It is a truism that you can become jaded working in just about any country. But a healthy bit of skepticism is just what the doctor ordered when dealing with extraordinary claims.
For example, one frequent comparison between the US and China involves defining a police state (which I discussed several weeks ago).
Last week a gunmen killed 12 moviegoers at a Batman premier in Colorado.
At the same time, half a world away, a massive thunderstorm flooded the greater Beijing metro with the heaviest rains since the PRC was founded. And due to poor drainage infrastructure at least 77 residents died from drowning and electrocution.
Both of these incidents were horrible, yet it was the aftermath that is key to illustrating which country is more free than the other. For example: to stave off criticism of flood management, the censorship regime in China subsequently shoved a dozen words and terms down into the memory hole.
These censored search terms include:
• mayor (市长)
• briefing (通报): A Beijing spokesperson announced the new official death toll, revised up to 77.
• death toll (死亡人数)
• Fangshan + death (房山+死亡): The Fangshan district is one of the most severely hit by the flood.
• Beijing + death (北京+死亡)
• Beijing + Ji Lin (北京+吉林): Refers to Ji Lin, one of Beijing’s vice mayors, who resigned yesterday along with Mayor Guo Jinlong.
• secretary + resign (书记+辞职)
• secretary + leave class (书记+下课): Refers to leaving office.
• Li Shixiang (李士祥): Another vice mayor.
• Anshun (安顺): Wang Anshun has taken over as acting mayor.
• Jinlong (金龙): Guo Jinlong
• Zhang Gaoli (张高丽): Party Committee Secretary of Tianjin, accused by netizens of covering up the cause of the Tianjin mall fire in June. Many have been comparing Zhang to Guo over the past few days.
Entire Weibo accounts (the Chinese equivalent to Twitter) were deleted because they were critical of the CPC response.
Even seemingly independent newspapers such as one operated by the Southern Daily Group were censored:
Eight pages of reporting on the Beijing flood were pulled from today’s edition of Southern Weekend before going to press. Several of the paper’s editors have voiced their anger on Weibo, while some reporters have posted photos of the missing copy, complete with the handwritten remarks of censors. Weibo posts from Southern Weekend staff have been deleted en masse by Sina.
In contrast, everyone and their cousin responded to the Aurora Colorado shootings. Volumes were written from the traditional print media alone not to mention endless streams of Twitter posting, Facebook scribbles, and forum posts.
All the American publications went: uncensored.
Yet at least one commenter – Tom Blanton – sees the US as something worse than China, stating:
Crackdowns on illegal immigrants take place in America, as do the arrest of dissidents. The recent arrest of the NATO 3 comes to mind. Terror plots planned by the FBI to entrap half-wits have occurred frequently. America’s high rate of incarceration should also figure into the equation of whether America is a police state. Vans that scan pedestrians and a NSA that screens vast numbers of e-mails and phone calls exist in America. How does this compare with China? Databases on American citizens have eroded our privacy and SWAT teams invade homes to serve warrants for victimless crimes.
I suppose if you believe that America is not an empire and has a free market system with honest elections, you probably believe that America is not a police state. Certainly, Obama is not as bad as Stalin and Bush was no Adolph Hitler. This doesn’t exactly make them great guys. I think America is an empire. No, it’s not exactly like the Roman or British empires. I don’t think a free market system exists in America. Yet, it isn’t exactly like Cuba. Is it a police state? Yes, in many ways. Perhaps it will look more like one after the local police become further militarized and there are 30,000 drones flying over America watching us. With 25% of the world’s prisoners in American jails and the growth of the prison-industrial complex where the corporate owners that operate prisons lobby for tougher and tougher laws, we may soon see what cannot be denied is a police state.
I am not going to defend the militarization actions that have and continue to take place in the US. The civil libertarian inside of me shakes my head at this but drones are not going away, anywhere. In fact, despite the concerted efforts of the ACLU and of other similar organizations elsewhere to remove them, drones probably already operate above every big metro in the G-20. And short of an alien invasion, there is honestly nothing anyone can do about it.
In addition, with the advent of relatively cheap phones, always-on broadband and the proliferation of scalable, reliable databases: we have voluntarily built our very own panopticon that is here for the long-run (RF hobbyists are even unintentionally building out the panopticon by tracking where every flight goes).
The incarceration rate in the US is also abysmal (and as a libertarian, the only tolerable rate is arguably zero). Do you know what China’s real incarceration rate is? Maybe just as high, Jacob Sullum wrote that:
The source for the Chinese estimate is the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College in London, which in turn relied on the Chinese government’s numbers. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by suggesting that we should be skeptical of anything a totalitarian-cum-authoritarian government says about touchy, potentially embarrassing issues like how many of its citizens it imprisons. The official number at the end of 2005 was 1,565,771, but the King’s College report says that does not include “more than 500,000 serving administrative detention in re-education-through-labour camps,” according to the Chinese government’s own count; “350,000 in a second type of administrative detention…for drug offenders and prostitutes,” according to a U.S. State Department estimate; or pre-trial detainees, whose number “is not known but has been estimated at about 100,000.” Assuming those numbers are correct (a big assumption), ”the total prison population in China is about 2,500,000.” That still gives the U.S. a higher incarceration rate, but not a higher total number of prisoners. And if the Chinese government actually had a few million people in re-education camps, instead of the half a million it claims, how would we know?
Aside from being able to visit a few African and Middle Eastern countries, PRC citizens cannot leave unless they get a visa. A visa is very hard to get. Only the well-connected, good test takers (e.g., high IELTS, TOEFL, GRE scores), the rich and the elite are usually able to get one. And I should know due to the struggles my Chinese friends, students and coworkers have trying to get them (normal people with normal jobs and little amount of assets).
In addition, the average Chinese person cannot move into a new city without registering first. The hukou registration system still exists — it is reminiscent to the internal Soviet passport — and is not going away anytime soon. As a consequence it creates two legal classes of citizenship: urban and rural. And rural peasants trying to move up in the world cannot merely stroll into Shanghai and apply for a new hukou — they must either bribe their way (giving a red envelope – hongbao – to get “sponsorship”) or marry someone who has one which has resulted in many “sham” marriages. Otherwise the migrant workers cannot reap the benefits of what their taxes pay such as the ability to attend local schools.
The sino blogosphere is (temporarily) losing one more of its well-written members: Charles Custer of ChinaGeeks announced yesterday he is packing up with his family and moving from Beijing asap. While politics were a determining factor in his voluntary repatriation, the two top reasons are:
- The air pollution in Beijing
- Food health and safety
The air in Beijing is notoriously bad, in fact the only reason it was slightly healthier during the 2008 Summer Olympics was because the CPC forced nearby factories to close down and restricted motor traffic by half (e.g., based on the license plate number there were specific even-only days and odd-only days that you could legally drive in the metro).
The air in Shanghai can be extremely bad as well. In fact, the US Consulate in Shanghai publishes the air quality each day on Twitter and used to on Weibo. But the CPC disliked this so much that two weeks ago, they had Sina Weibo remove the official US Consulate account. Axed. Deleted.
The food safety issue is something that simply will never go away with the current political system. For example, this past week aflatoxin has been found in baby formula — a sub-industry plagued by corruption and never ending amounts of toxic exposés (pun intended).
You cannot get food safety without independent transparency. You cannot get independent transparency without free speech. You cannot get free speech in a real police state.
Notes in the margin:
I have met numerous expats over the years in my travels throughout China that believe that just because you are “white” and sound educated, you can walk into any company and command a high wage (and they say it just like that with a straight face). While this may have been the case 10-20 years ago, it simply is not true anymore.
In fact, the WSJ had a good article earlier this year discussing Asia’s endangered species: the expat. While the productive quality may not always be the same as their Western counterparts, many junior-level positions can be and are being adequately filled by local human resources. After all, with 300 million people learning English out here, odds are some of them will be able to master it and other disciplines (see here and here).
Which brings up the issue of pay. Surely expats that are the crème de la crème can command higher wages? You would think so, but alas, there are capital controls in this realm as well. Dan Harris – an American attorney in Beijing – recently wrote an excellent post about the legal upperbound limit to expat salaries:
Many times over the years American clients of ours have asked us whether their buyers in China are telling the truth when they claim not to be able to pay the American company more than $50,000 in one year. Our response has always been that we were dubious of such a claim because we have other clients who get paid millions of dollars each year by their China buyers, but if they want us to research this issue for them, we would be happy to do so, at our regular hourly rates.
We had never researched this issue….until now.
And even now, we did not exactly do the research ourselves. We are involved in a case with a number of other law firms and in that case one of the Chinese parties said that they could not pay one of the law firms more than $50,000 this year. As you might have guessed, when a law firm’s own money is at issue, the research gets done and the following is what the law firm found:
- China controls inbound and outbound foreign exchange flows. If a Chinese citizen needs to make an overseas payment it is required to purchase the foreign funds with RMB from a bank qualified to do foreign exchange business. Most banks in China are qualified to do foreign exchange business.
- When converting RMB to a foreign currency at a Forex Bank, the bank is required to review whether the outbound capital is for investment or for regular payment. Outbound capital investment refers to overseas equity investment and is strictly restricted. Outbound regular payments are permitted, including those for overseas tours, training, relatives visitation, business negotiations, meetings, service, labor, etc.
- Legal service fees paid to an American lawyer for the service rendered is deemed a regular payment item. Chinese citizens can convert and remit freely up to USD $50,000 equivalent per year. Conversions exceeding the USD$50,000 quota is still possible, but the citizen cannot complete it at a bank counter freely; he or she must apply to the local State Administration of Foreign Exchange for written approval. Chinese banks will not let the extra conversion go without seeing SAFE’s approval letter.
- To secure approval to exceed the USD$50,000 limitation in yearly payments to an American attorney, the Chinese citizen needs to submit documents verifying the underlying transaction. The application documents mainly include: (1) an engagement letter/contract signed between the Chinese party and the American attorney; (2) notarization and legalization of the engagement letter/ contract; (3) tax return certificates of the US payee (theoretically the US attorney needs to pay Chinese withholding tax for the revenue gained from China); (4) a request for payment from the US attorney.
Well now we know.