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.

Well, that answers that

From Hong Kong rag The Standard:

When news broke that British politician and human rights activist Benedict Rogers was refused entry at Hong Kong International Airport, I suspected our Immigration Department didn’t make the decision, but carried out an order from a higher authority.

It’s now perfectly clear the decision had come down from Beijing. It’s simply stunning.

Rogers was quoted by an internet news website as saying the Chinese embassy back home in London had warned him via a third party, after it learned about his plan to visit the former Crown colony. The third party reportedly relayed the embassy’s concern that Rogers may visit the student leaders serving jail sentences for their leading roles in protests. Later, he was told his SAR trip would impair the Sino-British relationship, so he would be denied entry.

The Foreign Ministry was straightforward about it. Yesterday, the blunt statement by a spokeswoman was basically related to two points: one, Beijing retains the authority to decide who can come to Hong Kong; and two, Rogers was barred because of fears he would intervene with the SAR’s internal affairs and judicial system. In hindsight, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s response prior to the spokeswoman’s statement appeared to be redundant. […]

The issue is that while the decision was made by some policymakers in Beijing, it did more harm than good to Hong Kong, because one of the SAR’s greatest assets is its international reputation, which makes the place distinct from other mainland cities.

The move was like throwing rocks into waters that Hong Kong’s leader is struggling to calm.

I think a little bit of reciprocity is in order. Is there any reason, at this point, not to respond in kind by having the next visitor from the PRC politely turned back at Heathrow customs?

Parallax view

This is cool:

We’re putting the far side of the galaxy on the map. The most precise measurement yet of an object on the far side of the galaxy’s centre is paving the way for a definitive map of the other side of the Milky Way.

It’s difficult to observe anything on that side of the galaxy because of the dense, frenetic swarm of dust and gas at its centre. Thomas Dame at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts and his colleagues got around this by looking at a jet of radio waves that can outshine any emissions coming from that mess of stars.

“It’s a very bright source, indicative of a flamboyant region of star formation, and these regions are almost always located in the spiral arms of the galaxy,” says Dame. He and his team pinned down the source’s location to the Scutum-Centaurus arm of the galaxy, probably one of the Milky Way’s two major arms.

To do this, they used parallax measurements, which take into account differences in measurements from two points in space. […]

“The idea that you could be doing this for more objects on the far side of the galaxy is really exciting,” says Robert Benjamin at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. “How can you talk about the structure of our galaxy when you only have half of it?”

Dame says with this technique we could have an accurate and complete map of the entire Milky Way within 10 years.

Wild card

George Friedman of Stratfor singles out South Korea as the wild card in the dangerous North Korea game:

[The North Koreans] seemed to be acting as if they had no fear of a war breaking out. It wasn’t just the many photos of Kim Jong Un smiling that gave this impression. It was that the North Koreans moved forward with their program regardless of American and possible Chinese pressure.

Another Player Enters the Game

A couple of weeks ago, the reason for their confidence became evident. First, US President Donald Trump tweeted a message to the South Koreans accusing them of appeasement. In response, the South Koreans released a statement saying South Korea’s top interest was to ensure that it would never again experience the devastation it endured during the Korean War. From South Korea’s perspective, artillery fire exchanges that might hit Seoul had to be avoided. Given the choice between a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.

With that policy made public, and Trump’s criticism of it on the table, the entire game changed its form. The situation had been viewed as a two-player game, with North Korea rushing to build a deterrent, and the US looking for the right moment to attack. But it was actually a three-player game, in which the major dispute was between South Korea and the United States.

The US could have attacked the North without South Korea’s agreement, but it would have been substantially more difficult. The US has a large number of fighter jets and about 40,000 troops based in the South. South Korean airspace would be needed as well. If Seoul refused to cooperate, the US would be facing two hostile powers, and would possibly push the North and the South together. Washington would be blamed for the inevitable casualties in Seoul. The risk of failure would pyramid.

Comment on this from an author and military vet:

Short of such an all-out nuclear attack, any US military intervention in North Korea must inevitably involve South Korea. If South Korea is not willing to permit its territory, or its airspace, or its waters, to be used for that purpose, the USA is effectively stymied.

