Sunday, 17 October 2021

Wang Huning -- behind the scenes power in China

This is a fascinating article about Wang Huning, one of the behind-the-scenes political influencers in China.

Born in 1955, family connections and poor health meant that Wang didn't have to do labouring work in the countryside, as many of his peers had to during the cultural revolution.  Instead he studied at an elite school.

When universities reopened in 1978 the article tells us he scored so well on his entrance exam that he was admitted directly to a master's programme in international politics at Fudan University, skipping his bachelor's degree.

Interestingly, Wang was a younger (by four years) schoolmate of Mama's Uncle at Fudan University.  Mama tells me that Uncle sat the university entrance exam in 1977 (after having been sent to do labouring work in the countryside of Hainan Island).  Before receiving the results of their exam, students had to nominate their preferred university.  Uncle, living as he was at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou, applied for the English programme there as his first choice.  Contacts in the university department said that Uncle would have been approved, but his name wasn't on the list of candidates.  Instead, when the results came out he was surprised that he had been admitted to the politics department at Fudan.  It appears that Fudan had special access to the student exam results and had picked students based on their results regardless of their own choices and that of other university departments.  Uncle started his bachelor's degree at Fudan at the beginning of 1978 (Mama thinks Uncle was in the academic year ahead of Wang, who likely started mid-1978).

Wang was a full Professor by the time he was 30, and in 1988 spent six months in the US as a visiting scholar.  Before this visit he had been hopeful that liberalism could be good for China, but his observations of the US changed that.  He returned to China an opponent of liberalism, and his 1991 book America Against America was a tough critique of US society.

Similarly, Mama's Uncle spent time in the US and came away hating it.  After completing his bachelor's degree and while teaching at Zhongshan University, Uncle was offered a scholarship to do a PhD at Harvard University, which he started in 1982.  Struggling in the US, Uncle didn't complete his studies and instead returned to China.  Later, he completed an MA in Hong Kong before getting his PhD from Oxford University.

In 1993, Wang was spotted by Jiang Zemin, and headhunted away from academia.  Within a couple of years he was given a leadership position in the Chinese Communist Party Central Policy Research Office.

Unfortunately, Mama's Uncle was not so politically astute/lucky, and ended up in prison for 11 years, ostensibly because he revealed too much in his research publications on Korea.  When Mulan was young she and Mama used to visit Uncle every month in prison, before he was finally released in 2011.

Since the mid-90s, Wang has been a key influencer behind the scenes for the past three Chinese leaders -- Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.  He has led a secretive life, cutting ties with his previous university career and no longer publishing or speaking publicly.

I don't know much more about Wang than what is in this article, so take what you will of what I write.  I may have misunderstood Wang's outlook.  Nonetheless, a couple of quick very general thoughts occur to me:

1.  The story suggests that it was the visit to the US that changed Wang's attitude on liberalism.  If this is the case, then Wang represents a very common Chinese attitude of over-focusing on the larger political powers when evaluating political theories/models.  That is, for many Chinese it is either China or the US.

Clearly, Wang had a bad experience in the US.  But I wonder what Wang, China, and the world would be like today if instead of visiting China he had have visited New Zealand or a Scandinavian country.  While New Zealand is far from perfect, its version of liberalism is very different from that of the US, and hence does not have some of the problems that the US has (and that Wang correctly identified).  If Wang had have studied and experienced a social democracy like New Zealand, instead of the US, would he have been so strongly critical of liberalism?

2.  Without directly mentioning it, the article suggests that Wang is a Hobbesian.  That is, he sees human nature as inherently bad, and consequently the only way to minimise the excesses that result is to have a powerful leader to resolve people's conflicts and maintain society.

Like Wang, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) lived though politically/socially turbulent times, and in particular experienced the English Civil War.  Hobbes' Leviathan (1651) is his argument for a supreme ruler, justified by a social contract and assuming a pessimistic view of human nature.

The Hobbesian approach is most plausible if one is participating in a tragically broken society (such as a civil war or cultural revolution).  In those (unusual) social extremities, any strong leader, regardless of their decisions, is the lesser of two evils.  It is also an understandable psychological reaction to desire order amongst all that chaos.

