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Chinese Torture

China has been feuding with the rest of the world for a while, and for now it seems to be winning. The economic powerhouse shows no sign of retreating from its trade war with the United States, is successfully pushing around such major American businesses as the National Basketball Association, and continues to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong and its Uighur and Kazakh and Uzbek regions with unabashed ruthlessness.
President Donald Trump has famously proclaimed that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” but so far that’s not how the one he started with China has turned out. The tariffs that Trump has imposed on Chinese imports have done harm to the country’s economy, but the American companies and consumers who pay them have also taken a hit, and the retaliatory tariffs the Chinese imposed have hurt the farmers and ranchers and manufacturing workers and service workers even worse.
The American manufacturing sector that Trump promised to restore to its blue-collar glory is now in recession, the white collar guys are cutting back on investment, and farm bankruptcies and suicides are up despite the billions of dollars Trump has doled out in subsidies. The overall economy has slowed, and although we’re still adding jobs it’s at a slower pace, and there’s no consolation in China’s woes or the slowing global economy.
All of which comes at a time when Trump is preoccupied with an impeachment inquiry and an already perilous reelection campaign, while Chinese dictator-for-life Xi Jinping can more easily withstand the economic pain of his people. Trump is the self-proclaimed master of “The Art of the Deal,” as well as a “very stable genius” with a “very big brain” and “unmatched wisdom,” but he finds himself in a disadvantaged position when negotiating with China. He’ll be tempted to surrender to China’s extortionist demands and sell it as the best deal ever, knowing that most of his die-hard fans will believe it, while XI will patiently await either that outcome or the results of the next presidential election, and the smart money seems to be digging in for a prolonged trade war with no happy outcome for anyone.
Meanwhile, the smart money in several major American industries seems willing to accede to China’s extortionist demands. One of the strongest arguments for a trade war with China is its extortionist demand that foreign companies doing business there agree to share their high-tech intellectual property with the country’s competing businesses, but many billions of dollars worth of American companies both big and small have figured it’s worth it to gain access to the market of more than a billion increasingly affluent Chinese.
The increasingly affluent Chinese consumers have a taste for America’s decadent popular culture, which is one of our country’s biggest export industries, and many of the big movie studios and recording companies and comic book publishers and internet streaming services have so far agreed to China’s strict censorship of what they sell to that vast Chinese audience, and have too often altered what they present to American audiences. The current glut of action-adventure movies that have degraded the America is largely because they’re mostly dialogue-free, and easily translated to a larger foreign market that is equally blood-thirsty in its cinematic tastes, but the studios are also steering away from anything politically offensive to the Chinese dictatorship that controls access to the increasingly affluent Chinese market.
The latest example is China’s feud with the National Basketball Association, of all people, which is hard to explain. Back during the Cultural Revolution the Chinese dictatorship tried to erase any western influence from the motherland, including classical music and impressionist art and the western literary canon and the Judeo-Christian tradition, but Chairman Mao Tse Tung was as avid a hoops fan as any Kansas boy and somehow the great American game of basketball was given a pass. Playgrounds and club teams flourished, the Chinese developed an appreciation of the game, and when the freakishly tall and talented Yao Ming started at center for the NBA’s Houston Rockets the increasingly affluent fans got to see him play against the most talented players in the world. It was a hit show in China, even after Yao’s remarkable career was ended by the injuries that usually affect 7’5″ guys, and the NBA has been raking in big bucks in the increasingly affluent Chinese market ever since.
The general manager of the aforementioned Houston Rockets issued a “tweet” that he stood with those Hong Kong protestors, though, and after that China announced it wouldn’t be televising the two NBA exhibition games that had been scheduled, and that the rest of the NBA season was also in doubt. That led the NBA’s commissioner to apologize for the “tweet,” and the enormously talented but entirely self-interested shooting guard of the Rockets to opine that he’d been treated very well by the Chinese during his exhibition game there, and it looked like a sellout of American free speech values to the even more lucrative Chinese basketball market. At this point the NBA commissioner is making clear that he apologizes for the “tweet” but not the American free speech values that allowed it, and he’s on the plane to China for those exhibition games even if they aren’t being televised, and some deal might yet be worked out. By coincidence Yao is now the commissioner of the Chinese Basketball Association, and we assume he has some sway with the Chinese dictatorship.
Those democracy-demanding Hong Kong protestors that the general manager “tweeted” about won’t find any succor, on the other hand, and the Trump administration doesn’t seem to care much about them during ongoing trade negotiations. Some high Chinese officials have been banned due to the crackdowns on the Uighurs and Kazakhs and Uzbekis, but those are all restive Muslim populations, so they shouldn’t count on Trump’s continued support as he pursues the greatest trade deal ever.
China’s a major world power, with economic and military and diplomatic strength to challenge the United States, and it doesn’t have to play by the rules of democratic western world, and it seems to understand that Trump’s self-proclaimed powers seem puny by comparison. China is also a foe of pretty much the rest of the modern world, though, and against its combined might they look puny. If some first world superpower were to give up its petty feuds with its erstwhile allies and lead a united front the Chinese would be at a negotiating disadvantage, and might be forced to allow free trade as well freedom to its people, but for now and the foreseeable future the Chinese are winning.

