Our clueless elite

It’s hard to think of a more concise illustration of the gulf that separates America’s ruling class from those over whom they rule than this (full disclosure: I have never heard of Branson, and I’ve been to the Ozarks):

Have you ever been to Branson, Missouri? Do you even know what it is?

I gather it’s neither Aspen nor Hollywood.

Branson, Missouri, is an entertainment center, larger in every way than Hollywood. It is located in Branson, Missouri, in the Ozarks. It is one of the homes of country music stars and starlets. It’s a huge complex of every kind of family entertainment, from bass fishing to theater, music, museums, anything you can imagine. Now the fact that you have never heard of it typifies the limitations of the ruling class.

My oligarchical snobbery.

No, no, no. You haven’t even risen to that.

I’m a piker. I bet $5 on the trifecta at the dog track.

It typifies the limitations of the ruling class mind, not even to understand that over which you are lording it.

Hurting their feelings

Imagine my shock that Joe Tsai, the Taiwanese-Canadian co-founder of Alibaba and owner of the Brooklyn Nets, is gravely displeased by a tweet posted (and quickly deleted) by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey:

Open letter to all NBA fans:

When I bought controlling interest in the Brooklyn Nets in September, I didn’t expect my first public communication with our fans would be to comment on something as politically charged and grossly misunderstood as the way hundreds of millions of Chinese NBA fans feel about what just happened.

By now you have heard that Chinese fans have reacted extremely negatively to a tweet put out by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey in support of protests in Hong Kong.

The Rockets, who by far had been the favorite team in China, are now effectively shut out of the Chinese market as fans abandon their love for the team, broadcasters refuse to air their games and Chinese corporates pull sponsorships in droves.

Fans in China are calling for an explanation – if they are not getting it from the Houston Rockets, then it is natural that they ask others associated with the NBA to express a view.

The NBA is a fan-first league. When hundreds of millions of fans are furious over an issue, the league, and anyone associated with the NBA, will have to pay attention. As a Governor of one of the 30 NBA teams, and a Chinese having spent a good part of my professional life in China, I need to speak up.

What is the problem with people freely expressing their opinion? This freedom is an inherent American value and the NBA has been very progressive in allowing players and other constituents a platform to speak out on issues.

The problem is, there are certain topics that are third-rail issues in certain countries, societies and communities.

Supporting a separatist movement in a Chinese territory is one of those third-rail issues, not only for the Chinese government, but also for all citizens in China.

The one thing that is terribly misunderstood, and often ignored, by the western press and those critical of China is that 1.4 billion Chinese citizens stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland. This issue is non-negotiable.

A bit of historical perspective is important. In the mid-19thcentury, China fought two Opium Wars with the British, aided by the French, who forced through illegal trade of opium to China. A very weak Qing Dynasty government lost the wars and the result was the ceding of Hong Kong to the British as a colony.

The invasion of Chinese territories by foreign forces continued against a weak and defenseless Qing government, which precipitated in the Boxer Rebellion by Chinese peasants at the turn of the 20th century. In response, the Eight Nations Alliance – comprised of Japan, Russia, Britain, France, United States, Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary – dispatched their forces to occupy Chinese territories in the name of humanitarian intervention. The foreign forces marched into the Chinese capital Peking (now called Beijing), defeated the peasant rebels and proceeded to loot and pillage the capital city.

In 1937, Japan invaded China by capturing Beijing, Shanghai and the then-Chinese capital Nanjing. Imperial Japanese troops committed mass murder and rape against the residents of Nanjing, resulting in several hundred thousand civilian deaths. The war of resistance by the Chinese against Japan ended after tens of millions of Chinese casualties, and only after America joined the war against Japan post-Pearl Harbor.

I am going into all of this because a student of history will understand that the Chinese psyche has heavy baggage when it comes to any threat, foreign or domestic, to carve up Chinese territories.

When the topic of any separatist movement comes up, Chinese people feel a strong sense of shame and anger because of this history of foreign occupation.

By now I hope you can begin to understand why the Daryl Morey tweet is so damaging to the relationship with our fans in China. I don’t know Daryl personally. I am sure he’s a fine NBA general manager, and I will take at face value his subsequent apology that he was not as well informed as he should have been. But the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.

I hope to help the League to move on from this incident. I will continue to be an outspoken NBA Governor on issues that are important to China. I ask that our Chinese fans keep the faith in what the NBA and basketball can do to unite people from all over the world.

Sincerely,
Joe Tsai

Those of us who are familiar with China have received this history lesson before. Many times. And in a sense, the reaction of the fans is understandable. For other examples of this type of thing, see here, here, here and here.

Quote from the second link:

The Marriott International hotel chain has apologised and condemned “separatists” in China after the Beijing government shut down its website over an online questionnaire that suggested some Chinese regions were separate countries.

China’s Cyberspace Administration, the internet watchdog, said the hotelier had “seriously violated national laws and hurt the feelings of the Chinese people” after a customer survey listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau as separate countries. The regulator ordered Marriott’s website and booking applications to close for a week.

Note that phrase, “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people”—another formulation that China watchers will be very familiar with—and compare to Tsai’s version:

When the topic of any separatist movement comes up, Chinese people feel a strong sense of shame and anger because of this history of foreign occupation. […] the hurt that this incident has caused will take a long time to repair.

Shame. Anger. Hurt feelings. Separatism. Opium Wars. This is what American companies must now deal with because, well, 1.4 billion customers. (China is the NBA’s largest international market.)

Here we see the clash between two different, utterly incompatible value systems, each with its own virtues and flaws, which are now mutually entangled in a way that never before would have been possible due to globalization. The increasing preposterousness of the situation suggests that a great Untangling is coming, and soon.

Very old stories

This is intriguing:

In a new study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, a folklorist and anthropologist say that stories like Rumpelstiltskin and Jack and the Beanstalk are much older than originally thought. Instead of dating from the 1500s, the researchers say that some of these classic stories are 4,000 and 5,000 years old, respectively. This contradicts previous speculation that story collectors like the Brothers Grimm were relaying tales that were only a few hundred years old.

It turns out that it’s pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are using simple historical data. Since the tales were passed down orally, they can be almost impossible to unwind using a historian or anthropologist’s traditional toolbox. So the team borrowed from biology, instead, using a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists to trace the roots of 275 fairy tales through complex trees of language, population and culture. […]

As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories. More than a quarter of the stories turned out to have ancient roots—Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages more than 5,000 years ago and a tale called The Smith and the Devil appears to be more than 6,000 years old.

If true, this would mean that elements of present-day Western culture date back to before the Epic of Gilgamesh and before the first (legendary) dynasty of China. From the study:

Wilhelm Grimm argued that the traditional German tales that he and his brother Jacob had compiled were remnants of an ancient Indo-European cultural tradition that stretched from Scandinavia to South Asia…

In case you were wondering:

The Smith and the Devil is a European fairy tale. The story is of a smith who makes a pact with a malevolent being—commonly the Devil (in later times), Death or a genie—selling his soul for some power, then tricks the devil out of his prize. In one version, the smith gains the power to weld any material, he then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain.

(Sound familiar?)

We don’t need no Anglicisms

Takanawa Gateway station

Tokyo denizens push back against an attempt by the operator of the city’s most important railway line to saddle them with an unwanted English word:

A growing number of people say they dislike the name of a new station in Tokyo, set to be called Takanawa Gateway, and are calling for the station’s name to be changed after its recent announcement by railway operator East Japan Railway Co.

The name of the station, set to open on Tokyo’s Yamanote Line in 2020, was chosen from a list of suggested names submitted by and voted on by the public. That list was compiled from about 64,000 entries, more than 13,000 of which were unique.

After the votes were gathered, the entries were published according to the number of votes they had received. Takanawa Gateway, with 36 votes, was ranked 130th on the list. For comparison, Takanawa — the entry that came in first place — received 8,398 votes and Shibaura, in second place, got 4,265 votes, according to JR East. The final decision has led many to question why the company asked for recommendations at all.

A petition created Friday by columnist Mineko Nomachi, titled “Please change the name Takanawa Gateway,” had already garnered more than 12,000 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

“Gateway” is hard for many Japanese to pronounce. It requires five syllables: “ge-e-to-we-i.”

Proving that bureaucracy is stupid, the company is pushing back against the public:

JR East does not intend to rename the train station, according to Yusuke Yamawaki from the firm’s public relations department, adding that they did not decide on the name merely by the number of votes it received.

One detail from the story struck me:

“Not only is the name Takanawa Gateway so long it will lead to clerical mistakes, it doesn’t suit the region or the Yamanote Line, and therefore should be changed,” Nomachi wrote on the petition’s homepage. “People feel that it’s outdated to stick foreign words onto the end of names for no reason.”

If it’s true that the Japanese are losing their enthusiasm for “Engrish,” that would be another micro-indicator that globalization has shifted into reverse gear.

‘Member when a lot of people confidently believed that national identity was weakening due to the free flow of information, people, money and goods across borders? I ‘member that. Good times.

Then again:

With the government set to create a new immigration agency in April, some officials in Tokyo are already envisioning a day where it could be further upgraded into a ministry.

As the country looks to bring in more foreign workers to address a severe labor shortage, the Immigration Bureau will next year become an agency under the Justice Ministry, following the approval of a law by the Diet on Saturday. […]

For now, there is concern about potential understaffing at the new immigration agency. The government expects some 340,000 people will obtain a new visa for lower-skilled workers in the first five years.

Oh, and speaking of trains in Japan, this is cool:

The most isolated railway station in Western Japan, Tsubojiri station, 坪尻駅, on Shikoku Island. Located at the bottom of a deep mountain valley, there is no road to access this, only a steep mountain footpath. Very beautiful. #TrainTwitter

Tsubojiri station Japan

Navajo park shuts down to oust gnostic cult

More cult activity, this time in the Southwest:

Monument Valley Tribal Park has closed after a group was filming without a filming permit, leading to a demonstration, according to law enforcement officials.

The group was ousted while filming for “Witness in the Desert,” a project led by Derek Broes, a “gnostic luciferian,” better known as “Global Witness.”

Broes describes his film project as a “YouTube event like any other in history.”

“Multiple channel hosts that represent more than 2 million subscribers will participate in a live event that will be broadcast live from multiple locations in the ancient locations of tribal lands in and around Monument Valley, Arizona,” he said.

Derek Broes, aka Global Witness

Derek Broes, aka Global Witness

“The local authorities of (the tribal park) and local Oljato officials … have learned that the … group … is carrying out an unauthorized cult-related activity,” he wrote.

Law enforcement officers at the scene reported that at least 50 individuals protested against the closure saying doomsday is near, but many were delighted to have spent time in the park before it closed.

“One lady was walking in the middle of the road with a baby and a Bible and was yelling, ‘God forgives you!’” one officer, who did not want to be named, told the Times.

“It seems they have shut down the entire park to prevent us from going in,” Broes said in his latest video on his YouTube channel Global Witness.

Is 2018 the Year of the Cult? What is the meaning of this apparent surge of cult behavior in the US and elsewhere?

When the world is a prison

Prison Inside Me South Korea

only the prisoners are free:

For most people, prison is a place to escape from. For South Koreans in need of a break from the demands of everyday life, a day in a faux jail is the escape.

“This prison gives me a sense of freedom,” said Park Hye-ri, a 28-year-old office worker who paid $90 to spend 24 hours locked up in a mock prison.

Since 2013, the “Prison Inside Me” facility in northeast Hongcheon has hosted more than 2,000 inmates, many of them stressed office workers and students seeking relief from South Korea’s demanding work and academic culture.

This is no resort, either:

Prison rules are strict. No talking with other inmates. No mobile phones or clocks.

Clients get a blue prison uniform, a yoga mat, tea set, a pen and notebook. They sleep on the floor. There is a small toilet inside the room, but no mirror. […]

Noh said some customers are wary of spending 24 or 48 hours in a prison cell, until they try it.

“After a stay in the prison, people say, ‘This is not a prison, the real prison is where we return to,’” she said.

Koreans take things to the extreme; this may be their defining national characteristic. And the pressures of modern life are so extreme in Korea that sometimes you just need to spend a day in prison to escape from it all.

Age of cults

Keith Raniere NXIVM

Keith Raniere, founder of NXIVM

It seems that cults are all over the news these days. What gives? Here is a partial roundup of top cult stories from just the past week:

“How an Irish mother saved her child from the “sex cult” NXIVM” (Sept 21)

“Nicole Kidman: Why She’s Giving Son, 23, His ‘Freedom’ & Not Pressuring Him To Leave Scientology” (Sept 20)

“Trial starts for militant religious sect leader over abuse” (Sept 20) — Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps

“Alleged Sex Cult Mastermind Keith Raniere To Rot In Jail For Months Until Trial” (Sept 19) — NXIVM

“Heaven’s Gate Cult Threatens Legal Action Over Lil Uzi Vert’s “New Patek” Cover” (Sept 19)

“‘I lost my entire family to a cult’: How one woman escaped Grace Road” (Sept 19) — “A South Korean church which believes global famine is imminent has set up base in Fiji, where it’s gained considerable influence but faced growing allegations of abuse.”

“15-Month-Old Girl Was Starved to Death by Dad Connected to Black Supremacist Cult” (Sept 18) — United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors

(I’ll take this opportunity to mention that back in July, Japan executed the former leader and six other members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which carried out the infamous 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway. Police were on alert for shenanigans by Aum followers, who remain active.)

We certainly appear to be living through a time of mass hysteria and apocalyptic thinking, at least in the US, which may explain the plethora of cult-related headlines. As social mood continues to darken, the prevalence and popularity of cults may well increase.

The cultural iceberg

This is a useful model for conceptualizing cultural differences:

I might quibble with the placement of some of the items — for example, body language, gestures [insert Italian joke here], and concepts of cleanliness should probably be above the waterline… but it’s a good place to start.

Americans have a bad habit of assuming that because people in country X drink Starbucks coffee, use iPhones and eagerly consume American pop culture, they are becoming “Americanized” or “Westernized,” when in fact, all that is being observed is a partial transformation of the top of the iceberg.

Wrestling minus Marx

Antonio Graceffo has the distinction of being an American who wrote and defended a PhD dissertation entirely in Chinese at the Shanghai University of Sport. He has also arguably hit and kicked more people in more countries than any economist alive.

A sort of modern-day, Brooklynite version of Sir Richard Francis Burton, Dr Graceffo has learned pretty much every Asian language I’m aware of and has studied more varieties of martial arts than I ever knew existed, and that was before he decided to become a specialist on economics and US-China trade.

Anyway, I’m currently reading The Wrestler’s Dissertation: Shanghai University of Sport PhD in Wushu, Chinese and Western Wrestling, which is an English-language version of the paper that earned him a doctorate in China, but with all the boring Marxist theory crap taken out and all the interesting stuff, which the university urged him not to include, put back in.

I have to say that although I’m not the kind of person that would normally be enthralled by a book about wrestling, Graceffo offers some fascinating insights into the differences between Western and Chinese culture through the lens of the ancient sport.

You’ll have to read the book for all the details, but this article is an appetizer:

Finally, I determined that the major reasons for differences in wrestling rules, techniques and cultures between China and the US came down to competitiveness, aggression, and violence. The most popular sports in China are ping pong and badminton. Like wushu, these are neither aggressive nor violent. In the US, nearly 800 universities have American football teams, with over a million Americans playing on high school and college football teams. This suggests that American and western sports culture is far more aggressive and violent than Chinese sports culture.

I even made a handy, meme-able table summarizing the differences:

There’s a great deal else in the book, from discussions about Roman gladiators to Andre the Giant, UFC, and the Soviet-style sports education system that exists in China (and why it sucks). The amount of research that went into the book is alarming, actually, and made me want to call Antonio to ask if he was ok.

I did ask him to elaborate on how he was required to stuff his original paper with Communist agitprop, and he had this to say:

PhD dissertations generally have standard sections such as literature review, objectives of study, motivation of study, theoretical framework and expected findings and so forth. In China, however, you also have sections for Marxist theoretical framework, where you extol the benefits of Marxism and explain how the teachings of Marxism enhance your research. A Chinese PhD student who is currently one of my unofficial advisees is writing his sport PhD these about Marxist Policies and Their Effect on Athletic Performance.

When I was at the sports university, for my first PhD, I learned from my Chinese classmates to just write my dissertation in the normal way and with a normal topic, but to include two to three sections for “correct political thought” or “Marxist ideology” which were just huge, the bigger, the better, and complete nonsense fluff, unrelated to the rest of the paper. These things were easily searchable online, so you could find models to follow, so I wrote one, basically saying Marx was great and without him, people couldn’t wrestle. My class sister reviewed my paper and said, “You really need to say more nice things about Marxism.” So, she helped me flesh out that section.

