Ai Weiwei in London

September 28, 2015

Isn’t it great when art is important, as well as nice to look at?

If you get the chance to see Ai Weiwei’s show at the Royal Academy in London, go.

It starts with dead trees in the courtyard outside. They have been sawn up and then put back together with iron bolts. This breaking and rebuilding is a favourite trope of Chinese artists who grew up in the Cultural Revolution. Ai opens with a new variant on it.

Inside, everything, to quote Ai’s dictum, is politics and everything is art at the same time. A large room is filled with 90 tonnes of iron rebars from buildings that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. The reason many public buildings fell down is that they were not sufficiently reinforced with steel; the unspoken accusation is that contractors skimmed off money by skimping on steel. On the walls around the sculpturally arranged rebars are the names of several thousand children who died in the earthquake, their names, school classes, schools and towns meticulously recorded, as collated by Ai and his group.

In another room is an installation built from the rubble of Ai’s Shanghai studio, bulldozed when the government decided it had had enough of him.

Much of the work has actually been done by Chinese craftsmen. Ai provides the ideas — a sort of uncorrupted Damien Hirst running an atelier with a rationale beyond mere self-enrichment. There is a pair of handcuffs sculpted from a single piece of jade. There are CCTV cameras in marble. Ai has even re-wallpapered several rooms of the Royal Academy, including with copies of the tax payments that supporters paid on his behalf when the government hit him with a huge tax ‘bill’ as a means to finger him as a criminal. The work in marble, hard wood, jade and so on connects traditional China with contemporary China in a manner that is subtly subversive. It highlights the beauty of traditional craftsmanship at the same time as making just the type of connection between New China and old imperial China that the government rejects — a connection to do with unaccountable power.

There is more than enough stuff that is not aggressively political to give the show balance. Equally, the finale, about Ai’s incarceration, is cleverly handled. It focuses on the psychological torture he underwent. In half a dozen large iron boxes, he is rendered as a waxwork with two guards standing over him has he variously eats, sleeps, undergoes interrogation and defecates. There is no physical violence, but the emotional violence, which can only be viewed through small holes in the iron containers — at one end, and from above, by standing on a step and craning over the top of the box — is palpable. A cheap fan in each ‘room’ produces noise and air movement that makes the experience far more real than any Madame Tussaud’s waxwork.

I wasn’t sure how serious Ai was before going to this exhibition. He is very serious and it is a must-see.

Ai bars

Joined-up economics

August 17, 2015

Here is a rare thing. A dynamic theory from an economist — whereby the solution to today’s problem may not be the solution to tomorrow’s problem. It’s David Dollar, former World Bank country chief for China talking about the role of institutions in development…


What institutions do Asian countries need to keep growing?

31 May 2015

Author: David Dollar, Brookings Institution

The notion of a ‘middle-income trap’ has entered the lexicon of policymakers in emerging markets in Asia and elsewhere. Many leaders of countries that have experienced fast growth — such as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang — worry that economic growth will come off the boil as their countries reach middle-income status.

Chinese workers construct residential buildings of a government-funded housing project in Tiemenguan city, China, 2 May 2015. (Photo: AAP).

Growth for virtually all advanced economies was slower in the 2000s than in the 1990s; meanwhile growth rates in poor and middle-income countries accelerated. But there is a lot of variation in these broad trends, especially for the middle-income countries. Some of the latter have seen very impressive growth spurts, while others have stagnated.

What explains why some countries grow fast and others languish? There is a strong empirical relationship between the quality of institutions (as measured by the World Governance Indicators’ Rule of Law index) and economic growth. But institutional quality does not change very much from year to year or sometimes even from decade to decade, which makes it hard to explain why countries have periods of high growth followed by low growth (or vice versa).

Institutions which are well-suited to one phase of economic development may be ill-suited to another. One way to resolve the paradox of persistence of institutions and non-persistence of growth rates is to focus on the quality of institutions relative to the level of development. It turns out this can help explain why China and Vietnam, for instance, have seen such high growth in recent times: they have relatively low institutional quality in an absolute sense, but they have above-average quality institutions given their stage of development, which might, for instance, help to attract foreign investment to China or Vietnam rather than other Asian countries with similarly low wage levels but weaker institutions.

