A rearguard action

John Robb offers a proposal for an imploding United States to postpone China’s rise to absolute global dominance by throwing a wrench in China’s $8 trillion “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure project:

One solution is to mount a rearguard action — a method of delaying an advancing enemy when your forces are in retreat. An action that buys time for the US to regroup and regain cohesion. The US faced a similar situation re; the Soviet Union in ’79 after the invasion of Afghanistan. In that case, support for Afghan insurgents kept the Soviets occupied while the US recovered (Carter, inflation, Iran, etc.). In this case, the rearguard action would be the disruption of China’s plans for one belt one road. This could be done inexpensively and with very little manpower or visibility. How?

  • Create groups that operate like global guerrillas. Small groups that operate independently w/o oversight. More letters of marque than special operations.
  • In the short term, disrupt the Chinese construction effort. Double and treble construction costs by delaying timeliness and forcing increased security efforts. Drive up the costs of financing. Drive away subcontractors.
  • Next, force the Chinese to physically and logically protect the entire system, from roads to ports to trains, from disruption. As my analysis of Lawrence of Arabia shows, it’s more damaging to partially disrupt a system than to completely break it. Keep up the pressure — with the ability of systems disruption to generate a million to one return on investment, this is sustainable.

As Robb points out elsewhere: “Transportation (ports, roads, trains, etc.) is a natural monopoly. Nobody has tried to build one on a global scale until Xi.”

China's One Belt One Road

The US may conclude that it has no choice but to play the spoiler to China’s grand, shining vision of a sprawling infrastructure network linking 60 countries together under the benevolent aegis of the CPC. To get an idea of how this might work, consider that insurgent groups were able to successfully bleed the US of >$200,000,000,000 in failed efforts to reconstruct Iraq.

As for “the ability of systems disruption to generate a million to one return on investment,” consider a classic example from Robb: A small insurgent attack on an oil pipeline in southeast Iraq, which cost roughly $2,000 to execute, inflicted $500 million of damage on the Iraqi government in lost oil exports (an ROI of 25 million percent).

Doesn’t the US risk more from disruption than China? No. The US doesn’t have a choice. If it doesn’t act while this system is being built (when it is the most vulnerable to disruption), the US will cede global dominance to China forever. China is creating the equivalent of “Standard Oil stranglehold” on the global economy and once established it will likely become too big/too entrenched to roll back through global guerrillas.

I can relate

Spotted on Twitter:

Cark

System maintenance

This is what happens if you try to change your profile picture in WeChat (the Chinese version of WhatsApp):

WeChat system maintenanceHmm…. that must be some pretty intensive maintenance, there.

As it turns out, by sheer happenstance, the “maintenance” coincides with a very important event in the Chinese political calendar:

WeChat, China’s social, messaging, and do-everything mobile app, announced (in Chinese) on October 17 that its users are temporarily banned from updating their profiles until the end of the month.

“Due to system maintenance, users won’t be able to change their profile pictures, user names, and short bios until the end of this month,” the notice says. “Other functions won’t be affected. We apologize for any inconvenience caused.”

Other Chinese social media platforms, including Weibo and QQ, have announced the same type of service interruptions.

“System maintenance” (系统维护 xìtǒng wéihù) is a euphemism often used by Chinese internet companies when services are suspended because of government regulations or censorship. None of the companies have stated the real reason for the suspensions: security measures for the 19th Party Congress, which formally begins on October 18 and ends on October 24.

I got the error message on October 24, by the way. I tried again today and was able to change the picture.

Clearly, this calls for a new meme:

System Maintenance - Dr Evil Air Quotes meme

Get the popcorn

They actually did it:

The Catalan regional parliament has voted to declare independence from Spain, just as the Spanish government appears set to impose direct rule.

The move was backed 70-10 in a ballot boycotted by opposition MPs. […]

In all, the motion declaring independence was approved with 70 in favour, 10 against and two abstentions in the 135-seat chamber.

Immediately afterwards, Mr Rajoy called for all Spaniards to remain calm, promising to “restore legality” to Catalonia.

Spain’s Senate is still to vote on whether for the first time to enact Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which empowers the government to take “all measures necessary to compel” a region in case of a crisis.

It would enable Madrid to fire Catalan leaders, and take control of the region’s finances, police and public media.

The absolute mad(wo)men. This should prove to be interesting.

UPDATE: Who said that government is inefficient?

Madrid imposes direct rule on Catalonia just 40 minutes after the region FINALLY declared independence as Spanish Prime Minister calls for ‘calm’ amid fears of violence on streets

Spain is on the brink of descending into violence as Catalonia faces being imminently taken over by direct rule after the region’s parliament declared independence.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy began a meeting with his cabinet at 5pm (BST) to discuss exactly how the national government will take control of the region.

During that meeting, article 155 of the country’s constitution will be enacted – meaning the entire Catalan government will be dismissed and replaced by Spanish nominees, the regional police force will come under national control and public broadcasters will start taking their orders from Madrid.

Spain will also take control of the pro-independence Catalan parliament, preventing it from adopting motions that ‘run counter’ to Madrid’s wishes.

The limits of knowledge

This is a pretty hilarious example of how we know nothing about what goes on inside the black box of elite Chinese politics. Understand that Francesco Sisci is an eminent Beijing-based journalist and sinologist, who has been studying and commenting on China for decades.

I posted earlier about the shocking allegations made against the now-vanished former party secretary of Chongqing during the ongoing party congress. Well, here’s Sisci’s take on all that:

The story tells us that there is deep-seated opposition to Xi Jinping and his way of ruling China, or at least Xi thinks so, and that is the same thing. […]

It is not clear what Xi will do next.

An indication of the internal difficulties also comes from Xi’s speech. He stressed the importance of the leadership of the party, which was repeated 16 times. It is a sign that many party cadres turn a deaf ear to orders from Beijing. If cadres obeyed, Xi would not need to remind them of this.

Furthermore, on Thursday, at the Congress opening, Xi sat between his predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Perhaps Xi wanted to stress continuity, or maybe it is a sign that he still has to deal with past leaders.

Ah yes, the seating arrangement. The key to understanding everything! It couldn’t be that this particular positioning of chairs was chosen with an intent to deceive and misinform the media and the public about the real hierarchy of power.

I don’t mean to make fun of Sisci. He is normally very insightful. It’s just that there is so little to work with here. Trying to make sense of this stuff is like shining a flashlight into a black hole.

He’s fired

Spain drops the hammer on Catalonia:

Regional leader of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont will lose all powers and will stop receiving a salary once the Senate approves article 155 which imposes direct central government rule on the region, the Deputy Prime Minister said on Monday.

A single representative may be temporarily instated by Madrid to govern the region after the Senate approves direct rule, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said in a radio interview. The Senate is expected to approve the measures on Friday.

I don’t see how this ends well.

How will disaster movies ever recover?

THE SATELLITE DID IT

I thought The Day After Tomorrow marked the pinnacle of disaster-movie absurdity, with its infamous scene of a wave of killer frost literally chasing Jake Gyllenhaal across the New York Public Library.

But Roland Emmerich, the man behind that spectacle, surpassed himself several years later with 2012, in which a burst of neutrinos somehow disrupts the earth’s core, unleashing a Ragnarok of natural disasters that wipes out virtually all of humanity, including Danny Glover.

Nothing quite prepares you for Geostorm, though. This massive box-office flop, described as “the worst film of the year,” introduces a bizarre twist on the genre, in which a network of climate-controlling satellites is the only thing standing between humanity and the general concept of bad weather. So that when a computer virus makes these satellites go haywire, there is nothing to stop a gigantic tsunami from nearly eradicating Dubai. To quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up.

This is a movie in which a wonky satellite causes: a hideous electrical storm in Miami, a Biblical hailstorm in Tokyo, an array of tornadoes pummeling Mumbai, and a brutal heat wave descending on Moscow. Among other, equally ridiculous things.

Now, The Day After Tomorrow was just silly, but fun, while 2012 was awesome and scary despite being scientifically preposterous. And that’s all good. Geostorm, though, is aggressively stupid, without a single redeeming quality. Even by the generous standards of disaster flicks, the storyline and dialogue are trash-tier, the characters behave in nonsensical ways, and worst of all, in the one area this type of movie absolutely must perform – namely, captivating visual spectacle – Geostorm does a sickening bellyflop into the pool of failure. Only the Dubai-tidal-wave scene sort of makes the cut.

For a couple hours of escapist entertainment that will do real and lasting damage to your frontopolar cortex, I give Geostorm a reluctant one thumb up.

The black box

Woah. Looks like the world’s most populous country may have recently dodged something of a bullet. Allegedly:

A rising Chinese politician who was abruptly removed from office this summer was publicly accused Thursday of trying to seize control of the Communist Party.

