American couple killed in Tajikistan

An American couple, understandably bored by their day jobs in Washington DC, take off on a rugged biking journey around the world. On a remote highway in Tajikistan, they along with two European cyclists are killed by what appear to be Islamic State sympathizers:

A grainy cellphone clip recorded by a driver shows what happened next: The men’s Daewoo sedan passes the cyclists and then makes a sharp U-turn. It doubles back, and aims directly for the bikers, ramming into them and lurching over their fallen forms. In all, four people were killed: Mr. Austin, Ms. Geoghegan and cyclists from Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Two days later, the Islamic State released a video showing five men it identified as the attackers, sitting before the ISIS flag. They face the camera and make a vow: to kill “disbelievers.”

Dramatic but rare events like these tend to vastly inflate the dangers of overseas travel in the public mind. Contrary to what you might think, despite a heavy terrorist presence across the border in northern Afghanistan, Tajikistan is generally considered safe for Western travelers. This seems ridiculous, until you consider that according to State Department data, only one US citizen died in Tajikistan – of drowning – from October 2002 to December 2017. After the latest incident, however, the State Department raised its travel advisory for Tajikistan to Level 2 (“Exercise increased caution”).

So, if you have a hankering to visit landlocked Central Asian republics, there’s no need to scratch Tajikistan from your bucket list. Just please don’t explore it on a freakin’ bike.

Two aspects of this story annoy me. First, the this guy appears to have dragged his girlfriend into a dangerous lifestyle that she probably would not have otherwise chosen. According to the article:

It was in 2016 that Ms. Geoghegan told [her close friend] Ms. Kerrigan that she was planning to quit her job and bike around the world. Ms. Kerrigan could not suppress a little concern. “I said, ‘This is not the Lauren I know,’ ” she said, adding: “Jay changed the trajectory of Lauren’s life.” […]

“She was concerned for her friend, in part because of how bighearted she was and in part because she feared that Mr. Austin had a higher tolerance for danger than Ms. Geoghegan did.”

It’s one thing to throw your own life away, but roping someone else into your lethal adventure is a different universe of bad. I am reminded of Amie Huguenard, who followed Timothy Treadwell into the Alaskan wilderness, only to share his fate of being killed and eaten by a grizzly bear.

Second, I find it seriously alarming that this guy expected the rest of the world to help him and his girlfriend out of their self-imposed crises:

It was July 23, 2017 — winter in South Africa, when the sun sets at 5:30 — and they hadn’t realized how far they would need to travel on congested freeways before they could get out of Cape Town. At dusk, they found themselves with a punctured tire on the chaotic R27. There was nowhere to pitch their tent except for a ditch adjacent to the busy freeway.

In a post about why he chose to cycle — as opposed to, say, drive around the world — Mr. Austin spoke about the vulnerability of being on a bike. “With that vulnerability comes immense generosity: good folks who will recognize your helplessness and recognize that you need assistance in one form or another and offer it in spades,” he wrote.

This attitude strikes me as not only remarkably naive, but also morally questionable. Hospitality to strangers is baked into the culture in many parts of the world. For pampered Americans to take advantage of that, by deliberately putting themselves in dangerous situations from which strangers are expected to rescue them, seems selfish at best.

In the middle of the night, a security guard patrolling the grounds of a nearby nuclear plant spotted their tent. He radioed for help and arranged for a truck to drive them across the city to a campsite. Their journey was a series of tedious, and occasionally grueling, physical tests, punctuated by human kindness.

Bad decisions are often linked to philosophical confusion. It’s almost cruel to mention the first two paragraphs of this April blog post by Austin, but people need to understand that evil does exist, and it is not rare. There are hints that Austin and Geoghegan wanted their trip to embody a certain idea about human nature. Sadly, the idea is a lie.

CIA debacle in China

From Foreign Policy, we learn how China managed to roll up the CIA’s entire network of informants across the country in 2010-12, executing about 30 people in total:

It was considered one of the CIA’s worst failures in decades: Over a two-year period starting in late 2010, Chinese authorities systematically dismantled the agency’s network of agents across the country, executing dozens of suspected U.S. spies. But since then, a question has loomed over the entire debacle.

