My right to detest other people's aesthetic preferences by mattsteinglass
May 11, 2010, 1:20 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Design, Development, Vietnam

Here’s a sight I saw in Ha Giang province last week.

This is how people all over the hilly parts of northern Vietnam are making room to build the cement and brick houses they can suddenly afford: they bring in a bulldozer and wipe out part of a hill. I find it disgusting. I understand that the new landscape reflects the autonomous preferences of a person who, for the first time in their lives, has access to a modicum of wealth and well-being. To me, this is less important than the fact that it is an ugly and irreversible despoilment of the landscape. The long-term erosion problems are a significant but in a sense separate issue.

Here, in contrast, is how the landscape looks when it hasn’t been bulldozed and people are living in wooden, rather than concrete and brick, houses.

What is the moral basis for the claim that I should welcome the transformation of the latter landscape into the former?


Is China an ideological alternative? by foarp
July 19, 2009, 10:40 pm
Filed under: China, Development


A couple of weeks back Matt wrote a piece asking whether the Chinese political/economic system (i.e., a single-party dictatorship combined with relative economic freedom) should be considered an alternative to liberal democracy and the free market which might appeal to people in other countries in the third world where democratisation has seemingly brought little benefit. I have a few problems with this.

First off the current Chinese political/economic system is one that has been formed pretty much accidentally after the death of Mao. There is no way that any sane person would wish to put their country through the various stages of political oppression, strife, and brainwashing, merely to arrive where China is now. Basically only countries which have already suffered under a single-party system can hope to reproduce China’s current system. The Chinese Communist Party even tacitly admitted this in its recently promulgated “6 Whys” saying (in what is also obviously a classic expression of the Marxist dialectic) that:

“The guiding role of Marxism in China has not been decided by any certain person or by the will of one party, rather it is a choice and circumstance of history”

The whole point of the Chinese system is that it is supposed to be suited to China and not transferable to other places, and that examples from other countries are not applicable to China. The Chinese leadership has long abandoned support for communist rebel groups in other countries using this exact excuse. The current Chinese system is in fact an increasingly-obvious anachronism rather than a new and revolutionary development.

Secondly, whilst it is fashionable to talk of China as almost a former-communist country now under a new system of its own devising, this ignores the way in which communism is both an economic system and a political system. Essentially whilst socialism has been abandoned, Marx-Leninism is still the basis of the political system. China is still run by the ‘democratic centralism’ of the ‘revolutionary vanguard party’, or, in plain speak, a single-party dictatorship. As such there is nothing new about China’s political system, and for this reason it is unlikely to be attractive to people who have not grown up under such a system.

Thirdly, this ignores the essential glue that holds together the Chinese state under circumstances not dissimilar to those which tore Yugoslavia and the USSR apart: nationalism. Firstly under the nationalists and now under the communists China has been subject to the greatest and most successful program of nation-building ever seen. Whilst in India there are reportedly still whole villages in which nobody has ever heard of the country ‘India’, since 1912 the Chinese nation has steadily been built up, with ethnic and regional loyalties largely subsumed into the Chinese identity or race (中华民族). Whilst it is generally believed in China that this identity has existed for thousands of years, it is in fact an invention of nineteenth century theorists like Liang Qichao (梁啟超), intended to replace an imperial system fairly similar to the one that existed in the Austro-Hungarian or Russian empires. This has largely succeeded, and it is only in those areas with ethnic identities so entirely different to that of the majority as to be incompatible (such as Tibet and Xinjiang) that it has failed. The high level of nationalism in China (Australian China-hand Ross Terrill described it as “the nearest thing China has to a national religion”) has allowed the Chinese state to survive pressures which would shatter other countries, as such the Chinese model cannot simply be transplanted to countries with strong regional identities.

A far more important question to ask, therefore, is what system will be adopted once the anachronism of communist rule is finally done away with?

Border adjustments in cap-and-trade by mattsteinglass
July 1, 2009, 2:17 pm
Filed under: Development, Environment, Uncategorized

Like Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein, I think the border adjustment amendment to the Waxman-Markey bill, which would impose tariffs on countries that have no carbon emissions limits beginning about a decade from now, makes perfect sense. It seems particularly logical with regard to China and Southeast Asia. The whole anxiety over imposing cap-and-trade carbon emissions limits has been that China will refuse to go along. What better incentive to encourage them to join the rest of the world and impose some limits? The potential tariffs appear to be legal under WTO rules, and economic theory argues they make perfect sense — they simply equalize the playing field by preventing countries from exploiting a lower environmental standard to gain an unfair advantage.

If there’s any reason for the US to fear the idea of border adjustments for carbon reductions, one would think the fear should be directed towards Europe and Japan, rather than China. If Europe and Japan get they idea that they could impose tariffs on US goods based on their much lower carbon emissions per dollar of GDP and the US’s vastly lower gas taxes, that might hurt US exports. But it would also be good for the planet.

IP in the developing world by mattsteinglass
June 4, 2009, 3:19 pm
Filed under: Development, Law, United States, Vietnam

Matthew Yglesias and Megan McArdle find a rare point of agreement in opposing the extension of copyright law to time periods long after the death of the author, where the only goal is rent-seeking behavior by big corporations that want to make more money off of their government-created monopoly.

As it happens this issue is live this morning in Hanoi, with representatives of the US Trade Representative’s office meeting with Vietnamese officials to discuss enforcement of IP law. One issue is recent opposition in the Vietnamese National Assembly to a 75-year copyright term. The deal is, the Berne Convention only requires a 50-year term of copyright for certain works (notably movies and sound recordings). But the terms of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA), signed in 2000, demand a 75-year term. Vietnam is in the process of amending its IP legislation, and several representatives in the Assembly pointed out Monday that having a longer term of copyright doesn’t seem to serve Vietnam’s interests.

The arguments made by the representatives were a bit confused, but they’re essentially right: the main beneficiaries of the longer term would be foreign media corporations like Disney and Warner, who could continue to demand royalties on properties like “Bambi” and “Twist and Shout”* that would otherwise be in the public domain now, or within a few years. There are no Vietnamese likely to benefit from 75-year copyright terms at the moment with the possible exception of the heirs of ’60s folk-pop musician Trinh Cong Son.

But in actual fact, all of this debate is rather pointless, because IP law simply isn’t enforced in Vietnam. I talked to a US Embassy official today who was in the talks, and he said whatever was said in the National Assembly seems to be irrelevant. First of all, the terms of Vietnamese legislation probably can’t invalidate the terms of the BTA and Vietnam’s WTO commitments. But more important, the discussions this morning focused entirely on beefing up enforcement of existing IP law. The piracy rate for software in Vietnam is falling — from over 90% down to a current rate of 85%. The piracy rate for DVDs and CDs is still well over 90%. (I’d make a rough guess at something like 98% for DVDs.) Discussions of the consequences of different IP regimes in the developing world still seem largely theoretical and irrelevant, because where enforcement doesn’t exist, copyright doesn’t exist.


* Under EU and Berne rules, the performance rights on the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout” will expire 50 years after its recording, i.e. in 2013. That means you could use the song as the soundtrack to a TV commercial without paying anything to Paul McCartney. The rights to the underlying composition will last longer. Bertrand Berns, who co-wrote “Twist and Shout”, died in 1967. Under Berne rules his half of the royalties would lapse in 2017, but the EU now sets copyright term at 70 years from the death of the author, which would be 2037. The other composer, Phil Medley, died in 1997, so even under Berne rules his heirs will still be living it up “About A Boy”-style in 2047. I don’t want to deal with what the US terms of copyright will be — I’ve wasted enough time looking this up already.

I don’t even understand why this is supposed to seem like a waste of money by mattsteinglass
May 24, 2009, 10:40 pm
Filed under: China, Conservatism, Development, Health

While we’re talking spam, this post from something called Turner Radio Network (I assume that’s as in “Turner Diaries”) somehow made it to the front page of Google News a few minutes ago. Entitled “Should we overthrow the gov’t on July 4?”, the post notes that Barack Obama noted in a press conference that the US is “out of money” (in the sense that the Federal Government is running a deficit — stop the presses!). It goes on to note a few instances of “absurd” Federal expenditures that are supposed to infuriate the reader:

Despite this admission, that very same federal government is presently throwing away literally millions as follows:

* The National Institutes of Health are paying researchers to cruise six bars in Buenos Aires to find out why gay men engage in risky sexual behavior while drunk — and just what can be done about it. (Source)

* The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will pay $2.6 million in U.S. tax dollars to train Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly on the job. (Source)

* The National Institutes of Health is conducting a two-year study costing $178,000 in which 60 Thai sex workers are being interviewed to understand what makes them so succeptible to HIV, including economic pressures and their heavy use of drugs (Source)

So here’s the thing. Even before checking the “source” links on these items, I failed to see what was unreasonable about any of the above expenditures. Full disclosure: my wife is an HIV/AIDS researcher here in Vietnam. So I’m not exactly your average not-particularly-informed voter when it comes to HIV/AIDS research. But even on their faces, as tendentiously described in a conservative blog post trying to ridicule them, each of these studies seemed perfectly logical to me. The price tag on the China study does seem rather high, but in principle, if you want to find out whether Chinese prostitutes are being led to practice unsafe sex because of alcohol use, and whether changes in alcohol rules might enable them to better insist that customers use condoms, how would you propose to do that except by studying it? If you’re spending a lot of money on programs to stop the spread of HIV in China, but those programs are being hampered in some locations, wouldn’t it be wise to spend some money studying the factors that are hampering the program, rather than continuing to throw money at it with no understanding of why it’s going wrong?

And then one heads to the article describing the research program:

Dr. Xiaoming Li, the researcher conducting the program, is director of the Prevention Research Center at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. 
The grant, made last November, refers to prostitutes as “female sex workers”–or FSW–and their handlers as “gatekeepers.” 

“Previous studies in Asia and Africa and our own data from FSWs [female sex workers] in China suggest that the social norms and institutional policy within commercial sex venues as well as agents overseeing the FSWs (i.e., the ‘gatekeepers’, defined as persons who manage the establishments and/or sex workers) are potentially of great importance in influencing alcohol use and sexual behavior among establishment-based FSWs,” says the NIH grant abstract submitted by Dr. Li.

“Therefore, in this application, we propose to develop, implement, and evaluate a venue-based alcohol use and HIV risk reduction intervention focusing on both environmental and individual factors among venue-based FSWs in China,” says the abstract.

The research will take place in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi.

Guangxi is ranked third in HIV rate among China’s provinces–and is a place where the sex business is pervasive, Li said.

This is all completely solid stuff. Owners and managers of brothels have proven extremely useful partners in preventing the spread of HIV in many countries, including Thailand and Vietnam.  They have no interest in seeing their brothels spread HIV, killing their workers and clients. Informal instructions to Communist Party members to practice safe sex when visiting brothels, and Party encouragement of safe sex practice at brothels, has led to high rates of condom usage in Vietnamese brothels. If, for example, it is found that allowing prostitutes to drink heavily (which may culturally be part of the commercial sex environment in China and elsewhere, where “hostesses” and “karaoke girls” are expected to drink with guests before providing sexual services) is leading to breakdowns in safe-sex policies, brothel managers may set new rules for customers, exempting sex workers from pressure to drink; sober sex workers will no doubt be better at stopping the spread of HIV.

So this seems in principle like a worthy study. But what really struck me is that it didn’t even seem like a boondoggle at first glance. Looking back at a few recent examples — bear DNA research, volcano monitoring — it just seems like conservatives are having a hard time these days finding government programs that actually are, or even sound, ridiculous. This seems strange — there are certainly plenty of government programs wasting money out there. But they are mainly wasting money in complicated or business-friendly ways that conservatives will not find rhetorically useful.

“No history, no respect for this great little motor lodge” by mattsteinglass
May 24, 2009, 1:28 pm
Filed under: Asia, China, Development, Europe, United States

This is a pretty powerful video interview with a graphic designer named Aaron Draplin. Draplin laments the destruction of a vintage 1960s motel billboard and its replacement with a nondescript computer-generated piece of junk. “This is why America is f***ed,” Draplin says.

I think about this stuff every day — probably every hour — in Hanoi. About two years ago I started to get the feeling that there simply isn’t anywhere in the world apart from Europe and a few scattered sections of the US that does historical preservation right, or thinks it valuable. It’s a European cultural trait, an inheritance of Romanticism. In Vietnam and China, in all likelihood, there’ll be nothing left of the historical country in a couple of decades; most of it will be indistinguishable from a mediocre shopping mall in Singapore, at best.

Weirdly, though, Japan seems to be great at historical preservation. Perhaps because they industrialized earlier and slower, and had more time to think these issues through?

How democracy happens by mattsteinglass
May 21, 2009, 7:42 pm
Filed under: democracy, Development

Apparently, first your country gets rich, and then it has a crisis involving a drop in economic growth. Also, it helps to be located next to other democracies, and it hurts to be an exporter of fuel. And once you’ve been back and forth a few times between democracy and autocracy, you tend to keep going back and forth.

Sounds right to me.