Generation 40s – 四十世代

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If American and Chinese youth believe in closer Sino-US ties under Trump, it’s time the experts did as well

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-11-21

Tom Plate says optimism among randomly sampled youth about the future of the China-US relationship, and the Donald Trump presidency, may well prove the power of positive thinking

Surprise! Few parents, perhaps ­including those in brand-adoring Asia, realise that Stanford University, on America’s sunny West Coast, is tougher for kids to get into than Princeton, Harvard or Yale. One star centre to which some of its best students – and faculty – gravitate is the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Centre (Aparc), in the heart of the campus. It focuses only on the Asia-Pacific, and no one does it better – whether Harvard or anyone else.

And so, given the fallout from President Donald Trump’s jaunt through Asia, and as I’d been previously invited by the research centre to hold forth on China-US relations, the moment to head up north from southern California had come.

True confession: put me in front of avid students, and I am the happiest clam in the harbour. During the session, one laser-sharp undergraduate, born in Vietnam, had a subtle China question that almost knocked me over. The first-year ­student inquired with indignation why I (allegedly) underrated her home country’s historic and heroic resilience to China’s aggression.

I managed to evade her total moral condemnation only by ­deploying Henry Kissinger’s famous quip about how one can do virtually anything successfully with the pragmatic Vietnamese – except invade them. She liked that.

At the end of the excellent 90 minutes, a brief opinion questionnaire I’d prepared was passed out to seminar attendees. Would relations deteriorate under Trump? Was war with China all but certain? And, if politicians on both sides of the Pacific could be kept from interfering in the bilateral relationship, would the American and Chinese people, even left to themselves, wind up with a better outcome?

I took their responses back to my university – Loyola Marymount (LMU) – and put the same triad of questions to my Asia class. Would there be significant differences of perspective? After all, the Stanford group weighed in much older – ­invited were faculty as well as other adult professionals from upscale Palo Alto, in addition to Stanford students; my Los Angeles sampling was comprised entirely of LMU students, aged 20 to 23.

Surprise again! There were hardly any significant differences. By a composite near landslide of 2-1, the vote was that relations with China would get better under the controversial Trump. Secondly, only 4 per cent felt war was all but certain. (Lopsided and inspirational.) And 78 per cent assessed that US-China relations would improve if only political figures on both sides would park their big egos elsewhere and leave everything to “the people”.

That seemed like genuine California dreaming to me, but what do I know? We so-called experts tend to get bogged down in the details of transpacific tensions [4] and differences – and they are serious ones. But it would be a happy notion ­indeed were the China-US relationship not so poisoned in American public opinion as to be beyond ­redemption – as suggested by these two campus groups informally and very unscientifically surveyed.

As for comparable mainland opinion, this is notoriously hard to gauge. Just as American polling establishments have been messing up – again and again their predictions miss the mark – scientifically solid opinion-taking in China is an even tougher pursuit.

Perhaps a touch more revealing, precisely because it is self-generated and random, are the views of the Chinese people in the heat of social media usage. While monitored by government censors, their social media is nonetheless so sprawling, robust and accessed that, at this point, it counts as virtually China’s “great wall” of self-reflection and revelation. (Westerners who think the Chinese people have utterly no thoughts of their own are very seriously misinformed.)

So a bright, bilingual mainland-born LMU student undertook a survey of Chinese social media opinion of post-trip Trump. Like my quickie polls, this was no rigorous social-science sampling. But it was an ­honest snapshot – and the results were similarly unexpected.

It turns out that the Chinese like what they see of Trump because he is so atypical. Social media users, discouraged from expressing blatant political views, tend to depict him as a TV star and “web celebrity”, with “funny facial expressions” and “using interesting words”.

Reports my researcher: “For these people, Trump is not a negative character for China. He seems really funny and he is nothing like other serious presidents. For them, that seems a big plus.”

