Monday, May 23, 2011

Headed to China

I'm going to be in China at this time next week.

Seeing that I've maintained a blog about China after having left the country almost two years ago, you'd be right in guessing that I'm excited about this trip.

Qian and I are going to spend three weeks in her hometown and the only place I've ever called home in China, Xi'an.

We don't have too many definite plans for this sojourn. I'm expecting a Spring Festival-esque welcoming from Qian's parents, aunts and uncles and cousins, and grandparents upon our arrival. There will be several days of home-cooked food and great warmth, I'm sure.

As far as the rest of the trip goes, I'm bringing my old SLR camera and a few rolls of black-and-white film along. I expect some sort of an attempt at "capturing Xi'an, circa June, 2011" to follow. Qian and I would love to get out to a holy mountain for a day or two if possible. And I'm sure plenty of coffee will be consumed with old friends. But besides these loose ideas, my schedule will be very open.

If anyone reading this will be in Xi'an and wants to meet up, either leave a comment or send me an email - markschinablog at gmail dot com.

It's been more than twenty months since I've been to the Middle Kingdom. It's going to be epic getting back to the city that has been so important in the direction of my life.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Henry Kissinger On China

No American has influenced the US-China relationship more than Henry Kissinger since the countries restarted diplomatic relations forty years ago. Aside from kicking off the partnership in the first place, he's also played a key role in maintaining it. It is therefore unsurprising that Kissinger's soon-to-be released book, Henry Kissinger On China, is an instant classic.

Kissinger explains the purpose of his book in the prologue:
"This book is an effort, based in part on conversations with Chinese leaders, to explain the conceptual way the Chinese think about problems of peace and war and international order, and its relationship to the more pragmatic, case-by-case American approach."
Kissinger begins his study by laying a framework that he uses throughout the rest of the book. He goes into great depth explaining the basics of Chinese strategic theory using Sun Tzu's The Art of War and the board game weiqi (or, in English, "Go") as his main examples. Kissinger argues that Sun Tzu's work, which is about "the means of building a dominant political and psychological position," and weiqi, which is focused on "strategic encirclement," are and have been the guiding principles of China's thinking and action for centuries.

Although more modern history is the main focus, this foundational section - the first fifty pages or so - may be my favorite part of this 500+ page book. It really crystallizes the Chinese ethos and its leaders' decision-making processes.

By page 100 or so, the reader has entered the 20th century. I'm going to highlight a few of the most memorable sections from the heart of the book:
- Kissinger's analysis of the relationship between Mao and Stalin is fascinating. The dance between two of the most ruthless and conniving rulers of the twentieth century is, as you'd expect, something to behold. Reading Kissinger's inside baseball analysis of the two leaders' maneuvering and manipulation of each other makes for great drama.

- The lengthiest section and the climax of the book is the preparation and execution of Kissinger and Nixon's opening up of China to the United States and the rest of the world.

From Mao changing his tone towards the US in the 1960s to Kissinger feigning sickness on a diplomatic trip to Pakistan so he could sneak away for his first visit to Beijing to Zhou Enlai and Kissinger hammering out the technicalities of Nixon's invitation to visit China, the reader takes in history from the man who created it.

I'm going to highlight a particularly nice passage from this section - the moment that Kissinger and Nixon first were introduced to Mao at his residence. From page 257:
Mao's residence was approached through a wide gate on the east-west axis carved from where the ancient city walls stood before the Communist revolution. Inside the Imperial City, the road hugged a lake, on the other side of which stood a series of residences for high officials. All had been built in the days of Sino-Soviet friendship and reflected the heavy Stalinist style of the period similar to the State Guesthouses.

Mao's residence appeared no different, through it stood slightly apart from the others. There were no visible guards or other appurtenances of power. A small anteroom was almost completely dominated by a ping-pong table. It did not matter because we were taken directly to Mao's study, a room of modest size with bookshelves lining three walls filed with manuscripts in a state of considerable disarray. Books covered the tables and were piled up on the floor. A simple wooden bed stood in a corner. The all-powerful ruler of the world's most populous nation wished to be perceived as a philosopher-king who had no need to buttress his authority with traditional symbols of majesty.

- Although Kissinger had officially been out-of-office for years by 1989, he played a critical role in mending US-China relations in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He describes being invited to Beijing in November of that year to try to help out with the very rocky situation.

It is during this section of the book that Kissinger's ideas on the policy of realpolitik are discussed in great depth. I'd love to share several pages of heady prose from this chapter here on my blog - they are some of the best blueprints for US/China relations I've ever seen - but I'll just recommend reading the book instead.
As you can tell from this gushing review, I really enjoyed On China. The only criticism I can give is that the pacing felt off at times. Hundreds of pages were given to certain time periods and other eras felt skimmed over. I suppose that is to be expected, though, given the amount of information covered and Kissinger's own experiences.

Henry Kissinger On China is a must-read for anybody interested in better understanding China, its people, or the relationship between the China and the United States. I can't recommend it highly enough. It goes on sale May 17th.

This review is part of a TLC "Virtual Book Tour." Below is a schedule for upcoming reviews of On China. I want to thank TLC Book Tours for including Mark's China Blog on this tour.To read more of my China book reviews, click here.

Henry’s Tour Stops
Wednes­day, May 11th: Man of La Book
Thurs­day, May 12th: Mark’s China Blog
Mon­day, May 16th: Hid­den Har­monies China Blog
Tues­day, May 17th: Inside-Out China
Wednes­day, May 18th: Lisa Graas
Mon­day, May 23rd: Divided We Stand United We Fall
Tues­day, May 24th: Bookworm’s Din­ner
Wednes­day, May 25th: Pacific Rim Shots
Thurs­day, May 26th: Asia Unbound
Tues­day, May 31st: Word­smitho­nia
Wednes­day, June 1st: Lit and Life
Thurs­day, June 2nd: Chi­naGeeks
Tues­day, June 7th: booker ris­ing
Wednes­day, June 8th: Power and Con­trol
Thurs­day, June 9th: Marathon Pun­dit
Fri­day, June 10th: Rund­pinne
Date TBD: Rhap­sody In Books

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Few Thoughts on bin Laden

One of the best books I read this past year had nothing to do with China. It was Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 by Steve Coll.

This book, obviously, has some resonance right now.

Hearing the accounts of the US elite forces swarming bin Laden's compound brought to mind a very memorable passage of Ghost Wars. It was another time, in 1999, when the US had bin Laden its sights.

From page 445:


Pick up the book to see how and why the US missed getting bin Laden at that time. Fascinating stuff.

Like nearly every American, Sunday night was an memorable experience for me. I was actually getting ready to go to bed early after a long weekend when I started seeing messages on Twitter talking about "a big press speech from Obama in the next few minutes."

Before I read anything else, I said to Qian, "I think we just killed bin Laden." A few minutes later, Twitter started blowing up with rumors that it the US had, in fact, killed bin Laden. And then a few minutes after that, every major news network began reporting that bin Laden was dead.

My stomach was buzzing and I got a wave of energy taking me later into the night. I definitely wasn't going to bed early.

Obama's speech (that he wrote himself) was incredible. He said everything that needed to be said. I was/am so proud to have him as my president.

Hearing the news of Osama's death was a great relief. I didn't feel the need to take to the streets and chant "USA" or anything, but I was most satisfied upon hearing the news. I would've cracked open a couple of the Boulevard Beers in my fridge had I not had to get up at 6:45 the next morning.

Americans know that burying Osama bin Laden under the Arabian Sea is not a silver bullet to end all Islamic extremism or terrorism or hatred directed towards the US. But it was an important event.

Al Qaeda, an organization already appearing to be on the decline, now has to have its first change of leadership at the top. The Arab Spring has already shown that Al Qaeda's promotion of death and destruction is not resonating like it was a decade ago. I'm cautiously optimistic that bin Laden's death will make the organization irrelevant.

9/11/2001 was during the third week of my freshman year of college. I'm smack dab in the middle of the US' "9/11 generation." The terrorism on US soil on 9/11 did not affect me 1/1,000,000th as much as it did thousands upon thousands of other Americans. But even in the midwestern US, far away from New York and Washington and Pennsylvania, I was rocked by 9/11 big-time.

Just as I hope bin Laden's death marks the end of Al Qaeda's influence, I hope that it symbolically marks the end of a really difficult era for the United States of America and its people.

Time will tell whether my hopes become reality.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Ultimate White Elephant?

I was taken aback by a headline I saw a couple days ago.

From China's The People's Daily:
Kunming-Singapore High-Speed Railway begins construction

The Kunming-Singapore High-Speed Railway began construction on April 25. The railway will shorten the travel time between Kunming and Singapore to only a little more than 10 hours in the future.

The Chinese government expects the railway to be put into operation by 2020. The line, starting from Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province; passes Mohan, a border town with Laos; and Wangrong, a popular Chinese tourist city; and ends in Vientiane, capital of Laos. Construction of the Mohan Railway Logistics Center has already started.

According to the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Trans-Asian Railway Network, the Kunming-Singapore High-Speed Railway, which is in fact the central line of the southeast part of the Trans-Asian Railway Network, will also pass Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and end in Singapore, with a total distance of 3,900 kilometers. Once completed, it will take passengers a little more than 10 hours to travel between Kunming and Singapore by train.

Read On

This is such an audacious plan. The red-blooded American can-do spirit pumping through my veins admires the 人定胜天 attitude that lies beneath such grandiose aspirations. I have a soft spot in my heart for this sort of stuff. China is grabbing the present by the horns and is going all out.

There is going to be plenty of skepticism of this sort of stuff from western pundits. The logistics of a plan this big can certainly be questioned. But the constant questioning of China's infrastructure by some seems misguided to me.

The loudest critic of these sorts of projects (and proponent of 杞人忧天) across the globe is "Dr. Doom" - NYU professor Nouriel Roubini. Roubini wrote an opinion piece a couple weeks ago that China is going to falter after 2013 after a recent visit to the country.


I recently took two trips to China just as the government launched its 12th Five-Year Plan to rebalance the country's long-term growth model. My visits deepened my view that there is a potentially destabilizing contradiction between China's short- and medium-term economic performance.

China's economy is overheating now, but, over time, its current overinvestment will prove deflationary both domestically and globally. Once increasing fixed investment becomes impossible—most likely after 2013—China is poised for a sharp slowdown. Instead of focusing on securing a soft landing today, Chinese policymakers should be worrying about the brick wall that economic growth may hit in the second half of the quinquennium.

Despite the rhetoric of the new Five-Year Plan—which, like the previous one, aims to increase the share of consumption in GDP—the path of least resistance is the status quo. The new plan's details reveal continued reliance on investment, including public housing, to support growth, rather than faster currency appreciation, substantial fiscal transfers to households, taxation and/or privatization of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), liberalization of the household registration (hukou) system, or an easing of financial repression.


Eventually, most likely after 2013, China will suffer a hard landing. All historical episodes of excessive investment—including East Asia in the 1990s—have ended with a financial crisis and/or a long period of slow growth. To avoid this fate, China needs to save less, reduce fixed investment, cut net exports as a share of GDP, and boost the share of consumption.

Read the Whole Article
Roubini tweeted a few times from his cell phone while on one of the trips to China he described in his article (these should be read from bottom to top).
I replied to Roubini with this comment:

Nouriel didn't reply to this, of course. But I'd like to hear his response to what I said.

I'm finding that when pundits are limited to the eastern seaboard of China - basically from Beijing to Shanghai on down to Guangzhou - they often feel as though China's over-invested in infrastructure (while some people who've never been to China really don't like China's method of development).

It is certainly true that China is developing unlike other countries in the present or the past. The more I watch China, though, the more I think that I see method in the madness: China is impossible to compare to any previous developing or currently developed country. They are simply playing by a different set of rules.

While there are cities in China with unbelievably developed infrastructure, there are hundreds of places throughout the interior of the country that have a long ways to go in terms of creating an adequate foundation. There is still so much of the country that is shockingly "backwards" in terms of infrastructure.

China is a big country. It's impossible to get a picture of China by looking at one city or one small region of the country. The skyline of Shanghai is certainly seductive, but one needs to counter-balanced its sleekness with a visit to a dusty third-tier provincial city in northern China or a mountain village in western China without a paved road.

Nobody knows whether China's bold actions such as high-speed rail, sprawling airport construction, and dozens of subway systems are going to be the path to greatness or the ultimate white elephants. But it is safe to say that there are hundreds of millions of Chinese people whose lives are changing very rapidly. And with those changes are going to be a new set of expectations: the freedom of leisurely travel, big-city life, and things to spend their disposable income on.

Developing the way China is developing is making more and more sense to me. It's hard to wrap one's mind around because what China's doing has never been done before. I understand the skepticism of China's methods of development. But personally, I wouldn't bet against their ultimate success.