Posts tagged: Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman on China: End of Corruption in China or Just a Woman Scorned?

By , August 1, 2013

Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman

Every so often you read a news article so revealing…[and] say ‘…That story was the warning sign.”” So begins Tom Friedman’s unfortunate return to writing about China.

In Wednesday’s “Revenge of the Mistress,”  Friedman feebly attempts to argue that China has reached a turning point on official corruption and that turning point has been the online blitz of one “jilted mistress” of the deputy director at the State Administration of Archives.  For Friedman, this 26 year old woman, Ji Yingnan, and her online posts and photos of their lavish life together – a life she thought was forever until she found out that the man was married with a kid – are important in exposing the corruption that is prevalent in China.  For Friedman, she is the whistleblower that could change the course of China and potentially of the world. 

But Friedman’s article completely misses the mark and paints a picture of China that doesn’t really exist. 

First, a jilted mistress as a whistleblower?  Really?  Do you really think that the popularity of her blog posts is a result of an never-before-exposed seeping anger against official corruption?  Or is it more perhaps the lurid details of an affair that went wrong?  Are the excesses she exposes really that unknown to the Chinese public?

No.  The lavishness of government officials has been reported on by the domestic Chinese media for at least the past year.  What Ji “exposes” are facts that are already well known.  The Chinese public knows that graft and corruption is very much a part of their leadership’s lives.  China’s new President Xi Jinping has openly called for the end of corruption among government officials, implicitly admitting to the fact that corruption is wide-spread. 

While certain aspects of the leadership’s wealth – such as the wealth amassed by former Premier Wen Jiabao’s family and reported by David woman scornedBarboza in the N.Y. Times – have been kept a secret, the lavish spending and mistresses of some government officials has been reported.  And Ji’s post  in no way rises to the damning level of Barboza’s well-documented accumulation of wealth through government ties.  Unlike Barboza’s series of articles which were censored in China, Ji’s posts are still on the internet and she is even receiving media attention.  The reason: because she is not a threat to the ruling elite or necessarily their ways.  She is not a whistleblower; she is not a game-changer; she is a woman scorned. 

But the bigger fault of Friedman’s analysis is his complete ignorance of the fact that since May, the Chinese government has waged a crackdown on anti-corruption activists, petitioners and lawyers, detaining more than 30 individuals for their anti-corruption campaigns.  Most of these activists have been freed.  But most recently, the Chinese government has detained  well-known rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong who has called for greater government transparency and accountability of officials and their families’ assets. 

To ignore the work of these activists and the largely illegal crackdown on their activism (Xu was denied access to his lawyers in contravention of the Lawyers Law and the new Criminal Procedure Law) does a disservice to explaining what is really going on in China.  To claim that a “jilted mistress” is a civil society actor misinterprets what civil society is.   Likely Ji doesn’t have a “cause” other than herself.  The detained activists, their cause is to better Chinese society and have the government follow a rule of law.

Friedman naively calls on civil society actors to find allies within the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)  and convince them that cracking down on corruption is in their best interest.  As if these activists – sitting in their detention cells – hadn’t already thought of that.  While the CCP is not a monolith and there are some reformers within the government, it’s still not an open group of people.  It’s not like some reformer in the CCP is going to invite Xu Zhiyong out for a beer summit and get his take on things.  And what’s Xu suppose to do, write a letter about ending corruption?  In China, that’s what gets you detained.

Courtesy of China Human Rights Defenders,

Courtesy of China Human Rights Defenders,

Finally, Friedman’s article ends by focusing on how corruption in the Chinese government doesn’t just destabilize China, but given our intertwined relationship, the United States as well.  But this is too simplistic of an analysis.  Certainly what happens in China impacts the U.S.  But would ending corruption solve everything?  Would that change the fact that the Chinese government ties its currency to the U.S. dollar?  Would that result in better air quality standards in China?  Largely no. 

What would have a bigger impact would be a rule of law.  Corruption goes unchecked because there isn’t an independent prosecutor to check local government officials.   Air quality in China is horrible because environmental regulations are not enforced and the people have no independent courts in which to bring their case.  Corruption is merely a symptom of the underlying disregard for a rule of law. 

Book Review: Jim Yardley – Brave Dragons

By , April 18, 2012

Jim Yardley’s new book, Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, is more than just a good story about basketball in China.  Yardley’s micro-analysis of the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) provides an important macro view of current US-China relations.

In 2008, Yardley, a former Beijing-based reporter for the New York Times and a basketball fanatic, followed China’s worst basketball team, Shanxi’s Brave Dragons, its crazy owner, Boss Wang, and its great experiment: hiring a former NBA head coach, Bob Weiss. While the Brave Dragons may be China’s worst team, they are its most lovable.  Through multiple interviews, observations and traveling with the team, Yardley perfectly captures the comedy that at times is the Brave Dragons and demonstrates the individual humanity of the team’s players, coaches and even in the end, of Boss Wang.

But if all Yardley’s book did was provide the Chinese basketball version of the The Bad News Bears, it wouldn’t be worthy of the four stars this review has given it.  Yardley uses the CBA and basketball in China to better describe the complexity that is U.S.-China relations.  The subtitle of the book refers to this as a “cultural clash” but as Yardley’s story makes clear, that is a misnomer (and likely the result of an overzealous editor).  Instead of the usual take that relations are strained, Yardley portrays the complicated dance – where some times foots are stepped on and shins

Former NBA head Coach and Brave Dragon coach Bob Weiss

kicked – that occurs on a daily basis between the Chinese and American basketball players, their competing leagues, and their cultures.

In the process, Yardley calls into question some of the more common-held myths about China.

Myth Busting #1: China’s State Capitalism is Not All that Great

Since the economic downturn in 2008 and the ever increasing ineffectiveness of Congress, there seems to be a growing consensus that China’s “state capitalism” is superior to America’s democratic one (think Tom Friedman’s That Used to Be Us and Ian Bremmer’s The End of the Free Market).

In Brave Dragons, Yardley challenges this increasingly common perception by analyzing the hot mess that is the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA). The CBA is anything but a competitive league.  The CBA’s goal is not to make money or even to provide China’s sizable basketball fan base with a satisfying experience, or even to develop talent.  Instead talent is largely stunted, the league is not terribly competitive and even a team like the Shanghai Sharks doesn’t take in much of a profit, or more aptly, doesn’t care to.

Perhaps what is most shocking is the archaic way in which basketball talent is still found in China.  China doesn’t really do little league and youth sports, where any young kid with a love of the game can play, regardless of his or her ability, and where those with enough passion for the sport and enough talent may eventually make that sport his or her career.  Instead, through a series of bone measurements and medical tests, Chinese doctors determine which youngsters are destined to grow tall and then enroll them into the country’s sport system, providing them with little choice concerning their future career.

As Yardley points out, this system is not without its detractors but their criticism gains little traction.  In 2004, then CBA president, Li Yuanwei commissioned a consulting service to create a plan for the CBA to become a successful, efficient and effective organization.  But effective and efficient without pushing many of the government bureaucrats and Party officials who make their living from the system as it stands is nearly impossible.  The plan was shelved, with the excuse that China was just not ready.

Practice makes perfect? Practice is non-stop in China

Yardley’s description of the CBA reflects the shackles of the communist system and the vested interest that propel some aspects of the anachronistic system to continue to function.   But one begins to wonder – to what extent is this just limited to basketball?  How many other industries in China function so disastrously?  Yardley never fully tells us that as it is outside the scope of the book, but his book certainly raises the question and leaves the reader thinking: if that is how basketball is run in China, I’ll take the U.S. any day of the week, even in this economic downturn.

Myth Busting #2:  China is Never Going to Look Just Like Us, So Maybe We Should Stop Trying

Yardley perfectly demonstrates the arrogance of the NBA’s current business tactics in China by comparing it to the YMCA’s strategy. In 1895, the YMCA first brought basketball to China in an effort ostensibly to assist China during a historical transition (the impending fall of the Qing dynasty) but with the covert goal to convert as many Chinese to Christianity as possible.

In the process of attempting to achieve its goal, the YMCA became a solidly Chinese organization.  It was that sinicization of the organization that ultimately saved it.  Today, the organization still exists in China although Christianity is no longer a part of its mission.  But it continues to teach the importance of sports and basketball.

The CBA’s current ineptitude is readily apparent to the NBA as it sits on the sidelines, salivating and waiting to not just break into the Chinese basketball market but to control it.  Basketball is s the hottest sport in China and the NBA wants to be able to tap a country of 1.3 billion fans. But the NBA’s plan for China is less of a partnership and more of a colonization of the game by eradicating the current structure.  Although the NBA has hired consultants to analyze its takeover, its analysis left out one important question – did the Chinese want this?  As Yardley points out, if the NBA is genuine about promoting basketball and not just its own profit, it needs to take a lesson from the YMCA – to have long-term success it is essential that there is some sort of Chinese buy-in; that it cannot just be a complete takeover.

Yardley’s analysis made me think of my own work in China – rule of law development.  The United States government provides millions of dollars in grants a year to U.S. universities and organizations to promote greater rule of law in China.  But sometimes these “exchanges” become more a didactic, one-sided explanation of how the Chinese legal system should look more like ours.  But what good are these exchanges if there is no Chinese buy-in?  It’s good that these exchanges are out there, but what should their roles be?  There is no denying that China needs a greater rule of law and its own people clamor for it, but how do we copy the YMCA model to guarantee that rule of law maintains its existence?

Myth Busting #3:  It’s Ordinary People that Will Determine US-China Relations

The most humorous aspects of Brave Dragons were parts about the American players’ response to the often unique, Chinese ways of basketball.

Bonzi Wells practicing with a Chinese teammate

Every team in China is allowed two foreign players (except Bayi, the Army’s team) and as a result, many aging NBA stars spend a lot of time playing in China.  How do the American players – and Coach Weiss – respond to what appears to be off the wall demands from the Chinese coaches?  How do the Chinese fans respond to a former NBA star and bad boy like Bonzi Wells when he starts playing for the Brave Dragons?  When two cultures collide, what are the results?  According to Yardley, it’s not all that bad and not just changes the relations, but changes people as well.

Yardley’s book is a reminder that US-China relations is not always a government-to-government affair.  Rather individuals play a very important role in how the two cultures end up understanding each other, and ultimately forgiving each other for their respective cultural faux pas.  These individuals will not necessarily be people who understand anything of the other person’s culture; these are just regular Joes who end up in China – they didn’t necessarily ask for it, sought it out, or ever even thought about China, but that is where their life took them.  And the people they interact with don’t necessarily speak English, understand that much about American culture, or even wanted to work with Americans, but that is where fate placed them.

And as everything in life becomes more globalized, more and more non-specialists will be interacting with China.  Yardley shows that while at times there will be friction, ultimately these interactions are essential – if not the most important – to our understanding of each other.

In sum, Jim Yardley does an amazing job of showing the compassion and humanity of each player on the Brave Dragons, even Bonzi Wells you end up liking and understanding (to a degree).  But more importantly – and the reason why Brave Dragons is a must read for anyone who has any dealings with China – Yardley convinces the reader not just of the economic bond between China and the US, but the emotional one.  And it’s important in today’s world to be reminded of the bond that exists between people.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Brave Dragons: A Chinese Basketball Team, an American Coach, and Two Cultures Clashing, by Jim Yardley (Alfred A. Knoff 2012), 300 pages.


Tom Friedman Admits to Not Understanding China…So Why Does He Write About It?

By , January 12, 2011

Orville Shcell (R), Asia Society's Oprah, Interviews Tom Friedman (L)

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is not a China scholar and knows little of China; that was his mantra in response to questions about China’s development at Monday night’s “The U.S. and China: How Should Americans View the New Balance of Power?” sponsored by the Asia Society (watch full video here).  While statements admitting to an utter lack of knowledge on the subject matter are usually fatal to a key speaker’s effectiveness, for Friedman and the 90 minute event, at times it worked and gave one pause to think of the United State’s own future.

In an Oprah-like setting, Orville Schell, director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and one of America’s preeminent China scholars, sat down with Friedman to muse about China’s rise vis-à-vis the United State’s current economic and political stagnation.  Friedman sees China’s rise as a result of its adoption of a “get-it-done” attitude, an attitude that the United States once had but seems to have lost.  For Friedman, it is this attitude that allows China to quickly build amazingly modern structures like the Tianjin Convention Center in just over eight months while the United States languishes with broken escalators in Penn Station for months at a time.  The fact that China has cheap, and sometimes unpaid, migrant labor and shoddy construction standards didn’t seem to register with Friedman, although Schell did raise the issue.

Throughout the evening, Friedman highlighted China’s achievements with scant regard to China’s drawbacks.  But at one point, Friedman acknowledged the one-sided nature of his analysis, arguing that it was necessary to examine China’s current success to see what it is we, the United States, need to improve.  Friedman’s hyperbolic analysis of China was at times irritating, but he did have a point.  China does appear to “get-things-done” – arguably it has not suffered the same economic setback as the U.S. and it is able to achieve certain goals, such as becoming a global power in green technology.

Yes, Freidman acknowledged, China does have an authoritarian regime that is easier to manage than a burly

Epitomizing the Get it Done Spirit - Rosie the Riveter

democracy; but as Friedman noted, what it is about China that we envy are the values it adopted that we once held.  It used to be the United States that could get things done, that could put a man on the moon, “not because they are easy but because they are hard.”  Friedman wondered –  where did that spirit go.  “We have nothing to learn from China” Friedman stated, we merely have to reclaim our traditional values.

While Friedman believed that the forces driving China today are the same forces that drove us to become a superpower many decades before, Schell had a more nuanced analysis of China’s rise.  In answering his own question as to where China’s energy to “get-things-done” comes from (which also elicited Friedman to open his laptop and take notes for his new book), Schell put China’s rise into its own historical context.

For Schell, China’s energy comes from its people’s own desire to be great.  In examining China’s modern history, Schell noted that China has been a failure – the 20th Century began with the collapse of the dynasty system; Sun Yat-sen’s short rule brought no great success, Chiang Kai-shek’s republican period provided less, and Mao’s reign merely created a larger and poorer population.  It was not until Deng Xiaoping’s presidency (1978-1997) that China started to become successful and regain the greatness of antiquity.  For Schell, this desire to be great is an important motivating factor and allows the Chinese people to forgive its government for many of its shortcomings.  Although Schell did not mention it, China is not alone in its desire to be great; arguably the United States belief in itself as a “beacon the hill” has had an equally motivating quality.

But the discussion soon returned back to the United States and its recent stagnation in light of China’s rise.  How did the U.S. lose its path Schell wondered.  For Friedman it is largely emblematic of our polarized politics – polarization about all the wrong things.  Instead of focusing on our failed education system or our deteriorating infrastructure, politics focuses on rhetoric and is unable to create the policies that will guide the U.S. in a new world in this new century.

How can we get that back?  For America, the future has yet to be written according to Friedman, but there will need to be a catalytic event for America to regain its focus.  Our democracy was designed as such; with its checks and balances, its multiple voices, only through a catalytic event can the United States purposefully move forward.

Monday night’s talk was interesting not for its China analysis but for its scrutiny of America’s current status.  Friedman certainly paints China with a wide brush and it’s easy to critique Friedman’s arguments pertaining to China. But it’s important to be open to his message about America.  China has become a global leader in green technology; the U.S. still has members of Congress who do not believe in climate change.  A green technology bill that likely would have created jobs and put the United States at the front of an nascent industry was unable to pass the Senate.

Americans feel anxious about China’s rise, but it is not necessarily China’s fault. For Friedman, America still has the goods to succeed, it just needs to push aside the white noise of today’s politics and reclaim its values.  And that is why he writes about China.  Whether that can be done has yet to be seen.  But Friedman remains hopeful; frustrated but hopeful.

Tom Friedman’s co-authored book is now available in stores: That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, By Tom Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 5, 2011), 400 pages.

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