as much towards domestic as international audiences. The four days he spent on that was four days James Baker would have spent jetting across the Middle East.

Little surprise then, the results of all this. George W. Bush lost his UN resolutions. But he won his next election.

It is a tough cookie to crack; I have no ready made answer. In his four years in power George H.W. Bush did more good for the world, and America's position in it, than most two-term presidents ever manage. But he never won his own second term. Successful grand strategy requires a devoted diplomat-in-chief; successful electoral strategy means devoting as little time to diplomacy as possible. 

 Square pegs. Round holes. And a superpower at stake.

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To read some of my other thoughts on American statecraft, try the posts  "Give No Heed to the Walking Dead, " "Wanted: A Stupid Proof Grant Strategy," and "America Will Always Fail at Regional Expertise." 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] Dennis Ross, Statecraft: Restoring American Standing in the World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2007), 39-40.

[2] ibid, 90.

29 August, 2020

When "Engagement" Backfired: The Story Behind Pro-Communist Private Enterprise

Image source
Min Ye's  The Belt Road and Beyond: State-Mobilized Globalization in China 1998–2018 is an interesting, if dense, examination of Chinese development politics. I dislike the jargon Ye has invented to convey her ideas, but am delighted with the evidence she marshals in support of her arguments. Ye wants to focus our understanding of the Belt and Road away from the Central Committee and towards the organizations that actually go about implementing it: SOEs, private businesses, and municipal/provincial governments.

In especially interesting section Ye goes about classifying different attitudes private enterprise might take towards the Communist Party and its national campaigns. Under the category "Loyalty Capital" we learn about the firms Safety Electric and Rejuvenation After Quake:

A research trip to the company [Safety Electric] in 2014 revealed a corporate headquarters showcasing its loyalty to the ruling party. Red posters of party doctrines and photos of political leaders could be seen everywhere. Furthermore, the company has a CCP Party Committee that regularly organizes study sessions for employees on party doctrines and new government policies. On one occasion, the company organized group dating and group weddings for their employees, reminiscent of a common practice in the socialist past. In the meantime, the company was both dismissive and distrustful of global ideas and practices. Managers deemed that “Western learning” was incompatible with the Chinese business environment.
Communist loyalty was also clear in another company I researched in 2015. Rejuvenation after Quake was an earthquake detection device maker in Sichuan whose founder had studied in the United States and returned with proprietary technology and initial venture capital. However, turning technology into marketable devices required considerable and continuous financial injection. Those typically came from state banks. The company’s orders were also filled with government procurement. Treated as an exemplary case [dianxing] for returnees with advanced technology who found successful business in western China, the company was meticulous in demonstrating its loyalty to the Communist regime and Communist values generally. In the company’s meeting room, two conspicuous flags – the national flag and the PLA army flag – adorned the massive conference table. On the walls were red posters with famous quotes from Communist leaders, including Chairman Mao and President Xi, as well as enlarged photos of government officials who visited the company. [1]

Ye makes clear that these two firms are not representative of most private enterprise in China. However, they also are not outliers, but two examples of a fairly common type (in Ye's typology, "loyalty capital"). Ye has a theory for why certain firms embrace this sort of signaling. The cause of Simple Electric's loyalty ethic become apparent when one considers its history:

Safety Electric’s globalization started in the early 1990s. In the beginning, the company relied on Wenzhou’s immigrant networks abroad and exported products in such countries as Italy, Spain, and Brazil, where Wenzhou business associations were most vibrant [the firm's headquarters is in Wenzhou]. Nonetheless, the company’s main growth and expansion occurred in China. By the mid-1990s, several of the company’s electrical devices had captured the lion’s shares of domestic markets. As China opened the sector and domestic markets to foreign goods and manufacturers, SE emerged as a competitor to incoming global players. Competition and rivalry developed rapidly.

In 1994, French manufacturer Schneider Electric emerged as a player on the scene. It began by proposing a joint venture (JV) deal with Safety Electric but asked for 80 percent equity in the JV, a proposal that SE quickly rejected. This provoked Schneider to lodge an intellectual property (IP) lawsuit against Safety Electric. The case would drag on for years, and in 1998, Schneider proposed another joint venture in which equity shares would be distributed at 51 versus 49 percent in slight favor of the French maker. This was an offer that was again rejected by SE. This resulted in three more IP lawsuits by Schneider. Animosity between the French and Chinese rivals became intense.