Another question is whether authoritarian institutions are better for economic growth than democratic ones. It may depend on the stage of a country’s development. When we look at the historical experience, in countries that have a per capita income below US$8,000, authoritarian institutions seem more conducive to growth. But at higher levels of income, democratic countries are likely to see higher growth than authoritarian ones. Why might this be so?

One explanation might be that at low levels of income, the economic priority of government should be to establish basic law and order and an environment in which private investment, including foreign investment, can operate. This is a catch-up stage, in which innovation is not yet particularly relevant. But the usual economic strategy for authoritarian governments relies on capital accumulation, which becomes less effective as countries get richer. When an economy reaches the point where acquiring more and more capital is no longer sufficient for rapid growth, the need for political and economic institutions that promote competition, innovation and productivity growth becomes paramount.

Interestingly, it is about at the US$8,000 per capita GDP mark that two of East Asia’s great developmental success stories, Taiwan and South Korea, were also becoming free and open polities. By the early 1980s for Taiwan and the mid-1980s for South Korea, a move had been made away from authoritarian institutions, which continued until both reached fully democratic status as measured by Freedom House’s civil liberties metric.

Of the countries that have witnessed rapid growth in Asia recently, Vietnam has shown some steps towards political liberalisation, with its civil liberties score moving to five, which is slightly better than either South Korea or Taiwan at the same stage of development. But Vietnam is entering the stage of development where the line of thinking presented above implies a need for further political reform. Greater freedom will be necessary to strengthen property rights and the rule of law in order to bring about an environment for innovation and productivity growth.

China, on the other hand, has largely eschewed political reform. Although he has placed a lot of emphasis on the idea of implementing the ‘rule of law’ in China, President Xi Jinping has made it abundantly clear that he wants to pursue economic reform without political liberalisation; some observers even point to backsliding in recent years on the question of freedom of ideas and debate. The historical evidence would suggest that this will weigh on the growth of the Chinese economy in the future. At the stage of development at which China now finds itself, South Korea and Taiwan were on the way to becoming more or less free societies.

Of course, just because no authoritarian country (apart from oil producers and, depending on how you classify it, Singapore) has reached more than 35 per cent of US GDP per capita does not mean that it will be impossible for China to do so. But the historical evidence should caution Chinese policymakers against thinking that the kind of political institutions that have facilitated China’s astonishing growth up to now will be sufficient or optimal for the next stage of its development.

David Dollar is Senior Fellow, John L. Thornton China Center, Brookings Institution. He was the former World Bank Country Director for China and Mongolia in the East Asia and Pacific Region.

This article summarises a paper prepared for the Pacific Trade and Development Conference in Singapore this week.

Keeping up with Chinese

August 10, 2015

It is a long time since I checked on the latest code words required to navigate the Chinese internet. Here is an update from Epoch Times:

What do June 4, Falun Gong, and despotism have in common?

They’re all terms censored by the Chinese regime. As Internet use proliferates in China, so too does the internet blockade erected to obstruct the free flow of information.

June 4, 1989 is the date of the bloody Tiananmen Square Massacre, when authorities killed hundreds if not thousands of student protesters and violently suppressed thousands more. As a result, any combination of 6, 4, and 89 is blocked.

The term “Falun Gong” refers to the peaceful self-cultivation and meditation practice that was banned in 1999 following the launch of a nationwide persecution against the practice and its believers. And despotism was placed on the blacklist so that people in Chinese would not be able to criticize the regime with the term.

The regime’s censorship mechanism reaches all areas of the Internet: from Western news sources like BBC and Voice of America, to websites and search terms related to Tibetans, Falun Gong practitioners, or other persecuted groups, to any other material deemed sensitive or dangerous to the communist regime.

Chinese netizens have therefore turned to more creative measures to communicate on the internet and criticize government policies, since any word or phrase remotely resembling dissident speech unsettles the authorities and finds itself on the list of censored content.

Below are some of the ingenious code words, homonyms, and purposeful misnomers, obtained from a comprehensive list by China Digital Times.

1. Eye-Field (目田-mù tián)

Code words for: Freedom (自由-zìyóu)

Explanation: Since the word freedom  (自由 zìyóu) is censored, Chinese netizens used “eye-field,” which in Chinese looks like the characters for freedom minus the topmost portion (目田  vs. 自由). It was invented back in 2010, when World of Warcraft players in China realized many words were blocked in the latest version of the game. For some it looks like gibberish, but for those who know the meaning, it is a veiled jab at the Chinese regime.

“Freedom” beheaded becomes “eye-field.” (Screenshot via

2. Take a Walk (散步-sànbù)

Code words for: Resisting the state by marching through the streets.

Explanation: In China, since it is difficult to strike, applications to hold protests are routinely denied, and petitioning the government is similarly fruitless (or dangerous), citizens have turned to more creative means of protesting state actions, like “taking walks.”

In 2007, protestors in Xiamen began “taking walks” to protest the construction of a potentially dangerous paraxylene (PX) processing plant. Similar to taking a walk, “going sightseeing” is also a guise citizens use when they want to go to Beijing to petition against some state action, since officials do not look kindly on petitions. When authorities try to stop them, they say “What law says we can’t all walk to Beijing to sightsee?”

3. Check the Water Meter (抄水表-chāo shuǐbiǎo)

Code words for: A house visit by the police.

Explanation: Since suspicious residents often refuse to open the door to police, instead of violently forcing the door open, which is tiring and time-consuming, police often pretend to be from the water utility company to trick occupants into opening their doors.

(Screenshot via

4. National Treasure (国宝-guóbǎo)

Code words for: The Domestic Security Department (DSD), a branch within the Ministry of Public Security that deals with dissidents, human rights activists, religious groups, and other so-called subversives in China.

Explanation: “National treasure” (国宝-guóbǎo) is a homonym of the DSD (国保-guó bǎo). DSD officials are not subjected to the same oversight as regular police and security officials and enjoy broader powers to violently suppress dissidents or other “dangerous” elements. As the panda is considered China’s “national treasure,” Chinese netizens often use the panda as a symbol of the DSD.

5. Hide-and-Seek (躲猫猫-duǒ māomāo)

Code words for: To die in police custody under suspicious circumstances.

Explanation: The phrase was used to refer to cover-ups of police brutality after prison authorities said a farmer in detention for illegal logging had died from a head injury sustained while playing hide-and-seek with other inmates.

(Kuang Biao 狂飙 via

6. Imperial Capital (帝都-dìdū)

Code words for: Beijing

Explanation: In order to avoid censorship of criticisms of Beijing, Chinese netizens started using the code words “imperial capital” to refer to the city. But the censors have caught up and even the words “imperial capital” were blocked on Weibo, China’s microblogging equivalent of Twitter, as of June 19 this year.

7. Scale the Wall (翻墙-fān qiáng)

Code words for: Circumvent the Internet blockade.

Explanation: Chinese netizens term the Internet blockade a wall they try to jump over using a different software, such as VPNs (virtual private networks) that hide their IP addresses.

(Screenshot via

8. Naked Officials (裸官 luǒguān)

Code words for: Government officials who send illegally obtained public funds to family members overseas.

Explanation: The nickname refers to how these officials appear to be “naked,” or without any assets. In China, corrupt officials siphon billions out of China to their bank accounts overseas while ignoring the needs of China’s impoverished.

9. Big Boxer Shorts (大裤衩-dà kùchǎ)

Code words for: China Central Television building in Beijing.

Explanation: An outlandish piece of architecture, the building of China Central Television, China’s largest state-run broadcaster and propaganda mouthpiece, is widely ridiculed in the mainland for resembling a pair of underwear or a person squatting over a toilet.

(China Photos/Getty Images)

10. Kim Fatty 3 (金三胖-Jīn Sān Pàng)

Code words for: Kim Jong Un

Explanation: After Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea, Chinese netizens used the term to ridicule the dictator.

(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E, File)

11. Ministry of Foreign Assistance (援交部-Yuánjiāo Bù)

Code words for: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Explanation: The pejorative nickname gained traction because of the Chinese regime’s tendency to send aid to foreign countries while neglecting domestic problems. For instance, in November 2011, China donated 23 buses to Macedonia, not long after a bus crash in Gansu killed 20 people, including 18 children, according to China Digital Times. The bus had only nine seats, but had been carrying 64 people. Outraged netizens criticized authorities for sending buses meeting safety standards to Macedonia while neglecting to fix China’s own shoddy bus problem.

12. Surround and Watch (围观-wéiguān)

Code words for: Intense public scrutiny.

Explanation: The terms are commonly used to invoke a crowd to gather around an event or person online or in the real world and closely observe it. With heavy public scrutiny, authorities won’t be able to cheat the people.

Chinese characters on the screen say “Weibo”. (Screenshot via

13. Drink Tea (喝茶-hē chá)

Code words for: A police interrogation

Explanation: The Chinese people commonly use the euphemism of someone being invited to drink tea to address being taken in for questioning by the police. Chinese police rely heavily on coercive incentives, like offering “tea,” to make people say something. But when that doesn’t work, they move to threats or violence.

14. Brickspert (砖家-zhuānjiā)

Code words for: So-called experts who understate safety risks or justify terrible economic conditions under the orders of state officials or corrupt businessmen.

Explanation: The first character (专) in “expert” combined with the character for “rock” (石) creates the character for brick (砖-zhuān), pronounced the same as the first term in “expert.” A play on words, it essentially means these experts are like rocks pandering to the wishes of authorities and lying to the people.

Chinese characters say “Brickspert”(Screenshot via

15. Reincarnation (转世-zhuǎnshì)

Code words for: Creation of a new social media account after a prior one is deleted by the social media company.

Explanation: The term is used figuratively to describe the “rebirth” of netizens on social media after their accounts are deleted for posting about sensitive issues. Political cartoonist Kuang Biao has “reincarnated” dozens of times on Weibo and adds the reincarnation count to each of his new usernames. As of May 10, 2015, his username was “Uncle Biao Fountain Pen Drawings 47.”

16. Frisbee Hu (飞盘胡-Fēipán Hú)

Code words for: Hu Xijin, chief editor of state-run newspaper Global Times

Explanation: The nickname is used to lampoon Hu for always positively spinning government crimes and wrongdoings. For instance, during the scandal involving Bo Xilai, former party chief of Chongqing who was sentenced to life imprisonment for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power, Hu published an editorial titled “Bo’s Case Shows Resilience of Rule of Law.” Netizens angrily criticized him for reporting optimistic falsehoods while omitting how China’s so-called “rule of law” allowed Bo to prosper and continue his corrupt misconduct for decades.

17. Give the People Some Tape (给人民一个胶带-gěi rénmín yí ge jiāodài)

Code words for: Trying to prevent people from talking.

Explanation: Following the Wenzhou high-speed crash in July 2011 when two trains derailed each other killing at least 40 and injuring nearly 200, Premier Wen Jiabao called for an investigation into the incident to “give the people an explanation.” But on the contrary, authorities aggressively limited reporting on the incident and hastily buried (literally) the crushed train cars in what appeared to be a coverup of evidence. Since “tape” in Chinese is a homophone of “explanation,” indignant netizens used the phrase “give the people some tape” to describe the government’s attempt to hide its failures and prevent people from talking about the tragedy.


18. Sensitive Porcelain (敏感瓷-mǐngǎn cí)

Code words for: Censored words.

Explanation: “Word” (词-cí) and “porcelain (瓷-cí), sound the same, so Chinese netizens refer to all sensitive words or phrases, from major dissidents to religious movements, as “sensitive porcelain.”

19. Reigning Emperor (当今皇上-dāngjīn huángshang)

Code words for: The current president.

Explanation: The derogatory term implies the head of state was anointed the position, rather than popularly elected, and possesses almost absolute power. It was blocked from Weibo search results on August 21 last year.

(Apply Daily via China Digital Times)

20. Your Country (你国-nǐ guó)

Code words for: The country of the Chinese Communist Party.

Explanation: Chinese people often use the terms “my country” to refer to China. The terms “your country” separates the Chinese Communist Party from the state, which are often used synonymously in official rhetoric to equate loyalty to the Communist Party with loyalty to China. As the Chinese people become increasingly conscious of the Chinese Communist Party’s tyrannical tactics, they have started separating the two in their minds and within their Internet posts.


