Note by the author: I cannot take credit for most of the ideas and observations I present below. The protests in Hong Kong are now in their eighth day. Since they began last week a great amount has been written about why these protests are happening and what their eventual outcome may be. It has been disappointing to see astute voices and analysis  drowned out by fairly insipid primers and listicles. This post aims to remedy the situation by blending the best insights from the best China hands into one essay. If you would like to explore the material that inspired this post (or follow this story more closely in the future), I invite you to consult the “Further Reading” section at the bottom.



At the time of this writing Hong Kong has returned to a semblance of normalcy. The protests may flare up again before the week is over, but we can take advantage of the present lull to assess what has been accomplished thus far and what hope the movement has of compelling the government to meet its demands in the future. The last eight days have been an emotional affair. Most of the discussions I have had about the protests have also been emotional affairs—especially when someone from the mainland or from Hong Kong is participating. This post is different. I am not interested in arguing about which side is right or wrong but in assessing the probability of either side forcing the other to cede to its demands.

Lets start with the protestors.

What are the protestor’s demands?
  1. When the protests began the protestors rallied around two demands:
    Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying (hereafter CY Leung) will step down.
  2. .
  3. Hong Kong will institute a democratic system where candidates for popular election are  chosen by voters, not a committee selected by the Communist Party of China.

The original body of protestors who demanded these things were organized by two groups, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (香港專上學生聯會, abbrv. 香港學聯, or just 學聯), composed of Hong Kong university students, and Scholarism (學民思潮), headed by 17 year old Joshua Wong and mostly composed of youth about his age. The famous photos of umbrella clad youth being pepper sprayed as they charged government lines were of these folks.

They were joined by a third group, known as Occupy Central with Peace and Love, or Occupy Central for short (讓愛與和平佔領中環, abr.佔中), on the second day of the protest. Occupy is a different sort of beast than the other two organizations; it is run by seasoned political activists and university professors who have been planning a civil disobedience campaign to protest the 2017 election reforms since early 2013. They had planned to start the protest on October 1st (the PRC’s National Day, the closest equivalent China has to the 4th of July), but when the clashes between students and police escalated on Friday (Sept 26th) they decided to abandon their original plan and join the protestors. Had they been in charge of the show from the beginning I am not sure they would have made the same demands—at least in the beginning—that the students did. But they came late to the party and have to deal with what the students' demands hath wrought.

There are two important things about these groups we must remember when assessing the protestors’ strategy and the government’s response to it:

1. As should be clear from the description above, these protestors are not like the pro-democracy groups that massed in Tiananmen square (and every other public center of every other major Chinese city) in 1989. To quote Peter Lee:
“Tiananmen 1989 was a remonstrance/petitioning movement that eschewed disobedience beyond passive resistance and had no political endgame beyond hopes that the regime would respond to its moral suasion by implementing democratic reforms. If there were political calculations to utilize the demonstrations to advance a concrete agenda, they came from reformers inside the elite.

Occupy Hong Kong is a carefully planned program of civil disobedience, escalation, and provocation meant to provoke a political crisis that will polarize Hong Kong opinion on behalf of the democracy movement and force the elite to support the demands of the movement in order to maintain their local positions of power and prosperity.” [1]

This is an important point to remember. These protests are not a spontaneous eruption. The leaders of Occupy have contingency planned and red teamed these protests for a year. While it is quite possible for events to spiral out of their control, our baseline assumption should be that the movement is following a strategy and they have a game plan for a wide range of government responses. 

2. Opinions polls from before the protest began suggest that only a bare majority of Hong Kong’s population support Occupy. There is a substantial portion of Hong Kong—mostly an older portion—that truly despises all of this ruckus and wants nothing to do with it. Popular feeling is in the students favor only because the government was dumb enough to try and stop the first wave of protests with pepper spray and the second wave with tear gas. [2] Had the government not made this mistake, there would be far less outrage among the populace and the protests we saw this week would be much smaller and far less newsworthy.


Approval ratings for the Occupy Central, Beijing's electoral reform plan, and so forth. Click for larger image.

Sample sizes and details about the methodology of the survey can be found here. The graphic was created for South China Morning Post article, "Half of Hong Kongers Say Government Should Veto Beijing's Electoral Reform Plan" (15 September 2014).


What have the protestors done to compel the government to meet their demands?

The short answer: they have flooded the streets with Hong Kong citizens and paralyzed many essential areas of the city for six days.

What have the results of this been?

In many ways, nothing. CY Leung is still in power. Popular democracy is no more likely to be implemented than it was before the protests began.

The protestors are in a very difficult position. It is hard to force other people to do things they don't want to do. Usually you have to inflict great pain—or threaten to inflict even greater pain—to compel anyone to do anything. Shutting down a few streets and neighborhoods does not inflict enough pain on CY Leung or the government to force change. If the protestors want to succeed they must escalate.

But how?

That’s the rub. The most obvious answer is "violence." But violence won't work—remember, the protestors only gained strong popular support after they became 'innocent' victims of the government's violence. They lose their support—and with it their ability to pull off big protests—the minute they are seen as a violent movement.

Moreover, if they became violent and destructive the government has full license to act violent and destructive back. This is a game of tic-for-tac Beijing would not mind playing. Hong Kong is an island dependent on the mainland for its food, water, and electricity. Its citizens do not own guns. If either side decides to communicate through “the diplomacy of violence”[3] the government wins.

Thus the easiest way to escalate affairs is broaden the scale or the scope of the protests--for example, by shutting more of the city down or denying the government (or their tycoon supporters) access to its more important parts.

If they successfully pull this off, what will happen?

Nothing. This an essential point. The citizens of Hong Kong could make CY Leung’s life a living hell, they could freeze the entire city and throw all of Hong Kong into chaos, and this still would not be enough. Why? Because the decisions that matter are being made by the government in Beijing, not the government in Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong have the power to inflict significant pain on CY Leung and even more damage to Hong Kong’s economy. They do not have the power to do anything to the CPC leadership sitting warm and snug in Zhongnanhai.

