Bernie Tells a Whopper About China

Oh, I try to stay clear of politics these days. You know, yeah.

But sometimes, someone makes such an outrageous claim that I can’t help myself from chiming in. This post is courtesy of Bernie Sanders, who said the following in an interview recently on CNN:

“China is an authoritarian country … but can anyone deny, I mean the facts are clear, that they have taken more people out of poverty than any country in history. Why you criticize when I say that — that’s the truth. So that is the fact. End of discussion.”

First, the fact. Yes, China has taken more people out of poverty than any country in history.

Second, the non-fact. End of discussion. Nope. Not in a million years. Not until Bernie answers this one question: How did China relieve its destitution and poverty?

Answer: capitalism

So you see, Bernie has just disproved the over-arching thesis of everything he says about economics. He is crediting authoritarianism (and socialism??) for China’s growth. Major whooper alert.

Here are the other facts that Bernie has eschewed.

During the years that socialist command economics were under full-force in China, how many people were brought out of poverty? That’s the wrong question. How many people died because of their oppressive policies. Uncountable.

From Mao’s take-over in 1949 until the wakening years after his death thirty years later, China was severely impoverished. GDP per capita was among the lowest in the world. They were isolated from the world economy. The great famine of 1958-1961 killed millions. Their army was in tatters. When they attacked northern Vietnam in January of 1979 (hey, weren’t the Vietnamese their socialist comrades!), they were embarrassingly rebuffed by their southern neighbors who were actually poorer than they were!

So what happened? What changed? How is it that the impoverished China of the early 1980s has grown into an economic powerhouse?

I have to say it again: capitalism.

Economic reforms loosened the strings on individual achievements which were muzzled under the socialist command economy. And while the authoritative communist regime continued their hold onto power with a death grip (think Tienanmen Square 1989), the new economic freedoms allowed unprecedented growth and unprecedented foreign investment.  In other words, capitalism started doing its thing.

Let me leave you with an example from Vietnam, who following China’s lead, also implemented market reforms in the 1980s that began to raise the Vietnamese out of poverty as well.

In 1984, there was famine in parts of Vietnam. Their lush farm lands couldn’t even feed their own people. They had to import low-quality grains from places like Bulgaria. I’ve had many Vietnamese families tell me about those years living under a socialist command economy. The common Vietnamese word they use is “kho” – meaning miserable. And then the market reforms hit. The government began allowing farmers to exceed their government quotas of rice in order to sell the excess or plant other cash crops. What happened when farmers began to have incentive to grow more knowing that they would actually benefit from it? Production soared. Within a few short years of allowing people to pursue their own personal interests, Vietnam went from not being able to feed their own people to being one of the largest rice exporters in the world.

The transformation was remarkable. And yes, it all happened under an authoritarian communist regime.

But it’s not the regime that gets the credit, it’s the individuals (and also government entities) who took a risk to invest money, to solicit investment, to plant extra, to think big, to dream for a better life for their families. There was profit to be had by the people. And they did it. They used the mighty tool called capitalism, even within a tightly controlled economy, to better their lives.

So let’s make this very clear: socialism didn’t build China’s wealth. Not by a long shot.  Socialism doesn’t pull anyone out of poverty. It just holds back growth potential. Imagine where China would be today if Mao allowed entrepreneurship back as early as 1949?

So, Bernie, your China example is just disproving your point about capitalism.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. China has been experiencing their own brand of this for the past thirty years, no thanks to socialism.

Thirty Years from Tienanmen Square

June 4, 2019 marks the thirty year anniversary of a dark day in Chinese history – what is known in the west as The Tienanmen Square Massacre.

I remember this day very well. I had just graduated from college a month before. I had just gotten married a week after college graduation. We were in Chicago for a friend’s wedding, and I remember waking up on Saturday morning and watching the broadcast of the Chinese military, under orders from Premier Deng Xiaoping, starting a methodical and violent clearing of the pro-democracy protests which had been going on in the square for some time.

Tienanmen Square is one of the largest city squares in the world. On one end is the Forbidden City, the former home of the emperor, now adorned with the iconic picture of communist leader Mao Zedong. Mao’s massive portrait looks out over the square and keeps a close watch on his own mausoleum on the opposite side of the square where the preserved body of Mao continues to be proudly displayed in a rather grim and solemn granite structure.

