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China, Day 18: Popolo di Pekino

Lee Family Reunion 2006: China
A Tronkie Travellogue
Day 18: Beijing, China

The entrance to City Golf Greenery at Jiangzhuanghu, the community where my uncle's family lives. "Fifty-five North American villas" reads the street-facing side of the above arch. The contrast in architectural styles makes this development a microcosm of Westernization, an enclave set apart from the surrounding city - but not as sharply as you might think.

Dinner is at a Shanghai-style restaurant called Lulu. We are joined by a VIP family: a bureau chief of the Communist Party of China (CPC) whose wife is a state media journalist, and whose son, recently graduated from university with a computer science degree, is one of the principals of a small internet media startup.

Communism in China

I have not mentioned Chinese communism much, but a few things are certain: the imagery and cultural expression of socialism is omnipresent. In some ways this is highly incongrous with the evidence of successful capitalism permeating the whole socioeconomic fabric of China. The continuing economic boom has doubled the size of the economy nine times (i.e., multiplied the GDP by a factor of 29 or about 512) in 25 years, according to a 2005 Time cover article. However, like the banners strung out at intersections and on buildings exhorting people to respect the state and love it fervently, one can see constant reminders that communism is still the seat of political power and prestige.

As much as Chinese businesspeople and consumers have embraced de facto capitalism through this unbridled growth, it is nominally still a communist country, with trappings of Marxism: public ownership of property, socialized health care and education, et cetera. "Trappings" is the operative word. On Chang An Da Jie (the Great Avenue of Everlasting Peace), a central boulevard that passes through Tiananmen Square, you can still see a "long live the glorious Chinese Communist Party" banner. The CEO of Haier, one of Wal-Mart's top suppliers of refrigerators, HVAC units, and home appliances, makes a few tens of thousands of RMB per year on paper - meaning that all of his personal luxuries officially belong to the state and are provided to him as a reward in recognition of his service.

I am just beginning to understand the barest minimum about the history of communism and democracy in China, a study to which my late grandfather, Professor Tien-Min Li, devoted his later life. As a child, I heard excerpts or read translated passages from his books on Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. For those of us born in the USA, though, hearing bits and pieces of the story just scratches the surface. If you have never studied Chinese cultural history to comprehend the roots of its social, political, and economic changes, it really takes seeing these changes in motion to develop even a glimmer of understanding of what is happening today.

Understanding what can and is likely to happen tomorrow is yet another story. My colleague Shing I Chang in the K-State IMSE department has recommended Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat to me several times, and as you may know, it is on my short list. Seeing my uncle give a copy to the young entrepreneur who dined with us tonight reminded me that I definitely need to read and think carefully about it, as soon as I go home and get my own copy.

A digression on dinner and state-owned wineries

My uncle tells them some of our family's personal history and we hear a bit of theirs. Meanwhile, I discover that cabernet wines in China are extraordinarily dry, and not in a good way. If you visit China and have occasion to try Changyu, I recommend something other than their cabernets. Having tried only one wine, I won't hazard a guess as to why the vintage produced by this state-owned winery is so below par compared to Californian red wines, but it is not going to change overnight.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 5th, 2006 12:09 pm (UTC)
The World Is Flat is pretty good. You should definitely read it.
Jul. 5th, 2006 03:44 pm (UTC)
The World Is Flat
I definitely will - thanks!

Jul. 5th, 2006 06:46 pm (UTC)
Such potential ...
... I'm sure you can appreciate how and why my appetites have, after years as one sort of activist or other, come to focus on "discourse" and "group discernment" and "participatory deliberation" and suchlike. Global war is soooo messy!

(With your experiences of "trappings" it would be interesting to have you visit Cuba while Castro is still active.)

But I came by to post you a sidebar on things bayesian:
I /so/ admire the academics and scholastics and intellectuals who toil for the commonwealth with such works!

Believe it or not this came up in a discussion of "strong belief" and "justified knowledge"; ironic that my window of commercial opportunity slides shut as others come to share my perspective on what can be operationalized beneficially! (I haven't squared the circle of monasticism; poverty is no sweat, but to maintain material engagements at the same time ... full of paradox and dissonance!)

Have your friends there any insights into how we might communicate with those who are steering North Korea?

Jul. 5th, 2006 06:56 pm (UTC)
I just hacked that URL to drill down to the fellow's homepage ... http://yudkowsky.net/ ... my goodness! That discussion gave me a lot when it brought me to him! I have a PDF of "Cognitive biases potentially affecting judgment of global risks" on screen and am about to read his other paper on Bayes.

Isn't it wonderous when we can follow our bliss in the light of our own experience? (Is that Marx or Buddha? maybe Leon Trotsky? I get awefully confused sometimes. *grin*)
Jul. 10th, 2006 06:35 pm (UTC)
Discourse versus global war
Hi, Ben. I agree that "group discernment" and "participatory deliberation" should be hallmarks of any activism, whether you are protesting against G8 exclusionary strategies, promoting the North-South Korea peace process, or advocating cessation of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

I have thought about visiting other communist countries, but I'm not sure I'd be the best documentor of any communism other than the Chinese. My grandfather's experiences and his six books (on Mao, Zhou, and Deng) provided his family with a little better-than-average insight into the takeover and its aftermath (the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution). It's not clear to me that such understanding, limited as it is, would transfer. I'm curious to see Latin America and very curious to see post-Soviet Russia, though.

Thanks for the link. I like Yudkowsky's explanation; it doesn't flinch from the bare minimum of math that's required to really grok Bayesian inference from a mathematical probability POV. We can talk about causality, epistomology, etc., but until Bayes's theorem is intuitively laid out, it's just so much hand-waving, IMO.

I was amused by the mention of the Bayesian Conspiracy, though. "The first rule of Bayes Club is that you don't talk about Bayes Club..."

As for belief revision, I like the terms that Bayesians use. Have you seen a book titled Reasoning About Knowledge by Fagin, Halpern, Moses, and Vardi? When I revive the BNJ wiki and bayesnets this summer, I shall have to include my bibliography of Bayesian methods.

Communication with the NK government: I cannot say, for I was more concerned with how we (North Americans) might communicate with those who are steering China. I mean the PRC in particular, not just the CPC, and excluding Taiwan on account of its closer association with the West (whatever you think of Taiwan's relationship to China).

My personal opinion is that NK needs to be strongly dissuaded from taking an aggressive stance towards SK and especially towards Japan (which it naturally sees as an imperialistic ally of the USA). This dissuasion can come through incentives (ye olde carrot) rather than the sanctions that have been threatened thus far, again by Japan in particular. Saber-rattling sounds equally bad in either direction, and it is human nature to react to threat with either counter-threat or a defensive stance. For NK, precarious in many ways (economic, political, ideological) as it is, this means escalation. You would think that "first-strike mentality" went out 35 years ago, around the time you were working on ICBM control systems, but I guess the concept of MAD doesn't sink in when you are a latecomer to the field. A lot of concepts don't, actually, for better (Shenzhou) or for worse (Marxism).

Jul. 10th, 2006 08:54 pm (UTC)
Re: Discourse versus global war
It's in the air, Bill; last night I watched "The World According to Bush" on CBC ... *sigh*. Given my memories of Phil Agee spilling the beans about the overthrow of Allende in Chile I'm not tooooo shocked by CIA operatives talking out, but to hear them (more than one, yes, and more than once) saying how the Administration was behaving like a bunch of mafiosi ... chilling.

Thanks for the link to your venerable family's page, I look forward to reading and following up. One of the books that got left behind in NS was *sigh* by a name I cannot recall; a Chinese cosmopolitan. /Always/ aesthetics, /always/ elegance ... in all things. The harmony of being with the Tao, yes?

BTW: my grandfather, having been a school principle, became magistrate in the north of this very young province shortly after it was incorporated. We have his diaries ... a very religious man ... perhaps more religious than I would wish, and not as spiritual, but he was a man of his times.

"It's not clear to me that such understanding, limited as it is, would transfer."
Sync: immediately before opening your reply (in email) I had written a reply to Jon Udell. As a writer for Infoworld, Jon stresses the finest of collaborative thinking. This morning I expressed thanks for this attitude in my post, ''Nomenclature, vernacular, and relating to push-mowers'' about his most recent ''"Clean air gardening and the future of shared experience" where he talked about "peer-production" and the email exchange bears on this:
">>Now we all have that phrase on hand. And thanks for that, Jon.
>Not me. Thanks Yochai Benkler among others for the term, but him in
>particular for exploring the economics of it.
Ah, I didn't express myself well enough; in fact I included a WikiPedia link to his page in my MozDawg blog.

But my point stands, Jon. As John Willinsky argues so forcefully with regards to academic publishing: the stuff only cooks when it's in circulation (whether publically-funded scholarly research or handy-dandy memes). So no ... I mean yes: thank /you/. We have to perpetuate the stuff. (Who talks about Freire these days? We can't afford the diseconomy of re-inventing this set of wheels.)

*this old sled is on bogging down; I'll break off here before it locks up*
Jul. 6th, 2006 05:24 am (UTC)
I have found your posts of China to be very eye-opening. I was aware of great growth and an amazing forward leap in technology and industrialism, but I had not realized to what extent. I am not a pedantic American who believes that "our" way of democracy works for everyone, but I am heartened by the increased flow of information available to the Chinese people. I understand that information is censored and limited, but it is far greater than I might have hoped for twenty years ago. Freedom of information is a hallmark of a great nation. China has a rich history. I wish for it an equally rich future.
Jul. 9th, 2006 09:29 pm (UTC)
China: a rich past and hopes for a rich future
I agree; you may be interested in some of my subsequent observations and humble reflections on Chinese culture, which I will continue posting.

Jul. 7th, 2006 03:17 am (UTC)
Gecco in Seattle ?
I saw your Late Breaking paper entry (Wednesday , 15:25 ), hope to see you around. This would be my first time :]
Jul. 7th, 2006 04:21 am (UTC)
Re: Gecco in Seattle ?
Unfortunately, I'm working on a research project (a statistical machine translation system to be evaluated in the NIST MT Evaluation later this month), so I can't make it. martinsamuel (Martin Paradesi) wrote the talk and will be presenting our paper.

I hope I'll see you at some later GECCO or other conference! Also, please do go and say hi to martinsamuel, if you see him. He's chairing that LBP session.

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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