Quotulatiousness

October 14, 2014

A new view on cosplay – as a symptom of a seriously weakened economy

Filed under: Economics, Japan, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 15:06

A certain amount of this rings true:

Imagine you’re a college graduate stuck in a perpetually lousy economy. That’s a problem Japanese twenty-somethings have faced for more than 20 years. Two decades of stagnation after the collapse of the 1980s real-estate and stock bubbles — combined with labor laws making it tough to fire older workers — have relegated vast numbers of Japanese young adults to low-paying, temporary contract jobs. Many find themselves living with their parents well into their twenties and beyond, unmarried and childless.

Then again, they do have plenty of time to dress up like wand-wielding sailor girls and cybernetic alchemist soldiers from the colorful world of anime cartoons and manga comics. Indeed, Japan’s Lost Decades have coincided with a major spike in “people escaping to virtual worlds of games, animation, and costume play,” Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor at Chuo University in Tokyo, recently told the Financial Times. “Here, even the young and poor can feel as though they are a hero.”

It’s hard to blame them. After all, it’s not that these young adults in Japan are resisting becoming productive members of the economy — it’s that there just aren’t enough opportunities for them. So an increasingly large number of them spend an increasingly large amount of time living in make-believe fantasy worlds, pretending they are someone else, somewhere else. This is a very bad thing for the Japanese economy.

And guess what: America has a growing number of make-believe “cosplay” heroes, too. Many of the 130,000 people who attend the San Diego Comic Con every year invest big bucks in elaborate outfits as a way of showing off their favorite Japanese characters, as well as those from American superhero movies, comics, and “genre” televisions shows such as Game of Thrones. And this trend is growing — the crowd at Comic Con was one-third this size in 2000. In 2013, the SyFy channel even created a reality show about the trend, Heroes of Cosplay.

H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link.

October 11, 2014

WW2 Japanese balloon bomb discovered in British Columbia

Filed under: Cancon, History, Japan — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:05

Wayne Moore on the recently discovered remnants of a unique Japanese weapon that was used to bomb the North American mainland during World War 2:

Remains of Japanese balloon bomb in BC

Seven decades after thousands of “balloon bombs” were let loose by the Imperial Japanese Army to wreak havoc on their enemies across the Pacific, two forestry workers found one half-buried in the mountains of eastern British Columbia.

A navy bomb disposal team was called and arrived at the site Friday in the Monashee Mountains near Lumby, B.C.

“They confirmed without a doubt that it is a Japanese balloon bomb,” said RCMP Cpl. Henry Proce.

Japanese balloon bomb illustration“This thing has been in the dirt for 70 years …. There was still some metal debris in the area (but) nothing left of the balloon itself.”

The forestry workers found the device Wednesday and reported it to RCMP on Thursday.

Proce, a bit of a history buff himself, accompanied the men to the remote area and agreed that the piece appeared to be a military relic.

The area was cordoned off and police contacted the bomb disposal unit at Maritime Forces Pacific.

It was a big bomb, Proce said. A half-metre of metal casing was under the dirt in addition to approximately 15 to 20 centimetres sticking out of the ground.

“It would have been far too dangerous to move it,” Proce said. “They put some C4 on either side of this thing and they blew it to smithereens.”

October 9, 2014

“Japan’s high-speed rail system may end up being the victim of its own success”

Filed under: Economics, Japan, Railways, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

An interesting look at how the Japanese Shinkansen system has literally shaped Japan’s urban development pattern:

Photo by Wikipedia contributor Swollib (Source: Wikipedia)

Photo by Wikipedia contributor Swollib (Source: Wikipedia)

At 10am on 1 October 1964, with less than a week and a half to go before the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games, the two inaugural Hikari Super Express Shinkansen, or “bullet trains,” arrived at their destinations, Tokyo and Osaka. They were precisely on time. Hundreds of people had waited overnight in each terminal to witness this historic event, which, like the Olympics, heralded not just Japan’s recovery from the destruction of the second world war, but the beginning of what would be Japan’s stratospheric rise as an economic superpower. The journey between Japan’s two biggest cities by train had previously taken close to seven hours. The Shinkansen had made the trip in four.

The world’s first high-speed commercial train line, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Wednesday, was built along the Tokaido, one of the five routes that connected the Japanese hinterland to Edo, the city that in the mid-1800s became Tokyo. Though train lines crisscrossed the country, they were inadequate to postwar Japan’s newborn ambitions. The term “shinkansen” literally means “new trunk line”: symbolically, it lay at the very centre of the huge reconstruction effort. All previous railways were designed to serve regions. The purpose of the Tokaido Shinkansen, true to its name, was to bring people to the capital.

[...]

In an interview in the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper last week, Takashi Hara, a political scholar and expert on Japanese railroads, said the policy of extending the Shinkansen was promulgated by Kakuei Tanaka, Japan’s prime minister from 1972 to 1974. “The purpose was to connect regional areas to Tokyo,” Hara said. “And that led to the current situation of a national Shinkansen network, which completely changed the face of Japan. Travel times were shortened and vibration was alleviated, making it possible for more convenient business and pleasure trips, but I have to say that the project just made all the [connecting] cities part of Tokyo.”

And where the Shinkansen’s long tentacles go, other services shrivel. Local governments in Japan rely heavily on the central government for funds and public works — it’s how the central government keeps them in line. Politicians actively court high-speed railways since they believe they attract money, jobs and tourists. In the early 1990s, a new Shinkansen was built to connect Tokyo to Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. The train ran along a similar route as the Shinetsu Honsen, one of the most romanticised railroads in Japan, beloved of train buffs the world over for its amazing scenery – but also considered redundant by operators JR East because, as with almost all rural train lines in Japan, it lost money. There were only two profitable stations on the line — Nagano and the resort community of Karuizawa — and both would be served by the new Shinkansen. A large portion of the Shinetsu Honsen closed down; local residents who relied on it had to use cars or buses.

Shinkansen series 0 and series N700 (via Wikipedia)

Shinkansen series 0 and series N700 (via Wikipedia)

Meanwhile, the bullet train has sucked the country’s workforce into Tokyo, rendering an increasingly huge part of the country little more than a bedroom community for the capital. One reason for this is a quirk of Japan’s famously paternalistic corporations: namely, employers pay their workers’ commuting costs. Tax authorities don’t consider it income if it’s less than ¥100,000 a month — so Shinkansen commutes of up to two hours don’t sound so bad. New housing subdivisions filled with Tokyo salarymen subsequently sprang up along the Nagano Shinkansen route and established Shinkansen lines, bringing more people from further away into the capital.

The Shinkansen’s focus on Tokyo, and the subsequent emphasis on profitability over service, has also accelerated flight from the countryside. It’s often easier to get from a regional capital to Tokyo than to the nearest neighbouring city. Except for sections of the Tohoku Shinkansen, which serves northeastern Japan, local train lines don’t always accommodate Shinkansen rolling stock, so there are often no direct transfer points between local lines and Shinkansen lines. The Tokaido Shinkansen alone now operates 323 trains a day, taking 140 million fares a year, dwarfing local lines. This has had a crucial effect on the physical shape of the city. As a result of this funnelling, Tokyo is becoming even denser and more vertical — not just upward, but downward. With more Shinkansen passengers coming into the capital, JR East has to dig ever deeper under Tokyo Station to create more platforms.

October 8, 2014

Pakistan’s public health emergency

Filed under: Asia, Health — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:07

The number of reported cases of polio is now the highest it has been for more than a decade, and at least some of the blame has to go to the CIA for using health workers as a cover for some of their covert operations.

As world health officials struggle to respond to the Ebola epidemic, Pakistan has passed a grim milestone in its efforts to combat another major global health crisis: the fight against polio.

Over the weekend, Pakistan logged its 200th new polio case of 2014, the nation’s highest transmission rate in more than a dozen years. The spread has alarmed Pakistani and international health experts and is prompting fresh doubt about the country’s ability to combat this or future disease outbreaks.

By Tuesday, the number of new polio cases in Pakistan stood at 202, and officials are bracing for potentially dozens of other cases by year’s end. Pakistan now accounts for 80 percent of global cases and is one of only three countries at risk of exporting the disease outside its borders, according to the World Health Organization.

[...]

In far-flung areas of the country, some parents and religious leaders are skeptical of the vaccine, requiring considerable face-to-face outreach by vaccination teams.

But the Pakistani Taliban and other Islamist militants have waged a brutal campaign against those teams, killing more than 50 health workers and security officials since 2012. The attacks began after it was discovered that the CIA had used a vaccination campaign to gain information about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.

October 5, 2014

Protest locations in Hong Kong

Filed under: China, Government, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:03

In The Atlantic, Bourree Lam looks at where the Hong Kong protests tend to be located:

Hong Kong’s “umbrella revolution” — an anticipated protest movement with unanticipated mass turnout — is currently spreading across an island slightly bigger than Manhattan.

The Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP) campaign, whose main demands are the resignation of Chief Executive CY Leung and true democracy for Hong Kong, announced months ago that it planned to shut down Hong Kong’s Central District — the city’s financial hub, which also houses government offices (including the Legislative Council’s buildings and the chief executive’s residence) and a luxury-shopping strip featuring a city block-wide Louis Vuitton store (by night it’s where tourist and locals go drinking and clubbing, especially in the Lan Kwai Fong area). Beginning with British colonial rule in 1841, the district has gradually become the main artery of Hong Kong’s business and social life.

But the protest movement, of which the OCLP is now just one part, has expanded in the last few days to the districts of Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mongkok — some of the city’s most bustling commercial sectors. On Tuesday, the protests encompassed the areas of Tsim Sha Tsui and Wan Chai. And, in a twist on the ‘Occupy’ movement in the United States, the demonstrations haven’t been confined to public squares; they’ve also spread to intersections, forcing road closures. Protesters, for instance, are currently holding their positions on Connaught Road Central, a major six-lane throughway that connects four districts on the island.

[...]

Hong Kong protest locations, October 2014

Update: Zachary Keck is quite pessimistic on the chances for success.

As covered extensively in The Diplomat, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Hong Kong demanding democratic reforms. Specifically, the protesters want free and fair elections and universal suffrage to select the city’s government, which Beijing promised as part of the condition for the U.K. handing back the city to mainland China.

Sadly, Occupy Central is doomed to fail. The Chinese government will not accept the protesters’ demands.

Beijing has already made it clear that it views free and fair elections in Hong Kong to be a threat to one-party rule in the country. At most, it will allow Hongkongers to select one of the candidates that it pre-approves. It has also deemed Occupy Central illegal. In other words, the Chinese Communist Party views the issue as one of its “core interests,” and it hasn’t stayed in power this long by compromising on issues that it views as threats to its survival.

[...]

The massive protests that have swept through Hong Kong in recent days have only made it more urgent that the CCP hold the line on the issue. The Party can ill afford an example of mass demonstrations forcing it to compromise on an issue deemed to be of core importance. Before the protests, it was possible the CCP might have assessed that free and fair elections in Hong Kong would not threaten one-Party rule on the mainland because of the “one country, two systems” mantra. However, the Party giving in on a core issue because of mass protests would, without question, set a dangerous precedent for the CCP’s grip on power in mainland China. It therefore will not be done.

This isn’t to say that a violent crackdown is coming. Indeed, as is almost always the case, the CCP will want the local government on the frontlines in handling the protesters, while Beijing directs things from behind the scenes. As Steve Hess has pointed out in The Diplomat, using local governments as scapegoats has long been an effective tool of the CCP. If it means the restoration of stability, that could very well mean the end of CY Leung’s career. It’s also possible some sort of “compromise” will be worked out that allows the protesters to claim some sort of victory without compromising the CCP’s ability to maintain a large degree of control over the chief executive of Hong Kong.

October 2, 2014

The Aral Sea, Uzbek cotton, forced labour, and the clothing industry

Filed under: Asia, Environment, Health — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:07

As reported the other day, what was once the world’s fourth largest lake, the Aral Sea, has almost completely dried up due to Soviet water diversion projects of the late 1950s and early 1960s:

In the early 1960s, the Soviet government decided the two rivers that fed the Aral Sea, the Amu Darya in the south and the Syr Darya in the east, would be diverted to irrigate the desert, in an attempt to grow rice, melons, cereals, and cotton.

This was part of the Soviet plan for cotton, or “white gold”, to become a major export. This temporarily succeeded, and in 1988, Uzbekistan was the world’s largest exporter of cotton.

The Soviet government made a deliberate choice to sacrifice the Aral Sea to create a vast new cotton-growing region in Uzbekistan. It was clearly quite successful, depending on how you choose to measure success.

The disappearance of the lake was no surprise to the Soviets; they expected it to happen long before. As early as 1964, Aleksandr Asarin at the Hydroproject Institute pointed out that the lake was doomed, explaining, “It was part of the five-year plans, approved by the council of ministers and the Politburo. Nobody on a lower level would dare to say a word contradicting those plans, even if it was the fate of the Aral Sea.”

The reaction to the predictions varied. Some Soviet experts apparently considered the Aral to be “nature’s error”, and a Soviet engineer said in 1968, “it is obvious to everyone that the evaporation of the Aral Sea is inevitable.”

