Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Fears of Chinese infiltration on US campuses reveal the closing of the American mind

CommentInsight & Opinion

Tom Plate says the targeting of Confucius Institutes in the US as potentially subversive threats shows how little many Americans know about China, and even about their own universities – where differences of opinion are gradually disappearing

Simplistic judgment is a common malady from which academics and intellectuals, alas, seem no more immune than politicians. In Texas, a “red scare” has whipped up like a prairie storm: a pair of congressmen, expressing unctuous concern, are pressuring local universities to cut formal educational links with China, in particular its Confucius Institutes. They have told state officials of worries about “communist government influence on your campus”.

Confucius Institutes are funded by the Chinese government for the announced purpose of offering free instruction to foreign students in the Chinese language and Confucian philosophy in their country. On the whole, they amount to a helpful addition to foreign-language curricula and are no more subversive than branches of US universities in China.

Even so, Texas A&M University wilted in the hot-air windstorm, and it was not the first. It followed opt-outs at the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University. Chancellor John Sharp explained why he followed the recommendation of Republican Congressmen Michael McCaul and Democrat Henry Cuellar this way: “They have access to classified information we do not have. We are terminating the contract [with China] as they suggested.” Other universities, in and out of Texas, are reviewing their institutes.

Back in 2004, the University of Maryland took in the first Confucius Institute; their numbers have grown dramatically in the United States since then. They also train Chinese-language teachers and underwrite scholarly publications. As, ultimately, they are under China’s Ministry of Education, they can be somewhat likened to libraries operated overseas by the US Information Agency in their fealty to the home government. The paranoiac pair of Texas congressmen believe the effort is confusing students with pro-Chinese communist notions and other evil, subversive ideas.


Well, here is the scary story as some may imagine it, and it may stun many of you – though not Texans, of course: It is true that all Chinese citizens on the mainland are brainwashed to think exactly alike – born to be automatons. The way this is done is that many are hurriedly dunked, not minutes after birth, into a sort of MRI-like bath that somehow rewires normal DNA into a combative communist doublethink helix. Sort of like lobsters in a pot gradually being brought to boil, before they know it their brain is cooked, and they become food for commie thought. These secretly sautéed citizens comprise a phalanx of Confucius cadres – a clear and present menace to “free” society.

What infantilism! American universities need to rise above this nonsense. One major institution that, admirably, has kept its poise is the University of California at Los Angeles, which has dismissed the Confucius Institute controversy with the sort of clear-headed self-confidence one expects from a great research university. Its formal review, headed by UCLA political scientist Mark Peterson, assessed its campus chapter as a valuable instrument of cultural diversity, not some nasty ideological submarine. UCLA students pointed out the folly of broad-brushing Chinese instructors and students as propaganda robots.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Britain’s Prince Andrew unveil the Confucius Classroom at Hautlieu School in London in October 2015. More than 500 of the institutes, which are affiliated with the Ministry of Education, have opened around the world on six continents, but not without controversy. Photo: Xinhua

There’s another issue that needs to be addressed. It’s that the much-advertised binary contrast between America’s totally “open” society and totally “closed” China’s is overdrawn. How much orthodoxy in political instruction the Xi Jinping government will be formally requiring of its universities is as yet unclear (for any professor, of course, an inherent worry). But China’s intellectual validity is hardly confined to the campus.

China fields more think tanks than any other country aside from the US. Few wear ideological dunce caps and sit in a corner searching for hidden proletariat algorithms in the Little Red Book. The Lauder Institute of University of Pennsylvania rates nine of China’s think tanks as among the world’s 175 best. That estimate may be on the conservative side. America, with a fourth of China’s population, does have four times as many think tanks; and more great universities, though Tsinghua and Peking (and sometimes Fudan in Shanghai) make every credible global top 100 list.

For their part, US universities have their own set of problems. One is political homogeneity. As provocatively framed in the lead essay by philosopher John Gray in the current Times Literary Supplement, a high-level London review, there has been a creeping sterilisation of some Western universities “into institutions devoted to the eradication of thought crime”; where course reading materials are “routinely scrutinised” for material that “students might find discomforting”; where faculty members face “attempts to silence them or terminate their careers” when they challenge a prevailing campus consensus; and where invited guest lecturers wind up disinvited because “their views were deemed unspeakable”. Gray, until retirement a decade ago a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, adds: “When students from China study in Western countries, one of the lessons they learn is that the enforcement in intellectual orthodoxy does not require an authoritarian government.”

