Category Archives: Living in China

China v. the US: Privilege is Not Freedom

Author Gary Moreau, aka Avam Hale in fiction

I’ve taken a bit of heat for my recent blog post in which I intimated that the real Orwellian oppressor might be the American political, economic, and Hollywood elite rather than the Communist Party of China. In this post, therefore, I will attempt to put just a little more meat on the bones of my figurative and conceptual dragon.

Freedom exists at a number of levels and I can’t address all of them in one post. First, however, we must establish what American freedom is not. It is not one person, one vote; majority takes all. Nor do we want it to be. That would be oppression of the worst kind.

That is why we have three branches of government, the Electoral College, and the requirement that three-fourths of the states must ratify a new amendment to the US Constitution. That is why, in fact, we have the Bill of Rights and a total of twenty-seven existing amendments to begin with. They put hard limits on our democracy and the power of the majority.

So what is freedom? Let’s look at a few examples of what might be considered freedom and see how China and the US compare:

Government Social Engineering:

This is the freedom to live free of government interference and China does have some well known social regulations but they are quite transparent and are seldom hard and fast. At the head of that list, of course, is the famous one child policy, although it has been relaxed significantly in recent years and there have always been exceptions for ethnic and rural populations. And while there may have been cases of forced compliance in the past the frequency has undoubtedly been overstated in the Western media. Today, I believe, it is virtually unheard of.

In the US our social engineering is significant but far less transparent. Most of it is accomplished surreptitiously, largely through the tax code and regulations positioned as being in the public interest. People who decide to remain single, or couples who do not or cannot have children, for example, subsidize the living expenses of those who do get married and have children through tax provisions that favor marriage and procreation. There are no such tax provisions in China. Everyone in China is an individual taxpayer and there are no deductions for anything.

Women, moreover, have complete control over their own bodies in China. Abortions are readily available and cheap. And since everyone is essentially guaranteed a job there is virtually no woman who can’t get an abortion if she so elects. Women who work, moreover, enjoy generous maternity leave at full pay, have full job protection, and are even guaranteed time to breast feed after they return to work.

The US, on the other hand, is the only industrialized nation on the planet that offers no paid maternity leave. If you can find a place to have an abortion, moreover, you will probably have to pay for it and will undoubtedly be forced to suffer the indignity of protesters when you go for the procedure. (This would never be allowed in China.)

China does have a residency registration system called the hukou. It is designed primarily as a structure for providing government services but it is also designed to limit urban migration so that the infrastructure of the wealthy urban areas is not overwhelmed. You can still move your family where you want to but it will cost you more in schooling, medical care, and the like. I met my wife in Beijing, for example, where she was living and working, but her son remained in her hometown for these reasons. It’s a fairly common arrangement in China.

In the US, of course, there are no restrictions on where you can live but the residents of those states with low or no income taxes (e.g., Florida) subsidize the residents of those states with high income tax rates (e.g., New York). Trump is trying to change that but it hasn’t happened yet.

Urbanization in the US is nonetheless discouraged in several other ways. The public schools in urban areas are generally of inferior quality. People living in urban areas often pay higher taxes, largely due to additional sales tax. Crime rates are often much higher. And since urban dwellers are likely to rent, they are essentially forced to subsidize, again through taxes, all of the middle and upper class homeowners living in the suburbs who get to claim their mortgage interest and real estate taxes as tax deductions. (And who get the benefits of living in proximity to a major US city.)

Freedom in Education:

Education in China, including college, is open to everyone and largely paid for by the government. There is intense competition for entry to the best schools via standardized testing, but the opportunity and the cost is the same for everyone. If you can get in to one of the top schools, you can afford to go. Everyone pays the same low rate.

In the US, of course, standardized testing plays a role, but is not defining. Ivy League schools still give preference to the children of their alumni and donors, and admissions officers consider the quality of the secondary school attended, and largely subjective demonstrations of leadership, etc., which are disproportionately available to wealthier families. Poor children living in the inner city don’t often have a chance to join the debate club and even when they do may be required for family childcare or to work in the family business. The cost, moreover, between colleges varies widely, which, of course, is less of a burden to wealthier families.

Religious Freedom:

The Chinese are more or less free to practice religion as they see fit. You will find Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, and practitioners of Chinese folk religion just about everywhere in China. There is, however, one simple restriction: The church must stay out of politics. There may be a lot of argument about that but even Jesus advised his followers to pay Caesar his due.

We have religious freedom in the US, of course, in that the church can be very actively involved in politics and can even organize political protests. All churches in the US, however, are essentially subsidized by the entire population, whether those citizens are religious or not. Even the building in which congregants worship is free of tax. In essence, we don’t have freedom of religion so much as we have government sponsored religion.

Freedom to Set Prices:

While China has moved decidedly toward a free market economy there are still some sectors that are government controlled. In the case of utilities, for example, the biggest providers are still government owned and the government sets prices. In China, however, the citizens generally pay less than the large corporations for things like natural gas and electricity. In the US, the opposite is true. That factory down the street is probably paying less for natural gas than you are. This is how the American “free” market works.

Freedom to Make a Living:

In China, if you want to make some extra money for your family by cutting hair on nights and weekends, you just do it. You have to pay taxes but it’s unlikely a barber would generate enough income to trigger a tax liability. Even if you do, the local tax collector is likely to ignore you unless you run afoul of the law in some other way.

In the US you cannot cut hair without a license. And in most cases, that requires a substantial investment of time and money. In California, for example, you must attend a government accredited barber school for 5,000 hours of certified instruction before you can cut anyone’s hair. The big winners, of course, are the for-profit barber schools, who undoubtedly pushed for the legislation to begin with, and the existing barbers, who can charge more due to the artificial limits on competition.

“Professional” regulation costs US residents far more than Bernie Madoff ever did, and it’s a scam that is both government sponsored and goes largely unnoticed. Tesla cannot sell its cars in the state of Michigan because the auto dealers, through their powerful lobbying group, have pushed through state legislation prohibiting the sale of cars directly to consumers. Ford can’t do it either. The consumers, in the end, subsidize the generally well-off car dealers. And, of course, the consumers have no practical choice in the matter.

Similar constraints exist in almost every industry. The current Republican tax overhaul is 429 pages in length. What could possibly take so much ink? Rest assured that corporate lobbyists wrote most of it and it’s surely laden with little tax goodies for powerful interest groups and political donors.

All of the professional regulation, of course, is, in theory, enacted in the name of consumer protection, although I’ve never known any consumer who needed protection from a bad haircut or manicure. If you do get an embarrassing haircut you can always switch barbers.

In the end, the US is probably the most regulated country on the planet, and most of that regulation exists not to protect the consumer, but to protect the established elite who lobbied for it. Why do you think we spend more than any other country in the world on health care and are nonetheless the only developed country that does not guarantee access to affordable health insurance? The drug companies and the for-profit hospitals love things the way they are. They largely designed them.

And how do they get away with it? It’s easy. It’s all done through the mechanics of American democracy—the basis of what we call our democratic freedom.

Buying Government Influence:

As every school child knows, the US government is made up of three largely equal branches – legislative, administrative, and judicial. Each provides an opportunity to shape the ways in which our lives are controlled by government interference. The legislature can pass laws and regulations, the President, as we now know, can determine how to administer those regulations through executive order, and the courts can step in at any time and change everything.

The net result is that vested interests, such as corporations and wealthy individuals, have three bites at the apple. They can effect change to their benefit in any of the three spheres of influence. Or all three, as is typically the case. And they are uniquely privileged to take such bites because each bite takes money. And the more you have the bigger the bite you are granted.

The politicians, of course, pander to money. But so do the courts. The latter wealth bias is not quite so transparent, but nonetheless real. You have to hire a lawyer to take advantage of judicial power. And a lawyer is not a lawyer. A talented lawyer with the right connections is going to cost you. And you, if you are an average citizen, probably don’t have it. The end result is that the wealthy, particularly large corporations, have more legal protection and influence than the average citizen, simply because they can afford better lawyers, and more of them.