Not everyone was positive, of course. Some worried that businessman Trump is one sly fox of a trade exploiter; some referred to the Chinese saying: “A weasel paying a New Year’s call to a chicken, with no good intentions.”

They view Trump as not stupid but worry that he will drag China into the complicated North Korea issue even more.

But, on the whole, the TV star image of Trump appears to be playing nicely in China, notably better than the dreary picture presented by the East Coast US news media.

What I learned last week was no more than a split-second snapshot of the moment, at the end of the day no more conclusive or predictive than is – say – the Dow Jones Industrial stock average at midday.

But for those of us who like to stay positive about the China-America relationship, a bit of sunshine cannot be so bad for our sense of balance. Professor Gi-Wook Shin, the Aparc director, lifted his eyebrows as high as mine over the apparent optimism, in north and south California. Positive thinking can generate a power all its own.

Columnist and professor Tom Plate, whose recent book on China is Yo-Yo Diplomacy, thanks LMU Asia Media staffers Deng Yuchan and Yi Ning Wong for their assistance

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退出UNESCO反映的「新單邊主義」

信報財經新聞
社評 社評
2017-10-14

美國總統特朗普對二戰後的國際政經秩序看不順眼已非新聞,從北約到歐盟到國際自由貿易協定如TPP(跨太平洋夥伴關係協定)都一一成為口誅筆伐的對象。到最近,狂人總統已不再滿足於以嘴巴和Twitter斥罵,開始付諸實質行動去改變甚至「拆毀」有關秩序。美國政府於周四宣布退出聯合國教科文組織(UNESCO),明年十二月底生效,令這個致力全球文物古蹟保育及文化交流的組織不但失去最重要的創會成員,更失去每年數以億元計的經費。

美國國務院解釋,退出UNESCO有幾個原因,包括組織有明顯反以色列傾向、開支過大及發展方向不對頭需要大規模改革等。在退出後,美國會保留觀察員身份提供專業意見,以示不會跟這個重要國際組織一刀兩斷。

特朗普政府批評UNESCO反以色列不能算完全沒有理由,畢竟這個組織二○一一年投票通過巴勒斯坦成為正式會員,變相認同巴勒斯坦作為主權國家的地位,開了聯合國屬下組織的先例;以色列固然不爽,作為以色列主要盟友的美國也不是味兒。事實上,前總統奧巴馬就因為UNESCO接納巴勒斯坦為成員而拒繳五億美元經費,以示抗議。

不過,美國跟UNESCO的恩怨情仇已經糾結多年,雙方並不純粹因為以色列而決裂。追本溯源,UNESCO於一九四五年由美國主催成立,本意是傳播西方特別是美國文化及意識形態,增強軟實力,向專權政府以至共產主義陣營施壓。但隨着七八十年代大量第三世界國家加入,美國的影響力大不如前,UNESCO逐漸成為批判西方文化霸權的先鋒,更一度提出打造「國際資訊新秩序」(New International Information Order)的口號,倡議建立非西方的傳媒網絡,為第三世界發聲。

到一九八三年,當時的列根政府忍無可忍,以UNESCO過分政治化及親蘇聯(俄羅斯前身)為理由宣布退出組織,震動國際社會。二○○一年爆發九一一恐襲後,小布殊政府為爭取不同陣營國家支持,才決定讓美國重新加入UNESCO。既有如此這般的前嫌積怨,加上美國重返組織後未能左右大局,包括影響下任總幹事的任命,破格的特朗普於是眼不眨、眉不皺說退就退。

更重要的是,特朗普退出UNESCO只是他厲行美國優先策略、重整二戰國際政治秩序的其中一步而已,「反枱」動作陸續有來。就以被視為戰後金融秩序基石的世界銀行為例,美國雖然因股權架構設計而保有重大決策否決權,但特朗普正準備向它開刀,不但堅決反對世界銀行的新一輪增資建議,並要求這組織改變貸款及資助政策,特別是要減少對中等收入國家如中國的援助及合作計劃。

本周末在華盛頓舉行的國際貨幣基金組織及世銀年會,美國代表肯定會全力推動特朗普的看法,呼籲改革,估計年會或陷入爭議,難有成果,還有可能引發中美之間的新一輪齟齬。

UNESCO、世銀以外,特朗普對美國過去簽訂的多邊協定(不管是政治抑或經濟層面)同樣是推翻的推翻,修改的修改,一股顛覆氣勢。伊朗核協議是經過美、歐、俄、伊朗等國多年斡旋及互諒互讓下才達成的,算是通過外交談判避免核武器擴散的罕有例子。可是特朗普卻一而再威脅不確認協議,且有意讓國會對伊朗施加新的制裁條款,惹起伊朗及其他國家反感,隨時令限核協議土崩瓦解。

此外,北美自由貿易協定(NAFTA)是美國、加拿大、墨西哥三國經輾轉談判在九十年代中達成,二十多年來令三國形成強固的經濟貿易共同體及產業鏈,也令製造業如美國車廠可用盡三地的好處,減低成本,提升競爭力。特朗普上台未幾便不斷要求大幅重寫這份互利互惠的協定,置貿易夥伴的合作及利益於不顧,甚至不惜威脅單方面退出協議。日前他會見加拿大總理杜魯多時,就即席公開說北美自由貿易協定問題甚多,「死不足惜」。

種種舉動清楚顯示,特朗普政府治下的美國正大踏步走向新的孤立主義、單邊主義,片面強調本國利益,無視國際合作及共存共榮關係。按這個趨勢發展下去,美國在聯合國、IMF、世界貿易組織的角色將面臨大變,從領導者、捍衞者變成顛覆者、破壞者,這不但會削弱得來不易的多邊合作框架,更有可能令國際政經秩序出現權力真空,各種爭議、矛盾更糾結難解!


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With cowboy Trump leading trigger-happy America, should the world worry?

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-10-10
Tom Plate says gun culture is in the DNA of America, represented by Donald Trump in the best tradition of John Wayne Westerns. Until diplomatic balance is achieved, this is a fact that the world, including China, must live with

Individual gun ownership is a right proffered under the ­second amendment to the US Constitution. In killing 58 people and injuring about 500 last week, the perpetrator of the Las Vegas mass shooting had at the ready about two dozen guns in his hotel room, and dozens elsewhere. The average citizen’s right to bear arms mirrors the way the US thinks about foreign relations – which will also lead to unnecessary tragedy.

These days, neither near-absolute gun rights at home nor the reliance on military power abroad is working well for America. The Las Vegas massacre prompted knowing shrugs and dismissive ­gestures around the world. America is widely viewed as gun crazy and, after last week, the world might well view roll-the-dice Vegas as a symbol for our culture of risk.

Foreign policy is no easy subject even for university graduate students; so imagine my fear standing in front of a packed classroom of Chinese middle-school students, visiting my Loyola Marymount University not long ago, where I was to offer 90 minutes about US relations with the world. What does – what can – a professor say to 12- to 16-year-olds from Shenzhen? A John Wayne simulation seemed the best option – staging a virtual foreign-policy shootout. These great kids were asked to make believe they were in a Hollywood movie – like a John Wayne Western, with the Good Guys (white hats) aiming to take down the Bad Guys (black hats). After a few cowboy videos to illustrate, and utilising classroom rulers as guns, we randomly decided on a few Bad Guys to shoot and had the white-hats (more aggressive-looking kids) go after them, rulers blazing. Before long, we had got rid of all the Bad Guys (bad actors, rogue nations) who were of course responsible for all the “problems” (international tension, war threats).

Having created this virtual ­utopia, the students were gleeful and proud, until it was pointed out that two of the dead Bad Guys were really Good Guys. While they were shot by innocent mistake, they were still dead, and so now we had a different problem. How to tell the bad from the good guys – you can’t just shoot everyone.