What’s more, American ideology sweetly imagines the universal applicability of its “democratic” system – as if one size fits all. Leaving aside that at the moment our Trumpian iteration would prove a hard sell almost anywhere, it is fatuous to ignore the gradual shrinking of the West’s political mind – and not just in uptight Texas. “Liberticide” is the word John Stuart Mill used for the destruction of intellectual freedom that comes when everyone is required to hold the same view.

And so we must acknowledge that the political cultures of China and America are not as if Mars to Venus. Sensible citizens on both sides of the China-US divide know that ideological thinking will only deepen divisions – and misunderstandings. A superiority complex, on either side, is a good way to achieve bad results. Intellectual and political humility is wisest. Confucius was often right, Marx was not always wrong, East and West need to learn from – and respect – one another.

Columnist Tom Plate taught at UCLA for 15 years before joining Loyola Marymount University as its distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies


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‘America first’ shouldn’t stop the US from welcoming Chinese students and other global talent

CommentInsight & Opinion

Vasilis Trigkas says US protectionism in the form of visa restrictions on Chinese seeking to study in American universities would only harm the country, which has long benefited from being able to attract top talent

Almost half a century after the “Nixon shock”, when US President Nixon unilaterally declared that the United States would abandon the dollar’s convertibility to gold and impose a 10 per cent import surcharge, the world is now being shaken by the “Trump shock”. While Nixon targeted the European and Japanese trade surpluses, this time, the epicentre of the president’s rage is China’s strategic protectionism, which compels US corporations to transfer technology in return for access to the world’s most populous market.

The US administration has gone to great lengths to quantify the damage that Chinese techno-protectionism has caused to American industry and puts the bill at more than US$60 billion per year – the value of Chinese imports that President Donald Trump chose to apply retaliatory tariffs on. While there are indeed reasonable concerns about China’s coercive treatment of US and European companies and its draconian market access regulations, the proclamation that China’s success is based on technology theft to the detriment of US society does not do justice to the genuine efforts of the Chinese people to modernise the country.

At the core of China’s accomplishments in science and technology have been hardworking students and researchers who studied in universities across the US. As President Jimmy Carter put it, recalling a classic incident characterising the US-China rapprochement of the late 70s: “One night, the phone rang about 3 o’clock in the morning, and I thought ‘Oh my, there’s a tragedy somewhere in the United States … It was my national science advisor. He said, ‘Deng Xiaoping insisted I call you now to see if you would permit 5,000 Chinese students to come to American universities.’ And I said, ‘Tell him to send a 100,000.’”

Since then, the number of Chinese students who attend US universities has risen exponentially, surpassing 320,000 in 2015-16. Undergraduate and postgraduate students are usually self-funded and contribute substantially to the revenues of American universities – income that is reflected in the US trade of services surplus with China. Those enrolled in doctoral programmes are usually sponsored by US-based foundations, but their selection is meritocratic and their contribution to US scientific excellence essential. US universities have long been leaders in cutting-edge research mostly due to their ability to attract the world’s brightest researchers, evaluate their work purely by its scientific merit and build a cosmopolitan community of scientists in their laboratories.

While many Chinese researchers in some of America’s most prestigious universities have chosen to stay in the US and work in Silicon Valley or pursue an academic career, others have returned to China, sharing ideas and knowledge with their compatriots. This transfer of knowledge and research methodology has been the catalyst for China’s meteoric rise in innovation and technology rankings. Some of the stellar science professors at Tsinghua University, which now ranks higher than MIT in computer science and engineering, according to the US News and World Report, have been US educated while others have been visiting researchers at top US research laboratories.

Still, economic nationalists could assert that the eventual repatriation of US-educated Chinese is proof of strategic myopia and that the US should limit student visas to Chinese researchers and intervene in the meritocratic selection of candidates by US universities – an action that is already being considered. Yet, such restrictions would inhibit the attraction of top talent to the US and undermine the nation’s innovative capacity. In addition, the US-educated repatriated Chinese have spent some of their most creative years living in a vibrant republic and, however patriotic and committed they are to their homeland, their appreciation for freedom could eventually become the catalyst for a peaceful transition to a more open and liberal political regime at home – an eventuality with enormous dividends for the US and the world.

Yan Xuetong, a professor at Tsinghua University, has asserted that the unfolding technological competition between the US and China will be determined by the quality of human talent that each side attracts. The US out-innovated both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, for it remained a beacon of liberty able to attract the world’s smartest people. If the US administration targets Chinese researchers and builds walls barring talent, by making H1B visas harder to obtain for example, it will undermine the vibrancy of the US economy, hindering its ability to innovate. Meanwhile, China has offered significant incentives to attract international scholars and is narrowing the human capital gap with the US.

People-to-people exchanges remain the most solid element empowering Sino-US relations, for people do not just transfer knowledge but also ideas and ideals crystallised into vivid memories of personal interactions. Cheng Li, a Brookings scholar and Chinese immigrant to the US, declared at a recent forum that if Sino-US people-to-people exchanges are harmed, there will be nothing left to prevent a new cold war. Initiatives such as “100,000 Strong”, which supports US students in China, should be pursued with bilateral support.

China and the US must not target researchers but instead empower them to flourish and share the fruits of their intellectual achievements with the world. As British historian Arnold Toybnee said: “We shall have to share out the fruits of technology among the whole of mankind. The notion that the direct and immediate producers of the fruits of technology have a proprietary right to these fruits will have to be forgotten.”

Vasilis Trigkas is an Onassis Scholar and research fellow in the Belt & Road Strategy Centre at Tsinghua University

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How Hong Kong’s tax regime short-changes residents by encouraging speculation and evading the city’s funding needs

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Stefano Mariani says the missing piece in Hong Kong’s budget is tax reform, as Hongkongers have not made the connection between the city’s ‘simple and low’ tax regime and its housing, infrastructure and retirement protection problems

Wednesday’s budget again raised the vexed question on which the future of our city’s public finances depends: whither tax reform?

The usual array of middle-class tax breaks are beginning to assume the character of cynical bribes. They represent a short-termist approach to public expenditure, the fiscal equivalent of bread and circuses. Because tax is not an electoral issue in Hong Kong, inasmuch as most residents pay no tax at all, it has been difficult for the government to formulate a clear understanding of what tax policy should aim to achieve.

Michael Littlewood, a former professor at the University of Hong Kong, dubbed his study on tax law in Hong Kong “the history of Hong Kong’s troublingly successful tax system”, noting that a combination of low rates and simple tax administration made the jurisdiction especially attractive as an investment hub.

The notion of success, however, is relative and must be measured against prevailing social, economic and cultural priorities. A tax system that worked well in the glory days of frenetic growth in the 70s and 80s is not the tax system that will best serve Hong Kong in the three decades or so leading up to 2047.

Society, and its discontents, have changed. The budget surplus, which is not being put to any apparent gainful use, is in stark contrast to the pauperisation of large cross-sections of the population. But money must be spent in order to spend money: if any part of the surplus is to be applied to social programmes, the physical, human, and administrative infrastructure to bring those programmes into existence and sustain them must first be put in place. That requires an extensive capital outlay and long-term funding commitments.

Our Inland Revenue Ordinance is a creature of the early 20th century and was envisaged by the colonial office as appropriate for a bustling entrepôt colony, not a 21st-century metropolis.

It may be important to keep our tax regime simple and low, but our tax laws must be fit for the purpose. Here, the distinction between tax rates and the structure of the tax legislation is important. If setting the tax rate low were sufficient to attract investment, then Somalia and Yemen should be booming centres of entrepreneurship.

Hong Kong has failed to attract high-value-added, knowledge-based industries to the same extent as Singapore and, increasingly, Shenzhen, not because the tax rates are too high but because the tax system tends to create perverse incentives that oppose the government’s stated aim to diversify the economy and improve quality of life.

Why make a high-risk investment in a tech start-up when there are guaranteed tax-free returns to be gained from speculating in the property market? Why think seriously about tax policy when one can fob off the electorate with a few “sweeteners” and kick the can down the road?

Perhaps the main reason for which there is no grass-roots pressure for tax reform is that voters have not correlated inflated property prices, low-quality housing stock, strained infrastructure and low levels of public pension provision with the structural deficiencies of our tax laws. By not taxing capital gains on real estate, speculation is enabled by allowing raw economic gain from property investment to be collected free of tax, while trading gains from the “real” economy are covered at the full rate of profits tax. Similarly, offshore dividends and capital wealth – for example, residential property that is hoarded and left empty purely for investment purposes – are not taxable. Consequently, we tend to attract rent-seekers, not entrepreneurs.

In January, I drafted a law reform project paper arguing for some modest measures.

First, a capital-gains tax should be introduced on the disposal of residential property which is not the principal residence of the vendor.

Second, a flat annual tax should be levied on the holding of vacant residential property to discourage hoarding and to cool down the rental market.

Third, offshore dividends that are remitted or spent in Hong Kong should be taxed, thereby eliminating the indefensible absurdity whereby the salary of a resident employee is chargeable to salaries tax, but a dividend received by a resident investor from an offshore company is not.

The paper was submitted by Dennis Kwok, a Legislative Council member, to the attention of the financial secretary. The Financial Services and Tax Bureau’s response was non-committal, suggesting that the enactment of the proposed reforms would interfere with its policy of a “simple and low” tax system. But that conclusion does not follow: by expanding the tax base, the government could afford to further decrease headline rates of tax in a bid to support both salaried earners and small businesses, which are among the stated priorities of the financial secretary set forth in his budget speech.

For the government’s facile reasoning on tax reform to be challenged, taxation must become a political issue. Both civil society and Legco members interested in a sustainable future for Hong Kong’s economy have a duty to press the government to explain clearly how it envisages tackling the structural imbalances in Hong Kong’s tax laws and ensure that these begin to reflect the funding needs of the city not as it was, but as we wish it to be.

Stefano Mariani is a lawyer and revenue law specialist, who has published widely in the field of taxation. The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author

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A few ‘selfish’ ideas for how to spend Hong Kong’s massive budget surplus

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Peter Kammerer says free Wi-fi everywhere, electric buses and a more presentable city are some of the meaningful and relatively easy changes that could be made with the budget surplus to improve quality of life

Hong Kong won’t find out until budget day on Wednesday just how much spare cash Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po has to throw around. There are estimates it could be as much as a record HK$180 billion, on top of the trillions already in reserve.

It’s an obscene amount for any government to be sitting on, particularly when it has repeatedly avoided tackling the problems that now have our city veering towards a social crisis. But I’m not about to suggest the funds should be used to provide affordable housing, end poverty, improve the public health and education systems or help the dissatisfied young and elderly; rather, I’m going to put forward some ideas for my own selfish gain.

Mr Chan: I’d like free Wi-fi provided for every corner, nook and cranny of our city. Your boss, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, repeatedly talks about innovation, technology and digital this and that, and this perfectly fits such thinking. Most of us are constantly peering at smartphone screens wherever we go, walking into one another and even putting ourselves in danger at road crossings; with even better connectivity, we could play online games and shop even when in country parks. Maybe all that connectivity would motivate bus companies with poorly developed apps, taxi firms that don’t even have them yet for booking, banks that don’t want to invest in better personal identification systems, and shops reluctant to go online to get their acts together.

I mentioned bus companies; much of our roadside pollution is because of the soot coming from the exhausts of their diesel vehicles. It’s so bad that even though I live on the 10th floor, having a window open for even a few hours leaves a fine layer of black dust coating shelves and, for sure, my lungs. It’s no wonder I get bronchitis and allergies and I know from all the coughing, wheezing and sore throats and dripping noses around me, I’m far from the only one. The number of electric buses on our streets is minuscule and our government isn’t exerting pressure for the early retirement of old fleets. But that budget windfall could instantly improve the air and the health of many, myself included, by ensuring bus firms go fully electric.

Unpolluted air is only part of the problem. I recently visited the Fujian province city of Xiamen and encountered the cleanest and most orderly streets of anywhere I’ve been in China. Even the dingiest back alley sparkled; unlike in our city, not a rat or mouse is to be seen. Trees, bushes and grass thrive and flowers brighten up roadsides; a far cry from the straggling and often dying or dead vegetation on offer here. Buildings are well maintained and kept freshly painted. Why not spend a proportion of our largesse on making Hong Kong more presentable, liveable and, dare I say, even hospitable?

On that Fujian trip, I ventured into a far-flung rural area and encountered garbage collection, backwards China style. Rubbish was left in foul-smelling piles beside roads and was collected by a truck with a shovel-wielding workman. It reminded me of the process in the building I live in and many others like it that don’t have centralised collection; bags are piled onto trolleys each night and dumped on the roadside until collected during the night. Two decades after former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa gave his “green” policy address, we’ve barely moved an inch on recycling, being less wasteful and more responsible towards our environment.

Authorities have known about high housing prices for years. Poverty levels have been creeping up under their noses. Land is as in short supply now as it was last century. Making good jobs for the young available will take time, as will putting in place a genuine pension scheme. All of these matters require huge amounts of investment and years to fix. So, Mr Chan, why not make me happy by picking some of the low-hanging fruit with your spare cash?

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post

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China’s reunification dream will remain out of reach as long as Taiwanese feel they don’t belong

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Chi Wang says Xi Jinping should focus on cultivating friendship and understanding and avoid threats towards Taiwan, to avoid hardening people’s resentment

In early January, the US House of Representatives passed the Taiwan Travel Act “to encourage visits between the United States and Taiwan at all levels”. Though the bill has yet to be signed into law, the Chinese spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lu Kang, was quick to criticise it. Lu claims the bill, which is more symbolic than substantive, would violate the “one-China” policy and encourage Taiwan independence.

With tense cross-strait relations and provocative moves like this from the US, Chinese President Xi Jinping is faced with a dilemma: Taiwan does not wish to be part of China, and China’s dreams of reuniting with Taiwan may already be out of reach.

As a Chinese American, I have a long association with people in Taiwan. I have built a connection to Taiwan through family friends, relationships with government officials and even students. Whether Beijing thinks Taiwan is still part of the same country, Taiwan does not consider itself part of mainland China. The time for easy reunification has long since passed.

If the people of Taiwan do not consider themselves part of a unified country, they will never be unified. Beijing and Taipei must take time to understand each other before any true unification is possible. Hopefully my own experiences, at the very least, can provide some understanding among them.

In April 1949, I was preparing to study in America. I had travelled through the countryside from Beijing to China’s eastern coastal Shandong province. There was no public transport then; the roads had been destroyed by the civil war between Mao Zedong’s communists and the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek. I travelled with seven or eight classmates through the most destitute areas of China, catching rides on the backs of trucks and bicycles and sleeping on the floor. These areas, “liberated” by the victorious communists, could not have been poorer.


From Qingdao in Shandong province, I flew to Taipei, where I stayed in my father’s house for about two weeks. Taiwan was in chaos, awaiting Mao and unsure of the future. Chiang had not yet moved the KMT government to Taiwan, and people were unsure whether to stay in their homes or leave. I predicted that Mao would come, and told my friends they had a choice: live under the communists or leave.

In the end, I was wrong: Mao did not “liberate” Taiwan. Looking back, this was a mistake for Mao and a very good thing for the Taiwanese people.

Left alone by the communists, Taiwan prospered under Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo. The island transformed from a hopeless colony into an Asian economic miracle. Its people have been able to live free and democratic lives.

Given the choice between Taiwan and mainland China, I would certainly have preferred to live in Taiwan.

China’s Communist Party has not understood how to address the Taiwanese people. Xi has been doing great things for the future of the mainland, but when it comes to Taiwan, he too has struggled.

In his speech at the 19th National Party Congress in October, Xi reaffirmed his intention to “defeat any form of a Taiwan independence secession plot”. He spoke of Taiwan in broad terms but left little doubt Beijing has no plans to abandon its claim to Taipei.

Indeed, Xi included Taiwan in his picture of the “beautiful future of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. However, Taiwanese people live free and happy lives in a multi-party democratic system, a rapidly modernising state with a developing economy. Heavy-handed policy and control from the mainland, such as crackdowns and suppression of independence, would only make the Taiwanese more resentful of mainland China. Xi needs to open his eyes.

Xi did state that Beijing would “respect the current social system in Taiwan and the lifestyles of the Taiwan compatriots”, but he cannot respect the people themselves if they do not wish to be part of China’s future. Of course Taiwanese people wish to live freely. Now generations removed from the KMT’s initial migration to the island, many identify more strongly as Taiwanese than Chinese.

Mao did not help them. None of Mao’s successors have helped them. What desire would any of them have to give up their way of life for China’s? Xi must at least acknowledge the people’s wishes to live independently, with all the benefits of a democratic government and without threats.

The way to unify socially as well as legally should not involve provocative policies such as opening disputed air routes in the Taiwan Strait without consulting Taipei, like Beijing did with the M503 air corridor. That will not make people feel more kindly towards the mainland.

A Taiwanese protester holds up a banner calling for independence during a Chinese-organised concert at the National Taiwan University in Taipei. Photo: AP

I want to see China and Taiwan coexist peacefully, but what that will look like remains to be seen. Unfortunately, reunification may not be possible in Xi’s lifetime without the use of force as a last resort – and it should only be a last resort. The Cultural Revolution killed many Chinese decades ago. China cannot find unity through a repeat of such violence.

In the case of a declaration of independence from Taiwan, neither Beijing nor Taipei would benefit. Taiwan cannot stand up to an attack from the mainland. Neither China nor the US wish to risk a war with the other, either. Such a conflict would be devastating both in terms of trade and lives, and would affect the whole Asia-Pacific region as much as it would the two main antagonists.

It is not revolutionary to say the Taiwan issue is a difficult balancing act, or that a solution will not be easy to find. Whether Taiwan is truly part of China, the Taiwanese people do not feel they are. Reunification is unlikely unless Xi takes steps now to change that. Patience, understanding and friendship must be the priority to unify people’s spirits first.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress and former university librarian at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation