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)

Saturday links

Murderous Manila: On the Night Shift (part one of a series on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte):

If, in what I had come across going out on the night shift, there was anything that had probably met the aspirations of those who had voted for Duterte as president in May, it was these two scenes. For Duterte was and is very popular, and his drug war is popular too, for the moment. People like the drug war, but they are not entirely at ease with it. They do not think that the victims of that war should die (although that is a defining characteristic of the war so far). On the other hand, when there is somebody particularly antisocial, as in the two cases above, they are prepared to say: “He deserved it.”

In a survey by Social Weather Stations, 69 percent of those polled thought the incidence of EJKs was either very or somewhat serious. Only 3 percent thought it not serious at all. As to whether they believed that police were telling the truth that the suspects they killed in buy-bust operations had really resisted arrest, doubters and believers were evenly split, with 28 percent saying the police were definitely or probably telling the truth, and 29 percent saying they were definitely or probably not doing so. Overwhelmingly, however, 88 percent agreed, strongly or somewhat, that since Duterte became president, there has been a decrease in drug problems in their area. And that is the perception that appears to have trumped all others.

Part two of the series:

Looked at now, however, in the era of a thousand killings a month, the murder of [opposition leader Ninoy Aquino] seems to belong to a society in some respects more refined than that ushered in by the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president in 2016. Martial law under Marcos lasted from 1972 to 1981. Over three thousand people were killed, many of them cases of “salvagings”—bodies found tortured and mutilated, dumped at the roadside, much like the victims of today’s EJKs—extrajudicial killings—only far fewer of them, of course. Indeed, twice as many have been killed during Duterte’s first six months, starting last June, as in the decade of martial law.

Still, in the case of Ninoy, a certain lip service was paid to due process. An alibi was carefully prepared. Ninoy was warned against returning to the Philippines—warned by one of Marcos’s top men that he faced the risk of assassination. And an assassin was found and sacrificed, as it were, at the scene of the crime. When the postmortem contradicted the official story, an alternative postmortem was sought and found. There was some sense lingering in Marcos’s circle of what a respectable outcome would look like, even if respectability was not achieved.

China fact of the day:

Mortality rates among Chinese men aged 41 to 60, who account for nearly three-quarters of the working-age population, increased by 12% over the decade through 2013, the most recent data available. This was even as mortality rates generally improved across other age groups and genders.

You’re a Completely Different Person at 14 and 77 Years Old, Personality Study Suggests:

As a result of this gradual change, personality can appear relatively stable over short intervals – increasingly so throughout adulthood. However, the longer the interval between two assessments of personality, the weaker the relationship between the two tends to be.

Our results suggest that, when the interval is increased to as much as 63 years, there is hardly any relationship at all.

Reddit is Being Manipulated By Big Financial Services Companies:

In December last year, I managed to place two entirely fake news stories onto influential subreddits – with millions of subscribers – and vote them to the top with fake accounts and fake upvotes for less than $200. It was simple, cheap and effective.

What I hadn’t realised at the time was how widespread this shilling issue was. Professional marketing agencies, with offices in several different countries, offer these services often under the guise of “reputation management.” They don’t specifically talk about manipulating conversations online, instead using coded, dog whistle language like “targeted techniques” and “competitor slander.”

I Ignored Trump News for a Week. Here’s What I Learned:

But as the week wore on, I discovered several truths about our digital media ecosystem. Coverage of Mr. Trump may eclipse that of any single human being ever. The reasons have as much to do with him as the way social media amplifies every big story until it swallows the world. And as important as covering the president may be, I began to wonder if we were overdosing on Trump news, to the exclusion of everything else.

The new president doesn’t simply dominate national and political news. During my week of attempted Trump abstinence, I noticed something deeper: He has taken up semipermanent residence on every outlet of any kind, political or not. He is no longer just the message. In many cases, he has become the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow.