I have by accident stumbled upon quite a few comments to past posts which have strangely never been forwarded to me. Some people said that the RSS feed does not work. I have noticed also that the search function on my blog has been disabled and I have failed to fix it. Well, whatever is the reason for all this ... I am not unresponsive by default and hope you continue to read my occasional contributions to the world of China afficionados.
One day to go only. Then the CCP’s 2018 flagship event will finally start to celebrate a new era and a shared future. Xi Jinping will descend upon Shanghai and open the China International Import Expo. I wanted to write about the expo for some time, at least six months, but something held me back. Quite possibly the realization that I am not anymore observer in this grand Chinese spectacle of cutting edge human evolution, but personally affected like almost any other Middle Kingdom citizen. I have eventually melted into another society as Doc McIssac dreams, when returning after many years from Africa in Robert Kramer’s Route One USA, and I have to take it all, its light and its darkness.
The last year has deprived us in an unprecedented city clean up from many beloved places and some familiar faces. A few of our favorite restaurants, my hairdresser and the mesmerizing Caojiadu bird- and flower market fell victim to a nationwide policy of pushing 1st tier city GDP growth. Our own apartment has been downsized due to the strict execution of fire safety regulations. And our daughter enjoyed her first military boot camp in her last year of Chinese public primary school. All this has made me think more than once if it’s still worth to stay, and every time I came to the conclusion that, yes, it is.
It was about half a year ago that I noticed subtle changes out in Qingpu, a large suburban district which borders Zhejiang and Jiangsu. It’s a bit of a hidden destination for water sport enthusiast. Sailors and kayaking afficionados flock to Dianshan Lake on weekends and during holidays to spend some time in nature and away from the concrete jungle. I have re-discovered the area for biking about a year ago and started to go there frequently for day and multiday biking trips. About half a year ago overnight stays for foreigners suddenly started to get more difficult. One had to register at the local PSB office with passport and event itinerary. About three months ago homestays and private B&B’s were then asked by police to decline accommodation to foreign guests, and eventually even Chinese guests were not any more allowed to stay overnight. I shared my house during one of my biking weekend with two Tongji university graduate students of urban planning who conduct research on how urbanization affects rural communities. They were surprised that regulations in rural Shanghai appeared to be stricter than in other Chinese provinces.
Things escalated when in August a bunch of families who had already check into their weekend homestay were forced by police to pack up, get in the middle of the night on their bus and return to downtown Shanghai. Hui Mengfan, the owner of the homestay, was furious when I talked to him. He had invested substantially in the renovation of desolate farm houses and runs his homestays for the growing customer segment of exhausted Shanghai urbanites. His business model combines countryside living with organic agriculture. His clients are invited to unwind in a village setting not far from the city center, eat healthy and fresh food, which he grows on a piece of land right next to his homestays. People love it and his places are booked weeks in advance for weekends and holidays.
I first thought that the muddy waters of economic reform in the Chinese countryside were cause for all the inconvenience. The Shanghai government seemed to be unclear about how to increase the rural GDP without jeopardizing its urbanization maxim. Quite a few homesteads had opened without proper business license, all of them operating in a grey zone; tolerated for economic growth, shunned for tax evasion and lack of government control. But then it dawned on me that there was something bigger happening in the background. The large scale preparation of some political ritual.
Eco-tourism entrepreneur Hui Mengfan continued his rant: “The police is ignorant of my business. Late summer and fall is my peak season and now they tell me that I can’t take in anymore guest until mid-November, when the China Import Expo is over.” I ask him how the trade fair is connected to his business. He starts to slowly shake his head in frustration: “Xidada will come to open the fair and they have to make sure that things are safe.” We continue to explore the reason for the measures and arrive at the conclusion that they are some sort of anti-terror policy to protect China’s president and other high ranking officials attending the trade fair. Some internal PSB directive seems to make all of Qingpu a red alert territory for the three months before the fair causing local police officers to close down private homestays.
Hui tells me only a few weeks later that rules have changed again. Chinese nationals are allowed to stay, foreigners continue to be ruled out. He receives instructions from the local PSB on a weekly basis and shrugs his shoulders with a typical mei banfa | that’s just how it is indicating the helplessness of laobaixing, i.e. people who have no say in government affairs. Sometime later over a cup of tea he confides to me: “Its quite scary that the entire local police administration scrambles forth and back only because XJP visits Shanghai. It feels like they are a flock of sheep who doesn’t know whether to run left or right when the wolf shows up.”
Native Culture and Global Trade
Zhong Binhua implanted that idea of the China Import Expo being a political ritual first into my small foreign mind. He runs a fuzzy nature & art commune at Dianshan Lake and desperately tries to find some way to get the municipal government fund his projects. He, too, operates in a grey zone, having neither a deed for his venue nor a business license for his events. But the government keeps supporting his folk art festivals featuring downtown and suburban, modern and traditional artists. The key word in all this is 本土文化 ｜native culture.
Having studied the cultural revolution back in school and listened to atrocious stories told by relatives the term evokes strange associations. There is the bright idea of maintaining and promoting local crafts, traditions and art, the idea of respecting and cherishing native culture. But there is also the dark element of turning small structured native culture into a standardized and tightly controlled top down product churned out by a government which has recognized that people need small structures to stay sane when communities increasingly get vaporized by the industrial revolution. American anthropologist and poet Gary Snyder would call this probably institutionalized wildness. Artist Suzanne Treister perceived the control society as the devil – no matter how it clads itself.
Zhong Binhua told me back in April that Qingpu bureaucrats had asked him after a successful event if he could also think of something similar for a larger audience. Only two weeks later he was euphorically telling me that the government had selected him to design a part of the opening ceremony for the China International Import Fair in November. Suddenly the jigsaw took shape and I saw the picture at large. An international trade fair to show off China’s traditional culture and a ground zero for a cyberleninist blend of tradition and modernity. That was a setup which tunes into what I have gathered till now from Beijing’s overarching political course.
How to Bridge Tradition and Modernity – and stay in control?
Kai Strittmatter, sinologist and Beijing correspondent of one of German’s most important newspapers, spoke earlier this year at the German Chamber Shanghai annual meeting to a large crowd about “The New China – How a country reinvents itself with big data, AI and a social credit system.” He shared his many insights of visiting China’s risen and rising tech stars and how they are locked into state controlled capitalism. What stuck with me is though his description of the perfect prison conceived by 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham.
The panopticon is a circular building with only one watchman in its center potentially observing all prison inmates simultaneously. It models the physical environment for a society with zero privacy. While Bentham himself had the idea with the reduction of administration and supervision expenses for England’s crammed penitentiary institutions, he thought of it also in terms of a power architecture and described the panopticon as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example".
The idea of the panopticon was invoked by French philosopher Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish almost two centuries later, as a metaphor for modern "disciplinary" societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalize. The Panopticon is an ideal architectural figure of modern disciplinary power. The Panopticon creates a consciousness of permanent visibility as a form of power, where no bars, chains, and heavy locks are necessary for domination any more. Instead of actual surveillance, the mere threat of surveillance is what disciplines society into behaving according to rules and norms.
Strittmatter who is about to leave China by the end of the year ended his presentation with a cryptic remark, “I don’t know what it is, but something very special is happening in present day China, something the world has never seen before, and I somehow regret to not be able to witness this in a front row seat.” The abundance of CCTV cameras on every building and street in rural Qingpu, the large monitor walls which are visible in the local PSB office, and the rediscovery of native traditional culture will be two essential pillars in this story.
Flagship Policies of A New Era and A Shared Future
The Xi administration pursues since 2013 two flagship policies, one which cries to be heard by the entire planet, the other simmers silently behind the Great Wall. The 一带一路｜One Belt One Road (OBOR) project is designed to turn Beijing into a 21st century Rome. It connects China through six economic corridors with the ROW and enables the Chinese empire with an infrastructure of roads, railways, sea- and airports to wield the same or even more power than Roman built roads did two millennia ago. There has been much discussion about the far objectives of the OBOR project, but there is a consensus that the infrastructure serves three main purposes:
Much has been written in the past years about pax sinica, China’s resurgence and the shift in of power in international relations. Martin Jacques was 2009 one of the first to capture the picture in When China Rules the World. Howard French was the last of the serious authors to comment on how China’s history defines our global future in Everything Under Heavens. But none of these rather political books has given me as much insight as Tomas Plaenker’s Landscapes of Chinese Souls: The Enduring Presence of the Cultural Revolution.
In contrast to the international or foreign flagship policy, the domestic flagship policy takes on a completely different subject: culture. There is no such thing as a catchy title like OBOR for this policy and that’s why it is so hard to make out. The keen observer and sturdy China watcher recognizes though a few patterns well known from cyclical Chinese history. One of cultural superiority. One of putting the Middle Kingdom in a class of its own and the ROW into a giant drawer labelled non-Chinese.
本土文化 ｜ native culture or literally translated culture from this soil is a concept of many layers, but it’s above all one which aims at establishing a cultural purity, which makes it easy to differentiate what is Chinese and what is not. It seems that what Henry Kissinger described in World Order so typical for Russia in terms of territorial control is for the Chinese true in terms of cultural control. Kissinger explains that Russian governance is hard to understand, in particular for small European nation states, because it is defined by the constant fear of a large, sparsely inhabited territory breaking apart. The only possible response to this challenge was throughout the 19th century permanent expansion to counter implosion.
Chinese governance seems to apply the same concept in regard to culture since about two millennia. It was the early population density on the Chinese continent, the multitude of languages and the number of tribal kingdoms which forced Chinese rulers early on to establish one writing system and a single currency. China fared well with this approach and early on a sense of cultural superiority formed at the ruling courts, one which prevailed even if the ruling dynasty changed. It was a cultural superiority which blended religion and culture at a large or in other words, which understood religion as a subset of culture; something many modern thinkers are still not capable of doing. Culture became superior to biology. Customs more important than kinship. Behavior more important than DNA. Nurture more important than nature.
Modern neuroscience confirms what Chinese rulers seemingly know since centuries. It is the construction of a common cultural reality which bonds subjects into larger entities. For the ruler the nature and thus race of a person – a widely held belief in the decades preceding the two WW - ultimately doesn’t make a difference as long as the ruled pay due taxes and respect the prevalent hierarchy. In order to maintain such hierarchies it is though required to create a homogenous culture, one of harmony and peace, one which never questions the existing power structures. This is the essence of Confucianism, a doctrine of cultural unity, born out of a period of permanent war and destruction and limited or no social progress. Confucius conceived his teachings under the marring impression of a Zhou Empire which was about to break apart and into small thiefdoms and competing petty kingdoms. He thought of cultural unity and pruning as the only solution to achieve social progress and was perhaps a bit nostalgic of the early Spring and Autumn period, when the Zhou dynasty reigned supreme over the Chinese heartland.
That was 2500 years ago. Most of humanity was then organized in tribes, and even if part of a larger organizational form, local languages and customs prevailed. People lived on and off their land and despite their hardships they had a clear social micro-cosmos to navigate in. The West has since then brought the scientific and industrial revolution upon us – with all its blessings and curses. We have eliminated much disease and hunger from this planet, have delayed death substantially and have created a material affluence which has never been seen before. The industrial revolution has though also vaporized much of society as we knew it for millennia and has through nations, markets and technology standardized our cultures to such an extent that most global cities resemble each other to a far extent.
Under such general conditions it is highly questionable if political power should continue to seek the standardization of culture. Beijing has recognized this threat. Confucius is by some considered the father of sociology, although the modern discipline was only founded by people like Herbert Spencer, Max Weber or Emile Durkheim in the 19th century. This is no coincidence, because Chinese have always been far superior to the West in understanding the workings of societies and cultures. The main difference is though that the Chinese elite has kept these insights to itself up to this date, whereas the West has undergone a series of social revolutions which effectively lead to a wider dissemination of knowledge within society at large.
American author Ian Johnson described the resurrection of religion in his 2017 book The Souls of China as the central aspect of the Native Culture policy. It is a too remote concept for most foreign observers because we have been brainwashed for decades that China is an atheist and communist country, but all of a sudden we should believe that China has turned both religious and capitalist. Johnson explains XJP’s interest in religion like this:
Religion was [in ancient China] spread over every aspect of life like a fine membrane that held society together. MZD called divine authority one of the “four thick ropes” binding traditional society together; the other three were political authority, lineage authority, and patriarchy. A local temple could be like the cathedral and city hall of a medieval European town rolled in one. In the words of the historian Prasenjit Duara, religion was society’s “nexus of power.” But religion was more than a method for running China; it was the political system’s lifeblood. The emperor was the “Son of Heaven,” who presided over elaborate rituals that underscored his semi-divine nature. Officials duplicated many of his rites at the local level, especially by praying at temples to the local City God. From the fourteenth century onward, the government mandated that every district of the empire have its own City God temple [effectively a town hall to venerate the emperor].
It is under this light of Chinese history and the elite’s sociological understanding that the Native Culture policy has to be read. XJP started in 2013 to pour substantial amounts of tax money into the renovation of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian temples. Shanghai’s Jingan Temple is only one of many elaborate projects with the far objective of tying the forth rope again around a society which is in a state of dissolution.
One might argue that there is no such thing like society in China. There was and still is only the ruler and the ruled and as such only the hierarchical relationship between the emperor and the subject, between father and son. China has never made this critical step in its social evolution or has it still ahead. It is ironically former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who said in an interview that there is no such thing as society, and without doubt her governance style could very well be labelled neo-Confucianist, but she said so in response to an over-boarding welfare system which deprived people of their self-responsibility, and was such as a political direction which can only be taken when the society has already been recognized as entity in its own right. Chinese governance has up to this date not resolved the relationship between the ruler and the ruled and it is this critical transformation which drives Beijing into total surveillance.
Social evolution might nevertheless have different trajectories. There is no natural law which demands that China must follow the same route Western industrialized nations have taken. There is actually quite a bit to say against that route, but I will refrain from this discussion since there is so much to read about the failure of democracies and capitalism. If China will indeed be the place where something completely new will happen as journalist Kai Strittmatter cryptically said is still open. The odds look good that it will, and I have little doubt about it. Will it though be cultural progress or what social psychologists call collective regression is another question.
We can summarize that China’s ruling elite drives with the two discussed flagship policies the main dichotomy of the 21st century: globalism vs. localism. OBOR intends to further unify the global market and beyond that establish a new international political system. The Native Culture policy tries to counter the dissolution of small structured social entities; and China’s push to control the AI industry serves as technological platform to achieve what some discuss as cyberleninism: total political control through technology. We are left with the challenging task of interpreting these policies’ far end: are they motivated by purpose or power?
Pointing At A Deer And Calling It A Horse
The China International Import Fair gives ample reason to ask this question. It is without doubt the 2018 flagship event of the XJP administration (despite so many more gargantuan conferences and projects) which sits at the confluence of both flagship policies. The many months-long preparations for this event and the way it was promoted both abroad and domestically give ample room for interpretation.
Let’s start with a closer look at the main CIIE poster which adorns the streets of many Chinese cities throughout the last weeks. Shanghai is shown as the focal point from which a yellow light radiates in circles out into the ROW gradually losing its strength and eventually subsiding to the general blue of the planet. The symbolism of such a statement is incredibly strong and loaded with history. It contains the message of the OBOR policy which channels six economic corridors back into China, but it also resembles the more than two millennia old concept of the Huayi distinction, which separated the world into Chinese and non-Chinese, into cultural superior people and barbarians.
Monumental infrastructure investments, which have turned Shanghai literally upside down can be interpreted as required preparations for a large event or as a well-orchestrated performance of power. Its thus quite plausible to ask if the CIIE is not rather an event which shows Chinese citizens their Emperor’s might. The trade fair complex in Shanghai’s suburban West close to Xujingdong metro station is of such vast dimensions that the pyramids of Gize pale in comparison. The adjacent real estate developments which include hotels and office buildings have created a new CBD in a city which already has more business hubs than any other urban area on this plane.
China’s rulers choose names carefully and quite often the words they choose indicate that exactly the opposite is meant. This tradition is embodied in a Chinese proverb: Pointing at a deer and calling it a horse. The CIIE is labelled as the first global import fair indicating a paradigm shift from China as export powerhouse to import destination number one. There is truth in this statement: Chinese consumers are wealthy and numerous. But it should be also read in exactly the other way, because the CIIE promotes the One Belt One Road policy and as such China’s hegemony to export not only its goods but also its values and culture throughout the world.
A historical interpretation would turn the foreign exhibitors into tributary and vassal states - yet another element in the traditional Chinese self-understanding as superior culture - which show through their participation that they kowtow to the superiority of their Chinese host and emperor with divine mandate to rule all under heaven. Considering that according to the state owned Xinhua news agency more than 130 countries, 3 international organizations and more than 3000 corporations will participate in the fair, XJP has succeeded to not only sell the fair as an event which will soften the trade balances with many guest countries, but also on a domestic level as a confirmation of China’s global leadership.
From a domestic point of view – let alone the obvious face lift of Shanghai’s urban landscape - the dramaturgy feels even more elaborate. I don’t know of any other country which shifts the holiday schedule for a capitalist trade fair. All but foreign schools and companies had to work the Saturday before the CIIE and then were granted an additional holiday on November 6 to spend time in massive traffic jams and multitudes queueing up to get into the trade fair or watch reporting about the fair and XJP’s opening speech on their TV sets. The CIIE is more than a trade fair, it is a ritual which celebrates capitalism as state religion and XJP as its pope, the son of heaven as the pope is called in Chinese tradition.
Nationalism and Cultural Superiority
Historian Yuval Harari spoke earlier this year eloquently on the TED stage about the difference between nationalism and fascism. He describes nationalism as a healthy collective sentiment supporting social progress and contributing to the peaceful coherence of a society. He explained nationalism from the perspective of the citizen very much like Henry Kissinger did from the perspective of a statesman as a system of equal nations which respect each other’s borders, cultures and values. Harari defines fascism as disrespect of other’s nations, borders, cultures and values. He says: Fascism, in contrast [to nationalism], tells me that my nation is supreme, and that I have exclusive obligations towards it. I don't need to care about anybody or anything other than my nation.
For an Israeli nationalism might have a better connotation than for an Austrian and as such I do not agree to Harari’s definition. The ghost of nationalism has paved the road to the monster of fascism. Nationalism has rendered once multicultural areas of central and southeastern Europe into monolithic entities which lack the richness of their predecessor forms of organization. Israelis, more than any other ethnicity, think of nationalism probably as the driving force which gave them a home territory and this explains why Harari considers nationalism mostly as one of the vehicles which unify human beings in ever larger bodies (the other two being money and religion). He forgets though that nationalism and fascism are 19th century children from the same mother: technology supported power politics.
I don’t want to argue here with Harari, much of what he says is true and its probably just a question of perspective whether we want to see nationalism as something positive and fascism as purely negative. Both models of organization turn foul if they install a control society which does not allow wild, uncivilized and uncontrolled behavior - no matter if other nations are disrespected or not. Both models affect the human mind in a similar way: they reduce pluralism and biodiversity and as such deprive (human) nature from much of its richness which survives only in small structured forms of organizations.
The two lines of thought which I want to discuss her in the context of the CIIE are related to cultural superiority, a concept which is not well known in the west. Is cultural superiority the same as fascism and is a nation allowed to proselytize its culture? If we apply Harari’s definition of fascism and exchange the term with cultural superiority it would read like this: Cultural superiority, in contrast, tells me that my culture is supreme, and that I have exclusive obligations towards it. I don't need to care about anybody or anything other than my nation.
Most China watchers will now agree that China is a fascist civilization. Paired with the Confucian family system China is probably the prototype fascist nation and shares this assessment with Japan. But in an era of emerging globalism we also need to ask if a culture which drives the cutting edge of evolution has a sort of natural right to disseminate its values to turn into a regional or global Leitkultur, i.e. guiding ever larger numbers of people into a unified framework of behavior. So, perhaps, the CIIE should really be understood as the ROW kowtowing at the Chinese court, because this is what we have to do in the decades to come.
If the control society is though the devil as Suzanne Treister suggested, then a culture which pressures its way of living upon others who have not asked for such a blessing is something that needs to be avoided. We thus ought to observe closely what machine learning combined with power politics brings forward. It will through the arteries of the One Belt One Road initiative spread into our very own neighborhood. Bentham’s Panopticon foresaw a single watchman and is as such in an international context the opposite of what according to Kissinger the Westphalian Peace in 1648 established as a system of checks and balances between more or less equal players. The world order which we took for granted for almost four centuries is about to change and XJP seems to step up as a single watchman of whom we yet don’t know whether he is enlightened or corrupted. An enlightened watchman supported by modern technology would be indeed something novel, but as philosopher George Santayanas once said “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
No entry on this blog for more than half a year. I honestly was not in the mood. Too much change in front of my house and even in my house. Government regulations did not only take down much of our neighborhood as I described in my last entry from January, but also part of our apartment. We lost two of our favorite restaurants, my hairdresser, our storage room and our daughter's room was sliced down as well.
Today's visit of the old Shanghai Jiaotong University campus, which is in our neighborhood, convinced me though that there is also an undeniable upside to breakneck change. The entire campus underwent a major overhaul and both old and new buildings shine in new splendor. A completely new building was erected for the Institute of Oceanography, the law and the economics & management faculty. Despite most undergraduate students attending classes in the suburban campuses, the old campus is really worth a visit and one should be grateful for being able to use the facilities of this institution.
A good reason for a visit is the C.Y. Tung Maritime museum and the Jiaotong University museum. Plan 3-4 hours and learn about the universities history and the seafaring Chinese. You might end up wondering why Zheng He discovered the world before Columbus in 1421, but in the end it was not the Chinese who rules the oceans for the last 500 years.
In politics, the central and fundamental problem is the problem of power. Who is to exercise power? And by what means, by what authority, with what purpose in view, and under what controls? Yes, under what controls? For, as history has made it abundantly clear, to possess power is ipso facto to be tempted to abuse it. In mere self-preservation we must create and maintain institutions that make it difficult for the powerful to be led into those temptations which, succumbed to, transform them into tyrants at home and imperialists abroad.
A weekend in Shanghai gives ample reason to ponder on Aldous Huxley’s words, which were written in 1962 in The Politics of Ecology. Can power politics and ecological action go well together? I have serious doubts.
A visit to the Shanghai Natural Science Museum, a world class museum and a real treat for children, was overshadowed last weekend by a publicity campaign of China’s public security forces. A few handsome police officers invited children to have their pictures taken with them. A squad of photographers shot every child they could get hold of. For the evening news on the Shanghai TV channel.
The police your friend and helper, who consumes 6% of the national expenditure. More than in any other country.
The same evening, I see food stalls along an entire road in Changning district taken down. By force. The next day half of Changning district’s Dongzhuanbang Road is where things happen: my favorite noodle restaurant, my hair dresser, and many more stores are gone. A military unit of roughly 30 men supervises the construction machines which demolish the buildings while tenants must watch. A friend of mine comments: that’s what communism looks like.
The background to these developments is straightforward economic policy from Beijing. GDP growth relies mainly on the increase of real estate prices and the consumption of high end goods like automobiles. The central government has decreed that illegal constructions must be removed to turbo charge the real estate prices in 1st tier cities. Less commercial space, even with no change in demand, means an increase in prices.
There is tough another reasoning which is related to human resources, not commodities, albeit both being linked with each other. Beijing wants to limit the population of Shanghai to 25 million and thus drives out migrant workers i.e. those who mostly rent cheap illegal commercial and residential space. Shanghai shall become a second Singapore. A cold city in a hot climate?
The implementation of this policy, one must say, is brilliant. I pay my kudos. I really do. Depriving migrant workers out of their businesses or homes just before the Chinese New Year Holiday, when they anyway travel to their originating villages in Henan or Anhui, will make most of them stay there without having anything left to return to in Shanghai. Kicking rural Chinese out of the city does also mean that there will be another increase in prices, which will eventually drive consumption to a new peak level.
Things seem to work according to plan. Instead of cheap migrant workers selling soy milk, Shanghai residents queue in the subway catacombs for a machine prepared orange juice. Bus lines stations are equipped with cooled dispensers of drinks and junk food. Oh, modernization, how have we waited for your belated arrival!
A cab driver analyzed the situation dryly by pointing out: “You will also get your youtiao (deep fried dough, a local breakfast favorite) in future, but not for CNY 1 but CNY 10, because who wants to fry and sell them for CNY 3000 a month, surely not Shanghainese residents. But they are the only ones left to do the job.”
I watch the cranes and excavators for a few minutes and recall how our neighborhood street looked like during early mornings when we went for a local breakfast. Tiny stores, boiling pots, stacks of fried cakes, people queuing in throngs. It’s that liveliness of market streets which always was a major draw to spend my days in Shanghai. Are these days gone?
And I can’t help thinking of the legal system which makes such forceful changes possible. My waning memory of law school produces something called servitude: a subjection of a property to an easement. At least in continental Europe, all these buildings would be subject to servitudes, because they were accepted for many years – both tenants and owners would have a right to indemnification like an owner with deed.
But this, again, is not continental Europe. And I am only a guest who is nothing more than entitled to watch what it means to be in service of the people.
James Chao, Managing Director of IHS Automotive Asia, an industry analyst, speaks on Nov 29th in a rather intimate SFCC setting on Tesla in China: Hype or Reality? We learn that Tesla Model S sales have dropped in Beijing by 50% in Q3 2017 and James tells us that these numbers are really concerning. Bloomberg’s Allen Wan adds fuel to these numbers: Tesla burns so much money every day producing vehicles at a loss that its financial resources will be depleted by August 2018. Will this company survive?
Opinions seem to diverge significantly, even at IHS, where some are convinced that Musk has a bigger plan, while others believe that Tesla needs to be turned into a profitable company in order to proof Musk’s overall vision. James seems to belong to the later fraction predicting that the combustion engine will be longer around than many believe. He tells us that the most spectacular but also most overseen new car is the Toyota Camry 2018, which increases in a refined standard 4-cylinder combustion engine fuel efficiency by 15%, without adding significant costs to the development of new technology; apart from, he adds, investment in engineering.
This argument alone confirms that somebody with a history degree, even if is a Harvard one, should not talk too much about the future of technology; in particular if the truly pressing question to be asked it this: Will EV solve the problem of transportation’s contribution to climate change? It was interesting to note that not even one event participant asked about the environmental impact of EVs, but questions rather focused on battery technology in general and if China’s government policies will harvest the promised great leap forward and turn corporations like BYD indeed into cutting edge new energy industry leaders.
In my modest opinion, there are a few issues in this ecosystem which keep to be overlooked by people who only focus on specific questions like battery technology, fuel efficiency, autonomous driving or innovation cycles. If we try to understand the big picture in the transportation industry and want to have answers about the future of Tesla or the future of EVs in China, we have to apply large scale systems theory in terms of technology, social organization and natural resources.
What are the core technologies in the EV industry? Batteries? Powertrain? IoT? Companies like techmeter or datenna have built an entire business around CTOs who want answers to this question and rather look into what the competition is doing than follow their own vision; I assume that Elon Musk is not their customer, because his vision is one of distributed power generation and consumption which turns end customers into independent entities which still are part of one large energy network. The car is in Musk’s vision merely an electricity consumer like a dishwasher or iron, and he certainly does not think along the lines of killer apps or core technologies, but has contemplated large scale problems which require a solution. Technologies are just means to an end.
What is then the central innovation at Tesla? It is not related to single technologies like battery, powertrain nor IoT. It is the conception of individual transport being an integral part of an energy revolution which is based on small, decentralized, photovoltaics power stations which are part of a regular family home. The energy of the sun is harvested by the consumer through solar panels and either used directly for charging a car and operating other appliances or stored in a batteries or hydrogen tanks which provide night and winter season supply. Tesla tries to solve the problem of fossil fueled individual transportation by providing renewable energy fuel vehicles.
Such an energy supply model is the antithesis to what the industrial revolution has brought to Western post WWII economies in form of centralized large-scale power plants, which are operated by mostly state-owned energy suppliers. Centralization has the advantage of top down organization, but the disadvantage of 2/3 energy loss during distribution; only 1/3 of the generated electricity reaches the consumer due to vast energy losses along the road.
The energy industry does therefore reflect in its entirety the Keynesian post WWII economic paradigm of scaling up production and distribution into megasystem beyond imagination: the bigger the better. It also reflects a political system which is based on strong and centralized nation states, which are able to provide their citizens with essential means in return for absolute loyalty.
Renewable and in particular solar energy stands for decentralization, self-responsibility and in terms of social organization heterarchy instead of top down hierarchy. Energy is not only consumed where it is produced thus eliminating unnecessary transportation and related infrastructure, it does also make top down structures of energy distribution completely obsolete and paves therefore the road to a postindustrial economic paradigm which has been famously formulated by Keynes protégé E.F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful.
One could therefore argue that driving a Tesla and any other electric car is as much a political as an environmental statement, in particular in Beijing, where Tesla sales have dropped so significantly. And this is where the EV industry attracts my sincere interest, because I wonder why Mr. Musk wants to enter a market with a manufacturing plant in Shanghai which is obviously not suitable to his big picture strategy of distributed energy generation and consumption; and if the Chinese government realizes that it undermines its totalitarian rule by pushing for 40% EVs by 2030.
Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity.
The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most. Every economist and businessman is familiar with the distinction, and applies it conscientiously and with considerable subtlety to all economic affairs – except where it really matters: namely, the irreplaceable capital which man has not made, but simply found, and without which he can do nothing.
A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problems of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital. How, then, could we overlook this vital fact when it comes to that very big firm, the economy of Spaceship Earth and, in particular, the economies of its rich passengers? One reason for overlooking this vital fact is that we are estranged from reality and inclined to treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves.
These lines from Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful give us two implicit answers. Musk has not solved the problem of production at Tesla, because he uses up his capital at breakneck speed; and it is his company which does on a microeconomic scale reflect a macroeconomic challenge: the depletion of natural resources can’t be stopped by changing within the same economic system from a product A to a product B, if still the same production principles and the same consumption behavior applies.
Let us look into these arguments a bit closer. I mentioned earlier that the core innovation of Tesla is Musk’s masterplan of decentralized, renewable electricity which shall power future transportation. He is certainly many steps ahead of his competition and most governments, but he is sadly still thinking along the lines of Keynesian economics in terms of vehicle production and consumption and this is clearly revealed in the case of Beijing, where Tesla S vehicles are being bought by high end customers who change cars like underwear. Their taste changes fast, their product satisfaction decreases even faster. They want to have the latest model, the trendiest design and the best brand, and purchase EVs rather for the hype than for the environmental impact. But why would you anyway buy a car in a city which is nicknamed the capital of congestion | 堵京 and which offers a good and reliable public transport system?
I am instantly reminded of Matthieu Ricard, the French biochemist and Buddhist monk, who is said to be the happiest person in the world, talking about chocolate cake: Although we want to avoid suffering, it seems we are running somewhat towards it. And that can also come from some kind of confusions. One of the most common ones is happiness and pleasure. But if you look at the characteristics of those two, pleasure is contingent upon time, upon its object, upon the place. It is something that -- changes of nature. Beautiful chocolate cake: first serving is delicious, second one not so much, then we feel disgust. A Tesla S is like any car a chocolate cake or as we more often say: a big toy for grownups. True satisfaction does not come from consuming product A or B, whether powered by fossil fuels or renewables, at ever shorter intervals. True satisfaction comes less by having and more by being.
But we don’t have to discuss the metaphysics of economics to make a stringent argument against (too many) EVs. Several reports have discussed lately the negative environmental impact of EVs but have mostly fallen short of analyzing the entire supply chain, but have instead rather focused on how electricity for charging EVs is generated. The most overlooked externality of all smart and clean technologies is rare earth mining which is polluting surface and ground water with alarming toxicity. China Water Risk published a comprehensive report on the subject in 2016.
In case this argument is not sufficient, one is asked to replace 35 mio conventional with 35 mio electric vehicles on China’s roads in 2020. One can imagine that EVs will not resolve central problems of urban transportation like congestion or parking.
Tesla produces vehicles which are sold without paying for externalities and fuels a stimulation driven consumer behavior instead of spreading the gospel of moderation by relying on principles of circular economy; but the company pushes a technological vision which, if successful, will catalyze social change, and is as such adding much value to our societies. Tesla shall therefore not only be evaluated by how much profit it makes, but in accordance to how much change it enables.
If I were though an advisor to Mr. Musk, I would argue against a China market entry. The Chinese power supply policy, which is until 2040 highly geared towards centralized nuclear power generation, and the society’s frame conditions in terms of urbanization and population density make the market highly unattractive for individual transportation, respectively require rather the entry of Hyperloop than Tesla; but old China hands know that the Chinese Railway Ministry is a PLA spin off and the Chinese market thus a deadend for foreign investors.
Chinese EV manufacturers like BYD or NEXT EV will never be a genuine competition to Tesla, because they lack a big picture master plan. BYD is despite its name – build your dream - not driven by a vision, but listens closely to Beijing’s China dream and tries to harvest subsidies and golden moments of government investment like most Chinese enterprises. NEXT EV has a great marketing and design team, but lacks according to experts in the supply industry central automotive manufacturing competences. We will see what Tesla competitors will bring to birth, but shall above all not forget that the problem of sustainable transportation cannot be separated from sustainable energy generation.
Thanks to a post in our Green Initiatives wechat group earlier this month my attention was drawn - in a search for a positive narrative for humanity’s future - to Captain Planet, a US animation series, I didn't even know it existed. Since our daughter is recently into drawing comics I looked it up and want to share here some thoughts on globalism and nationalism in an era when our post WWII world order is clearly dissolving and a new one seem to be emerging. I will elaborate further down on the recent decisions of the US administration to pull out of several international organizations, most importantly UNESCO, and the significance of the upcoming 19th Chinese Party Congress; and I will analyze if Xi Jinping will be our 21st century super hero.
Captain Planet and the Planeteers was aired 1990-96 and is the brain child of media mogul Ted Turner and screenwriter Nicholas Boxer who is credited for 103 of 113 episodes. Apart from having a really cosmopolitan and global mindset its a great way to create environmental awareness and a collaborative mindset amongst 6-12 year olds. The narrative is somewhat in line with what we all know from Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter: a crew of heroes fighting a crew of villains.
The producers drew a clear line between good and evil as in most Western narratives. Lewis Chriswell explains this fundamental difference between Asian, in particular Japanese, and modern Western story telling brilliantly in his video analysis of Hayao Miyazaki. He points out that Miyazaki’s characters are more complex than their Western counterparts, never only portraying the good or the evil. They are more like we all are in reality: in a constant float between the best and the worst of our potential self. I have to concede though that the clear juxtaposition of good and evil makes perfectly sense, when we try to create understanding of the world as a complex ecosystem, which requires our aligned action. Screenwriter Nicolas Boxer deserves serious credit for daring in a world of postmodern pluralism to give out a singular message: protect our home, planet Earth, by all means.
The plot is straight forward. Gaia, the spirit of the planet, is awakened from a long sleep by Hoggish Greedly, who happens to be drilling for crude oil above her resting chamber. Realizing that the damage is extensive, Gaia sends five magic rings, four with the power to control an element of nature and one controlling the element of Heart, to five chosen youths across the globe: Kwame from Africa, Wheeler from North America, Linka from the Soviet Union (changed to Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union's dissolution), Gi from Asia, and Ma-Ti from South America.
In Greek mythology, Gaia is the personification of the Earth and one of the Greek primordial deities. Gaia is the ancestral mother of all life: the primal Mother Earth goddess. She is the immediate parent of Uranus, the sky, from whose sexual union she bore the Titans, themselves parents of many of the Olympian gods, and the Giants, and of Pontus, the sea, from whose union she bore the primordial sea gods. Her equivalent in the Roman pantheon was Terra.
Our five protagonists are dubbed the Planeteers and are tasked with helping defend the planet from environmental disasters and making efforts to educate humankind to keep others from happening. In the beginning of the episodes, Gaia uses her "Planet Vision" in the Crystal Chamber to discover where the most devastating destruction is occurring and sends the Planeteers to help solve the problem. The Planeteers use transportation, usually a flying machine called a Geo-Cruiser, based on solar power to avoid causing pollution themselves.
In situations that the Planeteers cannot resolve alone, they can combine their powers to summon Captain Planet, a super hero, who possesses all of their powers magnified, symbolizing the premise that the combined efforts of a team are stronger than its individual parts. Captain Planet's outfit represents the embodiment of environmental beauty and health: a grass-green McGyver mullet, crystal blue skin, earthy brown eyes, a fire-red chest, gloves, trunks, and boots, and a sun-yellow globe insignia.
Besides having classical superhero powers such as flight, super-strength, and invulnerability, he is able to rearrange his molecular structure to transform himself into the various powers and elements of nature. He is though very sensitive to pollutants, which can weaken him considerably. The Planeteers cannot use their rings while Captain Planet has been summoned.
Once his work is done, Captain Planet restores the Planeteers' powers and reminds viewers of the message of the series with his catchphrase, "The power is yours!", which is said to mean that all have the power to end the destruction of the planet if we work together as one world rather than fighting each other as separate nations. Every episode is followed up with at least one "Planeteer Alert", often connected to the plot, where environmental-political and other social-political issues are discussed and how the viewer can contribute and be part of "the solution" rather than "the pollution".
For those amongst us who didn't know captain planet I post here the 23' intro animation which explains the characters and plot; and a 2' trailer on the captain planet foundation which seems to have gone very much into natural science education of youth and might lack the consumption awareness element which is recently discussed a lot as we come to realize that the industrial growth model drives us into a dead end.
The Dissolution of the Current World Order
Captain Planet producer and owner of CCN and Cartoon Network Ted Turner is probably also known as an important American philanthropist. He donated in 1998 USD $1 billion to support the United Nations, which created the United Nations Foundation, a public charity, which original purpose was to build domestic support for United Nations causes and to make sure that the United States honors its commitments to the United Nations. Turner serves as Chairman of the United Nations Foundation board of directors.
Considering that the Trump administration has just declared that the US will pull out of UNESCO, that it did pull out of the UN Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and that a new congressional bill seeks to leave the UN entirely, one might argue that the United Nations Foundation has failed in its mission. One definitely has to agree with USA Today’s headline: For 70 years America has led Europe and the free world. Not anymore.
The United Nations were established after WWII, but it is not a secret that they have always been a vehicle for the US to maintain the status quo, i.e. what is called amongst international relations buffs Pax Americana, a peace which serves the interests of the American economy and thus those who are on its top. The UN’s main objective of global peacekeeping and security reveals that despite other secondary goals, it introduces law and order which keeps corporate America and its allies in power.
Thinks of WTO (World Trade Organization) for a second, the organization which blazes the trail for large industrial conglomerates like – in order of global revenue volume - Nestle, Pfizer, Mars, GlaxoSmithKline, Kraftfoods, Monsanto, etc. to establish level playfields on a global market and thus create a competitive advantage over local small scale businesses; or WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization), the organization which helps the same large corporations to protect their intellectual property at the expense of social progress. If one understands the informal missions of WTO and WIPO, one easily understands that the UN in its general setup only serves as an extension of the (American) upper ten thousand under the good guy umbrella of the United Nations.
UNESCO though, is of a different caliber and has always been - at least in my marginal perception next to UNICEF – the best part of all UN activities. It shone as the light at the end of a tunnel of international lobbying, which absorbed the UN in the interests of war faring nations and profit greedy corporations. Its declared purpose is to contribute to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific, and cultural reforms. UNESCO is – mostly unknown to the general public – the successor organization of the League of Nations’ International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, and as such the continuation of the world’s first international organization, which had the maintenance of global peace as its mission.
The International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation was an advisory organization for the League of Nations which aimed to promote international exchange between scientists, researchers, teachers, artists and intellectuals. It was established in 1922 as a reaction to the atrocities of WWI, included 12 individuals, and counted such distinguished figures as Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Robert A. Millikan among its members. We shall therefore understand that UNESCO has exactly the same function within the UN: it is an interdisciplinary advisory board which supports the UN in defining its activities, and it is probably the single most important entity within the UN.
The US confirms its disrespect for the idea of the United Nations by pulling out of UNESCO because of animosities over the Palestine Authority being granted full membership in 2011. It has repeatedly – 2013, 2017 - claimed that UNESCO management maintains an anti-Israel attitude, but reflects hereby its own anti-Palestine perspective. The idea of the UN, and UNESCO in particular, is to get leaders of all nations to sit at one table to discuss how conflicts can be prevented or resolved. By blackmailing the UNESCO management to withdraw 22% of its annual budget, i.e. the US contribution of roughly USD 80 million p.a. amounting to more than USD 600 million arrears since 2011, both the Obama and the Trump administrations showed that they are in the grip of decision makers who hide in second line and who put their own commercial and political interests over the mission and purpose of international organizations.
The Washington Post writes that despite all the U.S.-UNESCO history, Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. membership is more drastic than the 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. funds. The UNESCO withdrawal stands out because it fits Trump’s pattern of leaving international institutions. […] But other countries also appear to be exiting from international organizations. In September, for example, Nigeria announced it was pulling out of 90 international organizations. The U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO is unlikely to start a domino effect, but the culmination of multiple withdrawals may help create a tipping point for more retrenchment from the global order.
In short, what we witness is the dissolution of the post WWII global order. Henry Kissinger saw the threat of such a development already back in 2014 when he wrote his magisterial international relations oeuvre World Order and said that Westphalian principles are being challenged on all sides, sometimes in the name of world order itself. He defined three major threats to the existing world order:
Within only three years after the publication of Kissinger’s masterly analysis, I see my then assumption being confirmed: Only China will emerge as a force to set up a new world order. Kissinger’s focus on radical Islam and supranational organization was merely academic. We shall though not forget that the systemic disintegration in international and supranational organizations helps China tremendously in its push for global hegemony. Corruption affairs in the UN, in particular UNESCO, wide spread frustration over EU institutions, and the general fact, that all the established international organizations serve rather as employer for a new global aristocratic bureaucracy, than their defined purpose of transforming the world into a better place, have certainly contributed to their beginning dissolution. Meanwhile the EU is weakened considerably by Brexit, and more than before focused on itself instead of how it could shape the world, or at least its region of intimate impact.
A New Emerging World Order
China has built over the last two decades a shadow system of international institutions which navigates in the caveats of the existing US backed system. It engages with neglected African nations in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which will most likely at some point substitute the New York based United Nations. It provides loans and investment through the Beijing headquartered Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank already in a larger volume than its US backed counterpart, the Asian Development Bank, and might take over the functions of an ailing Washington D.C. headquartered World Bank.
Considering that the United Nations and all its associated organizations have grown into a complex bureaucratic swamp, which costs roughly USD 6 billion, but has little impact, which preaches in the 17 United Nations Sustainability Goals the reduction of poverty and wealth redistribution, but provides its own employees the world’s best and most secure working conditions, one wishes actually for a clean slate and the transition to a new and better system of international governance. But can China provide that?
Globalism vs. Nationalism
The 68th Chinese National Holiday has just passed and the 19th Party Congress is coming up this week. This seems to be a good timing to think about the meaning of nationalism and globalism in the 21st century as humanity marches straight into the 6th mass extinction event by being unable to transform itself into one crew operating one Spaceship Earth. TED chief curator Chris Anderson and historian Yuval Harari discussed in February 2017 why a national organization structure cannot deal with problems of global dimension, in particular environmental pollution, degradation of natural resources and the increasing automation of labor markets and therefore growing income disparities. We might ad this point to Kissinger’s list of threats to the existing world order, indeed the world itself: a system based on national interests is not capable to deal with global challenges which put our survival as species at risk.
While the Republican Hertiage Foundation has recently released its annual report on US Military Strength pushing the resources of an ailing global power to its limits by demanding more investment in national defense, while the homeland security department is flooded with money since 9/11 in a fake propaganda against Islamist fundamentalism, which only fuels false fear and the American manufacturing and oil industry, China, too, continues to increase its military and domestic security spending according to economists Damien Ma and William Adams:
In 2011, China allocated 624 billion yuan ($100 billion) for domestic public security, a 14% increase from the previous year and over 6% of total public spending, higher than healthcare spending. By contrast, China’s reported defense budget in the same year was 601 billion yuan (less than $100 billion). Of the $100 billion public security budget, about 70% went to domestic police and the paramilitary force, the People’s Armed Police (PAP), while the courts and judicial functions received a much smaller fraction. On matters of law and order, there isn’t much competition—order wins by a wide margin, at least in terms of resource allocation.
In short and without having the time to research the numbers in detail, both behemoths, which account by far for the world’s largest economies, world’s largest tax revenues, world’s largest public expenditures, world’s largest national defense and domestic security budgets, allot more than 10% of their annual budgets on war and citizen oppression, when they should actually and most urgently allot their resources on mitigating climate change by investing in education and research & development of science and technology that makes a turn around possible. Infamous blogger Tim Urban would say, wait, but why?
Collective Unconscious and Elitarianism
The CCP’s value propaganda has lately been a lot on my mind, because related billboards decorate Shanghai’s streets, walls, public school grounds and even construction sites. They cause quite ambivalent feelings, because for one I admire the Xi administration for putting common values again at the center of politics; something blatantly missing in pluralistic and postmodern Western democracies, which could learn an important lesson in these transformational times from Chinese governance. But on the other hand I am worried about its nationalistic and exclusive undertone when we have to deal with challenges of global dimension. Will there be any change in how we run this planet under a Pax Sinica, or will we just swap the color code from Yankee blue to Maoist red?
The Chinese National Day is observed annually on October 1st to commemorate the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. On the contrary to other National Days that I know of, e.g. Germany’s October 3rd or the United States’ July 4th the Chinese government allots a full vacation week, the so called Golden Week, to its citizens. It is a good indicator for the importance of the Chinese National Day in the rhythm of a calendar year considering that the most important traditional holiday, the Chinese Spring Festival, which is usually celebrated in observance of the lunar calendar between late January and late February, being in significance comparable to Western Christmas and New Year combined, deserves the same number of days off.
Governance is essentially about the management of people; and it seems as if only the Chinese have read and understood what management guru Peter F. Drucker said: To be sure, the fundamental task of management remains the same: to make people capable of joint performance through common goals, common values, the right structures, and the training and development they need to perform and to respond to change. What Drucker wrote about business management is equally if not more true of society management.
Ian Johnson did in The Souls of China a brilliant job describing how Xi Jinping changed domestic policies since 2013 from a focus on economic progress only to a definition of common national values beyond capitalism, how he managed to revive Chinese tradition, culture and religion in search of means to fend off the forces of individualism and materialism; forces which have been unleashed onto the global marketplace, but in the West - rampantly destroying societies – still wait for containment. One can only pay kudos to such an ingenious and timely political strategy and its execution, even though we have to acknowledge that China’s past helps a lot to shape its future as Howard French explained in Everything Under the Heavens. Xi Jingping has put China on a solid track to make its people capable of joint performance through common goals and common values by developing the China Dream | 中国梦 narrative which is tied into the mythological foundations of the civilization-state.
Johnson explains that the traditional combination of religious and political power in Chinese society helps Xi Jinping to regain control of a society which undergoes the same transformation which has unraveled Western economies in the process of the industrial revolution. A local temple could be like the cathedral and city hall of a medieval European town rolled in one. In the words of the historian Prasenjit Duara, religion was society’s “nexus of power.” But religion was more than a method for running China; it was the political system’s lifeblood. The emperor was the “Son of Heaven,” who presided over elaborate rituals that underscored his semi-divine nature. Officials duplicated many of his rites at the local level, especially by praying at temples to the local City God. From the fourteenth century onward, the government mandated that every district of the empire have its own City God temple [effectively a town hall to venerate the emperor].
Xi Jinping has reestablished this traditional governance system in only five years’ time and thus managed to do the impossible: turn a country which is officially atheist, into a non-secular theocracy with himself as Son of Heaven. Again, Johnson, who described the 18th party congress in such a manner: The party launches its most important public display of power: a ten-day ritual called the Two Meetings. One of them is a session of a consultative conference where Communist Party leaders confer with entrepreneurs, movie stars, religious figures, and academics. It is meant to show that people “from all walks of life” are part of the sacred mission of ruling China. The other gathering is the annual session of the National People’s Congress, a ritualized version of a parliament. The congress has deputies, but they are unelected. It passes bills, but the decisions are drafted elsewhere. It promulgates laws, but their enforcement is arbitrary. Like the bright halls or bronze vessels of ancient times, it is a statement of intent—of plans that will only slowly become clear.
The weakness of Xi’s value propaganda and its imminent threat is equally evident as its strength and its opportunities. The top-down organization of Confucian societies allows the government to launch policies and change both mindset and behavior, thought and action in almost all layers of society at a pace Western style bottom-up organized democracies can only dream of. In as such China has already taken over command of spaceship Earth. Those who think differently, like the The Heritage Foundation and its Republican supporters, have lost touch with reality.
So, where is Xi’s weakness? Capable and strong leadership requires system awareness or as psychologist Daniel Goleman writes: For leaders to get results they need all three kinds of focus. Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions. Outer focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And other focus lets us navigate in the larger world. A leader tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided. Your focus is your reality.
It has been widely discussed and I confirm here that Donald Trump is only equipped with a sharp inner focus, which helped him to amass a fortune. He knows what he wants, but he does not care about the world of others and is completely indifferent to larger systems which go beyond America and his own business interests. Infants and toddlers naturally have a sharp inner focus, but if an adult has not acquired outer and other focus, we must diagnose him a psychological retard who must be cured from his regressive state of mind. Such a leader is not apt to guide the world in such a critical period of transition.
Xi Jinping is a different caliber. Any political leader navigating Chinese society and in particular the one Party system must have sharp outer focus. Contrary to Western politicians it is for a Chinese not enough to manipulate ignorant and often desperate proletariat to be elected into top government positions; Xi Jinping had to deal in the very first place with the smartest and shrewdest power-driven minds of a 1.3 billion population, which sit at the top of the 70 million members communist party institutions. While it was enough for Trump to run a campaign - in classic Roman panem et circenses style - that convinced mostly so called white trash – the left behind class of a globalized and tech savvy labor market - to vote for him, while he was ousted by his own Republican party fellows, Xi had to obtain endorsement from a decisive part of China’s most powerful politicians and business leaders.
Xi is without question a much more formidable national leader, and one could now start to discuss, if such an analysis induces that China as a nation and economy is stronger than the US, and if the one party system is the better form of governance. But I am not going down this track. I want to draw your attention to the third focus which is required by 21st century leaders: the other focus, which lets us navigate the larger world. Ian Johnson writes in The Souls of China that China’s official identity is a multiethnic state where all peoples, beliefs, and traditions are equally respected. The problem with this story is that Han Chinese run the country and it is their values, their dreams, and their traditions that define the national vision—not China’s fifty-five other ethnic groups. Now, the same is true for a nation which has forged a dream for itself but ignores the rest of the world.
Above picture floated into our living room as unrequested screensaver on our Xiaomi telly during this year’s Chinese National Holiday.
Winston Churchill once said that the further we look into the past the better we can understand the future. The Chinese past defines everybody who is not part of the cultural hemisphere of the Middle Kingdom as barbarian. The barbarians were seen as the far extreme opposite of the emperor or Son of Heaven | 天子, who was divinely appointed and emanated universal and well-defined principles of order. His spheres of influence were clearly classified according to physical proximity and as such exposure to his culture, into court officials, officials at vassal courts, tributary courts and their respective subjects, and finally barbarians, who were not yet under his heavenly mandate.
Later dynasties, in particular the Ming who moved the capital in the early 15th century to Beijing and had there the Temple of Heaven | 天坛erected, continued to apply this essentially social and strongly hierarchical structure of the emperor and his court being the center of the known world, culturally superior to any other form of human life. Only if one tries to understand this more than two millennia long self-perception of the Chinese elite, one can phantom the emotional dimension of the what the British kicked off in 1839 with the Opium Wars and what is known by the Chinese as Century of Humiliation | 百年国耻.
I guess we can summarize a few answers to the questions raised earlier at this point:
The American elite is captivated in a prolongation of its obsolete 20th century world dominance, the related economic model of industrial growth and its profit focus which can only be sustained by creating a world of scarcity and poverty. The Chinese elite is enthralled in a 150-year long pursuit to regain cultural and political world hegemony and therefore spends insane amounts, in particular in terms of purchasing power, on domestic security and national defense, and has adopted the US economic system as means to meet that end.
Xi Jinping has a clear inner and outer focus, which makes him contrary to Donald Trump a strong national leader, but he most likely lacks the required other focus to understand the global dimension of environmental and social challenges ahead, which demand a concerted effort of all of mankind and thus an integral, inclusive and pragmatic leadership. With a continuation of the same economic growth model he will only change the color code of the world hegemon, but won’t be able to give future generations hope. There is though a chance that Xi himself initiates in the tradition of Chinese pragmatism a transition from nationalist to globalist leadership; if only for pure power based calculations; and I give him my full endorsement following the thoughts of management philosopher Peter Drucker who once said:
One hears a great deal today about “the end of hierarchy.” This is blatant nonsense. In any institution there has to be a final authority, that is, a “boss” – someone who can make the final decisions and who can expect them to be obeyed. In a situation of common peril – and every institution is likely to encounter it sooner or later – survival depends on clear command. If the ship goes down, the captain does not call a meeting, the captain gives and order. And if the ship is to be saved, everyone must obey the order, must know exactly where to go and what to do, and do it without “participation” or argument. “Hierarchy” and the unquestioning acceptance of it by everyone in the organization, is the only hope in a crisis.
有地球才有家 | One World One Home
If Xi Jinping is our Captain Planet, then I would have a few recommendations for his second term during the next five years.
The Urgency for Transition and Captain Xi’s Responsibility
Now, some readers – if they have made it so far – might think I am nuts; but be assured I am all sober and my recommendations to Captain Xi do only reflect the facts of a world in peril. Pax Americana created after WWII abundance for much of the Western world, but at the expense of the developing world and the environment. Pax Sinica is set to develop abundance for the sinocentric world at the expense of the Western world and the environment, but at a much larger and thus threatening scale considering the increase in consumption per capita and roughly one billion more human beings being added to this planet each decade, in particular in Asia and Africa, China’s second continent.
Damien Ma and William Adams captured this resource driven perspective well in the title of their 2013 book In Line Behind a Billion People: How Scarcity Will Define China's Ascent in the Next Decade. What they describe is a China which is at the center of an economic system which circulates around commodity and utility streams geared towards profit maximization; a system which in the words of yet another economist, F. E. Schumacher, does not operate as if people or other forms of life mattered. The world will thus continue to spin driven by the same profit driven economic system which the US has globalized; only the decision makers at the very top have changed.
Sinica hosts Kaiser Guo and Jeremy Goldkorn had in September FT journalist Lucy Hornby and Greenpeace East Asia Senior Climate & Energy Policy Officer Li Shuo as guests to discuss China’s environmental headaches and their impact on the world with a focus on distant water fishing and soil pollution. The crucial question in summarizing this podcast episode is this: Why has distant water fishing declared a strategic industry by the Chinese government, although it is not an obvious choice like industrial robotics, artificial intelligence or space exploration? I will try to explain here why.
Lucy Hornby tracks down the global squid fishing industry, which has its global center, where, you guess, in China, yes, in a Zhejiang coastal city called Zhoushan, not far from Ningbo. And she does so because squid is the latest and one of the last resources in the oceans to be exploited by humans after many maritime populations like mackerel or hake have collapsed in the past few decades, and many more are doomed to follow, because of the Chinese elite’s craving for political pole position and the world’s hunger for fish.
Zhoushan and Qingdao are the two largest Chinese and global fishing industry locations; Zhoushan accounting for 70% of the current global squid caught and Qingdao being home to the world’s largest seafood processing industry. Once rich waters of the Chinese coast have been emptied in the 90s and Chinese fishermen have to sail ever further if they don’t want to return empty handed, creating a vicious cycle of having to haul back increasing amounts of fish to pay for the increasing costs of long journeys to distant waters. What strikes me though as most important in Hornby’s account is the clear connection of all three industry sectors and the impact of a short sighted, profit focused, commodity based economic system on the entire value chain of a national economy, which shapes the 21st century like no other.
Although the act of fishing extracts natural resources from water bodies, it is considered part of the primary sector, i.e. agriculture. The impact of the primary sector on the secondary and tertiary sector is far from obvious, in particular for Western observers, who are used to less than two percent of the labor force being active in agriculture. Despite China still employing about 40% of its labor force in the primary sector, Hornby’s account shows incisively that our economic systems depend entirely on natural resources and cannot be sustained without them.
The excessive extraction of natural resources from oceans has led according to Greenpeace to critical conditions in more than 90% of commercially exploited fish stock. Despite this obvious depletion of natural maritime resources, the commodity based economic system which China has adopted in the 1980s, forces the central and provincial governments to subsidize the fishing industry in order to sustain employment in related secondary and tertiary sector industries; instead of slowing down, the exploitation is stepped up in the name of national stability, i.e. greed for power and profit.
China goes even so far as to declare distant water fishing a strategic industry, because it deems itself as new global hegemon entitled to exploit the entire planet’s international waters. Conflicts over the Diaoyu (Chinese for fishing) Islands, which erupted with Japan in 2012 and have been only the start of unavoidable conflicts with a nation that has to fuel its insatiable economic system on a scale that mankind has never seen before.
These take aways clarify why it is Captain Xi’s responsibility to initiate within this five-year legislation period a transition towards a new economic model which is not based on profit and scarcity, but on value and abundance; an economic model which I call in association with Ken Wilber’s integral metatheory, the integral model, because
Energy Security and Peace
Hornby’s FT article does also allow conclusions further down the value chain. Provincial and municipal subsidies for large scale infrastructure projects like Zhoushan’s multibillion CNY fishing harbor, national subsidies to the shipbuilding and steel industry, and the imminent threat to lay off literally millions of workers in the coal mining industry, do reveal that the Chinese economy is – like all industrial growth systems - sick to the marrow and grows only at the expense of the global ecosystem. Never before though did a national economy reach scope and scale of China’s and never before was a single economy of this size connected to a global market of mindless consumers. That’s why 21st century dynamics are reason to worry; and that’s why both top down as well as bottom up transformation is required urgently.
China’s energy policy should give us particular reason to worry, because it is one which sets its own and thus the global economy on track for the next 20 to 50 years and thus entails Beijing’s most far sighted measures. China’s current reliance on coal, accounting for 2/3 of its national energy generation and its initiated shift to nuclear energy, which the central government labels as renewable (!), clearly indicate that there is no intention to collaborate with ROW in terms of energy security. A focus on nuclear energy reflects in any nation a deeply centralized and nationalist governance attitude, since it is based on the very premise of being independent from others, while a focus on solar energy reflects the visualization of a transnational future, where the sun, as our original source of energy is harvested and distributed globally.
The World Nuclear Association writes in its September 2017 report that in China, now with 38 operating reactors on the mainland, the country is well into the growth phase of its nuclear power program. There were eight new grid connections in 2015, and five in 2016. Over 20 more reactors are under construction, including the world's first Westinghouse AP1000 units, and a demonstration high-temperature gas-cooled reactor plant. Many more units are planned, including two largely indigenous designs – the Hualong One and CAP1400. China aims to have more nuclear capacity than any country except the USA and France by 2020 and to lead nuclear power generation globally by 2030. A past, a fading and an emerging empire on nuke steroids; confirming what Karl Popper wrote after WWII in Utiopa and Violence: The spirit of Hitlerism won its greatest victory over us when, after its defeat, we used the weapons which the threat of Nazism had induced us to develop.
A quick look into the history books tells us that a joint energy security is one if not the central pillar for regional peace. One might today look critical upon the European Union for having stalled its development due to bureaucratic futilism, but we shall not forget that it is the result of a concerted effort to avoid the recurrence of destruction WWII brought upon Europe. The EU was erected on the basis of the 1951 Treaty of Paris, which entailed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). French post WWII foreign minister Robert Schuman proposed a union of energy and heavy industry commodity supply as a central measure to guarantee regional peace.
If there were only one measure I could recommend to Captain Xi, it would be forging a regional energy security treaty with Japan and Korea in a first step and in a second the successive transformation of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project into a distributed energy generation and energy consumption network. China’s abundant solar resources in Tibet, Xinjiang and Dongbei are combined with the Chinese manufacturing power the key to trigger a breakthrough in a change of energy supply from fossil fuel based economies to renewables. A breakthrough, which can only work if energy supply is conceived supranational or even global. Captain Xi would thereby guarantee a peaceful future for the Eurasian and African continents and could find his way into the history books of future generations as the leader who saved the world. He would most likely share the 2030 Peace Nobel Price with Elon Musk who has a similar project in mind for the Americas.
There Are Many Flames, But Only One Light
Theodore Roosevelt once said that man must protect himself in new and wild communities where there is violence; and until other means of securing his safety are devised, it is both foolish and wicked to persuade him to surrender his arms while the men who are dangerous to the community retain theirs.” Kissinger writes that for Roosevelt, if a nation was unable or unwilling to act to defend its own interests, it could not expect others to respect them and therefore his favorite proverb Roosevelt’s favorite proverb was “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”
Quite frequently, I feel that Xi Jinping is like Roosevelt a realist; and what else should he be considering that China is in terms of socio-economic development where the US was about a century ago? But we have to hope that Xi considers a Great Leap Forward in Chinese international relations management. To be sure, it is a lot to be asked from him, because no other leader ever had to transform himself and his subjects within only a few decades to such an extent. If he can take though such a leap of faith he would become a Chinese Woodrow Wilson, who served as US president during WWI. He exemplified according to Kissinger idealism in international relations and it was him who initiated the League of Nations, the predecessor to the United Nations. Wilson was much ahead of his time, but Xi would be just in time to focus all human effort on the solution of the most pressing challenges of 21st century humanity.
Is Xi Jinping, after all, the Captain Planet, the world has been waiting for? I wouldn’t know for sure, but even if I would, I wouldn’t put all my money on a single political leader, but ask what I could do myself. In an era of consumer empowerment, it is my daily purchase and consumption decision that makes a small, but significant difference. Xi might be Captain Planet, but we are all: Planeteers, who don't eat fish.
Every autumn, when the scorching summer heat has dissipated, Shanghai residents are treated with great weather, gentle sunshine and a sort of second spring, bringing to town a wide variety of blossoming plants.
My personal favorite is a tree which grows in different locations and goes unrecognized by most people despite its ubiquitous presence and stark appearance. It listens to the Chinese name 栾树 ｜luanshu and is classified in Western botany as Koelreuteria Paniculata. The tree is a leafy everygreen, which starts to blossom in September in bright yellow, developing two weeks later pink sprout leaves on top of the flower buds.
Below pictures where taken on Yongyuan Rd ｜ 永远路, Fengxian Rd ｜奉贤路 and Zhongshan Park | 中山公园。Go and check them out or stroll the city and watch for these marvels of nature.
Dozing in front of the Berliner Cathedral on a weekday afternoon in late August. People stretching themselves on the grass, lovers, families, retirees, people of all nations and ethnicities are scattered on the wide lawn of Lustgarten | Garden of Pleasures. Pleasant live music and radiant sun permeate the space. But there is something more in the air; and I am not anymore surprised that whoever I talk to tells me that Berlin is the place to be. Creatives flock to the city reclaiming some of the fame it had between the two world wars, and although getting increasingly gentrified it keeps its European second tier city character, making is a (still) affordable place to live.
Not too long ago I reviewed Ken Wilber's latest book and suggested that the evolution's leading edge left the US and moved to China or Germany. Now I can confirm that the Square of Heavenly Peace | 天安门 is not in Beijing but in Berlin. A space of heavenly peace | 天安 or great harmony | 大同 requires above all an open and inclusive society, which allows pluralism and individual diversity. Germany has to a certain extent managed to create such a space. Wilber explains why the US has failed, and I couldn't think of a single Chinese city where such an atmosphere would be possible; hence I must conclude that China is probably on the wrong path or simply not there yet.
Sure enough, our concepts of heaven are as diverse as our tastes for music. A Chinese version of this afternoon would probably involve crunchy chicken feet, rotten tofu and some outdated Wang Fei tunes. The problem is though above all, that Chinese governance does not allow pluralism, but drives its subjects towards a monolithic cultural self-understanding, which per se makes a space like this impossible.
An hour later I take the opportunity to participate in the evening worship inside the cathedral, partly to avoid the entrance fee, which I donate instead to the excellent Bulgarian street musician in the Lustgarten | Garden of Pleasures; partly because I felt lying on the lawn, staring into the crystal blue sky and watching fat white clouds passing by, that this is how services ought to be: in open space, with gentle music, much time to dream and listen to God's day language, i.e. silence.
The golden inscription over the huge entrance gates reads, Cometh to me, you, who is burdened with misery and pain, I shall replenish your thirst for joy, and makes me recall psychologist Martin Seligman’s explanation why in particular the catholic church has nothing to offer to the contemporary members of a pleasure society. Who, in God’s name, who would give a damn to enter a place which promises salvation from misery and pain, if you can experience bliss just outside?
The cathedral is a splendid baroque piece of architecture, both from the outside as well as in its interior, which despite only slightly more than 1000 seats gives because of its vast dome the impression of being gargantuan. Some buildings indeed are made to convey grandness and provide the space to understand hierarchy and authority. The organ, a beautiful and surely the most fitting instrument to display the creator's might, contributes to a quite different atmosphere: man is minuscule in front of God (or the Hohenstaufen family who commissioned the construction of the cathedral in the late 19th century). All integrative kindness and brotherhood from the gardens in front of the cathedral is gone and substituted with an atmosphere of heavenly absolutism. This, too, must put people off from attending services.
A female vicar welcomes very few attendees and invites the still much larger number of tourists to join the evening worship. Large boards in German and English at the entrance ask to not disturb daily weekday services at 6pm and morning weekend services. The instructions remain unread, the vicar’s voice remains unheard to most and reminds me of how Germany and Europe deal with recent migration waves and the society at large. We have lost the competence of listening and are on permanent self broadcasting as sound engineer Julian Treasure lucidly tells us.
A probably Southern European family with seven children of all ages occupies the three first rows of the right second seating section. The mother tries with her youngest son desperately to take a selfie with the altar concave in the background. Her son tears the mobile out of her hand and victoriously jumbles back to the seating rows where he starts a game on the smart phone while his older sisters watch him. Their father pulls out his mobile in turn to catch the moment from the back: entire family gaming in Berlin during a holy service. Wham! Posted. Whishhh. Read by two dozen friends back in Bulgaria.
Two older German ladies a few rows before me in the left second seating section watch the scene and shake their heads in disapproval only to leave a few minutes later in the middle of the service. A young chubby Asian woman walks down the main hallway, stops right in the middle of the cathedral to pull out her semi professional camera and takes a shot; obviously unaware of the official worship, she continues to walk slowly towards the altar, where the vicar briefly explains how the event is structured, implicitly telling all tourists to respect space and time. The Asian woman takes a left turn right in front of the vicar and takes another shot from the pulpit, there noticing that something is awkward when a couple sitting in the left first seating section starts to chat and laugh about her.
The vicar recites from the Bible and elaborates on the purpose of sleep. The Lord, she says, cares of his children during sleep. He does so without asking anything in return. And such is the nature of sleep, its without pay and not subject to performance or profit, despite market forcing cutting in on this sacred realm. The truly important things, she continues, we do not receive through labor or toil, but without being asked anything in return. I can’t believe what I hear. Sounds to me like unconditional basic income. Everything for everybody without any commitment to a common good in return. I simply can’t believe that things work like that. Such a statement defies the laws of nature and is therefore not accessible to the rational and critical mind. Energy output demands energy input. In other words: there is no free lunch. And yes: I am in favor of a basic income, but not an unconditional one. People need to fulfill minimal standards of behavior, in particular when it comes to ecology. And no: I don't believe that there is a shepherd God who gives to his sheep all they want without wanting anything in return, but blind faith.
Dozens of tourists, most of them out of my field of vision, continue their visit during the service in utter disrespect of local norms, and I muse what would happen with such people in a predominantly Muslim country, when they would visit a mosque, or in China, when they would visit the Great Hall of People, which Ian Johnson brilliantly describes as modern China’s temple of rituals. A society needs both integration and hierarchy, openness and structure. Excess top down hierarchy in religion and governance respectively has made life in Muslim nations and China a burden for their subjects. They extend law and order from on sphere of life to all. Excess laissez faire policies and an exaggerated emphasis on individualism has perverted Western democracies like Germany into places of unruly chaos. Principles of equality and liberty have been driven to absurd levels. There is much to learn from each other.
A public square like the Lustgarten | Garden of Pleasures clearly serves the purpose of bottom up exploration. Most people were literally exploring the sky bottom up this afternoon; and rightly so. No rules apply, but only those minimal standards of any society which wants its members to interact in peace. A religious building like the Berlin Cathedral is a space though, which people who believe in a spiritual hierarchy attend to seek guidance for their own top down executive focus. Not only minimal standards of social behavior, but observance of particular rules of that confession apply and should be enforced accordingly. Some Confucian authority would serve hereto well.
I recall what psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote in Focus – The Hidden Driver of Excellence and venture into a conclusio ad majorem comparing neurological and psychological findings of individual performance to society at large: if excelling individuals manage to balance a triple focus, a balance between inner, outer and other focus, if it is true that the secret to their success is the ability to shift between top down executive and bottom up explorative attention, then the same must be true for an excelling society. It requires bottom up focus which allows space and time for jolly exploration as well as a top down focus which enables us to efficiently strive for a common good. It does not only take enlightened leaders to tell us when to shift from one to the other, but better self leadership in all of us.
Matthew 11:28-30"Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
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