What to do about China’s “sharp power”

China is manipulating decision-makers in Western democracies. The best defence is transparency

WHEN a rising power challenges an incumbent one, war often follows. That prospect, known as the Thucydides trap after the Greek historian who first described it, looms over relations between China and the West, particularly America. So, increasingly, does a more insidious confrontation. Even if China does not seek to conquer foreign lands, many people fear that it seeks to conquer foreign minds.

Australia was the first to raise a red flag about China’s tactics. On December 5th allegations that China has been interfering in Australian politics, universities and publishing led the government to propose new laws to tackle “unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated” foreign efforts to influence lawmakers (see article). This week an Australian senator resigned over accusations that, as an opposition spokesman, he took money from China and argued its corner. Britain, Canada and New Zealand are also beginning to raise the alarm. On December 10th Germany accused China of trying to groom politicians and bureaucrats. And on December 13th Congress held hearings on China’s growing influence.

This behaviour has a name—“sharp power”, coined by the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based think-tank. “Soft power” harnesses the allure of culture and values to add to a country’s strength; sharp power helps authoritarian regimes coerce and manipulate opinion abroad.

The West needs to respond to China’s behaviour, but it cannot simply throw up the barricades. Unlike the old Soviet Union, China is part of the world economy. Instead, in an era when statesmanship is in short supply, the West needs to find a statesmanlike middle ground. That starts with an understanding of sharp power and how it works.

China has a history of spying on its diaspora, but the subversion has spread. In Australia and New Zealand Chinese money is alleged to have bought influence in politics, with party donations or payments to individual politicians. This week’s complaint from German intelligence said that China was using the LinkedIn business network to ensnare politicians and government officials, by having people posing as recruiters and think-tankers and offering free trips.

Bullying has also taken on a new menace. Sometimes the message is blatant, as when China punished Norway economically for awarding a Nobel peace prize to a Chinese pro-democracy activist. More often, as when critics of China are not included in speaker line-ups at conferences, or academics avoid study of topics that China deems sensitive, individual cases seem small and the role of officials is hard to prove. But the effect can be grave. Western professors have been pressed to recant. Foreign researchers may lose access to Chinese archives. Policymakers may find that China experts in their own countries are too ill-informed to help them.

To ensure China’s rise is peaceful, the West needs to make room for China’s ambition. But that does not mean anything goes. Open societies ignore China’s sharp power at their peril.

Part of their defence should be practical. Counter-intelligence, the law and an independent media are the best protection against subversion. All three need Chinese speakers who grasp the connection between politics and commerce in China. The Chinese Communist Party suppresses free expression, open debate and independent thought to cement its control. Merely shedding light on its sharp tactics—and shaming kowtowers—would go a long way towards blunting them.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.

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What machines can tell from your face

machine facial recognition on punzhu puzzles

We are now living our lives in the age of facial recognition, and each new technology comes with its own pro’s and con’s.

THE human face is a remarkable piece of work. The astonishing variety of facial features helps people recognise each other and is crucial to the formation of complex societies. So is the face’s ability to send emotional signals, whether through an involuntary blush or the artifice of a false smile. People spend much of their waking lives, in the office and the courtroom as well as the bar and the bedroom, reading faces, for signs of attraction, hostility, trust and deceit. They also spend plenty of time trying to dissimulate.

Technology is rapidly catching up with the human ability to read faces. In America facial recognition is used by churches to track worshippers’ attendance; in Britain, by retailers to spot past shoplifters. This year Welsh police used it to arrest a suspect outside a football game. In China it verifies the identities of ride-hailing drivers, permits tourists to enter attractions and lets people pay for things with a smile. Apple’s new iPhone is expected to use it to unlock the homescreen (see article).

Set against human skills, such applications might seem incremental. Some breakthroughs, such as flight or the internet, obviously transform human abilities; facial recognition seems merely to encode them. Although faces are peculiar to individuals, they are also public, so technology does not, at first sight, intrude on something that is private. And yet the ability to record, store and analyse images of faces cheaply, quickly and on a vast scale promises one day to bring about fundamental changes to notions of privacy, fairness and trust.

The final frontier

Start with privacy. One big difference between faces and other biometric data, such as fingerprints, is that they work at a distance. Anyone with a phone can take a picture for facial-recognition programs to use. FindFace, an app in Russia, compares snaps of strangers with pictures on VKontakte, a social network, and can identify people with a 70% accuracy rate. Facebook’s bank of facial images cannot be scraped by others, but the Silicon Valley giant could obtain pictures of visitors to a car showroom, say, and later use facial recognition to serve them ads for cars. Even if private firms are unable to join the dots between images and identity, the state often can. China’s government keeps a record of its citizens’ faces; photographs of half of America’s adult population are stored in databases that can be used by the FBI. Law-enforcement agencies now have a powerful weapon in their ability to track criminals, but at enormous potential cost to citizens’ privacy.

The face is not just a name-tag. It displays a lot of other information—and machines can read that, too. Again, that promises benefits. Some firms are analysing faces to provide automated diagnoses of rare genetic conditions, such as Hajdu-Cheney syndrome, far earlier than would otherwise be possible. Systems that measure emotion may give autistic people a grasp of social signals they find elusive. But the technology also threatens. Researchers at Stanford University have demonstrated that, when shown pictures of one gay man, and one straight man, the algorithm could attribute their sexuality correctly 81% of the time. Humans managed only 61% (see article). In countries where homosexuality is a crime, software which promises to infer sexuality from a face is an alarming prospect.

Keys, wallet, balaclava

Less violent forms of discrimination could also become common. Employers can already act on their prejudices to deny people a job. But facial recognition could make such bias routine, enabling firms to filter all job applications for ethnicity and signs of intelligence and sexuality. Nightclubs and sports grounds may face pressure to protect people by scanning entrants’ faces for the threat of violence—even though, owing to the nature of machine-learning, all facial-recognition systems inevitably deal in probabilities. Moreover, such systems may be biased against those who do not have white skin, since algorithms trained on data sets of mostly white faces do not work well with different ethnicities. Such biases have cropped up in automated assessments used to inform courts’ decisions about bail and sentencing.

Eventually, continuous facial recording and gadgets that paint computerised data onto the real world might change the texture of social interactions. Dissembling helps grease the wheels of daily life. If your partner can spot every suppressed yawn, and your boss every grimace of irritation, marriages and working relationships will be more truthful, but less harmonious. The basis of social interactions might change, too, from a set of commitments founded on trust to calculations of risk and reward derived from the information a computer attaches to someone’s face. Relationships might become more rational, but also more transactional.

In democracies, at least, legislation can help alter the balance of good and bad outcomes. European regulators have embedded a set of principles in forthcoming data-protection regulation, decreeing that biometric information, which would include “faceprints”, belongs to its owner and that its use requires consent—so that, in Europe, unlike America, Facebook could not just sell ads to those car-showroom visitors. Laws against discrimination can be applied to an employer screening candidates’ images. Suppliers of commercial face-recognition systems might submit to audits, to demonstrate that their systems are not propagating bias unintentionally. Firms that use such technologies should be held accountable.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.

 

Activists investigating Ivanka Trump’s China shoe factory detained or missing

Workers at the Huajian shoe factory, where about 100,000 pairs of Ivanka Trump-branded shoes have been made over the years among other brands. Photograph: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

A labour activist working undercover investigating abuses at a Chinese factory that makes Ivanka Trump shoes has been detained by police and two others are missing, raising concerns the company’s ties to the US president’s family may have led to harsher treatment.

Hua Haifeng was being held by police on suspicion of illegal surveillance, his wife Deng Guilian said. Hua had worked for labour rights organisations for more than a decade and was investigating a factory in southern Guangdong province for New York-based rights group China Labor Watch.

Hua, 36, attempted to travel to Hong Kong last week but was stopped at the border. He was later questioned by police in Shenzhen, a city on the border with Hong Kong, and was released. He then traveled to Jiangxi province and disappeared, before his wife was notified by police.

“I was scared when the police called me, I was shaking with a mix of fear and anger,” Deng told the Guardian, adding she was worried she would be unable to support their two young children as well as three elderly relatives without his income.

The case highlights the political sensitivity of a brand associated with the family of Donald Trump, who repeatedly bashed China for taking American jobs on the campaign trail but has since cosied up to president Xi Jinping.

Trump himself has been granted dozens of trademarks in China since becoming president, and relatives of Jared Kushner, an advisor to the president, were recently caught trying to entice wealthy investors into luxury developments, with the prospect of receiving US green cards in return.

Two other men, Li Zhao and Su Heng, had investigated a factory in Jiangxi province that assembles Ivanka Trump shoes and were still missing on Wednesday, said Li Qiang, executive director of China Labor Watch. He believes they have been detained by police or are being held at the factory.

“I think they were detained because this factory makes products for Ivanka Trump, so now this situation has become political and very complicated,” said Li. “I appeal to President Trump, Ivanka Trump herself, and to her brand to advocate and press for the release our activists.”

The undercover activists were to allege a host of labour violations at the plant, Li said, including paying below China’s legal minimum wage, managers verbally abusing workers and “violations of women’s rights”.

Li said he contacted the Ivanka Trump brand on April 27 to inform them of the labour violations, and urged them to ensure their suppliers were complying with Chinese law, but no changes were made.

The Ivanka Trump brand declined to comment when contacted by the Guardian. A woman who answered the phone at the Ganzhou, Jiangxi public security bureau said only, “I’m busy now,” before hanging up.

Calls to Huajian Group, the owner of the factory, went unanswered and staff at the factory where the three activists had gone undercover said they were not aware of the case.

Huajian also manufactures products for Coach, Karl Lagerfeld and Kendall + Kylie at the factory where the activists went undercover.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper website.

Fact-checking Donald Trump’s first presidential address to Congress

Highlights from Donald Trump’s first speech to Congress.

Jobs, taxes and business

“Since my election, Ford, Fiat Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Wal Mart, and many others have announced they will invest billions and billions of dollars in the United States and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs.”

Some of these corporations announced jobs and investment before the election, though Ford credited the president with its decision to create 700 jobs and make a $700m investment in Michigan. General Motors had committed $2.9bn and Walmart announced an expansion before any votes were cast, on the other hand, and several companies, including Chrysler, had previously agreed to create jobs.

“Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force.”

This is a grossly exaggerated claim that seems to rely on the roughly 94 million civilians who are 16 or older and not in the labor force: a figure that includes retired people, high school and college students, people with a disability, etc. The unemployment rate in January was 4.8%, or about 7.5 million people who are looking for work but can’t find it.

“Over 43 million people are now living in poverty, and over 43 million Americans are on food stamps.”

Trump is correct that about 43 million Americans are classified as living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau, after a small decline last year. He is also correct about 43 million people using food stamps, according to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That number reached as high as 47.6 million people in 2013, during the slow recovery.

“We will create massive tax relief for the middle class.”

Trump’s tax plan cuts taxes for all Americans but, by a wide margin, disproportionately helps the wealthiest Americans. According to a conservative thinktank, the Tax Foundation, his plan would save wealthy Americans millions of dollars and add $5.3tn to the national debt. Half of Trump’s tax cuts would go to the top 1% of earners, the thinktank estimates, and most families below the top 20% of earners would have income gains of less than 1%.

“We’ve lost more than one-fourth of our manufacturing jobs since Nafta was approved, and we’ve lost 60,000 factories since China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001.”

According to a study by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research, slightly more than 10% of the manufacturing jobs lost since the 1970s were due to trade deals such as Nafta. The study estimated that 88% of factory jobs lost since the 1970s were eliminated by automation.

Economists still debate the effect of Nafta on jobs. In 2015, the Congressional Research Service wrote that the “net overall effect” was “relatively modest”. “Nafta did not cause the huge job losses feared by the critics or the large economic gains predicted by supporters.” A 2012 report by the OECD found that manufacturing jobs did flee the US after the deal was signed, but also noted the broader shift toward a service economy.

Trump is correct that China has benefited from trade deals, such as the “most favored nation” status that Bill Clinton renewed for the country. But it too has started to feel the changes of robots replacing humans in the workforce.

“Right now, American companies are taxed at one of the highest rates anywhere in the world.”

The US is not even in the top 30 highest-taxed nations in the world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD’s most recent data ranks the US 31st of 34 industrialized nations for tax revenue as a percentage of GDP – far behind Denmark, Britain, Germany and Luxembourg. The US ranks 17th for corporate tax revenue, and 19th for tax revenue per capita.

“We have the worst financial recovery in 65 years.”

This claim is true only because the 2008 financial crisis was the worst economic collapse in American history except for the Great Depression, when people starved to death and moved constantly in search of work. In 1933 25% of all workers and 37% of all non-farm workers were out of work. After the 2008 financial crisis, the US lost 8.7m jobs – in October 2010, unemployment reached a peak of 10%. The recession itself lasted 18 months, officially.

“In the last eight years, the past Administration has put on more new debt than nearly all other Presidents combined.”

Trump mostly has this right, except that he ignores key context: Barack Obama inherited the Oval Office while the economy was in freefall, and after his predecessor had signed a huge stimulus bill. Obama continued the recovery efforts of George W Bush, with Republican support from Congress, which ultimately controls the purse strings of government.

“Our trade deficit in goods with the world last year was nearly $800bn.”

Trump has it almost correct that the trade deficit in goods alone neared $800bn; but he ignores the surplus in services, which reduces the deficit to about $502.3 bn, according to the Census Bureau. Economists say investment, something that Trump has welcomed, also contributes to a larger deficit.

Healthcare

“Obamacare is collapsing.”