The drying-out of the Aral was not just bad news for the fishermen of the region: it was a full-blown environmental disaster, as the former lake bottom was heavily polluted:

The receding sea has left huge plains covered with salt and toxic chemicals – the results of weapons testing, industrial projects, and pesticides and fertilizer runoff – which are picked up and carried away by the wind as toxic dust and spread to the surrounding area. The land around the Aral Sea is heavily polluted, and the people living in the area are suffering from a lack of fresh water and health problems, including high rates of certain forms of cancer and lung diseases. Respiratory illnesses, including tuberculosis (most of which is drug resistant) and cancer, digestive disorders, anaemia, and infectious diseases are common ailments in the region. Liver, kidney, and eye problems can also be attributed to the toxic dust storms. Health concerns associated with the region are a cause for an unusually high fatality rate amongst vulnerable parts of the population. The child mortality rate is 75 in every 1,000 newborns and maternity death is 12 in every 1,000 women. Crops in the region are destroyed by salt being deposited onto the land. Vast salt plains exposed by the shrinking Aral have produced dust storms, making regional winters colder and summers hotter.

The Aral Sea fishing industry, which in its heyday had employed some 40,000 and reportedly produced one-sixth of the Soviet Union’s entire fish catch, has been devastated, and former fishing towns along the original shores have become ship graveyards. The town of Moynaq in Uzbekistan had a thriving harbor and fishing industry that employed about 30,000 people; now it lies miles from the shore. Fishing boats lie scattered on the dry land that was once covered by water; many have been there for 20 years.

"Waterfront" of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, formerly on the banks of the Aral Sea. Photo taken Spring 2003 by Staecker. (Via Wikipedia)

“Waterfront” of Aralsk, Kazakhstan, formerly on the banks of the Aral Sea. Photo taken Spring 2003 by Staecker. (Via Wikipedia)

So, tragic as all this is, what does it have to do with the clothing industry? The Guardian‘s Tansy Hoskins points out that due to the murky supply chains, it’s almost impossible to find out where the cotton used by many international clothing firms actually originates, and the Uzbek cotton fields are worked by forced labour:

The harvest of Uzbek cotton is taking place right now — it started on the 5 September and is expected to last until the end of October. The harvest itself is also a horror story, on top of the environmental devastation, this is cotton picked using forced labour. Every year hundreds of thousands of people are systematically sent to work in the fields by the government.

Under pressure from campaigners, in 2012, Uzbek authorities banned the use of child labour in the cotton harvest, but it is a ban that is routinely flouted. In 2013 there were 11 deaths during the harvest (pdf), including a six year old child, Amirbek Rakhmatov, who accompanied his mother to the fields and suffocated after falling asleep on a cotton truck.

Campaigners have also managed to get 153 fashion brands to sign a pledge to never knowingly use Uzbek cotton. Anti-Slavery International have worked on this fashion campaign but acknowledge that despite successes there is still a long way to go.

“Not knowingly using Uzbek cotton and actually ensuring that you don’t use Uzbek cotton are two completely different things,” explains Jakub Sobik, press officer at Anti-Slavery International.

One major problem that Sobik points out is that much of the Uzbek cotton crop now ends up in Bangladesh and China — key suppliers for European brands. “Whilst it is very hard to trace the cotton back to where it comes from because the supply chain is so subcontracted and deregulated, brands have a responsibility to ensure that slave picked cotton is not polluting their own supply chain.”

Russian TV claims Hong Kong protests are US/UK plot against … Russia

Filed under: China, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:32

We’re used to Russian talking points being a bit off-centre, but as Karoun Demirjian reports, the Russians are now seeing things like the Hong Kong student protests as “really” being directed against Russian interests by shadowy American and British puppetmasters:

Here in Russia, the umbrella-wielding demonstrators of Hong Kong are being presented as pawns in a Western plot to foment instability in yet another one of Moscow’s allies — and Russia wonders if it could be the ultimate target.

“Was the student protest organized by Great Britain and the USA?” state television station Russia 24 asked Tuesday, citing reports in the Chinese media that “the leaders of the movement received special training from the American intelligence services.”

[...]

“The tactics of the protesters are exactly the same as at the beginning of all ‘orange’ revolutions, which in fact were state coups,” a Russia 24 news presenter said Tuesday, referring to the signature color of Ukraine’s 2004 protests. “Besides, the White House officially confirmed through its spokesman that Washington supports the intentions of the citizens of Hong Kong to protect their basic rights and freedoms.”

Russian state media have also suggested that Britain supports the protests as a way of safeguarding its business interests in Hong Kong, especially as Beijing is “gradually abolishing benefits” for British companies located there.