— Bud Norman

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An Awkward Situation at a Global Summit

There’s another Group of Seven summit this weekend, and it will likely be interesting. The other six world leaders in attendance disagree with President Donald Trump about trade policy, climate change, the Iranian nuclear deal, China’s crackdown on Hong Kong protestors, Russia’s ongoing annexation of Crimea, the necessity of western military alliances, and pretty much everything else that’s likely to come up in the discussions.
They won’t come right out and say so, being appropriately reserved and dignified heads of state, but the rest of the six world leaders also regard Trump as a bullying and buffoonish caricature of an ugly American. Trump seems to relish the opprobrium of the elitist and globalist Cannucks and Eurotrash and inscrutable Orientals, and the die-hard fans seems to love him for it, but he’s unlikely to return from the summit with any of those great deals he’s promised his die-hard fas.
This time around the summit is being hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, and he’s reportedly doing his best to prevent Trump from blowing it up. The summits have traditionally ended with a joint communique assuring the world that its seven largest economies are pretty much in agreement about most things, but Trump blew that tradition up during the last summit in Canada, so Macron has decided to skip the part about telling the world how its largest free economies are generally in agreement about most things.
Which comes at a perilous time, as several of the G-7 countries are sliding into recession and the American economy is slowing, and Trump’s trade wars with China and the European Union and our southeast Asian allies are likely the reason, as far as the rest of the G-7 are concerned. Meanwhile, the dictator-for-life overseeing a slowing Chinese economy sees no reason to negotiate with a mere president who’s likely to be out of office in less than two years. None of those six other reserved and dignified world leaders have any incentive to offend America and its still formidable economy and military might, but they all now that Trump is highly unpopular with their constituents and any kowtowing won’t serve them well.. Here’s hoping it won’t blow up, but we can’t see this G-7 summit being a smashing success for anyone.

— Bud Norman

Hong Kong and the Rest of Us

The images from Hong Kong over the weekend were heart-warming and awe-inspiring, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to streets and demanding freedom and democracy in defiance of the Chinese government’s brutal authoritarian crackdown. There’s hope that it’s reaching a critical mass that even the worst of the Chinese dictatorship can dish can’t resist, and that the people of the remarkable island city of Hong Kong will get the freedom they and democracy that all people of the earth deserve.
There’s also some faint hope that the movement will spread through the rest of authoritarian China, and perhaps even around the globe, but for the moment free and democratic America doesn’t seem to be playing its usual role in nudging it along.
President Donald Trump is waging a mutually destructive trade war with China over its undeniably unfair trading practices, but he still boasts of his close friendship with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and doesn’t seem to care much about how his good buddy handles his pesky domestic protesters. In a series of “tweets” the president “tweeted” about how he was wreaking great damage on the Chinese economy, but late “tweeted’ that “I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a ‘tough business.” I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?”
Trump later clarified by “tweet” that he didn’t mean a personal meeting between himself and Xi, but rather a personal meeting between Xi and the hundreds of thousands of protestors flooding the streets of Hong Kong. We can’t imagine how those negotiations would turn out, nor can we imagine what Trump would consider a humane solution. In 1989 there was a mass demonstration on Tiananmen Square that threatened to bring freedom and democracy to China and the Chinese dictatorship squashed it with brutal force, and in a 1990 interview with Playboy Magazine Trump said “When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it, then they were vicious, then they were horrible, but then they put it down with the power of strength. That shows you the power of strength.” When asked about it in a 2016 Republican primary debate, Trump insisted he wasn’t endorsing China’s response but clumsily explained, “I said that it was a strong, powerful government that put it down with strength. And then they kept down the riot.
Trump used to wax nostalgic at his campaign rallies about how protestors would have been taken out stretchers, and he’s winked at or urged on on similarly rough responses to protests in Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and of course Russia. Those brave souls taking to the streets of Hong Kong clearly cannot count on Trump’s support, and at this point we’d advise anyone thinking of taking to the streets against to be brave but cautious.
Meanwhile, we also notice that none of those damned Democrats running for president seem to care much about those brave souls on the streets of Hong Kong, or any of the rest of the yearning-to-be-free world. Thus far the Democratic primary debates have been mostly about free this and free that for everyone in America, along with the usual promises made to various classes and races and sexual orientations within our borders, and somehow foreign policy never seems to come up. It might seem a missed opportunity for the Democrats, given what a mess Trump has made of foreign policy, but all of them seem to have the same Democratic instincts for protectionist trade policies and the same aversion to meddling in the world’s affairs on behalf of freedom and democracy.
Which seems to be where the rest of America’s at these days, in its time of relative economic prosperity and severe self-doubt. The once-iconic Democratic President John Kennedy vowed at his inauguration that America “shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any fried, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty,” but the Democrats jumped ship on that when the Vietnam War went sour and haven’t gotten back on since. The once-iconic President Ronald Reagan ultimately won the Cold War with similarly tough anti-Soviet rhetoric and no bullets fired, despite cutting off authoritarian allies in the Philippines and elsewhere, but these days most of the Republicans remember him as the guy who have gave amnesty to a bunch of Mexicans, and Republicans seem to have little regard for the people bravely pouring into the dangerous streets of Hong Kong.
By the vagaries of history China gave Great Britain a 99-year lease on Hong Kong after Britain got the best of a war over tea and opium, and despite Britain’s reputation for harsh colonial rule it granted the island city an unprecedented freedom and democracy, and the enterprising people of Hong Kong made it a very profitable enterprise even at Britain’s reasonable tax rates. When the lease ran out in 1997 Britain honored its deal, and the Chinese were at first willing to take its fair share of the profits from the roaring Hong Kong enterprise, but since then they’ve been cracking down on all that freedom and democracy the Hong Kong protestors had become accosted to over 99 years.
For obvious reasons we’re not running for president on either party’s ticket, but if we were there seems to be an opening here. America’s engagement in the rest of the world has always a messy business, to be sure, but under Republican and Democratic administrations America’s disengagement has always proved worse. In the short term standing up for Hong Kong’s freedom-loving and democratic protestors might not help Trump negotiate a trade war peace with his buddy Xi, but in the long run a free and democratic Chinese government is more likely to arrive at a mutually beneficial trade deal. Some Democrat might yet make a bold stand on behalf of the Hong Kong protestors, but he or she won’t want to negotiate with a more capitalist and formidable China anymore than Trump does.
Still, we hold out hope for the best. Freedom and democracy are resilient ideas, both here and abroad.

America, Still in the Top 20 For Freedom

It’s a free country, according to an oft-used expression, but we can’t help noticing that America is not nearly so free as used it be. The good folks at the free-market Cato Institute have corroborated this observation in their latest “Human Freedom Index,” which surveys a wide range of indicators of personal and economic liberty, and finds that America is now only the 20th freest nation in the world.
Although we’re surprised to find America ranking behind such countries as Hong Kong and Chile, the rest of the report seems about right. The authors say America has fallen three spots in the rankings since 2012, and that “the decline reflects a long-term drop in every category of economic freedom and in its rule of law indicators,” then note that “the performance is worrisome and shows that the United States can no longer claim to be the leading bastion of liberty in the world.” We’re pleased to know that it’s as worrisome to them as it is to us, but presently an even greater worry is that so much of the public seems not at all concerned. The Democratic candidates seem more concerned with the problem of “income inequality,” which apparently will require ever more rules and regulations and limits on equality, while The Republican Party seems disinclined to put much of a fight against it, and all those independents who will decide the matter tend to vote for free stuff rather than freedom.
We can’t tell if the Cato Institute is taking into account such petty rules as light bulb bans and no smoking in even the seediest honky-tonks and mandatory seat belt use and limits of the size of soda one can purchase, but there are by now so many of these offenses against personal autonomy that even the communist Chinese rules of Hong Kong can’t keep up. More significant freedoms have also been noticeably diminished. The freedom of the press has declined to a point that reporters are being kept in roped enclosures at public events and their investigative reporting is being treated as a criminal conspiracy by the Department of Music. People are still free to attend church on Sunday, but freedom of religion no longer means that you can no longer act according to the beliefs taught there if a same-sex couple wants you to bake a cake for their wedding. Freedom of speech is still largely free of government regulation, unless you make a YouTube video that is critical of Islam and makes a convenient scapegoat for a failed Libyan policy, but the howling mods of the easily offended are doing a good enough job of constricting public debate. As for economic liberty, just ask any businessperson you know about how many permits and inspections and taxes and employment laws and equal opportunity requirements and reams of forms to be filled out they have to deal with.
Once upon a time in America the people would have been boiling tar and plucking feathers to be at least as free as the people of Hong Kong or Chile, and if you re-read the Declaration of Independence you’ll realize that Americans once went to their muskets over far less, but these days few seem to mind. The average citizen of the 20th freest country is now content with that status, so long as some of the income is redistributed his way and the games are playing on cable and there’s an illusion of broader freedom because everyone’s cussing on the comedy shows and everyone’s got a tattoo and those restrictive old notions of sexual morality are being punished by the state.
The economy and illegal immigration and the continuing difficulties with the more belligerent sorts of Muslims and the rest of the issues dominating the presidential debate are all important, but we’d love to see a candidate for the presidency or any other office make it his foremost issue to return to America to its rightful place as the leading bastion of liberty in the world. Such a project would do wonders for the economy, involve the necessary enforcement of America’s immigration laws, and strengthen America’s commitment to the freedom that those more belligerent sorts of Muslims threaten. We suspect would like it, too, just as Americans used to back when this really was a free country.

— Bud Norman

The Snowden Saga Continues

The strange case of Edward Snowden, that unshaven young fellow who created such a fuss by revealing information about the National Security Agency’s ambitious data-mining operations, becomes more compelling by the day. More sober-minded observers have cautioned that his story shouldn’t distract the public’s attention from the more important matter of what he has revealed, and we readily concede the point, but still, it is hard to look away from an improbable adventure with more plot twists and exotic locales than a big-budget James Bond movie.
All of the news media seem to agree that Snowden has somehow slipped away from his recent refuge in Hong Kong to an undisclosed location in Moscow, where his presence provides Vladimir Putin with yet another opportunity for the Russian president to demonstrate contempt for his American counterpart, but the next stop seems to be anybody’s guess. The New York Times’ and the Associated Press’ sources say Snowden will be heading to Ecuador, the Russian news agencies have Snowden en route to Venezuela via Cuba, and Reuters, in a story headlined “Snowden stays out of sight after leaving Hong Kong,” cautiously reports only that the peripatetic leaker “kept people guessing about his whereabouts and plans.” Wherever Snowden might pop up next, we can only assume that a gorgeous femme fatale and a martini that has been shaken and not stirred will await him.
Much of the world’s audience will likely be rooting for him, too, judging by the reaction of most mainstream press outlets around the world. Germany’s Der Spiegel, the definitive voice of conventional continental wisdom, headlined its story about the NSA program revealed by Snowden “Obama’s Soft Totalitarianism: Europe Must Protect Itself from America,” and the president reportedly was lectured about the data-mining by several heads of state during a recent economic summit. The countries that have aided and abetted Snowden’s flight have obviously made their opinions known, as well, and although most of them prefer a harder form of totalitarianism than even Obama aspires to they can’t resist the opportunity to annoy the American government.
Even here in the United States, where Snowden has been charged with espionage and is officially regarded as a fugitive from justice, he seems to have a following. An internet petition demanding a pardon for Snowden has more than 110,000 signatures, and supporters seem to be coming from all directions. The libertarian right has championed his cause, and even many on the right who were comfortable with similar data-mining operations under the previous administration aren’t as enthusiastic about the information being accumulated by a government that is using the Internal Revenue Service to harass conservative groups and the Department of Justice to pursue investigative reporters as criminal conspirators. Despite the left’s past passion for Obama, who once decried such security measures as an assault for civil liberties, many are now embracing Snowden as their new hero.
There’s a similarly strange mix of people defending the program and vilifying Snowden for revealing it, of course. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has robustly defended the NSA’s efforts, embarrassing the president to the point that he’s gone on television to insist that “I’m not Dick Cheney,” while former critics of the Bush-era terrorism protocols such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are now striking a more hawkish tone. Poor Pelosi tried out her new arguments in front of the “Netroots Nation,” a convention of liberal activists and internet writers, and wound up being roundly booed and harshly heckled for her troubles. We take time out to boo Pelosi every day, and would gladly heckle her if she were within earshot, and although we have very different reasons for doing so we’re glad to see her get it from the same audience that once adored her.
More plot twists are almost certain to follow, and it’s possible that one or more of them will reveal some nefarious rather than patriotic motive for Snowden’s choices, so we’re withholding judgment of the leading character until the final reel. In the meantime we’ll be mulling over the advantages and dangers of the NSA’s various programs, and enjoy watching the president being upstaged by a new action adventure hero.

— Bud Norman