 After China joined the WTO in 2001, Safety Electric increased exports to international markets, particularly in Italy, Germany, and France, where Schneider products were traditionally dominant. As SE’s exports grew, Schneider proposed the third joint venture with equity shares 50–50. By this time, however, SE had deemed Schneider as its chief rival and again rejected the proposal. Relations hardened further; Schneider lodged multiple lawsuits against key SE products in different European countries. SE found itself embroiled in costly legal battles, with its products banned from the European market. Inside China, Schneider also launched extensive legal wars against SE. From 1994 to 2007, Schneider lodged a total of 24 lawsuits against the Chinese company. 

In response, Safety Electric stepped up investment in indigenous research and development and aggressively filed IP licenses in China. By 2005, SE’s IPR licenses in China had surpassed those of Schneider; it also strived to participate in attaining global standards and filed hundreds of licenses abroad. In 2006, in retaliation, Safety Electric even filed an IP lawsuit in a Wenzhou court against Schneider’s subsidiary in Tianjin, China. The first ruling was in favor of Safety Electric, a ruling that Schneider appealed to a higher court. This court then mediated a deal between Schneider and Safety Electric in 2009, with Schneider agreeing to pay a RMB ¥160 million (roughly $30 million) indemnity to the Chinese company. Following the agreement, the Chinese and French makers reached a peace accord worldwide, agreeing not to file lawsuits against each other as a business tactic.

However, the damage was already done. To senior managers at the Chinese firm, Schneider – a global giant – had ruthlessly used its hegemonic status to choke SE’s business in China and abroad. Inside China, the legal battles with the French company earned SE empathy and support in the media and with government agencies, who one way or another stood with the Chinese firm against the foreign rival. In retrospect, Safety Electric, due to its founder’s lack of global business experience, might have made missteps in its competition with Schneider. Nonetheless, the decades-old rivalry arguably contributed to deep nationalism and distrust of Western capital in SE’s corporate culture.

The rivalry also tragically contributed to an ill-prepared alliance with America’s General Electric (GE). In this case, eager to save its domestic market and expand into new foreign markets, SE was unusually flexible in its negotiations with GE. The American company, on the other hand, was a latecomer to China and faced hurdles from earlier European and Japanese entrants. Anxious to compete with other global players – Schneider being one – GE was attracted to Safety Electric’s extensive sales networks throughout China. In 2005, the Safety Electric–General Electric joint venture was established. The Chinese maker accepted an equity distribution in favor of GE (51% vs. 49%), giving the American partner controlling shares in the JV. It is worth noting that just a year earlier, the Chinese maker had rejected an equal-partner venture with Schneider. However, marriage based on convenience does not tend to last. In the ensuing GE–SE venture, distrust and false expectations were pervasive. After three years’ heavy losses on both sides, the two companies agreed to dissolve the venture.

The GE–SE venture demonstrates the inherent difficulties in alliances between global MNCs and indigenous capital in emerging markets. During the process of negotiation, the Chinese firm was under considerable pressure to make concessions. GE represented a global giant with a long corporate history; SE was born to a low-tech rural enterprise not long ago in southern China. Not only did SE compromise its initial insistence on majority shares in the new venture, it also give up its ability to intervene in the design, manufacture, and marketing of jointly branded products. Furthermore, the jointly branded product line was a direct offspring of an already failed GE line in China. Without any input from SE’s indigenous expertise, the product was doomed to another round of failure. The problem also lay in the fact that SE’s sales representatives were neither invited nor incentivized to participate in the JV negotiation and operation. The sales therefore continued to prioritize marketing for SE products to the jointly branded line Neither did they provide timely feedback on sales to GE management. entities who did not take direct orders from SE’s management. Being excluded from the GE–SE venture, they merely took in supplies of jointly branded products without actively promoting their sales. After the joint venture was dissolved, SE was left with considerable unsold inventories and incurred huge losses in order to absorb these inventories.

Safety Electric’s negative experiences with both Schneider and GE reinforced the company’s nativist approach to globalization. The company leadership was convinced that successful globalization had to follow its own way and ensure autonomy from external influence. In recent decades, in order to upgrade technology, SE invested heavily in R&D based in Shanghai and Hangzhou. In order to expand international sales and name recognition, SE invited foreign ambassadors and consuls in Beijing and Shanghai to tour SE’s facilities and corporate headquarters. Since 2005, it has also held a biannual international marketing forum where the company invites major foreign sales representatives to exchange information and networks. In 2009, some 190 sales representatives from sixty countries attended the SE International Marketing Forum. Since 2013, SE’s founder has accompanied President Xi and Premier Li’s overseas trips.

 Over the past decade, SE achieved more success in overseas markets by partnering with Chinese SOEs. Previously, SE’s foreign sales had been mostly carried out by supplying local partners in foreign markets. This practice saw foreign sellers capturing the main profit margins. Beginning in 2006, SE joined forces with Chinese companies in machinery imports and exports, international engineering contractors, and energy companies. Jointly, they participated in bids for energy and infrastructure contracts in international markets. In 2006, SE outbid established foreign rivals – including Schneider and Swedish-Swiss maker ABB – to supply €60 million worth of equipment to Italy’s national electricity company. SE also won energy contracts in Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Kenya, and Greece. In short, Chinese state-led investment and infrastructure projects in less-developed regions offered opportunities for SE’s expansion of its global footprint.

Currently, SE’s globalization strategy seeks to maintain core autonomy and technology. It is reluctant to make investment in overseas manufacturing; instead, it has acquired research teams in advanced countries, such as in the United States and Europe, to guide the company’s R&D and high-end manufacturing facilities in China. Thus far, according to senior managers, this practice is now paying off. The company has set up overseas branches in five continents and plans to grow its international sales to represent one-third of total sales by 2020. In this planned global expansion, SE differs from Precious Steel and Health Shoes [two other firms discussed in the chapter] in that it does not deem Western business consulting as useful because, as the managers explained, the corporate culture and business environment are so different between China and the West. Instead, the company concludes, quoting a senior manager in Shanghai, “Going global must be done; and going global has to work with the government.”

SE’s globalization experience is not unique. When China opened itself up to foreign capital in the 1990s, Chinese firms were thrown into intense competition with global players from both within and without. Many rural firms lacked basic technology and expertise and were ill prepared for the turbulence of competition. Their subsequent dealings with foreign competitors were often flawed. Negative experiences served to enhance nationalist tendencies at these companies; instead of converging with global practices, companies intensified their dependence on the Chinese state. Thus, instead of becoming a liberalizing force in political democratization in China, loyal private capital has become both the preserver and enhancer of the Communist autocracy. [2]

Ye's account is based off of interviews with Safety Electric's former managers; it is possible that had she interviewed their counterparts at Schneider Electric or GE instead, she would have heard a very different story. However, who stole IP from whom is not especially relevant to my take-away here. The liberal world's strategy of "engagement" with China, especially as this strategy was understood in the '90s and early aughts, was predicated on the notion that personal ties and shared experiences between Chinese and outsiders would naturally lead to positive interaction. The more engaged we were, the more mutual understanding would grow. Soon each group would perceive the other more positively than before. In hindsight, all of that seems incredible naive.  

The source of the naivete is clear enough. It is easy for cosmopolitans like myself to plant themselves on the other side of the Pacific and have a grand time. Early connections with an opening China were sustained on the back of just those sorts of cosmopolitans: diplomats, journalists, exchange students, and adventurers would head to China from the West, and graduate students, the majority of whom were liberal in their sentiments, came to the West from China. But the sort of easy friendships cosmopolitan Chinese formed with cosmopolitans Westerners were poor guideposts for what would happen when more 'normal' people from inside and outside of China's borders were mixed together. You see this pattern often: when mass Chinese tourists arrive at a new locale, on American university campuses, during military-to-military exchanges, and even on online video games.[3] Mutual understanding has often not bred  warmness, but contempt.

I do not blame either side for this. Genuine multiculturalism is hard.  Creating positive interactions when you take people from widely different cultural backgrounds and force them all together is really hard. It can be done, but it is hard. This is true even with the most open and cosmopolitan members of a given population. It is much more true for the broader (and more nationalistic) masses. We pretend that hard things are easy and automatic. Now we reap the consequences of that error.

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To read some of my other posts on China's engagement with the outside world, consider reading the posts "Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability," Give No Heed to the Walking Dead, "The Inner Life of Chinese Teenagers," and "So Begins a New Age of Instagram Diplomacy." 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] Min Ye, The Belt Road and Beyond: State-Mobilized Globalization in China 1998–2018 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 188.

[2] ibid, 188-189.

[3] Reports on tensions between Chinese tourists and their hosts are legion, see for some representative examples Gavin Hynes, "Have the Chinese Replaced Americans As the Worst Tourists in the World?" Vice (29 March 2013) and Karla Kripps, "Chinese tourism: The good, the bad and the backlash," CNN (15 June 2017). For Chinese students in the 2010s, Eric Fish has many pieces. His most recent is "How a Strained U.S.-China Relationship is Playing Out in US Universities," South China Morning Post (4 July 2020). . See also Brook Larmer, "Alienation 101," 1843 (27 February 2017). On military exchanges, see T. Greer, "Did Mil-Mil Exchanges Do More Harm than Good?," Scholar's Stage (4 December 2017); on video games, Aaron Witze Wilson, "Taiwan No 1 Becomes a Sign of National Pride for Taiwanese Gamers," New Bloom Magazine (11 December 2015).

27 August, 2020

How To Win An Election

Image Source

Eric Levitz has a thought provoking interview with David Shor up over at New York Magazine. Shor is a electoral whiz kid who seems to have been making waves in the world of liberal polling for some years, but only came to national prominence a few months ago when he was fired from his gig at Civis Analytics for tweeting that non-violent protests were more likely to shift American public opinion leftward than riots.

I don't share Shor's politics, but in this interview the whiz lives up to his reputation. His take on political behavior is fascinating. The general mode of analysis he lays out has applications that extend far beyond the topics covered in the interview. A good place to start is with his understanding of the non-partisan voter:

 The single biggest way that highly educated people who follow politics closely are different from everyone else is that we have much more ideological coherence in our views. If you decided to create a survey scorecard, where on every single issue — choice, guns, unions, health care, etc. — you gave people one point for choosing the more liberal of two policy options, and then had 1,000 Americans fill it out, you would find that Democratic elected officials are to the left of 90 to 95 percent of people. And the reason is that while voters may have more left-wing views than Joe Biden on a few issues, they don’t have the same consistency across their views. There are like tons of pro-life people who want higher taxes, etc. There’s a paper by the political scientist David Broockman that made this point really famous — that “moderate” voters don’t have moderate views, just ideologically inconsistent ones.

Some people responded to media coverage of that paper by saying, “Oh, people are just answering these surveys randomly, issues don’t matter.” But that’s not actually what the paper showed. In a separate section, they tested the relevance of issues by presenting voters with hypothetical candidate matchups — here’s a politician running on this position, and another politician running on the opposite — and they found that issue congruence was actually very important for predicting who people voted for. So this suggests there’s a big mass of voters who agree with us on some issues, and disagree with us on others. And whenever we talk about a given issue, that increases the extent to which voters will cast their ballots on the basis of that issue.

Mitt Romney and Donald Trump agreed on basically every issue, as did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And yet, a bunch of people changed their votes. And the reason that happened was because the salience of various issues changed. Both sides talked a lot more about immigration, and because of that, correlation between preferences on immigration and which candidate people voted for went up. In 2012, both sides talked about health care. In 2016, they didn’t. And so the correlation between views on health care and which candidate people voted for went down.

 So this means that every time you open your mouth, you have this complex optimization problem where what you say gains you some voters and loses you other voters. But this is actually cool because campaigns have a lot of control over what issues they talk about.[1]

 But wait, readers of the Stage might ask, how does this square with the pattern of politics I have discussed in posts like "Public Opinion in Authoritarian States," "Reason is For Stabbing," and "Chinese Are Partisan Too?" Those essays describe public opinion as a creature of coalition instincts; where coalition leaders go, opinion soon follows. Shor instead talks about public opinion as a more immutable thing that American electioneers can appeal to but cannot change.

 Shor thinks the two views can be reconciled:

 It’s worth being precise about mechanisms. It’s true that political parties have enormous control over the views of their partisans. There’s like 20 percent of the electorate that trusts Democratic elites tremendously. And they will turn their views on a dime if the party tells them to. So this is how you can get Abolish ICE to go from a 10 percent issue to a 30 percent issue. If you’re an ideological activist, that’s a powerful force. If you convince strong partisans to adopt your view, then when the party comes to power, strong partisans will ultimately make up that administration and then you can make policy progress.

  The problem is that swing voters don’t trust either party. So if you get Democrats to embrace Abolish ICE, that won’t get moderate-ish, racist white people to support it; it will just turn them into Republicans. So that’s the trade-off. When you embrace unpopular things, you become more unpopular with marginal voters, but also get a fairly large segment of the public to change its views. And the latter can sometimes produce long-term change.

....I don’t think anyone ever says something like, “I think it was a good trade for us to lose the presidency because we raised the salience of this issue.” That’s not generally what people want. They don’t want to make an unpopular issue go from 7 percent to 30 percent support. They want something like what happened with gay marriage or marijuana legalization, where you take an issue that is 30 percent and then it goes to 70 percent. And if you look at the history of those things, it’s kind of clear that campaigns didn’t do that.

If you look at long-term trends in support for gay marriage, it began linearly increasing, year over year, starting in the late 1980s. But then, right when the issue increased in salience during the 2004 campaign, it suddenly became partisan, and support declined. After it stopped being a campaign issue, support returned to trend. Campaigns just can’t effect those kinds of long-term changes. They can direct information to partisans who trust them, and they can curry favor with marginal voters by signaling agreement with them on issues. But there isn’t much space for changing marginal voters’ minds. [2]

 The way to win an election then is to figure out what demographics are necessary for electoral victory, determine which issue sets are important to those demographics, further determine which of these issues meld most easily with your partisan program, and then do everything in your power to make the election a referendum on those broad topics. 

Important to Shor's discussion is the idea that voters are not evaluating specific policy proposals so much as determining how much they trust parties to handle the general issue of concern:

One way to think about electoral salience and the effects of raising the salience of given issues, is to look at which party voters trust on a given issue, not just what their stated policy preference is. So if you do a poll on universal background checks for guns, you’ll find that they’re super-popular. But then, politicians who run on background checks often lose. In the same way, if you poll comprehensive immigration reform, it’s super-popular, even among Republicans. But then Republicans can run on anti-immigrant platforms and win. So how do you square that circle?

One way is to remember that these polls give us a very limited informational environment. You just throw people a sentence-length idea, which they’ve often never heard of before, and then people react to it. So it tells you how people will respond to a policy at first brush without any partisan context. But ultimately, when people hear from both sides, they’re gonna revert to some kind of partisan baseline. But there’s not a nihilism there; it’s not just that Democratic-leaning voters will adopt the Democratic position or Republican-leaning ones will automatically adopt the Republican one. Persuadable voters trust the parties on different issues.

And there’s a pretty basic pattern — both here and in other countries — in which voters view center-left parties as empathetic. Center-left parties care about the environment, lowering poverty, improving race relations. And then, you know, center-right parties are seen as more “serious,” or more like the stern dad figure or something. They do better on getting the economy going or lowering unemployment or taxes or crime or immigration.

If you look at how this breaks down in the U.S. — Gallup did something on this in 2017, and I’m sure the numbers haven’t changed that much since then — you see that same basic story. But there’s an interesting twist. One thing that Democrats consistently get rated highly on is improving race relations. And this points to the complexities of racial resentment. The way that racially charged issues generally get brought up in the U.S. is in the context of crime, which is a very Republican-loaded issue (in terms of which party the median voter trusts on it). Or it comes up in terms of immigration, which is itself a Republican-loaded issue. So even if voters acknowledge the massive systemic inequities that exist in the U.S., discussion of them normally happens in a context where conservatives can posit a trade-off with safety, or all these other things people trust Republicans on.[3]

You can clearly see this dynamic being played out in real time right now. Consider yesterday's report in the New York Times, "How Chaos in Kenosha is Already Swaying Some Voters in Wisconsin:"

John Geraghty, a 41-year-old worker in a tractor factory, has barely paid attention to the presidential race or the conventions. Every day he focuses on survival: getting his son to sports practice, working at his job where he now wears a mask, and getting home to sleep, only to start over again the next day.

But when he woke up on Monday morning to images of his hometown, Kenosha, Wis., in flames, he could not stop watching. The unrest in faraway places like Portland, Ore., and Minneapolis had arrived at his doorstep, after a white police officer on Sunday shot a Black man in the back multiple times. And after feeling “100 percent on the fence” about which candidates he will vote for in November, he is increasingly nervous that Democratic state leaders seem unable to contain the spiraling crisis....

Don Biehn, 62, owner of a flooring company, was standing in line at a gun store on Tuesday afternoon. He said that he had never bought a pistol before, but that he had a business to protect. A former county board supervisor, Mr. Biehn said he had been calling county and state officials for days, trying to explain how grave the situation was.

Neither John Antaramian, the mayor of Kenosha, nor Jim Kreuser, the county executive, responded to requests for comment. (The positions are nonpartisan, but both men previously served in the State Assembly as Democrats.)

“There’s people running all over with guns — it’s like some Wild West town,” Mr. Biehn said. “We are just waiting here like sitting ducks waiting to get picked off.”

He added: “It’s chaos — everybody is afraid.”

Mr. Trump, he said, “was not my man,” but now he is grateful he is president.[4]

 What is happening here is exactly what Shor describes: for voters in Kenosha, the issue salience of "law and order" is spiking, and Republicans are the party they trust on that issue. Pointing this dynamic out a few months ago was what got Shor fired. He recognized that violent protests make the general issue of race-relations salient in a way unfavorable to the left. In contrast

What’s powerful about nonviolent protest — and particularly nonviolent protest that incurs a disproportionate response from the police — is that it can shift the conversation, in a really visceral way, into the part of this issue space that benefits Democrats and the center left. Which is the pursuit of equality, social justice, fairness — these Democratic-loaded concepts — without the trade-off of crime or public safety. [5]

This broad issue salience framework helps make sense of other electoral puzzles as well. Consider the problem of politicians who vote against measures that poll popular with their constituents:

 David Broockman showed in a recent paper — and I’ve seen this in internal data — that people who give money to Democrats are more economically left wing than Democrats overall. And the more money people give, the more economically left wing they are. These are obviously the non-transactional donors. But people underestimate the extent to which the non-transactional money is now all of the money. 

This wasn’t true ten years ago. So then you get to the question: Why do so many moderate Democrats vote for center-right policies that don’t even poll well [even when their donor base is more leftist than their constituents]? Why did Heidi Heitkamp vote to deregulate banks in 2018, when the median voter in North Dakota doesn’t want looser regulations on banks? But the thing is, while that median voter doesn’t want to deregulate banks, that voter doesn’t want a senator who is bad for business in North Dakota. And so if the North Dakota business community signals that it doesn’t like Heidi Heitkamp, that’s really bad for Heidi Heitkamp, because business has a lot of cultural power. I think that’s a very straightforward, almost Marxist view of power: Rich people have disproportionate cultural influence. So business does pull the party right. But it does so more through the mechanism of using its cultural power to influence public opinion, not through donations to campaigns. [6]

There are a few take-aways one can glean from all of this. The first is a tidy explanation of why voters rarely punish candidates for failing to live up to their campaign promises. If you understand statements like "build the wall" as a specific policy proposal, then Trump's failure to do just that might seem like it would hurt his prospects with the anti-immigration crowd. But the reality is that voters do not make their votes on the basis of individual policies, but a general idea of whether the candidate can be trusted to handle the issue before him. Statements like "build the wall" are not so much policy commitments as electoral signposts designed to communicate the reliability of the candidate on the issue in question (in this case the message being, "this guy can be trusted to take immigration seriously").

I encourage readers to take this framework and apply it outside of the American context. From this perspective, the recent elections in Taiwan were always the DPP's to lose. Given what was happening in Hong Kong, the most salient issue was always going to be the cross-strait relations, and for a decade now this is an issue Taiwanese voters have trusted the DPP with more than they have trusted the KMT. Absent an economic crisis large enough to change this framing, the KMT was always going to struggle to compete.

An interesting question, which I can only speculate on, is whether this same framework applies to authoritarian states where competition between alternating partisan blocs is banned. My first take at the question is that it does. There are some issue sets that the Chinese populace does not have much confidence in the CPC's ability to manage well (environmental issues and pollution being perhaps the most obvious). Over the last few months American leaders have been careful to draw a distinction between the Party and the people in an attempt to put additional pressure on Chairman Xi and his team. But if they have done this while simultaneously centering Sino-American conflict on issues whose issue salience is favorable for the Party, they may end up increasing Chinese confidence in the Chairman.

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If you would like to read some of my other posts on political psychology, see "Public Opinion in Authoritarian States," "Chinese are Partisan Too," "Reason is For Stabbing," "On Words and Weapons," and "The Marvelous Machiavellian Mind Reader." If on the other hand, my takes on the American political milieu have grabbed your interest, the posts "On Days of Disorder," "On Cultures That Build," "This is Not the American Cultural Revolution," and "The Time Has Come To Give the Lie" 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] Eric Levitz, "David Shor's Unified Theory of American Politics," New York Magazine (17 July 2020)

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] Sabrina Tavernise and "How Chaos in Kenosha is Already Swaying Some Voters in Wisconsin," New York Times (26 August 2020).

 [5] Levitz, "David Shor's Unified Theory of American Politics,"

[6] ibid.

05 August, 2020

This is Not The American Cultural Revolution

A book to read before making a poor analogy.
Earlier this week I was interviewed by Erik Torenberg, for his podcast "Venture Stories." The podcast was wide ranging; among other things, we discussed my posts "The World Twitter Made," "On Cultures That Build," "China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order," my on-going critique of Patrick Deneen, my essay for the National Review, and my numerous attempts to translate, understand, and explicate Xi Jinping Thought. There was one topic we covered, however, that I have not yet written publicly about. Torenberg asked me to assess what has become a rather common talking point in both Chinese expat and American right-wing circles: the ominous comparison between the BLM statue removal campaign and the Cultural Revolution of Maoist China.

In response, I shared with Torenberg a small letter I wrote in reply to a journalist from a right-wing publication who was seeking quotes on this topic. Here is what I wrote:
The trouble is, [reporter's name], it is not very similar to the beginnings of the Chinese cultural revolution. The cultural revolution began not with defacing statues and public monuments, but with attacks on people: defaming them, publicly, physically humiliating them, imprisoning them, torturing them, and ultimately killing them. People were dying weeks before monuments were being defaced. Tearing downs statues did not lead to mass death; mass death led to tearing down statues. Death was part of the program from the beginning.

This program was egged on, directed, and manipulated by a dictator who feared he had lost control of you might think of as the Chinese "deep-state" and the existing political class. Again, a world of difference from the current environment, where the powers that be are filled with protest-sympathizers and the political class provide active cover for the extremes of the current movement. The major institutions of American life are behind this movement: the major institutions of Maoist life—and more specifically, the individuals who manned them, were the targets of that movement.
Finally, the main thrust of cultural revolution, especially in its initial stages, was dismantling bureaucracies that controlled Chinese life, whereas most of the thinkers that animate this moment (say Ibram X Kendi) call for vast extensions of administrative control over American life, and most of the long-lasting achievements of the movement thusfar  (say the change in hiring policies adopted by firms like JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs) have been achieved by administrative fiat. This movement is one big appeal to management; from the beginning, the cultural revolution was about having teenagers drag management out on the street and beat them blue.

Thusfar there are only cosmetic similarities between the two moments (non-state actors taking the fore, ideological fervor, attacks on public monuments) and those similarities are shared by many, many other movements over time, only a few of which led to mass death. Question the intentions or the knowledge base of anyone who blithely compares the two.
Americans are extremely fond of exaggerating the threat their political enemies pose. Histrionics about Donald Trump ending American democracy are everywhere to be found; readers will no doubt remember the protestors who claimed that Dick Cheney was the second coming of Hitler, or that Barrack Obama was a stealth authoritarian socialist. This sort of rhetoric is nothing new to American democracy: look back far enough and you will find prominent politicians and journalists accusing Andrew Jackson of Caesarean ambitions, gold-standard proponents of aiming to overthrow democracy, and railroad strikers of wishing to re-inact the Paris Commune on American shores.

I am afraid we will always have this impulse with us. Everyone wants this vote to matter. Humans hunger for meaning and consequence: we want to be the generation that faced the choice between dark and light, chaos and order, destruction and salvation. More cynically, it is also a lot easier to justify dubious politics—say, voting for Donald Trump—when the alternative is totalitarian cataclysm. The fact that our fear of democratic death springs eternal is in some ways a good thing. It is part of the reason America's liberal institutions have lasted as long as they have: "eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty," Old Hickory said, and we have been nation of paranoiacs ever since. Yet spurring our worries to nightmarish hyperbole has its own weakness. Great powers need not fall with a bang. Many fall apart through drawn-out whimpers. Our fear of the totalitarian murder squads around the corner blind us to the more mundane (yet less imaginary) engines of decay and decline.   

Given this, we ought not confuse cosmetic similarities with deeper parallels. Yes, the emotions that push some kid out onto the street today are not so different from those that pushed kids into Tiananmen Square in 1966. But that could be said for the common emotions that compelled young men into battle both at Verdun and Fallujah. However, the shared experiences of those grunts at war scale poorly. The strategic imperatives of the Western front were fundamentally different from those of an insurgent-infested Iraq, and only so much can be gained from comparing one moment to the other.

To give you a practical sense for what I mean, consider this resolution sent to me by a friend at Georgetown Law, one which chronicles the "revolutionary" agitation of the local Student Bar Association. The "resolved" section of the petition reads:
THEREFORE; be it resolved that:
  • Georgetown Law should mandate a critical race theory unit in all first-year criminal justice courses and require training in preparation for teaching this unit with the opportunity for diverse faculty to provide input. Georgetown Law should also establish a student-faculty committee for the 2020-2021 academic year that will determine how to establish a two-credit racial justice requirement for all full-time and part-time students starting with the Class of 2023, similar to the academic requirement for undergraduates on Main. Campus. 
  • Georgetown Law should mandate annual, expert-led faculty training on implicit bias, harassment, and microaggressions. We recommend offering faculty training twice a year so that professors only teaching during one semester are still able to participate; however, professors would need only participate once a year to satisfy the training requirement. Tenure-track faculty should be required to participate in live training, and adjuncts may participate asynchronously by watching a recording. 
  • Georgetown Law should implement a reporting system that allows students to document bias-related in. cidents in the classroom. This reporting system could be modeled off of the Main Campus Bias Reporting System administered by IDEAA, and is a natural follow on from the 2019 Cultural Climate Survey as it would allow the Law Center to continue gathering data about bias incidents in real time. We recommend aggregating and anonymizing the annual data and publishing it to the Law Center community for transparency.[2]
You can believe that each of these measures is malignant—I certainly do—without pretending that this is anything like what happened in China in the 1960s. What do these student activists want? Mandated classes and grading systems. Additional certification hoops to jump through. An additional layer of bureaucracy to govern and punish their teachers and fellow students.  They are doing the only thing Americans in this century know how to do: creating a ruckus in hope that they can get the management to take their side (and enlarge its own powers in the process).

What would a similar event have looked like in the Beijing of 1966, at the earliest stage of the Cultural Revolution? Students would have begun by identifying counter-revolutionary elements in both the school administration and the faculty in as public a fashion as possible. The student body and the faculty would have divided themselves into factions, mutually denouncing their enemies. They would have proceeded to arm themselves, using violence to humiliate, torture, and kill the professors and administrators that were opposed to their political aims. This was the first step of the Cultural Revolution. Through means like these, cultural revolutionaries in Beijing murdered 1,800 people and drove another 77,000 outside of city limits before the first statue went down.

When statues did start going down in the last week of August, far more than statues were destroyed. Women with 'bourgeoisie' hairstyles or clothes were forcibly stripped and shorn. Flower, barbers, and tailor shops were destroyed, their owners beat or intimidated. The houses hundreds of thousands of suspect individuals were ransacked, street peddlers were beat up, religious figures were ritually humiliated, books were gathered and burnt, and men or women associated with anything old were forced to hand over their property. Some 400,000 were left homeless.

All of that happened in one week in August. In the months to come Mao would redirect the cultural revolutionaries to attack the foundation of the Party itself. Every single bureaucracy in the country except the Army would be targeted. Dissolving the bureaucratic structures that controlled the economic, government, and academic spheres of Chinese life was the central purpose of the Cultural Revolution; the initial waves of violence and destruction were prep work for that end.[3]

Contrast this again with what we see today. The violence and destruction associated with the Black Lives Matter's protests are magnitudes smaller than all of this; the ultimate aim of the movement is not to smash existing bureaucracies and kill or terrorize those who man them, but to increase bureaucratic control over American life. Even the most anarchic slogan of the current moment, "defund the police," betrays the thoroughly bureaucratic mindset of the protestors. China's cultural revolutionaries did not defund their police; they smashed them. [4]  Our protestors petition the government to divert funding away from organs they dislike; China's cultural revolutionaries sought to destroy government itself.

The comparison just does not stick. Those who use it are either uninformed or more interested in scaring you into desperate action than in understanding or explaining the truth.

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This post touches both on American political culture and the Chinese communist political tradition. If you would like to read some of my other posts on American life, consider reading "On Cultures That Build," "A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture," or "The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood." On the other hand, if Maoism is the topic of interest, see the posts "A Note on Historical Nihilism,"  "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" or "Meditations on Maoism."  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] Erik Torenberg and Tanner Greer, "The Past, Present, and Future of the US-China Relationship With Tanner Greer," Village Global's Venture Stories  (2 August 2020).

[2] Georgetown University Student Bar Association, Resolution 2020–2021–9, "Calling for Academic Racial Justice Requirement for Students, Mandatory Faculty Training on Implicit Bias, and Bias Reporting System," passed on 26 July 2020.

[3] My account is grounded in Frank Dikkotter, The Cultural Revolution (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 66-94; 115-147. The statistics on deaths in Beijing are found on pp. 78-79; those on the number left homeless on p. 93.

[4] And burnt all files of their misdeeds while doing the smashing.