A shift in rhetoric

North Korea propaganda poster

Source: libertyherald.co.kr

Another sign that the move toward a US-North Korea rapprochement may be more than just “a triumph of showbiz over substance,” as some would have it:

Nix the nuclear warheads, cue the doves.

The North Korean government is erasing much of its anti-U.S. propaganda following dictator Kim Jong-un’s forays onto the world stage.

Gone are the posters depicting the U.S. as a “rotten, diseased, pirate nation” and promising “merciless revenge” on American forces for an imagined attack on the totalitarian country.

In their place are cheery messages touting praising the prospects for Korean reunification and the declaration Kim signed in April with South Korean President Moon Jae-in promising “lasting peace,” according to reports.

Too early to tell where this may lead, of course, but it’s certainly a welcome development.

Breaking free of Chinese suppliers could take “months”

Nobody said a breakup would be painless, but it may be a lot easier for the US to cut its dependency on Chinese suppliers than is generally assumed. From the blog of trade expert Alan Tonelson (emphasis mine):

Throwaway lines are among my favorite aspects of opinion writing, largely because in a simple, usually brief, and almost by definition understated sentence or two they can thoroughly debunk or at least gravely weaken shibboleths that have reigned virtually unchallenged for decades. And Financial Times columnist Rana Foroohar had a doozy yesterday.

As is well known by anyone who’s been closely following the development of President Trump’s trade policies and the uproar they’ve triggered, some of the biggest fears surrounding the prospect of the “trade wars” they’re deemed all too likely to ignite concern the impact on global supply chains. As explained this morning by Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman;

“[C]orporations have invested trillions based on the assumption that an open world trading system, permitting value-added chains that sprawl across national borders, was going to be a permanent fixture of the environment. A trade war would disrupt all these investments, stranding a lot of capital.” […]

Just how fast they took place, and can still take place, is where Foroohar’s column comes in. In yesterday’s column, she echoed my point about supply chain movements that are either already underway or being contemplated:

“Over the long term, China and the US are headed towards regional supply chains for high-growth technologies of the future.” She continued – consistent with the conventional wisdom, “But in the short term, the interdependencies will be difficult to untangle.”

Then, however, came the kicker – which received no special emphasis from the author at all:

“Several executives who supply Fortune 500 companies have told me it would take months if not years for the biggest US companies to break completely free of Chinese components.”

To repeat: Months – and at the outside years – for many companies to marginalize China’s role in particular in global supply chains. And then remember the reward: Greatly diminishing China’s still-burgeoning influence over the American economy and over the broader global economy, and in the process blunting the growing threat it poses to U.S. security interests both in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world.

Axios cites me

piece in Axios discussing a report on the precipitous decline of Chinese investment in the US in 2017, and what it means:

When Chinese investment in U.S. companies plunged by 83% last year, it was the result of Beijing’s crackdown on capital. But it also reflected a reckoning for four Chinese titans who Beijing cut down to size, according to new research. […]

  • But, but, but: When Ma looked at the individual investments, she saw that just four companies — what MacroPolo calls the Group of 4 — accounted for 61%, or $34 billion, of China’s entire 2016 investment.
  • The four: Anbang Insurance, HNA Group, Oceanwide Holdings and Wanda Group.
  • Absent those six deals, 2016 would have been just a tad higher than the three prior years, Ma writes.

Beijing noticed too: For years, Beijing has encouraged China’s companies to “go out” and invest around the world. But that’s not how the government viewed the Group of 4, which it proceeded to treat as something akin to traitors. […]

Oceanwide appears to be the exception. Just two weeks ago, it got final approval for yet another U.S. deal — a $3.8 billion takeover of Genworth Financial, an insurance company, reports Mingtiandi’s Greg Isaccson.

The article cited is “China Oceanwide Gets US Green Light for $3.8B Genworth Deal.”

Lu Zhiqiang Oceanwide

Oceanwide chairman Lu Zhiqiang is the only member of China’s outbound investment Gang of Four to escape Beijing’s regulatory wrath

US revolutionizes North Korea policy; haters hate

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

An insightful article in the left-wing Jacobin magazine analyzing the Western media’s bizarre reaction to last week’s US-North Korea summit:

On Tuesday, as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un shook hands for their much-anticipated summit in Singapore, one Korean reporter observed a curious episode. Koreans watching the scene unfold on a TV screen at a railway station in Seoul began applauding. Meanwhile, some nearby Western tourists, perturbed by this development, scratched their heads in confusion.

“I am actually baffled to see them clapping here,” said one British tourist.

There’s perhaps no better symbol of the gulf in worldwide reactions to the summit than this episode. While South Koreans cautiously celebrated a historic step in the thawing of hostilities that have hung over them for almost seventy years, the Western media seemed to look on with alarm — even anger.

What could be more infuriating than a historic meeting that might — might — lead to peace on the Korean peninsula after 68 years?

Hostility to the summit, much of it from Democrats and liberals, had been a staple of press coverage in the months leading up to it, often from commentators who just a few months earlier had been panicking about exactly the opposite outcome. But it reached a fever pitch over the last few days.

There was, for example, the collective hyperventilation over a symbolic arrangement of North Korean and US flags. There was MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace, who warned that the whole summit was actually a “Trumpian head fake,” a mere artifact of Trump’s “midterm strategy” and his “get out of sitting with Bob Mueller strategy.” Sue Mi Terry of the defense contractor–funded Center for Strategic and International Studies cautioned that “a peace treaty is not okay” and should “come at the end of the process” because it “undermines the justification of our troops staying in South Korea.”

I don’t think I’ll ever get over the fact that the CSIS publicly said that.

You wouldn’t know it from the vast majority of Western news coverage (with some notable exceptions), but South Koreans greeted news of the agreement’s signing with optimism — often cautious optimism, to be sure, but optimism nonetheless. Which isn’t surprising — 81 percent of South Koreans wanted Trump to meet with Kim, though that was not much higher than the 70 percent of Americans who felt the same.

Based on this coverage, you probably wouldn’t have learned that the agreement was backed by the UN secretary general, who urged the international community to support its objectives. You wouldn’t have heard, for example, from the residents of a Chinese city on the North Korean border who expressed quiet hope about the negotiations to come. And you certainly wouldn’t have heard that the summit was considered a great success by South Korea’s extremely popular president, Moon Jae-in. […]

Reading non-Western media reports on the summit, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had dropped into another reality. […]

More here. Particularly amusing in this context are the claims that Trump is “normalizing” North Korea and the Kim regime. One wonders if these critics are aware that the Kim dynasty has ruled North Korea since Trump was two years old. Or that North Korea has been a UN member state since 1991 and has had nukes for over a decade. It’s simply not up to Trump — or anyone else for that matter — to “normalize” the North Korean state. It exists, and it’s not going away anytime soon, barring a US-led invasion of North Korea. Would the critics like that? Or are they just dumb? I’m seriously asking.

Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. -Philip K Dick

* * *

Here’s an intriguing behind-the-scenes story from Nikkei, though I would take the information with a grain of salt:

The battle between Washington and Beijing over influence on North Korea has already moved into its second round. And it was Trump’s own words of on Friday that startled the Chinese leadership.

“How are you going to celebrate Father’s Day?” the president was asked in an impromptu appearance on Fox News, broadcasting live from the White House lawn.

“Work. I’m going to work,” Trump told the conservative channel. “I’m going to actually be calling North Korea.”

After the Fox appearance, the president stayed on the lawn to take questions from other reporters. “I can now call him,” he said of Kim. “I can now say, ‘Well, we have a problem.’ … I gave him a very direct number. He can now call me if he has any difficulty.”

The establishment of a “hotline” between the two leaders, however spontaneous the exchange was, will be an extremely powerful tool for Trump. It is a luxury that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has met with Kim only twice, does not yet have. […]

A hotline between Washington and Pyongyang inevitably alters the balance of power between the U.S. and China. Trump may feel that China is no longer indispensable in negotiations with North Korea. He can talk directly. This was not on Xi’s radar.

And here’s an opinion from the indispensable Korea observer Michael Breen, published back in March:

The previous inter-Korean summits were requested by the South. (Indeed, the first one, it later transpired, was bought — for around half a billion dollars — and the second was treated by them as unimportant.)

But this time, it is the North that wants to talk. Why? Love him or not, Trump has done what no predecessor has done since the North’s nuclear weapons program became an issue 25 years ago and that is to issue a credible threat of military action. This was language the North Koreans understand. Until then, when they heard a White House condemnation of their nuclear weapons program, they thought, “Yeah, that’s what you said to the Chinese and the others, and, you know what, we do that too — dust off old statements. It saves time.”

But Trump came at them like a punch in the face.

Not only did he scare the North Koreans, but he convinced the Chinese and the Russians that he was serious and they came on board for the first time with effective sanctions that are now hurting.

He has also, it must be said, scared the South Koreans, who knew that North Korea’s threats to strike American soil were empty and that if its nuclear weapons were going to land anywhere it would be on South Korean cities. […]

And last and perhaps most important, the big difference is that Washington is prepared to talk. In the light of the standard attitude of previous U.S. leaders to North Korea, Trump’s agreement to the summit with Kim is nothing short of revolutionary. […]

In that regard, his historic willingness to both bomb and talk may achieve a resolution that could open up a way to bring North Korea in out of the cold. At least that is what we in South Korea now hope.

And on the topic of bringing North Korea in out of the cold, here’s an excellent commentary on the summit by Tyler Cowen. Of note:

4. As I tweeted: “Isn’t the whole point of the “deal” just to make them go visit Singapore? The real spectacle is not always where you are looking. And I hope someone brought them to the right chili crab place.”

The goal is to show the North Korean leadership there is a better way than playing the Nuclear Hermit Kingdom game. We won’t know for some time whether this has succeeded. Here is good FT coverage on this point. There are in fact numerous signs that the North Koreans are considering serious reforms. Of course those could be a feint, but the probabilities are rising in a favorable direction. Economic cooperation with South Korea is increasing at an astonishing pace.

It’s possible that Kim wants to be a Deng Xiaoping-type figure who reforms the economy while opening North Korea to the outside world. It’s even possible that he agrees in principle with the clever video that his American counterpart played for him during the talks:

Of course, these are all possibilities — not certainties. I agree with Cowen that we should be agnostic about what happened last week. But I think we’re also entitled to a bit of cautious optimism.

Sonic terror

More troubling cases of American diplomats being evacuated for medical tests after hearing weird noises — this time in China:

A crisis over a mysterious ailment sickening American diplomats and their families — which began in Cuba and recently appeared in China — has widened as the State Department evacuated at least two more Americans from China on Wednesday.

The Americans who were evacuated worked at the American Consulate in the southern city of Guangzhou, and their colleagues and family members are being tested by a State Department medical team, officials said. It is unclear how many of them are exhibiting symptoms, but a State Department spokeswoman said Wednesday evening that “a number of individuals” had been sent to the United States for further testing.

For months, American officials have been worried that their diplomats have been subjected to targeted attacks involving odd sounds, leading to symptoms similar to those “following concussion or minor traumatic brain injury,” the State Department says.

If this is a form of psychological warfare, it’s cleverly deniable while being very creepy and effective. That said, it’s not at all obvious to me what is going on here. It would not shock me to learn that that a non-state actor is responsible, or even that this is nothing more than mass hysteria.

A detail that strikes me as potentially very significant is buried in the last paragraph:

Mr. Lenzi [a security engineering officer at the consulate, who was evacuated] worked for the diplomatic security department, and he believes that his work could have made him a target. Before joining the Foreign Service in 2011, he worked with the International Republican Institute, funded by Congress, promoting democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia — two countries where Russia has denounced American involvement.

Russia is not the only country that has denounced American involvement in those two countries, or expressed its opposition to “color revolutions” in general. Hint, hint.

Talk about burning your bridges

Actually, “nuking your bridges from orbit” might be a better characterization of this hectoring statement by the Chinese ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, after the Canadian government blocked the acquisition of Canada’s third-largest construction firm by a Chinese state-owned enterprise (emphasis mine):

I regret that the Canadian government rejected the acquisition of the Canadian construction company, Aecon, by China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) on national-security grounds. China does not agree with politicizing and wantonly using the concept of national security and opposes adopting discriminatory policies against Chinese enterprises. Canada’s rejection of Aecon shows that Chinese enterprises are suffering from unfair treatment – and it’s not the first time.

The rejection will result in much greater loss for Canada than China. The acquisition offered by CCCC at a premium of $1.5-billion was definitely good news for Aecon. It would not only greatly improve Aecon’s international competitiveness and tap into its development potential, but also help increase employment opportunities and employee welfare, from which its shareholders would also benefit. Yet, the Canadian government made this impossible, leaving the employees and shareholders of Aecon disappointed. But for CCCC, a world construction giant, the Canadian construction market is insignificant and being rejected for acquiring Aecon may only mean that it has saved $1.5-billion.

We have noticed that since CCCC reached an acquisition agreement with Aecon in October last year, the Canadian media have repeatedly hyped CCCC as one of the state-owned enterprises of China, which they described as monsters. These reports are neither objective nor fair. I have always stressed that China has no objection to Canada’s security review of acquisitions by foreign enterprises. But we oppose demonizing Chinese state-owned enterprises and abrasively smearing them. I have said that slandering Chinese state-owned enterprises in this way is immoral.

Still, some people are so full of imagination that they claim China’s development depends on stealing technologies from western countries. I’d like to advise them to keep calm and think: How could a country such as China – with a population of more than one billion – develop by solely stealing technologies from other countries? It would be too arrogant for someone to think that innovation capacity is exclusive to western countries.

In fact, China has long been a major powerhouse of independent innovation. According to data released by the World Intellectual Property Organization, China was the largest holder of newly registered patents in the world in 2016 and 2017. These people are advised not to believe that developing countries will always lag behind the West. At present, it is an inevitable trend for countries to carry out international technological co-operation in the era of globalization. Being complacent and conservative are not only against the international trend, but also bound to be left behind. To maintain the leading position in technology fields, western countries must run faster, instead of tripping other countries up and making dirty tricks. Some people also attack CCCC’s participation in construction on islands and reefs in the South China Sea. But this just proves that CCCC boasts advanced technology in the infrastructure field. Perhaps what they are really afraid of is the strong competitiveness of China’s state-owned enterprises.

And some people have said that western standards are global standards in terms of investment, trade and protection of intellectual-property rights. Such logic seems domineering and centres around the idea that westerners have the final say on international rules. On the contrary, I think that global standards are by no means western standards. Using standards defined by the West to ban or suppress the progress of developing countries is futile, and runs counter to international morality.

The world is colourful – and Canada has always boasted diversity and multiculturalism. I hope Canadians can embrace China as simply a different country and not regard China as a threat just because of our differences. Only by getting rid of such kinds of demons can Canada relieve the burden, co-operate with China and come aboard the express train of China’s development.

Pretty astonishing language from China’s top diplomat in Canada, even by the Chinese government’s usual swaggering, self-righteous standards. It’s amazing that Beijing would consider this an appropriate response to a rebuffed corporate takeover bid. This statement is more of an angry, narcissistic lashing-out than a considered diplomatic response by a great power. And could China do more to vindicate the critics of the Aecon deal than this blithe and insulting dismissal of their concerns?

We have heard a lot about China’s “soft power” offensive, but all the Confucius Institutes and newspaper advertorials in the world cannot undo the damage done by this sort of grandiose approach to foreign relations. From the standpoint of China’s national interest, it makes no sense to alienate a potential partner this way.

I assume this episode will be remembered the next time a Chinese company bids on a sensitive Canadian asset. The US is watching, too.

Crikey

On the plus side, it’s very, very far away:

Astronomers have found the fastest-growing black hole ever seen in the universe, and they’re calling this one a monster with an appetite. It’s growing so fast it can devour a mass the size of the sun every two days.

Researchers at Australian National University first discovered this supermassive black hole, also known as a quasar, when data from a telescope called the SkyMapper flagged it as an object of potential interest. Then they used data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite to determine how far away it was. They found that it took more than 12 billion years for the light from this massive black hole to reach Earth. It’s the brightest quasar that can be seen in visual or ultraviolet light.

The laws of physics are not amused:

Right now, this massive black hole is the size of at least 20 billion suns. Going back in time about 1.2 billion years after the Big Bang using the speed limit formula, Wolf said this black hole must have started out as the size of 5,000 suns. Average black holes are about the size of 50 suns. So scientists are puzzled at how this massive black hole got so … massive.

The still-incredible story of Bo Xilai

Bo Xilai

Bo Xilai was China’s most (or only?) charismatic politician

Bo Xilai, former party chief of Chongqing and once the main political rival to Xi Jinping, has not been in the news much since he was sentenced to life in prison in 2013.

That didn’t stop the BBC from running a podcast series last March that retells the scarcely believable story of Bo’s high-flying career and spectacular downfall – complete with all the staples of a potboiler thriller, such as political intrigue, money laundering, infidelity, a desperate visit to the US consulate by a beleaguered Chinese official, and – of course – the murder of a shady British businessman. Also, dodgy deals involving helium balloons. China has never been more interesting since.

You can read a text version here. Excerpt:

But in China, no politician can go after the rich and well-connected without the support of the chief of police. For this role, Bo had found the perfect partner, a man both ruthless and daring – Wang Lijun.

Wang arrived at crime scenes brandishing weapons and surrounded by TV cameras. He even had his own show – Iron-Blooded Police Spirit – which dramatised his life fighting crime.

And it gets weirder. Wang Lijun attended executions, sources tell me, supervised the harvesting of prisoners’ organs and even conducted his own post-mortem examinations.

“Wang and Bo were very similar. Both of them liked to do things on an epic scale, they liked to make headlines. Put them together and it was an explosive mix,” says Li Zhuang.

“Both of them were crazy. And the atmosphere they created was frenzied, intense… it was insane. Chongqing was a police kingdom.”

Some Wang Lijun photos I dug up on the internet:

https://www.boxun.com/news/gb/china/2012/02/201202091522.shtml

http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_a16048b50101nwu3.html

http://news.ifeng.com/mainland/special/newchongqing/content-3/detail_2012_12/31/20706203_0.shtml

Wang Lijun inspects the Chongqing police force in early 2012

Can confirm

…Or can I?

Journalists’ brains show a lower-than-average level of executive functioning, according to a new study, which means they have a below-average ability to regulate their emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and show creative and flexible thinking.

The study, led by Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach, analysed 40 journalists from newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and online platforms over seven months. The participants took part in tests related to their lifestyle, health, and behaviour.

It was launched in association with the London Press Club, and the objective was to determine how journalists can thrive under stress. It is not yet peer reviewed, and the sample size is small, so the results should not be taken necessarily as fact.

Each subject completed a blood test, wore a heart-rate monitor for three days, kept a food and drink diary for a week, and completed a brain profile questionnaire.

The results showed that journalists’ brains were operating at a lower level than the average population, particularly because of dehydration and the tendency of journalists to self-medicate with alcohol, caffeine, and high-sugar foods.

😃😂

Compared with bankers, traders, or salespeople, journalists showed that they were more able to cope with pressure.

I found this curious, so I read the linked study for more detail. In fact, the study does not say this at all.

The results, however, showed that the journalists were on average no more physically stressed than the average person. The blood tests showed that their levels of cortisol — known as the stress hormone — were mostly normal.

“The headline conclusion reached is that journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this,” the study says.

Every occupation has its pros and cons…

Also of interest from the study (emphasis mine):

Silencing the Mind.

This behaviour refers to purposeful sessions to enhance focus and/or to allow thoughts without reacting, thereby preventing worrying about the future or regretting the past (i.e. the practice of mindfulness). Mindfulness promotes a relaxed physiological state at the level of the hypothalamus and amygdala and enhances the ability to focus and sustain attention at the level of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It promotes brain cell formation in the hippocampus and reduces the sensitivity of the amygdala, calming it down and promoting clarity of mind.

Low scores for silencing the mind indicates a lack of mindfulness practice amongst the surveyed population. This can manifest itself in reduced executive functioning, which corresponds to the result above. Studies have shown that just 12 minutes of mindfulness a day or 30 minutes of mindfulness 3 times a week thickens the folds of the pre-frontal cortex enhancing executive function.