Chinese university students had been occupying the square, demanding a fifth modernization to go with Deng Xiaoping’s emphasis on science & technology, agriculture, industry, and defense.  Deng’s leadership had brought China out of the darkness of the cultural revolution which had decimated the Chinese economy and had proven how backward the Chinese regime had become. The cultural revolution ended with Mao’s death in 1976, but its lingering effects had worn down a weary culture. Deng’s modernizations were a welcome shift, but with modernization came new attitudes and desires for more than just economic relief. The students in the square were seeking that fifth modernization: political freedom. They even erected their own version of Lady Liberty to stand in stark contrast to the staunch communist eyes in Mao’s portrait.

The Chinese government could only take so much political embarrassment and bad international press, and on June 4, they moved in to squash the demonstrations. It was brutal. Hundreds died. Perhaps more. No one really knows. Many were arrested and the air of freedom which hung in the optimistic spring of 1989 was violently halted. I watched it all on TV as I readied myself to go the wedding. Little did I know that I’d be standing in the middle of that square just three years from that day.

I traveled to China for the first time in the summer of 1992. I was to teach at an English camp for Chinese English teachers in Dalian. On our way through Beijing, we got to see all the sites including the Great Wall and, of course, the square that was still very much in my memory. Before we arrived in China, we were instructed very clearly not to mention anything about what happened in 1989. Don’t bring it up. Don’t have an opinion. Pretend it didn’t happen.

On the particular day I visited the square, it was a far cry from the images on the TV. There were some vendors and some tourists. Modest lines waited to visit the body of Mao and others queued up in front of Mao’s portrait to tour the Forbidden City. I spent an entire summer in China and heard nothing whatsoever about this historical event. But it wasn’t hard to imagine what many were feeling underneath their skin.

Authority may destroy the movement of freedom, for a time, but it can’t change the thoughts we have within. And who doesn’t want freedom? Who doesn’t want to be able to focus on “the pursuit of happiness?”  Even the great Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh understood this. If you visit his mausoleum in Hanoi, you’ll see etched across the granite facade one sentence: “Khong co gi qui hon, dap lap, tu do” – There’s nothing as precious as independence and freedom.

China is a generation removed from the incident of Tienanmen Square, but I can’t help but think the underlying desire of true political freedom hasn’t change one bit.


Sally, Where are you?

I’ve been rummaging through boxes of old mementos, and I came across a letter from a former student of mine. Here name was Sally. That’s not her real name. She’s Chinese from Dalian where I spent the summer of 1993. I remember her well. She taught me to play Chinese chess, which I have since forgotten. She had a bubbly personality and was a pleasure to chat with. When I left China, we exchanged a few letters and as time would have it, the summer of 1993 faded from our memories. The letters stopped as our lives continued in new directions. But I still remember Sally. Here’s the short letter she wrote to me that I found today:

“Mark, how are you? I’m eagerly to hear from you. I’m too busy to write to you. I have a lot word to talk with you, about my new work. So I write another letter to you. Post a book you’d like to read. ‘Selected Stories of Lu Hsun” and a very traditional Chinese disc. I hope you like it. Ok. God with you!”

Sally  93.02.09

Thank you, Sally. I wish I remembered your Chinese name and knew how to find you, but I don’t. I wonder where you are now. I wonder where your English language skills have taken you. You must be forty years old now with a family. Do you encourage your kids to learn English? Did you stay in Dalian? Have you had a happy life?

People come and go in one’s life. Sally is one who has gone. But I still remember her and I wish that the years have treated her well and that the brief moment I was her teacher in the summer of 1993 played a small role in her being able to accomplish her dreams.

God with you, Sally.


A Chinese Reminder of a 2016 Presidential Candidate

I was showing my class a Discovery video about China’s transformation prior to the Beijing Olympics. I’ve shown this for several years now as it’s a great video to help understand the turmoil China went through in order to emerge as a 21st century powerhouse.

One section of the video always produces some laughs. It concerns a local election in which the female mayor of a small village is being challenged at the polls by a local garlic grower. This section highlights the democratic changes in Chinese society which are taking place at the very lowest levels.

The current mayor has proved herself to be a shrewd politician who understands the needs of her constituents. She has paved a road from the village into the neighboring town so farmers can easily bring their wares to market. She has inspired many farmers to switch to flowers, instead of rice, more than quadrupling their income. She keeps a village ledger on the side of one of the buildings to keep the local government accountable for their actions. She has, in every sense, been an exemplary public servant.

Her challenger, Mr. Zhang the garlic grower, acknowledges this fact and even says that everyone admires Mayor Lieu.

You might be wondering what his running platform is? How does he have a chance against her? What’s his strategy? Does he have any clever tricks up his sleeve?

Yes, he most certainly does. He says, “I think the way I can compete with Mrs. Lieu is that I’m a man, and she’s a woman.”  Okay, he says it like it is. But he doesn’t stop there. He said that a leader needs to make others rich, and to do that, the leader also needs to be rich – like he is.

So let’s boil this down to a campaign slogan. “Vote for Zhang. I’m a man, and I’m rich.”

But as I was watching again this year it hit me: this guy is the Chinese Donald Trump!

“Vote for Trump: I’m a man, and I’m rich.”

A good chuckle was had by all. I have found his Chinese twin. A rich garlic grower.

By the way, Zhang lost in his election by nearly a 4-1 margin.

Those Chinese farmers know a thing or two.

The Spratlys, China, and an Exclusive Book Excerpt

The Spratly Islands are an archipelago of atolls, reefs, and quaint little islands in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Who owns the islands? Depends who you are asking. All three of the above countries claims that they are theirs. What has really become irksome to those three countries (and other smaller countries which claim ownership of parts of the thousands of islands) is that China steadfastly claims that they belong to the Middle Kingdom.

When one looks at this matter in a logical geographical viewpoint, it is hard to argue how China would have any claim on these territories which are no where near China. Perhaps they believe since the English world calls the sea between the Philippines and Vietnam the ‘South China Sea’ that they are somehow entitled to the water and any land in it.

Why is this a big deal? The Spratly Islands, while containing no inhabitants and no arable land, might possibly be sitting on large oil reserves. Now it all makes sense, doesn’t it? The region has become tense and the future of the Spratlys are definitely in question.

I approached this matter in my latest novel, The Reach of the Banyan Tree. I’d like to share an exclusive excerpt with you that might put the region into context. Enjoy!

Excerpt from a chapter called “Whisperings” – Police Chief Hung meets the minister of the interior in an unsavory, closed door meeting which will have consequences for our protagonist Chip. 

Mr. Dung pulled out the chair at the head of the table opposite Hung and sat down, dragging on his cigarette like he was deep in thought. He was, in fact, sizing him up. He had heard of his previous indiscretions concerning the drug trafficking, which had been effectively ignored by the higher-ups. It occurred to him at that moment that, perhaps, Hung could be an asset in this situation.

“Mr. Hung, what do you know about the Spratly Islands?”

Hung looked perplexed, and his body language relaxed at the question.

“A series of islands in the East Sea claimed by China, Philippines, and Malaysia. But geographically they clearly belong to our country.”

“That’s correct. A deal has recently been struck to build oil rigs in the Spratlys. This hasn’t yet been announced to the world. It would be too inflammatory. In fact, every exploratory oil company in the world has refused to partner with us on this endeavor because of the sensitive nature of political ties in the region. All except one, that is.”

Mr. Dung paused for a minute to let everything sink in.

“Except for Carson Oil,” said Hung.

“Precisely. Now this crucial deal hangs on a certain individual in your prison. But I understand if he is released, you will have a very difficult situation on your hands.”

“The public will never accept it if there is no trial and conviction.”

“And if he goes to prison for his crimes, Carson Oil backs out.”

A long pause hung over the room.

“What if we both could get what we wanted? What would it get me?” asked Hung in an uncomfortably blunt manner.

“And how could that happen?”

“What if crowds were tipped off to the when and whereabouts of his release? It could get messy. Nothing could be guaranteed at that point. You know how mobs are when they get started.”

“Yes, I know very well how they can be. But is this manageable?”

“Very,” assured the police chief. “And …”

“What would you want?”

“I want to be head of security for your ministry.”

Dung snuffed out his cigarette.

“Before we talk about rewards, tell me about this case. Let me see the evidence.”

Hung opened the box and the two resorted to the worst type of unsavory conversation, which often take place in smoke-filled rooms behind closed doors.

A Fascinating Look at Tiananmen Square at 25

I remember where I was when the Chinese government cracked down on the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Less than a month before the incident, I graduated from college and got married a week later. My bride and I were on an extended honeymoon, traveling to Chicago for her best friend’s wedding. The morning of the wedding, we woke to the compelling and captivating live reporting which was coming out of China about the crackdown. Honestly, at that age, I knew nothing about Asia or China except that I had once read “The Good Earth.”  Three summers later in 1992, I traveled to China to teach English and had the chance to visit Tiananmen Square. It was hard to imagine at that time what had happened three years earlier and we were specifically instructed not to mention or even hint at the event. But I couldn’t help but think that the underlying feelings which came out in 1989 were still present. Indeed, as the author mentions in the article below, the demands of the students in 1989 have mainly been met by the Chinese government. Thousands of students study overseas. Chinese tourists can easily leave the country. The nature of the economic powerhouse that they have become is staggering. But as I ask my students in my Global Study classes if China will always remain communistic, they usually reply “no”. And I agree. Economic freedom, in my opinion, will only get a country so far. What happens when the economy stagnates and the promises are no longer fulfilled? When that happens, voices will rise spouting new ideas and demanding political and democratic reform. Once that happens the freedom that these students demonstrated and died for can finally become complete.

Please read the fascinating article below and look at the remarkable photos. Tiananmen at 25.

My Top 10 Favorite Places in Asia: #7 – Hong Kong

In some ways, I’ve always felt that Hong Kong feels like the anti-Singapore (which was #8 on my list.) Singapore seems western in many ways – especially in infrastructure and city-planning. Hong Kong feels Asian. Hong Kong has the crowded streets, the messiness, the small shops, restaurants, outdoor eateries that make it so fun and fascinating. Now of course, Hong Kong is a spectacular city in its development. It has one of, if not the most, awe-inspiring skylines in the world. The topography of Hong Kong with its rugged mountains and hills is beautiful.

Hong Kong has it all. Dim sum. Shopping of all varieties. Hawker stalls and top-notch restaurants. The breath-taking Victoria Harbor. Make sure to ride the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island. It’s cheap and thrilling! Explore one of the many other smaller islands. We used to stay at a guest house on the quaint Cheung Chau Island, where motor vehicles were not allowed. What a wonderful and relaxing getaway on the edge of one of the world’s most exciting cities.

That’s why it’s number seven on my list.  Here’s a recap of the countdown so far:

10. Malacca, Malaysia

9. Chiang Mai, Thailand

8. Singapore

7. Hong Kong

6. ?

Fast Food, Globalization, and Culture (Part III)

Here’s part III (the final segment) in this series. The most interesting part (in my opinion) of this post is the fascinating way that fast food has helped change and mold certain parts of modern China. 

Read Part I HERE!

Read Part II HERE!

The new fast food culture that has been introduced into many countries over the past thirty years has also had a profound impact on society at large. Many bemoan the presence of fast-food as the homogenization of the world.  Rightly or not, these behemoths of tidy restaurants with standardized food have become the symbol of American cultural imperialism overseas.  They are often the target of activists who complain of the loss of traditional culture at the expense of corporations pushing low wage “McJobs” and low quality “McFood.”  Whether these criticisms are justified or not, these trans-national corporations have changed many countries.

China provides an interesting study of how the fast-food industry used its’ foresight, capital, and perfect timing to impact a nation.  American fast-food has done nothing less than start a consumer revolution in China which has been led by children (Watson 125).  This is not by accident.  McDonald’s took its playbook from Disney when franchise founder Ray Kroc began successfully marketing to children (Schlosser 33); the franchises in China have done the same thing but merely adapted their approach to local circumstances.   Birthday parties, which never existed a generation or two ago in most parts of East Asia, have become commonplace and the fast food industry has become at the center of it (Watson 126).  McDonald’s has become the ‘hang-out’ for grandparents and the study zone for high school students.  McDonald’s and other like-minded places have taken advantage of the changes in Chinese family life and have adapted their offerings to meet the changing needs of society.  In Hong Kong, McDonald’s has become such a part of the fabric of life there that it is difficult to see exactly where the transnational corporations ends and the local begins (Watson 134).  Chinese scholar James Watson claims that fast food did not create a new market but responded to opportunities which were presented by “the collapse of an outdated Confucian family system” (127).  Even the success of KFC in China is largely due to how it has become local in focus (Phillips 41).  Some contend that societal changes brought about by the rise of fast food is not all bad.  Watson cites cases where fast food restaurants have contributed to teaching Chinese mobs how to properly queue while encouraging other restaurants and eating establishments to raise their standards of restaurant cleanliness to match those of the big franchises (Schlosser 128-129).  Whether fast food has improved or degraded society in China and other countries is a matter of opinion.  However, what is clear is that these corporations have used their vast influence, their tax incentives, and their capital to create a fast food niche supported by a massive food production system which previously did not exist.

How should we properly evaluate these trans-national fast food corporations?  Certainly they have impacted food production, labor, and culture.  But they could not have done it all on their own.  It was a combination of government policy and consumer approval which ultimately had its way. Phillips cites various studies that show that the corporate power and impact of food related trans-national corporations is not a “given” but is a byproduct of many different stake-holders including growers, laborers, investors and marketers (41).   Watson adds that global issues must take the consumers’ perspectives into account (134).  Throwing a brick at a McDonald’s in Mumbai to protest globalization seems to be missing the point.  The corporation is just one of the stakeholders that brought it into existence.  The fast food restaurants have become the cultural domain of Muslims in Malaysia, Buddhists in China and Hindus in India.  When you attack their McDonald’s, you are attacking them, and not a foreign entity. The world has asked to have their burger their own way, and the corporations have gladly provided it.

But what ultimately can be expected from these trans-national food corporations?  Can food globalization ever be proactive to spur on competition, protect labor, and purposefully reduce poverty?  Or is production consolidation, degradation of labor, and more power in fewer hands merely the nature of the capitalistic beast which precludes it from productively contributing to a more equitable society?  It may be foolhardy to presume that profit driven corporations would willingly make the right choices concerning the vulnerability of workers and poverty at large when profit is the driving force.  These powerful corporations are the ones receiving the tax breaks, trimming labor costs and consolidating their grip over supply and distribution.  Many trans-national firms do have social responsibility policies that have been built into their corporate framework, but they have mainly come to fruition in order for them to avoid bad publicity which might ruin their name (Jenkins 528); these policies make sure the corporations are avoiding human rights violations rather than positively moving to reduce poverty in their locality (Jenkins 528).  These token gestures are more smoke screens rather than positive steps which might raise wages, ensure health coverage and safe working environments which would ultimately do a lot to help alleviate global poverty.

The fast food corporations are an easy target to criticize. They are big; they are powerful; they are slick marketers, and shrewd managers of capital.  They seem to represent the best and worst of the capitalist system.  By pushing efficiency, standardization and expansion, they create a marginalized workforce and a depleted market for competition especially in the area of food production.  They have globalized common brand names, yet have adapted the brand to suit the local environment.  Whatever the ultimate verdict on their impact will be, it is clear that there is no stopping their expansion. But the world’s governments would do well to scrutinize their food production policies and determine how “… food citizenship may be developed as a sustainable politics to include everyone, not just the privileged” (Phillips 48).

Works Cited

Jenkins, Rhys.  “Globalization, Corporate Social Responsibility and Poverty.”

International Affairs 81, 3 (2005) 525-540.

Krugman, Paul. “We Are Not the World.”  New York Times  13 February 1997, A33.

Phillips, Lynne. “Food and Globalization.” Annual Review of Anthropology 35.1 (2006): 37-57.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.

Shari, Ishak. “Globalisation and Economic Insecurity: A Need for a New Social Policy in Malaysia.” Asian Journal of Social Science 31.2 (2003): 251-270.

Watson, James L. “China’s Big Mac Attack.” Foreign Affairs 79.3 (2000): 120-134.