Tag Archives: China

New Chinese emperor, will famine not follow

For most of its 2300 year history, the Chinese empire has rattled between strong leaders who brought famine, and weak leaders who brought temporary reprieve. Mao, a strong leader, killed his associates plus over 100 million by his “great leap forward” famine. Since then, 30+ years, we’ve had some weaker leaders, semi-democracy, and some personal wealth, plus the occasional massacre, e.g. at Tiananmen square, and a growing demographic problem. And now a new strongman is establishing himself with hopes of solving China’s problems. I hope for the best, but fear the repeat of the worse parts of Chinese history.

Two weeks ago, Chairman Xi amended the Chinese constitution to make himself emperor for life, essentially. He’s already in charge of the government, the party, and the military. Yesterday (Tuesday), he consolidated his power further by replacing the head of the banks. The legal system is, in theory, is the last independent part of government, but there is hardly any legal system in the sense of a balance of power. If history is any guide, “Emperor” Xi will weaken the courts further before the year is out. He will also likely remove many or all of his close associates and relatives. It is not for nothing that Nero, Stalin, and Mao killed their relatives and friends — generally for “corruption” following a show trial.

China's Imperial past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

China’s past is never is quite out of sight. Picture from the Economist.

Xi might be different, but he faces a looming demographic problem that makes it likely he will follow the president of the stronger emperors. China’s growth was fueled in part by a one child policy. Left behind is an aging, rural population with no children to take care of the elderly. As top-down societies do not tolerate “useless workers,” I can expect a killing famine within the next 10 years. This would shed the rural burden while providing a warning to potential critics. “Burn the chicken to scare the monkey,” is a Chinese Imperial aphorism. Besides, who needs dirt farmers when we have modern machines.

Lazy beds (feannagan) use only half the soil are for planting. The English experts were sure this was inefficient and land-wasting. Plowing was imposed on Ireland, and famine followed

“Lazy beds” of potatoes were used in Ireland for a century until experts forced their abandonment in the mid 1800s. The experts saw the beds, and the Irish as lazy, inefficient, and land-wasting. Famine followed.

Currently about 40% of the country is rural, about 560 million people spread out over a country the size of Canada or the US. The rest, 60% or 830 million, live concentrated in a few cities. The cities are rich, industrial, and young. The countryside is old, agricultural and poor, salaries are about 1/3 those of the cities. The countryside holds about 2/3 of those over 65, about 100 million elderly with no social safety net. The demographic imbalance is likely to become worse — a lot worse — within the next decade.

What is likely to happen, I fear, is that the party leaders — all of whom live in the cities — will decide that the countryside is full of non-productive, uneducated whiners. They will demand that more food should be produced, and will help them achieve this by misguided science and severe punishments. Mao’s experts, like Stalin’s and Queen Victoria’s, demanded unachievable quotas and academic-based advice that neither the leaders nor the academics had ever tried to make work. Mao’s experts told peasants to kill the birds that were stealing their grain. It worked for a while until the insects multiplied. As for the quotas, the party took grain as if the quotas were being met. If the peasants starved, they starved.

I expect that China’s experts will propose machine-based modern agriculture, perhaps imported from the US or Israel: Whatever is in style at the time. The expert attitude exists everywhere to this day, and the results are always the same. See potato famine picture above. When the famine comes, the old will request food and healthcare, but the city leaders will provide none, or just opioids as they did to ailing Elvis. When the complaining stops the doctor is happy.

China's population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds.

China’s population pyramid as of 2016. Notice the bulge of 40-55 year olds. Note too that there are millions more males (blue) than females (pink).

In single leader societies, newspapers do not report bad news. Rather, they like to show happy, well-fed peasants singing the leaders’ praise. When there’s a riot too big to ignore, rioters are presented as lazy malcontents and counter-revolutionaries. Sympathizers are sent to work in the fields. American academia will sing the praises of the autocratic leader, or will be silent. We never see the peasants, but often see the experts. And we live in a society where newspapers report only the bad, and where we only believe when there pictures. No pictures, no story. As with Stalin’s Gulags, Mao’s famine, or North Korea today, there are likely to be few pictures released to the press. Eventually, a census will reveal that tens of million aged have vanished, and we’ll have to guess where they went.

I can expect China to continue its military buildup over the next decade. The military will be necessary to put down riots, and keep young men occupied, and to protect China from foreign intervention. China will especially need to protect its ill-gotten, new oil-assets. Oil is needed if China is to replace its farmers with machines. It will be a challenge for a wise American leader to avoid being drawn into war with China, while protecting some of our interests: Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc. As with Theodore Roosevelt, he should offer support and non-biassed mediation. Is Trump up to this?  Hu Knows?

Robert Buxbaum, March 21, 2018. The above might be Xi-nephobia, Then again, this just in: Chairman Xi announces that Taiwan will face punishment if it attempts to break free. Doesn’t sound good.

Global warming’s 19 year pause

Global temperatures measured from the antarctic ice showing stable, cyclic chaos and self-similarity.

Global temperatures measured from the antarctic ice shows stable chaos and self-similarity.

The global climate is, as best I can tell, chaotic with 100,000 year ice-age cycles punctuated by smaller cycles of 1000 years, 100 years, etc. On the ice-age time scale shown at left, the temperature rise of the last century looks insignificant and very welcome; warm seems better than cold in my eyes. But the press and academic community has focused on the evils of warmth — global warming. They point out that temperatures have risen 1 1/2 °C since the little ice age of the early 1600s, and that 1/2 °C of this has occurred since 1900. Al Gore won a Nobel prize for his assertion that the rate of rise had accelerated to 4°C per century — a “hockey-stick change” caused by industrial CO2. This change was expected to bring disaster by 2015: The arctic was supposed to be ice-free, and Manhattan was expected to sink. I’ve posted a “Good Morning America” clip from 2008 highlighting this “inconvenient truth”.

Our 19 1/2 year global warming pause; plot from Andrew Watts with Al Gore's prediction shown in red. During the time shown, the atmospheric CO2 content has gone up by about 25%, but the prediction has not come to pass.

Our 19 1/2 year global warming pause; plot from Andrew Watts with Al Gore’s prediction shown in red. So far, the prediction has not come to pass.

As it happens, not only hasn’t global warming accelerated, it seems to have paused. There have been no significant temperature changes since late 1997, as shown.  The main explanations are clouds and solar variation: variations that the Obama administration claims will end any day now. The problem, as I see it, is that climate is fundamentally chaotic, and thus unpredictable except on the very long, ice-age, timescale. It will thus always make fools of those who predict.

This is not to say that pollution is good, or that CO2 is, but it suggests our models and remedies are flawed. The CO2 content of the air has increased 25% over the past 19 years. It now mostly comes from China and India, countries that enthusiastically endorse having us reduce our output. My thinking is that lowering US production will, in no way, protect us from the dire predictions below.

Despite pressure from China and India, the US pulled out of the Paris climate accord last month. It now seems several other countries will pull out as well.

Robert Buxbaum, July 27, 2017. I’ve also written about how the global warming of the mid 1800s lead us to have the president’s Resolute desk.

Sealand, the big Chinese copy, and WWIII

Perhaps the smallest country in the world is the Republic of Sealand, a man-made island in the English Channel. Originally called Roughs Tower, Sealand is only 1/4 acre, 0.0004 mi2 in area, but expands to 1.5 square miles if you include the 0.7 mile sea-claim. The country was built, in international waters, by the British during WWII, and given semi-legitimate nation status through two diplomatic accidents over the next 20 years. This nation status would be a joke except that the precedent it establishes could start WW III.

Greetings from The King and Queen of the Republic of Sealand.

The Republic of Sealand. King Roy and Queen Joan wave their greetings. Note, gun, flag, and helipad.

The British constructed Fort Roughs to serve as a bulwark against German U-Boats that were sinking supply ships. The tower-fort is topped with a deck and a helipad platform. There is one gun still working, see photo, a remnant of WWII service. Hollow concrete tubes extend to the Rough Sands sand bar; these provide storage and housing for as many as 300 troops. After the war, Rough Tower went unused and was officially abandoned in 1956. It was occupied (salvaged, conquered) in December, 1966 by radio-pirates trying to break the BBC monopoly. One of the radio-pirates, a former British Major, Paddy Roy Bates, declared the fort-island a monarchy with Roy as King and his wife Joan as Queen. Sealand, declared itself an independent nation September 2, 1967. Aristocratic titles are for sale at a price.

The first of the diplomatic accidents underlying Sealand’s semi-legitimate claim to nation status is that, when the responsible British officials were asked whether they intended to remove the radio squatters, the official response was that England abandoned ownership and responsibility. If England abandoned ownership, so the argument goes, then anyone who took over would take possession “res derelicta and terra nullius”. From a legal point of view, it constituted extra-national territory and they could declare island-nation status plus (some) sea rights. Needless to say, the British navy didn’t see it that way, and as soon as independence was declared, they attacked the island-tower-nation. Bates returned warning shots and the navy brought a case against him in Crown court, Essex. The result: The Bates’s won effective recognition as the fort sat in international waters. This claim stood until 1978 when Sealand was successfully “invaded” by German pirates. The Bates family managed to “liberate” (take back) Sealand with the help of a Bond-movie helicopter stunt pilot, capturing a German pirate in the process. The king negotiated with the German government for the pirate’s release, and thus claim de-facto German recognition. Sealand participates in some international games (ultimate frisbee, mostly), and issues passports, stamps, and currency that is not accepted anywhere. Still, the British deliver mail as if it were a country, and no nation has formally contested Sealand’s statehood since. island-reclamation-sc-sea spotlight_81412

Man made Chinese Islands in the South Pacific

Man made Chinese Islands in the South Pacific

Sealand was something of a joke until 18 months ago when China began to create a string of much-larger copies in the South China Sea. Like Sealand they are in international waters, in this case among the uninhabited, Spratly and Parasel chains of coral reefs between Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei. The Chinese built retainer walls around several of the reefs and have been filling the interior with sand and coral from the sea-bed. They’ve since added military housing, desalination plants, docks, and an airstrip.


If these islands are accepted as new nations, or (more likely) as extensions of China, and we accept China’s claim to 200 mile sea rights, this project would give China exclusive control over vast oil, mineral, and fishery wealth, as well as control over the South China sea shipping and air lanes, extending into existing sea rights of Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines — about 2,000,000 km2. The governments of Vietnam and The Philippines have complained, but China has ignored them and warned the US to stay out.

The new islands would seem to violate several international laws, but as the incursion doesn’t direct affect us, it seems we should avoid getting involved in a neighbor’s dispute. I’ve written previously on what makes a country, and have argued that it’s a combination of (1) having a defined land and population and (2) having enough of a government and military to maintain and defend itself as a nation. And (3) not doing anything so offensive to attract the complete disdain of other nations. So far there is no civilian population, but there is a military one, and as soon as the Chinese stop building, the islands will meet all of the above criteria, except perhaps #3.

Sealand is a recurring character in the Japanese manga, Hitalia -- dedicated to the more bizarre quirks of history, each country is represented by a character.

Sealand is a recurring character in the Japanese manga, Hitalia. Sealand is the smallest character, but has a dream of ruling the world one day.

Still, it’s in our interest to avoid WW III, and as the islands multiply, so does the chance of the sort of accident that started the Spanish-American War. All it would take is a ship taken or sunk near the islands, or a plane shot down under suspicious circumstances, and the war that started will not be a small or quick. I therefore have a modest suggestion based on Sealand: allow the islands conditional nation status, but as an aristocracy and require the sale of titles of nobility like Sealand does, or the sale of senate seats (like the Illinois Governor tried to do). With enough power in private hands a war could be averted. Peace is possible.

Robert E. Buxbaum, June 21, 2015. Sealand has actually tried selling the whole country in 2007. If you want to buy a title: lord, lady, baron, etc. Go to: sealandgov.org.

Hong Kong and Palestine; what makes a country?

As I write this, Hong Kong protesters are battling for a degree of independence from China — something China seemed to have agreed to when taking over the province in 1997. While there is some sympathy for the protesters, not one country so far supports them. Meanwhile, by a vote of 138 to 9, the United Nations has accepted Palestine as an independent, observer state, the same status as the Vatican and Switzerland. A majority of nations have further stated that it is illegal for Israel to erect a wall between itself and Palestine as the wall implies a de-facto border. Why the differences, and what’s wrong with borders?

Distinctive dress, traditions, or physiology can justify a country's independence, as can a military tradition.

Britain has been shaved of many of its possessions since WWII, The possessions have demanded independent nation status based on their distinctive dress, language, history, traditions, or physiology.

Perhaps a good place to start is with British ownership of Hong Kong and Israel/Palestine. Britain acquired both by war, and both were possessions during World War II. Hong Kong island was ceded to Great Britain by the Treaty of Nanking ending the first Opium War. British control of Israel/ Palestine was achieved by invasion in World War I and confirmed by the League of Nations. Following WWII, British Palestine was split into several nations: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia … Israel declared independence in 1948 — and was accepted to the United Nations in 1949 following its war of independence. Hong Kong did not fight any war, but was handed to China in 1997 in return for guarantees of autonomy. If Hong Kong had not been handed over, it would probably be independent today, like Ireland, Canada, Jamaica, Belize, Micronesia, Malaysia, Bali, Indonesia, etc.

Clearly part of the reason no one accepts Hong Kong as a country, while a majority of the UN accepts Palestine (and Israel?) as countries, is that both Arab Palestine and Israel have fought wars for independence, while Hong Kong has been a peaceful go-along. Another difference is related to how the world perceives China and Arab Palestine. China may be a semi-autocratic, one party oppressor of Inner Mongolia and Tibet, but its economic and military power helps insure that China is considered the respected, socialist owner of semi-democratic HK. Israel is much weaker, and much less-well regarded. It is viewed as a dispensable, European annoyance stuck improbably into the Middle east, and thus its claim on existence is weakened. The UN resolved in 1975 that Zionism is racism, and world leaders routinely called Israel a racist or apartheid occupier, as a state religion is considered anathema to freedom — they don’t have this problem with the state religions of the Vatican or Saudi Arabia. Ex-president Jimmy Carter calls Israel an occupier state, suggesting that Israel has no right to exist, and many western religious and academic groups agree or have voted to treat it as such. In 2013 alone, the UN passed 21 resolutions of protest against Israel, and only 3 against all other nations combined (A historical list is presented here). But disdained or not Israel goes on, in part by military might, in part by meeting the Montevideo requirements of 1933.

Comparison Hong Kong and Gaza

A map used to support Hong Kong Independence showing that Hong Kong is roughly 4 times the size of Gaza; and about twice the population. The government is more stable, and less divided too.

The UN’s grudging acceptance of Israel rests in part, on its meeting the four Montevideo conference (1933) requirements. A country must have: 1. a fixed population (more-or-less met) 2. fixed borders (war gains are an issue here, as is Palestine’s claim to all of Israel). 3. an internal government with internal control (here Israel exceeds Arab Palestine having a stable government. While Palestine manages to keep some law on a local level there are no unified elections, and only minimal education and healthcare. The two halves would likely shoot each other if they could shoot over Israel). The final Montevideo requirement, 4 is that a country must have the ability to make binding foreign treaties. This something Israel has, while neither Hong Kong nor Arab Palestine does. Both Palestine and Hong Kong are prevented from making treaties– with Israel and with China. Some in The United Nations have seen fit to waive this requirement for Palestine, but not Hong Kong.

While neither the Montevideo protocols nor the UN requires that a country must be democratic in any sense (most every country signing was a monarchy or dictatorship, and many still are (Jordan, Syria, Cuba, China….), there is a growing consensus that the age of kings is over, or ending. That a united Palestine would likely be a dictatorship, or kleptocracy thus runs afoul of another, uniquely American approach to state-hood — natural law, and the Rights of Man.

The United States, at its inception, appealed to the self-evident, Rights of Man, as a justification for its independence. That is to Justice, and to “Nature and Nature’s God.” We never claimed to have clear borders, or a fixed population, or any other Montevideo requirement. Instead we claimed nation-status by “the powers of the earth.” It was never clear what the legal limits of these powers were, not what Nature’s God demanded, but the idea is not mere poetry, but shows up throughout the policy speeches of Lincoln, Wilson, and Kennedy and Reagan. I’ve speculated that the poor reviews Lincoln got for his Gettysburg Address were due to the foreign-ness of these claims back in 1863, but 150 years later many thinkers seem to accept, at least as an ideal, that the legitimacy of a county rests on the will of its people, freely exercised. It’s a standard that hardly any country of the 19th century met, but that Israel meets, while Arab Palestine does not.

And that brings us back to the first and oldest basis of statehood: force of arms; self-preservation as a raison d’estat. If the people see death around them and are willing fight hard enough to keep out an enemy, they become a country. Even if they can not keep fixed borders, and even if they disband their army later, the fight for independence makes them so. (Micronesia has no army, but presumably would fight if they had to, and while Costa Rica had army once, the president disbanded it after he took over by military coup — it’s a threat to his life-long leadership). This view is the grim side of Nature’s law, that country is any organized horde who manage, by any means, to keep from being killed or disbanded. So long as the group survives, anywhere, it’s a nation. The Confederate States are not any sort of country, largely because the union has had such a stronger military that their army could operate against us, nor could the paramilitary remnant (the KKK) remain as an operational horde within our borders. China so over-matches Hong Kong that there can be no independent Hong Kong without China’s approval. Israel’s army, similarly, is strong enough to defeat any likely invasion or civil insurrection, though it might lose land, or gain it. It’s the dark version of natural law: the strong and vigorous survive at the expense of the weak and willing.

My observation is that neither Hong Kong nor Palestine is ready for independent statehood, via any of the justifications above, while Israel is a country by all of them. As for when to step in to create a state, my answer is only rarely; see my essay, when to enter a neighbor’s war.

Robert Buxbaum, December 4, 2014.

General Tso’s chicken

Self promotion. It's not for everyone.

Self promotion. It’s not for everyone.

Is funny because …. it’s classical metaphysical humor. The lowly chicken becomes the hero and leader, and the troops are following him/it (to victory).

We know that some unlikely leaders are successful, perhaps just because they’ve the pluck to get up and do something (that’s the secret of American success). Presumably the troops are too timid to lead, and are following this chicken because of his determined air, and his hat and horse: clothes make the man. You should not follow every leader with determination, a fancy hat and a horse, by the way. Some leaders will devour their followers, and most do not care for self promoting underlings.

Robert Buxbaum, Nov.12, 2014.

In praise of tariffs

In a previous post I noted that we could reduce global air pollution if we used import taxes (tariffs) to move manufacture to the US from China and other highly polluting countries. It strikes me that import tariffs can have other benefits too, they can keep US jobs in the US, provide needed taxes, and they’re a tool of foreign policy. We buy far more from China and Russia than they buy from us, and we get a fair amount of grief — especially from Russia. An appropriate-sized tariff should reduce US unemployment, help balance the US, and help clean the air while pushing Russia in an alternative to war-talk.

There is certainly such a thing as too high a tariff, but it seems to me we’re nowhere near that. Too high a tariff is only when it severely limits the value of our purchasing dollar. We can’t eat dollars, and want to be able to buy foreign products with them. Currently foreign stuff is so cheap thought, that what we import is most stuff we used to make at home — often stuff we still make to a small extent, like shoes, ties, and steel. An import tax can be bad when it causes other countries to stop buying from us, but that’s already happened. Except for a very few industries, Americans buy far more abroad than we sell. As a result, we have roughly 50% of Americans out of well-paying work, and on some form government assistance. Our government spends far more to care for us, and to police and feed the world than it could possibly take in, in taxes. It’s a financial imbalance that could be largely corrected if we bought more from US manufacturers who employ US workers who’d pay taxes and not draw unemployment. Work also benefits folks by developing, in them, skills and self-confidence.

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle. Now why is Russia a most favorable trade partner?

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle. Trade as foreign policy. Why is Russia a most favorable trade partner?

In a world without taxes or unemployment, and free of self-confidence issues, free trade might be ideal, but taxes and unemployment are a big part of US life. US taxes pay for US roads and provide for education and police. Taxes pay for the US army, and for the (free?) US healthcare. With all these tax burdens, it seems reasonable to me that foreign companies should pay at least 5-10% — the amount an American company would if the products were made here. Tariff rates could be adjusted for political reasons (cartoon), or environmental — to reduce air pollution. Regarding Russia, I find it bizarre that our president just repealed the Jackson Vanik tariff, thus giving Russia most favored trade status. We should (I’d think) reinstate the tax and ramp it up or down if Russia invades again or if they help us with Syria or Iran.

A history of US tariff rates. There is room to put higher tariffs on some products or some countries.

A history of US tariff rates. Higher rates on some products and some countries did not harm the US for most of our history.

For most of US history, the US had much higher tariffs than now, see chart. In 1900 it averaged 27.4% and rose to 50% on dutiable items. Our economy did OK in 1900. By 1960, tariffs had decreased to 7.3% on average (12% on duty-able) and the economy was still doing well. Now our average tariff is 1.3%, and essentially zero for most-favored nations, like Russia. Compare this to the 10% that New York applies to in-state sales, or the 6% Michigan applies, or the 5.5% that Russia applies to goods imported from the US. Why shouldn’t we collect at least as high a tax on products bought from the non-free, polluting world as we collect from US manufacturers.

Some say tariffs caused the Great Depression. Countries with lower tariffs saw the same depression. Besides the Smoot-Hawley was 60%, and I’s suggesting 5-10% like in 1960. Many countries today do fine today with higher tariffs than that.

Robert E. Buxbaum, March 25, 2014. Previous historical posts discussed the poor reviews of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, and analyzed world war two in terms of mustaches. I’ve also compared military intervention to intervening in a divorce dispute. My previous economic post suggested that Detroit’s very high, living wage hurt the city by fostering unemployment.

Where does industrial CO2 come from? China mostly.

The US is in the process of imposing strict regulations on carbon dioxide as a way to stop global warming and climate change. We have also closed nearly new power plants, replacing them with cleaner options like a 2.2 billion dollar solar-electric generator in lake Ivanpah, and this January our president imposed a ban on lightbulbs of 60 W and higher. But it might help to know that China produced twice as much of the main climate change gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) as the US in 2012, and the ratio seems to be growing. One reason China produces so much CO2 is that China generates electricity from dirty coal using inefficient turbines.

Where the CO2 is coming from: a fair amount from the US and Europe, but mostly from China and India too.

From EDGAR 4.2; As of 2012 twice as much carbon dioxide, CO2 is coming from China as from the US and Europe.

It strikes me that a good approach to reducing the world’s carbon-dioxide emissions is to stop manufacturing so much in China. Our US electric plants use more efficient generating technology and burn lower carbon fuels than China does. We then add scrubbers and pollution reduction equipment that are hardly used in China. US manufacture thus produces not only less carbon dioxide than China, it also avoids other forms of air pollution, like NOx and SOx. Add to this the advantage of having fewer ships carrying products to and from China, and it’s clear that we could significantly reduce the world’s air problems by moving manufacture back to the USA.

I should also note that manufacture in the US helps the economy by keeping jobs and taxes here. A simple way to reduce purchases from China and collect some tax revenue would be to impose an import tariff on Chinese goods based, perhaps on the difference in carbon emissions or other pollution involved in Chinese manufacture and transport. While I have noted a lack of global warming, sixteen years now, that doesn’t mean I like pollution. It’s worthwhile to clean the air, and if we collect tariffs from the Chinese and help the US economy too, all the better.

Robert E. Buxbaum, February 24, 2014. Nuclear power produces no air pollution and uses a lot less land area compared to solar and wind projects.