I see only one way to break the logjam, and force the issue. That would be for the USA to announce that, in view of North Korea’s aggressive actions and stated intentions to become a nuclear power, it is willing to sell nuclear weapons to Japan and South Korea. Note that I said “sell” – in other words, not station US nuclear weapons in those countries under US control, but give each country its own nuclear warheads and delivery systems, under its own sovereign control. China would instantly have kittens – a nuclear-armed Japan must be close to its worst nightmare, and a nuclear South Korea wouldn’t be far behind that. If anything could force China to rein in the North Korean regime, that might do it.

It’s worth pointing out that a growing number of South Koreans want nukes of their own:

Throughout much of the Cold War, the United States had stationed nuclear-armed weapons in South Korea. Then, in 1991, President George H.W. Bush withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad, and Moscow reciprocated.

The debate over redeploying those weapons is sharply dividing South Korean politics. […]

Still, 60 percent of South Koreans in theory support nuclear weapons for their country, according to Gallup Korea. A poll by YTN, a cable news channel, in August found that 68 percent of respondents supported redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea.

After South Korea’s defense minister said earlier this month that it was worth reviewing a redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons, other administration officials have distanced the Blue House — South Korea’s executive mansion — from the proposal. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said this week that South Korea is not considering the option and has not discussed it with Washington, but she acknowledged that public opinion is shifting toward supporting the option. […]

“The mainstream view is now changing in South Korea,” Kim said. “Even within the governing party, we are now hearing some of these voices who are supporting redeployment or South Korea going nuclear by herself, particularly after North Korea’s sixth nuclear test.”

Defense chiefs James Mattis and Song Young-Moo

As for Japan going nuclear:

Then there is the anomaly of Japan’s nuclear status. Defense analysis privately agree that Japan, like Israel, is an undeclared member of the nuclear weapons club. The point was made explicitly in an article by Nick Rufford in the London Sunday Times in 1994. The British Defense Ministry, Rufford reported, had informed Prime Minister John Major that “Japan has acquired all the parts necessary for a nuclear weapon and may even have built a bomb which required only enriched uranium for completion.” Moreover, Japan has long held enormous stockpiles of plutonium for its nuclear power program, and its H-2 rocket, which has launched two satellites into orbit, is regarded as capable of delivering a nuclear strike. Writing in the Washington Quarterly, Marc Dean Millot commented: “This is the stuff of virtual nuclear power. Only a political decision is needed to make it real.”

Too edgy for Hong Kong

British national with lots of opinions discovers that his kind ain’t welcome in Hong Kong:

A British human rights activist who is vocal in criticising China and advocating for democracy in Hong Kong was barred from entering the city on Wednesday.

Benedict Rogers, the deputy chair of the UK Conservatives’ human rights commission, flew into Hong Kong on Wednesday morning on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok.

Update: ‘The idea of Hong Kong people running Hong Kong is dead,’ says British activist denied entry to the city

Rogers told HKFP at around 1:50pm that Hong Kong Immigration had denied him entry. No reason was provided to him.

I’m surprised they didn’t say “You yourself know the reason.”

Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui, who met Rogers in the UK earlier this month, said he understood that the Chinese embassy has warned Rogers that he will not be allowed to enter Hong Kong, despite causing no security threat.

“Now the warning from the embassy has come true, it means that the Hong Kong government has given up its autonomy on immigration to the central government,” said Hui.

This detail is telling:

As he was escorted to his flight out of Hong Kong, Rogers said, he turned to the immigration officer taking him to the plane and thanked him for treating him well. “I said: ‘Does this mean “one country, two systems” is dead? Is it “one country, one system” now?’

“He looked at me actually very sadly, almost with tears in his eyes, and said: ‘I’m just doing my job. I can’t comment.’”

But:

Hong Kong’s immigration department said it did not comment on specific cases, but went on to dispute Rogers’ version of events, saying its staff member who had escorted Rogers to the gate had not heard his comment on “one country, two systems”.

Reciprocity. Maybe the British government should turn back the next Hong Kong national who arrives at Heathrow Airport, unless a satisfactory explanation is provided.

More on the various ways in which Hong Kong as most people know it is over.