On the Soapbox

Shooting Down Peace: The Perplexing Chinese Missile Test

Friday, January 19, 2007
Keywords: Politics, China

I wasn't planning to comment on the Chinese missile test, but after hearing the near-hysterical American reaction on the evening news, I'll throw in my two cents.

  1. China is not the Soviet Union, and this is not the Cold War.
    • China does not share in the hegemonic goals that the Soviet Union had of spreading Communism and destroying capitalism.
    • China has abandoned Communism in all but name. With the rapid erosion of the state's roles, China is by some measures even less socialistic than the United States is.
    • China is even on the slow--though often uneven--path of political reform and is gradually creeping towards democracy and the rule of law.
  2. China has been historically pacifist. They like the boast that, unlike white nations, they have never invaded and occupied foreign soil. Additionally, over the course of the past several years, China has reduced the size of its armed forces by over half a million.
  3. China is all but drowning in growing domestic unrest and strife. The political instability of a war would likely put the ruling party at grave risk, especially since the only thing that is keeping China's head above the rising waters of unrest is the tremendous economic growth and income that comes from trade with the West. Any disruption in that trade would hurt both China and the West, but it would hurt China much more as their economy is less diversified and more dependent on trade and because of the importance of that trade on its political stability--something that the exceedingly self-preservationist ruling party is keenly aware of.
  4. The European Union was founded on the principle that economic trade would make wars all but unthinkable in a region that was once the greatest hotbed of wars. This is certainly the case with China. Strong economic ties and trade are the best and most permanent guaranteers of peace.
  5. Although American foreign policy has been less rational lately, it strikes me as very odd that China would see the West as any sort of military threat that it needs to compete with, especially given how very allergic to war the West has become. The only real potential flash point is over the status of Taiwan (to be sure, a point that is not to be underestimated), but it seems that both China and Taiwan have now comfortably settled into the status quo of Taiwan's de facto but not de jure independence.
  6. Right now, the greatest threat to American national security is Islamic terrorism, and the greatest threat to Chinese national security is also Islamic terrorism. Lost in all the news about Iraq is the fact that China, which borders a number of Islamic countries and whose western provinces are the home to a significant number of Muslims, was the victim of well over 200 Islamic terrorist bombings in 2005, some of which even happened in the capital Beijing. Like the bombings in Iraq, many were conducted by foreign fighters who infiltrated China's western borders. I trust that in the long term, the national security interests of both China and the West will be identical.

For all these reasons, the missile test perplexes me. It perplexes me how the Chinese government (which, by the way, is not a monolithic and single-minded entity, much like how the American government, divided between the two parties and the factions within the two parties, is far from monolithic and single-minded) ever got the notion that testing this sort of weapon would be in its interests. Political Islam and terrorists are China's newest and most immediate enemies, and they won't have have any satellites to shoot down. In fact, recent newscasts from China paid little or no attention to the missile test whereas the state of the conflict in Iraq and the battle against Islamic extremism seems to get much more spotlight and coverage. At the same time, the American overreaction is puzzling, too. Perhaps this is because most Americans are still stuck in a Cold War mentality and fail to realize just how different China is from the Soviet Union. In any case, I think that China and the United States are much more alike than either side would admit and that ultimately, I think that that it would be most sensible for the two to act as allies instead of rivals.

Protectionism, Round 2

Friday, March 24, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics, China

Earlier this year, there was the controversy where misleading claims about security serving to veil a mix of protectionism and xenophobia sunk the transfer of operations of six American ports to a company owned by the Dubai government.

Today, the New York Times and C|Net published an article about the criticisms that the State Department is facing over the purchase of 15,000 computers manufactured by the Chinese company Lenovo.

  1. Lenovo is the new owner of IBM's PC division. Its product lines have not changed (they often even include the IBM logo). If the State Department has used IBM computers in the past, it makes sense from a logistical standpoint to continue to use the same product lines and to use the same products that they are already familiar with.
  2. Security is a red herring. In fact, IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad laptops are one of the very few that feature fingerprint scanners for use in security authentication. Putting this irony aside, the real core of the issue is that security comes from how people use the computers, how well the network is administered, and how secure the software is, in roughly that order. Hardware's role in security is all but non-existent.
  3. Dependency on foreign companies is yet another red herring. The vast majority of the components used by all PCs are not manufactured in the United States. For example, every single CD/DVD computer drive manufacturer has its factories located in Asia. Almost all memory chips are manufactured in Asia. Even for the few component manufacturers headquartered in the US (notably Intel/AMD for microprocessors and nVidia/ATi for graphics processors), most of their manufacturing capacity is overseas. All that Lenovo does is buy components from the commodity market and assemble them into a computer, which is really not that glamorous of a task. Whether your PC comes from Texas-based Dell or China-based Lenovo, pretty much every single part of that computer was manufactured overseas.
  4. As the article points out, even though Lenovo is supplying the machines, IBM is providing the support. But even if IBM was not providing support, because PCs are mostly made from standard commodity components, just about any IT professional can provide support.
  5. Finally, protectionism here will not accomplish much. Since most of the components are purchased from the market, assembly constitutes most of Lenovo's business, and like most other computers sold in the United States, these computers are assembled in the United States using American labor. Okay, but what about money at the top: the corporate profits that are going to a foreign company? This business of acquiring components, assembling them, and selling the finished products is not very profitable, and the margins are very slim; why else was IBM so interested in shrugging off its PC division?

Hopefully, people will be sensible enough to make sure that, unlike the ports deal, this does not become overblown and overhyped.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/24 at 11:53:40 GMT -0500.

Pranking the BBC and Jabbing Falun Gong

Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics, China

Last Wednesday, I read an article about two prominent Chinese blogs that were apparently shut down, only to re-appear a day later. The article raised the possibility that this was a prank, and today, Slashdot and the Wall Street Journal confirmed that this was indeed a prank that attempted to highlight Western overreaction and misunderstanding of Chinese politics. The WSJ:

Within hours, English-language bloggers and Western news media spread the word that the Chinese government had closed the sites. [...] French free-press group Reporters Without Borders issued a statement condemning the closure of the blogs. [...]

[The blogger] calls the Western press "irresponsible" and says that the hoax was designed "to give foreign media a lesson that Chinese affairs are not always the way you think."

"They are not just supposed to report based on their own perceptions, without understanding the circumstances in China," he says, noting that the BBC's report was exactly what he expected. [...]

"There is a knee-jerk reaction amongst journalists -- including myself -- to stories that seem to show the Chinese cracking down on freedom of expression on the Internet," [the BBC reporter] wrote in an email.

As I have noted before, there is a complexity to the Chinese political landscape that most Westerners fail to grasp, and this was certainly evident in the sort of absolutist black-and-white good-vs-evil overreaction that was seen with the Google-in-China controversy. I applaud this stunt.

One final note: As I skimmed through the comments about this posted on Slashdot, I came across this little gem: "Falun Gong is a rung away from Scientology on the crazy ladder to spiritual enlightenment." That got a laugh out of me. The West seems to keep forgetting that Falun Gong really is an eccentric quasi-religion that advocates things that are often associated with religious irrationality (e.g., refusing medical technology) and that the Chinese government's labeling of Falun Gong as a "cult" is fairly accurate. Of course, that does not mean that suppressing it is right, but many Westerners have used this wrongful suppression to validate Falun Gong's otherwise unpalatable tenets; whenever I see people sitting on the grass on a college campus promoting and practicing Falun Gong, I shake my head. If it were not for the government's suppression, Falun Gong would have remained in its place in the Hall of Crazy Ideas. I am reminded of The Economist's take on Holocaust denial: "Denying the Holocaust should certainly not be outlawed: far better to let those who deny well-documented facts expose themselves to ridicule than pose as martyrs." In hindsight, the Chinese government would have been better off had they followed such advice.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/14 at 13:49:59 GMT -0500.

Fun with Gaaagle

Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Keywords: Technology, China, Politics

Speaking of evil Chinese governments and technology, I got an e-mail today (by way of my contact form) from some guy telling me to visit a site named Gaaagle (if you let it sit for a couple of minutes, you will be taken to this page).

I have already expressed my views on this controversy twice, and if you were to guess that I will not have many nice things to say about Gaaagle, then you would have guessed correctly. I won't rehash what I've said before; you can click on the links in the previous sentence for that. Is there something that is glaringly missing on Gaaagle, especially the page that you are taken to after a couple of minutes? You see lots of mocking images, parodies, and cartoons. You see accusations of greed. You see an outpouring of anger. What you do not see is a rational discussion. Is this how debates are to be carried out this day and age, by seeing who can shout the loudest and make the cleverest Normal Rockwell defacement? There are no arguments. No presentations of facts. Nothing that addresses the arguments put forth by the other side. Most notably, I have yet to see a single response in the past month to the paramount question of what exactly would be gained by Google pulling out. In fact, this has been how the entire debate has been carried out, in almost every online community, since the first day of this controversy. Every anti-Google/Yahoo/Microsoft argument has been along the lines of "The CCP is evil, and thus these companies are just as evil." Every response to arguments have been along those lines. It's like talking to a repeating record. Sure, they'll throw in some red herrings every now and then to spice things up, like the accusations of Chinese torture (yes, it's bad, but remind me again how that has anything to do with this?). This is especially true with the Free Tibet people. Although I personally support Tibetan independence, the sort of methods used by these people are not only comically ineffective, but even counter-productive at times (explain to me again how carrying out this protest like a bunch of hippies is going to win you any sort of broad support?).

Google faced an imperfect choice, and I believe that the choice that they made will make the situation better (or at least be neutral in effect), and if these people are so intractable in their narrow black-and-white "if you're not with us, you're against us" view of the world, then all that's left to do is to nod and smile.

PS: Speaking of discourse filled with outrage but little substance, doesn't this sorta remind you of the Democrats? Sigh. If only Clark had won the nomination in '04 instead of Kerry.

Slashdot Ignorance Strikes Again!

Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Keywords: Technology, China

I like Slashdot; I really do. It makes keeping up with technology easy by gathering all the interesting headlines all in one place. That having been said, the tendency of Slashdot towards sensationalism, knee-jerk reactions, fan-boyism, and ignorance is quite annoying (to its credit, Slashdot is actually much better in this regard than other places, like Digg).

So I saw this Slashdot headline in my RSS aggregator today: China Prepares to Launch Alternate Internet. My first reaction was, "Oh no, what are those commies dreaming up of this time?" I read the blurb, the comments that were modded up, and then the articles. Admittedly, the articles were vague, and I think that the translator should have been fired, but it seems that Slashdotters had no idea what they were talking about.

First, most people thought that China was going to set up their own DNS system to handle domain names with Chinese characters (e.g., 刘锴.net). Since the existing .com and .net registries already allow International domain names (IDNs), this would certainly be a major conflict; this exact system was implemented some time ago. After reading the article, it seems that all that the Chinese government is doing is setting up three new TLDs whose lingustic translations are .cn, .com, and .net (e.g., 刘锴。网络), so there is no overlap or conflict whatsoever with the existing .com and .net setup, contrary to what most misinformed Slashdotters think. Just to make sure, I picked out a random Chinese-based domain registrar, and sure enough, these were just new TLDs that are listed alongside existing TLDs.

Of course, adding new TLDs without getting ICANN's blessing is not quite kosher, but ICANN's power is not legally binding, and since these involve adding new namespaces that other countries couldn't care less about, it doesn't really matter that much. Furthermore, to label this as an "alternate Internet" is really misleading. Screwing ICANN isn't quite the same as screwing the IANA; remember, this is only DNS that we're talking about; the network is still interconnected (and firewalled).

Finally, as expected, the "Chinese-government-is-evil" card was played. Not that I disagree--I think that it is "evil" and that it shouldn't have bypassed the ICANN like this--but this ignores two important problems. First, it is not clear how exactly this could be used to thwart freedoms. Yes, the government has control over the registrations under these new TLDs, but that was already the case with the original .cn, and all the other TLDs in the world are unaffected. Also, if they wanted to censor access via DNS, they could do so without any of this. Second, there are some legitimate benefits. It widens the cramped DNS namespace a little bit, and it is also convenient to not have to switch the keyboard input between the Latin and Chinese character sets, which is genuinely confusing for some people (including me at first).

This entry was edited on 2009/03/08 at 17:40:59 GMT -0500.

In Defense of Google

Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Politics, China

I have already written about this topic back in January. Google made a statement in January about this, and today, Google posted its Congressional testimony on this matter. The testimony is definitely worth a read.

Do no evil? But censorship is evil!
As Google states in its testimony and as I can attest from experience, the censorship was already going on before this started. The government tries to filter requests as they are sent to Google's U.S. servers and accessibility to the U.S.-based google.com is slow and spotty. Most importantly, even when the search results are not censored, access to most "undesirable" websites are blocked anyway. Offering a new google.cn service in addition to google.com and giving users the choice between fast but censored searches on google.cn or government-crippled but uncensored searches on google.com is not evil (especially since many day-to-day searches are on uncensored non-taboo subjects). Those in China who really care about politics often are aware of how to use proxies to bypass China's Internet security (which is what I did when I visited), and those people were never affected before and will continue to remain unaffected. In the end, offering choice is not evil. Google has not taken anything away from the users and while implementing de jure censoring on content that was already censored de facto does not stand on the highest of principles, it has no real effect good or bad in reality. And remember, these are just search results.

They are making a quick buck over there!
And this is wrong because...? They have employees to pay, servers to run, etc. They are a business, and businesses are supposed to make money. It is not ethical for businesses to make money by doing evil, but if they are not doing evil, then there should be no reason why they cannot pursue some profit. So the argument about making money works only in conjunction with being evil; it does not stand on its own. Considering Google's support of open source, open standards, encouragement of employees to drive green vehicles, etc., Google certainly strikes me as less evil than other money-seeking entities.

IBM helped the Nazis kill the Jews, just like how Google and others are now helping China!
Confirming Godwin's Law, House Rep. Lantos compared this to IBM's punch card technology helping the Nazis exterminate the Jews by facilitating logistics. When in doubt, sensationalize. There are differences here, however. First, filtering is fairly easy and can be crudely implemented without any sort of special technology. This would be akin to the Nazis having bought screwdrivers from the United States; they could make screwdrivers themselves fairly easily. Rep. Christopher Smith at one point expresses dismay that American technology is being used by the Chinese government for their nefarious deeds, demonstrating poor understanding of the issue; the Chinese have their own filters that they will happily apply if Americans do not use their own. Second, the Great Firewall of China is already quite adept at filtering, so this would be akin to the United States supplying the Nazis with excess screwdrivers when the Nazis already had enough of their own. More importantly, one must ask what the alternative is. Not doing business in China? In that case, then Chinese companies will quickly fill that gap, and I would much rather have an American company with headquarters safely outside of China censoring search results than a Chinese company under the nose of the Chinese government doing it.

[added] But Google actions are endorsing and legitimizing the CCP!
This was an interesting objection raised in one of the comments to this blog entry. I doubt that Google complying with the laws constitutes any real political effect beyond the touch Romantic symbolism that activists hold so dear. Furthermore, it is a mistake to confuse doing something out in response to circumstances with doing something because it truly believes in it, and we must not forget that the real political weight lies with the Western governments' legitimization of China.

Will someone please think of the children?
House Rep. Lantos asked Google today, "I'm asking you a direct question (about families)--I don't want your philosophy." This was after Lantos had asked Yahoo! about the well-being of the family of the journalist whose name Yahoo! handed over. Google has done no such thing (and by keeping Gmail and other services out of China, it is avoiding such a possibility), and no family has ever been hurt by image searches of Tian'an'men showing rosy pictures instead of tanks. That Lantos asked Google and Microsoft a question that was appropriate only for Yahoo! demonstrates either a lack of understanding of the issue, or, more likely, a desire to politically capitalize off of the sensationalism. Listening to some of the remarks made by Congress today, it seems that this has turned into a three-ring circus and that some people are using it for political gain.

But none of this changes the fact that the Chinese government is evil and totalitarian!
I agree! The problem is not the moral compass of these companies, it is the evil regime in China (I think we would all rejoice the day when it finally falls). But in the meantime, whether we like it or not, when in China, you have to obey Chinese laws. Americans would balk if other people came to the United States and ignored American laws. If Congress has such an aversion with China, then perhaps it should be considering diplomatic solutions. Is the American government prepared to back companies up if they do business in China, refuse to obey Chinese laws, and are faced with an angry Chinese government? Unless Congress can somehow give American companies some sort of teeth with which to resist the requirements of the Chinese government, then it is in no moral position to criticize companies for things that are out of their power.

In the end, critics attack the censorship, but they fail to offer any insight as to how that censorship can be dealt with. There is nothing that these companies can do that can change the political reality in China, and when an absolute "non-evil" is not possible, then one has to accept the lesser of evils. Understandably, people are not comfortable with that notion, but perhaps this analogy would help. Normally, shooting your pet would be an immoral and "evil" thing to do. What if your pet is ill and will die soon? Ideally, you would take it to a vet, but what if that was not possible? Is shooting it to put it out of its misery still immoral? This is what I mean by choosing the lesser of two evils. It may very well be that because search engine technologies have matured and are converging that the contrast between the two evils is not so well amplified, but this principle is still applicable.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/16 at 13:53:16 GMT -0500.

Clarifying the Chinese Censorship Letter

Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Keywords: Politics, China

To expect people on Slashdot to understand a topic and to be able comment on it intelligently is, well, dumb, and reading some of the comments that people posted to the Slashdot article about the Chinese anti-censorship letter just reinforced that. I guess most people do not really understand what this is all about. In any case, I am reposting in this blog a (revised) comment that I posted on Slashdot about this:

  1. A government for a country of that size is not monolithic. For example, it would be foolish to say that everyone in the American government is in favor of having troops in Iraq: there are a lot of senators who are not happy at all. Likewise, the Chinese government has various factions. Because there is only one political party in China, political differences are expressed in the form of intra-party factionalism (whereas in the West, it is normally expressed in the form of different parties, though there is also a lot of intra-party factionalism as well). A lot of this in-fighting also happens privately, so many are not aware of it. As such, the casual observer would think that the Chinese government was a Borgish collective of identical viewpoints when it really is not.
  2. This letter was written by what NPR news describes as the "liberal wing" of the party and can be considered to be more or less a dissident voice. Such opinions are not new in China, and if you ever go there, you will notice that a lot of people will express these views (Chinese brainwashing is not 100% effective), except that they will express them privately, and you never hear about it in the media. I was personally very surprised that this letter was published. These folks are sufficiently powerful and well-connected that they are able to dissent like this.
  3. I think that their target audience is the Chinese people and the rest of the government. You have to understand that the appeal of the Chinese Revolution was that the old government was corrupt and abusive, and there are many Chinese who have not forgotten that and who are well aware of the irony that China threw out an abusive government and replaced it with another abusive one.

So I would not view this as some sort of public press release (that was earlier today, when they justified censorship on grounds of "pornography", which is BS). The earlier announcement today would be like Bush telling the U.N. why we need troops in Iraq. This letter would be like the Democrats grumbling about Bush putting those troops in Iraq.

Internal Criticism of Chinese Censorship

Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics, China

This is a bit of a surprising news item that I heard on All Things Considered: senior members of the Chinese Communist Party's liberal wing wrote a letter criticizing the government's censorship, which they think is born out of "delusion". BBC News also has a blurb about this. Now, if the mainstream Chinese TV news report on this, I would be really surprised.

Google and the Great Firewall of China

Friday, January 27, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Politics, China

I have to admit that I was pretty surprised at how very negatively and intensely most of the tech community is reacting to Google's censorship in China. So anyway, here's my take on this whole thing as a Chinese-American...

Background: .com vs. .cn

Google's actions simply involve the establishment of a new google.cn domain. Searches on this new .cn domain are censored. They are not on the .com domain. So anyone who wants to get the uncensored results can just use the .com domain. There is a Chinese language interface for google.com (there's even a Klingon language interface), and that was where I was taken when I tried to use Google search from China last summer: the uncensored google.com domain served from a server in the States using a Chinese language interface (because it detected that I was visiting from a Chinese IP address). Even gmail.com (a service that Google does not intend to officially introduce in China for some time) worked. None of these .com services are affected, as they represent servers not located in China. The downside was that these services were often slow and were sometimes completely inaccessible (considering that I could get fairly decent speeds when I SSH'ed into a private server in the US, I suspect some sort of government foul play). Not that these uncensored results did me much good, since I couldn't access a number of sites (without setting up a SSH tunnel :p), and believe me, there are a LOT of sites (even cnn.com!) that are affected by the vaunted "Great Firewall of China," which certainly lives up to its name.

In the end, nothing has changed. Google has simply added some servers in China and are being forced to comply with the standard set of government restrictions for those .cn servers only (i.e., if google.com is still accessible, then people can still get uncensored results). And before people bash Google too much, let's not forget about all the other companies doing business in China who are being forced to obey these local laws, and unlike the other search providers in China, Google openly discloses the censorship when displaying results.

But it's the principle of the matter!

Many claim that Google does have an option, and that's to not do anything. Not entering the Chinese market will certainly hurt Google's bottom line, but Google's mantra of "do no evil" seems to suggest that doing the right thing should trump the pursuit of treasure. Despite being a free-market economist, I do admire and strongly believe in this "do no evil" mantra, but there is one very important point that I think people are missing: what is the evil that is being done? What would things be like if Google does absolutely nothing? Does it make the Chinese more free? No. Would Google refusal to officially enter the Chinese market inspire the Chinese? Considering that Google's presence in China is so small (gee, I wonder why?) that most Chinese are not aware of it, no. Does Google's entrance into the Chinese market help the Chinese government in any way? Considering that the Chinese government could probably care less if there's one more search provider in China, no. Does this action by Google hurt the Chinese in any way? No (remember, there's always google.com, which is unaffected!). Does this action by Google affect users outside of China in any way, shape, or form? No. Does this action by Google serve as an endorsement and statement of support for the ways of the Chinese government? Only if you want to read it that way; remember, censorship in china is mandatory, not voluntary, and Google's official statement contains no statements that can be construed as support for the policies of the Chinese government. Of course, just because a law exists doesn't mean that it should be honored; it is the duty of people to resist unjust laws. But what can Google do? Google is in no position to offer any sort of challenge to Chinese laws; only the Chinese people are in such a position. So, um, where's the "evil"? Ruining the environment is an evil that is not easily justified by profit. Installing spyware is an evil that is not easily justified by profit. But, I ask again, where is the evil in setting up restricted servers in China? There was a photo on a news website showing supporters of the Free Tibet movement holding signs and protesting Google's move. Despite being sympathetic to Tibetans, I have to wonder if these people ever considered for just one second exactly what kind of harm Google has done to their movement. Anyway, to sum it up, if there is no true "evil" involved, then why shouldn't Google try to firm up its bottom line?

General Thoughts: China

China is slowly becoming more and more democratic. I was struck by how willing people were when it came to criticizing the government. Hop into any random taxi cab, strike up a conversation about government, and out comes a string of harsh words directed at the government. I find it odd that foreign news services doesn't seem to be able to pick up on this. In any case, the liberalization of China is a gradual process fueled by growing affluence and growing influence from the outside world (I'd imagine that the Internet helps). A bold (and foolish) gesture of defiance from Google is not going to do nearly as much good for democracy as the gradual improvement of China's information networks. Every Chinese knows about censorship, and they even joke about what can or can't be said. Censorship isn't working, and it's only a matter of time before the dam breaks. By offering services in China, Google is contributing to the water behind that dam. In the end, censorship in China is not Google's problem and there's nothing that any foreign entity could do anything about; it's ultimately a problem with the Chinese government that only the people of China can do anything about.

General Thoughts: Google

I have always been impressed with Google track record. Resisting the DOJ's ridiculous crusade against pornography (before someone compares this to the China scenario, remember that challenging the Chinese government and challenging the US government are two very different ballgames), being forward and upfront about controversial points that less honorable companies would've tried to hide, supporting open source, setting up strict guidelines for its software installers, supporting open chat standards, supporting open source, etc. are all examples of Google's "do no evil" policy, and my faith in them have yet to be shaken. Besides, I would much rather have the Chinese be introduced to the wonders of the Internet by way of Google instead of by way of Microsoft. ;)

This entry was edited on 2006/02/10 at 01:36:05 GMT -0500.