The accusation against the politician, Sun Zhengcai, was made by an economic official during a session of the Communist Party congress in Beijing, and gives the most specific detail to date of the charges against Mr. Sun.

Mr. Sun had previously been accused of “grave violations of discipline,” a vague phrase that can include corruption or disloyalty to the party. But the accusation that he had plotted a political overthrow represents a personalization of the allegations: Rather than attempting to undermine the party, he is accused of transgressions against China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

Liu Shiyu, chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, grouped Mr. Sun with a handful of high-level officials who have been toppled in recent years. He called them “figures in important and high places who were both corrupted and contrived to usurp the leadership of the party and seize power.” […]

Mr. Sun had been party secretary of Chongqing, a city of 30 million where he was sent in 2012 to help clean up one of the country’s biggest political scandals, the fall of Mr. Bo and his top deputy, Wang Lijun, who had been police chief there. Mr. Sun was seen as a possible candidate for elevation to the Politburo Standing Committee, at the party congress underway.

But in February he was criticized in a party inspector’s report as having failed to fully stamp out the legacy of Mr. Bo, who was purged for corruption, abuse of power and a murder committed by his wife, Gu Kailai.

Mr. Sun was apologetic after the report and resolved to strengthen his efforts to wipe out the legacy of Mr. Bo, who had been a popular figure in Chongqing. But he disappeared from public view on July 15, just days after pledging his loyalty to Mr. Xi.

It appears we have no information about this remarkable case beyond what the chairman of the CSRC has helpfully revealed. This is another illustration of the fact that elite Chinese politics is a black box – almost perfectly opaque to the world outside of a small handful of top officials (how many? We have no idea). In fact, it’s getting even more opaque as the government refines the techniques of information control and perception management.

This is useful to remember as China’s 19th party congress, a key leadership meeting that occurs twice every decade, has been much in the news in this part of the world:

In the coming weeks, every major Western newspaper and many top China analysts will be making strong claims about Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s political position in the wake of the 19th Party Congress. These reports will build off years of tea-leaf reading and Pekingology that collectively underpin a now familiar story of élite political strife met by Xi’s personal consolidation of power. Their accounts will end either with Xi “solidifying his dominance” or “succumbing to the countervailing forces of his rivals”—and they will project an air of certainty. Yet their conclusions, in most cases, will rest precariously on assumptions and guesses about underlying Party mechanics and motivations that can neither be proved nor disproved. Even the best-sourced experts can’t discern how policy preferences and objectives shape political coalitions or élite Party divisions, and we lack critical diagnostic information that would be necessary to confirm or refute competing hypotheses about major political questions.

China’s Party-state is extremely successful at controlling information. Even the most basic insights into policy deliberations and processes, leaders’ intentions and views, and élite power dynamics are filtered through a sophisticated propaganda and censorship regime. A researcher who wants to know, for example, a particular leader’s personal view on state-owned enterprise reform can’t simply interview that leader or read transcripts from committee meetings. She instead has to rely on oracular statements from the People’s Daily or highly scripted speeches at public events. Facing such constraints, analysts have developed alternative models to squeeze insight from the information either that the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) releases through its Orwellian filter or that it cannot control. Such efforts can yield valuable insights. For example, close analysis of personnel movements can give indications of a leader’s expertise and connections, and close readings of Party documents can reveal a shift in policy concepts (like the change from “social management” to “social governance” in 2012). But in most cases, they depend heavily upon assumptions that paper over information gaps, or are structured in ways that exclude policy considerations and important variables. […]

Let us consider this problem with an analogy. We see three men each standing behind a plain, unmarked box. The first and third men pick up their boxes and move them. The second reaches out and grabs his box but does not lift or move it. Why are the three men behaving differently? Are the first and third boxes dramatically lighter? Is the second man considerably weaker? Does the second box contain a ticking bomb that can’t be disturbed without going off? Were all three of them even intending to pick up their boxes in the first place? Without additional information, we simply don’t know. We therefore can only draw confident conclusions about leaders’ relative power if we are confident that we understand their true preferences and have a way to measure the shifts in relative pressures for and against underlying policy moves (or in this case, for lifting up the box). Most of the time, assessing a given leader’s performance on, say, achieving certain reform goals requires making an assumption that his public statements reflect his personal views (and even then we must be careful to confirm we know what leaders mean when they talk about reform goals).

Nobody knows anything. And if they say they do, they’re lying.

Guess again

(H/T)

Playing the long game

Tyler Cowen may have just answered the Big Question about North Korea, namely: What does Kim want?

If we think through the North Korea nuclear weapons dilemma using game theory, one aspect of the problem deserves more attention, namely the age of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un: 33. Because peaceful exile doesn’t appear to be an option — his escaping the country safely would be hard — Kim needs strategies for hanging on to power for 50 years or more. That’s a tall order, but it helps us understand that his apparently crazy tactics are probably driven by some very reasonable calculations, albeit selfish and evil ones. […]

So if you are a dictator planning for long-term survival under a wide range of possible outcomes, what might you do? You don’t know who your enemies and your friends will be over those 50 years, so you will choose a porcupine-like strategy and appear prickly to everyone. […]

One way to interpret Kim’s spat with U.S. President Donald Trump is that he is signaling to the Chinese that they shouldn’t try to take him down because he is willing to countenance “crazy” retaliation. In this view, Beijing is a more likely target for one of his nukes than is Seattle.

More radically, think of Kim as auditioning to the U.S., Japan, South Korea and India as a potential buffer against Chinese expansion. If he played his hand more passively and calmly, hardly anyone would think that such a small country had this capacity. By picking a fight with the U.S., he is showing the ability to deter just about anyone.

This explanation feels right to me. At least, I haven’t heard a better one. In which case, there is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that the North Korean regime is neither irrational nor suicidal. Kim is not Jim (Jones), and a “nuclear Kool-Aid” scenario is most unlikely. North Korea will be a serious irritant, but not a genuine threat. Indeed, by spurring Japan and/or South Korea to get their own nukes, Kim could even (paradoxically) make the region safer – in theory.

The bad news? Under this interpretation, Kim is a skilled and strategic leader who is motivated to stay in power forever. His nukes shield him from external attack and, for all his bluster and provocations, he is cunning enough to stop just short of crossing any lines that would trigger a military response by an adversary. The rest of the world would simply have to learn to live with him, because there is no alternative. Meaning, we could be looking at another 50 years of Kim’s nonsense. Maybe a lot longer, if radical life extension technology allows for it.

“He brought reforms and unexpectedly high rates of growth to the North Korean economy, and he seems to have retained the loyalty of a significant fraction of the North Korean populace,” Cowen writes. North Korean GDP grew by an estimated 3.9% in 2016, the fastest pace since 1999. This raises the interesting possibility that Kim could reinvent himself as a Deng Xiaoping-type reformer who ushers in a new era of growth and rising living standards just by continuing to ease up on some of the totalitarian controls on the economy. If successful, that would boost his popularity, of course, which would further shore up his power.

I think Cowen’s guess is right, and Kim is in this for long haul. The very long haul.

Just 50 more years of this

Headlines that make me guffaw

Actually, the sound was more like a loud, spontaneous “PFFFFT,” but I don’t think there’s a verb for that.

“Xinhua scoffs at bickering West”

Xinhua News Agency attacked Western democracy as divisive and confrontational and praised the harmony and cooperative nature of the Chinese system on the eve of the congress.

“Unlike competitive, confrontational Western politics, the CPC and non- Communist parties cooperate with each other, working together for the advancement of socialism and striving to improve the people’s standard of living,” it said.

Did you know that there are other parties besides the Communist Party of China (CPC)? Indeed, there are eight: Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang (RCCK); China Democratic League (CDL); China Democratic National Construction Association (CDNCA); China Association for Promoting Democracy (CAPD); Chinese Peasants’ [yes] and Workers’ Democratic Party (CPWDP); China Zhi Gong Party (CZGP); Jiusan Society; and the Taiwan Democratic Self-Governing League (TDSGL).

They compete, of course, in free and fair elections.

Xinhua said that under the leadership of the party, Chinese-style democracy has never been in better shape.

“China has absolutely no need to import the failing party political systems of other countries,” it said.

“After several hundred years, the Western model is showing its age. It is high time for profound reflection on the ills of a doddering democracy which has precipitated so many of the world’s ills and solved so few.”

All snark aside, the potshots at Western democracy aren’t even that far off. It’s just that Chinese state media has a way of phrasing things that’s literally funny. I mean that as a complement.

“Doddering democracy which has precipitated so many of the world’s ills and solved so few” – This is good rhetoric.

Nothing surpasses this description of Britain by the Global Times, though:

The Cameron administration should acknowledge that the UK is not a big power in the eyes of the Chinese. It is just an old European country apt for travel and study. This has gradually become the habitual thought of the Chinese people.

It occurs to me that we may be living through a Golden Age of international trolling.