Yet there is one thing missing in the Russian analysis: Any specific advice as to how China’s government should proceed. Russia’s leaders have neither cautioned China’s leaders to show restraint nor urged them toward a crackdown.

October 1, 2014

The Aral Sea almost completely dried out in August

Filed under: Asia, Environment — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:15

Enjoli Liston reports on the former body of water in the Guardian:

 The Aral Sea in 2000 on the left and 2014 on the right. Photograph: Atlas Photo Archive/NASA

The Aral Sea in 2000 on the left and 2014 on the right. Photograph: Atlas Photo Archive/NASA

A large section of the Aral Sea has completely dried up for the first time in modern history, according to Nasa.

Images from the US space agency’s Terra satellite released last week show that the eastern basin of the Central Asian inland sea — which stretched across Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and was once the fourth largest in the world — was totally parched in August. Images taken in 2000 show an extensive body of water covering the same area.

“This is the first time the eastern basin has completely dried in modern times,” Philip Micklin, a geographer emeritus from Western Michigan University told Nasa. “And it is likely the first time it has completely dried in 600 years, since Medieval desiccation associated with diversion of Amu Darya to the Caspian Sea.”

Note that this isn’t primarily due to climate change, although it is a man-made environmental disaster:

In the 1950s, two of the region’s major rivers — the Amu Darya and and the Syr Darya — were diverted by the Soviet government to provide irrigation for cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, starving the Aral. It has been diminishing ever since, with the sea level dropping 16 metres between 1960 and 1996, according to the World Bank. Water levels are believed to be down to less than 10 per cent of what they were five decades ago.

Wikimedia has a dramatic illustration of the diminishing border of the Aral Sea between 1960 and 2008:

Animated map of the shrinking of the Aral Sea between 1960 and 2008 (via Wikipedia)

Animated map of the shrinking of the Aral Sea between 1960 and 2008 (via Wikipedia)

September 28, 2014

This is why you rarely see “Made in India” on manufactured goods

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, India — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:13

At The Diplomat, Mohamed Zeeshan talks about India’s self-imposed disadvantages in manufacturing both for domestic and export consumption:

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s maiden Independence Day speech was laced with inspiring rhetoric. But of the many things he said, the one slogan that inevitably caught public attention was this: “Come, make in India!” With those words, Modi was trying to make the case for turning India into the world’s next great manufacturing hub. Understandably, the Indian populace was thrilled.

India is one of the world’s ten largest economies (and is third largest on a purchasing power parity basis), with a total annual output of nearly $2 trillion. As much as 57 percent of this output is produced by a service sector that employs just 28 percent of the population, largely concentrated in urban parts of the country. That is no surprise, because most Indians lack the skills and education to join the more knowledge-intensive service sector. What they need is what successful developing nations all over the world have had ever since the Industrial Revolution: a robust and productive manufacturing sector.

Yet India’s manufacturing sector contributes just 16 percent to the total GDP pie (China’s, by contrast, accounts for almost half of its total economic output). Victor Mallet, writing in the McKinsey book Reimagining India, recently offered an anecdote that was illuminating. “One of India’s largest carmakers recently boasted that it was selling more vehicles than ever and that it was hiring an extra eight hundred workers for its factory,” he wrote, “But the plant employing those workers belongs to the Jaguar Land Rover subsidiary of Tata Motors and is in the English Midlands, not in job-hungry India.”

Mallet goes on to make a point that has been made frequently by Indian economists: The world doesn’t want to “make in India,” because it is simply too painful. There’s bureaucratic red tape, a difficult land acquisition act, troublesome environmental legislation, a shortage of electricity, and a lack of water resources. The only thing India doesn’t seem to lack is labor, but that merely adds to the problem. As Mallet points out in the same essay, aptly titled “Demographic dividend – or disaster?”, “India’s population grew by 181 million in the decade to 2011 – and (despite falling fertility rates) a rise of nearly 50% in the total number of inhabitants is unavoidable.” But the number of jobs being added to feed that population is inadequate.

However, the labor dividend is still important. India doesn’t need to reduce the number of hands on deck. It needs to weed out the challenges that stop them from being productive.

September 14, 2014

Australia’s search for new submarines

Filed under: Japan, Military, Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:50

A few days ago, news reports indicated that the next generation of submarines for the Royal Australian Navy would be bought from Japan, rather than built in Australia. Kym Bergmann says the reports are probably misleading:

There has been a flurry of public commentary following yesterday’s News Limited claims that Australia is about to enter into a commitment to buy its next generation of submarines from Japan. The local submarine community has been concerned about that possibility for some time, and senior members of the Submarine Institute of Australia have been writing to Defence Minister David Johnston — and others — since January of this year warning against such a decision.

Understanding what’s happening is difficult because the speculation appears based on remarks apparently made by Prime Minister Tony Abbott to his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe about such a course of action. The concerns have been reinforced among some observers by Abbott’s interest in strengthening Australia–Japan–U.S. defense ties — something in turn being driven by the rise of China. Yesterday Prime Minister Abbott did nothing to dampen the speculation, stating that future submarines were about capability, not about local jobs. As an aside, those sorts of comments also serve the PM’s aggressive political style, jabbing a finger into the eye of the current South Australian Labor Government.

However, the chances of the Federal Government making a unilateral decision to sole source a Japanese solution seem low — and if the Prime Minister were to insist on that particular course of action there could be a serious Cabinet and back bench revolt. Not only would such a decision constitute another broken promise — the word “another” would presumably be contested by the PM on the basis that no promises have been broken to date — but it’d almost certainly lead to the loss of Federal seats in South Australia (Hindmarsh for sure, perhaps Boothby and Sturt), as well as generate enormous resentment within institutions no less than the Royal Australian Navy, the Department of Defence, trade unions and a stack of industry associations, amongst others.

Australia is similar to Canada in this regard: military expenditure is almost always seen as regional development/job creation/political vote-buying first and value-for-money or ensuring that the armed forces have the right kit for the task come a very distant second. This means that the RAN, like the RCN, often ends up with fewer hulls sporting lower capabilities for much more money than if they were able to just buy the best equipment for their needs whether overseas or at home. But that doesn’t get the government votes in “key constituencies”, so let the sailors suffer if it means shoring up support in the next federal election…

QotD: Chinese millionaires

Filed under: China, Humour, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Up to a point, as we recognized, the problem of the coolie-millionaire offers no real difficulty. The Chinese coolie lives in a palm-thatched hovel on a bowl of rice. When he has risen to a higher occupation — hawking peanuts, for example, from a barrow — he still lives on rice and still lives in a hovel. When he has risen farther — to the selling, say, of possibly stolen bicycle parts, he keeps to his hovel and his rice. The result is that he has money to invest. Of ten coolies in this situation, nine will lose their money by unwise speculation. The tenth will be clever or lucky. He will live, nevertheless, in his hovel. He will eat, as before, his rice. As a success technique this is well worthy of study.

In the American log cabin story the point is soon reached at which the future millionaire must wear a tie. He explains that he cannot otherwise inspire confidence. He must also acquire a better address, purely (he says) to gain prestige. In point of fact, the tie is to please his wife and the address to satisfy his daughter. The Chinese have their womenfolk under better control. So the prosperous coolie sticks to his hovel and his rice. This is a known fact and admits of two explanations. In the first place his home (whatever its other disadvantages) has undeniably brought him luck. In the second place, a better house would unquestionably attract the notice of the tax collector. So he wisely stays where he is. He will often keep the original hovel — at any rate as an office — for the rest of his life. He quits it so reluctantly that his decision to move marks a major crisis in his career.

When he moves it is primarily to evade the exactions of secret societies, blackmailers, and gangs. To conceal his growing wealth from the tax collector is a relatively easy matter; but to conceal it from his business associates is practically impossible. Once the word goes round that he is prospering, accurate guesses will be made as to the sum for which he can be “touched.” All this is admittedly well known, but previous investigators have jumped too readily to the conclusion that there is only one sum involved. In point of fact there are three: the sum the victim would pay if kidnapped and held to ransom; the sum he would pay to keep a defamatory article out of a Chinese newspaper; the sum he would subscribe to charity rather than lose face.

Our task was to ascertain the figure the first sum will have reached (on an average) at the moment when migration takes place from the original hovel to a well-fenced house guarded by an Alsatian hound. It is this move that has been termed “Breaking the Hound Barrier.” Social scientists believe that it will tend to occur as soon as the ransom to be exacted comes to exceed the overhead costs of the “snatch.”

C. Northcote Parkinson, “Palm Thatch To Packard Or A Formula For Success”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.

September 8, 2014

QotD: The Economist‘s whitewash of the “Great Leap Forward”

Filed under: China, History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

When Mao died, The Economist wrote:

    “In the final reckoning, Mao must be accepted as one of history’s great achievers: for devising a peasant-centered revolutionary strategy which enabled China’s Communist Party to seize power, against Marx’s prescriptions, from bases in the countryside; for directing the transformation of China from a feudal society, wracked by war and bled by corruption, into a unified, egalitarian state where nobody starves; and for reviving national pride and confidence so that China could, in Mao’s words, ‘stand up’ among the great powers.” (emphasis mine)

The current estimate is that, during the Great Leap Forward, between thirty and forty million Chinese peasants starved to death. Critics questioning that figure have suggested that the number might have been as low as two and half million.

