Social Media in China

In class this afternoon, we will have as our guest David Wertime, one of the founders of  Tea Leaf Nation, a website devoted to stories gleaned from Chinese social media. We will discuss social media and how it is developing in China. Developments in China’s social media have made the news of late, with the government censoring and deleting posts. Consider this essay by Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders. And check out this Foreign Policy article by new media expert Rebecca MacKinnon, author of a new book on the impact of the Internet on privacy and democracy, Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.

“Clearly, China is no longer a classic Cold War-style authoritarian state,” MacKinnon writes. “I call its new style of information-oriented governance ‘networked authoritarianism.’ Thanks to the Internet in general and social media in particular, the Chinese people now have a mechanism to hold authorities accountable for wrongdoing — at least sometimes — without any actual political or legal reforms having taken place. Major political power struggles and scandals are no longer kept within elite circles.” She concludes: “A wide range of policy positions, political loyalties, and ideologies can be found throughout Chinese society, and thanks to the Internet those differences have become publicly visible for the first time. Millions of Chinese Internet users engage regularly in public-policy debates because they feel that at least in some cases, the weight of public opinion can make a real difference. These trends in the long run are great cause for optimism about what the Internet means for China’s political future.”

UPDATE: This blog essay by The Economist‘s Gady Epstein follows how a tweet by a journalist may have sparked rumours of a coup in China.


Assessing the Power Shift in China

China is in the midst of a shift of power, with new leaders expected to be named in the autumn and a new president and premier taking office next spring. Chinese politics is typically opaque but every so often the outside world catches a glimpse of what is going on behind the scenes. The unfolding drama surrounding disgraced Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai is just one such episode. In a series of articles in YaleGlobal, three China hands – Cheng Li of Brookings Institution, former US ambassador Stapleton Roy, and University of California, San Diego, professor Susan Shirk – consider the power shift that is playing out in China and its implications.

Cheng Li believes that Bo Xilai’s downfall could have positive consequences for China’s political development:

Although these shifts in power have caused new tensions in the PRC’s governance and a sense of uncertainty, viewed from a broader perspective they should be considered encouraging developments. Factional checks and balances within the leadership, dynamic interest groups, and the widely-shared perception of China as a rising power could all become factors in a democratic transition. In the near future, the focus of China analysts should not only be on how effectively the CCP leadership uses legal procedures to deal with the Bo case, but also whether the leadership can boldly adopt more electoral mechanisms in its selection of senior leaders and search for new sources of legitimacy.

Stapleton Roy, meanwhile, writes that the US should plan on China becoming stronger and more prosperous:

We should constantly bear in mind that China’s challenge to the United States is of an entirely different order than that posed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The USSR never posed a serious threat of overtaking the United States in terms of the size or vitality of its economy. In China’s case, it has for an extended period been advancing in multiple areas that contribute to comprehensive national strength. There is no question that China faces daunting problems in sustaining its rapid growth, but US policy should not be based on expectations that China’s structural weaknesses will prevent it from becoming stronger and more prosperous.

Finally, Susan Shirk warns that a more open selection process for its leaders will not necessarily mean that China’s continued rise will be peaceful:

Political succession has always been the Achilles heel of authoritarian systems. Bo is unlikely to be the last Chinese politician to use the media to build a public following. Trying to keep leadership competition under wraps within a black box is a losing proposition. More open competition for power within the party could open up new possibilities for reform that would have positive spillovers for China’s foreign relations. But it’s no guarantee of a China with the political legitimacy and institutional wherewithal to rise peacefully.

What are your thoughts on the shifting power equation in China?

US and DPRK: Two Views

Here are two essays on the recent agreement between the DPRK and the US on North Korea’s nuclear program. The first is by John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations in the administration of George W. Bush. The other is by Ralph Cossa, President of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, which is affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

Water Shortage in the UK?

Water stress does not always occur in hot, arid climates. While we may think that the UK’s weather would guarantee that it has more water than it needs, some regions of the country including London are currently facing water shortages and even drought conditions. This has prompted calls for a scheme to promote water trading between regions with surpluses and those in short supply.

James G Workman: Heart of Dryness

Learn about James Workman’s work and his book Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us Endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought:

The Paradoxes of Water

In this essay by water experts James G. Workman and Montgomery F. Simus, they argue that, “in China, water scarcity limits growth and urbanization escalates a crisis.” The first paradox of water is that “the liquid matrix of all life is both figuratively and literally ‘priceless’.” They go on to explain that “in 1776 this paradox stumped Adam Smith, whose book The Wealth of Nations noted how diamonds are utterly worthless in use yet invaluable in exchange, while the converse was true for water. Without water, humans can’t exist, yet our species devalues nature’s precious liquid asset into a vague liability.” Workman and Simus add:

This paradox troubles water whether rural farm or urban factory, firm and family. Annual shareholder reports discount water as a negligible “cost” to be “managed”. Accountants consider it a line item to absorb into spreadsheets. Chief financial officers regard water as a material risk to avoid. Any country can quickly provide its exact mineral wealth, human resources, arable land, energy potential, gross domestic product and federal monetary budget; none can tell you the annual water reserves that keep its economy alive. No official knows the full cost of providing water because no individual can know it; water’s value is subjective, varying by time, place, conditions and seven billion water users, half of whom live in cities.

The First Paradox of Water ensures that what individuals each intuitively grasp as a priceless asset we must collectively debase into a liability that is inherently worthless.

Why does this paradox of value arise, and how can we resolve it?

The brilliant conservationist Aldo Leopold famously warned urban readers about “two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” As self-interested stewards, we value only natural assets we own. We ignore what we can’t.

Since our food and energy trace their existence to water, our compound danger lies in not owning a well or creek. Instead, we suppose water comes from a faucet, toilet tank or pipe. We lose interest in water throughout the urban supply chain. Unable to own or trade our share, we produce an urban, deeply tragic, commons.

A few “exchanges” of water occur between neighbours sharing a river or well, but these are rare, rural, informal (perhaps even illegal) and inequitable. For exceptions to become the rule, China’s city dwellers must formally have an equal opportunity to own and trade water. It may seem a logistical nightmare for our urban world to literally “own” a real well and distribute the vital wet stuff. But thanks to the Internet and ubiquitous cell phones, such barriers don’t prevent ownership.

Frequent-flier miles let us virtually “own” physical airline seats. Likewise, each of us can now transparently “own” a defined virtual share of water, distributed automatically, daily, digitally and equally to all by the water monopoly that unites us. We may call this virtual share a right, credit or a privilege, but it now is ours to earn and accumulate, to use and exchange however we choose.

Urban “H2Ownership” leads to investment and care. As we buy and sell our unused shares, water accrues real worth and allows a slum dweller or Nestlé executive to negotiate its relative local price. Thus together we can at last resolve this paradox of water, as its value in exchange can rise to the level of its value in use.

In the second part of their essay, Workman and Simus observe that “as long as people merely ‘rent’ the resource, efficiency devices increase overall consumption.” They explain the paradox:

There is scant evidence that conservation technology drives overall reduction of water use, consumption and demand. In fact, empirical studies at the municipal, industrial, agricultural, state and federal level suggest that, as with energy, water-efficient technologies may extend supply, lower costs and increase demand and opportunities to divert, pump and use even more water.

Saving water in your dual-flush toilet means your children can take longer showers. Uprooting your front lawn encourages your neighbour to install a pool in his back yard. A water-efficient neighborhood lets the city divert savings into a sprawling new development or beautiful fountains in the park. Multinational corporations use efficiency technology to reduce the amounts of water per unit throughout the supply chain, but that can help them to sell more overall products containing water.

Likewise, river-basin authorities in arid lands encourage their farmers to adopt drip irrigation, for “more crop per drop”. But efficiency gains do not return water to streams and aquifers. Rather, from Beijing to Shanghai to the sources of the Yangtze, Yellow and Mekong rivers, efficiencies spread irrigation deeper and farther into ever more marginal lands, letting current farmers grow more water-intense crops on more land at the exclusion of other natural and human communities competing for that water.

As interest groups grasp this dynamic, we find the odd situation of social advocates and environmentalists fighting attempts at water efficiency.

Such a perverse and undesired outcome defines the Second Paradox of Water: as long as people merely “rent” our natural liquid resource – water – efficiency devices increase overall consumption. Water that you and I frugally conserve is lost through new and collective augmented demand by the system as a whole.

One way to resolve this paradox is through a new (yet timeless) system of what might be called “H2Ownership”. If all stakeholders have clear dominion over an equal amount of water, then whatever we save from our share we can take out of the equation, to be later sold at a premium, donated to charity, or restored directly to nature.

From the Kalahari to Oman and Bali, this system has enabled traditional systems where people compete to conserve. Under a scaled-up digital version of this virtuous cycle, urban efficiency gains could be locked in and improved on, helping China to transform its escalating water scarcity into natural and equitably shared abundance.

In the third part of their essay, Workman and Simus discuss the paradox of water monopolies. They write:

In theory, a monopoly should be able to increase revenues to match increased operating costs by selling ever-less water at ever-higher rates. In reality, that’s highly unpopular with users. Utilities are watched carefully by officials and customers alike, and people rarely demand the right to pay more for less of something they depend on in every aspect of their lives — especially something many believe they should receive for free.

Hence the fine monopolistic line our friend must walk and, in recent years, the tightrope beneath her has begun to fray. The current recession makes families and firms consume less water. That’s wonderful for nature, but horrible for her utility’s bottom line. She is simultaneously pleased and tormented. Her job is to lock in more efficiency, but her boss offers veiled threats if she does. Unless our friend backs off on conservation, her position, team and budget risk being eliminated first in austerity measures. If she saves more water, her position in her organisation falls in proportion, if not at an even faster rate. Then her skills become worthless in the marketplace. Who hires someone good at eroding the bottom line?

This is the Third Paradox of Water: conserving water destroys revenues; a thriving utility must reward waste.

Frugal utilities have less room to negotiate. Those that encourage water saving today must punish their customers tomorrow with higher rates. These incongruities remain true at the household level, the building level, the neighborhood, the municipal district and the river. Perversely, the existence of a water monopoly means that all people involved in it – from the person flushing the toilet to the government Water Board setting targets for water allocations – are left with no choice, no competition and no incentives to conserve.

Indeed, the Third Paradox ensures that the most frugal, responsive and equitable users and managers in a vertically integrated water monopoly can only succeed through subterfuge or martyrdom. As this paradox undercuts performance and customer relations, it is known throughout the water industry as “the death spiral”.  We must destroy a monopoly’s water in order to save the utility.

The converse is that we unlock the monopoly in order to save both water and the utility. That resolution to the Three Paradoxes of Water comes in our next and final contribution.

And in that final part of their essay, Workman and Simus propose a way to resolve the three water paradoxes. “Virtual urban-water markets within natural monopolies can be unlocked, rewarding frugality, efficiency and innovation,” they suggest. “‘Greed makes green’ and a sustainable path lies beyond virtue.”

They conclude:

Here’s how some say it could work to encourage real, meaningful conservation:

• First, encourage monopoly utilities to convert messy physical water or energy into cleanly defined virtual credits.

• Next, allocate equal quantities of these online metered assets – say, 200 gallons (nearly 760 litres) or 20 kilowatt-hours per day — to every residential, commercial and industrial account.

• Then let us trade whatever we don’t consume to those who want more.

These online platforms could unlock virtual urban-water markets within natural monopolies, working to reward voluntary frugality, efficiency and innovation.

The trick is not trying to improve on human nature, or make everyone extra-virtuous, but to leverage innate “sin”. If one person consumed less, he or she could sell unused shares to another, to businesses or to the utility for a cash profit.

Greed makes green. Pride in higher wealth and status would compel us to use even less just to keep up – a benevolent consequence of envy.

This approach unlocks a sustainable path, and does so by going beyond virtue.

Indeed, to unlock a robust water-conservation policy, China’s cities – like cities everywhere – need only tap our inner vice.

Ten Things You Should Know About Water

Check out this “infographic” on ten things that you should know about water.

Bt Bitterness

Check out the production company’s homepage for the Bitter Seeds. You might also look at the film’s page on the site of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. You may also read this interview with the filmmaker Micha X. Peled, this review and this blog posting, which includes other links. Share your thoughts on the documentary and on the social consequences of GM seeds in India. It is a tough tale to watch, given the bad choices that farmers make, the bad policies in place and the corporate irresponsibility that appears to be on display. The question is: what is to be done?

Top Ten Emerging Technologies

The Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies of the World Economic Forum recently released this list of the top ten emerging technologies. They are:

1. Informatics for adding value to information

2. Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering

3. Green Revolution 2.0 – technologies for increased food and biomass

4. Nanoscale design of materials

5. Systems biology and computational modelling/simulation of chemical and biological systems

6. Utilization of carbon dioxide as a resource

7. Wireless power

8. High energy density power systems

9. Personalized medicine, nutrition and disease prevention

10. Enhanced education technology

Read about these technologies here.

In Support of GMO

Of course, not everyone is against GMO. There are supporters of genetic modification who point out what they regard as the long-term benefits such as food security. Here are some articles defending GM foods, arguing that they are safe, and a link to a BBC documentary on the issue:

You can view the BBC documentary, narrated by farmer Jimmy Doherty, here: