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China is Not Ready for War? Being Ready is Irrelevant

1 May

Thinking about the world at large, one of my biggest fears is that China will have a military conflict with another country. Over the past few years the territorial issues of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the various disputes in the South China Sea have come to (small) blows more than once. During the tense periods, I have always hoped that cooler heads will prevail. David Wolf draws attention to a report from the Brookings Institution which suggests that China is not prepared for a short, sharp war with Japan, which is slightly encouraging. However, even assuming that the Brookings Institution is correct in it’s analysis, I am suspect that even objectively unprepared military does not necessarily imply that no wars or conflicts will occur. I am reminded of the human tendency to not act rationally, which seems to be a major flaw in the assumption in which one side in any conflict will not attack.

The Chinese Army promotes an image that they are ready for war

The Chinese Army promotes an image that they are ready for war

Having people like Chang Wanquan (Minister of Defense and State Councilor of the People’s Republic of China and a general in the People’s Liberation Army) in charge makes me quake in my boots. From what little I know of him, he seems like a hardliner, because he said “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands,” and that China would “make no compromise, no concession, no treaty. The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.” I certainly hope that this is a message meant as a moral-boosting message for his own troops, because if the Minister of Defense really does believe that his army is invincible, that spells trouble.

Another possibility for conflict (and potentially war) to occur is due to lack of a strong chain of command. Even if the commanding generals of the PLA are fully believe that war would not be beneficial to China, it is perfectly possible that a lower-ranking officer could start a conflict. I was just reading the Wikipedia page on the first Peloponnesian War, and a particular passage concerning the Battle of Sybota jumped out at me. Athenians were aiding their ally Corcyra in defense against Corinth. Corinth was an ally of Sparta, so it was a fairly sensitive situation, and the Athenians were apparently aware that fighting against Corinth could easily lead to a war with Sparta. Therefore,

the Athenians were instructed not to intervene in the battle unless it was clear that Corinth was going to press onward to invade Corcyra. However, the Athenian warships participated in the battle nevertheless. [emphasis mine]

One doesn’t really need examples from classical Greece to support the idea that commanding officers don’t always have full command. Even people outside of the military structure could start small conflicts. A few years ago there was a Chinese fishing boat that rammed a Japanese Coast Guard boast, creating a bit of a furor, and there were also some Vietnamese fishermen killed by Chinese Naval Police.

Of course, even if the people running the Chinese military don’t believe that war would be beneficial and all of the officers in the military are perfectly calm-headed and obey their orders, a passage from one of my recent favorite books is a good reason to be cautious:

Statesmen are not seers and their actions are taken in contemporary context with no view over the hill. The working out of a crisis takes place in stages without history’s advantage of seeing the event whole and its aftermath too.

It is all too easy to make mistakes, even when you are surrounded by expertise and you have access to excellent information. I vaguely recall hearing in a lecture on Greek civilization that the Athenians thought the Spartans would never fight, since it would be to economically costly. (I’m sure at least one of my readers can give me better details on that)

One final thought is that China might not be the instigator of war. Last time I met with a classmate of mine we disused the potential of environmental issues to cause conflict in Asia. We specifically spoke about water access in India, but I know that there are many other issues in which China’s use of resources causes a shortage of resources in neighboring countries. It might very well turn out that India (with a coalition of Southeast Asian allies) ends up attacking China in order to protect water resources originating high in the Himalayas. Keeping this in mind, perhaps I should build up my expertise on Southeast Asia to prepare for coming conflicts between China and it’s southern neighbors within the next few decades.


Factories are Pro-Poor: A Meditation on Huajian in Ethiopia

1 Apr

This is the kind of honest and non-romanticized look at poverty and development that the world needs more of.

Campaign for Boring Development

A guest post by Frances Pontemayor

Can there be something less glamorous than a factory? Industrialization is gritty, sooty, sweaty – it just doesn’t align with the “tragically beautiful” poverty that development practitioners in Europe and North America dream of fighting with organic farms and $50 laptops. But at what point do implicit (never explicit) aesthetic preferneces start to blinker us from what really works?

Take the Huajian Shoe Company. It’s one of China’s leading shoemakers. I’m sure you’ve never heard of it, but if you’ve ever bought a pair of Naturalizers, Clarks, Guess or Tommy Hilfiger shoes, you’ve probably worn shoes made at a Huajian factory.

In January 2012, Huajian became one of the first Chinese manufacturing companies to launch large-scale operations overseas, opening a big-time shoe factory just outside Addis Abeba, in Ethiopia. The company produces 2,000 pairs of shoes everyday and employs over 1,750 workers at its…

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A little different from Conan’s definition of what is best in life.

6 Sep
What is success?
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by
a healthy child, a garden
patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed
easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.

Travel vs. Education

1 Sep

Allison over at just wrote up a little opinion piece on how travel is not education, and I think that you should go read it. It isn’t earth-shatteringly deep or anything, and it probably won’t change how you live your life. But it is true, and it needs to be said. It is a prominent idea across the world (a traditional Chinese saying claims that it is better to travel ten thousand li than to read ten thousand books {行万里路胜读万卷书}) There are too many idiotic truisms in the world, and now at least I can mark one off of my list of “idiotic ideas that need to me countered.”

In my own reflections concerning the travel-education dichotomy (which is, like all dichotomies, a false one), I can say that I’ve learned much more about Brazil by reading a few books and a few blogs than by living here. When I was in Spain I certainly learned certain things from living there, but I got a very different type of knowledge from reading. If I hadn’t read the books, I would have been able to gain so much less from my time spent there in person. In China it is a bit more ambiguous, only because I feel like I grew so much as a person from living in China. However, there is not doubt that I’ve learned more about China from my readings (which I think are getting to be pretty extensive) than from normal life there. I don’t want to downplay the things that I’ve learned from everyday life, but those experiences are limited to… well, to the everyday.

I can learn about working in a particular type of company, I can learn about the local juggling scene or the improv theater scene, but my experiences are limited to those. I have only 24 hours in a day (most of which I don’t use for exploring new things) and my finances are limited too. So the number of distinct areas that I can explore are of course limited as well. Reading a book can allow me to learn about the political process in China, the muslim influences in Spain, and the growing relationship between China and Brazil. I could never learn these things from personal experience because those items are too far from my own daily experience. That is what education, reading and talking to smarter people really, allows us to do. It allows us to live vicariously and to learn from other people’s experiences. Travel is great, but it isn’t enough alone. Choosing between the two, I would choose ten thousand books over ten thousand li. And you?

A slightly depressing fact

25 Aug

I can’t make out a single piece of it

I saw this sign today above a Chinese restaurant, and it is another reminder of how much my Chinese has degraded. I have no idea what it says. I’ve really got to get back into Chinese…

Naturally, any skill that isn’t used for a long period of time will degrade, but the ability to read and write characters is something that degrades much faster than other language skills. I can skill speak and hold a decent conversation in Mandarin, but I would be hard pressed to write a letter by hand.

But looking at the third character here also makes me think about different scripts. This character is written in a cursive style, which is significantly different from the print style that I studied in college. Just like n and N are two very different symbols which produce identical sounds, two characters can appear quite different to the untrained eye but can be identical to those who recognize them.

Arrogance of the Present

24 Aug
People are arrogant. This isn’t just my personal opinion. This is observable and recorded by science as well. But I think that people are particularly arrogant about the present, about their current self. I think that this takes two particular forms, each a little bit different.

Ignorance of the future

First is the assumption that people make when we assume that our future self will have the same emotions and desires as out present self. Why on earth should we think this? Our past selves are different from our present selves, so why on earth shouldn’t our future selves be different from our present selves. A New York Times article reviewing some of the research on this subject contains nice illustration of this concept:
Dr. McAdams was reminded of a conversation with his 4-year-old daughter during the craze for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the 1980s. When he told her they might not be her favorite thing one day, she refused to acknowledge the possibility. But later, in her 20s, she confessed to him that some part of her 4-year-old mind had realized he might be right.
It is easy to dismiss this as the ignorant thoughts of a little child. However, most people don’t realize how similar we are in our thoughts to that ignorant 4-year-old girl. Believing that we are much better is itself a self-delusion. We hear and think things such as “I’ll never forget this as long as I live.” When we say “I’ll love you forever” are are doing exactly the same things at the 4-year-old girl: we are assuming that nothing will ever change how we feel, that our current opinion will remain valid forever; exactly the same thought process at the 4-year-old  girl.
In a study published in Science in January 2013, described how “Young people, middle-aged people, and older people all believed they had changed a lot in the past but would change relatively little in the future. ” This is called The End of History Illusion. The authors of this paper asked some subjects to predict how much they would change over the next ten years, and asked some subjects to report on how much they had changed over the previous ten years. To me it is stunning how people

“believe that who they are today is pretty much who they will be tomorrow, despite the fact that it isn’t who they were yesterday… people expect to change little in the future, despite knowing that they have changed a lot in the past.” This disconnect between the present and future self is a very strong aspect of the decisions that we make in life.

Daniel Kahneman described more of this conflict between future and present self in his excellent book Thinking, Fast and Slow. If you haven’t got the patience for that, however, as least check out his TED talk.

…and therefore I assume that nothing in the world will ever affect my current feelings.

Disregard for context

Anyone who has studied some psychology should be aware of the influence of a situation on a person’s behavior. This can apply to having different emotions at a different time, (often described as hot and cold states), or it could concern the effect that different social situations have on us. Let’s discuss the effect of emotions first.
I am often shocked and amazed at the arrogance displayed in many people by not recognizing how having different emotions, or how being in a hot state would change their judgement. People easily tell me “I would never rape someone,” “I would never pay money for sex,” “I wouldn’t do something like that.” The trouble is that they are saying this and thinking in a cold state, when they are not under any strong influences. According to the Washington Post, “When we are not hungry or thirsty or sexually aroused, we find it difficult to understand what effects those factors can have on our behavior. Similarly, when we are excited or angry, it is difficult to think about the consequences of our behavior — outcomes that are glaringly obvious when we are in a cold emotional state.”

But emotional state isn’t the only thing that alters our judgement and effects our decision-making abilities. Social pressures do the same.

I recall receiving a lot of ‘resist peer pressure’ propaganda when I was a child, but is that really something that you can just will yourself out of through sheer mental force? The Asch conformity experiments, now more than half a century old, are famous and influential. They serve as a simple example of how a social situation can effect our choices and judgements, even when we are not in a hot state. But the Asch experiments are quite tame in comparison to the famous Milgram experiment and the infamous Sanford Prison Experiment, both of which are standard textbook examples of a particular context altering a person’s behavior. The takeaway from these studies isn’t about willingness to misperceive line lengths, nor willingness to inflict harm on another human being, nor even about prisoners and guards. The major point of these experiments is that our behavior is easily changeable. If we are placed in different contexts, how we act and what we do (major aspects of who we are) are surprisingly fluid. So don’t tell anyone “I would never do X,” because if you haven’t been in a particular situation then you don’t really know how you would act. To say otherwise is to fall victim to the arrogance of the present.

Where is home?

11 Aug

A great first few minutes, elaborating on how it is so hard to answer the question “where are you from.”