The kids got the point – that trying to “solve problems” by pulling a gun and looking for troublemakers creates dangers itself. Yet, from Vietnam to Iraq, the US seeks to ­improve the world with guns and militaristic poses, though we are hardly the only country with a big military. In fact, the session ended with the classroom-wide hope that China will not “go cowboy” when faced with foreign-policy “problems” but will find a smarter way.

Alas, in America, the historic Chinese naval build-up has raised fears, not eased them. But, in addition to that new worry is the related fear that we Americans are starting to have about ourselves. Suddenly, there are visible holes in the “Great Wall of American ­exceptionalism”. To employ Jean Paul Sartre’s prescient phrase, it is as if the West understood it “was springing leaks everywhere”.

Las Vegas, where more people died than in any comparable incident in US history, ­offered unmistakable evidence of structural societal leakage.

Irrationality can be a symptom of insecurity: if you add up everything spent on defence not just by giant China but also by Russia – and also add in the defence budgets of Britain, Japan, India, France and Saudi Arabia – it all still bulks up to less than the US continues to spend.

China did not cause this long-running American spending binge that sets history’s high bar for perpetual militarisation. Such was in our DNA – macho movie star John Wayne rolling in front of our eyes with all the self-confidence we imagine guns can buy. Given a cultural heritage like this, might not President Donald Trump, a former casino owner, conflate a blazing missile offensive with hitting the jackpot? We hope not – but would it really be totally out of character when you consider his characteristic John Wayne public posturing and tweeting over North Korea?

“Sorry – but only one thing will work”, he bellowed over the weekend about Pyongyang.

Admittedly, there is no doubt that the rise of China, which started decades ago, of course, but only relatively recently caught the attention of the US public, has added weight to the droop in confidence – and need for ego reinforcement.

So, just as the gun-control movement in America will probably go nowhere, so too movement in ­reversing national armament levels – including, sadly, nuclear weapons – will go nowhere. DNA is destiny: and this is what the world, not to mention China, must be prepared to live with.

It is the one very big takeaway from the Vegas tragedy.

The so-named “Thucydides Trap”, so popular in certain circles, hypothesises that when the fast-rising power threatens the dominance of the established power, the conditions for war between them intensify. But it’s only one hypothesis.

Another hypothesis (mine) says that when the rising power brushes up against the established power, the rising power – if it is smart – will negotiate differences to keep a ­rational lid on its armaments spending, thus freeing up funds for the people’s true welfare.

This is the “Alliance-for-Progress Escape from the Thucydides Trap”. I know, it’s no catchy phrase. But it does propose a path away from hell, which is what happened in Vegas, reminding us anew that the violence option is often the problem itself.

To believe otherwise – especially in this nuclear age – is, well, moronic. Getting the balance right is the best way to avoid becoming seriously unbalanced.

Columnist Tom Plate is a Loyola Marymount University professor and an author of many books about Asia, including the recent Yo-Yo Diplomacy


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What Facebook, Twitter and Trump are telling us about fake news and a polarised world

CommentInsight & Opinion
2017-10-03
Niall Ferguson says the rise of social media platforms has revolutionised the democratic process, with rogue users able to spread not just fake news but extreme opinions to cause massive polarisation, as like attracts like

Last October, with just a few weeks to go for the US presidential election, I pointed out something strange about Donald Trump’s campaign. At a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump had read out a leaked email he claimed was from Hillary Clinton’s confidant Sidney Blumenthal, which suggested that the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died, could have been prevented by Clinton, then secretary of state. The crowd lapped it up.

In fact, as I pointed out, the words Trump read had been lifted from a Newsweek article and falsely attributed to Blumenthal by Sputnik, a Russian news website. It was already clear that Moscow was meddling in the election. A Homeland Security statement said the Kremlin had “directed” the hacking of email accounts associated with the Democratic Party “to interfere with the US election process”.

There was not much doubt that Russia was behind the release by WikiLeaks of emails to and from Clinton.

Shortly after the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed as “a pretty crazy idea” the notion that fake news might have decided the contest in Trump’s favour. Last week, he had to admit that he regretted those words.

We now know that before (and after) the election, Russian trolls with bogus identities bought more than 3,000 Facebook ads. The Russians also used Facebook Events to organise phoney political protests in the US, including an anti-immigrant rally in a small Idaho town known for welcoming refugees. It was to be “hosted” by “SecuredBorders”, a Facebook group exposed in March as a Russian front.

Twitter was used in a similar way. In response to congressional investigations, the company admitted last week it had identified about 200 accounts linked to Russia, and that Kremlin-backed news site RT spent US$250,000 on Twitter ads last year.

It is still too early to conclude that Russian use of social media decided the election. However, we probably can conclude that social media decided the election. The Trump campaign spent about US$90 million on social media, most of it on Facebook. Last November, Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s digital director, said: “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing.” I believe he is right.

In less than a decade, the public sphere – and the democratic process – has been revolutionised. In 2008, the defeated Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, had 4,492 Twitter followers and 625,000 Facebook friends. Barack Obama had four times as many “friends” and 26 times as many followers. Yet the platforms were still in their infancy.

Today, Facebook has more than 2 billion users around the world. In America, about two-thirds of adults are on Facebook. Nearly half get their news from it. One in 10 gets news from Twitter. About 40 million people (and bots) follow @realDonaldTrump.

Everyone, including Russian trolls, as long as they conceal their whereabouts, can use social networks to spread not just falsehoods but extreme opinions. This is a key problem the titans of Silicon Valley gravely underestimated. The tendency for “birds of a feather to flock together” means like-minded people form clusters in any social network, regardless of its size.

The result is massive polarisation. A recent study of 665 blogs and 16,852 links between them showed that they formed two almost separate clusters: one liberal, the other conservative. A study of Twitter revealed that retweets have the same character: conservatives retweet only conservative tweets. A study of language used on Twitter showed that, on ­hot-button issues such as gun control, same-sex marriage and climate change, it is the tweets using moral and emotional language that are more likely to be retweeted.

The sky is darkening over Silicon Valley. Facebook or Fakebook? Twitter or Twister? Last week, Trump fired his first shot directly at Facebook: “Facebook was always anti-Trump.” Zuckerberg shot back: “That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”

The key question is how tenable that defence now is. A platform for all ideas? Or the most powerful media publisher in the history of the world?

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford

 


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White House comedy distracts America from the age of automation and looming job losses

South China Morning Post
Insight & Opinion
2017-08-01

Niall Ferguson says with the White House reduced to providing fodder for late-night comics, and all eyes on @realDonaldTrump, the spectre of human redundancy amid a speedy tech revolution is being ignored

The US presidential election last year was a choice between two second world war acronyms: snafu (situation normal, all f***** up) and fubar (f***** up beyond all recognition).

American voters faced a choice between a candidate who personified the political status quo, and a candidate who promised the disruption of that status quo. With Hillary Clinton, there was the certainty that nothing much would change. With Donald Trump there was the chance of quite a lot of change, but the risk was that it would be change for the worse. Twelve months ago, it was dawning on me that there might just be enough voters willing to gamble on Trump, knowing full well that the outcome might be fubar.

Since Trump’s election, I have tried to swim against liberal opinion. The more commentators proclaimed the advent of tyranny and the end of the republic, the more I tried to argue that the Trump administration belongs firmly in the tradition of American populism. The more journalists cried “Watergate”, the more I tried to show that Trump isn’t Richard Nixon: with his dynastic approach and louche personality, he more closely resembles John F Kennedy.

My goal has not been to defend Trump, but rather to expose the inconsistencies of his critics. However, the time has arrived to break the bad news to those who voted for Trump.