Now, nearly eight years later, it appears that the agency botched the communication system it used to interact with its sources, according to five current and former intelligence officials. The CIA had imported the system from its Middle East operations, where the online environment was considerably less hazardous, and apparently underestimated China’s ability to penetrate it. […]

The former officials also said the real number of CIA assets and those in their orbit executed by China during the two-year period was around 30, though some sources spoke of higher figures. The New York Times, which first reported the story last year, put the number at “more than a dozen.” All the CIA assets detained by Chinese intelligence around this time were eventually killed, the former officials said. […]

Some staggering technical incompetence on the part of the CIA appears to have been involved:

Although they used some of the same coding, the interim system and the main covert communication platform used in China at this time were supposed to be clearly separated. In theory, if the interim system were discovered or turned over to Chinese intelligence, people using the main system would still be protected—and there would be no way to trace the communication back to the CIA. But the CIA’s interim system contained a technical error: It connected back architecturally to the CIA’s main covert communications platform. When the compromise was suspected, the FBI and NSA both ran “penetration tests” to determine the security of the interim system. They found that cyber experts with access to the interim system could also access the broader covert communications system the agency was using to interact with its vetted sources, according to the former officials.

In the words of one of the former officials, the CIA had “fucked up the firewall” between the two systems.

And a tweet from the author, Zach Dorfman:

This didn’t make it into the piece, but here’s how the Chinese treated people working with the CIA: According to one source, one asset working at a state tech institutes, and his pregnant wife, were executed live on closed circuit TV in front of the staff.

What a disaster. HUMINT is a dangerous game, even more so when sloppy tradecraft is being used. Also, I question the value of this type of high-risk skullduggery. Chinese intentions with regard to the US are not hard to discern, and access to all the secrets in the world is useless if a country is not willing to defend its national interests.

Guangzhou photos

In early 2013, I spent several days ambling around Guangzhou with my Nikon D5100. One of the best, but most underappreciated, ways to experience a city is by walking across it, so that’s exactly what I did (it took more than one session). The southern Chinese megacity formerly known as Canton has well over 80,000 restaurants and the whole place revolves around food. You may get a sense of that from some of the pictures below.


Daily links: Economic stresses mount

Debbie Downer

We apologize for this depressing post

The rate of seniors filing for bankruptcy has tripled since 1991. The elderly have little financial cushion in the event of catastrophic health problems, and of course medical costs are rising. And more people are entering retirement age with debt.

More people are living in their cars as homelessness rises in America. “The problem is ‘exploding’ in cities with expensive housing markets, including Los Angeles, Portland and San Francisco, according to Governing magazine.”

Outstanding education debt in the US now exceeds $1.5 trillion (roughly the GDP of Australia), after tripling over the last decade, and more than one million student loan borrowers go into default each year.

The average American works longer hours than a medieval peasant: “Juliet Shore, economist, told the site that during periods of high wages, such as 14th-century England, peasants worked no more than 150 days a year.”

Anti-government protests in Romania

Large protests in Bucharest, calling for the resignation of the Romanian government, end in violence:

For three days in a row, throngs of protesters took to the streets in Romania’s capital city, Bucharest, to protest what they see as a corrupt government and to call for new elections.

Tens of thousands of people rallied Friday on the first day of demonstrations, which were largely organized by Romanian expatriates who came home to demonstrate en masse; some estimates put the crowd at 100,000.

It ended in violence. Romania Insider reports that on Friday night, some aggressive protesters, possibly football hooligans, began clashing with police. (Football hooligans frequently appear at political protests in Romania.) In response, riot police reportedly fired tear gas, smoke grenades and a water cannon into the crowd at Victoriei Square in Bucharest, which also included many peaceful protesters.

The police used “unprecedented violence” to clear the square, Romania Insider writes. Hundreds of people were said to have been injured.

But the protesters were undeterred, returning on Saturday and again on Sunday.

Rallies in Bucharest and other major Romanian cities were peaceful on Sunday, Reuters reports.

The Social Democratic Party has governed Romania since 2016.

No relief for Chicago

Illinois governor Bruce Rauner rules out sending the National Guard to restore order in the nation’s most notorious open-air shooting gallery:

Gov. Bruce Rauner says he will not dispatch the Illinois National Guard to Chicago to stem gun violence.

The Republican said Wednesday that “the National Guard is not for neighborhood policing.”

He dismissed suggestions that he call up the Guard after more than 70 people were shot in the city last weekend. At least 11 were killed.

Chicago police have said 600 additional officers will be patrolling the affected neighborhoods.

Rauner told reporters in Peoria that “the violence in Chicago is heartbreaking, it’s got to end.”

But he says state troops would only be appropriate for “a riot or some issue like that.”

Rauner says improving economic opportunities will help end the violence.

Economic opportunities! That’s the ticket.

In the meantime, a Chicago pastor asks Trump to mobilize (federalize) the National Guard to relieve the Second City. Here’s a Chicago Tribune op-ed from last year demanding intervention by the Illinois National Guard:

What in the world is wrong with us in Chicago? How many lives must be lost before we mobilize to end the insane carnage in our streets? A thousand deaths a year? Two thousand? […]

Most Chicagoans, particularly those who live in killing fields like Englewood and North Lawndale, may be unaware of an experiment that virtually stopped the bleeding for one blessed weekend in November 2016.

On those amazing few days, Chicago police, Cook County sheriffs, state police and federal agents saturated the three most dangerous police districts in the city. Shooters were silenced. Open-air drug markets closed. Gangs couldn’t loiter at liquor stores, vacant lots and viaducts.

The strategy worked. The killing ceased. That weekend there was exactly one shooting — one — in the area under patrol.

If we are truly serious about ending gun violence, we need this kind of bold action. We have to unpack the plan created by Robert Milan, former first assistant state’s attorney in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, and former deputy U.S. Marshal Jim Smith.

The mission: crush the violence with a six-month saturation deployment of law enforcement that mirrors the November 2016 weekend experiment.

But we live in a city that is broke. We don’t have the money or the manpower to repeat the tactic, let alone sustain it.

Worse, perhaps, we don’t seem to have the courage to swallow our pride and our politics to keep our people alive. Why else would Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the City Council reject the idea of seeking assistance from the Illinois National Guard?

In fact, the city should ask that guardsmen be deployed, along with local police, to the South and West sides, not to militarize them, but to restore public safety and save lives.

When living in Chicago, I was amazed at the lack of beat cops in the downtown. You could go a week without seeing a single police officer or cop car.

It’s rather astonishing that America is incapable of maintaining basic law and order in its third-largest city. Serious countries do not allow large swaths of their major cities to descend into anarchy, while citing budget problems as an excuse for failing to take appropriate law enforcement action.

Trade war drives CPC rifts

Reports are surfacing that the escalating trade conflict with the US is driving a wedge between elements of the Chinese leadership:

BEIJING (Reuters) – A growing trade war with the United States is causing rifts within China’s Communist Party, with some critics saying that an overly nationalistic Chinese stance may have hardened the U.S. position, according to four sources close to the government.

President Xi Jinping still has a firm grip on power, but an unusual surge of criticism about economic policy and how the government has handled the trade war has revealed rare cracks in the ruling Communist Party.

A backlash is being felt at the highest levels of the government, possibly hitting a close aide to Xi, his ideology chief and strategist Wang Huning, according to two sources familiar with discussions in leadership circles.

A prominent and influential academic whose views have found favor in some party quarters has also come under attack for his strident views on Chinese power.

There are hints — which, given the totally opaque nature of elite Chinese politics, we should take with a dollop of salt — that the factional tensions could even be weakening the “core leader’s” grip on power:

China, for all its problems, seems set on an inexorable rise to superpower status to rival the US. On multiple benchmarks – economic, technological, military and diplomatic – Beijing is making rapid advances.

We are a long way, in other words, from peak China. But that begs another question which has been sweeping Beijing over the northern summer – whether we are now witnessing peak Xi Jinping.

In recent weeks, the signs of a nascent pushback against Xi’s absolute power have started to emerge. Some are cryptic, given the nature of Chinese politics, contained in coyly worded postings on social media. Some are the stuff of rumour, or back alley news, as the Chinese call such information, which flourishes in the absence of a free press.

More background on CPC factional disputes.

Vice magazine and Naomi Wu

Capitalist Roader Balding is not happy with Vice magazine, which is alleged to have endangered Chinese DIY enthusiast and YouTube personality Naomi Wu by circulating rumors about her personal life, in clear breach of its earlier promises to Wu:

Full thread:

This is an important post and something I fully identify with and was way out of bounds by @VICE and @sarahjeong. As @RealSexyCyborg notes, any China based journalist gets the very real potential danger anyone in China faces speaking on anything publicly. Couple of notes 1/n

1. Journalist/investors/think tankers who say I spent a long weekend in Beijing/Hong Kong/Singapore/Seoul a few years ago so I understand China, let me explain it gently: you don’t know jack. The sooner you understand that, the better we all will be 2/n

2. As outsiders you do not understand the very real danger you put people in by disclosing information that people in China do not want disclosed. Does not matter how trivial does not matter how seemingly irrelevant and non-political, your idiocy puts people in danger 3/n

3. Speaking from experience, I was told in November 2017 PKU was letting me go. I told almost no one because of the very real concern someone either trying to get a scoop or by accident would publicize this information. At that point, I’m in very real danger as a story 4/n

4. It doesn’t matter whether you deem the subjects fears rational or irrational. They know the situation better than you. People in China get disappeared for nothing. You put people in danger by disclosing information even if you think it is irrelevant 5/n

5. China based journalists and those with any experience in China are very understanding and cautious with information. They experience the same problems and would never knowingly put a China source in danger. I’ve never dealt with China based journo who wasn’t excellent here 6/n

6. Personally, if I ever found out a journalist did not treat my name and safety with care, I would never answer their phone call again, maybe from their entire organization, and would complain loudly depending on the safety/info breach.

7. Even though I believe race and gender issues are overused as fall back reasons, I cannot help but think if something similar happened to me with a media organizations, the reaction would have been very different as a white American male.

8. In short, I fully sympathize with @RealSexyCyborg and find @VICE and @sarahjeong’s handling of everything repugnant. Done.

Balding is responding to this article by Wu. Here is the Vice piece in question. Here is Vice’s response to the allegations by Wu.

It certainly appears that Vice broke its promises and betrayed Wu, in a totally unethical act of journalistic malpractice. Given what Wu describes as her vulnerable situation in China, this is a disgrace. Vice’s response piece is dishonest as well, claiming that “We did not make an agreement to avoid asking specific questions.” Judging by the messages reproduced by Wu, this is the exact opposite of the truth. Also, Vice’s statement that “Our interests in this case are reporting accurately and protecting the safety of our employees” is notable for omitting any mention of Wu’s safety, which Vice effusively promised to protect at the outset of the process.

This is very shady behavior by Vice and should be strongly condemned.

Having said all that, as a person who has lived in China and professionally edited English documents by native Chinese speakers, I was struck by one curious aspect of this story. The internet commentary that appears under Wu’s name is written in perfect, idiomatic, American-style English. At first glance, this is easily explained by Wu’s own acknowledgement of a helping hand behind at least some of her writing. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. After all, Wu is by her own account a 24-year-old woman from Shenzhen who has never even visited the West. It’s only natural that someone like Wu would seek and receive help in communicating with her global fan base.

If you check out her Twitter account though, it’s very obvious that all of Wu’s tweets are being written by one or more native English speakers. (I base this on a random sample of Wu’s recent tweets; there are some 15,000 tweets under her name.) And again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a young internet star in mainland China communicating in the voice of an educated, urbane, and somewhat snarky American, except for the mild cognitive dissonance it induces, like when watching a skillful ventriloquist act.

If I were reporting on this story, I might like to know more about the nature and extent of the help that Wu receives in crafting her online persona. But this is all speculation, and I would never betray or lie to an interview subject or sacrifice her safety for the sake of telling a story.

Starbucks finally meets its match in China

Its name is Luckin Coffee, it has opened about 500 outlets since its launch earlier this year, and it is reported to be worth over $1 billion, making it China’s first coffee unicorn.

Jeffrey Towson of Peking University has been asking for years why Starbucks doesn’t have a serious competitor in China. Well, now it does.

Naturally, Luckin doesn’t have cash registers and you have to order through their app and pay through China’s mobile panopticon of WeChat/Alipay or the company’s own payment function.

“My take is their big weapon is digital + lower prices + tons of locations,” according to Towson. Is this the Starbucks killer?

Luckin Coffee has the stated goal of beating Starbucks, but even without doing that, they can potentially build a profitable business by getting more Chinese to drink coffee. The current per capita average is four to five cups per year.


Daily links: Fentanyl and state failure

China is the main source of the insanely potent synthetic opioid fentanyl in the US, which killed more than 27,000 people in the 12 months through November 2017. “The biggest difficulty China faces in opioid control is that such drugs are in enormous demand in the US,” an official of China’s equivalent of the DEA is quoted as saying. The Opium Wars in reverse?

The trade deficit has sliced $457.2 billion off the US economy’s cumulative inflation-adjusted growth, or 14.33%, from the start of the recovery in mid-2009 through the first quarter of 2018, according to last week’s revised GDP figures. But we are told that trade deficits don’t matter.

Britain is probably not going to run out of food in the event of a “no deal” Brexit. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that the British government cannot guarantee food security for its people, and seemingly expects the food industry to take all the responsibility for stockpiling goods. Meanwhile, the food industry has absolutely no plans to do this.

A simulation models the release and spread of a moderately lethal and moderately contagious virus. It kills off 150 million people over the course of 20 months, including 15 to 20 million people in the US.

Over 100,000 Russians marched last month in the city of Yekaterinburg to mark the centennial of the slaughter of the Romanov imperial family by rabid Communists.

Duterte publicly destroys more than A$8 million worth of contraband luxury cars in the Philippines: