Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How framing the question makes all the difference: US-Chinese relations

Someone on Quora posted a question which I felt compelled to answer at length. I thought the question itself rather bad, but answering it brought out some interesting aspects of the relationship between the US and China. Perhaps most importantly, it illustrated the way in which a poorly-framed question can almost automatically elicit shallow answers, in a form of begging the question.
Here was the question: 

And my answer:
The question is a rather oversimplified one, because neither the US nor China thinks of itself in those purely competitive terms. 
First of all, the phrase "as powerful as..." is extremely vague. "Powerful" can refer to military power, or economic prowess, or cultural influence over average people around the world, or diplomatic influence, and probably lots of other elements. Nor is it a simple equation in any one of those spheres: the US may have more military power overall than Vietnam, but who won the war there?
Secondly, the US and China are not enemies. We are adversaries, but that's not the same thing. 
During the Cold War, it was very important for the US and the USSR to compete with each other directly for power in every possible sphere. But the US and China are not existential threats to each other, and so they do not have to think of each other in those terms.
There is something common to both the US and China — a mixture of naïveté and maturity — that makes this kind of "who is more powerful" comparison rather alien to both national characters.
Both the US and China see themselves in rather insular terms. China is "The Middle Kingdom." The US is "A City on a Hill" and "The Land of the Free." Each is self-absorbed. Each tends to ignore the perspectives of the rest of the world. Each thinks its own position is self-evidently correct, and wonders why anyone could possibly disagree. This is their naiveté.
Note that this is very different from the way many other countries see themselves. Other countries may fight passionately, and sometimes militarily, but they don't see themselves as bathed in righteousness the way Americans and Chinese do. If you put one of their statesmen under some sort of truth serum and asked him, "If you were suddenly wearing the uniform of the other side, what would you do," they would tell you "I would fight just as vehemently for them." If you asked the same question of an American or a Chinese leader, they would literally be unable to answer the question. They cannot see that there is another side to any issue, even when there is.
Both the US and China primarily care about whatever it is that they see as being in their interest. They don't fundamentally care who is more "powerful." They care about getting their own way, about pursuing their own interests around the world, but that's different.
And here's where their naiveté becomes maturity: neither one of them is particularly absorbed in that schoolyard bullying about who could beat up whom. Unlike some other countries (Russia?), neither America nor China sees "power" as an end in itself. They're focused on their interests, and of course one has to have the means to pursue one's interests. But if America's interests — or what it believes are its interests — are not threatened by China, America doesn't care who is "more powerful." It's mostly the same for the Chinese.
(Caveat: the Chinese are somewhat more focused on "power," because of their cultural emphasis on "face" — and because of the past century and a half of humiliating powerlessness. But still, the Chinese are far more focused on achieving their specific interests, than on having more "power" than any particular country.)
The question of "power" really only arises because of the often very deep disagreements about what is in our interests. China is a dictatorship, while the US still (mostly) believes in basic rights. China believes its territorial claims are automatically valid, while the US has doubts. China is afraid that America's allies will form a kind of sea wall around it, cutting off maritime routes. China is a mercantilist country that seeks to protect domestic enterprises from overseas competition, while the US is still (mostly) committed to (mostly-)free trade. These disagreements give rise to conflicts, which make the issue of "my dad could beat up your dad" more relevant than it would have to be, given the basic cultures of the two countries.
Of course, there are elements within each country that are indeed focused on the one-on-one comparison. There are the nationalist citizens who seek to gain reflected glory from their country's power. And of course there are national-security professionals whose job it is to prepare for worst-case conflicts. The latter class in each country should, as the saying goes, "hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."
But in terms of the average person or the government in America — which is what this question asked about — they don't fundamentally care if China is "more powerful" than the United States. 
Nor, fundamentally, do the Chinese. They want to ensure that their lives are improving, first and foremost. They want to ensure that they never again endure the kind of national humiliation that they've endured in the past. But do they fundamentally care if America is "more powerful" than China? As long as America keeps its nose out of what they see as their own business, they really don't.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Two elevators out

When I first moved to China, I met someone who was considering buying an apartment in a brand new high rise building with a beautiful view over the bay. She was disappointed, she said, because the only apartment she could afford was on the 30th floor, rather than the one on the 3rd floor which she’d wanted to buy.

I was flabbergasted at this. You’ve got a 30th floor apartment with a fantastic view over the water, and you’re disappointed that it’s not on the third floor where the view isn’t nearly as good? What are you thinking of? Her answer was: “What happens when the elevators break down?”

And again, I did a double-take. You’re buying a brand new luxury apartment. What is this “elevators break down” of which you speak?

Now I understand. This is China.

Granted, my apartment is not a luxury apartment, but it’s run by the kith and kin of people who run the luxury ones. None of them are to be trusted.

Tonight we were going out with the dogs, and the second elevator in our building, the one that has been working double-time while the other one was on a ten-week sabbatical, was not working. The light was blinking on the sixth floor. I knew that this did not bode well.

I told my wife, who as of tomorrow will be seven months pregnant, that she shouldn’t go down 15 floors with me, because we’re going to end up walking back up again. 

No worries, she said, in effect. Surely it’ll be fixed by the time we come home. I argued with her. But she wanted to walk, so she walked. Mama rules.

Normal people really don’t want to walk up or down a staircase anywhere in China. It’s disgusting.

China is a filthy place, in general. Everyone in China is a generation or two off a farm where they fertilized their fields by spreading their own “night soil” over them every morning, and that “night soil” was collected from the hole in the ground into which every family member spent their effluence. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise, and it’s really no fault of their own if they haven’t fully absorbed foreign standards of public hygiene. They didn’t have the luxury until quite recently, and the concept still hasn’t spread.

Even people who take good care of their interior space, once they walk out into the hallway will hawk and spit, drop their trash wherever they feel like it, and let their dogs pee. 

(On our way down, tonight, I actually had to correct a dog right in front of us who was lifting his leg every half a floor. His twenty-something owners sort of laughed, but they stopped letting him do it once I shouted loudly enough. It took two sharp corrections — and I’m not sure if I was correcting the dog, or the owners.) 

No one ever mops the floors or cleans the walls. 

Men whose wives won’t allow them to smoke inside the apartment, routinely smoke in stairwells. 

The stairwell is vile. It’s barely above a cesspit.

You really don’t want to climb down, and you especially don’t want to climb back up again,. Fifteen floors of a dark, dank, stinky stairway. I didn’t want my wife to do it, especially not with Roman in there.

So as we were standing out there in the hallway, before we'd made the decision to climb downstairs, Ma Lei said “You go home. I’ll walk the dogs.”

Are you kidding me? There was no way on earth I was going to let her risk having to carry those two heavy little creatures along with her pregnant belly up fifteen floors of filth. 

I wanted to send her back home, but that was a battle I couldn’t win. Mama wants to walk, Mama walks. The four of us walked downstairs together.

It was in fact a beautiful evening, and we had a lovely walk around the complex. When we’d finished one lap, we sat for a while on a nice little bench in front of our apartment building. Then we walked again for a little while.

When we returned to our building, “surely” the elevator had not been fixed. It was still blinking “6,” so we went back out and sat again for a while. 

It was actually very romantic, perhaps the more so because we were both looking at a giant climb ahead of us.

At some point, Ma Lei remembered that there’s a security office with cameras all over the complex (a thing she reminds me of every time I go to smack her butt or otherwise toy with her on the elevators). So she went in and knocked on the door, to see what the elevator cams had to say.

As Chinese always do when they are on the defensive, the security guy sounded aggressive, or borderline hostile. When you hear a Chinese low-level employee talk, it almost always sounds as though he’s fighting with someone. He wasn’t talking about anything that was actually his fault, but he was surely heading off anyone else blaming him for it. I believe they call it “deflecting.”

We knew it wasn't his fault. Ma Lei even said "I know it's not your fault," more than once. Yet he railed on about how it wasn't his fault. It must suck to be someone whose culture presupposes his guilt long before there's any evidence of it.

The message was that yes, the elevator is out of order. No, it’s not going to be fixed tonight. It will surely be fixed by tomorrow morning. 

In my American opinion, he could have conveyed the same message in a way that didn’t sound as though it were Ma Lei’s personal fault that the elevator was not working. But perhaps in China he’s just too used to people blaming him for what’s not his fault, so he’s got to deflect the blame.

Anyway, we’d gotten the message. We gave up and climbed the damned stairs.

On the fourth floor of our building, someone has abandoned a nasty old yellow-and-chrome couch that looks like a prop from the set if someone had made a Jetsons movie in the seventies. Ma Lei stopped for a break there, and the two dogs had probably reached the max of their climbing ability, so I scooped them up and trudged them up the other 11 floors while she rested. To my marginal credit, it was only when I reached the 13th floor that I lost my breath a little and had to take a quick break.

Ma Lei isn’t in terrible shape, herself, and sat there for not too many minutes.

She saw two twenty-something young men who’d bought a large mattress, struggling to haul it to the 10th floor. That would suck way worse than carrying two doglets or one fetus.

What motivated her to get moving was when she heard someone climbing the stairs below her, cursing even worse than I do at the incompetence of our building management, and threatening even worse horrors than my threat of hiring a lawyer. (Mine is toothless, anyway, since there is no functioning court system in this country.)

Ma Lei thought this woman must be talking to a friend on her cell phone, but no. Just as I am prone to do, she was cursing into space at the evils of Chinese management. It happened to be our pudgy, forty-something next-door neighbor, so Ma Lei got up and kept company with her on their way up the stairs.

We’ve been told that the long-errant elevator is going to be working within two days, and tonight we were told that its healthier brother will be back on the job tomorrow morning. I hope it’s true.

It just occurred to Ma Lei a moment ago, tomorrow morning is going to be interesting. It’s a Sunday, but there are plenty of people who have to go to work. Without a single elevator working, they’re going to be climbing down the stairs like ants down a tree trunk.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Resolutely smoking on the elevator

Smoking is very normal in China. Incredibly normal. For a country that aspires to be among the world leaders in every category, they're killing off their people with cigarettes produced by State-Owned Enterprises. There's no Obamacare, but there is government ownership of tobacco companies... can you see some poorly aligned interests here? Puff away on your government-sponsored cigarettes, but when you're dying of lung cancer, we've got actual bouncers in the hospital to throw your butt out onto the street when you can't pay your bill.

There have been some feeble attempts to cut down on smoking in public places, along the lines of foreign countries. In Beijing, for example, smoking in a restaurant is generally not allowed. Likewise, everywhere you go in China there are "no smoking" signs (in English and in Chinese) in such places as bathrooms, restaurants, and elevators. Outside Beijing, they are flagrantly ignored except when I'm around.

Our apartment building has seen a significant drop-off in smoking in the elevators since I moved in. I suspect it's the "waiguo" effect: people are on their best behavior when they know there's a foreigner in their midst who might — for example — blog about their behavior on Facebook and other foreign media.

Today, though, I saw something I'd never seen before, and wouldn't have believed possible.

You must understand, before reading the rest of this posting, that in China parenthood is a paramount value — perhaps THE paramount value. A woman who is not yet married is regarded as being in stasis. A young couple, as yet childless, is regarded as a target. "When are you having your baby?" Everyone, with or without any actual relationship to the couple, considers it her right to pry on their status. "When's the baby coming?"

A pregnant woman is like a saint. They'll give up their seat on the bus, they'll make room, they'll do whatever is necessary to accommodate Saint Mama. And if a married woman is NOT yet pregnant, she is regarded as a pariah. It is her duty to get pregnant immediately, and to take passionate care of that baby. That is her one and only job, as a woman.

So this morning, we got on the elevator to go walk the dogs, and on the fourteenth floor this young punk, twenty-something, thin, stylishly dressed and with a girly hairdo, got on the elevator puffing aggressively on a fag.

Ma Lei politely asked him "I'm sorry, I'm pregnant. Would you mind putting out your cigarette?" He made no response whatsoever, and in fact puffed once more.

I told her "I don't think he heard you," so she said it again: "I'm pregnant, is it okay for you to put out your cigarette?"

This time he actually responded: "No, it's not."


Now I had to get involved. I pointed at the "No Smoking" sign and asked him: "Can you read Chinese? I'm foreign, and I know what that sign says." He made no response.

I asked him: "Are you a moron?" No response.

I asked him: "Are you Japanese?" Still no response.

So I finally just decided to give a lecture, because that's what I do. I'm a teacher, right? I told him: If you think other countries don't like China, you are the reason for it, you little chicken-egg.

One of Ma Lei's online friends told her not to worry about this kid, because he's clearly beneath a dog. Dogs understand human speech, but this little ben-dan (dumb egg) clearly does not.

I still can't get it out of my head, though. The nerve of this little twenty-something chopstick ignoring the law, ignoring a polite request, and ignoring his entire cultural history, is impossible for me to ignore.