This is the trouble with editorials like Chris Patten's latest, which says that communist leaders will regret ruining "their country's most successful city."[4] Back when Mr. Patten turned Hong Kong over to the People’s Republic that statement would have been self-evidently true. Now it isn’t. In those days Hong Kong was 16% of China’s total GDP. Now it is a bit less than 3%. Hell, given the growth we have seen in Guangzhou and Shenzhen over the last two decades, it isn't clear that Hong Kong is the Pearl River Delta's most successful city. The cold, hard facts of the matter is that China’s economy grows by two Hong Kongs a year. The region's economy is not important enough to Beijing for the protestors to use it as a bargaining chip.




Hong Kong's GDP as a percentage of China's national GDP, 1997-2013.

From: 施济津,王笑哲,郁夕之 [Shi Jijin, Wang Xiaozhe, and Yu Xizhi], “智谷趋势:待到2017普选,香港已成“二线城市”?[“Trigger Trend: By the 2017 elections, will Hong Kong already be a Tier-2 City?,],” 观察者  [The Observer] (28 September 2014).

This is the crucial weakness with the protestor’s place at the bargaining table: they have nothing to bargain with.

The movement's only real hope is that those who do have bargaining power—say, the United States or Europe —will become so concerned with the situation that they start putting pressure on Beijing to compromise with the protestors.

In the end this is the essence of the Occupy strategy: cause such a ruckus that international community gets involved and all of Hong Kong has to choose between supporting them or Beijing. Afterwords, accept whatever face-saving concessions the government offers them.

Let’s shift gears now and look at the other side of the equation.

What are the government’s demands?
  1. They want the protests to stop. 

I have suggested that the government does not attach much value to Hong Kong’s economy, so it is important to understand why the government cares about the city’s protests in the first place. The government in question is not CY Leung’s administration, which has an obvious stake in the conflict’s outcome, but the upper echelon of the Communist Party of China, especially the General Secretary of the Party and President of the People's Republic, Xi Jinping.

Many have suggested that the Party fears pro-democracy protests could spread to the rest of China if this succeeds or lasts too long. There is precious little evidence for this view. On the one hand, news of what is happening in Hong Kong is heavily censored and most mainland Chinese have only a fuzzy idea of what is happening there. They have not been seeing the pictures you have been seeing. More importantly, very few of the mainlanders who do know about the protests support them. David Wertime had an excellent piece up at Foreign Policy on the way mainland Chinese “netizens” have been framing the protests that discusses this point at some length. As he reports it, folks on the mainland have reacted to the protests with cynicism, anger or disgust; they characterize the Hong Kongers involved in the protests as spoiled, snotty, unpatriotic, or treasonous. What Wertime describes is exactly what I have seen in my own social network—including most of the Chinese nationals I know living in America who have seen the exact same news reports and photographs you and I have. Most mainlanders look at the demonstrations and see anti-China, not pro-democracy, protests.


The protestors' problem here is that a fair deal of their rhetoric is anti-China. Many (perhaps most) of the Hong Kong kids out there protesting think mainlanders are uncouth barbarians locusts whose pooping children and appetite for real estate have ruined the city. Out of the dozens of young Hong Kongers I have met, only one has ever introduced herself to me as Chinese. The most recent numbers from HKU's Public Opinion Program paint a similar picture: only one in five Hong Kongers identify first and foremost as Chinese nationals. [5]  This cultural split provides a lot of emotional fuel behind these protests. It should not be surprising that mainlanders—treated with the same sort of disdain liberal urbanites in San Francisco reserve for rednecks from Kentucky—are disinclined to view protests against their government charitably. As long as the protests carry this anti-China flavor the Party has no need to worry about them spreading to the rest of China.

Xi Jinping’s stake in the movement’s outcome is more personal. To understand why we must step back and look at the broader set of challenges facing the CPC's leadership. Their great test is the liberalization of the Chinese economy. They know as well as any Western economist that China’s economic growth will fall to pieces if real economic reform does not come soon. The window for reform is short—if it does not come in the next year or so China will see its own Japanese-style “lost decade.” There really is no other way out.[6] But reform is hard. To reform China’s broken financial and SOE system is to slaughter the cash cows of many powerful men. Liberalization cannot succeed unless the Party finds a way to shift the distribution of power within the country so that those who opposed liberalization can be silenced and the reforms can be forced through.


This is where Xi Jinping comes in.

The general consensus among Western “China hands” is that Xi Jinping is the strongest leader China has seen since Deng Xiaoping. The aggressive anti-corruption drive Mr. Xi has directed—which has imprisoned (or driven to suicide) more than 200,000 officials since it began two years ago—is probably the most visible symbol of Xi’s zealous centralization campaign, though signs of Xi’s power can also be seen in less trumpeted changes to Party’s internal structure. Whether the scheme has succeeded and Xi’s hand is strong enough to implement the reforms needed is still an open question. But for our purposes the most important aspect of the centralization drive is the political message that accompanies it. Xi Jingping has made it clear that economic liberalization does not mean political liberalization and that criticism of government policy will not be tolerated. The zeitgeist of the CPC in the Age of Xi is captured by his obsession with the Soviet Union’s collapse. In a now famous address to Party cadres on what lessons China can learn from Soviet failure he declared that the ultimate reason the USSR fell apart was "there was not one person man enough to turn back the tide." [7]

There you have it. Xi Jinping is the guy who has committed to be “man enough” to face down any challenge to the Party’s rule. The creditability of his entire project relies on his ability to maintain his reputation of a tough authoritarian. He cannot let any set of Chinese protestors “win” without suffering severe audience costs. He has skin in the game.

How can the government compel the protestors to meet its demands?

The Communist Party of China has two options. Option one is force and violence. This will work, especially if it is truly violent. Events havee shown that limited violence just make the protestors stronger. Real bloodshed, on the other hand, will end things. 

Option two is…wait. Think of it this way: the protestors have to eat. They have to pay their rent. Many have to feed their families. They are blocking off the businesses of many other people who also need to do these things. Given all of this, how long can they continue their occupation?

Only as long as it takes for the protestors to get tired, worn out, hungry, and hot. If nothing seems to be happening for long enough then the momentum will be lost and the main mass of protestors will slowly melt away.

Now you can see the contours of the conflict ahead. The government will do everything it can to keep tensions low—they will try and wait this out. The protestors, on the other hand, are going to do everything in their power to get the government to over react. They want to be bludgeoned and pepper sprayed. Repression like this polarizes the Hong Kong people, bolstering Occupy's support among their fellow Hong Kongers, and it seizes the international spotlight. The protestors are quite aware that in the eyes of a Western liberal nothing sanctifies a movement quicker than a baptism of pepper spray and tear gas.


