The Moon’s a Balloon

“What is success? It is a toy balloon among children armed with pins”

In the last few days, U.S. jet fighters have intercepted four balloons and popped them. Although the military has not officially admitted it, all four appear to be balloons equipped with electronics for spying. It is possible that we will never know, as what they manage to find is probably a military secret.

President Biden’s decision to bring these devices down is in sharp contrast to Trump, who let three or four such devices float over the U.S. during his régime without bringing it to anyone’s attention. Typically, he was full of anti-Chinese bluster—bluster, that did not translate into action.

We know that the Chinese have launched a number of spy satellites. Why, I wonder, did they feel it was necessary to supplement their findings with such a low-tech device as a balloon? Is it possible that their spy satellites did not produce satisfactory information? Were the Chinese balloons self-propelled? Or did they just drift any which where at the mercy of the winds? I doubt we’ll ever know.

Paper Tiger?

Soldiers of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) march in formation during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People’s Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

It is fashionable in the United States to overestimate the Chinese as an international aggressor. Since its involvement in Korea some seventy years ago, China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) has not acquitted itself particularly well:

  1. In 1962, there was a border dispute with India which did not involve air or naval forces, in which the three PLA regiments occupied an area in the Himalayas known as Aksai Chin.
  2. In 1967, China attempted to invade Sikkim, just east of Nepal, but were driven back by Indian troops.
  3. In 1979, China invaded North Viet Nam (which was allied with Russia) and lost heavily to battle-hardened Viet troops under Võ Nguyên Giáp.
  4. Recently, China has occupied various uninhabited rocks in the South China Sea, which are in danger of being inundated by tsunamis common in the area due to volcanic activity.

It has been much more common for the PLA to be involved in the suppression of minority populations in south and western China.

So although the PLA on paper is powerful, it has no real history of success in battle. Although I am not in favor of pooh-poohing them as a threat, I think we tend to go too far in the opposite direction.

I must admit, however, that the PLA wins hands down on the parade ground.

At the Start of the Covid Outbreak

It was the night of January 14, 2020. I was scheduled to take a flight on Volaris to Guadalajara, Mexico, and then on to Mérida in Yucatán. The Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX was crowded with Chinese returning to their country. Most of the flights were to Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan, and other major cities on the Chinese mainland. My Mexico flight was one of the few in the wee hours of the morning that was to a Western Hemisphere destination.

A month earlier, on December 1, 2019, a patient was admitted to a hospital in Wuhan in Hubei Province, China, with a strange case of pneumonia. I didn’t know anything about the official Chinese coverup of the disease until around January 24, when I was staying at the Hotel Lopez in Campeche, where I had access to the Al Jazeera news channel in English on my TV. The whole time I stayed there, the news was filled with pictures of Chinese healthcare personnel in hazmat suits. There were just then beginning to be cases of the unknown disease in the United States, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Viet Nam, Taiwan, and Nepal.

By the time I returned to the United States on February 7, mass quarantines were in effect in various countries around the globe. A month later, in the middle of March, Martine and I attended a Hungarian folk dance performance of Kárpátok before submitting ourselves to the lockdown the next day.

There is an interesting chronology of the first days of the Covid-19 outbreak available by clicking here. Fortunately, we managed to avoid getting the disease; and my fingers are crossed that we never will.

Horror Journeys

If you read Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another: A Memoir, you should probably start with the penultimate chapter entitled “What Bores Whom?” In it, she muses about a large group of hippies staying at her hotel in Eilath, Israel’s port on the Gulf of Aqaba. The gilded youth were mostly strung out on hash, and their conversation was mostly about how so-and-so was squashed out of his or her gourd. And then, quite suddenly, we get Martha’s thoughts about travel:

Thinking of those kids at Eilath has given me a new slant on horror journeys. They are entirely subjective. Well of course. If I had spent any time analyzing travel, instead of just moving about the world with the vigour of a Mexican jumping bean, I’d have seen that long ago. You define your own horror journey, according to your taste. My definition of what makes a journey wholly or partially horrible is boredom. Add discomfort, fatigue, strain in large amounts to get the purest-quality horror, but the kernel is boredom. I offer that as a universal test of travel, boredom, called by any other name, is why you yearn for the first available transport out.

Travels with Myself and Another gives us four journeys, all of which are quite horrorshow. But they are by no means boring, though I would have given money to have stayed at home. First there was her trip with then-husband Ernest Hemingway to China in the middle of her war with Japan. That was followed up by a boat trip in the Caribbean in 1942, at a time when Nazi U-Boats were sinking hundreds of ships there. The longest chapter is about a solo trip to Africa, starting in Cameroon, stopping in Chad and the Sudan, and finally a jaunt through East Africa in a Land Rover which she drove herself. Finally, there is a short chapter about a visit to Moscow around 1972 to visit Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of poet Osip Mandelstam—during which she could not get a single decent meal.

Although all four of her journeys are truly horrible, the author seems to revel in her difficulties. In a way, they make her observe more clearly. And her book is a travel classic despite all the “discomfort, fatigue, strain.”

I think I will read some of her war correspondence next to see how she regards travel when she is being fired upon.

Literature from the Hutongs of Beijing

A Colorful Hutong in the City of Beijing

In Northern Chinese cities, such as Beijing, hutongs are usually narrow alleys formed by adjoining sineyuan, or traditional courtyard residences, squeezed together. Over the last few years, I have enjoyed reading contemporary Chinese literature, which gives me an altogether different view of the Chinese people than I get from contemplating the actions of the Xi Jinping government.

I thought I would list here a few of the best Chinese novels of the latter half of the 20th Century:

  • Geo Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, probably the best Chinese novel I have read, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize
  • Mo Yan’s Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, a collection of novellas
  • Ma Jian’s Red Dust, a novel that is also a fascinating travel guide as the hero escapes Beijing to discover his country
  • Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak, a delightful comic novella
  • Su Tong’s Rice, the most serious book of the bunch with its villainous main character

After reading these books, I have a strong feeling for the essential humanity of the Chinese people. I would have no trouble interacting with them—except for the simple matter of the language barrier.

Two Types of Travel Books

The Blue City of Samarkand in Uzbekistan

Constantinople, Trebizond, Tbilisi, Baku, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Lhasa—these are cities I would dearly love to know more about. So when I read Kate Harris’s Lands of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road, I looked forward to learning more about these magical places. Alas, I was disappointed: The book was more about a bicycle trip with little attention paid to destinations, and most of the attention paid to the roads connecting the destinations.

I had to remind myself that there are two types of travel books. First, there was my preferred kind, which combines personal experiences with history, literature, art, cuisine, and culture—the whole ball of wax! But there is another kind of travel book as well. Call it adventure travel or experiential travel. All mountain-climbing books fall into this category. They can be excellent reads, such as Jon Kracauer’s Into Thin Air, Alfred Alvarez’s Feeding the Rat, or any of Eric Shipton’s great books on mountains he has climbed.

Tibetan Monastery

Kate Harris and her companion Melissa Yule concentrated all their efforts in surviving a multiple-thousand-mile journey involving multiple mountain ranges and passes. It was quite an accomplishment, but it just left me hungry to learn more about Constantinople, Trebizond, Tbilisi, Baku, Samarkand, Bukhara, Tashkent, Lhasa, and points between.

Oh, well, as long as the quarantine and my health last, I’ll have the time to make up that deficit.

Two Poems

Liu Xiaobo and His Widow Liu Xia

On July 13 of last year, Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in Shenyang after years of persecution by the monolithic Communist Party he dared to oppose. Here are two poems, first by his widow Liu Xia dedicated to her husband:

Road to Darkness

For Xiaobo

Sooner or later you will leave
me, one day
and take the road to darkness

I pray for the moment to reappear
so I can see it better,
as if from memory.
I wish that I, astonished, would glow, my body
in full bloom of light for you.

But I can’t make it except
clenching my fists, not letting
the strength,
not even a little bit of it, slip
through my fingers.

The following is a poem by Liu Xiaobo dedicated to his wife:


For Xia

Between the gray walls
and a burst of chopping sounds,
morning comes, bundled and sliced,
and vanishes with the paralyzed souls
of the chopped vegetables.

Light and darkness pass through my pupils.
How do I know the difference?
Sitting in the rust, I can’t tell
if it’s the shine on the shackles in the jail
or the natural light of Nature
from outside the walls.
Daylight betrays everything, the splendid sun

Morning stretches and stretches in vain.
You are far away—
but not too far to collect the love
of my night.

Both poems appeared in the September 28, 2017 issue of The New York Review of Books.


Mad About Travel

Crescent Lake Oasis Near Dunhuang, China

Immanuel Kant was a great philosopher, but I have no desire to emulate him. According to an editorial in Philosophy Now:

A curious case, this Kant. They say that travel broadens the mind, but Kant never in his whole life travelled more than ten miles from his home city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). He scraped a living for years as a private tutor before eventually becoming a hardworking professor at the university. He lived a life of disciplined regularity, taking the same walk around Königsberg at the same time each day, with such regularity that it was said that the inhabitants set their watches by him.

Living in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, I desired more than anything else to travel. Even when I came out to California and got a job, it was a full seven years before I could afford to go anywhere but Cleveland. And when I did, my parents were appalled. “Why don’t you come to Cleveland?” Mom wheedled. “I’ll cook my favorite dishes for you.” That’s all I needed—to get even fatter.

I started out with baby steps, going to Mexico and traveling all around the country by bus and train (back when there were trains). I went to England and Scotland, too, and even joined my parents in 1977 to visit Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

In 2001, I went to Iceland; and, in 2006, I discovered South America. Now my desire for travel is insatiable. On the left corner of my kitchen table is a collection of travel guides from Lonely Planet and moon. While waiting for my morning paper to be delivered, I can read about the Trans-Siberian Railroad (2 guides), Iceland, Bolivia, Ecuador, and New Mexico while sipping a cup of hot tea.

December 29 is the last day of my working career, so I may not be able to afford some more distant locations; but Mexico and Guatemala continue to beckon. If I should win the lottery (hah!) I will try for the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Moscow and Vladivostok, though maybe diverting through Mongolia to Beijing. I can always dream, can’t I?





Messing with Mother Nature

Chinese Mass Wedding

Chinese Mass Wedding

China is worried. The all-powerful Communist Party has messed with Mother Nature once too often. For many years, they banned having more than one child per family. That led, not surprisingly, to an excess of male newborns over female newborns. (Accidents sometimes happened to infant girls, when it was boys who were desired.)

Although the Party has eased up on its child restrictions, there are two serious consequences:

  1. The number of marriages is dropping, possibly because many young men cannot find a sufficient number of marriage-age women to wed. I also remember reading stories about suicides of male factory workers because they had no hope of being able to raise a family.
  2. A disconcerting 500,000 elderly have wandered off—most of them suffering from dementia—partly because there are not enough children to bear the burden of their support.

China has been in this type of situation before. One of the decrees during the Great Leap Forward period (1958-1962) was that the “Four Pests” were to be eradicated. The pests in question were rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. One effect of killing massive numbers of sparrows was that the ecological balance was upset as crops were eaten by insects that were kept under control by the birds.

Maybe having too much power over men and animals is dangerous in the long run.


Will China Overtake the U.S.?

Daniel Rohr of Morningstar Thinks Not

Daniel Rohr of Morningstar Thinks Not

The following article was published in March by Morningstar on the subject “What Will China Look Like in 2025?” I was rather surprised by its findings and would like to share it with you.

China’s faltering economy has sent shivers through the global markets in 2016, and for good reason. As the world’s second-largest economy and leading source of global growth for the past decade, China matters more than ever. Guessing what comes next for China and the implications for the rest of the world is an exercise fraught with uncertainty, but we believe China’s arrival at two major and near-certain inflection points will alleviate some of that uncertainty. First is China’s economic rebalancing. As we’ve argued for the past five years, excess capacity across broad swaths of the economy and mounting bad debt will force a transition to consumption-led growth. The second inflection point concerns China’s demographics. The country’s working-age population will shrink by 43 million by 2030, by which time China will have more seniors than the European Union, Japan, and the United States combined. These two inflection points shape much of our long-term outlook, which we’ve summarized here with 10 predictions for the next 10 years.

First, we expect China’s GDP growth to slow to less than half the pace of the past 10 years. The historical experience of economies making the transition from investment-led to consumption-led growth shapes much of this outlook. In every case, the rebalancing economy experiences not only a sharp deceleration in investment growth, but also weaker consumption growth. Historical precedent also suggests magnitude matters; the bigger the boom, the weaker the ensuing GDP growth. China’s boom has been greater in magnitude and duration than anything that has come before. In our view, consensus expectations, while moderated, remain too optimistic in the 5%-6% range. We expect GDP growth to average 1.5%-4.5% in the next 10 years. Attaining the upper end of that range would require major reforms to unleash household consumption, reallocate credit from the state to the private sector, and boost productivity at China’s bloated state-owned enterprises.

Second, we believe reforms are likely to disappoint, making even 4.5% GDP growth a challenge. Our skepticism is rooted in the inherent conflict between key reforms and Beijing’s two overriding political aims: control and stability. For example, we think it is unlikely Beijing will allow the major defaults that would be necessary to eliminate state-owned enterprises’ preferential credit access and reallocate credit to more productive borrowers. Doing so would risk massive social disruption and diminish the state’s control over capital allocation. For similar reasons, we doubt meaningful interest rate liberalization is a near-term prospect, as many state-owned borrowers would be unable to afford market-set interest rates. Consequently, the implicit wealth transfer from household savers to state-owned borrowers is likely to persist, hindering consumption growth.

Third, stimulus is likely to prove ineffective at best. Questions of whether Beijing will go back to its old growth playbook overlook evidence that the government has been trying to stimulate the economy since November 2014. Multiple interest rate cuts and reductions to the portion of deposits that banks must hold in reserve haven’t delivered the sort of boost they did in prior years. This is partly because of borrowers’ unwillingness to invest amid a deteriorating economic outlook, a reticence reflected in all-time low readings on the central bank’s loan demand survey. It’s also because of capital outflows from China, which we estimate at roughly $640 billion in 2015. The case against stimulus extends beyond doubts over its efficacy. Many of the problems China is dealing with today, from excess capacity to bad debt to falling prices, are the consequences of too much stimulus. At this point, stimulus is a shot of whiskey to cure a hangover.

Fourth, despite looser family-planning laws, we expect births to fall by 25 million versus the past 10 years. The female population of child-bearing age will fall by 50 million by 2025, with 41 million of that decline concentrated in women with the highest fertility rates: those ages 20-29. Assuming no change in age-specific fertility rates, births would decline 30% by 2025. A comparison of Chinese fertility rates versus those of neighboring countries at similar points in their economic development suggests economic and cultural factors account for China’s low birth rate, not government policy.

Fifth, China’s urban population growth will fall by nearly half. Over the past 10 years, as China urbanized roughly 200 million people, it traversed the steep portion of the urbanization-to-income curve we observe globally. Looking ahead, that curve will flatten considerably, with lower urbanization growth for each percentage point of GDP growth. Moreover, China will be moving along that curve at a slower pace because of weaker GDP growth. We forecast China will urbanize 115 million over the next 10 years. While this would mark a significant deceleration, it would nonetheless see China add the equivalent of Japan’s entire urban population.

Sixth, we believe the yuan will fall 20% against the U.S. dollar. Defending the de facto dollar peg amid massive capital outflows has cost the People’s Bank of China billions in foreign exchange. Unless the underlying causes of capital flight are addressed, including expectations of falling interest rates and a weaker yuan, we see little reason for those outflows to end. By devaluing the yuan to a level approximating market expectations, Beijing would reduce a major incentive for capital to leave China. A fair value estimate that draws on the global relationship between market exchange rates and purchasing power parity exchange rates across income levels suggests that level is roughly CNY 8 per $1.

Seventh, we expect China’s economic rebalancing to trigger another “Dark Age” for industrial commodities such as copper, coal, and steel. China is the dominant consumer of industrial commodities and has accounted for the overwhelming majority of global demand growth in the past decade. We forecast China’s industrial commodity demand to decline in the next several years as investment growth wanes. As a result, demand growth globally is likely to expand far more slowly than global GDP. Historically, sub-GDP demand growth has been associated with falling real commodities prices, a situation that prevailed in the decades before China’s investment boom.

Eighth, we doubt India will fill China’s shoes as far as commodity demand is concerned. India is the only country that can match China’s demographic heft. The fact that Indian GDP per capita now approximates that of Chinese GDP per capita 10 years ago has led many to suggest that Indian commodity demand is on the verge of takeoff. This line of thinking confuses the origins of China’s commodity demand growth. It wasn’t so much China’s level of development a decade ago nor the economic growth it registered in subsequent years that led to the country’s insatiable appetite for commodities. Rather, it was the heavy investment orientation of the Chinese economy. Unless India duplicates China’s growth model, India will not deliver the same boost to global commodity demand. Because of India’s pluralistic political structure and because New Delhi lacks Beijing’s tools to shape economywide capital allocation, we doubt India’s growth pattern is likely to follow that of China.

Ninth, we believe China’s health spending will more than double. We expect healthcare outlays to grow far faster than GDP for a couple of broad reasons. First is the tendency of healthcare to claim a larger share of total spending as incomes rise. This trend is evident globally and within China itself. Second is the fact that China is aging at an incredible pace. China’s population 65 and older will be 50% larger by 2025 and 130% larger by 2030, by which time it will have more seniors than the EU, U.S., and Japan combined. China will be an “old” country by middle-income standards, and we expect it to spend proportionately more on healthcare than the typical middle-income country.

Tenth, despite many high-profile predictions that China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in the relatively near future, we don’t see that happening in the next decade. At prevailing exchange rates and assuming the U.S. musters 2.2% annual GDP growth (in line with the International Monetary Fund’s forecast) while China grows at 4.5% (the upper end of our 10-year forecast), the U.S. economy would be roughly 30% larger than China’s by 2025.