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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Social Harmony and Toxic Chemicals in China

According to the New York Times in 2012, the Chinese had become increasingly willing “to take to the streets despite the perils of openly challenging the country’s authoritarian government.” Even more surprising, government officials had actually acquiesced in some notable cases. Given the raw nature of power, particularly under authoritarian auspices, revolution rather than gradual reform may still be the most likely means by which democracy can bloom under the golden, albeit hazy, sun.

In October 2012, local officials in the coastal city of Ningbo promised “to halt the expansion of a petrochemical plant after thousands of demonstrators [had] clashed with the police during three days of protests that spotlighted the public’s mounting discontent with industrial pollution. . . . The project, an $8.8 billion expansion of a refinery owned by the state-run behemoth Sinopec, was eagerly backed by the local government, which [had] been promoting a vast industrial zone outside Ningbo, a city of 3.4 million people in Zhejiang Province. Residents were particularly unnerved by one major component of the project: the production of paraxylene, a toxic petrochemical known as PX that is a crucial ingredient in the manufacture of polyester, paints and plastic bottles. Many residents [contended] that the concentration of polluting factories in the Ningbo Chemical Industrial Zone [had] led to a surge in cancer and other illnesses.” Lest it be assumed the officials had suddenly “got religion” as far as democracy is concerned, the New York Times provides a more realistic explanation:
“Although local officials were undoubtedly alarmed by the size and ferocity of the protests, their decision to bend so quickly was also probably influenced by the coming series of meetings that will determine China’s next generation of leaders. The ruling Communist Party, always eager to keep a lid on public discontent, is especially nervous about any disruptions that might mar the 18th Party Congress.”
Culturally, the Chinese officials—like the Chinese people generally—undoubtedly felt the need to protect or restore social harmony. At close range, loud protests ring out like a frontal assault on such harmony. The protests began “when farmers blocked a road near the refinery, grew over the weekend as thousands of students and middle-class residents converged on a downtown square carrying handmade banners and wearing surgical masks painted with skull and bones. . . . (T)he demonstrations turned violent when riot police fired tear gas and began to beat and drag away protesters. At one point, according to people who were there, marchers tossed bricks and bottles at the police. At least 100 people were detained, according to some estimates, although most were later released.” Accordingly, the immediate instinct of the officials would have been to do whatever would be most likely to stop the disruption as soon as possible.
In the long term, however, social harmony requires some degree of fit between public policy and popular sentiment. While not necessarily the will of the people, the intensity of political protests can provide some indication of the extent of a breach or gap. Whether by deflating or squashing, short-circuiting a protest at its outset in a dire attempt to restore the appearance of social harmony can mean that public officials lose touch with the popular mood and thus “fly blind.” The result could be a revolution in ten or twenty years, the ferocity of which could come as a complete surprise to the party officials.
Put another way, the apparent success of protests could belie the more subterranean possibility that public officials were still impervious to public demands. “In 2007, protesters in the coastal city of Xiamen, in Fujian Province, successfully forced the relocation of a PX plant that had been planned just 10 miles from downtown. In August 2012, officials in Dalian, in northeast China, announced that they would shut down a PX plant there after thousands of residents angrily confronted the riot police.” However, as of the fourth quarter of 2012, that factory was still operating. “We’ve seen the same pattern over and over again,” said Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs. “Ignoring public concerns leads to confrontation. We can’t resolve all our environmental issues through street action. The cost is just too high.” That is to say, protests do not guarantee that government officials will heed popular sentiment, and the result of continued protests could be violent.
Seeming to acquiesce could simply be a strategy by which to assuage the public. “The announcement is just a way to ease tensions,” said Yu Xiaoming, a critic of the plant who took part in negotiations with the authorities on Sunday. Even if paraxylene is not produced in Ningbo, the chemical could be quietly made elsewhere. A pattern of such apparent placating, moreover, could give everyone the false impression of social and political cohesion between the Chinese people and the government. Minimizing broader knowledge that the protests had taken place only contributes to the misleading picture of social harmony instead of strife. Although Ningbo residents “held aloft smartphones and computer tablets and flooded microblog sites with images and vivid descriptions of the running battles with the police,” for example, the “Chinese news media carried no reports of the protests.”
In spite of the appearance being constructed by the apparent “listening” by government officials and the government-media censorship, pressure could nonetheless build and possibly erupt in contagious strife spiraling uncontrollably into full-blown revolution. That it would seem to come out of nowhere would only heighten the fear on both sides, and thus the sense of a lack of control and related violence. Any apparent gradual “opening up” toward democracy, as in permitting the residents of Hong Kong to vote for some offices, would be only on the surface, and even misleading.
One might imagine a flight-control tower with radar screens overstating the distance between planes in the air. Flight-control might dismiss the concerns of the pilots and even permit more planes into the area. A mid-air collision would come as a complete surprise to everyone, even though such an outcome would be more likely due to the perceptual misalignment. In terms of China, a full-blown revolution could be extremely disruptive not only within China, but also for the world given China’s sheer size and economic role in the global economy. Gradual reform in China is in everyone’s interest—even those officials interested in maintaining social harmony. 


Andrew Jacobs, “Protests Over Chemical Plant Force Chinese Officials to Back Down,” The New York Times, October 29, 2012.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

On the Political Power of Nuclear Power: Japan's Radioactive Plutocracy

Reversing his campaign pledge to reduce Japan’s reliance on nuclear power even as he had just been elected as prime minister of Japan in 2012 (Tepco’s nuclear power-plant meltdown having occurred in 2011), Shinzo Abe announced that he would have more nuclear reactors built in Japan. “They will be completely different from those at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant,” he said in a television interview.[1] Adding a silver lining on to a rather gray, radioactive cloud, he said, “With public understanding, we will be building anew.”[2] This change in policy is dramatic, for the previous administration--that of Yoshihiko Noda—had sought to phase out nuclear power in Japan by 2040. In fact, Abe’s own party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), had in its platform the goal “to establish an economy and society that does not need to rely on nuclear power.”[3] That the shift took place within the LDP suggests a shift in its power-dynamics, with the pro-nuclear sub-faction astonishingly having gained the upper hand over its rival while memories of the tsunami-triggered meltdown were undoubtedly still fresh.

The full essay is at "On the Political Power of Nuclear Power"

1. Hiroko Tabuchi, “Japan’s New Leader Endorses Nuclear Plants,” The New York Times, December 30, 2012.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Handouts in Averting the Fiscal Cliff: The Price of Politics?

What is that nebulous thing called politics? Might it be that the practice is essentially exploiting or creating what are known as principal-agent costs? That is, might politics be skill in putting oneself in place of an agent’s principal(s) (and perhaps principles).
In the U.S. Senate bill to obviate the “fiscal cliff,” for example, the Democrats may have agreed to benefits for the Republican lawmakers’ campaign backers in exchange for going along with a more progressive federal income tax system. Among the added provisions are special expensing rules for certain film and television productions—no doubt those made by particular contributors. The provision for tax-exempt financing for the New York Liberty Zone around the former World Trade Center may also be a favor to a particular someone. Lest one wonder why an extension of the American Samoa economic development credit is doing in an expedited measure to obviate the “fiscal cliff,” the answer may have to do with a particular Republican lawmaker’s relationship with someone having an interest in American Samoa. I can only speculate here, as I was not privy to the actual relationships and negotiations. However, the sheer strangeness of such provisions in such a bill suggests that the particular political or economic interests of particular Republican lawmakers may have been the culprit.
                                                                                                     Is money the language of politics?    citizen.org
Such interests need not stem from particular relationships. To get the Republicans to “move on principle” regarding progressive taxation, the Democrat negotiators may have agreed to give on particulars on another law—in this case, on Obamacare. The bill also contained a provision to remove the Community Living Assistance Services and Support program, or CLASS, which would have allowed millions of elderly and disabled people to stay in their homes rather than be placed in institutional care.
Generally speaking, the pattern involves essentially “buying off” particular Republican lawmakers so they will “shift over” on a larger principle—in this case, progressive taxation. Give a bit on Obamacare and include a provision financially beneficial to a particular Republican lawmaker or one of his or her financial contributors or patrons—anything satisfying a particular interest of a particular lawmaker—so he or she will move from the preference of his or her constituents. The agency cost is the distance of the lawmaker (agent) from his or her official constituents (principals).
If the skill called politics involves a politician’s particular interests at the expense of one of his or her principles or official duties (i.e., to constituents), then negotiation cannot be expected to be confined to compromising on the merits of the bill itself. Rather than merely going back and forth on numbers for the upper income subject to the Bush tax cuts, a Republican negotiator might propose an unrelated provision benefitting one of his or her friends, business associates, or campaign contributors. Granted the provision, the negotiator would then give on the numbers. One might ask whether the inclusion of particular exogenous interests is necessary to negotiation on a given policy. Wouldn’t the final product in terms of the policy be better were the unrelated benefits kept out of the mix? That is to say, is their incorporation a decadent or inferior form of politics, or an essential element that cannot be removed? Perhaps the answer lies in whether negotiation on a given policy, such as deficit reduction, can be done without the negotiators bringing up their particular interests (as a means of shirking their principles or duty). Perhaps ethical leadership in politics involves refusing to enable (or exploit) another’s “agency costs” by incorporating the unrelated provisions, in which case politics itself could find higher ground and the resulting policy would more closely match the preference of the body politic.  


Reuters, “Fiscal Cliff Bill Proposed By Senate Packed With Mix of Handouts, Takebacks,” Huffington Post, January 1, 2013.