Over the past eight days we have already seen this dynamic at work. Earlier in the week the protestors leveled an ultimatum demanding CY Leung resign or they would lead students to storm and occupy government buildings. Earlier this year the Sunflower Student Movement  proved that this is an extremely effective way to prolong and escalate a stand-off. Had the students in Hong Kong managed to pull off what the students in Taiwan did last spring it would be a big deal. They did not pull it off. The government managed to deflect the threat by proposing "talks" with the protestors. The talks never panned out--but the ultimatum was not renewed. Now, as the Golden Week holiday ends and businesses and schools reopen, the government is trying once again to open talks with the protestors. It is an effective stalling tactic ideal for sapping the protestors' stamina. At the time of this writing, most of the protest sites are manned by a few hundred protestors a piece.

I don't expect this lull to last.

To succeed the protestors must play a perverse kind of game. They have a strong incentive to do everything they can to push the government to just under the point where real military power is used against them. They will try to poke the dragon without provoking its flames.

It is a dangerous game to play. It also has little chance of success. Notice the poll numbers cited in the first infographic above; the overwhelming majority of Hong Kongers don't think Occupy's campaign can or will make a difference. I asked a friend who spent most of the last week protesting at Causeway why so many students were showing up to protest when so few of them believed the protests will change anything. She replied with a quotation from Alex Chow, one of the protest's main student leaders:

 "We do not act when we see hope. We see hope when we act." [8]


FURTHER READING

It is hard to point readers to specific sources for many of the ideas presented here because a great deal of it comes from Twitter. Thousands of tweets have been fired off over the last week and I regret to say that I have not saved the most important ones. Most of my thoughts on the matter developed as I read and tweeted with the folks listed below.


The South China Morning Post is the best source in English for clear updates on the situation on the ground.  It has has an active "live updates" page and posts a summary of all the day/night's major events every 12 hours.

This live video stream is superior. It includes simultaneous live coverage from NOW, Apple Daily, and another local channel. It appears to be deactivated until things get hot again.

The best people on twitter for a steady stream of updates from the field tend to be reporters and free lancers working there. Alan Wong (@byAlanWong), Carmen Ng (@Carmen_KaMan), and Joanna Chiu (@joannachiu) are all solid picks.

For broader analysis of Chinese politics as a whole I recommend a few names from my blog-roll: Bill Bishop (who runs The Sinocism Newsletter and tweets at @niubi), Jamie Kenny (blogs at Blood and Treasure and tweets with @jkbloodtreasure), and Peter Lee (blogs at China Matters, writes articles for Asia Times Online, and tweets at @chinahand).

If Adam CathcartAnanth Krishnan, Eric Hundman, Gady Epstein, or Jeremy Goldkorn had blogs I would read them. The last fellow has a pod-cast however, and the backgrounder they did on Hong Kong's growing protest movement a few months ago may be useful.

Conservative readers may notice that the China-watching community leans left.  You'll just have to deal with that. 

Finally, Facebook or Wechat chat threads, e-mails, and face-to-face conversations with friends from or in Hong Kong and the mainland have also shaped my views of the situation. I thank all of my Chinese friends for being willing to talk to me about such an emotional and uncomfortable issue.


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] Peter Lee, “Beijing Reaps Bitter Fruits in Hong Kong,” Asian Times Online (29 September 2014).

[2] Hong Kong has never had universal suffrage, but freedom of association is a liberty Hong Kongers have long enjoyed. I submit that most Hong Kongers are far more alarmed with the erosion of this liberty than they are with the election laws--after all, most of them never expected popular suffrage anyway. This might explain why the reaction to HKPD's tactics was so explosive.

[3] The phrase comes from Thomas Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p. 1. Yes, I am not using it quite as he intended.

[4] Chris Patten, "The Hong Kong Government Must Listen to its People," South China Morning Post (28 September 2014).

[5] The terms used in these surveys can be a bit tricky, for in Chinese there is a linguistic distinction between people who are ethnically or culturally  "Chinese" and those who are nationals of China. The survey asked Hong Kongers to identify as: "中国人,香港人,中国的香港人 香港的中国人 or 其他。”

See University of Hong Kong POP, "HKU POP releases latest survey on Hong Kong people’s ethnic identity" (17 June 2014). Their breakdown of the strength of Chinese identity by age is also worth looking at.

[6] My views on this question closely follow those of Michael Pettis, who explained the important details in depth in a brilliant essay last month:."What Does a "Good" Adjustment Look Like? China's Financial Markets (1 September 2014).

[7] Willy Lam, "No. 1 is Key: Xi Jinping on the Art of Leadership," Jamestown Foundation: The China Brief, vol 14, iss 15 (13 July 2014).

[8] In Chinese that is "不是看見希望才行動,而是行動才會看見希望" 

For the original source, see "港學運領袖周永康:勿寄望溫柔換來變革,"  自由时报 (29 September 2014).

A collection of articles, essays, and blog post of merit.

TOP BILLING

 "What Does a "Good" Adjustment Look Like?"
 Michael Pettis, China's Financial Markets (1 September 2014).

This essay is long but excellent. It is also the best thing I have read about the Chinese economy in months. Two quotes to give readers the flavor of the piece:

But with nominal GDP is growing at 20%, this extremely incapable investor still makes a substantial profit by borrowing at 7% and earning 10%, even though his investment creates no value for the economy. His “profit”, in this case, is simply transferred from the pockets of saving households.
Under these conditions it should be no surprise that borrowers with access to bank credit overuse capital, and use it very inefficiently. They would be irrational if they didn’t, especially if their objective was not profit but rather to maximize employment, revenues, market share, or opportunities for rent capture (as economists politely call it).

The second point to remember is that in a severely financially repressed system the benefits of growth are distributed in ways that are not only unfair but must create imbalances. Because low-risk investments return roughly 20% on average in a country with 20% nominal GDP growth, financial repression means that the benefits of growth are unfairly distributed between savers (who get just the deposit rate, say 3%), banks, who get the spread between the lending and the deposit rate (say 3.5%) and the borrower, who gets everything else (13.5% in this case, assuming he takes little risk – even more if he takes risk).

This “unfair” distribution of returns is the main reason why the household share of income has collapsed from the 1990s until recently. I calculate that for most of this century as much as 5-8% of GDP was transferred from households to borrowers. The IMF calculated a transfer amount equal to 4% of GDP, but said it might be double that number, so we are in the same ballpark. This is a very large number, and explains most of why the growth in household income so sharply lagged the growth in GDP.

And:
Clearly there are many risks to Xi’s political campaign, and unfortunately I have no special insight into how these are likely to play out, but if Xi is able to consolidate power enough to impose the reforms proposed during the Third Plenum, Chinese growth rates will continue to decline sharply but in an orderly way. Average growth during the decade of his administration will drop to below 3-4%, but an orderly adjustment means that not only will the hidden transfers from the household sector be eliminated, they will also be reversed.
If China can reform land ownership, reform the hukou system, enforce a fairer and more predictable legal system on businesses, reduce rent-capturing by oligopolistic elites, reform the financial system (both liberalizing interest rates and improving the allocation of capital), and even privatize assets, 3-4% GDP growth can be accompanied by growth in household income of 5-7%. Remember that by definition rebalancing means that household income must grow faster than GDP (as happened in Japan during the 1990-2010 period).

This has important implications. First, the idea that slower GDP growth will cause social disturbance or even chaos because of angry, unemployed mobs is not true. If Chinese households can continue to see their income growth maintained at 5% or higher, they will be pretty indifferent to the seeming collapse in GDP growth (as indeed Japanese households were during the 1990-2010 period). Second, because consumption creates a more labor-intensive demand than investment, much lower GDP growth does not necessarily equate to much higher unemployment.

Read the whole thing. While Pettis does not explicitly make this case, essays such as this have convinced me that the decisions made in Beijing are first and foremost an attempt to shape China's political economy. Those paying attention to developments in Chinese foreign policy or domestic affairs will not have trouble connecting the economic realities Pettis discusses with Beijing's behavior in both arenas.

The Samurai Archive Podcast

This is an outstanding group-discussion style podcast on Japanese history. I have been so impressed that I have added the Samurai Archives to the Stage's blog roll. This episode on Oda Nobunaga was the one that got me hooked.


THE REPUBLIC

"Being a Young Adult in this Generation Sort of Feel Like Stumbling Upon the Desolate Remains"
Comment by BecomesAngry, reddit/r/Showerthoughts (10 September 2014)


This may be the most depressing thing you will read this week. Everything I have written about how the rising generation has no future and the threat this poses to America's  stability and prosperity is in here.

"The Creepy State Attracts Creeps"
Mark Safranski, Zenpundit (4 September 2014).

 This deserves to be national, "Call your Congressmen!" news. It isn't.

"How the GOP Got this Way"
Michael Barone, Washington Times (8 September 2014).

A convincing comparison of the relationship between the Tea Party and the GOP today with the Peace Movement and the Democratic Party in the 1960s-70s.

"Places With Guns Don't Have Higher Crime Rates,"
Robert VerBruggen  Real Clear Policy Blog (5 September 2014)

"What the NeoReaction Doesn't Understand About Democracy"
Eli Dourado, The Umlaut (20 August 2014). 
In a 2004 paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, economists Casey Mulligan, Ricard Gil, and Xavier Sala-i-Martin empirically examine whether the world’s democracies and nondemocracies have different policies, with intriguing results. They find, controlling for economic and demographic variables, that democracies have similar government consumption, education spending, social spending, corporate tax rates, and payroll tax policies as nondemocracies. The only economic or social policy that the authors tested that significantly differed under democracy was income tax progressivity—democracies, it turns out, have flatter tax codes than do nondemocracies.....

THE MIDDLE KINGDOM

"Transformation or Bust, Part II"
Worth Wray, Forbes (11 August 2014)

"Zombies once Destroyed Japan's Economy--Now They Are Infecting China's"
Gwynn Guilford, Quartz (29 August 2014).


See my comments above about how China's political economy drives Zhongnanhai's decision making process for why the data included in these two essays is important.


"Hong Kong's Share of China's GDP"
Tweet by @ianbremmer (2 September 2014).

This one chart will tell you more about Beijing's  recent moves in Hong Kong than an essay of two thousand words could.

"Review: Hard Road Home: Selected Essays by Ye Fu"
John Butler, Asian Review of Books (2014)

I reviewed this book with great praise back in March. It is nice to see another thoughtful review. 

"ISIS Tentacles Reach Towards China"
Peter Lee, China Matters (14 August 2014)

I am incredibly impressed with this essay; most China hands now the Beijing scene well, and the best of them keep track of top players in Tokyo, Hanoi, Seoul, Manila, and other parts of maritime East Asia. Very few do all of that and know enough about Pakistani internal politics and Jihadist networks to write an essay like this.

"The US and China: sliding from engagement to coercive diplomacy"
David Lampton, PacNet, no. 53 (4 Aug 2014).
Some in the China studies field have argued against the proposition that China’s regional policy has become more assertive. I am not among them.  There has been a qualitative change in Chinese regional policy and broader strategic alignment....
All this gives rise to several questions: 
1)      Why (or to what extent) has Beijing changed a successful policy that for more than three decades facilitated a dramatic increase in Chinese comprehensive national power without engendering a proportionate rise in the anxieties of others? 
2)      To what extent is China responding to the behavior of others and to what extent is it seizing on small provocations to make advances?
3)      Why is Beijing jeopardizing the primacy of its internal, economic reform goals by alienating substantial chunks of its periphery and running the risk of an ever-stronger international coalition pushing back? 
4)      Why is Beijing allowing itself to be driven into a corner of alignment with Russia, an economic underperformer that violates the PRC’s own 60 year-old-principle of respecting national sovereignty?
5)      What are the lessons that we learned from the Cold War about strategy, deterrence, and coercive diplomacy that have applicability in current circumstances in a far different globalized world?
6)      Has US policy in any way given added push to negative developments?
7)      What are the appropriate (and effective) policy responses available to Washington?  What are clearly disastrous paths that Washington and others should eschew?....

"China's Education Gap"
Helen Gao, The New York Times (4 September 2014)

THE HUMAN SCIENCES

"The First Smile"
Mike Graziano, Aeon Magazine (13 August 2014)
Long before written symbols, even before spoken language, our ancestors communicated by gesture. Even now, a lot of what we communicate to each other is non-verbal, partly hidden beneath the surface of awareness. We smile, laugh, cry, cringe, stand tall, shrug. These behaviours are natural, but they are also symbolic. Some of them, indeed, are pretty bizarre when you think about them. Why do we expose our teeth to express friendliness? Why do we leak lubricant from our eyes to communicate a need for help? Why do we laugh?

"Genes Influence Young Children’s Human Figure Drawings and Their Association With Intelligence a Decade Later"
Rosalind Arden1, Maciej Trzaskowski1, Victoria Garfield2 and Robert Plomin1, Psychological Science, (Publ. online before print, 20 August 2014).

"Der Todd des Der Euro" and "The 'Anthropology' of the Financial Crises"
"Pseudeoerasmus," Pseudoerasmus (1 August 2014).

Psuedo's dissection of the Eurozone is both novel and deeply informed . The posts' argument ranges from demographics, to anthropology, economics, and sociology--all in all strongly recommended!


HISTORY 


 "Anthropometry, Physical Anthropology, and the Reconstruction of Ancient Health, Nutrition, and Living Standards"
Geoffrey Kron, Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, vol 58, iss 1 (2005), pp. 68-83.

This survey of skeleton heights from classical Greece and Rome is useful. It turns out that Roman and classical Greek men were taller than Italians or Greeks born before and during the Industrial Revolution! In contrast, the mean height for U.S. Army recruits barely budged between 1776 and 1943.

See also:  "Ancient Skulls Show Civilization Rose as Testosterone Fell," Matt Picht, KTVU (2 September 2014).

"Plant Breeding, Not Working Slaves Harder, Drove Cotton Efficiency gains in the South" and "Baptism by Blood Cotton"
"Pseudeoerasmus," Pseudoerasmus (5 & 9 September 2014)

"Where We Came From and Where We Went, State by State"
Gregor Aisch, Robert Gebeloff, and Kevin Quealy, New York Times (19 August 2014)

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS

"AfPak in a Nutshell"
 Adam Elkus, Rethinking Security, (31 July 2014).

If you missed this piece when it was originally published two months ago you should go and read it now. I'll be passing this post along for another four or five months to everyone I can.

Adam Elkus has a new blog by the way. See his "Rationality is Overrated" and "The Ballad of BoxeR" to get a sense for the topics he writes about there.

"The Future of Warfare: Small, Many, and Smart vs. Few and Exquisite"
TX Hammes, War on the Rocks (16 July 2014).

Power and Order in Asia: A Survey of Regional Expectations 
Michael Green and Nicolas Szechenyi, CSIS Asia Program (Landham, MD: Rowand and Littlefield, July 2014).

"Kim Jung-Un: Starving for Power"

Patrick Cronin, War on the Rocks (25 August 2014).

MISCELLANY 

"Does pre-industrial warming double the anthropogenic total?"
William Ruddiman,Steve Vavrus,John Kutzbach,Feng He, The Anthropocene Review, vol. 1 no.2 (August 2014), 147-153.

"The Future of College?"
Braeme Wood, The Atlantic (13 August 2014).

See also: Burt Likko, "Abolish Advanced Placement" Ordinary Times (14 August 2014).

"Speaking of Southeast Asia"
 Nicolas Farelly, New Mandela (5 September 2014)
So the challenge for New Mandala contributors is to suggest a Southeast Asian word that you think should be (but currently isn’t) used in other languages. It can be a word that is already on its way towards such usage, an obvious choice might be farang (from the Thai), or perhaps a concept from completely outside the usual frame, such as my old favourite, Sutdu (a Jinghpaw term for “tycoon”)....

RECOMMENDED VIEWING



See also parts two and three of Adam Tooze's outstanding set of lectures.

This is Part II of a two part series. We strongly recommend reading Part I before reading another sentence of this post.

A modern depiction of Huo Qubing's cavalry charging a surprised Xiongnu  force.

Image Source.

Edward Luttwak is wrong. The Han did not corrupt, bribe, or culturally weaken the Xiongnu Empire into submission. If the “peace marriage” (heqin) system Luttwak describes did not do the Xiongnu in, what did?

To answer that question it is best to step back for a moment and reflect on why the Xiongnu were such an intractable strategic dilemma for the Han in the first place. By the Han's own estimate the population of the Xiongnu Empire was only one twentieth of China's. They were undisciplined, technologically backward, and poor. They had no professional military, little in way of bureaucracy, and nothing save foggy oral history to inspire or guide them.

Their success rested on one key advantage: mobility.

When we moderns think of the advantages mobile horse archers have over infantry armies our minds jump to the tactical—Parthian archers wheeling about at Carrhae, Mongol faux-retreats, and their like. However, for most of Inner Asian history nomadic mobility had its greatest impact at the strategic level of warfare. The nomads had no population centers to defend. They had no walls to guard and did not have to worry about holding key strategic points. When an enemy force threatened their homes they could simply pack these homes up and move them somewhere else until the danger was over. If an enemy army could not be beat in a pitched battle then the nomads would not fight a pitched battle. They would retreat, disappearing into the desert or grasslands until the enemy was forced to return home. These retreats and migrations took a toll on the nomads' herds, but it did not bring them to economic ruin.

The same was never true for the Chinese. The economic costs of any expedition against a nomadic foe were enormous. To call a soldier on a campaign was to take him away a farm; the state not only had to pay him for his service but had to do so with a smaller tax base. The state also had to feed him while on the campaign. The bigger the force the more supplies needed to feed it. The steppe is hostile to invading armies; there are few farms to plunder or cities to loot. Everything the army will eat on the campaign must be brought with it. This means long supply trains. The further the Chinese chased the nomads into the steppe the longer and less protected these supply trains would become. Eventually the invading force would reach a point where their supply lines could be stretched no farther. If at this point they decide to turn around and return home then they have wasted their entire treasury and gained nothing from it. On the other hand, if they try to hold their position the nomads will circle round, cut the supply lines, and leave the invading force to starve in the desert. The Chinese are offered a grim choice between retreat and death.

Worst of all, once the invaders have returned home and disbanded (or if they chose death and were all slaughtered in the desert) there is nothing to stop the nomads from returning to the border and continuing on with the standard raids, surprise attacks, and pillaging nomadic warriors are famous for [1].

For two millennia this was the default pattern for Sino-nomadic warfare. Not all of these conflicts followed the pattern; occasionally innovators like Chingis Khan would arise, finding ways to transform retreating nomads into an aggressive, civilization-toppling, military machine. From the Chinese side there would also be the occasional innovator who understood what it took to wage war on the steppe. For the Han, this man's name was Wei Qing.

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The first years of the Han-Xiongnu War were a disaster for the Chinese. It was not until a second generation of leaders—familiar with the steppe and its peoples—came to prominence that the Han stumbled upon a more successful strategy. Wei Qing and his nephew Huo Qubing are the most famous of these men; their famed victories were built upon a type new military operation that was often called a flying cavalry column. The grand historian describes these campaigns in uncharacteristically vivid terms:


The Han strategists plotted together, saying, “Zhao Xin, the marquis of Xi, who is acting as adviser to the Shanyu is convinced that, since the Xiongnu are living North of the desert, the Han forces can never reach them.” They therefore agreed to fatten the horses on grain and send out a force of 100,000 cavalry, along with 140,000 horses to carry baggage and other equipment (this in addition to the horses provided for transporting provisions). They ordered the force to split up into two groups commanded by the general in chief Wei Qing and the general of swift cavalry Huo Qubing. The former was to ride out of Dingxiang and the latter out of Dai; it was agreed that the entire force would cross the desert and attack the Xiongnu. 

….Wei Qing’s army, having traveled 1,000 li [aprox 310 miles; 644 km] beyond the border, emerged from the desert just at the point where the Shanyu was waiting. Spying the Shanyu’s forces, Wei Qing likewise pitched camp and waited. He ordered the armored wagons to be ranged in a circle about the camp and at the same time sent out 5,000 cavalry to attack the Xiongnu. The Xiongnu dispatched some 10,000 of their own cavalry to meet the attack. Just as the sun was setting, a great wind arose, whirling dust into the faces of them until the two armies could no longer see each other. The Chinese then dispatched more men to swoop out to the left and the right and surround the Shanyu. When the Shanyu perceived how numerous the Han soldiers were and perceived that the men and horses were still in strong fighting condition, he realized that he could win no advantage in battle…. And accompanied by several hundred of his finest horsemen, broke through the Han encirclement and fled to the northwest…. All in all Wei Qing killed or captured 10,00 of the enemy, He then proceeded to Zhao Xin’s fort at Mt. Tianyan, where he seized the Xiongnu’s supplies of grain and feasted his men. He and his army remained there only a day, however, and then setting fire to the remaining grain, began the journey home.
Meanwhile Huo Qubing with his 50,000 cavalry rode more than 1,000 li north from Dai and Youbeiping and attacked the forces of the Wise King of the Left. He was accompanied by a force of carriages and baggage similar to what traveled with Wei Qing’s army, but had no subordinate generals beneath him….When Huo Qubing’s army returned to the capital the emperor issued an edict which read: “The general of swift cavalry Huo Qubing has led forth the trips and personally commanded a force of barbarians captured in previous campaigns, carrying with him only light provisions and crossing the great dessert. Fording the Huozhangqu, he executed the enemy leader Bijuqi and then turned to strike at the enemy general of the left, cutting down his pennants and seizing his war drums. He crossed over Mt. Lihou, forded the Gonglu, captured the Tuntou king, the Han king, and one other, as well as eighty generals, ministers, household administrators, and chief commandments of the enemy… He seized a great multitude of the enemy, taking 70,443 captives while only three tenths of his own men were lost in the campaign.[2]
This passage has within it everything you need to know to understand the strategy the Han used to defeat the Xiongnu. If you skimmed through it go read it again. You will have trouble finding any of Luttwak's "addiction" or "indoctrination" here.

There are a few things worth noting about the kind of military operation recorded in this account.

The logistics machine the Han created to defeat the Xiongnu is one of the marvels of the ancient world [3]. Each of the Han’s campaigns was a feat worthy of Alexander the Great. But Alexander only pushed to India once. The Han launched these campaigns year after year for decades [4]. The sheer expanse of the conflict is staggering; Han armies ranged from Fergana to Manchuria, theaters 3,000 miles apart. Each campaign required the mobilization of tens of thousands of men and double the number of animals. Chang Chun-shu has tallied the numbers:
"In the many campaigns in the Western regions (Hexi, Qiang, and Xiyu) and the Xiongnu land, the Han sent a total force of over 1.2 million cavalrymen, 800,000 foot soldiers, and 10.5 million men in support and logistic roles. The total area of lad seized in Hexi alone was 426,700 square kilometers. In developing this region the Han spent 100 billion in cash per year, compared to the regular annual government revenue of 12 billion. In the process the Han government moved from the interior over 1 million people to populate and develop the Hexi river. Thus the Han conquest of the land west of the Yellow River was the greatest expansion in Chinese history." [5] 

 The demands of the war forced the Han to restructure not only the Chinese state, but all of Chinese society. [6] The Han’s willingness to radically restructure their society to meet the immense financial and logistic demands of an eighty year conflict is one of the central reasons they emerged victorious from it.

Huo Qubing, Wei Qing and the other generals on the frontier were able to negate the nomad's central advantage by changing the nature of the Han armies they commanded. Frontier armies were no longer free holding peasant draftees from the interior, but professional soldiers permanently stationed on the frontier. This is important, because it gave them the time to master the equestrian techniques a column of flying cavalry required. By the end of the war the Han cavalry were just as good at lancing and shooting from horseback as the nomads themselves (the recruits often were nomads). Tactically they were the Xiongnu’s superiors.

The switch to a cavalry dominated force opened up new options to the Han army. Now it was possible to move just as fast as the nomads—if a Han force set out in surprise then they could usually arrive in the midst of the Xiongnu before the nomads knew what was coming. At best the Xiongnu were given a small space of time to prepare a response, and at worst the Han would arrive in the middle of the night and slaughter the Xiongnu in their sleep.

Slaughter is the proper word to use here. The only way to dismantle a nomadic empire is to play the steppe warfare game as well as they do. That meant changing both the strategic aims and tactical principles Chinese armies usually relied on in extended campaigns. Sunzi’s judgment that “one who excels in employing the military subjugates other people’s armies without engaging in battle, captures people’s fortified cities without attacking them, and destroys other people’s states without prolonged fighting. He must fight under Heaven with the paramount aim of ‘preservation’[7] was sensible in the context it was written—a world of agrarian warfare in an interstate system of two dozen petty kingdoms that lacked the means to sustain extended operations—but it was suicidal on the steppe. “Preservation” cannot be the paramount aim of an army operating on the steppe. A nomad that gets away is a nomad that will fight you on a later day. Conversely, nomadic peoples had very little in terms of lands, cities, or possessions worth plundering or ‘preserving’. A nomadic empire’s greatest wealth was its people. Warfare between nomadic confederations were ultimately wars over people, where one side would do everything in its power to slaughter as much of the enemy as they could and capture, forcibly resettle, and incorporate into their own military anybody left over.

The Han followed the same basic strategy. The aim of generals like Wei Qing and Huo Qubing was to kill every single man, woman and child they came across and by doing so instill such terror in their enemies that tribes would surrender en masse upon their arrival. By trapping the Xiongnu into one bloody slug match after another the Han forced them into a grinding war of attrition that favored the side with the larger population reserves. The Xiongnu were unprepared for such carnage in their own lands; within the first decade of the conflict the Han’s sudden attacks forced the Xiongnu to retreat from their homeland in the Ordos  to the steppes of northern Mongolia. Then came a sustained—and successful—effort to apply the same sort of pressure on the Xiongnu’s allies and vassals in Turkestan and Fergana. By sacking oasis towns and massacring tribes to the east, the Han were able to terrorize the peoples of Turkestan into switching their allegiance to China or declare their independence from the Xiongnu.

The Xiongnu were left isolated north of the Orkhorn. Under constant military pressure and cut off from the goods they had always extorted from agrarian peoples in China and Turkestan, the Xiongnu political elite began to fracture. A series of succession crises and weak leaders ensued; by 58 BC the Xiongnu’s domain had fallen into open civil war. It was one of the aspiring claimants to the title of Chanyu that this conflict produced who traveled to Chang’an, accepted the Han’s suzerainty, and ended eighty years of war between the Han and the Xiongnu [8].

How did the Chinese transform an enemy whose realm stretched thousands of miles across Inner Asia into a mere tributary vassal? They did it through flame and blood and terror. Any narrative of Han-Xiongnu relations that passes over these eighty years of grueling warfare is a distorted depiction of the times.


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This brings us back to Mr. Luttwak’s essay. He claims that a pattern can be found in Han-Xiongnu relations that is repeating itself today:

The method forms a logical sequence:

Stage One: start by conceding all that must be conceded to the superior power including tribute, in order to avoid damage and obtain whatever forbearance is offered. But this in itself entangles the ruling class of the still-superior power in webs of material dependence that reduce its independent vitality and strength.

Stage Two: offer equality in a privileged bipolarity that excludes all lesser powers, or “G-2” in current parlance. That neutralizes the still powerful Other party, and isolates the manipulated soon-to-be former equal from all its potential allies, preventing from balancing China with a coalition.

Stage Three: finally, when the formerly superior power has been weakened enough, withdraw all tokens of equality and impose subordination. [9]


It should now be clear to readers how silly all of this sounds. We know that Stage One did not work; the independence and vitality of the Xiongnu elite was not weakened by dependence on Chinese goods. The Xiongnu elite was destroyed through merciless Han military campaigns and vicious civil war, not addiction or corruption. Stage Two never happened; it was the Xiongnu, not the Chinese, who insisted on ‘privileged bipolarity’ and a sharp demarcation between the land of the Han and the “people of the bow.” An essential element of the Han victory was their decision to establish independent contact with the Xiongnu vassal states and tribes and tear them from the Xiongnu sphere of influence. Stage Three is just as strange a construction; the Han ‘withdrew all tokens of equality’ at the outset of hostilities, but it took eight decades of grinding war before subordination could be ‘imposed.’ 

Despite all of this, Luttwak's contention that the Han-Xiongnu war left an imprint on the Chinese psyche that endures to the modern day is not lunacy. The legacy of this war looms large in the historical memory of the Chinese people; its influence can be discerned today if you are looking closely for it. "Emperor Wu['s military expansion] framed the concept of empire in such a way that [for the first time] it became an ideal of political culture in the Chinese mind and gradually fermented as a part of the Chinese conscious. Both the extraordinary kingship of Wu and the astonishing magnitude of the empire he built became the standard measure for dynastic greatness and the ideal model of empire building in China." [10] Anyone who has had the opportunity to ask Chinese friends or acquaintances about the PRC's troubled relationship with the Uighur minority in the far reaches of Xinjiang can attest that the connection between national glory and dominance of the "Western regions" implicit in Wudi's policies is still very much a part of the Chinese view of the world. 

The war also created an important precedent for future Sino-nomad confrontations and the pattern set by Han-Xiongu relations can be seen in later times. The early Tang campaigns against the Turks and the Qing Dynasty’s successful conquest of Mongolia and Xinjiang were very similar to the operations of Wei Qing, Huo Qubing, and the other generals who fought in the first few decades of the Han-Xiongnu wars [10]. The truth is, however, that there was no single “barbarian handling” strategy applied consistently throughout Chinese history. Some dynasties preferred to trade with and appease steppe leaders; others attempted to “fight barbarians with barbarians” and play different tribal groups off of each other to ensure that none became strong enough to threaten the empire. Yet others tried to block the nomads out of China entirely (the Ming Dynasty’s Great Wall being the most famous example). [11]. The Chinese strategic tradition is not a uniform set of concepts and doctrines, and Chinese strategic theory is marked more by its intellectual diversity than intellectual continuity. Chinese statesmen turning to their country’s heritage for wisdom have many different strands to pull from.

Thus the premise of Luttwak’s essay is a tad nonsensical. If there is any reason to excuse him for this nonsense, it is that there are very few books or resources he--or anyone else--can call on to obtain the background knowledge these kind of projects require. In English there is no history of the Han dynasty’s foreign policy. There is no military history of Han-Xiongnu war; nor is there a narrative political history of the period as a whole [12].

One of the lessons I take away from all of this is that it is time for scholars with expertise on ancient China to return to political and military history. The scattered work of a few academics withstanding, for the last two generations the historiography of Warring States and Han times has been dominated by the study of philosophy, social and cultural history, archaeology, and literary and linguistic analysis. These studies are important. The great majority have been useful contributions to human knowledge; I have benefited immensely from reading many of them. But essays like Luttwak's make it clear that Western historians need to devote more time and effort to China's political and military history. China's rise in the 21st century has created popular interest in the wars and conflicts of its past. Unfortunately, those who want to study the Chinese strategic tradition or its military heritage have very few options to turn to. [13] The books demanded simply do not exist. If actual experts do not write them then folks like Mr. Luttwak will. Unfortunately, the faux knowledge America’s foreign policy wonks will take away from flawed sources like this might have a real impact on the way these experts shape U.S.-China relations today. They deserve better history than what Luttwak offers here.



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[1] This is not a novel analysis. The essential problems with the fighting nomadic warriors were articulated clearly by many of officials of the Han themselves. Here is one:
“Han Anguo, however, replied: there is no profit that comes to an army that has to fight 1.000 miles from home The Xiongnu move on the feet of swift war horses, and as a flock of birds, so that it is extremely difficult to corner them and bring them under control. Though we were to win possession of their land, it would be no great addition to the empire, and though we ruled their hosts of warriors they would do little to strengthen our power. From the most ancient times the Xiongnu have never been regarded as a part of humanity. If we march thousands of miles away and try t fight with them, our men and horses will be worn out, and then the wretches will muster all their strength and fall upon us. An arrow from the most powerful cross bows, when it has reached the end of its flight, will not pierce the sheerest Lu gauze; the strongest win, when its force is spent, will not lift a goose feather—not because both are not strong at the outset, but because their force in time is dispersed.” 
SJ 108 (Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty, vol II, trans Burton Watson, p. 112).

[2] SJ 110, 111 (Records, vol II, p. 153, 175-176).

[3] A point well articulated by Li Feng in Early China: a Social and Cultural History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), who calls the campaigns "unprecedented in world history" (p. 275). 

[4] Between the start of the war in 133 BC and Han Wudi's death in 90 BC, there were 20 large scale expeditions into Mongolia alone. Chang Chun-shu, The Rise of the Chinese Empire, vol I: Nation, State, and Imperialism in Early China, ca 1600 BC-A.D. 8 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), p. 164.

[5] ibid., pp. 2-3.

[6] For a comprehensive summary, see ibid., 239-236; for a polemical critique by a contemporary, see SJ 30, (Records, vol II, pp.  61-88).

[7] Sunzi Bingfa (The Art of War),ch. III, trans. Ralph Sawyer, in The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993), p. 161.

[8] I should note that I put the end of the war at Huhuanye's formal surrender in 53 BC, not the battle of Ikh Bayan (89 BC), as some folks (like Wikipedia!) claim.

The best account of the war's end is Sophia-Karin Psarras, "Han and Xiongnu: A Reexamination of Cultural and Political Relations (II)," Monumeta Serica, vol 52 (2004), pp. 37-49. See also  Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC-1757 AD (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1989), pp. 60-67; Yü Ying-shih "The Hsiung-nu," The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 135-141.

[9] Edward Luttwak,"The Cycles--or Stages--of Chinese History," Strategika, Issue 11 (14 February 2014), p. 9.

[10] David Graff. "Strategy and contingency in the Tang defeat of the Eastern Turks, 629- 630," in Warfare in Inner Asian history (500-1800), ed. Nicola Di Cosmo (Leiden: Brill, 2001); 
Peter Purdue, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2006), 174-301. 

[11] For surveys that capture the diversity of this experience, see Barfield, The Perilous Frontier; Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Sechen Jachid and  V. J. Symons,, War and Peace along the Great Wall (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1989);Morris Rassabi, ed.,China Among Equals: The Middle Kingdom and Its Neighbors, 10th-14th Centuries (Berkley: University of California Press, 1983).

[12] Let me explain this sentence lest readers question how I can make such a claim in an essay with 29 different foot notes. The Cambridge History of China, Ch'in and Han is the standard reference for the period and includes essays on each on each of these topics, but is devoted to none of them  (it also costs $130+).  Similar points can be made for The Cambridge History of Inner Asia, Warfare in Inner Asian History, Military Culture in Imperial China, and other collected-essay volumes of this type. Thomas Barfield's Perilous Frontiers and Nicolas di Cosmo's Ancient China and its Enemies are both excellent works, but their focus is on the Xiongnu, not the Han. Michael Lowe's Crisis and Conflict in Han China is a rare political history for the period, but it begins after the reign of Han Wudi, skipping the first century of the former Han dynasty. Mark Edward Lewis' Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han is a survey of the entire period I would recommend to anyone, but it is organized topically and does not provide a narrative account of the dynasty's political or military developments. Similar limitations face books like Li Feng's Early China or Valerie Hansen's Open Empire whose large scope forces the authors to restrict themselves to topical analysis of the period. Yu Ying-Shih's Trade and Expansion in Han China  has many interesting things to say about Han foreign relations and the Han-Xiongnu war, but only if these things impacted Han-nomadic economic exchange, which is the subject of the study. The best candidate of all is Chang Chun-shu's two volume The Rise of Chinese Empire, which has many pages of analysis on both the course of the war and the decision making process of the Han court. However, Chang's book is not a work of diplomatic, military, or political history, but a history of Han institutions. His focus is on how the Han adapted their government structures  to meet the needs of Han Wudi's campaigns. 

Without digging into academic journals,  this is about it. There are no biographies of Han Gaozu, Han Wudi, or other notable emperors of the Han, no narrative accounts of the dynasty's first century, and no military history of Han Wudi's campaigns or the Han-Xiongnu war published in English.

[13] This is true despite the fact that we are living in what historian Kenneth Swope calls "the golden age of Chinese military history in the West."  Kenneth Swope, "Review: Military Culture in Imperial China," De re Militari (April 2009). As note 12 should make clear, this 'golden age' has left many subjects untouched.