The Chinese New Economy: Alibaba as Sauron and why the old economy will be the winners

Sauron eye

Anyone familiar with the Chinese new economy will be aware of the rise of the internet giants of Alibaba and Tencent, along with their satellite businesses. Most will also be aware of the largely exclusive ecosystems within which Chinese online life is led – platforms that encompass everything from messaging to shopping to transport to payments and beyond.

It seems astonishing to remember that barely five years ago many commentators fretted over whether China could ever achieve real innovation. The Harvard Business Review for instance posed the question “Why Can’t China Innovate?”, baldly stating:

Can China lead? Will the Chinese state have the wisdom to lighten up and the patience to allow the full emergence of what Schumpeter called the true spirit of entrepreneurship? On this we have our doubts.

This of course is all rather a fading memory now. Innovation can broadly be divided into three areas: upstream (essentially, “how it works”), midstream (“how it’s made”) and downstream (“how it’s used”). For years, China as a manufacturing hub had made quite noteworthy progress on midstream innovation but most uneducated observers – including many in government – have an unhealthy obsession with upstream blue-sky invention. Yet as we can see with the likes of Berners-Lee, inventors are rarely rewarded and rightly so, since the real creativity and invention from the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos is in the downstream. Jobs was an arch innovator in how technology is actually used and therefore spread through an economy, with a vision of how lives are actually impacted and changed. Chinese companies, particularly through the big online giants, are clearly doing the same: modern life in China is now lived in quite an advanced but different manner to modern life in OECD countries. Alibaba and Tencent have contributed towards the creation of a real and organic Chinese modernity and technological innovation within China arguably outpaces even the US even leaving aside issues of theft.

So it is worth spending a moment to look at these two major ecosystems and how they really behave – who they are, as it were. First, there is a question of why ecosystems exist in China in the first place in a way which outside of China they do not. Amazon comes the closest of the American tech players to demand a closed ecosystem but even they seem to find limits. Western shareholders have always rewarded single-capacity specialization, and often find the idea of any conglomerate absurd, let alone a tech company offering bicycles and banking.

In China though, this has been natural, for two reasons. First, there is the historical socio-anthropological tendency within Chinese society to build a “closed loop universe” within one’s own family or clan, which has extended to the national level through the Communist Party and SOEs. My own preference for explaining this remains Karl Wittfogel’s hydraulic empire theory, which tells us that most ancient civilisations relied on centralized power to deliver water to its people, enshrining the principles of autocracy and top-down governance at the government and family level. This in turn typically leads to closed-loop systemic thinking since everything has to work together or else nothing works – diversity of thought is only bad news. Secondly though, and somewhat ironically, these ecosystems have become so broad precisely because they are making up for assurances which the Chinese government cannot offer. When you make a purchase on TMall, you have more faith in the Alibaba-backed guarantee that your products will be delivered and that your payment is safe, than one does with the disparate parts of the national banking, postal or legal system offered by the government. The tech giants had to offer a total universe, or else consumers would have been reluctant to actually engage with the new business model in the first place.

Chinese ecosystems (2)

Source: SCMP

So much for why they exist – the bigger issue is how to understand who they are, what their personalities and identities are and how they should be understood from the outside. One possibly analogy, given their conflict, is that of the Cold War. In this world, Alibaba are the Soviet Union – a sprawling empire with a strong centralized view on how things are supposed to be done. Tencent on the other hand are the United States, a beacon of freedom and inspiration but which has its own agenda focused on generating and owning consumption. JD.com are Britain: commercially-minded, focused on trade and fully acquiescent into the American (Tencent) world. Lastly you have Meituan – which owes its existence to Tencent, but like France to the US is entirely ungrateful and maintains the pretence of wanting an ecosystem of its own.

Upon reflection however, a new analogy came to me which may be a touch more accurate, which is Middle Earth. In this version of events, Alibaba are indisputably Sauron, the lurking, evil presence which looks across the lands of men with an unrelenting will to dominion. They provide you the tools to “help” only so that they can own them and you. They invest in you because they need to control your system from the inside. Resistance is futile; eventual subjugation can be the only outcome. The interesting one is Tencent, who I liken to the High Elves of Rivendell. The things about the Elves is this: they are generally on the side of good, and can facilitate it; but they are not themselves a force for good since they sit far away from the battle, detached from it all. They too provide tools, but they may not tell you how to use them; their attention is ultimately elsewhere. The forces of Men ranged against Sauron – let us assume these are essentially a proxy for traditional retail and consumer business in the region – ultimately have to find the solution for themselves, aided at times by the Elves but not reliant on them. If I were to stretch this analogy ad absurdum, perhaps this makes the Dwarves JD.com with their grubby focus on gold and commerce; whilst Meituan the slightly nobler Rohirrim, since they, er, move around a lot on delivery scooters like the horses of the Riddermark. Which start-up will be the valiant hobbit which destroys Alibaba, God only knows.

The serious point to all this is that for old economy companies, it feels like making a choice is inevitable. But the more one looks at the giants of the new economy, the more apparent it is that in the conflict of “internet+” vs “+internet”, it will likely be the latter – especially established asset owners – that win out. In particular, it is difficult to imagine that in this inflated global asset price environment, that the business which need, as Alibaba and JD.com especially are doing, to build out a network of physical infrastructure can be the eventual winner. Well, maybe one early mover can, but the world is not about to be flooded with online victors – by and large, the winners will be whoever of the old economy players adapts best to the new, rather than a new economy player.

And this then comes down to the vision thing. I have another analogy: I call it the “Physics & Philosphy” dilemma™. P&P is a little known but highly intellectual degree at Oxford (arguably the most esoteric of all) which combines two subjects that are not immediately connected. Yes, it is true that in the first term, courses such as Logic may play a part in both areas but then it would appear the two diverge. Yet we should see this like the rings of Saturn: you start off at one point travelling in two opposite directions on the ring, and whilst they move far apart to begin with in the end they meet again. In P&P, the questions at the other end of the circle see the two disparate subjects poetically rejoin on questions such as: what lies beyond the Universe? What happens if time stops? What if light bends? What is not obvious when you start the degree, become enormously obvious by the time you end it.

And seeing what is on the other end of this ring – what exists on the “dark side of the planet” as it were – is the very thing that marks out business geniuses from mere mortals. It took Amazon 14 years to become profitable, but there seems little doubt that Bezos had an idea of what lurked out of his sight in the distance. Likewise Jobs as he labored through various versions of Apple. But the point is, old economy companies can equally achieve this. We know the famous examples of IBM and Intel reinventing themselves based on their competencies; Apple itself did so. Further back in history are companies like Berkshire Hathaway and General Electric, and even Nokia who started life in rubber products. Reinvention is hard, but the world has not ended just because a series of new giants seem to own everything in sight. If the old economy is to learn anything, it is that with courage and vision, and a will to innovate internally if imperfectly, the future is still going to be theirs. For every Amazon which succeeds, there will still be a dozen Walmarts and Targets which make it, stronger than before.

The technology giants will go down in history mostly as the midwives of change, delivering the new baby to their old economy counterparts. We are already seeing them do this, below the surface as Alibaba and JD.com start to crystalise value in real businesses where they can (finance, technology etc rather than the core e-commerce platforms which have rarely made money for anyone). In many ways they are merely pioneering the examples of what the future looks like, so that old economy companies can learn from it but probably implement it better – the Chinese O2O supermarket businesses are a case in point. Indeed the cheerleading nature of the new economy player’s roles in businesses like retail, ahead of its time, loss-leading and ultimately doomed as a standalone business, begs another more controversial comparison. The tech giants are St John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness; the old economy players are Jesus.

Why commentators like Martin Wolf are still firmly thinking inside the box on China

aging-population

China’s rise is not about following the conventional economic norms, and the reality is that an ageing population is probably better than a young one

China has always been a black box. For the whole of my professional life, companies (investment banks being amongst the worst) happily hire someone – anyone at all – who claims to know the Chinese market if they can make even a sliver of money. Consequently, these people are given free rein to build their own silos. For boards in London or New York, China remains “a faraway nation of whom we know nothing”. It is from this mysterious, exotic ignorance that reliably insightful commentators, from publications which should know better, produce some tired answers to tired questions. Sad to say, amongst them was a recent piece from Martin Wolf at the Financial Times titled The Future May Not Belong to China.

Now, the future may very well not belong to China. Much of what Wolf outlines from his Capital Economics report (rather too much from one source for my liking) is unarguably true: the over-investment, the under-consumption, the increasing corporate debt and reliance on exports. But they only change from fact to “problem” when seen through the same old prism of economic development. China though has been disrupting the whole framework through which one sees these issues, confounding a whole mini-industry of untiring China bears. Who can forget the inflation crisis of 2010 – 2011? The Chibor crisis in the summer of 2013? The stock market crisis in 2015? The capital outflow crisis over 2016 – 2017? In each of these and many others besides, China was to be “found out”; it never was, not because the facts were inaccurate but because the basis for observation by outsiders was so incomplete (although to be fair some of the facts were also inaccurate). The fact that the naysayers and doom-mongers have been consistently wrong may be a cheap point to make, but it is worth making nonetheless. The only laws of economics, it seems, are the ones amateur journalists derive from their undergraduate readings of Adam Smith, Ricardo and Keynes.

china bears

A non-exhaustive list of China bear headlines since 1990

However I would submit two additional unrelated and possibly more controversial theses. The first is that the way China encounters these perceived crises is actually a mark of its success in terms of being on a pathway to global power, rather than a failure. There is a reason why China encounters “difficulties” where Japan, during its own precipitous rise in the 1970s, did not: China is actively trying to change the world it is living in. These crises are the tremors generated by moving tectonic plates, as Chinese objectives grate against the rules and outcomes it is being measured against. Currency and capital flows, interest rates, debt and the banking system – these are all examples of Chinese policy that do not make macro-economic sense until you factor in that it wants to change the system and if it plays its cards right, it probably can. We are faced with the first occasion since the United States back in the 1840s, where the world may have to accommodate a new power, and accordingly the rules will change. For China, this friction is good.

japan china gdp

Source: The Economist (2010)

To run through just one example of this, let us look at capital outflows. The reason capital outflows seem like a “crisis” is that the Chinese government wants to control the currency rather than let it be determined by the market. To pay for this, it must use foreign exchange reserves to keep the exchange rate stable. This becomes a huge cost when the environment is weak – except that the reason China does this is to try and make the RMB a regionally accepted trade and reserve currency. This could be done through just trade alone, but in China’s case it will also be done through the crypto-imperialism of the Belt & Road and other initiatives. If it succeeds, it will both eat into America’s ability to project power through the dollar, as well as ultimately encourage greater consumption of Chinese-made goods which in turn once again brings capital flows back into balance. It is a risky and expensive, all-or-nothing gamble; but unlike merely acquiescing into the current world system, if it succeeds it will have changed the regional financial and trade landscape. A price, some would say, worth paying.

The second thesis focuses on the cliché that China may be facing the middle income trap – that it may “get old before it gets rich”. This is typically paired with the curiously British trait of enthusiasm for India as an alternative story. Yet I would argue that with the coming of automation, China is actually on the right side of history on this and that far from fearing age, the adage should be turned on its head: for many comparable countries it is youth, not age, which will be a great peril; and these countries may be too young to ever get rich.

We have for some decades been fed the neoliberal trope that a younger population is good for the economy, and that pursuit of youth, through birthrates or immigration, is a Good Thing. Yet we are fast approaching the point where this notion is being exposed, because automation is actually a process which will eat into youth employment rather than any other. China’s workforce is actually declining and has been for some years, just in time for robots to start taking over.

The process of classic industralisation is just one of various models for a country to develop. But in this particular model, families can contribute labour rather than capital in order to obtain greater earnings, and thereby over time accumulate household assets. For many countries though, this industrialisation may never now be possible. The Economist noted as much when opining that the pathway of development exhibited by the China + ASEAN axis is probably irreplicable by anyone else including markets in Africa and South America. Goods may be manufactured in some of these economies, but it will be robots that do most of it and young median households will never cross either the asset-owning or educational thresholds required to survive automation before it hits.

Now, it may be that these countries find other models to become rich, but I doubt it. Agriculture or resource extraction will be possible for only a precious few. The mercantile model is not stable or sustainable. Services, as we have seen, actually produce a lower return on labour than industrialization does since jobs are often of a lower quality. In any case one of the stark lessons of 2016 was the fact that in 29 out of 50 states in the US, trucking was the single most common form of employment – and this, more so than manufacturing, is where automation will first hit.

us job types

Source: NPR (2015)

The fact is that to weather automation, median family assets need to reach a critical mass enough to be “invested” into the economy such that they can be gainers from robot productivity rather than victims. The most obvious if questionable form of asset-ownership would be home-ownership, but in an ideal world it would take other forms. China’s urban population has just about caught this train (financial income growth has far outstripped wage growth in recent years), but younger populations in India or Vietnam may not make it. Young people inevitable have fewer assets having had less time to earn; if their family does not reach this critical automation-neutralising financial position, they face eternal unemployment. OECD economies mitigate this conundrum somewhat through welfare transfers, but welfare is another privilege of long term asset accumulation by Society – a privilege emerging markets do not have. It is a race against time and any country that fails to achieve this will be left without a chair when the music stops.

In this context, I have little time for those who argue, as Wolf does, that India is “the most interesting other economy” (Americans I have noticed, tend to use Vietnam as their preferred example). As one of my friends commented, “the human race will probably be extinct before India has an airport like Pudong”. Taken individually, each of these points (China’s extra-economic rise and youth being a greater concern than age) have huge implications about the rules and framework for emerging market development theory. Taken together however, they may represent a perfect storm which leading to an inflection point in global economic development. In this case, being wedded to the old ideas, commentators like Wolf are probably missing it.

Why Britain could demand asymmetric labour access to the EU – and why it might be best for both sides

Freedom of movement

The disputes over Brexit negotiations have mostly been premised on the idea of reciprocity – or rather, retaliation. If we do not give them rights, they will not give them to us. This has been particularly true when discussion freedom of movement, possibly the single most important driver of Brexit voting in 2016. On the face of it, there seems to be logic in the EU demanding that EU nationals be allowed to freedom of movement into the UK if the UK wants the same thing in return. However this may belie the reality, which is that asymmetric access is perfectly viable and indeed valid.

To give one example of where this makes sense, let us examine Chinese policy with regards Hong Kong. Here, Hong Kong residents have an almost unhindered access to the Mainland and its economy, not only in terms of movement and residency, but also asset ownership including real estate and businesses. Chinese Mainlanders on the other hand face extremely stringent rules on coming to Hong Kong and particularly for settling here. Work visas are required almost exactly as they are of any foreigners. Yet this is essentially just one country with ultimately one government. And yet it suits both sides.

Why? Well there are two main reasons for allow one-way borders. The first is when one area needs skills the other has. This was historically true of Hong Kong and the services it provided to mainland China in terms of capital and skills, although today this is no longer so relevant. In the case of Britain and the EU, there are arguably skills which those across the channel, all things being equal, would prefer to have. Banking and finance might be part of this, but it seems unlikely. Much more relevant is that Britain is far more innovative than the rest of Europe and particularly so compared to the larger countries. In the European Commission’s innovation rankings for instance, Britain comes fifth but well ahead of Germany, as well as France, Italy and Spain. This is something the EU would surely rather not lose: startups and business ideas which could change the world but which need a large market to be tested and improved. For this reason, one-sided migration would be net positive.

European countries ranked by innovation

European innovation

Source: European Innovation Scoreboard 2018 (European Commission)

The second reason is the defensive one and relies on a resource Britain has an abundance of: parochialism. One of the reasons China has no particular fear of opening the border to Hong Kong is that there is very little chance that people will want to cross the border and stay there. Oddly enough, Britain is in the same boat, since Britons have historically been far less likely to move to another European country than many others, especially those of a working age. If we look at northern European migrants to other northern European destinations (in other words, intra-EU migration which strips out the retirement population) Britain figures as one of the least mobile populations behind even France. Only Germany is marginally behind and this is due to its outstanding export economy.

Total intra-Northern European emigrants as a percentage of total population

Intra-European migration

Source: People on the Move (Bruegel Jan 2018)

This reflects only “rich” Europe; if eastern and southern Europe were included the numbers would be even more stark. This peculiarly British parochialism can be seen in everything from the lack of language learning in British schools through to the reluctance of British footballers to move to European leagues which are better for their career. In other words, the British are much more disinclined to move and settle in the EU than the other way around, so that offering asymmetric access will only help business without causing any employment displacement.

This is a classic and enjoyable case of hidden asymmetry, the defining theme of this blog. The simple fact is that just because access is unequal does not mean that it is imbalanced or not beneficial to both sides. Reciprocity may seem “fair” on the face of it but may not actually be relevant – when there are cultural asymmetries as in this case, there is a good case to argue that reciprocity is not needed. Unless indeed retaliation is the core objective.

The hidden costs of parenting – why PPP could become PPPP

stress-cost-of-kids

Purchasing power parity or “PPP” has for many years been as good a proxy as any for allowing comparability between figures such as different countries’ GDP. China’s economy, for example, has a nominal GDP of just US$12 trillion, compared to America’s US$19.4 trillion. Yet when re-based on PPP, China’s GDP is actually US$23.2, making it the largest in the world. I for one accept that this is a useful indicator of economic strength, in the sense that China as a country is able to mobilise more economic resources than its nominal GDP would strictly suggest, since labour and capital there are cheaper. Likewise, a preferred measure of living standards is that of GDP per capita at PPP, or sometimes (better) average wages at PPP. In this way, some comparability may be afforded which accounts for street food in China appearing so much cheaper than in the West for instance.

Yet a friend of mine recently noted that in a sense, PPP-based comparisons of wages and living standards were very much geared towards the individual. A great leveler, he reckoned (as a relatively new parent complaining about the costs of the endeavor) was the arrival of children into his life. Because whilst in theory a basket of goods for PPP calculation includes items needed for raising children, in reality behavioral differences distort its reality. PPP, he felt, did not reflect the full costs of parenting and its effects seemed most intuitive to a single person. When considering where to live, PPP in his life could and perhaps should be re-adjusted to Parental PPP or “PPPP”.

There are three main buckets to consider in making any such adjustments:

1. Direct additional costs of education
2. Consumption choices
3. Real estate costs

The theory here is as follows: wherever you live in the world, the likelihood is that you will as a parent attempt to make up for the deficiencies of the world around you as best you can, in the interest of your children. This comes out of your own resources, and actually in many countries where life is “cheap”, when it comes to raising children those expenses shoot right up again. For instance, as a single person one may choose to drink tap water; as a parent one begins to invest in water cleansing machinery or bottled water (especially in Asia). Education is an important element too, since although many countries provide free universal education, parents recognize their limitations and will correspondingly pay for tuition and other aid. A surprisingly large selection of countries such China actually see parents effectively paying for education despite it being notionally free – and this is before getting to the issue of boarding schools paid for by expats. Lastly, real estate requirements are different and in some parts of the world rents / price counter-intuitively increase with the size of a property, commanding a premium due to restricted space.

So a comprehensive, scientific adjustment to PPP would require a sophisticated model which includes all these factors. To test it though, I instead looked at a simplistic account using only one factor that I could readily find, HSBC’s analysis of how much parents pay for their children’s education in several countries:

Cost of parenting
Source: HSBC – The Value of Education report 2017

Using this data as a rough proxy for all-in childcare costs (imperfect, but it is all I have to hand) I then readjusted the standard PPP index as provided by the OECD. The assumption I have made is that one-third of a parent’s income is used on children, a figure broadly in-line with statistics also published by the OECD. Thus I left two-thirds of income adjusted on the official OECD PPP basis, whilst the remaining one-third I have adjusted using a new index created by comparing total childcare spend. The results look like this:

Value of 30000

Basic and clumsy though this analysis is, it shows some interesting trends. First, as my friend suspected, the “real” living costs for a parent in places like China and India may be in fact higher than initially assumed, due to a surprisingly high need for private spend. But even more notable is how much value is added by the welfare societies of France and the UK, where the median family does not spend anything like as much for education particularly at the tertiary level. Median wages go a lot further in Europe and Canada than in the US under this system – and indeed US$30,000 almost matches the value of US$30,000 in China. The same kind of logic no doubt applies to issues such as universal healthcare. Assuming my calculations are even remotely accurate, life is fundamentally as cheap in Europe as it is in China, whilst life in the US remains the most expensive.

This methodology is very preliminary, full of assumptions and no doubt lacking. I would be happy to hear opinions on how best to improve it. However the basic theory is strong, namely that PPP may have a simple underlying flaw due to not accounting for changes in life cycle; in some cases PPP probably needs to become PPPP to be meaningful for public policy and for investment purposes alike. Essentially, single life remains localised whilst parenthood is becoming globalised. Since parenting costs are only going to increase as we go forward, the issue becomes particularly prominent. PPPP could be the future.

**************

For those keen to see the underlying data, below is the table of calculations:

PPPP table

How all politics really works – in one simple chart

Introducing the General Theory of Government 

The events of 2016 were curious because of their dichotomy: on the one hand, they were such a shock to the political classes, on the other hand they were also entirely predictable. Yet the commentariat both then and since appeared to miss (or simply forget) the most basic and obvious premise of how all politics works: namely that the ruler has to offer the ruled a mixture of both material and psychological well-being. The desire for identity is as legitimate a concern as any amount of wealth, and any government that fails to provide one or the other over a long period of time will suffer the occasional revolt. Understanding this explains Brexit, Trump and any other examples one might care to mention.

I do not claim this to be revolutionary, but given its lack of profile and given the impending elections in the US which will doubtless cause another round of soul-searching, I think it is useful to visualize this concept in a simple, easy to comprehend model. With no further ado therefore, all politics can be represented in this single chart:

General Theory - basic model

The Wealth-Identity Trade-off Model

It should be easy to see where I am going with this. Into the x-axis goes all those things which politicians want to focus on: taxes, welfare spending, the cost of living. Into the y-axis are all those things politicians seem not to think exist anymore such as ethnicity, religion and language. And, in a democracy at least, any government which consistently offers too little of one or other of these parameters, will find themselves cast out. We have for perhaps too long been living in a world where the governing classes have not only mistaken how to deliver W (Sanders, &c), but completely ignored i (Trump, Farage &c). Political parties across the spectrum have spent the last few decades obsessing over the x-axis whilst assuming that the y-axis will tend to itself. Rectifying this will be, as I have alluded to before, the dominant theme of the next two decades at least in the West.

I would hope this is all intuitive enough not to need vast amounts of explanation, but in a series of posts I intend to outline the basic premise of the General Theory and specifically its core idea, the Wealth-Identity Trade-off Model (WITM™). I will go on to examine how and when a society ceases to function properly; what a society really comprises within the model (“Median Man”, or “MM“); and lastly look at some applied examples in the world today and perhaps yesterday.

What I am proposing is not in itself, I think novel; however like all good things I believe this theory synthesizes simple, intuitive ideas which have at best not been expressed before in such a manner, or perhaps may not have been coherently identified. To anyone who disagrees with this, or who have contrary opinions, I look forward to hearing them. Additionally, since these are blog posts which may one day find their way into a book, I will not footnote everything in detail. However I trust that enough is articulated to allow the reader to comprehend what I intend.

The Kavanaugh debacle

Let me humbly offer my view on what has happened here on Kavanaugh. It’s only a theory but I am pretty convinced of it.

The GOP went for a pretty extreme originalist in picking Kavanaugh (see the positioning below). Unlike Gorsuch, he is far from unimpeachable as a jurist; unlike Amy Barrett, his backstory is not popular. He is a party hack who’s real scandal is not this sexual one but rather his role in the Bush administration in 2003, for which any half competent opposition could have hung him out to dry. Therefore, he was not an easy win for the GOP.

Why then did they do this? I think because they saw the midterms coming and decided on a gamble of enormous proportions: put up a controversial figure and dare the Democrats to vote him down. If he somehow got through, they got their man in (and not just a conservative judge like Gorsuch, but an actual partisan); if he failed or the process was dragged out, it would be the catalyst needed for their midterm turnout which was threatening to be flat.

What they did not count on was the ensuing sexual scandal, which whilst allowing the Democrats to get all excited was not obviously a partisan consolidating issue. The Democrats had a real chance to derail Kavanaugh’s nomination without suffering a backlash. However, the other thing the GOP did not factor in was the total incompetence of the Democrats in taking this easy path rather than the correct path to blocking him.

The Democrats have consequently managed a thing of genius – treading the only narrow, delicate path they could to somehow come out of the Kavanaugh debacle even worse than the Republicans (various recent polls show a closing of the generic congressional voting polls and in Trump’s own approvals, despite the fact that Trump has almost nothing to do with any of this). The GOP had to make another gamble in the end: namely that they, even as a stupid party, were still not the stupidest party in the room. The Democrats managed that honour, and the Republicans’ last gasp gamble seems to have worked.

Extraordinary from all sides.

Critics of the film Crazy Rich Asians don’t really understand it

Family

I will admit it: I liked Crazy Rich Asians. In fact, I liked the movie so much that I went to watch it twice at the cinema. This does not appear to put me in good company, since most of the film’s fans seem to be motivated by trite Asian empowerment, whilst normally thoughtful commentators are calling it a “disappointment” and a “missed opportunity”. Inevitably, the film has also fallen victim to those saying it is not representative enough of the Singaporean society it aims to depict.

Yet all of these views rather miss the point, and miss the film’s true genius. Yes, Crazy Rich Asians contains a charming if generic tale of the poor-girl-conquers-rich-family; yes, the film gives uneducated western audiences Asia’s own Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, of which many would be unaware; and yes, it is a glorious exposition of pan-Asian pride and “arrival” – the film’s opening sequence in a London hotel almost seems a gratuitous assertion of the changing balance of power between Asia and the West. Yet all of this represents only a superficial comprehension of the film, and mostly, one still understood through an inherently western lens.

Rather, Crazy Rich Asians is a profound social commentary about the state of the Chinese diaspora, its diversity and depth, and the gravitational forces that are pulling it apart. What Jon Chu (and author Kevin Kwan) have done is bring into focus the central question vexing much of Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Los Angeles: who owns Chinese identity? To understand the real meaning of this film is to understand the transcendent nature of what it means to be part of the Greater Chinese world.

There are here essentially two main stereotypes of this Chinese diaspora, and two Chinas, being juxtaposed against each other (at this point I am going to note that I use various monikers with caution, and expect the reader to understand the general thrust of the label rather than be unhelpfully bogged down by the minutiae of definitions). A third China is for now not tackled, but we will touch on it below.

OCs

The first, represented most prominently by Eleanor Young (rather than, I think, by her own mother-in-law) is that of the historic “overseas Chinese” community, who by and large left China before 1949, and in the greatest numbers during the upheavals of the 19th century. These are the communities which populated India, Burmah and Malaya, before sometimes going on to Britain or further afield. The Chinese of Singapore, where Crazy Rich Asians is set, and Malaysia, where it is partly filmed, are central to this, as were the former Chinese communities in Bombay, Calcutta and Rangoon amongst others. Families of this ilk regard themselves immutably as the guardians of true Chinese culture as handed down by millennia of history prior to the 20th century. Their China is “China”; all else, whether the contemporary Mainland or the migrants to America, is ersatz.

The second group, depicted principally by Rachel Chu, is that of the classic American-born Chinese (“ABC”), somewhat unfairly maligned in the film as a “banana”. But the term “ABC” hides a multitude of sins, since there are plenty of families of Chinese descent in the US who are far more traditional and in-line with Eleanor Young, than is the protagonist here. Really, the story is of Rachel’s mother Kerry, whose story is not explicit in the movie but who can readily be inferred as one of the post-1980 New China emigres (as indeed related in the books). This cohort, whilst being “Chinese”, were already Chinese of the post-Cultural Revolution era and bear all the marks of that rootlessness. Their story of emigration is far different to that of the pre-1949 generation and it is telling in attitude, outlook, habits and behavior of their children. This is particularly true of the US where assimilation is most culturally demanded, but also to a lesser extent in Canada and Britain. For them, there is not a lot tying them to the China their parents escaped other than the occasional longing for bubble tea and mahjong.

ABCs

The film also adds a few other Chinese ingredients into mix. The Mainland is barely mentioned, presumably in order not to offend the new owners of Hollywood studios and allow the movie a chance to be shown in the world’s second largest market. Instead though, Hong Kong (through cousin Eddie Cheng) is used as a proxy for the Mainland’s gauche, parvenu ways – and ironically, since Hong Kong is rather more brash and arriviste than they would like to think, this proxy is very fitting. It is perhaps a nuanced little dig at all those Hongkie elites who think so much of themselves. Next the grandmother, Shang Su Yi (again not named in the film but in the books) is a veiled reference at the legendary domineering of Shanghainese women. Taiwan, with all its crypto-Japanese influences, is probably the largest omission from the storyline, being referenced only in passing. Lastly there is Singapore itself which, although portrayed as a centre for overseas Chinese, is actually a modernity unto itself – as represented by the Goh family of nouveau riche ah beng’s and ah lian’s. Much of Singapore is barely recognizable for the traditional Chinese of London or even KL; in terms of “real Chinese culture”, Malaysia actually is what Singapore thinks it is – thus making the filming location at the Villa Carcosa in KL, even more poignant.

Neither the Youngs or the Chus exist in China today, but the conflict between them raging everywhere from Singapore to San Francisco, is deep, passionate and fierce. The overseas Chinese community of pre-1949 are both proud and condescending precisely because the China of their heritage is still so dominant. Crazy Rich Asians is fundamentally a homage to, and the story of, this peculiar overseas Chinese world and the enormous struggle it has faced in being the bearer of the one true Chinese light, whilst being weighed down on one side by the cultural Revolution of Mainland China, and on the other by the cultural dilution amongst ABCs. Even for western audiences, this is obvious: the stereotype of that thrifty family that keeps the plastic wrapping on the dining room chair set (think Fresh Off the Boat) is real – but it is also specific to southern Chinese families who went overseas. Northern culture, which now dominates middle class life in Beijing and even Shanghai, is not thrifty but rather garish profligacy that throws money at anything. Not for them the lessons of trauma and hard work. And as a final insult, we are now in a world where Simplified Chinese characters, by sheer scale of the PRC’s importance, is the default Chinese – no foreigner today would dream of learning anything Traditional.

I would be inclined to make the lazy assertion that those who do not get Crazy Rich Asians are just too shallow to appreciate its many levels. Yet I cannot, because the true beauty of the film is precisely that such people are a part of the story; the very fact that they do not fully comprehend it is emblematic of the great contradictions which Chinese are posing to each other. This movie is aimed at multiple audiences, and satisfies each in its own way. Its enduring strength is the way those audiences will respond differently and no-one really finishes with the same viewpoint on who they sympathise with and support – Eleanor or Rachel? The grandmother or Kerry? Indeed many modern PRC Chinese may not think any of the story is relevant to them; but it is more so than they may ever realise.

Being myself from a Chinese family of southern provenance who arrived via Calcutta to Britain, my instinct is to agree that our true culture is that transmitted through the strict guardianship of overseas Chinese communities. But having spent the greater part of my life in the Mainland and having had the rare privilege of knowing Beijing as far back as the 1980s, I understand also where New China and its impulses comes from. These Three Chinas – the PRC, overseas Chinese and ABCs – are all locked in the kind of conflict which is characterized by the (Anglo-American) maxim of being “separated by a single language”. The reason the film is so successful is that it stirs so much in each of these various Chinas, but does so both severally and collectively. Just one example is the soundtrack, which includes everything from the Shanghai jazz scene of the 1930s to the world of 1970s Cantopop covers, to Chinese contestants on The Voice. The sheer range of the music, its roots and influences, is a story of Chinese culture through the ages.

So whilst Crazy Rich Asians can come across as pedestrian to the uninitiated, the complicated and nuanced realities which its showy aesthetics overlay are important. I am sure that Jon Chu set out to tell this very story of divergence and disruption, knowing that each of his audiences would find something different to enjoy (and criticize it for). But even if he did not, for those who truly understand the complex tapestry that forms the world of the Chinese diaspora, he has created a masterpiece that repays watching, and poses socio-cultural questions of us which will not only not go away, but will only become more prominent. This painful dilemma is the challenge being faced by tens of millions across the world, parents, grandparents and others, who this film is designed to represent and tell the story of. To look at Michelle Yeoh is to feel the grip of generations over our Chinese souls and on some level, to think, “I understand why she is us, and we are her”. It speaks powerfully about our identity, and forces us to contemplate what it is to be without it. This is a seminal work of Chinese cultural existentialism, cleverly wrapped in pop culture – it is an Asian Banksy; it is MC Hotdog expressing Hegel.

It is not so much about “seeing ourselves on screen”, so much as “what is to become of us?”. Perhaps in the next installment, we will be told.

In defense of football managers

Mourinho Pochettino

Last night was one of those glorious Spurs nights which, under Pochettino’s reign, rank alongside last season’s win at Stamford Bridge in terms of “announcement”. Therefore I would love to dwell on it – but I will not. Instead I want to make a different point in support of Jose Mourinho, a manager I have not much liked over time but who I perceive to be somewhat victimized.

A lot is leveled against the Manchester United manager these days: bullying of his players, attention seeking, shortness with the media, finding excuses about the talent in his team and directing criticism onto the Board. Yet amongst all this analysis, I often find that there is a disjuncture between commentators and fans, with commentators – the typical “chattering classes” as it were – frequently focusing on the coach a lot more than supporters.

Take last night. I woke up to the news that Mourinho had walked over to the Stretford End stand in what appeared like a valedictory farewell with a few hardcore fans. This turned out to be fake news – as Gary Neville pointed out on Monday Night Football in listening to Mourinho’s post-match interview, one can tell he simply wanted to applaud some fans who had remained to the end. Of course, to media commentators, who have been aiming for Mourinho for some months now, it seemed obvious that the fans should be fed-up. After all, who else is there to blame, when the manager has spent more than £300 million net on transfers since his arrival? In their view, those in the stands must be onboard with the media agenda too, of laying the blame squarely at the feet of The Special One.

But football fans are much more likely to blame the players, who they sometimes see as not pulling their weight or trying hard enough to bleed for the team, and always see as overpaid; or direct their ire to the club ownership who they feel are not investing enough or only there for the profits. Yes, there are certain managers who get up the nose of their own support, such as the way Alan Pardew consistently did. Sometimes this is because of “playing style” such as during Sam Allardyce’s short-lived sojourn at Everton; other times there are much overt clashes such as Mick McCarthy’s fiery relationship with the terraces at Ipswich. But as witnessed with Arsenal fans for the last two seasons or with Moyes’ brief stint in charge of Man Utd, tolerance for managers is actually quite high. They are not paid as much as players usually, and are reckoned as having a bit of a tough job treading between preening athletes and cynical club executives.

So why this disjuncture? As usual, the blame lies in with the media being limited, insular and lazy. First, they rarely think outside the box – listening to Henry Winter, the much-lauded Times football correspondent (five times Football Journalist of the Year, no less) offering up his analysis was painful – “he has lost his touch” was the stumbling insight offered on Radio 5Live. Secondly, they are being played as part of a game they seem to have no idea about. These days few players and even fewer owners speak to the press freely. Post-match player interviews are generic and pointless, to the extent that even I have to laugh at the BBC’s Dead Ringers when the mimic my beloved Harry Kane. From an early age, professionals have been coached to say as little as the public announcements of a listed company. Meanwhile, getting words from clubs owners is rarer than seeing ketchup in canteen of a Premier League training facility – when David Sullivan gave an interview in 2017 on the back of poor results for West Ham, journalists did not seem to know what to make of it.

Managers, by contrast, are the only figures who are both obligated to speak to the outside world (Premier League post match press conferences are obligatory at the risk of fining), and often have something interesting to say. Therefore football commentators focus incessantly on the managers of clubs and to an extent allow managers to define club identities in a way that real fans do not see it. Media talking mainly about managers is nothing short of navel-gazing. For the outside observer, it is actually players who embody a club, and who have the agency to change a team’s fortunes. This may not actually be true in this age of advanced tactics and hyper preparation, but it is what is felt. Since journalists are lazy though, they rely on these moments of managerial interaction for almost every reading of the tea-leaves.

Consequently when the media, in their one-dimensional world, get the bit between their teeth about a manager, they are often surprised to see – and then usually ignore outright the fact – that fans do not follow suit. When Moyes was at his nadir, a banner flown from a plane was met with at best mixed reaction from fans, much to the media’s bemusement since they assumed all supporters must agree with them. Even Wenger for years had higher levels of support and trust from those in the ground than he did from outside, even until the bitter end.

Last night as the numbers at the Stretford End began to be revised upwards, it seems like maybe a couple of thousand Manchester United supporters stayed to the end to support and chant for Mourinho. The manager, in turn, recognized this. Supposedly, around the director’s box, a good sliding tackle from Spurs defender Toby Alderweireld in the first half caused fans around them to look up to Woodward and make the point that a lack of these signings were the cause of problems – in stark contrast to the coach. In the end, the planned (and once again inept) plane banner for next week is targeted at Woodward, not at Mourinho. When Mourinho failed in his second stint at Chelsea, the fans directed their anger at those perceived as not trying hard, such as Hazard, Diego Costa and Fabregas. The fans do not like prima donnas.

I would make the cheap and obvious political point here about how the chattering classes miss what people are really thinking and arrogantly assume that the view being disseminated are the ones which encapsulated public opinion. But with Tottenham having won a magnificent victory last night, no need for that at this point …

John McCain’s passing poses more questions than answers

McCain Feingold

I am not usually interested in talking about “current events” but the death of John McCain is worthy of consideration in terms of all the questions it poses for the long trajectory of politics in the US and elsewhere.

First, cards on the table: I was for many years a card-carrying member of the McCain fan club. I met the man twice, once when I was interning on the Hill in 2001 when he and Joe Leiberman were the Statler and Waldorf of American politics, and again three years later when he came to the Oxford Union; somewhere in the back of my desk drawer is a grainy first-generation camera phone video of the standing ovation he received from all as he left that hall. To my mind, in his 2000 incarnation he was perhaps the greatest President the US never had, combining nobility and grace with a far-reaching sense of mission and destiny for his country. On top of this, he was a patriot and in his own way, had a strong sense of America’s purpose in the world. His defeat at the hands of Karl Rove’s borderline racist campaign in the 2000 Republican primaries was a tragedy all round.

McCain sponsored the only substantial campaign finance reform bill of recent years, and was one of the few sources of bipartisanship in an era of increasing polarisation. He also attempted, being a Western conservative rather than a Southern one, to find a way to reform immigration in such a way that America could still be sensitively preserved before the difficulties set in. He failed, but not before dragging Bush along with him and not before cementing that alternative Republican approach towards success in states that were not whiter than white – including Arizona and Texas. In party terms it might be said that he was the future, once.

Yet by 2008, McCain was a sad shadow of his former self. For the previous few years he had begun to cravenly solicit the support of the GOP machinery by supporting an extension of the Bush tax cuts and in the end turning to Karl Rove, of all people, for advice in the Presidential campaign. For my own part, I struggled to support McCain during that election and only did so in the end as a counter to the vapidity that would prove to characterise Barack Obama; in fact my preferred candidate in early 2008 was Hillary Clinton. Where in 2000 I was so deeply upset at McCain’s failure, by 2008 I could only shrug as his team decided to invite Sarah Palin onto his ticket.

This stark decline was not just a measure of his political choices; it was indicative of the declining relevance of McCain and his whole faction, well-meaning but ultimately anachronistic as they were. For a start, his ideological hawkishness over Iraq showed an antiquated notion of how to manage international relations. Elsewhere, I have written about the idea that greatness can only be achieved through a judicious mixture of both nobility and ruthlessness, not through ideological optimism alone. For a country like the US, some countries may be won over, but others need to be kept down with all the skullduggery in one’s arsenal. McCain was blindly wedded only to the former; his worldview was effectively one of nobility alone – the idea that sheer “rightness” would be enough to win America’s conflicts.

McCain, even in 2000, embodied all too much that post-Cold War complacency which first failed to foresee the emerging threat of militant Islam and then also dealt with it so clumsily and inconclusively. Leaving aside Iraq, it is also difficult to imagine what McCain’s reaction to China would have been in recent decades. The likelihood is that in dealing with what has become the single largest threat to American hegemony, he would have undertaken the same combination of sabre-rattling and indecision which was to inform the Bush and Obama administrations. McCain would also have had nothing to say on China’s post-WTO gamesmanship, because trade, commerce and business were not his strength. He would have been just as distracted by pointless sideshows against Russia and just as obtuse, I am sad to say, about the key issues of wage growth and trade.

McCain young

It is incredibly sad to think of how irrelevant many of the things we put McCain on a pedestal for ten years ago, are today. Yet he does bequeath some traits which remain important, of bipartisanship, integrity and patriotism which are so obviously lacking throughout the ranks of both political parties today. McCain would have taken us into perhaps ten wars and back; but he would always have done so on first principles. Nonetheless his passing closes the chapter on an era when America could still afford to think in clean cut terms about its role in the world; and highlights the fact that his naivety on occasionally doing the cynical thing, is also passed. For McCain, I believe the world was always the world of 2000. I adored the man, but it is time to move onto a new reality.

Donald Trump and the right side of history

Trump TPP

The Guardian recently caused a splash by publishing a piece discussing Donald Trump’s remarkable resilience in the polls despite the near universal opprobrium being heaped on him by the media. It had some sage words for why media hostility was actually hardening Trump support, as well as pointing out that ultimately, Trump is giving most Republicans what they want. Both are true, but the piece also omits one major explanation for the stubbornness of the numbers; after all, 87% of Republicans support Trump, but that is far too little to explain 43% approval numbers. Instead, it is the support of 36% of “Independents” and even more surprising 9% of Democrats which he continues to command (both numbers which have increased markedly during the first half of 2018), which make up the difference:

Presidential Approval Ratings between Q1 and Q2 of 2018

Trump polling

Source: Gallup

In the climate of public discourse, his avowed critics find it incomprehensible to imagine who these non-Republicans might be. But yet it is these independents and Democrats who make up the group supposedly so “racist” that they voted twice for Obama before voting for Trump. Why, as the Economist asks, will the Democrats “struggle to win back Obama-Trump voters”?

The biggest problem for Trump’s detractors is the fact that he is, on some level, on “the right side of history” at a moment when hardly anyone else in public life is. By this, I mean that on some of the largest issues weighing on the public today such as trade, immigration and even international institutions, it is Trump who is pushing at an open door, not his opponents. We can be pretty certain for instance that whoever wins the next few elections will not be doing so on a wave of championing more free trade, more open immigration or more faith in organisations such as the UN, NATO, the IMF or the WTO. Instead, the winners are likely to be those who are talking Trump’s language, even if they are not using his vocabulary.

No doubt this idea will cause outcry amongst my liberal friends, but let us consider the evidence. The first such exhibits are the underlying macro themes. For instance, UBS released a note in 2016 charting the recent decline of globalization as a very natural part of the development cycle, and why also there are structural tensions being created in the current situation:

UBS - globalisation

The globalization cycle typically sees high growth in trade matching high levels of growth, followed by periods when trade and growth decline. These are the moments when societies spend a moment to draw their breath and “catch up” to the excessive changes that have been wrought. In an earlier blog I noted the limitations of explaining away trade deficits with capital surpluses for instance, as some commentators quite unashamedly continue to do. The reality is that those who gain from the latter are not the same who lose out from the former, resulting in a political and social tension unaccounted for in scholarship which is postgrad IQ but high school EQ.

Additionally, there is the element of inequality over growth distribution. In the UBS analysis, we can see that despite a substantial slowdown in growth, exports remain at an unrelentingly high percentage of GDP resulting in limited social recalibration. Furthermore, the growth even during the previous wave of globalisation mainly benefited the non-West as this recent HBR study shows:

HBR - gloablisation

This is supported from a different angle by HSBC’s analysis of which countries have gained in which era of the recent past:

HSBC - globalisation

Source: HSBC presentation, January 2017 (not available online)

In broad terms therefore, there is such a thing as “too much trade” and its corollary “too much freedom of movement” (aka immigration). For all these reasons, from the perspective of the American voter, the “right side of history” is the side which will make these changes.

The second piece of evidence for Trump being on the “right side of history” is the surprising consensus for change in these areas. The China “trade war” – an irresponsibly used term if ever there were one – has seen much fear and anguish in the media (very few of whom understand even the basics of trade economics) but actually commands widespread bipartisan support in Congress and has done for some time. The same applies to pulling the plug on TPP and questioning NAFTA – both positions that have long animated the party that produced Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean. Some determined anti-Trumpers of the Left have now painted themselves into the absurd position of defending the free trade of the WTO, when just a few years ago they were its greatest opponents. On this, they have a credibility problem if nothing else.

But it is not just trade. On immigration, the Democrats are caught between arguing against Trump’s policies even whilst occasionally defending the fact that Obama deported more illegal immigrants than any other president. The reason he did this was popular support for the general principle that borders mean borders. And even with regards international institutions, it has long been understood that many are not working for the US. Obama called his NATO allies “free riders” as recently as 2016, and abandoned the Quadrilateral and G7 to try and reach an agreement in Copenhagen in 2010 much to their anger; meanwhile George W Bush spent the best part of two terms criticizing the WTO and finally abandoned the Doha Round. Clearly, no-one thought these institutions were working well or serving best American interests.

Yet strangely the Democrats have done almost nothing about this, and have found no real successor to Sanders, the only candidate from their side who talked about this. Sanders’ various successors – whether Liz Warren or the newly crowned Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have surprisingly little to say on any of these themes other than wanting to abolish ICE. Instead they have left the field to Trump who therefore feels (to the average voter) more like someone who is looking forwards, not backwards, about the world we live in. Where a politician stands on that nexus of trade, immigration and institutions has become a defining and almost apolitical issue; once you strip that away, you are only left with the usual rancorous debates on gun control and whether to install transgender toilets. Those arguments though, pale into insignificance against the background of how to remedy (rightly or wrongly) median wage stagnation. Democrats and Republicans are navel-gazing whilst Trump is allowed to speak unhindered to large swathes of the nation that voted for him in 2016. At the moment, he owns that space even if his methods seem clumsy – as former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recently said, Trump has been “strategically comforting but tactically terrifying”.

(As an aside, I would point out that the liberal desire to cast Trump as some sort of “reactionary” does not ring true either. I do not believe most of the public actually see him as being particularly anti-gay or anti-abortion for instance. Instead, one of his defining moments on the campaign trail was the highly pragmatic response to the transgender toilets issue, saying they should use whichever one they wanted but business could not pay for new facilities. Mostly, he just does not care. Sure, he is not actively helpful to liberal causes but he is hardly aiming to contain them. Remember, too, that in the Republican primaries almost every sort of more extreme candidate ran: states’ rights fundamentalists, religious fanatics, neo-conservatives and Koch-ite free traders. Trump was none of these things and triangulated quite effectively between them all.)

Of course much of the support for Trump remains cultural, and on what is sustaining this one need look no further than the exceptional piece written by Joan C Williams in the days immediately following the 2016 election. It remains the best depiction of that amalgam of economic, cultural and social thought which passes for “what’s best for my family” in many voters’ minds:

One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.

Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told her. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,” chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money. “The main thing is to be independent and give your own orders and not have to take them from anybody else,” a machine operator told Lamont. Owning one’s own business — that’s the goal. That’s another part of Trump’s appeal.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, epitomizes the dorky arrogance and smugness of the professional elite.

This is a major part of the real world, and Trump has no competitors here. It has led, as the Economist lamented well before Trump arrived on the scene, to “the return of history”. Skillful as Trump is, he did not create these issues or the popular sentiment driving the polls; years of poor governance did.

The fact is that none of these things – free trade, more multiculturalism, faith in institutions – are going to be more popular in five years time than today. In the areas of policy most commonly associated with Trump, there is a near consensus amongst the population but yet he alone is telling the story. The Democrats are therefore reduced to hoping for a candidate to come along that will articulate Trump’s message better than Trump. That may happen; but it’s an audacious hope. In the meantime, whisper it: whilst the Democrats and Republicans are wrangling over tax cuts and repealing Obamacare, it is Trump who is on the right side of history. For now, anyway.