You wanted change. You got it. But the result is a political system that I can now officially certify as fubar. This is not politics. This is fubatics.

Seven months ago, House Speaker Paul Ryan was proclaiming the “opportunity of a lifetime” for Republicans. Having achieved “unified government” – control of the White House and both Houses of Congress – their party was poised to enact a transformative legislative programme: repeal and replace Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, comprehensive tax reform and a roll-back of economic regulation.

Yet,the Senate could not even agree on a “skinny” bill to repeal just parts of Obamacare. The same week, the Republicans abandoned all hope of passing the border adjustment tax, without which there can be no permanent cuts in corporate and income tax. As for deregulation, this was also the week when Steve Bannon, the chief presidential strategist, said he wanted to regulate Google and Facebook like public utilities.

Wait. Right now Google and Facebook are free. By contrast, I pay hundreds of dollars every month to the utilities.

Fubatics is to politics what comedy is to news. Ever since Americans began to get their politics from comedians such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, the danger was that the politicians would respond by providing their scriptwriters with material for gags. We have now reached that point.

Newly appointed White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, last week told a New Yorker journalist that his colleague, chief of staff Reince Priebus, was a “f****** paranoid schizophrenic, a paranoiac … I want to f****** kill all the leakers and I want to get the president’s agenda on track.” He took to Twitter to imply that Priebus was guilty of a “felony” in leaking details about his finances. By Friday, Priebus was gone. The previous week’s casualty was press secretary Sean Spicer. Next on Trump’s hit list: Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Unified government? These guys are unified the way the cast of Reservoir Dogs were unified. Or maybe Goodfellas.

Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley, the plan to render most Americans, and most humans, unemployed goes forward. If you don’t live in northern California, you tend to assume that it will be decades before self-driving vehicles are the dominant mode of transport.

Michael Gove, the British environment secretary, announced that the sale of new diesel and petrol cars would be banned in the UK by 2040 to encourage people to buy electric vehicles. This surely underestimates Tesla founder Elon Musk, not to mention the car makers chasing him in the race to bring e-cars to the mass market. Gove’s worries about diesel fumes remind me of The Times’ 1894 editorial warning that by the mid-20th century every street in London would be buried under horse manure. Despite evidence of the accelerating pace of technological change, we humans remain chronically bad at making realistic projections about our economic future. The American Trucking Association says the number of jobs for truck drivers will be 21 per cent higher in 2020 than in 2010. Yet self-driving vehicles are already on the road in several US states.

There are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US. It is the most common job in most states. But they sit where drivers of horse-drawn carriages once were: on the brink of unemployment. Nor are they alone. Nearly half the jobs in America are at risk of being automated over the next decade or two, according to Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University. Looking at global employment, the McKinsey Global Institute has concluded that “half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055, but this could happen up to 20 years earlier”.

Trump voters thought it was globalisation that destroyed the good jobs in American manufacturing. In reality it was globalisation and technology. Now technology is getting ready to destroy the not-so-good jobs too.

US President Donald Trump waves from a fire truck as Vice-President Mike Pence looks on, at a Made in America event on the South Lawn of the White House, on July 17. Photo: Bloomberg

As an economic historian, I cling to the hope that predictions of the impending redundancy of humanity, like similar predictions at earlier stages of industrialisation, will turn out to be wrong. As a reader of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, I also expect bloody-minded humanity to put up more of a fight against the automation of the world than Silicon Valley expects. This is why Google and Facebook are the new targets of Bannon’s populism.

Yet, as I watched my son play gleefully with a toy robot called Robosapien, the Action Man we gave him for Christmas forgotten, suddenly I felt a sense of kinship with that poor, discarded doll.

The goings-on in Washington are the comedy politics of a distracted age. But the more attention we give @realDonaldTrump on Twitter, the less we pay to the economic revolution all around us. The future belongs to robotics, not fubatics.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford