03 January, 2020

Every Book I Read in 2019


2020 has arrived. This means it is time for my annual tradition: listing every book I read the year previous, with my ten favorites bolded. You can find my past entries here (2018), here (2017), here (2016), here (2015), here (2014), and here (2013). As in those posts, I list the books in the approximate order in which I finished them. Some of these books (like the poetry ones) I read bit by bit over several months. One—Majorie Garber's outstanding Shakespeare After All—I started five years ago.

For this year's post I have included a url for every book read; the ten best (according to nothing but my own subjective judgement) are bolded and given a link. I only count books that I finished for the first time this year as eligible for "ten best books of the year." A more condensed list of books that I started but did not finish can be found at the bottom of the post.

You will notice that I read a lot of Shakespeare this year. This was sort of accidental. Early in the year I found myself with an evening to kill in a Siem Reap hostel. I had purchased several books on Theravada Buddhism to read while in Cambodia, but as I sat in hostel lobby, sweating in the heat of the Cambodian dry season at its height, exhausted from a day spent being punched about by Khmer boxers, I discovered I just did not have the energy to devote myself to Buddhist scriptures. I looked for something more light hearted on my kindle and found the cheap electronic copy of Shakespeare's works (minus Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and Edward III) I had picked up several years before. That would do. Soon I had blasted through the comedies. At that point I figured I might as well read the rest of the Shakespearean corpus now that I have the comedies down. Over the rest of the year I read according to these figurings.

I wrote several blog posts about Shakespeare over the year, though I am afraid I do not have anything deep to say about Shakespeare as a whole. I will say that I thought King John was an excellent play and I do not at all understand its poor reputation. The other shocker of the corpus was Hamlet. I read Hamlet first in high school—and thought it entirely unremarkable. So unremarkable, in fact, that it is one of the books that I read in high school but which I cannot recall what my teenage self thought about it. (In contrast, my teenage self had very strong opinions about Wuthering Heights, The Awakening, Heart of Darkness, Nineteen Eighty-Four and the dozen or so other books he read during my junior and senior years, and I remember these keenly). This reading could not have proved a greater contrast: the play shook me. Hamlet was a deeply emotional and unsettling experience this year. The play is the same. The difference is found in myself. In fact, I do not think the play would have had the same impact had I reread in just two years earlier. But my life has changed greatly in those two years, and Hamlet spoke to those changes in a way few other works of literature have managed.

Which should make you wonder: how many great works of literature have you read, but failed to appreciate, simply because you were not in the proper life stage to appreciate them?

EVERY BOOK I READ IN 2019

David Chandler, History of Cambodia, 4th ed. (Routledge, 2007). https://amzn.to/31ENqvd

Frank Dikkotter,  The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2013). https://amzn.to/2Ko80uh

---, The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962—1976 (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2016). https://amzn.to/2RiEKFU

Shi Ji, 杨家将的故事 (Beijing: Sinolingua, 2017). https://amzn.to/2SWKiZP
---, 岳飞的故事 (Beijing: Sinolingua, 2017). https://amzn.to/2SWKiZP
---, 三侠五义的故事 (Beijing: Sinolingua, 2017). https://amzn.to/2SWKiZP

Homer, Odyssey, trans Samuel Butler (London: CA Fieflied, 1900).https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Odyssey_(Butler)

William Shakespeare,  Sonnets in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

David Chandler, The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War, and Revolution since 1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992). https://amzn.to/2WPPM6T

Victor Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). https://amzn.to/2L0hlYL

William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---As You Like It in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Chanrithy Him, When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001) https://amzn.to/2WQ8DyC [Related Post]

William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, King of Britain in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---Measure for Measure in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Merchant of Venice in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Two Gentleman of Verona in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Philip Coggan, Spirit Worlds: Cambodia, The Buddha, and the Naga (Oxford: John Beufoy Publishing, 2015). https://amzn.to/2Io8UoA

Alain Fressanges, Khmer Sayings (Phnom Penh: Khmer Community Development NGO Publishing, 2014). https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/16044486-khmer-sayings

William Shakespeare, A Midsummers Night Dream in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---Much Ado About Nothing in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Asanga Tilakaratne, Theravada Buddhism: The View of the Elders (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013).

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Romeo and Juliet in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Titus Andronochus in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Jianhua Bai, Juyu Sung, Janet Zhiqun Xing, Beyond the Basics: Communicative Chinese for Intermediate and Advanced Chinese Learners (Boston: Cheng & Tsui, 2008). https://amzn.to/2ZOlXGH

William Shakespeare, King Richard II in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Henry IV, part I in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Henry IV, part II in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Kamala Tiyavanich, In the Cool Shade of Compassion: The Enchanted World of the Buddha in the Jungle (New York: Shambhala, 2018). https://amzn.to/31PHqzU

Dean Karalekas, Identity and Transformation: Perceptions of Civil-Military Relations in the Republic of China (Taiwan), Phd. diss, National Chengchi University (2016).

R. James Goldstein, The English Lyric Tradition: Reading Poetic Masterpieces of the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2017). https://amzn.to/2FirOLH

Wayne Hughes, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat2nd. ed.(Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000). https://amzn.to/2FfVRmU

William Shakespeare, King Henry V in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Andrew Yang, The War on Normal People: The Truth About America’s Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income is Our Future (New York: Hatchett Books, 2018). https://amzn.to/2XsguHa [Related Post]

Amanda Holton, ed., Tottel’s Miscellany: Songs and Sonnets of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Sir Thomas Wyatt, and Others (New York: Penguin Books, 2014). https://amzn.to/2Xth5bD

T.C. Locke, Barbarian at the Gate: From The American Suburbs to the Taiwanese Army (Taipei: Camphor Press, 2014). https://amzn.to/2RjrrVV

Tom Stoppard.The Coast of Utopia, vol I: Voyage (London: Grove Press, 2003). https://amzn.to/2RprWxB

—, The Coast of Utopia, vol II: Shipwreck (London: Grove Press, 2011) https://amzn.to/2RprWxB

—, The Coast of Utopia, vol III: Salvage (London: Grove Press, 2007) https://amzn.to/2RprWxB

Lawrene Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013) https://amzn.to/2XmrC8c [My book review]

Dafydd Fell. Government and Politics in Taiwan,2nd ed.(London: Routledge, 2018). https://amzn.to/2KWzvKZ

Thomas G. Mahnken, Travis Sharp, Billy Fabin, and Peter Kouretsos, Tightening the Chain: Implementing A Strategy of Maritime Pressure in the Western Pacific (Washington DC: CSBA, 2019). http://tiny.cc/1pkaiz

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) . http://tiny.cc/3qkaiz

Sean O’Niell. How to Write a Poem: a Beginner’s Guide. (Createspace: 2014). https://amzn.to/2QKgcFT

François Bougon. Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping.Translated by Actes Sud (London: Hurst and Co., 2018). https://amzn.to/35MIXYz [My book review]

Jonathan T. Ward. China’s Vision of Victory. (Washington DC: Atlas Media, 2019). https://amzn.to/2r0f1td [My book review]

Elizabeth Economy. The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). https://amzn.to/2L95SVX

Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella in Delphi Complete Works of Sir Philip Sidney (Delphi Classics: 2013). https://amzn.to/2Qo5UMR

Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, reprint ed (New York: Harper Colins, 2008). https://amzn.to/37TWhML

Eric Setzekorn, Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps: The Republic of China Military, 1942-1955 (Tulsa: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018). https://amzn.to/2R7iqRu

Xi Jinping, On The Governance of China, vol I (Shanghai: Foreign Languages Press, 2015) https://amzn.to/37QsYdO [Related Post]

William Shakespeare, King John in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Henry VI, Part One in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Henry VI, Part Two in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Henry VI, Part Three in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Richard III in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

David Frum, The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush, An Inside Account (New York: Random House, 2003). https://amzn.to/2XZTjSg

Ross Babbage, Stealing a March: Chinese Hybrid Warfare in the Indo-Pacific: Issues and Options for Allied Defense Planners, vol I (Washington DC: CSBA, 2019). http://tiny.cc/j7kaiz

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Hamlet in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Micah Sifry and Christopher Cerf, The Iraq War Reader: History, Documents, Opinions (Touchstone, 2003). https://amzn.to/2DvVFib

James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking Press, 2004). https://amzn.to/2OCcGxN

Cai Zong-qi, ed., How to Read Chinese Poetry in Context: Poetic Culture from Antiquity Through the Tang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

Howard C Godddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volume 1 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). https://amzn.to/35MxfNB

William Shakespeare, Othello in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Macbeth in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, King Lear in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

---, Timon of Athens in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth (New York: Penguin Classics, 1991). https://amzn.to/2rGxaw6

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, The Enigma of Reason (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2017)。https://amzn.to/2LaEF5g

William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra. in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Shakespeare, Pericles, Prince of Tyre in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus. in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Peter Baker, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House (New York: Random House, 2013). https://amzn.to/2QoyVbo

John E Dowling, Understanding the Brain: From Cells to Behavior to Cognition (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018). https://amzn.to/37SkRxg

Dale Knutston, Strike Warfare: An Introduction to Non-Nuclear Attack by Air and Sea (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012). https://amzn.to/2RkXPYd

Emerys Jones, New Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). https://amzn.to/2r02l5D

Michael A Fuller, An Introduction to Chinese Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018). https://amzn.to/2ssXfix

Stanislas Dehaene, Consciousness and the Brain (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2014). https://amzn.to/35LmT0v [Related Post]

Nguyen Du, Song of Kieu, trans Timothy Allen (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2019).https://amzn.to/2QpGgYh

Shakespeare, Winter’s Tale in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Michael Mazaar, Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy (New York: Public Affairs: 2019). https://amzn.to/2sLIesD

Colleen McCullough, First Man in Rome (New York: Harper Colins, 1990) https://amzn.to/39G9ycK

Shakespeare, The Tempest in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Kirkland, WA: Latus ePublishing: 2011). https://amzn.to/2L9K1xG

Majorie Garber, Shakespeare After All (New York: Anchor Books, 2005). https://amzn.to/37OSssd

Howard C Godddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volume 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951). https://amzn.to/35MxfNB

Aaron Poochigian, Mr.Either/Or (Wilkes-Barre, PA: Ecrustan Press, 2017). https://amzn.to/35hcwRm

Ashley Townshend, Brendan Thomas-Noone, and Matilda Steward, Averting Crisis: US Defence Spending, Deterrence and the Indo-Pacific (Sydney: United States Studies Center, 2019). https://tinyurl.com/y4szg8a5


I also read in part, if not whole, McAdams, Vanguard of the Revolution; Vu, Vietnam's Communist Revolution; Moyan, Triumph Forsaken; Bhiiku Bodhi, In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses;  Frank Smith, Muk Khmer; several of Speak Like Khmer's reading booklets; Morgan, ed., Oxford History of Britain; Bloom, Shakespeare;  Riggs, The World of Marlowe; Allen, Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s; Nordeen, Air Warfare in the Missile Age; Ricks, Fiasco; Bush, Decision Points; Rice, No Higher Honor; Bacevich, America's War on the Great Middle East; Farrell and Newman, Of Privacy and Power; Barnhart, Japan Prepares for Total War; Reporters Without Borders, China's Pursuit of a New World Media Order; 周婉窈,  少年臺灣史; 雷海宗,  中國的兵; Cai, How To Read Chinese Poetry; Rouzer, An Introduction to Literary Chinese; Barnes, Chinese Through Poetry; Diechart, Partisan Cultural Stereotypes; Clark, Mindware; Flynn, Existentialism: A Very Sort Introduction; Ames, The Emotional Mind.

01 January, 2020

So Begins a New Age of Instagram Diplomacy


As it is New Year's Day I originally planned on writing a reflection up on the books I read in 2019 or something of that sort. Then I saw this:
Feel free to click through that and see all the pictures there published. Here is one of them blown up to full size:



That is Hou Yanqi, the ambassador of the People's Republic of China to Nepal. Here is what she posted onto twitter this morning (feel free to click through these ones too):
Ladies and gentleman, we have entered the era of instagram diplomacy.

Over the last few months the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has been pushing its diplomats to vigorously engage on global (as opposed to Chinese) social media channels. This has been most notable on twitter, and has resulted in two dozen diplomats or so adopting the persona of professional twitter troll. The United States does this, Trump says that, and voila! the Chinese diplomatic core is on the scene with a few sarcastic comments they hope might go viral. Hou takes the MOFA directive to grow her social media presence in a different direction: her model of public diplomacy is not the twitter brawler, but the Instagram influencer.

Welcome to the 2020s.

The genius of Hou's posts is hard to miss. There will be people on Zhihu and Twitter and who-knows-where-else who will criticize Hou for exoticizing Nepal and its people. Those criticisms are stupid. Read the comments beneath the tweets and you will see how the denizens of Nepal feel about being reduced to exoticized objects of aesthetic contemplation: they love it. People usually do. As long as we are being reduced to something lovely, most of humankind is happy, even eager, to be transformed into objects of romance and fantasy. Fantasy is flattering.

In this case the fantasy is a two way street. Consider what Hou is communicating with these two sentences and eight photographs. It goes something like this:
I am the ambassador of the People's Republic of China—beautiful, unpretentious, and utterly in love with your country. As charming as I may be, nowhere on earth makes my life more charming, more magnetic, more worth living, than the wonders I encounter in Nepal. Your country is a gift to me. It is a gift to humankind. It is a gift I am eager to spread with as many people possible. Thank you.
All of this is brilliant. With a few hours worth of sight seeing and a few minutes on meitu Hou has put the Nepalese ministry of tourism in her debt (note how she tags the minister of tourism in her first savlvo) and won the adoration of the Nepali public. What more could she ask for?

This will be copied. This will spread.

Which is not to say every Chinese diplomat will be able to play quite the same game Hou plays here. No overweight, 65 year old man will titillate like Hou does, and the Chinese diplomatic corp is chock full of overweight, 65 year old men. But the general lesson Hou's posts embody can be applied by anyone, no matter how wide their waistline: Aesthetics trump argument.

Many of our political beliefs boil down to a vision of the person we hope to be. This is as true for the libertarian gun nut as it is the BLM pavement pounder. These visions are felt before they are thought, communicated better in pictures than paragraphs, the stuff of aspiration, not intellect. Keen intellects will rationalize their aesthetic aspirations post-hoc, of course, but those rationalizations are ancillary adornments to a deeper thing.

Was this not a the grand lessons of the 2010s? We learned it with the election of Hope and Change in 2008; we were reminded of it in the attacks on "Pajama Boy" and the triumph of the Tea Party; we were taught it again and again as internet battles played out between Tumblr warriors and the men of 8Chan; we see it on the streets of Hong Kong, in the fires of Paris, in triumphs of Trump and the travails of all who oppose him. We live in an age where politics has been swallowed whole by the aesthetic.

Hou Yanqi understands this. Our public diplomacy programs will learn from people like her, or they will fall behind.

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If you would like to read some of my other observations on international diplomacy, you may find the posts "Do Mil-Mil Exchanges With the Chinese Do More Harm Than Good?," "What Do Cambodians Think About China?," "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road," "Chinese Journalism and Chinese Soft Power, and "America Will Always Fail At Regional Expertise,"  of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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30 December, 2019

The Problem Isn't the 'Merit,' It's the 'Ocracy'

Image Source

Two weeks or so ago Liam Bright posted the following tweet:
Liberal technocrats give us literally no reason at all to think their interests are aligned with the great majority of people, yet when they are attacked as a governing class they stress their credentials and competency. But it'd be worse if they're doing bad stuff efficiently! [1]
In very few words Bright has summarized my problem with arguments in favor of meritocracy. Take, for example, a recent post by Nathaniel Givens in favor of "real meritocracy:"
When people talk about meritocracy today, they’re almost always referring to the Ivy League and then–working forward and backward–to the kinds of feeder schools and programs that prepare kids to make it into the Ivy League and the types of high-powered jobs (and the culture surrounding them) that Ivy League students go onto after they graduate.

My basic point is a pretty simple one: there’s nothing meritocratic about the Ivy League. The old WASP-y elite did not, as Douthat put it, “dissolve.” It just went into hiding. Americans like to pretend that we’re a classless society, but it’s a fiction. We do have class. And the nexus for class in the United States is the Ivy League.

If Ivy League admission were really meritocratic, it would be based as much as possible on objective admission criteria. This is hard to do, because even when you pick something that is in a sense objective–like SAT scores–you can’t overcome the fact that wealthy parents can and will hire tutors to train their kids to artificially inflate their scores relative to the scores an equally bright, hard-working lower-class student can attain without all expensive tutoring and practice tests.

Still, that’s nothing compared to the way that everything else that goes into college admissions–especially the litany of awards, clubs, and activities–tilts the game in favor of kids with parents who (1) know the unspoken rules of the game and (2) have cash to burn playing it. An expression I’ve heard before is that the Ivy League is basically privilege laundering racket. It has a facade of being meritocratic, but the game is rigged so that all it really does is perpetuate social class. “Legacy” admissions are just the tip of the iceberg in that regard.

What’s even more outrageous than the fiction of meritocratic admission to the Ivy League (or other elite, private schools) is the equally absurd fiction that students with Ivy League degrees have learned some objectively quantifiable skillset that students from, say, state schools have not. There’s no evidence for this.

So students from outside the social elite face double discrimination: first, because they don’t have an equal chance to get into the Ivy Leagues and second, because then they can’t compete with Ivy League graduates on the job market. It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you learn, your Statue U degree is never going to stand out on a resume the way Harvard or Yale does.

There’s nothing meritocratic about that. And that’s the point. The Ivy League-based meritocracy is a lie.


So I empathize with criticisms of American meritocracy, but it’s not actually a meritocracy they’re criticizing. It’s a sham meritocracy that is, in fact, just a covert class system.[2]
Now I despise the Ivy League's polluted issue as much as the next guy (probably more than the next guy), but I think Givens overstates the lack of merit in Ivy League grads. The Ivy League admissions system is designed to select the most intelligent and studious students in the world. Even with legacy admissions and related scandals, the Ivy League has largely been successful in this. Their candidate pool is global; even if one in five of their spots were given to undeserving legacies and the differences between the best of the accepted and the best of the rejected are so small that the choice between them is utterly arbitrary, the scale of this pool ensures excellence. Has there ever been a higher concentration of raw intelligence and studious industry than exists right now in America's top 15 universities (and the few industries that selectively pull from them)? I can think of none. If that is what meritocracy means, then we have one.

But is that what meritocracy should mean? There are more entries in the book of virtues than those approximated by IQ scores and collected study hours. Faith, courage, daring, resourcefulness, selflessness, patience, compassion, kindness, humility, gentility, temperance, strength, beauty, charisma, the ability to peer into the hearts of men and judge what lies therein—there are a thousand virtues, each with their champions and detractors. No meritocratic system can select for all of them; the vigorous pursuit of some arrests the growth of others. Choices must be made. Have we chosen right?

Andrew Yang—yes, the presidential candidate Andrew Yang—is not sure we have. I was surprised to find that Yang devotes a chapter of his book to this problem. In retrospect it should not be so surprising: Yang built a business that recruits Ivy League graduates and throws them across the country to build their own businesses. He has reflected long on this problem. Yang's picture of the meritocratic class is not flattering:
In the bubble, the market governs all. Character is a set of ideas that comes up in the books we read to our children before sending them to test for the gifted and talented program, or a means of doing right by our bosses and reports, or a good way to burnish one’s personal network. On some level, most of us recognize that we are servants to the tide of innovation and efficiency. As the water rises, we will protest as we clamber to higher ground. We will be sure to stay out of the way and keep ourselves pliant and marketable to the extent possible. Our specialty is light-commitment benevolence. We will do something to help but not enough to hurt us or threaten our own standing. We know better than to do that....

We say success in America is about hard work and character. It’s not really. Most of success today is about how good you are at certain tests and what kind of family background you have, with some exceptions sprinkled in to try to make it all seem fair. Intellect as narrowly defined by academics and test scores is now the proxy for human worth. Efficiency is close behind. Our system rewards specific talents more than anything. I got pushed forward for having certain capacities. Others had their horizons systematically lowered for having capacities that our academic system had no use for. I’ve seen countless people lose heart and feel like they should settle for less, that they don’t deserve abundance....

Intelligence and character aren’t the same things at all. Pretending that they are will lead us to ruin. The market is about to turn on many of us with little care for what separates us from each other. I’ve worked with and grown up alongside hundreds of very highly educated people for the past several decades, and trust me when I say that they are not uniformly awesome. People in the bubble think that the world is more orderly than it is. They overplan. They mistake smarts for judgment. They mistake smarts for character. They overvalue credentials. Head not heart. They need status and reassurance. They see risk as a bad thing. They optimize for the wrong things. They think in two years, not 20. They need other bubble people around. They get pissed off when others succeed. They think their smarts should determine their place in the world. They think ideas supersede action. They get agitated if they’re not making clear progress. They’re unhappy. They fear being wrong and looking silly. They don’t like to sell. They talk themselves out of having guts. They worship the market. They worry too much. Bubble people have their pluses and minuses like anyone else.
(emphasis added)[3]

This is not Yang's only problem with the existing system; though he is polite about it, he paints a damning portrait of how the "winners" of the meritocratic gauntlet end up using in their victory: they work in one of six industries (consulting, law, finance, tech, medicine, or academia) in one of five places (Boston, New York City, Washington DC, the Bay Area, or Los Angeles). The remarkable thing about these numbers (and Yang provides lots of them) is that four of the six industries (consulting, law, finance, and academia) are easily described as parasitic or predatory, secondary adornments to the actual business of human activity on the Earth. We have not only engineered a system that trades wealth and honor for an incredibly narrow range of human attributes; once the trade is made, we ship the winners off to careers that provide only marginal benefit to country writ large. ("But it'd be worse if they're doing bad stuff efficiently!," Liam whispers).

However, I do not think this quite grapples with the underlying case for meritocracy. Givens and the pro-meritocrats might respond with something like this: "Well, let's say we were able to design a meritocratic system that selected for the exact virtues you value most. That system will ensure the wealth and glory it bestows would be given only to those whose position allows them to benefit the broader public. If the system was genuinely meritocratic, and the merits selected for perfectly aligned with the positions given, what objections could you have?" Or as Scott Alexander put it a few years ago:
If your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.[4]
The problem with these arguments is that they focus on the wrong side of the equation. The problem with meritocracy is not the "merit"it is the "ocracy!"

Who governs—and for whom?

Yang is worried about this as well:
In coming years it’s going to be even harder to forge a sense of common identity across different walks of life. A lot of people who now live in the bubble grew up in other parts of the country. They still visit their families for holidays and special occasions. They were brought up middle-class in normal suburbs like I was and retain a deep familiarity with the experiences of different types of people. They loved the mall, too.

In another generation this will become less and less true. There will be an army of slender, highly cultivated products of Mountain View and the Upper East Side and Bethesda heading to elite schools that has been groomed since birth in the most competitive and rarefied environments with very limited exposure to the rest of the country.

When I was growing up, there was something of an inverse relationship between being smart and being good-looking. The smart kids were bookish and awkward and the social kids were attractive and popular. Rarely were the two sets of qualities found together in the same people. The nerd camps I went to looked the part.

Today, thanks to assortative mating in a handful of cities, intellect, attractiveness, education, and wealth are all converging in the same families and neighborhoods. I look at my friends’ children, and many of them resemble unicorns: brilliant, beautiful, socially precocious creatures who have gotten the best of all possible resources since the day they were born. I imagine them in 10 or 15 years traveling to other parts of the country, and I know that they are going to feel like, and be received as, strangers in a strange land. They will have thriving online lives and not even remember a car that didn’t drive itself. They may feel they have nothing in common with the people before them. Their ties to the greater national fabric will be minimal. Their empathy and desire to subsidize and address the distress of the general public will likely be lower and lower.[5]
The American system of government was built on the assumption that the most salient political divides would reflect geography, not ideology or class. The senator from Massachusetts would share bonds in common with the lay citizenry of Boston that he did not share with a senator from South Carolina. On the national sphere this would allow him to represent the interests of his constituents as if they were his own. This has proven more true at some times in American history than others; yet because of the way American politicians are elected, this sense of representing the interests of a geographically bounded group of people is more true in the political arena than in most others.

Things have not always been this way.

Though commentators sometimes speak of the old WASP gentry as an earlier era's national elite, they were not really so: they were the business, cultural, and political elites of one region of America. They ruled the roost in New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. During the WASP heyday these states had greater economic and demographic heft than other regions in the nation, and so families with names like Roosevelt, Adams, and Lodge had an outsized influence on national politics and culture. But those families were not competing against the best and brightest of the entire nation: they were competing with each other. Texas' best and brightest did not strive to get into Harvard—they strove to get into Baylor. They were generally satisfied to be Texas elites, and if they operated on the national stage they tended to think of themselves as such.

Perhaps the old upper crust of South Dakota lacked the merit of today's globe-trotting elites. Perhaps the current bunch are more intelligent politicians and more efficient administrators. Maybe they are the better neurosurgeons. But here is what they are not: more committed to the interests, culture, and people of South Dakota. A pure meritocracy undistorted by existing class cleavages will distort the nation it is inflicted upon. Deciding who rules and who is ruled through a system which selects on a narrow field of virtues inevitably leads to one outcome: an aristocracy of the meritorious few who do not have the experience or the inclination to act in the interests of masses less virtuous than they.


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If you would like to read some of my other jottings on elites and American democracy, you may find the posts "Pining for Democracy," "Despots Near and Despots Far," "America 3.0," and "Economies of Scale Killed the American  Dream" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] Liam Bright, tweet on 16 December 2019, 1:30 AM, accessed at https://twitter.com/lastpositivist/status/1206506964735479808

[2] Nathaniel Givens, "In Favor of Real Meritocracy," Difficult Run, 6 November 2019.

[3] Andrew Yang, The War On Normal People: The Truth About America's Disappearing Jobs and Why Universal Basic Income Is Our Future (New York: Hachette Books, 2018), 111-114 

[4] Scott Alexander, "Targeting Meritocracy," Slate Star Codex, 24 July 2017.

[5] Yang, War on Normal People, 114.

18 December, 2019

Do Not Trust Journalists (A Mormon Example)


Do not trust journalists.

This is a hard thing for me to write: I am a journalist. I regularly write dispatches from abroad for various media outlets, and the occasional opinion commentary to boot.

Yet I have trouble trusting journalists. Especially those who are not transparent about how they developed their understanding of the issues they cover. Some journalism is very good; some is terrible. The worst of all are the journalists who try and use "journalism" as a cover for their ineptitude and ignorance.

I wrote the following piece in January 2018. I wrote it for private consumption. It was posted on my Facebook wall for my friends to read, but published nowhere else. It records my response to a controversy current in that month: the New York Times's coverage of the death of Thomas S. Monson, ordained prophet and seer of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My membership in the church is no secret; I regularly refer to my experiences in the Church both on this blog and across my various social media accounts. That said, I don't really participate in the "bloggernaccle" or (American) Mormon-centric twitter. The latter I see as particularly toxic, driven by dueling groups of badly misguided saints who do not represent the off-line norm. One group endlessly attacks Church leadership, apologizing constantly and loudly for the basic tenets of Church doctrine. This behavior is shameless and apostate. A second group has risen up in response to these people; adopting anonymous identities in the style of alt-right and 4Chan edgelords, they shitpost in "defense of the faith." This modus operandi is rebellious and cowardly. That whole ecosystem tears faith, hope, and charity to tatters; I sorrow that it exists at all. I have no desire to get drawn into it.

Furthermore, I believe that any member who goes out of their way to publicly comment on gospel affairs—as opposed to privately share or testify their beliefs—has a basic responsibility to have their character, conduct, and rhetoric in right order before they grasp at that mantle. I don't think I meet that standard, and thus do not use my platform for apologetics or broader commentary on the Church unless it is relevant to the other issues I write about.

This is why I never published the following piece on any other platform. I saved it in my archives, however, and today I stumbled upon it while searching for something else. Upon review I think it does touch on other issues I write about: in this case, pathologies that keep journalists from reporting true. I do not hesitate to call the New York Times coverage described here journalistic malpractice. The reporter in question knew nothing about what he was writing; instead he forced events and personalities into a narrow, pre-conceived frame that bore little relation to the reality before him. This is lazy, and when called out on it, both he and the Times doubled-down on their vices.

If you need a handy example to link to of why it is not wise to trust journalists, this will do.

*

Thomas Monson is the man who planted the Mormon flag behind the iron curtain. That the LDS Church was allowed into Eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War—that a Mormon temple was built in East Germany, that Mormon missionaries were allowed in, and that Mormon missionaries were allowed out—was the direct result of actions taken by this man.

There is a story here. Would the New York Times ever tell it?

The Times did not anticipate the controversy that would be caused by its tweet announcing the death of Thomas Monson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Yet the tweet, the obituary it linked to, and the Times’ botched attempt to respond to the controversy it created reveal a great deal about the way American journalists and editors relate to the events they cover—especially when they cover religion. In response to the criticism it received the Times would return time and again to a stock phrase to defend their coverage: “We are journalists.” The phrase is telling. By tying its obituary so closely to journalistic ethic, the Times betrayed just how low the standards of American journalists have sunk. “We are journalists,” they say—and in so saying, declare that if journalists can force the subjects they cover into the narrow narrative straitjacket of the Trump-era culture wars, then the need to know concrete details and facts about the things they cover can be dispensed with altogether.

The tweet that began the dust-up reads as follows:
Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon church who rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died Tuesday at 90.
The opening of the New York Times’s obituary for Monson echoed the themes of the tweet:
Facing vociferous demands to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend.
Responses to the Times were not long in waiting. Some asked why the Times framed their obituary on what Monson did not do as a leader of Mormon faith, instead of what he did do. The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins humorously imagined the same treatment being given to other members of America’s recently deceased: “Hugh Hefner, the Playboy founder who rebuffed demands that he stop publishing a misogynistic pornographic magazine and exploiting young women, died at 91." Others pointed to the silliness of describing minor protests put on by small activist groups with dramatic claims that Monson “weather[ed] demonstrations [of] Mormon women pleading” for ordination to the lay priesthood, when polling data suggests that an overwhelmingly large majority of American Mormon women (90%) oppose female ordination, while the majority of Mormon women outside America—who are, in fact, the majority of Mormon women—have likely never heard of the protests at all. The 180,000 Mormons who signed a change.org petition in protest against the New York Times, went further, accusing the Times of using the obituary and its “click-bait headline” as a “political statement against… the Church as a whole.”

These critiques vary in their harshness; all have their merits. But none quite get to the real problem with the Times’ coverage. To understand why, it is worth reviewing a few of facts about the leadership and legacy of Thomas Monson that the New York Times did not deign to print.

The Mormon hierarchy is led by a First Presidency of three men and a council of twelve Apostles, called, as Mormons believe, after the pattern of the primitive Christian Church. More than one hundred men have served in this office over the last two centuries. But Monson was special. Monson was the youngest apostle of the last hundred years, ordained to the office at the relatively young age of 36. When Monson was ordained in 1963 Mormonism was a small thing, mostly limited to the valleys and mesas of a sagebrush choked strip of land along the Rocky Mountains. By the time Monson died five decades later, the church he led stretched across continents, with more members outside of America than inside it. This story is the story of Thomas S. Monson.

Yet there is more. Monson was there when the decision to admit black men to the LDS lay priesthood was made. He was there when the first LDS temples were built in Africa, Asia, Polynesia, Australia, and Europe. Monson was not just a leader when the Church supported Prop 8 in 2008—he was a leader when the Church opposed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. Monson led the committees that codified the doctrines taught in every Mormon meetinghouse across the Earth. He led the effort to translate Mormon texts into hundreds of tongues and dozens of scripts. He shepherded the creation of global standard for the length and content of the Church’s Sunday meetings and liturgy. Monson was part of the Presidency that drafted and released the Church's first doctrinal proclamation on gender and the family—by far the Church’s most important doctrinal statement of the last four decades. He was part of the Presidency that introduced the Perpetual Education Fund—the loan program that has provided an education to 100,000 young (and mostly Mormon) men and women who grew up in grinding poverty. He was part of the Presidency that revolutionized the way that Church disaster response and aid worked, the Presidency that spearheaded Church aid to Syrian refugees, the Presidency who redefined the mission of the Church to include the words "caring for the poor and needy."

If there is one man who could have claimed that he touched the lives and religious experience of all the Mormons on the Earth, even in simple ways that most do not realize or are barely aware of, it was this man. If there is one man who could take credit of restructuring the religion so that it might reach across the globe, it was this man. If there is anyone who can take credit for the reorienting the LDS Church to focus more on the temporal needs of its members and the practical business of caring for the needy and impoverished outside it, it was this man.

Will the New York Times ever tell this story—the story of a people, of a faith, of a life that has changed millions through decisions small and large made over the last sixty years?

They will not. But the political motive for the Times poor reporting is not convincing. If there are lacunae in the Times account of Monson’s life it is probably not because the reporters of the New York Times are full of malice (though they might be). The simplest explanation for why they did not tell the full story of Monson’s life and legacy is because they do not know it.

“We are journalists,” they say. Let’s be clear about what this really means. For the New York Times, the word "journalism" is a talisman—an excuse to be brandished when one must write down one's ignorance and sell it to the public.

The Times' obituary wrote only of the last four years because they have no knowledge of the world before it. They do not know that Thomas Monson stared down the dictators of Eastern Europe; they do not know that he dedicated temples across the ends of the Earth; they do not know anything he has done at all actually, except that reported in their own paper over the last year or so. There is so much they do not know. The trouble with the journalists of the New York Times (and even more so, the editors who write in defense of them) is that they are not even aware of what it is they do not know.

But this does not stop them from writing.

This is the colossal arrogance of ignorance. Nowhere is this ignorance more sharply displayed than in their treatment of their favorite theme: religious groups which do not meet the measure of their morals. The writers of the New York Times know a great deal about their own opinion of others' moral fitness, of course, so their eagerness to discuss their judgments should not surprise. But oh, how much stronger these judgements might have been had they better knowledge of those they judge! If the global history of the Mormon people must be reduced to only what can be seen through the blinkered lens of America’s current social wars, then the journalists of the New York Times have—once again—missed the greater story.

Thomas Monson was not only the man who traveled across the world to raise the Mormon standard, not only the man who refocused the work of the Church on the poor and needy of the globe, not only the man who guided or presided over every major doctrinal development of the last half century—he was also a Boy Scout. Monson loved the Boy Scouts. He also loved the LDS Church. He was Scouting's greatest advocate inside the Church, and the Church's most powerful voice within Scouting. That the two organizations might fuse together and never thence fall asunder was one of his great life projects. He faced powerful countervailing forces: as the Church grew and globalized it realized that it did not really need the Boy Scouts of America. It is quite possible to teach a young man how to be a proper disciple of Christ without this odd American social club thrown in. But Tom Monson stuck to his guns and the LDS Church became the most influential interest group in the BSA. The Mormons—sometimes to other groups' frustration—ruled the roost.

Until suddenly they didn't. Against Mormon opposition came the decisions about gay scoutmasters, then transgender ones, and then women. And it fell to aging Thomas Monson, the man given highest honors scouting can provide, the man who led millions of Mormon boys through the program, the man who loved Scouting with all of his heart, the man who had spent a lifetime promoting its cause—it fell to that man to make the choice to separate the two things that he had loved and take the Church out of the program.

The Times relates Monson’s decision to take the Church out of the BSA, but not the years he spent fighting to keep them together. This was a missed opportunity. In the saga of Thomas Monson and the Mormon Boy Scouts, the entire Mormon-in-America story of the last four decades can be seen: the quest to reconcile Mormonism with America's great institutions, the hope that Mormons could be finally accepted as good and worthy part of our body politic, the flexing of their new-found power in the social and political realms... and the sudden, painful realization that the day was too late, the successes all ephemeral, and that the rising tide of "social justice" would cast the Mormons onto the shoals of contempt from which they came. The tragedy of Thomas Monson, boy scout, is the tragedy of Mormon America in microcosm. His choice was the choice all American Mormons now face, or will soon: continue to cultivate the national prestige they crave and loyally stick to the social institutions they love (no matter where currents of culture may take them), or to withdraw, sacrificing what influence and prestige they have, and accept a new reality as a living hiss and byword in the eyes of those who read and write for the New York Times.

The Times might have told that story. They could have told the story of a people and their prophet. But they will not tell it. They cannot tell it. They do not know it.

That is the lesson of this entire saga. The New York Times defends themselves in the name of journalism. They are journalists they tell us, not religious propagandists. And with that declaration they reveal the truth: to be a journalist is to write, and to write, and seek credit for what you write even though you know nothing about those things which you write about.


EDIT 27/12/ 2019:  A reader helpfully points out that the opening sentence of the obituary now reads differently than it originally did (and than I quoted above). It also appears that the coverage of Monson's life was lengthened somewhat following the controversy and the petition. Readers can have fun using Internet Archive to assess these changes. While I am gratified to see that the Times realized its original opening was inadequate, most of this still stands, and none of it should have ever had to be written.

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If you found this harangue on the follies of the American media worth reading, you might also find the posts "The Time Has Come To Give The Lie,"  "On the Angst of American Journalists," and "Vox Will Never Understand Islam... Or Any Religion, Really" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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10 December, 2019

The Aussies Who Doubt Us

Pew published a thought provoking piece of research this week.[1] Included in the report were the two graphics below:



You can read the full report on the Pew website. There are many interesting threads to pull at here (for example: what country is missing from South Koreans' perceived sense of threat?), but what caught my attention are the opinions of the Australian public. There are five countries on this list that America has signed some sort of mutual defense treaty with; of the five, none are less confident in the Americans than the Australians. Australian doubts should not be too surprising: America's ability to fulfill its defense guarantees in the West Pacific is a actively debated topic in both the Australian press and the Australian think tank world. Arguments that Australia needs to prepare now to go it alone, that Americans would be unreliable in event of war, that American military capabilities are incapable of defending Australia (or America's own forward operating bases) against Chinese aggression, and that so-called Chinese 'aggression' is mostly an American plot anyway are easy to find.

Some of these claims are stronger than others, but given how common these sentiments are it is not surprising to see them leak down into general public opinion surveys. My question is not "why do the Australians doubt us?" but "why is everybody else so much more confident than they are?" Why are the Filipinos so confident in their American alliance when by any measure you might choose—American troops stationed in the country, shared military experience, cooperation between the armed forces or security services and the Americans, the strength of the bilateral relationship as a whole, the American public's fondness for the country in question—the Aussies have it so much better, yet still doubt? What assurances do the Canadians, Japanese, South Koreans, Filipinos, and Israelis (who are not even party to a mutual defense pact) have that the Australians do not?

I do not have an answer to this question, but I am interested in finding one. If you have a good hypothesis to explain what makes Australia different, sound off in the comments below.

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If you found these observations on international affairs worth reading, you might also find the posts "Chinese Are Partisan Too," "Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism over Military Power" or "At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It?," of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] Laura Silver, "U.S. is seen as a top ally in many countries – but others view it as a threat," Pew Research Center (5 December 2019).

08 December, 2019

Fissures in the Facade

Alessandro Rizzi, "Man in Xidan Shopping District," Getty Images (Source)
There are many aspects of Chinese society that I understand poorly. For example: the peasantry. I know the Chinese peasantry—as opposed to their close kin, the migrant workers—entirely in the abstract. I have spent no time in rural Chinese villages. I have watched documentaries about the people who live there, poured over statistical summaries, perused long-read investigative pieces, and even read entire books about these places. But I know a lot less about that world than say the 500 million or so Chinese that who actually live in it.[1]  All of my knowledge of that world comes second hand.

The China I know most intimately is the China of a different strata. This is the China of the strivers and the climbers, the China of the people who flock to Beijing or Shenzhen determined to build their own empire—and the China of the people who will settle for something far less than that a year or two in. This is the China of the the respectable classes: the students, the intellectuals, the artists, the lawyers, the scientists, the salesmen, the entrepreneurs, the investors, the civil servants, and the party hacks. China's urban middle class, China's urban upper class, and China's multi-multi-millionaries. For the young this is the China of sang tea and the 2nd dimension; for the old this is the China of soup-for-the-soul and masculinity boot camps (or for a different sort of old, this the China that produces an endless stream of satirical attacks on the soup-for-the-soulers and countless sniffs about the "low suzhi" of modern China).

A recent news item captures the anxieties of this wide swathe of people in a way that most outside coverage of China does not.

Here is the story as reported by the New York Times:
On the first anniversary of her arrest in Canada, Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei, issued an open letter describing how she experienced fear, pain, disappointment, helplessness, torment and acceptance of the unknown.

She wrote at length about the support she received from her colleagues, about friendly people at a courthouse in Vancouver and about “numerous” Chinese online users who expressed their trust. Her letter, posted on Monday, was not well received on the Chinese internet, where Ms. Meng is known — in a term meant to be endearing — as “princess” because she is a daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei.

n the Twitter-like social media platform Weibo, many users posted the numbers 985, 996, 251 and 404 in the comment section below her letter. They were slyly referring to a former Huawei employee who graduated from one of the country’s top universities in a program code-named 985, worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week and was jailed for 251 days after he demanded severance pay when his contract wasn’t renewed.

His story went viral in China, generating angry responses online. That resulted in 404 error messages as articles and comments were deleted, a sign of China’s censors at work.

The former employee, Li Hongyuan, was eventually released from jail with no charges and received $15,000 in government compensation last week. He shared his story online last week, and that was when the hit to Huawei’s reputation began....

“One enjoyed a sunny Canadian mansion while the other enjoyed the cold and damp detention cell in Shenzhen,” Jiang Feng, a psychologist, commented on the Quora-like question-and-answer site Zhihu....

The anger on social media was also indicative of new insecurity among members of China’s middle class, who have never experienced an economic downturn and have always thought they had more protections than lower-paid migrant workers. People said they could see themselves in Mr. Li.

“Many middle-class Chinese used to believe that if they went to good schools, worked hard and cared little about the current affairs they would be able to realize their Chinese dreams,” a blogger wrote on Weibo. “Now their dreams are in tatters.”

Mr. Li, a Huawei employee for 12 years, negotiated a $48,000 severance package in March 2018, according to interviews he gave to Chinese media outlets. But he didn’t get an end-of-the-year bonus that he said had been promised to him. He sued Huawei in November last year.

A month later, he was detained in Shenzhen and accused of leaking commercial secrets. He was officially arrested in January on an extortion accusation. But he was released in August with no charges. He did not respond to interview requests.....

In a sign that many middle-class professionals are worried that what happened to Mr. Li could happen to them, online users circulated articles about jail life, especially in the Longgang detention center in Shenzhen, where Mr. Li spent more than eight months. Huawei is based in Shenzhen’s Longgang district.

Some online users are circulating a three-part blog post by a programmer who spent over a year in the detention center for working on gaming and gambling software. Gambling is illegal in China. The blogger wrote in detail what it was like to live in a 355-square-foot cell with 55 people in tropical weather — what they ate, wore and did every day....

Many Chinese are especially outraged by the degree to which news coverage and online responses have been censored. They say they feel helpless because they can’t criticize the government. Now they feel they are also not able to criticize a giant corporation.

One of the Weibo posts of Ms. Meng’s letter received 1,400 comments. Many simply said 251, the number of days Mr. Li was detained. Fewer than 10 comments, sympathetic ones, are still visible to the public.

“A company that’s too big to criticize is even scarier than a company that’s too big to fail,” Nie Huihua, an economics professor at Renmin University in Beijing, told the news site Jiemian on Tuesday.

Jiemian’s interview with Mr. Li, published on Monday, was deleted.[1]
A bit more information from Quartz:
The episode comes during a particularly strained time in relations between Chinese tech workers and employers. The trade war with the US has led to a number of layoffs, and there are mounting grievances at the long hours of work in China’s tech sector. The online protest against the work hours is known as “996,” which refers to the 9 am to 9 pm, six-days-a-week work schedule that is common in Chinese tech companies. 
In response to Huawei’s charm offensive in support of Meng, Chinese users on social network Weibo have been posting under hashtags such as ”Huawei’s former employee” (link in Chinese). Many of the comments expressed sympathy for Li and accused Huawei of treating him poorly. Others posted the numbers “996” and “251,” referring to the number of days Li is said to have been detained. Other numbers cited by users are “985” and “404”, referring to Li’s graduation from one of China’s top 985 universities and the error message displayed when a website page has been deleted, hinting at Chinese censorship of the topic online. 
“We’ll never become Meng Wanzhou, but we could become the next Li Hongyuan,” read one comment (link in Chinese). “We firmly support the Canadian authorities to extradite the ‘princess’ to the US,” said another. Patriotism, a motivation often cited by Chinese consumers for buying Huawei phones, has not eased the online storm of criticism of the company. “I love China, but I don’t love Huawei,” wrote one social media user. Another said Huawei has been “presented as a chariot tied up with patriotism,” but the company has betrayed “business norms and restraints.” [3]
What these stories are really reporting on is a deeper social fissure in China. I believe it is one of the most important divides for understanding the strengths and weakness of the current regime. The same fissure was graphically illustrated to me by a political cartoon a friend in Beijing sent me to several years ago. Her intent was to show me what she thought about her place in China's future. I have not been able to find the cartoon through Baidu searching but I can describe its basic content: a bullet train, rushing ahead at full speed, its flanks emblazoned with the word NATIONAL ECONOMY. Dragged behind the train is a man. He is holding on to the last car with by his fingertips. If he loosens his grip he will fly away and fall onto the tracks. On his shirt are the words MIDDLE CLASS.

The meaning is fairly obvious. In the space of two generations China's professional classes went from nothing to a great deal of something. Publicly they attribute their success to talent and hard work. Privately they admit that they must share this credit with good luck.[4] But will the good luck hold? In a China dramatically dividing, a world cleft ever more clearly between haves and have-nots, will they be able to stay on the side of the haves? The problem is made all the more nerve-racking when they realize that this is not just their problem: it is their kid's problem too. 

It is hard to ride the tiger; harder still to ride it while teaching your child how to hold the reins. This paranoia about the capabilities and prospects of the next generation casts an omnipresent gloom. It grips the hearts of parents from the lowest tier of the Chinese middle class all the way up to the families of billionaires. I know this through personal experience. I was disturbed by the first Chinese multi-millionaire who expressed this fear to me. "Why should he worry?" I wondered. Why should someone with all of this wealth be so stressed and worried about his children's intellectual training? Why does he worry about them not having an education good enough for "the challenges of the future?" Surely, given the wealth they will inherit, they will be ok?

Surely so.... unless you are not so sure your children will be in a position to inherit anything.

I learned a lot about the way Chinese people—especially those born in the 60s, 70s,  and early 80s, who remember clearly what it means to live in want—think about their regime and its future on that day. The lesson has been taught to me a great many times since. I won't delve into more stories here:  it is enough to say that the Chinese upper crust are not buying houses in Vancouver and Hokkaido and Honolulu simply because they expect a good return on their capital.

But what about the Chinese professional who doesn't have the money to buy a plum house in Canberra? If my friend the Beijing multi-millionaire is antsy about his future, what about the millions of Chinese white-collar workers with no hope of earning even their first million?

Earlier this year I had a bar-side conversation with a very successful digital-security type, a specialist in Chinese cyber-ops. The discussion had turned to the success of Russian interference operations and the likelihood that these operations on the Russian style would soon be copied by security services across the world. "Well if that is the future," said I, "when do we arm up ourselves? How long will we play only defense? What is to stop the United States from doing to the Chinese what we just saw the Russians do to us?"

My interlocutor argued against the proposal: the risks of trying to destabilize Chinese society outweighed the benefits. Besides, there were three very practical challenges that would make any interference campaign on the mainland  impossible. The first, though easiest to surmount, is technical: the Chinese internet is separated from the rest of the world by the great firewall, WeChat and Weibo are harder to sneak bots and operators into, and so forth. A much more difficult problem is America's human capital deficit. The U.S. intelligence community simply does not have the people you would need to run this campaign. They do not have specialists who understand Chinese subcultures, internet norms, and the ground level texture of Chinese society well enough to make potential interference look and feel organic. America has those people. But almost all of them are very recent immigrants—not the sort federal agencies hand out security clearances to. Thus even if you found the one message custom-made to divide the Chinese nation, the signal would die in the voice of the sender. A perfectly honest critique of Party tyranny delivered by Mike Pompeo would only inoculate average Chinese against the truths he speaks. It would only work if delivered in the idiom of China's own disaffected.

That led directly to his third objection: The field is not fallow. The Russians had success in America precisely because American society is already in shambles. The Russians could fake Texas secession and Black Lives Matters accounts because significant numbers of Texan and black Americans have already endorsed radical attacks on America's existing body politic. The Russians did not create American political hysteria; they simply exploited divisions and conflicts two decades in the making.  It is for very similar reasons the PRC interference campaign in Taiwan has a good chance of working out: Taiwan, like America, is a society divided against itself. But is China? Where are the social fissures in which you could drive this wedge? He saw none.

He saw none—but I do. There is a fissure in the facade. The fissure that matters in today's China is the gulf between the worlds of Meng Wanzhou and Li Hongyuan. It is the breach between those who have spent their lives jumping through hoops in chase of a chimera, and those whose only worry is that their family might come down on the wrong side of the next anti-corruption campaign. It is the gap between those who ache for some guarantee that their children will have a place in the race, and those Red few who do not have to bother with running their children in it at all. Understand: the gap I speak of is not that between the haves and the have-nots, though that is related. It is the void that separates those the Communist system is designed to save from those who it will blindly, indifferently sacrifice.

What is the most dangerous thought in modern China? Is it that the Party has jailed a million Uyghurs? That the Party has launched war on religion, speech, and a hundred other liberties? No, most Chinese do not care about these things; polling doesn't exist, but it would surprise me to learn that the majority of Chinese do not support the Party's policies fully in all of this. Anybody who has asked run-of-the-mill Chinese on the street what they think about Islam or minorities or  conditions that lead towards "luan" will understand this. Is it then that the Party has a history of violence and terror that left more Chinese dead than China's foreign enemies ever managed? That disconcerts Chinese who learn about it, though in my experience the shock is more at being lied to about their history than it is about actual death tolls. The regime can survive whispered conversations about Changchun and June 4th. The most subversive, explosive message you tell the Chinese people is something different. It goes like this:

The Party is a racket.  The guys at the top are not any different from the ones you deal with at the bottom. The Party exists to make sure their kids have a spot at the front of the line no matter how much more your kids deserve it. You are not forced to call Xi all these fancy titles because it will help him restore China to its ancestral glory: you are forced to do all of that so Xi Jinping's daughter gets into Harvard and his family racks up homes in Hong Kong. All of the taxes, the censorship, the ridiculous rules and regulations, the blustering about war, the hero-worship and the propaganda, the detention centers and the cameras—it is all a racket. You live a slave so that someone else's children can get ahead.

That is the fissure in the facade. It is whispered of. It is wondered at. Sooner or later, it will explode.


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If you found these observations on Chinese society useful, you might also find the posts "A Note on Historical Nihilism," "The Inner Life of Chinese Teenagers" or "Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability," of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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[1] Perhaps better said, the 500 million government statisticians declare live there—if they are calculating that number by means of hukou registration then a great chunk of that 500 million are rural dwellers in absentia

[2] Li Yuan, "How Huawei Lost the Heart of the Chinese Public," New York Times, 4 December 2019.

[3] Jane Li, "Huawei’s toughest PR battle isn’t overseas, it’s at home," Quartz, 3 December 2019.

[4] I have never heard, in private or public, a Chinese person attribute their personal wealth to the Communist Party of China. Support for the Party stems from other sources.