If this is the case for Wang, who experienced the horrors of the Chinese cultural revolution, it is understandable that he has been working behind the scenes in China to strengthen the Chinese leadership.  For example, it fits if it is Wang who has worked to end the time limit for Chinese leadership, allowing Xi Jinping to continue as leader for more than two terms.  (He has also developed a more subtle and sophisticated form of power than what Mao had, including education, economics, information, technology and public approval.)

But once again there is the possible mistake of either/or thinking.  In moderate, normal societies, it is not either all-against-all Hobbesian chaos or authoritarian control.  Other political options are available and present.  Similarly, human nature is complicated, having both altruistic and selfish parts.

A more serious problem is that the Hobbesian approach fails to adequately acknowledge the danger of leaders with absolute power.  It assumes that any leader, regardless of what they do, is going to be better than the alternative.

But, even if, right now, Xi (with Wang) is overall not too bad for China, there is no guarantee that the next Chinese leader will serve China (and the world) well.  Giving Xi more power also means giving future Chinese leaders more power, and who knows what they may be like.  Do we really want to give any future Mao, Stalin, Hitler or Trump in China more power?

The Hobbesian pessimistic view of human nature may also be challenged.  For example, last year I reviewed Rutger Bregman's book Humankind.  As I have repeatedly said since I lived in China, if we have a pessimistic outlook on life, and if we distrust those around us, then we create a society that reflects that.  But if we have an optimistic outlook on life, and assume the best of people, then we create a society that is better for us all.  I see today's China as having been created by people who have a pessimistic outlook on life, and it may be that Wang is one of those people. 

When I reviewed Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem in 2018 I also addressed this aspect of Chinese culture.

Saturday, 16 October 2021

Another lockdown project completed

We've just finished another Covid lockdown project.

This one was pretty small -- just freshening up the hall.  The first step was to rip off the loose wallpaper, which had bubbled out when, about ten years ago, we had a leak in the hot water cylinder.

Next, the biggest part was fixing the hole in the gib board (which Mulan fell through) and then plastering the gaps.

The final step of painting was easily done.

Monday, 4 October 2021

Lockdown project - garden

Another Covid lockdown meant another Covid lockdown project.

One of our projects this lockdown was to finally finish our main garden.

When we bought our house back in August 2007, the previous owners had made things look good for the short term but had planted far too many trees for the long term.

While we rented it out for the next seven years (while we were living in China) the trees grew out of control.  By March 2012 it was getting pretty wild.

When we moved in, in December 2014, it was a slow process to tame the jungle.  (Unfortunately we don't seem to have any photos.)

We started by clearing a small patch for the veggie garden.  By November 2015 we'd cleared the remaining bushes/weeds and removed two large olive trees.  

It was time for the largest tree removal, with over 20 palms getting the chop.

A busy life meant things got abandoned, and by June 2019 it was a dumping ground for dirt and greenery.

Not much had changed by October 2020.

So it was time for another tree removal session, with several more getting cut.

In April this year we got in a skip bin and removed four cubic metres of stones/shells/dirt.  By August the weeds were growing again.

In September, as soon as we moved from Covid Level 4 to Level 3 lockdown, we got two cubic metres of soil delivered.

We ordered click-and-collect plants, and yesterday we finished popping them in.  The near half is the flowery stuff, while the far half is the veggie stuff.

All we need is a blue sky sunny day to have the final photo shoot.  (And finish painting the house.)

Sunday, 3 October 2021


We've joined the modern age.  On Tuesday we subscribed to Netflix.

As I said before, for the past couple of years Mulan and I have watched movies and TV series together (often at mealtimes).

Up until now it has been free movies, on YouTube, TVNZ, TV3, etc.  For a while we were subscribed to a free (with ads) Chinese movie website, until it (mysteriously) disappeared.

But we've been scraping the bottom of the barrel lately.  Last week we watched Indiana Jones and Ghostbusters on TV3.  Neither has aged well, and the main characters in both are sleazy creeps.  The biggest positive was that Mulan learnt a couple of pop culture references.

We decided it was time to pay.  We looked at the various options, and thought Netflix looked the best (for now).  Our subscription is the most basic, for one viewing at a time only; it's like the olden days when we had only one TV.  Already we've had times when two people have tried to log in on different devices and watch at the same time.

Mama binge-watched Bridgerton.  She concluded that it was a silly soap, but still had to keep watching to see what happened!

So far I've watched the start of a few series.

Mulan and I together watched the beginning of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  My memory is that TNG and Deep Space Nine are the best in the Star Trek universe, so I wanted to see if they still held up with time.

I think TNG did.  Ignore the basic special effects and initially wooden acting.  TNG at its best is good storytelling with thought-provoking ideas.  Mulan suggested we continue with it.

The first episode of TNG (as I'm sure you know!) is where humanity is put on trial for its savage and barbaric nature.  The main characters had to try to argue that humanity has evolved and is no longer violently uncivilised.

(The next two episodes are first about a mysterious disease being passed around the spaceship and then about collecting a vaccine.  So topical in the Covid-world.  Why did the characters not practice the basics of social distancing and contact tracing that we Covid-veterans all know so well now?!)

Then I watched the first episode of The Witcher.  The opening scene has a man (who turns out to be the witcher) fighting a large spider-thing in a swampy forest.  I didn't know who I should be supporting.  The man, because he looked human?  Or the spider-thing, because clearly the swampy forest is the natural habitat of spider-things, and the man appeared the violent invader?

Sadly, the man survived and the spider-thing did not.

It turns out the man has a strict code of honour.  He only kills monsters for money.  He doesn't kill humans for money.  But he kills humans when he antagonises them into attacking him.  Or something like that.  He's good at killing.  But the first episode suggests that the man will soon have events thrust upon him in which his self-certainty will be challenged.

I'm not going to watch any more.  It seems like empty violence-porn to me (with a bit of gratuitous nudity-porn thrown in, too).  If the Star Trek judge had have watched The Witcher he would've immediately found humanity guilty; Star Trek would've ended after one episode.

Mulan and I also watched The Good Place.  It's another excellent keeper, and we'll continue watching it.

Finally, I tried out Star Trek: Discovery.  Special effects and action dominate, while the storytelling is simplistic.  I won't bother continuing with it.

We're also looking forward to watching more Miyazaki's movies.  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is my favourite.

At this rate we'll stay subscribed to Netflix for a long time to come.

Sunday, 26 September 2021

School English assignments

Mulan has just finished her third unit study topic in her English class at Westlake Girls High School.

She started with a study of a Roald Dahl short story (they were partway through it when she arrived).  In Covid lockdown this was followed by a three-minute speech (videoed).  Most recently they've done a film/video unit, where the first half was a photography study learning different types of shots (using our camera at home).

The second part of the film/video unit was on the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  Mulan and I watched it together a couple of weeks ago, and Mama watched it later on her own.

As I wrote last year, for the past couple of years Mulan and I have been watching movies together.  We pick anything from classics, to pop culture, to thought provoking, to merely entertaining.  We talk about them together, laugh at the silly ones, and discuss the thoughtful ones.  In that time Mulan has developed her own sense of what is good and what is bad.

For the most part we complete movies to the end, but occasionally (rarely) Mulan decides that some are really too bad to bother continuing.  (Breakfast at Tiffany'sClueless and Top Gun were examples of movies Mulan considered too silly to bother watching beyond ten minutes or so.)

As Mulan watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding she was really not impressed.  I suspect that if it was her choice she would not have bothered continuing with it to the end.

Then she had to write two pieces for class.

The first was an initial impressions piece -- basically just a few sentences saying what she thought of the characters and so on, probably mostly to show the teacher that she had watched the movie.

The second piece just completed was more in depth.  She had to write two mini-essays joined together, each on an opinion she had about the movie and backed up by evidence then linked to her own experiences.

Schools appear to like to use the "PEEL" essay structure style, where the basic thought is Point, Example/Evidence, Explanation, and Link.  But it also appears that different teachers interpret it in slightly different ways.  This blog, for example, which topped my Google search, basically treats it as intro, two paragraphs in the body, and conclusion.  Mulan's English course apparently interpreted the Link at the end not as a conclusion linking back to the intro point but as a link to the writer's personal experiences (meaning that, strictly speaking, it wasn't an essay as it didn't have a conclusion).

Included in the assignment info pack was a example piece (on a different unit topic), which was in the style wanted and was supposedly of "Excellence" level.  Mulan said this was about 470 words long.

This was where things got problematic, because both Mama and I thought the example piece was very badly done.  I thought it only deserved a Pass.

In a nutshell, the huge problem was that the example writing slid off the topic.  It's Point (introduction) stated one thing, while it's Example/Evidence and Explanation sections (body) didn't elaborate on the ideas stated in the Point but instead discussed other ideas.

In other words, the example directly failed to follow the writing structure as required by the assignment question, and (more importantly) failed to be logically persuasive as the body did not give any evidence to support the stated opinion Point.

The writing style was adequately fluent but not brilliant.  The main thing the example had going for it was that it was earnestly nice and positive, giving the conventional (but simple) statements of good teenager-ness.

So, I wondered why the teacher/department/school thought the example was of Excellence level.

Is it that the assignment marking in general is easy?  For Year 10 maybe they are not expecting students to be able to write any better than that?  (But surely they'd want their example to at least answer the question?)

Or is it because this example, while not structurally or logically good, is ideologically appropriate, mouthing the right platitudes?

Or is it that the teacher/assessor simply didn't notice the failed structure/logic?  They were seduced by the decent words and failed to look further.

To be blunt, it may simply be that school teachers generally only have a bachelor's degree, and may themselves not be very sophisticated essayists.  They may have got average passes in their undergraduate university courses, and never really gained the skills of better essay writing.

(In my experience of marking undergraduate university essays at Auckland University, B or C grade passes may have these sorts of weaknesses to some extent; it is often only A students or once one gets to graduate level that this sort of essay writing sharpness is the norm.)

All this got me comparing the school English work versus Science/Maths work that I have seen Mulan completing to date.  My quick initial impression is that, relatively speaking, school Science/Maths requires a higher level of conceptual sophistication, while school English is not conceptually very sophisticated.  This leads me to wonder why the same degree of analytic precision cannot be taught/used in school English as it is in school Science/Maths.

On the other hand, for Mulan the English written work was more time consuming than the Science written assignment (similar word length) just completed.  (Mulan tells me that she finds Science/Maths easier than English.)  This was because, while the Science was conceptually deeper, the English was agonising because of the uncertainty of trying to articulate in words, with explanations, one's initial gut opinions.  It took some longish family discussions for Mulan to get beyond "the movie is boring!", "why?" "because it is!"

So, maybe that is the point?  School English is conceptually simple, because it is challenging enough to get the kids to put into words their thoughts, let alone learn the conceptual skills.  But maybe, just maybe, if they were explicitly introduced to analytical/conceptual tools they would find articulating their thoughts easier.

Anyway, Mulan submitted her piece a couple of days ago, writing about 900-ish words on two of her opinions of the movie.  Mama and I thought it was very good, and definitely solidly in line with university style essay writing.  It'll be interesting to see Mulan's teacher's comments on it.

UPDATE 28/9/2021:  Oops, we were wrong.  Mulan has been given another assignment on My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  This one is a close analysis of particular scenes, to understand how the emotional feel is built up by the camera angle, sound, lighting, etc.  Mulan is not impressed that she is still having to think about this boring movie (!), but otherwise all good.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Schooling in lockdown

Here in Auckland, our Covid Level 4 lockdown ends tonight, after five weeks holiday working from home.  We've still got at least another two weeks in Level 3 lockdown, which for us means almost no change.  (It's getting doubtful that any of our pre-booked school holiday activities will happen in two weeks' time.)

In that time our family has used the car twice -- once to get a Covid test and once to get a Covid vaccine.

That's a big change for us.  In normal life we use the car most days, driving to the various activities that the girls do -- ballet, rock climbing, swimming, music, gymnastics, athletics, etc.  "Homeschooling" is not a very accurate name for what we do; I'm not the first to suggest it should be called car schooling.

So, how's our schooling in lockdown going?

One difference for us is that our exercise is now all home-based.  Mulan has Zoom ballet lessons five days a week.  Miya has rock climbing and dance Zoom lessons.  Our dining room is a dance studio, while our dining table is in the lounge acting as a jigsaw puzzle table.

We go for runs around our local area and do various conditioning exercises at home.  On the downside my hands are getting soft from no rock climbing; on the upside my golfer's elbow is coming right with no rock climbing.

The girls both have music lessons over Zoom.  Mulan has recorder lessons, while Miya has clarinet, saxophone and trumpet lessons.  Miya is continuing to prepare for her Trinity Grade 4 clarinet exam, which is still planned for late October.  As part of this, we've signed her up for aural test training at e-music maestro.

Miya's deskwork remains the same.  She continues doing Khan Academy and touch typing.  She's still only primary school aged, so it's more about natural in-context learning and inculcating good attitudes.  We do stuff quizzes, and the children use kahoot to set their own quizzes.

This lockdown Mulan and Miya have started online gaming with the cousins, playing monopoly, gartic telephone, scribblio, psych, forge of empires, etc.

But the biggest change is that Mulan is back at home learning with us, instead of going to school.

Before lockdown hit, Mulan had a total of 17 days at Westlake Girls High School -- just enough time to start getting used to school life.  Now she's doing lockdown schooling.

I've heard it said that lockdown schooling is homeschooling.  It really isn't, for one important reason.

Essentially, homeschooling is about the parents/caregivers being the final decisionmakers on what gets taught.  This includes:

(a) Deciding what sorts of knowledge, skills and values are truly valuable to pass on to the children, 

(b) deciding what methods will work best to teach each child,

(c) deciding what order and amount to teach the knowledge/skills/values,

(d) deciding what lesson content to use to develop the knowledge/skills/values, and

(e) assessing what the children do, which then feeds back into the above.

With lockdown schooling, parents/caregivers do none of this.

All that lockdown parents/caregivers do is oversee or help with the completion of the work that the schools have supplied to the students to do.

And this is what we are doing with Mulan right now.

Mulan is connected to her teachers online on her new computer, where they tell her what she needs to do.  As part of our normal family life Mulan tells us what this is.  We then work with Mulan on this as much or as little as she needs.

At one extreme, Mulan's school maths is so easy that we haven't been involved at all in any of her maths learning during lockdown.  She simply does the required work quickly on her own and submits it, getting full marks every time.  (I've suggested that since lockdown is continuing for longer we should get back into doing Khan Academy maths with her; it would be a shame for Mulan to go backward with her maths just because school is not challenging her enough.)

For Mulan's other subjects we have been involved to some extent.  For her longer writings (English, music, science, etc) we typically read and give advice after she has written them, though sometimes we also talk through the ideas before she starts writing.  With the music composition, Miya helped out (Mama and I were useless!).  Miya also helped with the photography unit for English.

According to Mulan, what she has been learning over the past five weeks in lockdown is of a similar amount to what she was learning during those 17 days at school.  The main difference for her is that she says that she spends maybe three hours each day working on it rather than the full school day.  In other words, lockdown learning is, for Mulan, much more time efficient that school learning.

Nonetheless, Mulan says she would still rather be at school than do lockdown learning.  For her, learning at school in the social environment is more enjoyable that learning at home.  Even though school uses up more hours it seems that it is worth it.  And also, lockdown means missing all the other out-of-home activities we do; returning to school means also returning to ballet, swimming, gymnastics, athletics, etc.

From my point of view, lockdown learning is working better than homeschool learning, in the sense that Mulan is very responsibly taking charge of what she needs to do and calmly getting it done.  I've been very impressed with how she's gone about things during lockdown.  When she was homeschooling, if I had have told her to do the same thing she would have mucked around and tried to avoid getting it done.  I think partly she enjoys teasing me (she wouldn't dare tease her teachers in that way!) and partly it is hard to get started on something that is initially slightly out of one's comfort zone.  At least for Mulan, having an outside person setting the tasks is the key.

Having said all that, lockdown, for our family, has been a much-enjoyed quality time together.  We all get on well, and it has been wonderful to have Mulan around home again during the day.  As much as we'd like lockdown to end, and get back to all the fun outside activities, it really isn't that bad at all.

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Miya's 11th birthday

For the second year running Miya had her birthday in Covid-19 lockdown.  After all the months of Covid-freedom it's an unfortunate coincidence to be in lockdown at the same time of the year again.

Fortunately we'd already had the big birthday activity, when we did the ninja warrior course at Jump.  But we did miss the extended family in-person get-together.

On the bright side, at the Zoom party on Sunday we got to eat all the birthday cake while the others watched on.  Miya is starting to do a lot of cooking, and this year she baked her own birthday cake -- chocolate with mint-chocolate icing.  Very delicious!

The grandparents gave Miya a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle (socially-distanced delivery with the grocery exchange).  By this morning the puzzle was complete.  Miya and I mostly worked on it together, with Mulan helping occasionally during schoolwork breaks.