Confucianism and Trade Imbalances

The enlightened dictatorship of money

Posts Tagged ‘geography

China schooling the US

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I knew it had to happen someday.  The rough consensus among China-watchers is that the best precedent for China’s rise, at least in the realms of economics and business, is Japan.  One peculiar phase of the Japanese-American relationship was when Harley-Davidson ended up redoing its entire production methodology based on what it had learned from its Japanese rivals (who were willing to help, in order to defuse trade tensions.)  The Japanese Production System might have been inspired by an American consultant (Deming), but American companies never became world-class experts in applying it.

I ran into an article the other day, although minor, that marks the first time I’ve ever heard a similar story about China.  Ford’s China social marketing team was sent to the US to train their counterparts there.  Many people know that the Chinese government controls almost every form of communication.  The word 宣传 sort of shares the meanings of “propaganda” and “marketing;” ‘red envelopes’ are an expected practice at press conferences.  And of course Facebook and other American-based social networking services are blocked.  But focusing on the top-down aspects of this phenomenon neglects that it comes equally from the bottom up. Despite all of the censorship, there really is a vibrant Chinese internet. People simply expect their information to come from sources close to them – another aspect of the Chinese attitudes towards geography I’ve mentioned several times before.

A lot of this seems very different from Japan.  Innovative marketing and Kanban production are very different things, implying very different personality types.  It’s important when making the comparison to Japan to note that there are some deep-seated differences that have nothing to do with Capitalism or Communism.  On the other hand, these examples do both come from the auto industry – an important status symbol in either production or consumption.


Written by Maofucious

December 9, 2012 at 3:26 PM

Mining and weiqi

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I’ve been learning more about the mining industry in China for a project I’m doing at work.  Chinese mining  has created a lot of publicity abroad due to its willingness to overpay for projects around the world with a strategic mineral output.  This publicity has often left out the fact that the industry has been quite stagnant and fragmented domestically, with little investment in technology.  It seems that the government has actually favored overseas acquisition at the expense of domestic development.

Hearing this situation made me think of this paper (pdf) on China’s strategic mindset, as it relates to weiqi, a Chinese version of chess.  (The paper – and Henry Kissinger’s subsequent endorsement in his book – focus on security and warfare, but I’ll be coming back to this argument to show apply it to economics as well).  Weiqi doesn’t end with the capture of a particular piece, but is rather scored at the end by the amount of territory captured, reflecting Sun Zi’s principles of warfare and the importance of geography.

I’ve been learning the game over the last few months, and one of the most difficult parts about it is knowing when to leave something alone.  Players who are much better than me will apparently abandon the most unsupported pieces, while going off to play in some other corner of the board.  The typical progression of the game is therefore to start at the corners, then the sides, and finally move towards the center.  This looks very much like the way China is approaching its natural resources problems.

Written by Maofucious

November 4, 2012 at 5:51 PM

SEZ in the US?

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The US doesn’t really have a problem with consumer spending, when compared to East Asian countries.  It also has a lot of incoming capital as a result of being a reserve currency, in contrast to Europe.  In theory, therefore, it shouldn’t have much of a problem stimulating itself out of a crisis.  The problem is that the capital often gets misappropriated.  Part of the problem is that the money goes too much to short term investments – and the government, who might otherwise be able to mitigate the problem, isn’t really willing to do so.  But a more fundamental problem is this: who is willing to make an investment when they know the proceeds are going to be used to pay down the debt?  And how can the US pay the debt if nobody’s willing to make new investments?

The Chinese model of Special Economic Zones offers an apparent solution.  The beauty of the Chinese system is that no matter how bad it screws up in one location, it is always able start anew someplace else.  This is what it did in Shenzhen, and the Shenzhen local development model sort of formed the basis for economic “models” in the first place, including the Wenzhou model, the Chongqing model, and others.  It has a sort of allure: could the US start a Shenzhen in, say San Diego, where we could forget the debts of the past and just move forward?

Unfortunately, capital in the US is more mobile than it ever has been in China.  If one were to establish a tax-free zone in one region, existing companies would shut down in the regions that were still taxed.  Great care would have to be taken to restrict the favorable tax treatment to companies that weren’t already existing – perhaps by discriminating by sector.  So it wouldn’t be as straightforward as Shenzhen.  But it’s still a model worth considering, particularly the notion that the law doesn’t need to treat every sector equally.

Written by Maofucious

October 31, 2012 at 11:00 PM

Posted in Economic Imbalances

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Tech wars and value rigidity

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The Washington Post this week had an interesting article about Japanese manufacturing.  I don’t inherently trust Western declinist views of Japan, and clearly the Washington Post is aware of the political context of its piece.  (It had another piece a few months ago on Japanese fondness for the fax machine, which while cute, clearly had a political subtext.)  But in the manufacturing article, this section stood out to me as being plausible:

Those who study the consumer electronics industry describe a decade of missteps and miscalculations. Japan’s giants concentrated on stand-alone devices like televisions and phones and computers, but devoted little thought to software and the ways their devices synced with one another. As a result, their products don’t always work in harmony, in the way an iPhone connects naturally with a laptop and a digital music store.

In the heyday of Japanese manufacturing, quality was the typical selling point of an electronics product, whereas today that’s changed.  Now, I can’t help think about this comment in light of the current rivalry between Google and Apple over maps.

Apple has just released its iPhone 5, which has been heavily criticized for its premature mapping technology. For some background, Apple has been making huge profits in China.  Its products are must-have items, which I would put in the category of luxury “face” goods.  These small, integrated electronics goods are quite suitable for Asian consumer preferences, of which I’m reminded every time I try to take my laptop on the bus to do reading, and can’t fit it on my lap.  These are the sorts of things that are more expensive in China than abroad, because of occasional supply shortages.

Google, with its mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” has had a tougher time in China.  One might point to specific disputes it has had with the government regarding censorship, but I wonder if there’s a deeper cultural undercurrent here.  Its most innovative projects now involve geographical information, and it is pushing its maps to new frontiers (South Pole?  underwater?).  This sort of work has also been banned in China, where geographic information is extremely sensitive.  (Curiously CCTV anchor Yang Rui, in an unrelated and totally unprofessional rant against foreigners, accused us of compiling GPS data, among other things – giving us more of an insight into his mind than reality.)  Satellite maps are required to have a certain amount of inaccuracy, so that anyone bombing China will be forced to use map view.  In some ways, this mirrors Google’s prior larger controversy over censorship, but it is also different.  There are no blatant political  motives here, but I think there are more in the way of cultural biases.

So I wonder if China, in its clamor for handheld devices popular in its heyday (which I would say ended around 2009, when the stock market started its quiet death plunge) is going to miss out on the next wave of geographical technology, just as Japan also did when high technology ceased to be about things simply not breaking down?

Written by Maofucious

October 2, 2012 at 5:47 PM

Posted in Confucianism

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IQ, language, and political economy

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There hasn’t yet been enough controversy on this blog, so I will now talk about race and intelligence.

The American Conservative (who I don’t normally read) has an article on how Asian IQs seem to be invariant to economic development.  Asians in general (now I’m talking about Asian immigrants to the US) aren’t rewarded for their above-average IQs.  This guy (apparently an academic who wants to remain anonymous) thinks it’s because their verbal-analytic skills lag other races, compared with visuospatial skills. This shortcoming makes it more difficult for them develop lawyer-type skill sets, and it ultimately impacts economic growth.  I won’t comment on his theory of an IQ cutoff for economic development, and gaussian vs. linear regression, but I did notice that the way he treats his data to subtract 6.5 points from Asian IQ statistics.

All of this fits into my preconceived notions of how the Chinese language fits in with the culture.  (The Chinese language is a cultural foundation for all Confucian societies.)  Chinese has no grammar, using classifications and complex rules of the type lawyers would be expected to understand.  At best, all of its rules are situational, applying to groups of a few words.  (In policy terms, I would relate this to industrial growth policies.)  The language is also hierarchical (with an obvious political analogy) as certain themes reappear in related contexts.  I think the best way to illustrate this might be in reference to my point in the last post about little kingdoms and geography.  Place names typically have two characters.  One of those characters is likely to be some kind of moniker for the area as a whole, and so you are likely to see that character in the names of smaller districts (down to danwei) within the district, or around the  district.  One example off the top of my head is Guangdong province, which borders Guangxi and has Guangzhou as its capital.  (Dong is east; Xi is west; and zhou might be translated as -ville; although these transformations don’t always follow these sorts of formulas.)  This process is replicated in the the highly transparent evolution of the characters themselves.

This sort of setup makes it natural to base economic growth on evolutionary trial and error, arbitrated by face. This entire process creates a strong sense of conservatism that helps mediate between the highs and lows of economic development – what the American Conservative article was getting at.  Also, I suspect this relation to characters and geography has something to do with why Asians’ visuospatial skills are so well developed.

None of this, by the way, says anything about the direction of the causality.

Written by Maofucious

September 22, 2012 at 9:38 PM

China’s failed apprentice system – part 3

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This the last part in a series on why wages are so low.  I will collect a few thoughts here, and see if it turns out into a coherent whole.

I realized that an important part of this situation, which I shouldn’t leave out, is really simple: Chinese discrimination against Chinese.  I had a Chinese client a couple of weeks ago who wanted to speak to me, and only me.  He only spoke Chinese, and I explained to him that I would have to refer him to my colleague for any meaningful communication to take place. He still wanted me to be his point man, even though I really didn’t have much to say to him. This seems to be an issue particularly in the Southeast, where I lived for two years.  (The client was from Ningbo.)  (See also this story from Nanjing, for instance.)

Anyway, earlier in this series I retold this story that a friend told me about aviation because it highlighted two things I had heard about healthcare:

  • People who go half of their careers without being able to do any real hands-on work, because of their bosses’ delicate egos.
  • Employers owning their employees’ work licenses and refusing to let them leave for other work.

The second factor is due in part to what might be the single most unappreciated fact about China: how local everything is.  During the Maoist era, localities were told to make their own arrangements for health, and these sorts of bureaucracies tend to end up as bottom-up patchworks just as often as top-down structures.

This system goes all the way back to China’s feudal past.  Land is extremely important in China.  For this reason, Google Maps isn’t allowed to match satellite images up exactly with its maps.  North and South are not universal attributes – highways in Beijing will direct you towards Guangdong, rather than the South Pole (which is a practically equivalent distance from there) since one is in China and the other is not.  Even public spaces become like little kingdoms, as there are walls put all around the place restricting walking routes.  (I will someday get a picture of the South Railway MRT station in Beijing, which has a series of metal railings fencing off areas of absolutely nothing.)  I could spend an entire post or more talking about Chinese spatial orientations.  This also has to do with feng shui, and, at its core, land might be linked with the concept of face.  That’s how fundamental territorial divisions are to the Chinese psyche.

So China is full of these little kingdoms, relics in the more recent (Communist) past of the danwei work-unit system.  This leads to a surplus of little kings, who don’t like to see their status challenged.  We can see these leaders acting like little kings now with the accounting standoff: they are not used to being questioned, even when it comes to increasing efficiency.  These relationships are born from tradition, not from any notion of maximizing shareholder value.  As a final example of the importance of physicality in Chinese law, any company document must be notarized by a company stamp, which functions as the official company signature.  A great deal of power is placed on the owner of the stamp – typically the management of a company, not the shareholders.

Wages are often set so low that they even fail to maximize profitability.  Healthcare is a very good example of the result: there are lines outside of clinics, sometimes for days, for top doctors.  Meanwhile, for everyone else, healthcare is getting more violent – yes, violent.  Attacks on hospital workers are becoming frequent enough (in the context of a generally low-crime society) that police are being stationed inside the hospitals.  For the workers, healthcare is unprofitable enough (despite this demand) that it’s not really a particularly sought-after profession.  The whole system is geared not towards maximizing value, but towards preserving these little fiefdoms.

Written by Maofucious

September 21, 2012 at 11:12 PM