I am curious — has the Economist ever published an explicit apology or an explanation of how they got the facts so completely backwards, crediting the man responsible for what was probably the worst famine in history with creating a state “where nobody starves?” Is it known who wrote that passage, and has anyone ever asked him how he could have gotten the facts so terribly wrong?

David D. Friedman, “A Small Mistake”, Ideas, 2014-09-07.

September 7, 2014

Hong Kong’s chief executive – you can vote for anyone we nominate

Filed under: China — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:20

Sara Hsu reports on the Chinese government’s plans for how Hong Kong’s chief executive will be elected:

Hong Kong is at a political crossroads, as the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Mainland China has proposed to allow universal suffrage in final selection of the Chief Executive, as long as a nominating committee chooses candidates approved by the Communist Party. The proposal is to be voted upon by the Legislative Council; if rejected, the 2017 will be by committee, as in the last election (of Chun-ying Leung). Mainland China’s involvement in Hong Kong’s elections has reduced the ability of Hong Kong residents to freely run for and elect a candidate of their choice for the most powerful government position of this Special Administrative Region. Does this constraint negatively or positively impact the economy?

Hong Kong’s market economy is to be maintained at least through 2047 according to the Basic Law. China and Hong Kong have strong interests in upholding their mutual economies, as Hong Kong is the largest source of inward investment for Mainland China, and also the largest recipient of foreign direct investment from the Mainland. The economies are intricately intertwined through trade and investment, so in these respects, interests are intertwined.

Nor has the movement against Beijing political involvement gained widespread popularity from an economic perspective. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, has in fact been accused by some of putting Hong Kong’s economy at risk. Even though the movement has had little direct impact on the economy thus far, pro-Beijing groups worry that the pro-democracy movement will give rise to political instability and jeopardize the economic well-being of Hong Kong residents.

September 3, 2014

QotD: The relative size of the Chinese economy, historically speaking

Filed under: China, Economics, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

People seem to want to get freaked out about China passing the US in terms of the size of its economy. But in the history of Civilization there have probably been barely 200 years in the last 4000 that China hasn’t been the largest economy in the world. It probably only lost that title in the early 19th century and is just now getting it back. We are in some senses ending an unusual period, not starting one.

Warren Meyer, “It is Historically Unusual for China NOT to be the Largest Economy on Earth”, Coyote Blog, 2014-08-30.

August 5, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part seven of a series)

Filed under: China, Europe, History, Japan, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

I thought we’d be done by now, but there’s still more historical ground to cover on what I think are the deep origins of the First World War (part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six). The previous post examined the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. Today, we’re looking at the unhappy Russian experiences in the far East and the dangerous domestic situation it faced after the war.

Russia’s Oriental catastrophe

The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was a huge upset, as all the great powers expected Russia to crush the upstart Japanese and put them back “in their place”. Japan’s stunning naval and military successes at the Battle of the Yellow Sea, Tsushima and Port Arthur left Russia in a potentially disastrous situation, with utter undeniable defeat in the East and revolution brewing at home.

The war came about due to irreconcilable differences in the expansionary plans of the two empires: Russia wanted control of Manchuria and Japan wanted control of Korea, but neither side trusted the other enough to make negotiations work. Japan decided to initiate the conflict with a surprise attack on the Russian naval forces in Port Arthur (now known as the Lüshunkou District of Dalian in China’s Liaoning province). From that point onwards, Japan maintained the initiative, forcing Russia to react and interrupting Russian moves on land and at sea.

The Russian Baltic Fleet passage to and return from the Battle of Tsushima (via Wikipedia)

The Russian Baltic Fleet passage to and return from the Battle of Tsushima (via Wikipedia)

After the defeat of the original Russian fleet in the Pacific, the Baltic Fleet was re-tasked and set out to avenge the loss. The fleet’s luck was terrible to begin with, as shortly after passing between Sweden and Denmark and sailing out into the North Sea, lookouts on the Russian battleships spotted Japanese forces and the fleet opened fire. Twenty minutes, later the enemy was in tatters … unfortunately, the “enemy” were British fishing trawlers. Given the massive firepower of even pre-dreadnought ships, the casualties were surprisingly light: one trawler sunk, two dead, and many wounded. Not long afterward, a Russian ship in the fleet was mis-identified as a Japanese ship and nearly sunk by friendly fire. The nearest Japanese ship was still thousands of miles to the East.

Despite nearly starting a war with the Royal Navy over the Dogger Bank incident (Britain and Japan had signed an alliance in 1902), Admiral Rozhdestvensky was unapologetic and insisted it was the trawlers’ fault and his ships were perfectly entitled to defend themselves from Japanese attackers. As a result of the Russian mistake, Britain refused to allow the fleet passage through the Suez Canal, forcing them to take the far longer trip around Africa instead. If ever a military expedition has had bad omens, the sortie of the Baltic Fleet — now renamed the Second Pacific Squadron for this mission — must be one of the best examples.

When the Russian and Japanese fleets met in the Tsushima Straits, Admiral Tōgō managed to “cross the T” of the Russians, allowing his ships to use their full broadside armament against only the forward-facing guns of the Russian ships. In the end, the Second Pacific Squadron lost all eleven battleships and over 4,000 men killed, another 5,900 captured, and 1,800 interned. Japanese losses were trivial in comparison: three torpedo boats sunk, 117 men killed and about 500 wounded.

There were no major subsequent battles, and Russia was forced to sign the Treaty of Portsmouth to end the war in September 1905. Despite the Tsar’s initial instructions to the Russian delegation, the Russians agreed to recognize Japan’s sphere of influence in Korea, withdraw their troops from Manchuria, and to give up their lease on Port Arthur and Talien. The reaction in both countries was similar: political unrest. Japanese public opinion was that they had been cheated of their full reward from the war, and the government fell in the aftermath. Russians were even more angry and the result was revolution.

The (first) Russian revolution

While the result of the Russo-Japanese war was the trigger for the 1905 Revolution, it was far from being the only grievance. Margaret MacMillan wrote in The War That Ended Peace:

In 1904 the Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav Plehve, is reported to have said that Russia needed “a small victorious war” which would take the minds of the Russian masses off “political questions”.

The Russo-Japanese War showed the folly of that idea. In its early months Plehve himself was blown apart by a bomb; towards its end the newly formed Bolsheviks tried to seize Moscow. The war served to deepen and bring into sharp focus the existing unhappiness of many Russians with their own society and its rulers. As the many deficiencies, from command to supplies, of the Russian war effort became apparent, criticism grew, both of the government and, since the regime was a highly personalized one, of the Tsar himself. In St. Petersburg a cartoon showed the Tsar with his breeches down being beaten while he says, “Leave me alone. I am the autocrat!” Like the French Revolution, with which it had many similarities, the Russian Revolution of 1905 broke old taboos, including the reverence surrounding the country’s ruler. It seemed to officials in St. Petersburg a bad omen that the Empress had hung a portrait of Marie Antoinette, a gift from the French government, in her rooms.

In December 1904, a strike in St. Petersburg triggered sympathy strikes in other industries, leading to 80,000 workers and supporters protesting in the city. In January 1905, a mass march by the strikers to the Winter Palace was met with rifle fire from the defending troops. Casualty estimates range from 200 to over 1,000 on Bloody Sunday. The strikes and protests spread beyond St. Petersburg, to the point that the government was threatened. Eventually the Tsar was persuaded to offer concessions :

Under huge pressure from his own supporters, the Tsar reluctantly issued a manifesto in October promising a responsible legislature, the Duma, as well as civil rights.

As so often happens in revolutionary moments, the concessions only encouraged the opponents of the regime. It appeared to be close to collapsing with its officials confused and ineffective in the face of such widespread disorder. That winter a battalion from Nichlas’s own regiment, the Preobrazhensky Guards, which had been founded by Peter the Great, mutinied. A member of the Tsar’s court wrote in his diary: “This is it.” Fortunately for the regime, its most determined enemies were disunited and not yet ready to take power while moderate reformers were prepared to support it in the light of the Tsar’s promises. Using the army and police freely, the government managed to restore order. By the summer of 1906 the worst was over — for the time being. The regime still faced the dilemma, though, of how far it could let reforms go without fatally undermining its authority. It was a dilemma faced by the French government in 1789 or the Shah’s government in Iran in 1979. Refusing demands for reform and relying on repression creates enemies; giving way encourages them and brings more demands.

Russia’s economy did recover eventually, but the political solution was not strong enough to stand the strains of another war any time soon. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine what the Russian leaders who advised the Tsar were thinking as the Russians continued to stir the pot in the Balkans…

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