Curse of The Greg Zone

Weekly Standard It's Mueller TimeJust over a week after I lambasted Bill Kristol for his homicidal urges towards China (for which he still has not been banned from Twitter), we learn that the magazine he co-founded may be shutting down. Coincidence? You be the judge.

The Weekly Standard, whose paid circulation dropped by an estimated 10% between 2016 and 2017, has made itself rather redundant in recent years by driving away Trump-supporting readers, while failing to offer an alternative to the McCain-style neoconservatism that is far more effectively espoused by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Anyway, I take no joy in the prospect of people losing their jobs, and wish the staff of the magazine well in their future endeavors.

The New York Times lies about North Korea

South Korea Unification Bridge

South Korean soldiers walking on Unification Bridge

The Nation magazine discusses a breathless article by The New York Times that argues that North Korea is pulling a fast one on the US:

Now, [David] Sanger, who over the years has been the recipient of dozens of leaks from US intelligence on North Korea’s weapons program and the US attempts to stop it, has come out with his own doozy of a story that raises serious questions about his style of deep-state journalism.

The article may not involve the employment of sleazy sources with an ax to grind, but it does stretch the findings of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank that is deeply integrated with the military-industrial complex and plays an instrumental role in US media coverage on Korea.

“Controversy is raging,” South Korea’s progressive Hankyoreh newspaper declared on Wednesday about the Times report, which it called “riddled with holes and errors.”

Sanger’s story, which appeared on Monday underneath the ominous headline “In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception,” focused on a new study from CSIS’s “Beyond Parallel” project about the Sakkanmol Missile Operating Base, one of 13 North Korean missile sites, out of a total of 20, that it has identified and analyzed from overhead imagery provided by Digital Globe, a private satellite contractor.

The NYTimes story draws on the CSIS study to argue that North Korea is performing a “grand deception” by continuing work on its ballistic missile program at 16 secret bases, despite very publicly offering to dismantle a large missile launching site as a sop to the US. The article also points out that Kim is continuing to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons. In other words, Trump got played.

The problem is that the CSIS study in question is based on commercial satellite imagery dated March 29 – almost three months BEFORE Trump and Kim shook hands in Singapore! Moreover, the US and North Korea have not yet reached an agreement on the ballistic missile program, so Kim cannot possibly be cheating by continuing work on said program – if he even is, which is unclear.

Contrary to the impression one would get from a superficial reading of the Times story, the situation seems to be well under control, or at least, moving in the right direction:

South Korean officials are confident the US–North Korea talks will resume, and point to the steps Pyongyang has taken since the Singapore summit. They include North Korea’s decommissioning of a major satellite launch facility; its destruction of the tunnels where its nuclear weapons were tested; its return of American dead from the Korean War; and its unprecedented cooperation with South Korea and the US-controlled UN Command to remove guard posts and firearms in the DMZ.

The only deception here is coming from a certain newspaper. But why? The Nation has a theory:

Here’s where the contractor money that pours into CSIS comes in: Providing the justification for a tougher policy of sanctions and military threats would be very much in tune with the defense and intelligence companies that support the think tank.

Reality is complicated. Until recently, I had always thought of the New York Times as a left-wing, antiwar newspaper. Yet, the left-wing Nation magazine is here criticizing the New York Times for pushing a bogus narrative designed to thwart US diplomacy and justify a more bellicose policy towards North Korea. According to one expert quoted by the magazine, the Times is in effect acting as a mouthpiece for “the most reactionary elements of the US national security and foreign policy establishment.”

It may be that the categories of left-wing and right-wing just aren’t very useful for understanding the world anymore.

Fortune magazine sold

Chatchaval Jiaravanon

Chatchaval Jiaravanon

Fortune magazine has a new Thai owner:

Thai businessman Chatchaval Jiaravanon has acquired Fortune magazine for $150 million, in just the latest example of a U.S. business publication ending up in the hands of an East Asian buyer.

Be smart: The day might not be that far off when there are no major American-owned business publications at all. Even Business Insider is German.

Jiaravanon is a nephew of the famous billionaire and senior chairman of Thailand’s CP Group, Dhanin Chearavanont.

This continues a trend of Anglo-American media properties being sold off to Asian and European buyers. More from Axios:

The similar moves in the space:

Uzabase, a Japanese company, bought Quartz for about $100 million in July.

A mysterious Hong Kong-based group named Integrated Whale Media Investments bought control of Forbes magazine in 2014.

Lachlan Murdoch is openly wondering whether his father Rupert might sell the Wall Street Journal. Should that ever happen, don’t be surprised if that buyer, too, turns out to be East Asian.

I would add to that:

  • The Financial Times was sold to Japan’s Nikkei in 2015.
  • The Economist was sold to Italy’s Agnelli family, also in 2015.
  • Science magazines Nature and Scientific American are owned by Germany’s Holtzbrinck.
  • Book publishers Random House and Penguin – now combined as Penguin Random House – are subsidiaries of Germany’s Bertelsmann.
  • While we’re at it: the largest shareholder of the New York Times is Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

It’s not necessarily clear that all of these publishers can maintain their intellectual independence under foreign ownership, especially given the very different attitudes towards press freedom in certain Asian countries. For example, I noted last year that Forbes – having been swallowed by Hong Kong’s Integrated Whale Media – apparently told the prominent China skeptic Gordon Chang they were severing their relationship with him and wiping out his archive of articles. (However, his articles are still available on the site, so I’m not sure what the deal is there.) And Fortune will have to tread very carefully in its coverage of a certain southeast Asian monarch from now on…

America’s Belt and Road?

The US may be stepping up its game to counter China’s multi-trillion-dollar development strategy known as the Debt Trap Diplomacy–… sorry, the Belt and Road Initiative:

The US is preparing to create an agency that can invest up to $60bn in the developing world in an effort to counter what some in Washington describe as China’s use of debt to wage “economic warfare”.

In what observers say is the biggest shake-up of US commercial lending to developing countries in 50 years, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation will be folded into the new agency and allowed to invest in equity. At present Opic can invest only in debt, putting it at a disadvantage to European development finance institutions (DFIs).

Ray Washburne, president and chief executive of Opic, told the FT that China – by using what he called “loan-to-own programmes” – was “creating countries that have the shackles of debt around them”. That amounted to “economic warfare”, he said.

By more than doubling Opic’s lending ceiling to $60bn and allowing it to invest in equity, he said, it would be put on “an equal footing with other DFIs”.

According to the report, OPIC well be folded into the new agency, called the International Development Finance Corporation, and “The arrangement has been sold to the president.”

Of course, the US has other ways of creating potholes in China’s Belt and Road… This could get very interesting indeed. On a quasi-related note, China is ramping up its PR campaign in the US, according to Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Jacobs:

China Daily advertising supplement

Text of the full thread:

CHINA sends a message to Trump and Ambassador Branstad by taking over 4 pages of Des Moines Register. Advertising supplement has “news” on:

—China buying soybeans from South America due to “trade row”

—Xi Jinping’s “fun days in Iowa”

—“Beijing can set an example for the world.”

The advertisement, labeled as paid for by the “China Daily, and official publication of the People’s Republic of China” is like a 4-page tweet from the Chinese government. It calls the trade war with Trump the “fruit of a president’s folly.”

In 15 years of covering Iowa news, I cannot recall the Chinese making a play like this. Certainly unprecedented for China to take out a four-page advertisement in the DMR. [Emphasis added]

China uses this advertising format regularly—“news” inserts have appeared in Nepal, Australia, U.S., etc. per @kashishds, @lillebuen, @DavidMDrucker and others. Beijing seems to be talking straight to Trump with this Iowa ad on “China-U.S. economic interdependence.”

Newspaper advertorials are a relatively clunky way of getting the message out, and unlike, say, troll armies on social media, they aren’t plausibly deniable. Nevertheless, as much as Americans (and others) may roll their eyes at such obvious and heavy-handed PR efforts, the cumulative impact of China’s vigorous overseas messaging is likely to be non-zero.

Chinasplaining

Confucius Institute logo

From a 2017 article on the increasingly sophisticated global PR efforts of certain authoritarian states:

Consider this: As part of its “Great Leap Outward” in recent years, China has quietly built up a multibillion dollar international media empire transmitting content in a multitude of languages that is making inroads in dozens of countries around the globe. As an indication of its growing sophistication, Xinhua, the state news agency, and CGTN, the Chinese state television global network (until 2016 known as CCTV), cultivate content-sharing agreements in a growing number of countries, especially in young democracies. In countries such as Argentina, Kenya and Peru, the Chinese authorities embed their own entertainment, documentary and news programming into domestic media platforms, enabling CCP-friendly soft propaganda to reach audiences in these settings. […]

The Chinese government has placed enormous resources into relationship and network building, undertaking extensive people-to-people programs in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Eastern Europe. Through such efforts, many hundreds of students, media professionals and policymakers each year are brought to China, often full-freight paid by the Chinese hosts. Emblematic of these wide-ranging efforts are initiatives such as the June 2016 “Forum on China-Africa Media Cooperation” and the December 2013 “High-Level Symposium of Think Tanks of China and Central and Eastern European Countries,” which convened hundreds of media and think tank professionals in China. Chinese state-backed Confucius Institutes operate a vast network of cultural influence embedded in universities and schools—more than 1,000 institutes and classrooms operating worldwide.

Further reading here. Also see my comment yesterday on how the US should deal with foreign state-funded media.

An effective response by the US would include (but not be limited to) banning Confucius Institutes on American soil and restricting Chinese investment in the entertainment and media industries, exactly as China restricts foreign investment in those sectors.

Greg’s foreign media doctrine

The US is getting tough on Chinese state-owned media. But is it enough?

The Justice Department ordered two leading Chinese state-run media organizations to register as foreign agents, according to people familiar with the matter, as U.S. officials ramp up efforts to combat foreign influence operations and toughen their stance on a variety of China policies.

The DOJ in recent weeks told Xinhua News Agency and China Global Television Network—known as CGTN now and earlier as CCTV—to register under a previously obscure foreign lobbying law that gained prominence when it was used in the past year against associates of President Donald Trump, including Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, the people said.

The DOJ order comes as Washington and Beijing are involved in an escalating trade conflict, with China announcing on Tuesday it would retaliate for the U.S. tariffs unveiled Monday on $200 billion in Chinese goods. […]

The Justice Department told the senators it couldn’t comment on any potential continuing investigations and wrote that not all state-controlled media would necessarily be required to register as foreign agents, such as those that run news bureaus in the U.S. to report on events for an audience in their home countries.

“Unless there is an effort by the state-controlled media organization to use its reporting in the United States to target an audience here for purposes of perception management or to influence U.S. policy, there would probably be no obligation for it to register under FARA,” a DOJ official wrote in a letter dated Feb. 20 that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

It’s unclear whether Chinese media organizations like Xinhua and CGTN have significant audiences in America (although some of their messaging is clearly aimed at Americans). It’s also unclear what (if anything) separates normal “journalism” from “perception management,” and it’s unclear why media outlets such as Xinhua and Korea’s KBS America should be registered as foreign agents but not, say, the BBC.

The guidelines for FARA registration seem very vague. Another issue is that FARA-registered media entities are not required to stop producing content, including for American audiences (although they are required to disclose their funding and activities and pay a fee). Some laud this as a positive transparency measure, while others denounce it as a troubling assault on journalistic freedom, and yet others wish FARA had more teeth.

The whole situation is complex, murky, and unsatisfactory to a lot of people. I propose cutting through all the complexity by applying the principle of reciprocity. Quite simply, the US should treat foreign media outlets the way their respective countries treat US media outlets. For example, since China bans the publication and printing of foreign newspapers and magazines for sale in the mainland, the US should not allow China Daily to be sold from newspaper boxes on the streets of America’s major cities:

China Daily New York

(Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times)

And since China would never allow CNN, for example, to broadcast US foreign policy propaganda on Beijing’s giant Sky Screen, neither should Xinhua be allowed to broadcast Chinese foreign policy propaganda on a huge LED screen in Times Square:

Xinhua Times Square

(The Nanfang)

The same principle would apply to Russia, in whose capital city you allegedly can’t find a major foreign newspaper. (It should be pointed out that Russia’s attempts to control and limit foreign media predate the Kremlin’s recent move to label foreign media outlets as foreign agents, ostensibly in retaliation for the US doing the same to RT and Sputnik Radio.)

Besides being irreproachably fair, this policy would also expose the severe hypocrisy of any authoritarian governments that complain that their media outlets are being muzzled in the US, since the US would simply be mirroring the restrictive policies of those governments. Optimistically, this could even prompt some authoritarian governments to relax their controls on US media to regain their American footprint.

Now, this policy would do little to curb the Russian information warfare and influence operations that so terrify America’s political and media elites, as social media is the main battlefield for those alleged activities, carried out by armies of invisible trolls and bots. The rule of reciprocity hardly makes sense in the context of Twitter and Facebook. But that’s another story for another day.

Daily links: Putin, Ortega, and Kubrick

Axios describes the Russian president as “an enemy of the United States,” which is interesting because I wasn’t aware that Congress had declared war on the Russian Federation… and I doubt Axios would use such inflammatory and hysterical language to describe the president of China which, you may recall, has been accused of all sorts of damaging cyber espionage against the US, including stealing private information on tens of millions of government employees and other Americans.

Don’t mess with Florida: Trump reportedly read Putin the riot act over a campaign video illustrating nuclear missiles raining down on the state.

Russia to consider lifting a four-year-old ban on US adoptions. A good sign?

A lost, nearly complete Stanley Kubrick screenplay has been found, and it sounds sorta creepy.

An estimated 350 people have been killed in protests against Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega since April. It’s curious how little media attention the events in America’s backyard tend to receive.

At least 42 people, all believed to be Chinese tourists, died when their ferry in Thailand capsized. The Thai defense minister alleged that the ferry was illegally operated by a Chinese firm, concluding that “The Chinese did it to the Chinese,” then later walked back his comments.

Good call

I’m old enough to remember this cover of The Economist:

Excerpt from the August 31, 2013 issue:

THE grim spectacle of suffering in Syria—100,000 of whose people have died in its civil war—will haunt the world for a long time. Intervention has never looked easy, yet over the past two and a half years outsiders have missed many opportunities to affect the outcome for the better. Now America and its allies have been stirred into action by President Bashar Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons to murder around 1,000 civilians—the one thing that even Barack Obama has said he would never tolerate.

The American president and his allies have three choices: do nothing (or at least do as little as Mr Obama has done to date); launch a sustained assault with the clear aim of removing Mr Assad and his regime; or hit the Syrian dictator more briefly but grievously, as punishment for his use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Each carries the risk of making things worse, but the last is the best option. […]

If the West tolerates such a blatant war crime, Mr Assad will feel even freer to use chemical weapons. He had after all stepped across Mr Obama’s “red line” several times by using these weapons on a smaller scale—and found that Mr Obama and his allies blinked. An American threat, especially over WMD, must count for something: it is hard to see how Mr Obama can eat his words without the superpower losing credibility with the likes of Iran and North Korea.

Last month, we learned this:

The U.S. has no evidence to confirm reports from aid groups and others that the Syrian government has used the deadly chemical sarin on its citizens, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Friday.

“We have other reports from the battlefield from people who claim it’s been used,” Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon. “We do not have evidence of it.”

He said he was not rebutting the reports.

“We’re looking for evidence of it, since clearly we are dealing with the Assad regime that has used denial and deceit to hide their outlaw actions,” Mattis said.

To my immense shock, the Google search site:economist.com assad mattis for the year 2018 generates no hits. I wonder why not?

At this point, is there a single, solitary reason to believe anything reported by The Economist?

They found his lack of faith disturbing

There is some irony in the fact that China’s ruling party has outlived the Forbes career of Gordan “Collapse” Chang:

When a Chinese company buys a major American magazine, does the publication censor its coverage of China? There is only one example so far, and the results are discouraging. In 2014, a Hong Kong-based investment group called Integrated Whale Media purchased a majority stake in Forbes Media, one of the United States’ best-known media companies. It’s hard to demonstrate causality in such cases. But since that purchase, there have been several instances of editorial meddling on stories involving China that raise questions about Forbes magazine’s commitment to editorial independence.

On Oct. 9, longtime China commentator and Communist Party critic Gordon Chang received an email from Avik S.A. Roy, the opinion editor at Forbes. “Due to a wide-ranging reorganization of Forbes’ content,” Roy wrote, “we are going to be concluding our official relationship with you.” Roy added, “As a result of the organization, the articles you’ve written for us will no longer be stored on the Forbes server nor appear at Forbes.com,” according to the email Chang forwarded to me at my request.

Avik Roy, instrument of Gordan Chang’s collapse

I, for one, am amused to learn that a company called Integrated Whale Media exists. Regardless, this is a creepy case that may need to be added to our growing “Thought Policing by Remote Control” file (see also here, here and here).

Note the lack of an explanation for why Chang was cut loose and his articles erased (“Due to a wide-ranging reorganization of Forbes’ content” is not an explanation), combined with strong denials that any sort of censorship occurred.

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)