A warm-up for Italy?

July 13, 2015

So, the Med Men caved. They didn’t have the balls to leave the Euro, which might have been their best option. However I am cautiously optimistic, because a fudge scenario in which Greeks are left in charge of structural reforms and they don’t take place (again) may have been avoided. The Med Men caved to such an extent that it looks like Commission bureaucrats and the IMF will be standing right over them as ‘they’, the Greek politicians, write and implement reform legislation. Like doing your homework with Mummy Merkel leaning down with two hands on the kitchen table. That suggests the reforms and the privatisations could actually get done. The trick is for the EU to ease the pain while the change is happening. A lot of drivel is being written about how the deal is ‘worse than Versailles’ and involves no debt forgiveness. Rubbish. Debt is a combination of principal, the interest you have agreed to pay and the term limit over which you have agreed to pay. There have already been big haircuts on the latter two (in the second, 2012 bailout), and more will come. But Mummy Merkel will have to find ways to finesse a bit of extra current spending to ease the pain of the reforms. This is far from impossible if you believe, as I do, that she is a basically decent person (I’d far rather owe her money than the British government, or indeed the average Greek politician). So let’s see. Assuming of course that those who voted No in the referendum and won don’t — not unreasonably — impose their decision by protest. If the reforms go through and Greece starts to grow that way (rather than as a result of devaluation), it is a warm-up for the Siege of Rome. Doubtless Matteo Renzi, who said he was going to Brussels to tell Frau Merkel how to behave, noted the observation of one person party to the negotiations that Tsipras had been ‘crucified’. Ouch. If, as someone once observed to me, Italians fear pain but not death, that is a horrible prospect.


If you have an FT subscription, read Gideon Rachman’s column. He thinks the Greeks won’t do their homework whatever Mummy Merkel does.

Med Men

July 10, 2015

So less than a week after the Greek people reject a creditor austerity package in a referendum, the Greek prime minister offers a more comprehensive austerity package on their behalf.

And most of the media expect the Syriza coalition in parliament to support the austerity package.

The cost of the referendum, the massive disruption to the Greek banking system and real economy were for precisely nothing.

Go figure!

Still, I doubt that the Greeks, like the Italians, will deliver on the structural reforms that are required (they haven’t so far). They will continue to do the austerity, because budget cuts are easier than fixing institutional problems. But the basic issue of low growth/no growth in unreformed, over-indebted Greece and Italy will remain. Those two countries, and particularly Italy because its economy and debt are so much bigger, are the nub of the Euro-area problem.


Goodbye Greece

July 5, 2015

The Greeks have just voted ‘no’ to the terms of a new deal with their creditors. So what happens next?

I think that Germany-led Europe will let them fall out of the Eurozone. The Greeks think they are going to negotiate a better deal, but any improved deal just invites the likes of Italy to think they can get one. So I can’t see any way forward other than letting the Greeks go.

There will be some chaos in the financial markets, and plenty of short-term chaos in the Greek economy. But within a year a Greece run on drachmas will stabilise and start to show some growth at a more realistic exchange rate.

The bigger problem for Germany and the Eurozone core will then come into a view in a couple more years when an Italy that has not delivered structural reforms and is still barely growing sees that Greece is stabilised and starts to flirt more aggressively with leaving the Euro.

That, however, is two years away. In politics, you deal with intractable problems by kicking the can down the road. And that is why I think Greece has to go. So that Germans can try to imagine, for another couple of years, that the Euro project hasn’t been a monumental disaster.

Unfortunately it has.

That said, Spain and Ireland should be in much better shape in a couple of years which at least reduces the list of countries that might be looking for big debt hair-cuts from German and French banks.

I continue to believe that it is in Italy where the Euro mess will reach its apogee.

Holiday jobs for your kids

April 28, 2015

The New York Times is hosting a short film about beleaguered real estate developments in China hiring foreigners to make them look more classy, interesting and cosmopolitan. The woman who runs the agency that supplies the foreigners simply trawls bars for drunken white young men.

The simplest business ideas are so powerful. Take a look here.


World’s sickest joke ends

March 28, 2015

Raffaele Sollecito and Amanda Knox have been acquitted of the murder of Meredith Kercher, a crime there was never any serious evidence they were involved in. The process took more than eight years (quite quick for Italy); they were convicted, acquitted, convicted, acquitted, and spent four years in prison.

Meanwhile Rudy Guede, who did kill Meredith Kercher, and in the most brutal, painful manner after first sexually assaulting her, is already enjoying day release from prison.

There will be no enquiry into the handling of the case by prosecuting magistrate Giuliano Mignini, whose bizarre theories and lack of professionalism had convinced two journalists to write a book about his ‘investigative’ techniques long before the Kercher case. Nor will there be an enquiry into the conduct of elements of the Perugia police that operated with total unprofessionalism and outside the law during the investigation.

Some people on the Knox side are so relieved the torment is over that they are saying their faith in Italian justice is restored. This is a terrible thing to say. The only useful purpose the case has served is to advertise to the world just how hopeless the Italian justice system is and perhaps give a tiny push towards it one day being reformed.

I have cited European Union reports on the Italian justice system in previous blogs under the ‘Italy to Avoid’ category. One other pointer I noticed recently is that the World Bank, as of 2015, ranks Italy 147th in the world for enforcement of contracts.



Amanda Knox’s account of her trial and incarceration is well worth a read. It isn’t perfect, but it is a serious book, much more serious than many others that have been written about her and Sollecito. (By a curious coincidence, the Capanne prison where she and Sollecito were held is the same one where the carpenter on our house in Italy died; a hippy, arrested for marijuana possession, there is a good prima facie case that he was beaten to death. Needless to say, his friends who tried to pursue legal recourse will not be getting any.)



The first media to have put the boot into the Italian legal system that I have seen is The Economist. Bless.

Harry yesterday, gone today

March 22, 2015

Harry Lee Kuan Yew has passed on.

He leaves us just as Singaporeans are finally falling out of love with his People’s Action Party, as I blogged after visiting Singapore last October. It is a pretty good record for someone who started out in politics in the 1950s.

Harry’s departure severs the direct link between south-east Asia’s political elite and its colonial past. (Mahathir is still alive, but he was not a player in the colonial era.) This seems to me to be the key import of this moment. There won’t be another Harry, born into an Anglicised and privileged family, angered yet titillated by colonial power, driven to reinvent himself as a true Chinese (and struggle to learn the Chinese language that was foreign to him as a kid), then striving to find a happy medium as Singapore’s leader somewhere between Asian nationalist and American lickspittle. He opted for a combination of proto-Victorian morality re-dressed-up as Asian values, and the biggest CIA station in the region, that saw American lickspittle win comfortably.

Pragmatism is I think what defined Harry more than anything. He was a fantastic leader for Singapore. But he didn’t really give a toss about south-east Asia so long as Singapore was ok. In this sense he was a modernisation of British governors of the Crown Colony of Singapore. Smarter, more savvy, more efficient than any colonial goon, but at the end of the day nothing very different. He provided phenomenal leadership, and he led by example. But the notion he had ‘vision’ at the level of south-east Asian politics and development does not stand up for me.

So goodbye Harry. I think of you as the full-on Chinese student at Cambridge, with your motorbike and your cigarettes, determined to prove you were better than the gweilos, even if what mattered most to you all too often was their approbation. I wonder: did you used to flick your cigarette butts away on the street, such that you would have been fined in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore? We may never know.


Here is an essay about Lee Kuan Yew by Orville Schell in The Wall Street Journal. It is not the way I would tell Harry’s story, and is something of a eulogy, but worth reading.

Another academic, Minxin Pei, has a different but still very positive take on Project Syndicate.

Much later: 

The quality outs when the dust has settled. Jerry Cohen relates encounters with Harry across the decades in this article. Note Harry’s instructions, after he gave up smoking, that no one should smoke when he attended a social gathering. Including in the United States…

This recent documentary about Singapore’s political exiles is much praised. If you can find some way to see it. I have not.


March 4, 2015

The best thing in Moscow is the underground system. I didn’t find anything above ground to write home about. In fact the underground is so superior to the overground that I found someone to take me on a tour of it.






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