A Serious Point on why the Chinese Government does not understand The Onion

The New York Times and every other newspaper in the United States reports: The official Chinese Communist Party newspaper People's Daily reran a story from The Onion that they headlined:  "North Korea's top leader named The Onion's Sexiest Man Alive for 2012." They did not realize it was satire.

Quoting The Onion's spoof report, the Chinese newspaper wrote, "With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman's dream come true."

"Blessed with an air of power that masks an unmistakable cute, cuddly side, Kim made this newspaper's editorial board swoon with his impeccable fashion sense, chic short hairstyle, and, of course, that famous smile," the People's Daily cited The Onion as saying.

There IS a serious point here. Satire that mocks authority obviously is not allowed in an authoritarian system. Having never seen satire, and instead receiving nothing but fawning praise themselves, the autocrats are incapable of recognizing satire. It's very funny, but it's also very sad.

HT Mari Kuraishi @mashenka

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On culture: maybe more research is needed

Inspired by this NYT story on beach behavior in Qingdao, China  to say I'm glad that economists are starting to work on social norms, culture, and development. It's moved way beyond the primitive circular reasoning whereby any poor people were assumed to have a "bad" culture. Culture is partly an endogenous choice; for example, parents decide how much effort to exert to pass their culture on to their children. For a good intro, check out the work of my NYU colleague Alberto Bisin.

PS the relevant cultural norms relevant in the picture are apparently how much female beauty involves pale skin, and on how much extreme measures are acceptable to achieve that.

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World Bank President Completes Record Democracy-Free Term

Here at DRI, we must concede our longstanding strenuous effort to get the individual who has been World Bank President  to say the word "Democracy" has ignominiously failed. His term ends this weekend. Alas, this is more than a game. Yesterday, the peaceful Ethiopian blogger Eskinder Nega was convicted of "high treason" and "terrorist acts"  for such nefarious activities as noticing there was an Arab Spring. (Nega should have followed the World Bank President's exemplary speech on the Arab Spring that omitted the word "democracy" even in a purely descriptive sense. ) The World Bank has given Ethiopia's government more than $2.5 billion (2007-2010) during Robert Zoellick's term.

Of course, President Zoellick did have to obey China  the 1944 Articles of Agreement, which forbids interference in "the political affairs of any member." But when Ethiopian rulers use the aid to give food relief to supporters and starve opponents, according to careful documentation by Human Rights Watch (HRW),  one begins to wonder if aid itself is political interference? Wouldn't suspending aid be more consistent with the Articles in that case?

At least the Development Assistance Group for Ethiopia (which includes the US, Canada, the UK, and the EU, together accounting for another $6 billion to Meles Zenawi over 2007-2010) sternly commissioned a field investigation into the HRW charges. Which has since quietly been cancelled. A 2009 secret US cable released by Wikileaks said that donors to Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi were already “keenly aware that foreign assistance … is vulnerable to politicization."

Mr. Zoellick, you still have two whole business days to use some word form of democra____.    Maybe you could just casually mention the official name of North Korea?

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Why Can’t China Just Become Like Us?

by Zhenbo Hou The biggest anxiety that some people have about China’s rise is whether a rapidly-growing authoritarian capitalist economy, ranked 2nd largest in the world, will be able and willing to adapt to the unique global responsibilities and pressures that arise from being number one. For a development establishment most familiar and comfortable with liberal democracy, it is an article of faith that, in order for China to truly lead the world, they must eventually become “like us.”

What people in the “West” must realize and eventually accept is that China’s contribution to the 21st century is not only about lifting 300 million people out of poverty, but also about enriching the debate about how development happens. From the orthodox perspective, several seemingly contradictory phenomena have taken place in China over the last thirty years: A property boom occurred, although the right to personal property was not guaranteed until a constitutional amendment in 2004; the state has maintained a level of control over the banking system and capital markets that was regarded outside the country as hopelessly “inefficient;” finally, and most notably, the party has remained in power - managing a country of 1.3 billion people.

For Western tastes, China’s political reforms might seem too gradual and marginal in nature. However, for any Chinese citizen who lived through the dark years of the Cultural Revolution, when hard-line ideological policing dominated daily life, the shift has been drastic, and the freedoms that most people enjoy in China today are worthy of being cherished. Society is now relatively disease and hunger-free; cars and home ownerships has become a strain on the nation’s ability to supply, rather than a rare luxury; travel and study abroad are commonplace for those with the means. In last week’s Worldwide Developers’ Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco, Apple revealed that they have started to develop more “China friendly” apps on its newest Macbook Pro, in order to cater to their largest market. Surely such evidence doesn’t support the notion that China is headed for a Soviet-style collapse.

All this being said, China has no room for complacency about its next phase of reforms. As Chinese people become more aware of the issues that are happening around them, they will want to make their voices heard, and want their opinions to matter. It is estimated there are 500-600 million netizens in China, with 300 million of them posting onto Weibo (China’s Twitter) on a daily basis. The government has responded gradually but surely: the peaceful resolve of the Wukan incident signaled support for village –level elections in China and the release of public expenditure record by central government ministries will attract more public scrutiny. Whether these measures will be enough remains to be seen, but they reflect the cautious approach to politics epitomized by Zhou Enlai, Chinese Premier under Mao, whom when asked about the significance of the French Revolution of 1789 by President Richard Nixon, responded, “It is too early to tell.”

Zhenbo Hou is a fellow of Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in Westminster, London. He is currently working as an economist in the Millennium Development Goals Unit of the Nigerian Presidency in Abuja. A Chinese national, Zhenbo is a graduate of Warwick University and the London School of Economics.

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Yet another perspective on China: It's History, Stupid

Chris Blattman featured yesterday the new paper by Enrico Spolaore and Romain Wacziarg, How Deep are the Roots of Economic Development? The paper is a great survey of the exploding literature linking today's development outcomes to ancient roots. ( I denote the survey as "great" based on the usual criteria: frequency of citation of my own research.)

The Spolaore and Wacziarg paper also allows yet another angle on the debate of the last few days on China's rise. China's middle income position today at least partially reflects long-run factors: two favorable and one unfavorable . The two favorable historical factors are very long experience with (1) technology and (2) organized statehood. The unfavorable factor (3) is a long history of autocracy and violence.

China's remarkable rise in the last 3 decades could just be the intersection of favorable historical factors (1) and (2) with increased globalization. In other words, China's miracle could just be overcoming previous miserable under-performance relative to its own long-run potential. Further rise could then require finally changing the adverse factor (3):  autocracy.

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The Parable of Sam and Joe

At birth, Sam was 361 percent richer than Joe.  Then for most of their lives, Joe’s income stayed at the level of dire poverty while Sam’s kept growing steadily.  By the time they reached middle age, Sam had become 20 times richer than Joe. From that low point, things finally turned out big time for Joe and he started catching up to Sam, but today Sam is still 253 percent richer than Joe. Whom would you prefer to be, Sam or Joe? If Sam followed one career approach and Joe followed another, would you rather imitate Sam or Joe?

As you may have guessed, Sam is Uncle Sam, standing in for the average American income. Joe is actually Zhao, standing in for the average Chinese per capita income, and their “lifetimes” are from 1870 to 2011 (“middle age” is around the 1970s, and “today” is 2011).

Yesterday’s blog post provoked a few negative comments and suggestions that I look at other blog posts by Helmut Reisen and Gideon Rachman that prove America’s decline relative to China’s rise.  Anyone questioning the orthodoxy on American decline and Chinese superiority even gets the ominous label of “denialist.”

This is not to deny China’s remarkable economic miracle, just a reminder that the miracle is about growth and not about levels. And this parable suggests that growth is not necessarily a good guide to well-being and success.

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