The Affordable Care Act’s healthcare program does have problems, but it is not “collapsing” or in the much warned “death spiral” in which rising costs push healthy people out of the market, ever increasing fees and then pushing companies out as well. But healthcare premiums are increasing at varying rates around the country, on average by 22%, making an unstable market state-to-state. Rates were increasing before the law was enacted, however, and about 30 million people are enrolled in the program.

Immigration

“By finally enforcing our immigration laws, we will raise wages, help the unemployed, save billions of dollars, and make our communities safer for everyone.”

The economic benefit of Trump’s immigration plans is uncertain. The disappearance of undocumented workers could push Americans into agriculture and construction jobs over the long term, for instance, but it could also sow chaos in those industries in the short term. A fair amount of research suggests that immigration is good for the economy, and some US industries rely heavily on employees with visas (such as tech) or undocumented workers (such as agriculture).

If enacted, Trump’s plans would have also cost taxpayers billions. Trump’s promised wall would cost Americans about $21.6bn – Mexico has flatly refused to pay for it; aggressive deportation plans could cost billions more, especially if Trump greatly expands the number of federal border agents and the number of private prison contractors.

“We’ve defended the borders of other nations while leaving our own border wide open for anyone to cross and for drugs to pour in and at a now unprecedented rate.”

The US’s borders are not “wide open for anyone to cross”, with sections of wall and fencing along the southern border, 21,000 Customs and Border Patrol agents, and a recent history of aggressive deportation. Barack Obama has deported a record more than 2.5 million people, including a record 438,421 people in 2013. The US also has extremely strict vetting for visa applicants and refugees, forcing people to go through multiple rounds of interviews, background checks and medical screenings.

“Where proper vetting cannot occur … we cannot allow a beachhead of terrorism to establish itself in America.”

Trump’s suggestion that the US’s vetting methods cannot account for the systems of countries abroad has flipped the procedure of vetting on its head. The system, among the most intensive screening process in the world for refugees, relies on US agencies to vet applicants, and not those of countries abroad. Refugees must pass multiple background checks and interviews with several agencies, as well as medical checks, fingerprint and photo screenings. The process takes 18-24 months.

Foreign policy

“We’ve spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.”
“America has spent approximately $6tn in the Middle East, all this while our infrastructure at home is crumbling. With this $6tn we could have rebuilt our country – twice.”

Trump does not specify what spending he’s referring to – though the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost an estimated $4.79tn, according to a study by Brown University researchers.

Trump is correct that US infrastructure, in general, is in dire need of repair and reconstruction. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers reported that the government needs to spend roughly $1.4 tn over the next decade, or $3.6tn by 2020, to overcome the shortfall in infrastructure funding.

Trump’s claim of $6tn is misleading: it includes estimates of future spending, including veterans care for decades in the future.

Crime

“Jamiel’s 17-year-old son was viciously murdered by an illegal immigrant gang member, who had just been released from prison.”

Trump’s anecdote suggests a link between immigrants and crime, but anecdotes about individuals do not paint an accurate picture of about 11 million people, most of whom are not violent offenders or aggravated felons.

On the contrary, presidential commissions and recent academic research has in general found no links between immigrants and crime or lower rates of crime correlated to cities with more immigrants compared to those with fewer immigrants.

“The murder rate in 2015 experienced its largest single-year increase in nearly half a century. In Chicago, more than 4,000 people were shot last year alone — and the murder rate so far this year has been even higher.”

Trump has accurately stated a statistic he often distorts. Last September, the FBI reported that murders and non-negligent manslaughter rose in the US by 10.8% in 2015, the largest single-year increase since 1971. That is not the same as saying there are more murders in the US than at any point since 1971: 15,696 murders were reported in 2015, down from 1991 high of 24,703. The murder rate declined 42% from 1993 to 2014, even though the population increased by a quarter.

Trump correctly cites Chicago’s number of shooting victims; the city has suffered a significant increase in gun violence in the last two years, though it has yet to reach the highs of the mid-1990s. This year has started even more violently than 2016 did, with at least 513 people shot so far in 2017. But fewer people have been killed compared with the same period in 2016, according to the Chicago Tribune, and police do not trust a few months’ worth of data to estimate a trend.

Also worth reading: An annotated guide to Trump’s first address to Congress.
Source for this fact-checking post: The Guardian newspaper article.

Surviving Chinese New Year With the Family

Below is a song performed by the Rainbow Chamber Singers in Shanghai. In Chinese, it’s titled “A Spring Festival Survival Guide.” (Chinese New Year is commonly called Spring Festival.)

In China, where an individual’s business is the family’s business, the questions are unremitting: “How much do you earn? Why don’t you have a better job? When will you marry? When will you have children? How did you get so fat?” Throughout the ordeal, the cornered victim must maintain at least the appearance of filial respect to his or her elders. (Hmmmm. Doesn’t sound that different from my family and relatives asking similar questions many years ago on Boxing Day get togethers.)

The video also carries the English title “What I Do Is For Your Own Good.” (Has anyone reading this not heard that line at least once?) The lyrics — English subtitles provided — and music are by Jin Chengzhi, who is also the choir’s conductor. The verve of its performance and its universal theme cry out for fuller treatment. How about a musical?

Watch, enjoy and Happy Year of the Rooster!

 

‘Brutal, amoral, ruthless, cheating’: how Trump’s new trade tsar sees China

An image from Peter Navarro’s 2012 documentary Death by China Photograph: Netflix

An image from Peter Navarro’s 2012 documentary Death by China Photograph: Netflix

The Chinese government is a despicable, parasitic, brutal, brass-knuckled, crass, callous, amoral, ruthless and totally totalitarian imperialist power that reigns over the world’s leading cancer factory, its most prolific propaganda mill and the biggest police state and prison on the face of the earth.

That is the view of Peter Navarro, the man chosen by Donald Trump to lead a new presidential office for US trade and industrial policy, a move likely to add to Beijing’s anxieties over the billionaire’s plans for US-China relations.

China’s rulers initially appeared to embrace the possibility that improved ties with Washington could be negotiated with the deal-making US president-elect.

But that enthusiasm has dimmed after Trump angered Beijing with a succession of controversial interventions on sensitive issues including Taiwan and the South China Sea.

The appointment of Navarro, a University of California, Irvine business professor, to run the White House’s newly created national trade council, represents a further blow to those hopes.

Navarro has penned a number of vociferously anti-China tomes including Death by China and Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World.

In The Coming China Wars – a 2006 book that Trump has called one of his favourite on China – Navarro portrays the Asian country as a nightmarish realm where “the raw stench of a gut-wrenching, sweat-stained fear” hangs in the air and myopic, venal and incompetent Communist party officials rule the roost.

Speaking shortly before Navarro’s appointment was confirmed, Andrew Nathan, a China expert at Columbia University, said Trump’s plans for relations with Beijing remained an enigma despite the presence of several prominent China hawks in his camp.

“Trump has shown two sides to his personality in dealing with everybody. One is: ‘Let’s make a deal, we are deal-makers.’ And the other one is: ‘You hurt my feelings and I’m going to bomb the shit out of you because I never lose – I always win’,” said the political scientist.

“I don’t know whether he is setting up China for a deal. In fact, I don’t know if he is that deliberate or whether his mood just changes from time-to-time depending on how the other side treats him.”

Christopher Balding, a Peking University finance professor, said that for all Navarro’s “alarmist” and “inflammatory” musings on China, he was unlikely to be able to follow through on his most radical beliefs once in government.

“I think Navarro is going to quickly realise the constraints that he is under,” he said.

“They come as professors, they come as businessmen and they get into office as the secretary-of-whatever and they quickly realise … that they cannot just implement their pet idea or their classroom theory,” Balding said, predicting there would be “strong push-back” from the US business community were hefty tariffs to be imposed on imports from China.

Li Yonghui, the head of the school of international relations at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, said Navarro’s rise was consistent with Trump’s hawkish thoughts on China and would leave Beijing “a little worried” even if he still believed a radical shake-up of US-China relations was unlikely.

“We should stay vigilant. We have to be prepared,” the academic said. “Trump will certainly place unprecedented pressure on China.”

Asked for Beijing’s reaction to Trump’s hire, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry replied only that it was closely monitoring the transition and possible policy directions.

“As two superpowers, China and the US have extensive common interests,” Hua Chunying told reporters. “Cooperation is the only correct choice.”

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site.

China, hacking, fact, opinion

Lately there has been an upsurge of media reports concerning hacking said to be originating in China by APT1 – according to statements by Mandiant – which are mostly opinion and not fully supported facts.

I’ve always been leery of reports based upon allegations, especially those with little substantiation, and written to project an aura of authority and thus truth.

Thinkst wrote a piece about the Mandiant report and APT1. Please take a moment to read it here.

About Thinkst: Thinkst was founded to respond to the simple (but often repeated) call in infosec today: “We are not winning against X”. Despite billions being spent worldwide, we are often not much better than we were 10 years ago. This process is not tenable.

Thinkst exists to work on difficult problems and to solve them.

With a decade of history in well published applied research and a strong network of partners, thinkst aims at turning the current tide, because we strongly agree with Voltaire when he said:

“No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking!”