When I went for my defense, I was very worried they would ask me about Marxism. In theory, they could ask you about any part of your dissertation. While they didn’t actually ask me about Marxism per se, they asked a number of very loaded questions about Chinese culture and within the context of Marxism, People’s Republic of China vs. Republic of China. So, I prepared answers which included the words “development, ideological framework, and 5,000 years of history.” Also, when I talked about these concepts, I said “our” rather than “China’s’, as in “We Chinese have 5,000 years of cultural history and exist within an ideological framework of Marxism which is why we are developing faster than the West.” While the professors were all smiling and nodding, satisfied, and my advisor was looking very proud, I quickly added, “and wrestling.”

Fortunately there’s none of that nonsense in the English version, so if you like martial arts, but you’re not big on dialectical materialism, this might be the book for you. You can download the Amazon Kindle edition for $5.49.

Will they say no to that hot cuppa Joe?

Peking University professor Jeffrey Towson has a few things to say about Starbucks in China:

The amazing thing about Starbucks China is not just the consumer trend. It is that plus the absence of a major China competitor.

Starbucks is a very successful Western business that, for some reason, has no clone or serious domestic competitor in China. This is really stunning.

Try to think of another China situation like this. Nike fights against Lining. Samsung fights against Huawei and Xiaomi. KFC fights against virtually everyone. And so on.

There is no “Starbucks of China”.

Can confirm.

CEO Schulz has said they will open 500 stores a year in China, for the next five years. That would take them from about 2,600 today to 5,000 China outlets by 2021. That sounds big. It’s not for China. […]

Starbucks should be thinking in terms of +10,000 China stores.

Jeez. That’s more than the number of outlets currently in the US.

Changing consumer behavior is what Wall Street should worry about.
Chinese consumers are the most fickle group I have ever encountered. The behavioral differences between age brackets is vast. And the rate of change within each bracket is fast. Brands and products rise and fall all the time in the PRC. Take a look at the wildly swinging market shares of Samsung and Xiaomi over the past couple of years.

Starbucks is somewhat more exposed to these swings than most. [Reasons why]

Fascinating. Here’s another Towson article, from last year, about the singularity of the US coffee giant in China:

So why doesn’t Starbucks have a serious competitor in China? I’ve been asking people this for months and I still can’t get a good answer. It’s weird. […]

Explanation 3: Senior Chinese business have a blindspot for coffee. […]

What is really stopping a major company like China Resources from opening 500 stores? Why can’t Wanda take over all the coffee outlets in their +100 Wanda Plazas? They are doing exactly that in hotels and cinemas at the moment. Why aren’t the big boys of China entering this market?

Is it possible that the senior business people of China all grew up drinking tea and never really started drinking coffee? Maybe people like Wang Jianlin just don’t like coffee?

Maybe he just doesn’t like coffee

Final Explanation: It could still be a fad.

This is the explanation that worries me. There is a possibility that retail coffee in China is, to some degree, a fad. Drinking expensive coffee with friends in a nice setting is still relatively new for most of China. This has only been going on for 5 years or so for most people. It is also sort of a status thing and Chinese consumers are notoriously fickle about what is currently cool. Is this somewhat a fad? Could the retail coffee market shrink by 20%? What if millennials lose interest? Could it ultimately be limited to just a small niche of the population? I think it is definitely possible. Maybe big companies are staying out because they don’t really believe in it long-term.

The prevalence of Starbucks in major cities is one of the most visible and obvious signs of international influence in China, and the Frappuccino-sipping, iPhone-wielding yuppie in Shanghai or Beijing is a staple of dumb commentary by foreign observers like our Instant China Expert.

If coffee-drinking in China does indeed prove to be a short-lived fad, and Starbucks ultimately shrivels without being replaced by a major foreign or homegrown competitor, then that could deal a significant blow to the narrative that China is westernizing. China will seem a little more foreign and confusing to many outsiders commenting on it.

Fun fact: The average Chinese drinks about five to six cups of coffee per year, compared to about 300 in the US. (Towson says that in 2013, it was 4 cups in China vs. 441 cups in the US and, amazingly, over 1,000 cups in Norway.)

Bonus: Here’s an article I wrote about Starbucks buying out its East China joint venture.