In China, by contrast, government influence is available to everyone. There are cases of outright corruption, of course, but that’s true in every government, including our own, and the current government in China has taken very specific steps to reduce it, unlike our own, which frankly seems to be promoting it through pay to play and other similar schemes.

While living in Beijing I often saw older couples wearing hand-written sandwich boards in public venues protesting their treatment at the hands of the local government a thousand miles away. And I saw policemen without riot gear, tear gas, or military style weapons, often lead them away, but always with respect. I never once saw anyone dragged, threatened with a club, or even handcuffed.

The biggest difference, of course, is the relative power of the courts in China and the US. While there is reform underway, the courts don’t have much power in China to challenge the government. Which is why high-speed trains and new airports are still being built there and in an astonishing short period of time, and why three American college basketball players arrested for shoplifting could be released from detention without penalty or delay. That would never have happened, of course, if three Chinese basketball players had been arrested under similar circumstances in Los Angeles, because we are a “nation of laws.”

In theory a powerful judiciary would be nice if it were truly used to empower the powerless. But it’s not. It just further empowers the elite. Poor minority males end up in jail. Rich white male sex abusers go to luxury spas in Arizona for some quiet time.

Freedom to Roam:

The biggest impediment to American freedom, however—and this admittedly sounds strange coming from someone living in Michigan—is the simple fact that with very few exceptions you can not survive in America without a private car. Outside of a few urban areas, public transportation is virtually non-existent. Uber and Lyft are helping, but they, too, are largely limited to the larger urban areas. And they’re cheaper, but not cheap.

In China, by contrast, car ownership, and the expense that goes with it, are truly optional. There is cheap public transportation everywhere. And the country is laid out so that most people can pretty much walk or ride their bicycle to most places they need to go.

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Whatever mobility Americans believe they enjoy, in other words, depends entirely on their ability to buy and maintain a car. It’s an incredibly regressive tax scheme that the banks and car companies love. You might decide to move to New Mexico for the weather, and you enjoy the democratic freedom to do so, but you will need to buy a car first.

If you can’t afford a car, you are, as a practical matter, forced to live in an urban area, probably in the poorest neighborhoods. And those, of course, are the neighborhoods with the highest crime, the worst public schools, and the fewest government services. (Ask the poor if they feel free.)

I could go on, and I will in future posts, but your attention is waning. Suffice it to say that I stand by my observation. The US might be one of the least free countries in existence. That’s not to say that I don’t love it; I do. I choose to live here. What we call freedom, however, is really privilege, available primarily to the country’s elite and already privileged. The old saw that them that has, gets, has never been truer than it is in the US today.

I haven’t forgotten freedom of the press yet, I assure you. Suffice it to say for now that there is less freedom of the press in the US than in China. The only difference is who does the censoring.

This will become more obvious in the future as Google, Facebook, and Twitter increasingly act on their almost limitless power to shape the news. As is typical of the American illusion, of course, they will do it in the name of consumer protection and the noble effort to eliminate Russian interference and fake news. The effect, however, will be censorship, pure and simple.

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The Science of Social Media is a False Dilemma

Author Gary Moreau, aka Avam Hale in fiction

On the Internet, fake news and spurious intent are all the rage. The Russians are allegedly promoting it. Congress is investigating it. The alt-right is accused of it. Antifa, too. All of the evil “-ists” are polluting the world with it.

And we have science to blame. Or, more precisely, the scientific world view, which I, to be clear, fully embrace.

The scientific method is the progeny of deductive reasoning. It is the world of cause and effect. Data, and the patterns that reside within it, are its fuel and its purpose. Gather data; analyze it; discern the patterns; and apply them to larger and/or related questions and issues.

We call it intelligent reason. And while it is just what it claims to be, it will ultimately bring down the Internet and the culture and the economy we have built around it. The global economy will collapse. Geo-politics will be in turmoil. Culture itself will implode. And, yes, anarchy will prevail.


It’s simple, really. It is the duality—the paradox, if you will—of knowledge and its role in the acquisition of power. Knowledge liberates and oppresses. Knowledge is both the beginning and the end of the human tragedy of domination and enslavement.

The promise of the Internet is the promise of universal influence—the liberation of the influenced; the powerful and unstoppable rise of the everyperson. Everyone, in theory, gets a voice. Even Barney, sitting in his pajamas in Four Bears Village, North Dakota.

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It’s now obvious, however, that having a voice is not the same as being heard. Influence is peddled not by those with a voice, but those voices that hold sway over the crowd.

Knowledge is acquired. It does not emerge spontaneously. It is granted, passed along, and used to create an impression. It is the essence of influence. And it can be weaponized.

The idea of Russian propaganda operatives buying political ads on Facebook is easy to condemn, although it was obviously not so easy to detect and will be difficult to stamp out in the future. And this, in the end, will inevitably prove to be the tip of the iceberg of fake news and unsubstantiated influence.

Reasoned intelligence holds that knowledge is factual—it is both singular and all-inclusive. The reality of science, we believe, is one-dimensional; it can be discovered and shared through scientific discovery and affirmed through peer review.

What we call scientific truth, however, is often a false dilemma. Reality is seldom digital. It comes in many shades and can rarely be captured or expressed by either/or selections. And the fact that language itself is a mythical invention, not common to the universe like carbon and hydrogen, further compounds the problem and the risk.

Inevitably, the umbrella of fake news is expanded to include news that is misleading, unsubstantiated, or promotes a perspective that does not enjoy consensus. (Or it enjoys the consensus of the wrong people.)

Words become weaponized. And where there are weapons, there are armies. Information arms the conflict. And the world, via the Internet, becomes a battlefield without dimension or borders.

War ensues, and eventually the gatekeepers of information—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, etc.—are drawn into the battle. Divisions and defenses harden. The ante escalates. The apocalypse emerges.

It’s already happening. People are angry. They are disturbed. And it’s not some people, some of the time. It’s everyone, all of the time. Hate and frustration are 24/7. There are no holidays. There is no etiquette. Everyone and everything is fair game.

Facebook, for its alleged acceptance of Russian propaganda, is the current ground zero of the battle. But Google came under attack during the 2016 presidential election for allegedly helping Hillary Clinton through its all-powerful search algorithms, potentially influencing public opinion in a way the Russian propagandists can only dream of. (Google denies the accusations.)

Twitter has now joined the fray, recently blocking a video ad of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) because of its “inflammatory” reference to her opposition to the sale of fetal tissue for medical research. Amazon, for its part, allegedly removed customer reviews of Hilary Clinton’s new book, What Happened, that were unfavorable, driving the average customer rating for the book, which had hovered just above three stars in the early hours of public availability, up to the maximum five stars (4.8), where it remains.

To be clear, each of these companies states adamantly that they are politically neutral and, in the case of perceived censorship, are merely enforcing clear and established policy. And there is little doubt that they could, and likely will have to, mount an effective defense of their actions in a court of law.

But the court of law is not the court of public opinion. Will the sheep see the shepherd and his dog for what they are. And what will be the shepherd’s reaction? Will he give the sheep freedom or will he train another dog?

None of which has anything to do with evil intent. All intent is dichotomal. It is neither good nor bad; it is merely intent. The giant tech companies are NOT evil empires. They simply can’t help themselves and are likely unconscious of any corporate bias and influence. We have simply and voluntarily given them a degree of power that no person or institution in history has been able to wield without favor and bias. It is beyond our abilities. We are, by nature and nurture, creatures, both personal and institutional, drawn to influence—as both givers and takers.

At the heart of all things online is the algorithm, named after the ninth century mathematician, Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi. The magic of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter is the magic of algorithms, digital computations that provide answers to questions like those asked of a search engine or used to determine a ranking. They are not calculations, however, in the same sense that 2+2=4 is. They can answer a question but they are not inherently truthful. They can approximate truth, but hold no dominion over it.

Franklin Foer, the author of the seminal book, World Without Mind, makes the astute and far-reaching observation that, “The problem is that when we outsource thinking to machines, we are really outsourcing thinking to the organizations that run the machines.” All people have a perspective; all coders are people; all algorithms are inherently biased in one direction or another.

In the case of the Internet, moreover, the algorithm and the potential bias it empowers is hidden away from public scrutiny under the guise of intellectual property. Google does not tell us how it conducts its searches. Facebook doesn’t tell us the whole story as to how it loads our news feed or populates our potential friends list.

The bias feeds on itself. The meaning of words becomes more and more rigid and more partisan. Opinions harden. We seek shelter not just from aggressive behaviors but from thought that makes us uncomfortable or we do not wish to hear. We run for the shelter of safe places and safe friends who see the world just as we do. We demand that content providers provide trigger warnings so we can easily avoid content that we may not find comfortable to even be aware of.

It is no surprise, really, that social media is no longer social. A Tweet is both a witty meme and a cudgel with which to shame and destroy. Facebook is a community both to enjoy and to manipulate.

Reality isn’t even real any more. Selfies are staged and digitally altered. Even the social celebrities themselves complain that reality has been lost. Kim Kardashian, photographed while on holiday and allegedly without the services of her digital stylists, complained on national television recently that the picture taken and posted online is not of the “real” her. It’s her face and body, but it is not the allegedly digital body that her notoriety is built upon. “Like, I literally don’t look like this!”

The problem is not fake news. The problem is that technology has unleashed artificial forces that will eventually spiral out of control. Reality will become less and less real. Divisions will be hardened. The tech giants will more and more be forced to take sides. Divisions will harden further. Language and visual media will be further weaponized. The government will not have the courage or the political capital to step in.

Social media will implode. The stock market will crash. The world economy will come tumbling down. The post-apocalyptic dystopia, once the stuff of Netflix and video games, will be very real indeed.

If you doubt that, I challenge you to this simple test: Identify one single person who has a workable way to keep unsubstantiated information off the Internet. It can’t be done. Truth is, more often than not, a false dilemma. You will have your truth; I will have mine; but at some level each will be half of a duality.

In an article dated October 7, 2017, Bloomberg quoted Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, saying “It’s very difficult to spot fake news and propaganda using just computer programs,” warning that the fake news problem is far more complicated and dangerous than the public thinks and Congress would have us believe. Adding people, of course, otherwise called censors, will only make the problem worse.

If we need more evidence we have only to look at the challenge facing China, which already has one of the most heavily regulated and censored social media spaces in the world. According to Bloomberg, “the country’s [China’s] social media employ technology and armies of vetters to scour its services for undesirable content, which in China’s case goes beyond rumors and unsubstantiated claims to include any and all information deemed harmful to social stability. Yet even the best-funded online operators have difficulty keeping up…”

“The problem persists despite China having some of the strictest rules aimed at preventing the spread of ‘false news,’ ” Bloomberg continues. The Chinese government, in reaction, has established regulations forcing forum-posters to register with their real identities and threatening jail time for posting defamatory false information, two fairly straight forward regulations that seem unfathomable in the US.

Fake news is a problem with no solution because the digital space, in the end, is not organic to the universe. The Internet is a human convention in the same way that language is. We made it up.

In the case of the online world, however, there is only one and it spans the globe, empowering friend and foe alike. And we have integrated it so far into our economy, our culture, and our institutions of learning and commerce, the inevitable exposure of its fallacy will bring everything crashing down.

As a human convention, the Internet is, by definition, a scientific fraud. It is built on a human consensus that has no basis in the natural universe. Within such a world, truth itself is ultimately a false dilemma that will eventually be exposed for what it is; a convention of human thought that exists in a context; and which context is defined by an unavoidably biased perspective.

The promise of the Internet was that it would overcome the manipulative power of influence. In the end, however, it has merely empowered it. And it will continue to empower it to the point where influence brings about its own destruction.

The Internet has nuclearized influence. The post-apocalyptic dystopia cannot be far behind.

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The Bicycles are Back

Author Gary Moreau

In the late 1980s I was granted a special visa to travel to Guangzhou, then called Canton. I traveled by plane (a fairly antiquated one, at that) from Hong Kong.

We landed at an airport where the terminal seemed no larger than a modest house. Today’s Baiyun airport, by comparison, handles 60 million passengers per year, more than New York’s Kennedy airport.

Bureaucracy and security were in full view. My paper work was passed along a row of officials, none of whom apparently spoke English or asked a single question. They did, however, stamp with big, loud, mechanical stamps that just sounded very official. Today, China is one of the most automated and digital countries on the planet. Many cities are very close to a cashless economy and there isn’t much you can’t do with just a mobile phone.

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On the security side there were a lot of young men in military uniforms at the airport holding some fairly serious weaponry, and they had all apparently been trained to look menacing. We were supposed to put our hand luggage (in my case, a briefcase) on a conveyer for x-ray inspection, undoubtedly in search of contraband coming in from Hong Kong. I was so overwhelmed with the scene, however, that I didn’t see the sign directing everyone to do that until I was almost past. I continued to walk by at least three automatic weapons but no one said a word. (Probably because I was a foreigner, I know now.)

And then I walked out the door. There were bicycles and people everywhere. I still can’t put it in words. There were very few cars, although my official host, a representative of the Communist Party at some level, had a car, so I was a given a bird’s eye view of what a swarm of bicycles looks like.

What was most impressive, however, was the total lack of carnage. The cyclists were packed so close together that a single accident was sure to turn into a massive chain reaction. And there appeared to be no rules of the road. Cyclists ignored the cars, what few traffic signals there were, the pedestrians, and each other. And somehow it all worked.

Substitute cars for bicycles and you have the same scenario today. The traffic in places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou makes the traffic in any major American city pale by comparison. Imagine New York or Chicago with 25 million residents. And, to this day, while there are well-defined rules of the road, no one obeys them. Or even pretends. And the police don’t care.

This is China. It’s crowded and noisy. And it’s chaotic. (The Chinese don’t normally honor queues either.) But it works.

It works because the Chinese have learned how to cope with chaos. They live it every day. And yet things get done, usually at a speed Americans can’t quite fathom.

Bikes are now returning to the streets of China in the form of ride sharing platforms that work much like Uber and Lyft. It’s not a new idea. Bike sharing has been offered in major US cities for some time now.

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The difference, however, is transformative—or disastrous—depending on your perspective. China’s popular bike ride sharing platforms, like Ofo and Mobike, don’t require pickup, drop off, and storage stations. You find the bike wherever the last patron left it, but the app on your smart phone will tell you where that is. And you drop it off wherever you like. And that’s where it sits until someone else wants to use it.

The obvious lack of structure is ideal in solving the last mile problem. It really doesn’t matter where your last mile is. You don’t have to live next door to the subway entrance or bike rental station.

That same lack of structure, however, Americans have already noted, can create visual and pedestrian anarchy. Bikes will just pile up at the entrance to other forms of mass transit, and since there are no racks, and the Chinese typically reject rules, that can create an inconvenience for people just trying to get into or out of the tube.

This, I suspect, will be a much bigger hurdle for the Chinese ride sharing companies trying to expand into the US than they probably realize. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if these companies aren’t banned in otherwise “progressive” cities around the country. A recent article in The Washington Post claimed, in fact, “Opponents have branded Ofo and Mobike a menace, a plague and a public nuisance.”

It will start with the bureaucrats. In San Francisco the City Supervisor referred to China’s Bluegogo, which put 20,000 bikes on the street without permission in January, a “public nuisance,” and threatened legal action. (Of course. It’s the American solution.)

Even though these companies require no support from the cities themselves, since they don’t need racks or real estate, they will have to get a license to operate and they will, without a doubt, be excessively regulated. Local governments will try very hard to tell them where they can leave the bikes, offer the bikes, etc. And the police, of course, will be called upon to enforce the regulations, giving the men and women in blue yet another regulation to occupy their time and dilute their efforts to stop crime.

One of the reasons that the Chinese economy is so resilient is that the regulators don’t worry about the little stuff. If you want to start a small business, just start it. Sure, you technically need a license, but chances are that no one is going to bother you unless you give them a reason to. The police are more likely than not to patronize your business than shut it down.

And the reason that the police are able to keep a tight rein on violent crime is that they do little else. They don’t waste time writing out traffic tickets or fining some hapless predestination for jay walking. If you’re not threatening the Party or public security, the police are likely to leave you alone.

We Americans, on the other hand, are a nation of rule followers and enforcers. And rules are rules. There are no moral equivalents, if you will, when it comes to controlling what people do. Take a trip to your local DMV office and try to do something even remotely out of line with the rules if you doubt that.

The third, and perhaps most significant difference, however, is not that the Chinese won’t eventually see the need to do something about the problem. It is that the people impacted will do something about it. They will figure out some way to overcome the problem without throwing away the benefits.

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Americans, on the other hand, will, I suspect, look to the government to solve the problem. The government will inevitably over-reach, yet other people will get upset, and responsibility will just bounce around in that growing bin of social problems we just can’t seem to find a solution for.

The wealthy, of course, will get helicopter ride sharing apps or buy their own, if they can afford it. The mass middle will get prescriptions for higher doses of Xanax, and the poor will just shake their heads and get by.

Oh, one last thing. The regulators will tell you that they need to regulate these companies in the name of public safety and consumer protection. You will hear all kinds of dire concerns about the bikes being stolen, set afire in the middle of the street, or used in the commission of crime. These are all just red herrings. What is the price of climate change? What is the value of your time sitting in commuter traffic? What is the value of giving people just another simple way to get a little exercise without joining a fancy gym?

Ride on.

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Censoring the Internet

Author Gary Moreau

On August 25th, China’s Internet regulatory body, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CPC), issued new rules to further limit anonymity and false identity on the net. The move immediately launched an outcry of “political censorship” among Western journalists.

But is the hue and cry truly warranted?

There is little question that while the Internet has opened the world to the individual citizen, it has also delivered the citizen to the crook. And, it seems logical, identity thieves and such are probably using false identities. And while it is theoretically true that you could outlaw the thievery without the identity restrictions, that presumes there is at least some overriding benefit to society of anonymity or false identity to begin with.

But what is that overriding benefit?

If you spend any time at all on any part of the web where public comment is possible, you’ll surely find a whole lot of angst. A lot of the people who use the Internet as their personal soapbox are just plain mean, uninformed, or both. And a good many of them, in fact, hide behind their anonymity. They can sit in their pajamas and give voice to all of their pent up self-pity and perceived ill treatment by the world.

And what good does it do? It’s doubtful they feel any better as a result. They certainly aren’t contributing to the kind of informed public dialogue we should be having. And they’re burning up resources in the process that could be put to better use.

The Internet and its infrastructure and administration, of course, do require energy to operate. Most of it, one can safely guess, is of the fossil fuel variety, which, one should point out, these town criers are not personally paying for. The collective net is paying for them through taxes, ISP fees, and the price of goods and services we buy from companies that use the net to promote their business. However we talk about it, the net is a public resource in the same way that utilities and regulated broadcasters are.

The scarcest resource for most Americans, moreover, is time. And we are all forced to waste far too much of it on news feeds like Twitter scrolling through the seemingly endless tweets and comments made by users seeking little more than notoriety. The law of the inverse, which serves to give the individual a voice, works in reverse as well. That voice has to cut through a very big mound of useless and often tasteless clutter.

The regulation-free net, moreover, quite clearly supports the idea of moral equivalency between all voices. And isn’t that what most of us rejected when President Trump commented about events in Charlottesville? I can think of few cases, in fact, where moral equivalency is anything more than a tool of obfuscation.

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As political divisions in America widen and become increasingly bitter, it appears that a majority of Americans are beginning to agree. Even companies that profit from Internet access are starting to police themselves. In response to events in Charlottesville, companies like GoDaddy, Paypal, Airbnb, Google, GoFundMe, and Discord all took restrictive positions against hate groups that use or could use their services.

That’s a good thing, I believe, but do we really want to turn the Internet over to private police in the same way we have turned over much of our military to private companies that are essentially accountable to no one? I, for one, don’t know the name of the CEO of any of these companies, with the exception of Google, and would bet my last dollar I could not get even one of them to take my phone call to discuss the issue of censorship.

The government is hardly an unbiased arbiter. Politicians, we know from experience, are often driven by their self-interests. I think we can say, however, just as we say about the US judicial system; it’s better than the alternative.

To many Americans, of course, China represents that dreaded political alternative. The Communist Party of China is in control and will ultimately be the one to determine what can and cannot be on the Internet there. As an Internet user, however, I would rather fight a known agenda than a hidden one, which is, in fact, what’s happening in the US. Big money, in the end, is what drives American regulatory practices today.

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As I have noted many times before, moreover, China has a built in self-correction device unavailable here in the US. Many of the critics of China’s recent move to restrict anonymity and false identity have complained that the new regulations are both vague and potentially all encompassing.

But that’s the good news. It’s intentional. Local government officials, for the most part, will be left to interpret the regulations as they see fit given local circumstances. Users and their lawyers cannot hide behind the loopholes inevitable when the translation of regulations is literal, as it commonly is in the US.

Beijing can and will step in at times, of course, and the approach does open the door to rogue and arbitrary behavior. Nonetheless, the average citizen can, without too much effort, meet with local government officials to plead their case. I’ve personally done it many times with a relatively high success rate. I’ve never convinced the local DMV, on the other hand, to compromise even a little on the paperwork required to transfer vehicle ownership, for example.

Local government regulators don’t have that kind of discretion in the US. They are programmed to follow the rules to the letter, even if it’s clear that justice is not being served in any particular case. “I don’t make the rules” is the classic bureaucratic cop out in most liberal democracies.

A rare independently minded government official may decide to stand up for justice in the US from time to time. Because it is not the norm, however, that only serves to undermine faith in the rule of law. It’s far better not to have a regulation than it is to have one that isn’t enforced. In the US at least. That’s not the paradigm. In China it is to be expected and, as a result, works reasonably well.

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About the only benefit to protecting anonymity on the net that I can see is the protection it theoretically provides to the noble minded whistle blower. If the issue is important enough, of course, the anonymity is questionable anyway. The NSA or other government agency, we can assume, isn’t really restricted from stripping away anonymity when it wants to.

And, of course, there are other ways to both blow the whistle and to protect whistle-blowers. Honest public transparency, in fact, is one of the most effective ways to provide that protection.

In the end, I believe, Americans will see the need to regulate the Internet in the same way that Elon Musk and others have called upon the government to regulate artificial intelligence. They are really just two facets of the same issue.

In the meantime, I doubt that many Chinese are really worried about the new regulations. Some will be, and they will be given the microphone by Western journalists. Most of the Chinese web, however, will buzz along just as it has.

If hate and misinformation continues to dominate the Western Internet to the degree it does now, we might just have something to learn from the Chinese Communists. God forbid.

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Policing the Internet

Before Beginning: I’d like to bring your attention to my newest blog. It’s called, simply, Understanding. You can find it at You will find the same style of writing and kaleidoscopic perspective but the topics will be broader and the posts will be far shorter. (500 words max) At the table of food for thought, more of a snack than a meal.

Regarding this blog, Understanding China, I will continue to maintain it for now.

Apple recently came under fire for removing VPN apps that had not been certified by the government from its Chinese app store. That unleashed a torrent of complaints from privacy watchdogs and China critics in general.

Most Americans are unfamiliar with VPN’s, the techno-speak for virtual private networks that conceal your IP address from the websites you visit and allow users to bypass government firewalls. Most large companies use them to protect their internal networks.

In China, the Great Firewall, as it’s commonly referred to, prevents access to all pornography and Western social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Russia’s Red Web performs a similar function and within the last year has blocked access to LinkedIn, the popular social website for business professionals.

China and Russia are far from alone. Saudi Arabia also has firewalls that prevent its 32 million citizens from accessing pornography or other content that the government has deemed to be inappropriate. Many countries, moreover, block website service providers in order to protect local telecoms or promote local social media. The latter censorship obviously has economic and tax revenue implications, but many foreign governments argue a national security interest as well. They don’t want their social media and the data it thrives on to be controlled by servers sitting outside the country.

Thailand bans YouTube, as does Turkey. Both Singapore and South Korea, two democracies who are staunch US allies, block Skype and other VOIP (voice over Internet providers). Belize blocks Vonage, Skype, Google Talk, and MSN Messenger. Even one of the major ISP’s and largest landline telecom in Mexico, Telmex, of Carlos Slim fame, reportedly makes it difficult to access Vonage and Skype.

A VPN can generally get you around government filters but, like any service provider, there are levels of quality and ability. And it’s a bit of a cat and mouse game as the VPN techies and government censors chase each other around the Internet.

I know because I used a private VPN when I lived in China, mainly to access blocked US news sites like the New York Times. While I tended to use the BBC and China’s own English-language CCTV for most of my news, I did crave a Maureen Dowd column from time to time.

I also know that the Chinese government was fully aware of the fact that I used a VPN. You assume the government knows pretty much everything there, although I sincerely doubt it knows half as much about its citizens as the US government knows about its own. In places like China and Russia, you see, people assume there is no privacy, so they take precautions. Most of my American neighbors, on the other hand, believe their communication is private and appear to take few precautions as a result. Perhaps that is why stolen identities are so easy to come by here. Another example of life’s great dichotomies—with individual liberty comes the potential for even greater abuse of those liberties.

The real irony here is just how upset Americans are about Apple’s compliance with Chinese law. As Apple’s Tim Cook has noted, Apple is merely following the law, as it does in every country it does business in. More than anything else I think the reaction to Apple’s policy is uniquely American—and another dichotomy. We pride ourselves on being the freest society on the planet. We are, however, a nation of rule followers. We can, in fact, be a bit retentive about it at times.

If someone violates a queue in the US, consciously or not, tempers will surely flair. And while our entertainment industry deals in the currency of raunchy sexuality most of the time, Americans are considered, on the whole, to be a bit prudish. We don’t touch much. While holding hands with friends and colleagues in public is common throughout most of the Western world, it is still relatively uncommon here outside of amorous relationships. When President Clinton was revealed to have channeled Freud with a young White House intern, similarly, many Europeans wondered what all the fuss was about.

The Chinese are much more like the French than the Americans where rules are involved. Queues are for the meek and sexually repressed; traffic signals are there to mark when best to step on the accelerator.

When my wife, daughters, and I visited a new treetop adventure park here in the US recently, we were given extensive instruction in how to use the “smart” carabiners on the harnesses provided, which electronically force you to keep one safety line attached at all times. When climbing a short rope ladder up to one of the tree stands on the course, nonetheless, my very fit Chinese wife chose not to attach the three security clips on her harness to the security cable provided. There was, in her mind, zero chance she would fall, and even if she did it would be from a modest height that was unlikely to result in serious injury.

My daughters, of course, quickly looked to me to put things right in the universe. While I privately lamented the contemporary American unwillingness to accept any and all risk in life, I did oblige and quietly explained to my wife that they would ask us to leave if she didn’t follow their safety protocol. “This is Mei Guo (America),” I noted. She got it.

That’s relevant here because it provides some context to the Chinese government’s new VPN regulation and Apple’s response to it. “Cracking down” is a relative term to most citizens and their governments. Being the American rule follower that I am, I refused to use a VPN during my first six months or so in China, out of concern that it would violate already existing restrictions on their use. It was members of the foreign diplomatic corps, however, who convinced me it was okay. The government doesn’t really care if you use a VPN for non-political reasons, they noted. It just wants to “slow people down” in case they are planning to use a VPN to incite civil or political unrest.

I became convinced when I upgraded the Internet connection in my home to broadband. I had a wireless network set up in my home, of course, and when the technician from the state-owned Internet service provider came to install the new connection he noted that it was against the law for him to provide such a connection to a personal network of more than one computer.

After he left I called the young Chinese guy I had used to set up the network to seek his advice and he instructed me to go to the router and tell him what I saw. “It is as you left it,” I noted, “except that the cable that the technician installed is lying next to it.” “As I suspected,” he said. “Plug that cable into the receptacle that it is closest to it on the router.”

Voila, I had broadband on my wireless network. The technician had followed the letter of the law but knew that I would use the network, decided that my family was probably not out to plot anything sinister, and courteously made it easy for me. And, no, I paid him nothing.

The point being that I believe that Western privacy advocates are making much ado about nothing here. As we Westerners are prone to do, they are failing to consider context. In the Western context, most decisions are binary—the choices are either/or. This is a false dilemma, however, since reality generally exists in an “and/but” context. Most choices come in a wide array of shades. This one is no exception.

I am not in China at the moment, so I don’t pretend to know what is actually happening on the ground. I am fairly confident, however, that the Chinese government is not so much changing the rules as it is just updating its policy to slow down the rapid proliferation of VPNs in light of new technology and new entrants to the field.

I am not sure I know anyone other than an American, however, who would go to the Apple store to download a VPN app. That’s just a little too obvious to liberty realists.

Apple is smart to comply with the new regulation. It has a huge business in China and wants to stay on the right side of its regulations. Don’t fret for Maureen Dowd’s Chinese fans, however. I’m sure they can still get their fix.

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Forever a Foreigner

Author Gary Moreau

Dr. Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian-born Caucasian scholar who has lived and worked in China since 2004, speaks Mandarin, embraces Chinese culture, and is married to a Chinese woman, recently wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal lamenting the fact that his Chinese friends and colleagues, despite all of these facts, do not consider him to be Chinese. In the eyes of the Chinese, he concludes, “… to be Chinese is to belong to a race.”

The over-riding point of the article is that China would benefit by embracing a leadership meritocracy without regard to ethnicity in all arenas, including politics, science, academia, business, and medicine. It’s a valid point, of course, that applies to virtually every country, including the US and Canada. And, as he insightfully notes, China has done just that at certain high points in its long and storied history.

It is his lament over remaining a foreigner in the eyes of the Chinese that appears to have received the most attention, however. And, not surprisingly, many commentators have taken him to task for confusing, in their opinion, race and ethnicity with identity. He might appreciate Chinese culture, they argue, but he can’t fully appreciate the historical Chinese identity because his own historical identity is one of white European privilege.

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Having lived and worked in China for almost a decade I understand Dr. Bell’s sense of eternal foreignness. I’ve written about it many times in this blog and in my books. I don’t, however, share his pain. I, too, have a Chinese wife and have a great appreciation for Chinese culture. In her eyes, however, she is married to a foreigner and that will be her perspective until the day she dies. To my Chinese friends I am likewise a friend, but a foreign friend nonetheless.

I am more than accepting of that reality—I actually applaud it—because I don’t believe the perspective has anything to do with race, ethnicity, OR identity. I think it comes down to the fundamental difference between Western and Eastern culture.

Western culture is based on a linear world view and the deductive logic that is at the heart of both science and monotheistic religion. More than anything else, Westerners believe in the linear and singular linkage of cause and effect, which is why a Westerner like Dr. Bell might lament non-assimilation. To our way of interpreting reality there has to be a reason for it, and in the case of cultural non-assimilation, it has to be a prejudicial one.

The same is true in reverse. There are many Americans who believe that foreign assimilation is the cornerstone of American greatness. If only the foreigners spoke our language and adopted our customs, their thinking goes. If only they were more like us everything would be fine.

The Chinese, quite simply, don’t have that perspective, but not for the reasons Dr. Bell suggests. They don’t understand the question. Their model of logic is much more circular. They do not put so much emphasis on the singular and direct linkage of cause and effect. I have a big Gallic nose and round eyes and was born in the US of Caucasian parents of French and Irish descent. Of course I am a foreigner. What else would I be?

The good news is that while a foreigner will always be a foreigner in the eyes of a Chinese person, that is a statement of reality, not a judgment of character or worth. It is no more pejorative than my observation that a dog is a dog.

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There have surely been Chinese over the course of history that held foreigners in low esteem. There are some still. I’m not sure that came from our facial features or our language and place of birth, however. The fact that a colonial foreign power flooded their country with opium in the 19th Century, and even went to war to insure a trade their own country had outlawed, or that foreigners have repeatedly invaded their country, pillaged their land, and treated their people in sub-human ways, surely has something to do with it.

Frankly, I would question my wife’s mental health if she started to refer to me as her Chinese husband or herself as my American wife. I certainly wouldn’t cheer it as a victory for American assimilation. American greatness is a mindset and a set of shared values. It is neither ethnicity nor identity.

We should classify people in the ways that really matter. The way you look, the color of your skin, and even your historical or cultural identity don’t really define who you are. Identity politics doesn’t promote identity issues in the end. It takes identity off the table of public discourse. The lines of identity are hardened, not erased.

There is much about American history, including slavery, Vietnam, the McCarthy hearings, Japanese internment, and many of our historical attitudes about race and gender, that I don’t identify with. That doesn’t make me any less American any more than my shared identity with much of Chinese culture makes me Chinese.

I hope my wife and Chinese friends never judge me by how I dress, or the language I speak, or even my admiration for China and its rich history. I would much rather be the foreigner with the big nose who is a person with strong personal values of integrity and compassion that they are proud to call friend and husband.

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Gary Moreau’s fictional novel written under the pen name of Avam Hale.

The Fallacy of the Obamacare Debate

Author Gary Moreau

You can’t get online in the US these days without being confronted with news about healthcare. I refer to it as news with an abundance of generosity, however, as there really isn’t anything to report. A lot of dust in the air. A lot of angst. And whichever side of the issue you come down on, a whole lot of misleading claims and predictions.

For the nine years that I lived in China I did so with what is not-so-fondly called a single-payer system. People who really hate the idea refer to it as “nationalized” health care, suggestive, as it is, of military troops storming the hospitals and doctor offices. It’s a visual that’s sure to get a rise out of voters in America, although the real irony is that it is American troops that do most of the storming around the world. (Not a judgment. Just an observation.)

During my nine years in China my family had health care emergencies and needs very typical to a family with young children. My daughters had concussions, athletic injuries, and the normal array of fevers and skin irritations. I had surgery within six months of my arrival, ultimately had a stroke, and had the normal barrage of tests, including a colonoscopy. I even spent some time with a Chinese psychiatrist born and raised there. (With some training at Harvard, mind you.)

I speak, in other words, from experience. And I can say, without hesitation, that the medical care I received while in China was very much on a par with the medical care I receive here in the US. There were a few differences, but none that compromised the quality of the care I received.

In my own experience I found Chinese doctors, for example, were generally cautious about prescribing drugs and focused more on lifestyle and personal habits of nutrition and exercise. My Chinese neurologist, on one occasion, told me that the American pharmaceutical company that made the drug she was prescribing for my cholesterol recommended an initial dose of 80 mg. She thought 10 mg was sufficient for most people, however, and suggested we start there. It made sense to me. And 10 mg did the trick, coupled with a couple of tweaks to diet and lifestyle.

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Critics will be quick to point out their perceived “gotcha,” of course. Yes, I went to a private hospital that many Chinese could not afford. They weren’t barred, however. Anyone could seek medical treatment there and many Chinese made that choice.

But therein lies the fallacy of the current health care debate in America. Critics of a one-payer solution, and Obamacare in general, always position their arguments in terms of choice and quality. Neither, however, has much of anything to do with the actual health care you receive. The only question is who is going to pay for it. And how much?

The Chinese do not get a free ride, contrary to popular perception. If they aren’t covered by the one-payer system funded by taxes on wages, they pay out of pocket. And pay they must – up front. Hospitals are under no obligation to treat anyone without the money to pay. And they won’t. At my own company, which operated its factory 24/7, we kept a cash box with enough money in it that the off-shift supervisors could take an injured employee to the hospital and pay for their care. The hospitals don’t give credit, even to US multi-national companies. (All patients ultimately pay for the cost of credit, of course, even in the US.)

There is no free lunch in life. To the extent the government covers the cost of health care the taxpayers ultimately have to pick up the tab. If they don’t pay it directly through taxes (e.g., the Medicare tax in the US), they pay it through the cost of the goods and services they purchase, or the government allows them to kick the burden down the road to future generations. However you disguise the cost, however, the citizens pay it in the end. The capitalists pay it to the same extent the socialists do. It’s just less transparent in the “free market” universe.

That’s why it strikes me as a bit ironic that there is so much venom directed at Obamacare’s boldest feature—mandatory participation.

The whole purpose of insurance is to spread the cost of major unpredictable costs over a large pool to minimize the potential impact on those who suffer such a loss. If your house burned down, for example, you probably couldn’t afford to replace it, unless you’re a one-percenter. You buy fire insurance, as a result, so if you do suffer the loss of your home the insurance company steps in and you don’t have to live in the street. If nobody bought fire insurance until their house actually burned down, however, there would be no need for fire insurance. Having insurance would be the same as not having it.

And, by the way, you don’t really have the right to opt-out of buying fire insurance. If you borrow money to buy the house, which most people are forced to do, the bank will demand it. They may even buy it directly and just charge you a monthly escrow fee. Even renting doesn’t get you out of the obligation. You just pay the cost of the fire insurance in your monthly rent. The bank isn’t the government, but it is empowered to charge you by the government. Either way, you have no choice.

When it comes to insurance, moreover, mandatory participation is already a fact of life here in the US on a few fronts. All but a few states make automotive liability insurance mandatory. You can’t register a car without it. There are no exceptions, short of breaking the law. Even those states that don’t mandate insurance do mandate some form of bond or impose a tax to cover the exposure.

I’m sure it’s true that the wealthy pay more for their car insurance. They probably take out better coverage and tend to drive more expensive cars. The mandatory cost of the right to own an automobile in the US, nonetheless, is still highly regressive in the same way that the sales tax is. In terms of impact, the poor pay more for the right to drive and shop.

The real issue, when it comes to healthcare, is not who pays, but how much it costs. And in the US our medical care costs more than it does anywhere else on the planet, however you measure it. And that is not just so that you can have access to better-educated doctors. My doctors in China, all Chinese, were often trained at the same universities that your local doctor was.

There are differences, however, that do ultimately impact the cost of the healthcare we receive. The biggest difference in the cost of healthcare in the US and elsewhere is the cost of healthcare administration here in the US.

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Private sector competition is supposed to drive down costs. And it probably does, when all else is equal. It isn’t. What differentiates the American healthcare system from all others is the amount of government oversight and regulation that already exists, even in the absence of a single-payer insurance system.

That regulation is not all bad. Life is full of dichotomies. What’s good is almost always not so good when viewed from a different perspective or in different circumstances. The FDA regulatory process for the approval of new drugs, for example, exists to protect consumers. The FDA is charged with the responsibility to insure that new drugs are safe and effective. And that’s a good thing. The downside is that the lengthy approval process is built into the cost of the drug once it is finally approved, drugs aren’t developed for people who need them for a disease that is not common enough to warrant the investment, or, in the case of a new life threatening disease, the afflicted may not survive long enough for the drug to get approved.

The same thing happens when states decide to license the professions. They do it in the name of consumer protection, of course, but the practical effect is to drive down competition and drive up costs. And, of course, the states make a lot of money from licensing. Most states, as a result, license every professional from brain surgeons to barbers. In my own state of Michigan barbers must receive (and pay for) 2,000 hours of training at an “accredited” school, a requirement I am sure the accredited schools pushed for and which ultimately gets passed on in the cost of a haircut.

And, of course, the government regulates the services that those professionals provide. It is very common in China, for example, even in the most prestigious private hospitals, for nurses to perform many of the common tasks reserved exclusively for highly trained doctors in the US. But the nurses don’t empty bedpans. Your family can do that for you. Or you can hire someone at a fraction of what you would ultimately pay a nurse who has to pay for his or her education to do it.

I could talk about the impact the lawyers and their litigious clients have on the cost of US healthcare, of course. Perhaps another day.

It is ironic, though, how much we talk about choice and transparency here in the US. In the end we have far less of both than our politicians and their lobbyists and issue activists like to tell us we have. Most of it is just talk in the end. It’s loud, for sure, but it’s neither transparent nor factual much of the time.

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Gary Moreau’s fictional novel written under the pen name of Avam Hale.

The US or China? The Latest Pew Survey Might Surprise You

Author Gary Moreau

According to data released by the World Bank, China’s economy is now three times the size of Germany’s, more than twice the size of Japan’s, and nearly five times the size of India’s. The US economy, however, the world’s largest, remains 65% bigger than that of the Middle Kingdom.

That’s not, however, what a surprising number of the citizens of America’s top allies believe. According to a recent Pew Research poll across 38 countries, a majority of the citizens in seven out of ten West European countries, including Germany, the UK, and France, believe that China is now the world’s leading economic power. Only one-in-four Germans picked the US for economic leadership. Even our cousins to the north—the Canadians—chose China over the US. And the residents of Australia picked China by a two-to-one margin.

What gives? In addition to being allies, these are some of the most educated and informed citizens on the planet?

Publicity, of course, plays a big role. China has gotten a lot of favorable press of late, most recently in terms of its leadership in the arena of climate change following the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. And China came up frequently during the 2016 presidential campaign, often serving as the bogeyman for the “America First” rally cry that put Trump in the White House.

Publicity is publicity. As showman extraordinaire, P.T. Barnum, is credited with saying, “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”

With all of that publicity, and all of the anxious handwringing about China’s emergence as a global leader, in fact, it is a bit ironic that a majority of US citizens picked the US in Pew’s survey. Forty-five percent, however, didn’t, yet another example of the divide plaguing the US at the moment. China got the nod for economic leadership among 35% of Americans and 10% picked Japan or the EU in equal proportion.

I’m not sure anyone can explain these results. One of the laws of the universe that I have come to accept as both universal and infallible, however, is the law of unintended consequence. Things seldom go as planned. For every action there is a reaction, to paraphrase Newton; but as often as not it is not the one anticipated or intended.

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During the time of British colonial rule of India, the British government, a popular anecdote goes, became alarmed at the growing population of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. A bounty was offered for dead snakes and, at first, the population of cobras appeared to decline. Eventually, however, people began to breed the snakes for the income they could receive from killing them. The government ultimately realized what was happening and discontinued the bounty program. At which time the breeders simply released their now-worthless snakes, greatly increasing the threat that was the original target.

That’s just one of thousands of examples of unintended consequence, of course. Be careful what you wish for, my mother used to say; you’ll probably get it. That’s certainly been my experience.

I have to admit, therefore, that I find one of the great ironies of the Pew survey to be that many of the countries that chose China over the US are thought to be served by the most independent and trustworthy media in the world—the Western media.

At one level that seems quite counter-intuitive, of course. One can easily rationalize that a free press—the Fourth and Fifth Estates, as some define them—is the cornerstone of an informed society. The media makes that case on a daily basis. And it’s a pretty sound case, for sure.

There are, however, two sides of every coin.

It was Canadian scholar, Marshall McLuhan (1911-80), who said, “The medium is the message.” Contrary to popular misconception, however, McLuhan was not referring to the media as we think of it today. He defined a medium as an extension of ourselves and noted that once new technology became commonplace it is generally true that the impact is both good and bad. The automobile, for example, is an extension of our feet. And it has provided great benefits in terms of travel and convenience, but it has also given us air and noise pollution, traffic fatalities, and contributed to an increasingly overweight population.

Life is full of dichotomies. Understanding that duality is the key to understanding most things, including China and business, as I have argued in the first two volumes of the Understanding series of books I authored. (Both are available on Amazon and the third volume, Understanding Life, will be out soon.)

The Russians got it wrong, by the way, although Russia is not generally known for its media independence. Perhaps that’s just another dichotomy. While an independent media has the freedom to sell its agenda to the citizenry of Western Europe, the Russian media does not. The result, nonetheless, is the same—six of one, half dozen of the other.

The Mexicans did pick the US, as you might expect—or not. Colombians got it right, too, although it might be interesting to get their take on what powers the US economy.

The country that picked the US most often was South Korea, followed by Japan and Israel, all key allies of the US. And Vietnam and Hungary picked the US with the same frequency as Americans did.

Who knows what it all means. Perception is everything, however, and in that regard China’s stock is certainly rising. Or is America’s falling? You’ll have to decide that for yourself, but it would appear that some of America’s strongest allies, at least, have their doubts.

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Another excerpt from Understanding Business, now available at Amazon in paper and Kindle formats (direct links provided below):


With our blind obsession with process, it should be no surprise to any business leader that many customers consider the entities from which they purchase goods and services to be inflexible and insensitive to the customer’s needs. The employees, taught in much the same way that Pavlov taught his dogs, are stuck in the middle. Many inevitably fall back on process—the established policies—as a way to impersonalize the angst of the customer and defuse a negative situation. Of course, it seldom works.

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Hong Kong: 20 Years On

Author Gary Moreau

July 1, 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong and the surrounding islands known as the New Territories to Chinese control. President Xi Jinping himself, in the company of his wildly popular wife, Peng Liyuan, spoke at the commemoration ceremony during his first state visit to the autonomous region.

There was little to no rancor in the streets, as some Western media predicted, and perhaps hoped, there would be. It would appear that the Umbrella Movement of 2014 has lost much of its momentum, although there was a modest march for diverse causes—some having nothing to do with democracy—after Xi’s departure.

Many Western commentators, of course, continue to believe that the passion for American-style democracy runs deep in Hong Kong and that any reduction in crowd size was more a function of government oppression than a loss of enthusiasm. As one CNN contributor put it, Xi’s speech “shows just how deeply Beijing misunderstands Hong Kong.”

As I have maintained in prior posts, I continue to believe that any dissatisfaction with Chinese rule in Hong Kong is more likely to be economic and social than political. Just as many Americans have taken to the streets to voice their dissatisfaction with Washington, I have no doubt that there are some, if not a material many, whatever that means, who would like Hong Kong to enjoy more political autonomy.

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Political desire, however, more often than not, fails to recognize the dichotomy of our existence. Politics is but one thread in a multi-dimensional tapestry. Citizens around the globe inevitably want to eat their cake and have it too when it comes to politics, which is one of the reasons that politicians the world over are so universally unpopular with the citizens they dole the cake out to.

As is often the case where news is concerned today, moreover, any assessment of the pro-democracy sentiment in Hong Kong is conjecture in the end. Opinions may be supported by personal observations, but observations are greatly influenced by perspective and are conclusive only in a very relative sense. As always, I think it more informative to dig into the context in which current events are unfolding.

Hong Kong was incorporated into China during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), where it remained until the Treaty of Nanking (August 29, 1842) ceded control to Britain, marking the end of the First Opium War (FOW).

The FOW was fought over Britain’s right to sell opium to Chinese citizens, a trade that provided the British with precious silver that they needed to fund trade with India. Recognizing the negative social impact of opium addiction, the Qin rulers attempted to outlaw the use of opium in China, a move the British monarchy had already taken in the UK. Fearing the loss of its primary supply of silver, the British invaded, and ultimately won. And with the military victory came the spoils of war, allowing the UK to add Hong Kong to the colonial holdings of the British Empire.

Tensions with China never really went away, however, and the British were constantly worried that China would re-take that which had been taken from them. In 1898, therefore, at the Second Convention of Peking (the former name of Beijing), the British secured a 99-year lease on the New Territories that made up the border between Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the mainland.

That, of course, was the lease that expired in 1997, at which time Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided to return the entire colony, including Hong Kong and Kowloon, the two islands at the heart of what most Westerners know as Hong Kong.

The economic integration of Hong Kong and the mainland, however, was already well underway. The Bank of China Tower, the Hong Kong headquarters of the Beijing-based and state-owned financial powerhouse that has symbolically and literally dominated the Hong Kong skyline ever since, was finished in 1989, nearly a decade before the handover. It was built, in large part, to facilitate the economic integration of Hong Kong and the mainland that was already well underway.

I traveled to Hong Kong during the Bank of China Tower construction as my employer at the time sourced a lot of products there. And at that time Hong Kong was very much a manufacturing center of Asia, although the transition to becoming a global financial and trade powerhouse had begun. Hong Kong companies were already moving their production to the New Territories and to the mainland province of Guangdong, Hong Kong’s immediate neighbor and the most prosperous of China’s twenty-two provinces.

At the dawn of China’s political and economic opening in the late 1980s I was actually granted permission to travel into Mainland China. The trip was arranged by the owner of a Hong Kong supplier and my host was a Communist Party official in GuangZhou, then called Canton. The two men were brothers, a relatively common business scenario at the time, from what I could tell.

Today Hong Kong is a glittering world-class city. It’s one of my personal favorites and I highly recommend a visit if you haven’t made it yet. You can expect London and New York prices, but it’s delightfully easy to get around, the accommodations and restaurants are both plentiful and outstanding, and nearly everyone speaks some English, many fluently. (With a British accent, in most cases.)

Almost nothing is manufactured in Hong Kong anymore. It does, however, export 55 billion USD to the Chinese mainland, almost all of it imported from outside of China. And it imports 273 billion USD from China , most of which gets exported to destinations around the world.

Guangdong Province, Hong Kong’s neighbor whose residents typically speak Cantonese, the Chinese dialect of Hong Kong, has an annual GDP of 1.1 trillion USD, more than 10% of China’s total. Hong Kong, while wildly prosperous, has an annual GDP of less than 1/3 of that, and most of that is a result of the aforementioned trade with the mainland.

And what about the social costs to the residents of Hong Kong’s 7 million residents? One of the critiques I recently read noted, in a rather critical tone, that an influx of non-HK-Chinese is making it harder for Hong Kongers to gain access to health care and education.

There is little doubt that mainland Chinese are seeking access to the world-class services offered in Hong Kong. But accessing the services of a neighboring metropolis is universal. New York City, Chicago, London, and Sydney all experience the same enhanced demand for what services they offer from surrounding areas. The only difference is that these urban centers have had more time to accommodate the demand.

The same opportunity, moreover, is benefiting the Hong Kongese. For the 9 years I lived in Beijing my daughters attended one of the best international schools in the world. And over that nine-year period the student population became increasingly Asian in its roots. And guess what, many of those students were from Hong Kong.

The city of Shenzhen, a metropolis of 11 million people that many consider to be the Silicon Valley of China, sits less than 25 miles away from Hong Kong in Guangdong Province. That’s closer than New Rochelle, in Westchester County, is to New York City. It’s hard not to think of both as part of the greater metropolis, boundaries aside.

Governing is tricky business, as Americans know well. There will always be political dissent in places like Hong Kong, just as there is in virtually any country in the world. And the Western media, no doubt, will continue to give it a voice. Whether that’s news or the cloaked pursuit of its own political agenda is for each of us to decide.

As a practical matter, however, it is no more likely that Hong Kong will be granted complete political independence from China than Houston or San Francisco will be allowed complete autonomy from Washington. Or that a sufficient number of Hong Kongese will even want it to.

Setting all of our opinions aside, that is the context of the matter at the moment.

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Copyright © 2017 Gary Moreau


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A tree exists in context.

Context is everything. That’s nothing new. It has been this way since humankind first invented language as a means to communicate.

Because language is a human invention, unlike sunshine and rain, it is imprecise. Context provides clarity of meaning. This is particularly true in a language like Mandarin where words can take on very different meanings depending on how they are being used—their context.

I am fluent in almost every language in the right context. If I am on an airplane anywhere in the world and the flight attendant rolls the beverage cart down the aisle, hands me a bag of peanuts and asks me a question, it doesn’t matter what language he or she uses. I know with certainty that he or she is asking me what I would like to drink.

Context is particularly important given the reality of what Buddhists call emptiness. It is not a state of nothingness, but recognition of the fact that everything in the universe is interconnected. No action or behavior exists in isolation.

There is a dichotomy to the interconnection of everything. It can be used as both a tool of understanding and a tool of disinformation.

I was reminded of this reality recently when I read two news accounts on a single day regarding Chinese intentions. One article related to the one belt, one road initiative, a cornerstone of President Xi Jinping’s economic and political agendas. The other had to do with China’s willingness to help satisfy US objectives in North Korea.

Both articles painted a rather negative context around a single word—self-interest. The one belt, one road article essentially argued that the investment of trillions of dollars in the infrastructure of Southeast Asia was a Chinese ruse to build hegemony in the region and to isolate implied rival, India.

The second article challenged China’s willingness to de-nuclearize North Korea both because China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and because if a war between South Korea/US and the hermit kingdom were to come to pass, China did not want to invite North Korean aggression, their common border extending 880-miles (1,420 km).

Language itself is a dichotomy that derives much of its meaning from context. Meaning is seldom obvious without it. A single word can be laudatory or pejorative.

The unbridled pursuit of self-interest is the very foundation of the free market capitalism that the US economy is built upon. It is the “invisible hand” that Adam Smith used to describe the market forces of self-interest that generate free market competition—the golden nectar of capitalism itself.

When used to describe those that we wish to characterize in an unflattering light, however, self-interest becomes an adjective laden with implications of selfishness, arrogance, and immorality. It suggests one is not interested in what is fair or right—or compassionate.

But isn’t self-interest at the very core of democracy? If not, what then is identity politics? Why do political candidates spend so much time and effort articulating specific policy issues? Why do political debate moderators focus almost exclusively on questions of how and what? And why does experience matter, as virtually every political incumbent would have us believe?

Freud argued that all of life is personal. We are the lead character in all of our dreams and the monster in all of our nightmares. This is the context in which we live our lives, not the barrier to living a good life.

Of course the Chinese act out of self-interest. So do the Americans, the Russians, and virtually every member of the European Union. Even Switzerland’s famous neutrality flows from self-interest. The citizens of all of these countries also breathe and require food and water to survive. What’s the point?

Since self-interest is universal, it can only acquire a negative connotation in a certain context. And that context, more often than not, is hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy is the context of delusion or worse. It is a blight on human integrity and the search for truth. It is the weapon of prejudice and conceit.

Researcher Albert Mehrabian performed several studies in the late 1960’s that established that the words themselves play a minor role in the effectiveness of communication. Tone and body language, he concluded, were far more important.

Both tone and body language are components of context. As is intent and, most importantly, so are the other words used in the communication. A tree is a tangible and singular thing. But it exists in the context of the weather, the soil conditions, altitude, and the landscape in which it resides. A tree, in other words, is just a tree in the narrowest sense.

So, too, is every news story ever written or reported. The words employed are secondary to the context in which they are used. Every news reporter, every commentator, and every editor, works within a context. It’s a given.

And that’s okay so long as we, the readers and listeners, don’t ever forget that universal truth.

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