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.

Japan approves one-day flu treatment

Impressive (news from February):

As the worst flu season in a decade rages on, a potentially groundbreaking new drug that can kill the flu virus in just one day has won regulatory approval—in Japan.

Japanese officials granted an accelerated approval to the treatment, Xofluza from pharmaceutical maker Shionogi, last week. It could soon prove to be a significant competitor to Swiss drug giant Roche’s Tamiflu, one of the most common antivirals used to treat the flu. But it could also take until at least 2019 for Xofluza to reach the U.S. market.

Xofluza sets itself apart from Tamiflu in several key ways, according to Shionogi. For one, it requires far fewer doses—just a single pill, in fact, compared with the five-day, two-doses-per-day regimen required by Tamiflu. That could be significant given that infections tend to linger if you don’t follow through on the entire prescribed course of a medicine.

And then there’s the timeline. Xofluza was able to kill off the flu virus within 24 hours (compared with the nearly three days it takes Tamiflu to pull off the same feat) in trials.

Will this get regulatory approval overseas?

What do you hear?

Listen to the clip. What do you hear?

Now, I know exactly what I hear, and I know that anyone who claims to hear the other thing is a frothing lunatic. And this is not up for debate.

However:

A short audio clip of a computer-generated voice has become the most divisive subject on the internet since the gold/blue dress controversy of 2015.

The audio “illusion”, which first appeared on Reddit, seems to be saying one word – but whether that word is “Yanny” or “Laurel” is the source of furious disagreement.

Professor David Alais from the University of Sydney’s school of psychology says the Yanny/Laurel sound is an example of a “perceptually ambiguous stimulus” such as the Necker cube or the face/vase illusion.

“They can be seen in two ways, and often the mind flips back and forth between the two interpretations. This happens because the brain can’t decide on a definitive interpretation,” Alais says.

“If there is little ambiguity, the brain locks on to a single perceptual interpretation. Here, the Yanny/Laurel sound is meant to be ambiguous because each sound has a similar timing and energy content – so in principle it’s confusable.

“All of this goes to highlight just how much the brain is an active interpreter of sensory input, and thus that the external world is less objective than we like to believe.” […]

McDermott also thinks visual cues may have played a part. “You would have noticed it had both the names appearing on the screen with no other context or information. This forces the brain to make a choice between those two alternatives.”

How much of what we think is real is just a cognitive illusion? And how many of our certainties about the world are build on a foundation of perceptual sand?

Nightlight data and fuzzy math

This is almost a little too pat to be entirely convincing… but it makes sense that authoritarian regimes would have more ability, if not more incentive, to manipulate, exaggerate and outright make up statistics than democracies:

China, Russia and other authoritarian countries inflate their official GDP figures by anywhere from 15 to 30 percent in a given year, according to a new analysis of a quarter-century of satellite data. […]

“The key question that the paper tries to tackle is whether the checks and balances provided by democracy are able to constrain governments’ desire to manipulate information or, more specifically, their desire to exaggerate how well the economy is doing,” Martinez said via email. “The way I try to answer the question above is by comparing GDP (a self-reported indicator, prone to manipulation) and nighttime lights (recorded by satellites from outer space and much harder to manipulate) as measures of economic activity.” […]

For the world’s freest democracies — places such as the United States, Canada and Western Europe — a 10 percent increase in the average intensity of nighttime lighting in a given year correlated with, on average, a 2.4 percent increase in year-over-year GDP. Less free and open countries, however, reported larger GDP gains for the same percent change in nighttime lighting. And the least-free countries of all showed huge increases in annual GDP relative to the freest countries, working out to between a half and a full percentage point of extra GDP for the same light increase.

One question that comes to mind: Is it possible that countries where personal consumption accounts for a relatively small share of GDP (e.g. China) are able to grow more “darkly” than countries where personal consumption plays a larger role (e.g. the US)? The idea being that factories might give off less light per capita at night than, say, driving to a restaurant or staying up late watching Netflix in a brightly lit house. (I have absolutely no idea whether this is the case.) Likewise for economies where the services sector plays a greater role (think of all those computer screens and florescent-lit offices). Looking at the paper, it appears the author has already accounted for just those possibilities, and that the autocracy bias is still strong even when controlling for differences in economic structure.

Of course, it’s not exactly surprising that China manipulates economic data rather liberally; this is a country where the official population figure could be off by 90 million.

Shut down Confucius Institutes in the US

Why I gave up my academic freedom

This really isn’t that hard:

I’d been invited to give a keynote speech and accept an award at Savannah State University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. In a description of my background, I’d listed the self-governing island as one of the places where I’d reported. But in the printed materials for the event, the reference to Taiwan had been removed.

The department had given the award annually since 1975. But in the past few years, finances had dwindled and organizers struggled to find the resources to cover the expenses of bringing in a speaker from out of town.

Enter the Confucius Institute, a Chinese government-affiliated organization that teaches Chinese language and culture and sponsors educational exchanges, with more than 500 branches around the globe. The branch at Savannah State, founded four years ago, agreed to sponsor the speech.

On campuses across the United States, funding gaps are leaving departments with little choice but to turn to those groups with the deepest pockets — and China is keen to offer money, especially through its global network of Confucius Institutes. But when academic work touches on issues the Chinese Communist Party dislikes, things can get dicey.

Indeed. Confucius Institutes are controlled (de facto) by the Communist Party of China, as part of a lavishly funded global propaganda effort. And the rationale for hosting these things always seems to boil down to money:

Savannah State University does not have a well-funded Asian studies department, and as university administrators told me when I was there, its students and members of the surrounding community have few opportunities to travel abroad. The young man working at the front desk of my hotel in Savannah told me he was going to China this summer with a dance troupe, on a trip sponsored by the Confucius Institute. Without institute funding, the dancers would probably never see China.

And so, schools like Savannah State must walk a fine line. “Often the American co-director is interested in supporting academic freedom and trying to manage the Confucius Institute in a way that is constructive,” says Peterson. Each Confucius Institute has two co-directors, one American and one Chinese. But that’s “really hard to do. And in some cases, well near impossible.”

Australia is even more willing to compromise on this issue:

In the US, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has led the charge against Confucius Institutes. In February, he wrote to four universities in Florida, urging them to terminate their agreements with Hanban in Beijing. Texas A&M University closed its Confucius Institute in April following a bipartisan recommendation from two congressmen. […]

Australian universities are different from their American counterparts, not least because of our tertiary sector’s greater dependence on Chinese international students. Rubio’s approach should have no sway here.

Strange. The county’s Confucius Institutes are designed to teach Australians, not Chinese. The large number of Chinese international students on Australian campuses is hardly relevant in this context, unless of course the implication is that Australia should be careful not to hurt those students’ feelings. In other words: “Nice $22 billion international education sector you’ve got there. Be a shame if something, you know, happened to it.”

In my China Matters brief I outline seven policy recommendations for Australian universities. Above all, those that host a Confucius Institute need to consider more stringent safeguards. Transparency is important to combat propaganda and will help assuage public concerns about Confucius Institutes.

I heartily agree that transparency is important, but the emphasis on combating propaganda and helping assuage public concerns is odd here. The purpose of transparency is more about preventing abuses and violations by the organization in question.

But university autonomy must be maintained, and Australia must avoid the precedent set in the US. The decision whether to extend or terminate an agreement with Hanban is a university’s alone to make. To uphold academic freedom means to safeguard campuses from undue government influence – be it from the PRC, the US, or even the Australian Government.

But shielding universities from US or Australian government influence evidently means exposing them to Communist Party influence. There is no neutral ground here and no way to avoid choosing sides.

Australians need opportunities to learn Mandarin, and Confucius Institutes provide classes taught by trained native speakers. Successive governments have committed to improving Asian literacy among Australians. But they have not – and in the foreseeable future will not – commit the needed millions of dollars to alternative Mandarin education.

For the time being, Confucius Institutes are an imperfect solution to help fill that need.

In other words: money, money, money.

Here’s three more words for you:

Shut. It. Down.

North Korean restaurant waitresses tricked into defecting?

Astonishing if true:

The 12 North Korean waitresses who defected from China two years ago were tricked into doing so in an operation by the South’s intelligence services, their manager told South Korean television in a bombshell revelation.

The high-profile case has long been controversial, with Pyongyang insisting the women had been kidnapped and saying there would be no more reunions of families divided by the Korean war unless they were returned.

But Heo Gang-il, the manager of the North Korean restaurant in Ningbo where they worked, said he had lied about their final destination and blackmailed them into following him to the South.

Heo told JTBC television he had been recruited by Seoul’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) in China in 2014.

Fearing exposure in 2016, he asked his NIS handler to arrange his defection. At the last minute the minder told him to bring his staff too.

“The 12 waitresses did not know where they were going,” Heo told JTBC’s Spotlight, one of the South’s top investigative current affairs programmes. “I told them we were relocating.”

The women only realised their final destination when they arrived outside the South Korean embassy in Malaysia.

When they hesitated to enter the building, one of them told the show, “manager Heo threatened us, saying he will tell security authorities that we watched South Korean TV dramas and we would be executed, or exiled into provinces and our families would also be affected”.

The silver lining here is that North Korea appears to believe these waitresses were kidnapped (as opposed to being defectors), so there’s a chance their families back at home haven’t all been put in gulags.

North Korean restaurant in Bangkok