Cold Truce: How the United States Can Avoid an Unwanted War with China

China’s rise is leading it to direct conflict with the United States. A lot of historical precedent and recent events foreshadow a prolonged confrontation. Yet, the nature of this showdown is neither predestined nor inherently zero-sum. The coming conflict is not something we (or the rest of the world) can afford to get wrong. In order to get it right, we must first get China right.

A steamy summer night in Beijing seems like a good place to start. The air is oily and metallic. It has the seasoning of rich tradition and the spice of modern industry. Cutting through the thick urban stew, I dip into a pedestrian underpass beneath one of countless broad boulevards in the city center. Street peddlers line the walls, making the passage even more congested. They hawk wares on woven mats – headphones, DVDs, phone cases, battery packs – all most likely counterfeit.

At the far end of the tunnel, I come to a panhandler. He has a small cardboard sign explaining his hardships and hunger. Below the description is a QR code. Curious, I take out my phone and scan it. Sure enough, his online profile pops up, complete with a selfie. He reads my surprise. “You can donate,” he explains.

“Donate?”I ask.

“You can. For my dinner.” Impressed by his ingenuity, I transfer the equivalent of a couple dollars to his account. As I head up the stairs to street-level, I get a thank-you text from him, complete with several amusingly cute emojis.

That underpass is surprisingly representative of modern China. Like that Beijing beggar, his country is defined by a zeitgeist of resourcefulness and adaptability. Of course, like the digital platform on which he accepts donations (and like the products being sold alongside him), Chinese economic growth has also been leveraged by the government’s tendency to turn a blind eye to copyright infringement. Through this strategy, China is likely to become the world’s largest economy in terms of GDP within a decade.

As the United States adapts to this reality and seeks to defend its interests, it is my hope that courtroom battles will far outnumber armed conflicts. There are certainly a lot of legal fights ahead. Despite recent reforms, the Chinese authorities have made it virtually impossible for US companies to litigate copyright infringement in China. Yet, as Chinese companies increasingly expand onto US soil, their alleged IP thefts – once insulated from legal scrutiny – become vulnerable to US law.

This is playing out for the first time in the criminal case brought by US prosecutors against the Chinese mobile giant, Huawei. More than the specific allegations of IP theft, this case is about national security concerns regarding China’s involvement in developing the 5G network. The precedent set by the Huawei proceedings will be pivotal in defining the rules of engagement for this emerging battlefield with China.

As the United States becomes increasingly concerned about Chinese intentions and encroachments, it is vital to support and reinforce the rule-of-law that grounds our proud nation. If we deal with the Chinese on a case-by-case basis, allowing our court system to do its job, we stand the best chance of protecting our interests and our core values.

Much like the Chinese, we Americans pride ourselves on pragmatism. I believe in the capacity of this shared ideal to steer our two nations away from an unwanted war, i.e., a conflict in which military action precedes or prematurely supersedes legal action. The United States remains the dominant global superpower. It is our responsibility to take the lead in fostering a future of strategic, law-based engagement with the Chinese (and maybe even cooperation).

How to Escalate Tensions with China

Would the United States benefit from a cold war with China? To assess what best serves our national interests, it is imperative to consider the full implications of existing and potential flash-points. To highlight these, as well as the current misinformed and misguided US policies, I propose four plausible strategies that would significantly escalate tensions with China:

(1) Increase and diversify arms sales to Taiwan
This will likely incite similar tensions to the Soviets sending missiles to Cuba. It will deliver a clear message to Beijing that the United States prioritizes the ROC’s sovereignty over relations with the mainland, and it will entrench our ideological opposition to China at any cost. It will also certainly escalate maritime conflict in the South China Sea.

(2) Destabilize Nigeria and Angola
          This proxy war could be accomplished with a mixture of debt-loading, currency manipulation, and political hacking – all techniques we used to great effect during the Cold War. These countries represent the flagship infrastructure and resource extraction projects of the BRI in sub-Saharan Africa. They account for a quarter of China’s $60 billion investment in African nations (Brookings). Undermining these efforts would be both a symbolic and economic blow to China’s global ambitions, and would position US-led multilateral organizations to benefit from leveraged “clean up” of destabilized local and national economies.

(3) Promote nationalism at US research universities
          In the 2016/2017 academic year, more than 350 thousand Chinese students were studying at higher education institutions in the US – a number that has increased five-fold over the past decade (Statista). Roughly forty percent of these are in graduate programs (Foreign Policy). We have given these bright and highly motivated students unlimited access to our main sources of innovation and cutting-edge research. Just as in China, our government would need to restrict and monitor intellectual activity at universities to ensure that it serves our national interests. This includes using targeted vetting to prevent the enrollment of Chinese nationals with suspicious links to the CCP, the PLA, and other rich, powerful, and well-connected groups within China.

(4) Exclude China from 5G development
          This would be a major blow to China’s global ambitions and standing. Samm Sacks and Paul Triolo provide an excellent analysis of this issue (Sinica). Though China’s digital technology implementation has in many cases leapfrogged our own, the potential for its government to manipulate and misuse the new networks trumps any contributions the Chinese might make to successful implementation of 5G in the US and worldwide. Excluding them from the collaborative development process would effectively marginalize their digital capabilities and require them to either adopt the US-backed technologies or risk being isolated on networks of their own design.

Note: This is not an exhaustive list. Yet, each of the measures described above is representative of any number of policies the US could instate to escalate tensions with China: They require us to abandon aspects of our core values, sacrifice vital economic relationships, and engage in zero-sum brinkmanship. In order to avoid an unwanted war with China, US policy-makers should consider the benefits and risks of cooperation before escalating conflict.


Seeking Common Ground: Migration

With increasing points of contention in US-China relations, sharing notes on labor migration could serve as an entry point for building diplomatic rapport.

At the center of China’s rapid economic growth are the nearly 300 million migrants who have come from rural areas to work in urban factories. Even in these past few years of growing consumerism and digital technology innovation, the most defining element of China’s development remains the factory-driven export economy. “Made in China” has become a ubiquitous label on consumer goods all over the world. It is a mark of China’s massive share of global trade. It is often a mark of inexpensive goods. It is a mark increasingly downplayed, with propaganda-like taglines such as “designed in the USA, made in China”. Yet, more objectively than any of its other meanings,“Made in China” signifies “made by Chinese migrants”. It is no exaggeration that migrant workers have a hand in producing nearly every single thing made for export from China.

One of the great puzzles in the study of migrants in China is why the government has consistently treated them so poorly. Similar to migrants in other countries, Chinese migrants face the daunting task of starting over in an unfamiliar place with scant resources or support networks. Yet,in China, strict internal residency laws, known as hukou, prevent Chinese citizens from enjoying most legal rights and social services anywhere in their own country except in their home provinces.This includes access to healthcare, education, and shockingly, in a country so dependent on factory workers, most labor protections. Despite recent reforms, this system remains so discriminatory it has been dubbed “China’s apartheid”.

Like China, the United States has a significant migrant population. In both countries, migrants are significant in terms of their sheer numbers. They are significant in terms of immense economic contributions. And they are significant in terms of the need for reforms to the policies governing their legal status. Both countries have a lot to gain from resolving these issues, and also a lot to gain from sharing notes on their parallel problems with mass-migration.

Admittedly, there are significant differences between the US and Chinese cases. Yet, at a time when the US must increasingly defend its economic,military, and moral interests, the topic of migration seems to present a practical entry point for finding common and neutral ground with the rising Chinese superpower.

Governing China’s NGOs


The “governing” in the title of this article has a double meaning. First, it references the economic controls employed by the Chinese state to govern the nongovernmental sector. At minimum, the state uses funding to exert influence over non-governmental programs. However, it often outright usurps programs begun by NGOs. The second meaning of “governing” relates to the ways state interference governs the decision-making of the founders/directors of NGOs. In this way, the founders/directors are both shaped by and find space to work within government control frameworks. In this article, I analyze data from decision modelling to understand how this process affects the decision of the founders/directors of Chinese NGOs to accept or not accept government funds and how this decision affects subsequent decision-making.

Accepting Government Funds

Forty percent of the organizations in my sample (n=34) accept at least some funding from the government. It is a misconception that these organizations are forced to take government money. The Chinese state is certainly overbearing. Yet, my data strongly suggest that Chinese citizens have many ways to exert their agency, particularly in civil society organizations. When faced with government pressure, a founder/director can simply shut down the current program and begin a new one under a different organizational structure. In fact, several founders/directors in my sample reported that their current programs resulted from just such a process.

I also found several cases of founders/directors choosing not to accept government money and still able to maintain their programs. I will discuss specific examples later. The point is that the founders/directors have a choice whether or not to accept government funding. The founders/directors in my sample feel passionately about their work. They are typically not willing to walk away from their programs simply because they face obstacles, even from the state.

For these reasons, I wanted to understand the criteria used by the founders/directors to decide whether or not to accept government funding. While forty percent of the organizations in my sample received government money, over eighty percent of the founders/directors report being faced with this decision. Figure 1 depicts the decision tree I created from interviewing the founders/directors about this decision.

Figure 1: Accepting Government Funds

This decision tree reveals only two pathways by which the founders/directors decide to accept government funds (shown in green). However, as I mentioned above, this represents the experiences of forty percent of the organizations in my sample. Moreover, it points to some significant factors affecting the decision-making of the founders/directors, regardless of whether they accept government money.

None of the organizations that have been in existence less than five years accepted government funding. In my sample, none of them were offered government funding. This correlates with survey data that found a similar relationship between years in existence and obstacles faced. It also suggests that the government is more discerning than we might want to give it credit for, and is likely looking for programs with at least a five-year track record to share its burden of dealing with migrant issues.

Of those in existence longer than five years, roughly sixty percent are “educational” and forty percent are “legal” organizations. For both categories of organization, the decision to accept government funds is largely a function of the availability of other funding sources. Notably, only organizations that bring in less than fifty percent of their operating budgets from commercial revenue accept government funds. The availability of foreign funding also contributes to the decision to accept or not accept government money. Interestingly, this is a significantly more important factor for the educational organizations. They must receive at least seventy percent of their funding from foreign donors in order not to take government money – as compared to a thirty percent threshold for the legal organizations.

Bolstering survey and interview data, this discrepancy further suggests government preferences for certain NGO programs over others. The decision tree in Figure 1 underscores how these preferences affect the decision-making of the founders/directors. Within the “educational” category, all of the decision-criteria relate to the availability of funding. However, in the “legal” category, in addition to funding criteria, the types of programs and their structures strongly influence the final decision. Notably, programs run by lawyers and those that promote collective bargaining do not receive government money.

Some founders/directors who are lawyers report being offered funding from the government. None of them decided to accept it. In most cases, this has to do with their greater access to personal and network wealth than other founders/directors. In China, as in many countries, even lawyers who engage in nonprofit work are top-earners. Several of these lawyers also cited fiduciary duty as an important decision criterion. As attorneys, they have a professional obligation to represent the interests of their clients and avoid conflicts of interest. Lawyers who take on migrant clients are often defending them against government policies related to labor rights and collective bargaining. The government tends to favor business interests in both of these areas. As one informant commented, “Money from the government is a payment not to oppose the government.”[1]

The above analysis of Figure 1 provides insights into what personal, organizational, and political factors lead some founders/directors to accept government funds. However, it reveals little about how this important decision affects subsequent decision-making. In theory, by accepting government funds, an NGO loses one of its defining characteristics, namely being non-governmental. Yet, with such an overbearing central government, China creates a much less distinct nongovernmental sector than is common in democratic societies. In the next section, I will explore how using (or not using) government money plays out in the Chinese context.

Using Government Funds

Figure 2 shows the decision tree I created to model the ways the decisions to accept or not accept government money affect subsequent decision-making. All of the organizations in this model were offered government funds. Thus, they made a decision to accept or not accept them.

Figure 2: Using Government Funds


To honor the late Robert Van Kemper, I made the above diagram clean and straightforward.[2] Yet, the simple layout conceals underlying complexity. Indeed, the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ branches yield only three possible outcomes: (1) closing an organization, (2) single city expansion, and (3) multi-city expansion. However, survey data reveals that individual founders/directors have a range of experiences with these possibilities. In this section, I will explore how these experiences give insights into their decision-making processes and the resulting outcomes.

Despite the heavy-handed policies of the Chinese state, the decision not to accept government money does not inevitably doom an NGO. After declining government money, several organizations in my sample managed to expand their operations within the city where they started. Later in this section, I will compare specific case studies of this occurrence with the experiences of NGOs that expand their programs with government funds. To start, however, it is important to note that the ‘no’ branch does yield the possibility of an organization closing down. At the time of field research, all of the organizations in my sample were still in operation. Yet, some informants reported that organizations they had previously founded or directed were forced to shut down after the decision not to accept government money. One case stands out as representative of this experience.

Daisy Li (pseudonym) founded and now directs a program that provides job training and placement for secretaries, most of whom are women. This is the second female-focused organization she has started. Prior to starting her current program, she ran an organization that offered skills training to female factory workers. She had worked in a factory for fifteen years herself and was able to develop a very effective curriculum to help her former co-workers advance to higher-paying jobs within their company. In fact, that company hired her to conduct onsite classes for its employees. Other factories in the area soon hired her to do the same for their employees. Daisy believes that the factories thought her program helped increase worker productivity. So, it was a win-win, because many of the participants in her courses also wound up getting promoted.

Within six years, Daisy was contracted at half a dozen factories to conduct monthly training classes. She had fifteen fulltime employees and at least that many volunteers helping her with logistics, program development, and fund raising. She had two large corporate sponsors and a number of small donors. At that point, her program was sustainable, both financially and in terms of impact. Shortly thereafter, a local government official approached her with an offer of substantial funds to help her improve and expand the program. In fact, he offered her more money than she was getting from all other funding sources combined. As a stipulation of the money, he would serve as an official advisor to her organization. This requirement made her wary. Based on her experiences, and echoing the problems faced by “legal” organizations in the previous section, she knew that the government often undermined any attempts to organize factory workers. Thus, she politely but firmly declined the offer.

Within a couple months, one of her corporate sponsors unceremoniously ceased its donations. The other soon followed suit. She suspected that this was retribution by the government official, but of course she would never know conclusively. With increased funding from small donors, she was able to maintain a scaled-down version of her program. Yet, within another few months the money ran out, and she had let go all of her employees and shutter the organization. It was not for another three years that she was able to start her current program.

The Chinese government is often heavy-handed, yet seldom overt in its restrictions of civil society activities. Several other informants had experiences similar to Daisy’s. The government’s handling of unwanted civil society activity seems most analogous to its censoring of online content. When someone types a sensitive term into a Chinese internet search engine, one of two things happens. Either the search halts to a crawl and eventually times out, or clicking on the linked search results causes a similar slowdown and stall. For example, in the Fall of 2017, I typed “June 4”[3] into Baidu, the largest Chinese search engine. This is the date of the infamous Tiananmen massacre, one of the most highly censored incidents on the Chinese internet. To my surprise, this search term returned nearly two million hits. None of the results were related to Tiananmen, but instead referenced supposed events in other years on June 4. I clicked every link on the first five pages of search results. In each case, I eventually received an error message.

These types of misdirection and misrepresentation are commonly employed by the Chinese authorities. Akin to sensitive search terms, the government is also suspicious of nongovernmental activities. As I discussed in the previous section, this applies to some NGO programs more than others. However, several of my informants report experiences similar to Daisy’s, in which their programs were abruptly undermined after turning down government support, or even disagreeing with unsolicited advice from government officials. This is perhaps the clearest evidence that, in the long run, few NGOs in China are ever truly non-governmental. I will discuss the theoretical implications of the next chapter.

As I hinted above, some NGOs are able to maintain and even expand their programs after refusing government funds. In other words, declining state money is not necessarily the kiss of death. However, the decision tree above makes clear that without government funds, organizations are unable to expand beyond a single city. In fact, the government has instated laws prohibiting civil society organizations from having offices in more than one city. This is in line with its efforts to minimize the influence of the nongovernmental sector. This, of course, limits the scope and impact of effective programs. Yet, it also localizes programs, allowing them to tailor their efforts to the needs of specific groups of migrants. This has important implications for the decision making of the founders/directors. Later in this section, I will discuss how the decision to accept government funds affects program expansion.

The government restrictions on expansion have significant effects on strategic planning. Not surprisingly, the founders/directors who decline state money do not spend a lot of time considering how to expand their programs beyond a single city. In one sense, this is another example of how government intervention suffocates civil society. However, most of my informants take a more glass-half-full view. They are aware of the benefits of expanding to other cities, but they appreciate the ability to focus on their local programs. This is particularly important for creating a sense of community. Migrants lack traditional support networks, i.e., family, friends, and neighbors in their hometowns. Thus, some of the most beneficial work of the organizations in my study involves fostering a sense of community among the migrants in a particular neighborhood. In general, they achieve this by offering migrants a safe space to share their frustrations, learn from the experiences of other migrants in their area, and engage in group activities. As we have seen in several case studies in the preceding chapters, sometimes this involves serious issues, for example how to apply for compensation after a workplace injury or how to navigate a discriminatory labor market. Many times, however, it is more about bringing migrants together for communal activities, such as game nights, concerts, and movie screenings. After all, shared leisure time, even more than hardship, is what unites a community.

This is the mission of the Temple of Migrant Workers, an NGO founded by one of my informants, Wu Wei (pseudonym). The organization’s name (also a pseudonym) reflects Mr. Wu’s belief in the need for migrants to have a refuge from the often-hostile policies of the government and hostile attitudes of society-at-large. In fact, Mr. Wu thinks that the government mistrusts NGOs because they focus too much on the hardships of migrants. The government promotes a narrative that life for migrants is actually pretty good. Such a view is strangely optimistic, and fairly delusional, but goes a long way to underscore what it clearly views as acceptable collateral damage in the process of economic development. The reality, of course, is that migrants lack access to basic social services, education for their children, and most legal protections. Despite the official rhetoric, these factors have the effect of making migrants feel very unwelcome in their new homes. In fact, Wong and Leung (2008) point to social support as one of the key factors affecting the mental health of migrant workers in China.

Mr. Wu knows this feeling well. Twenty years ago, he came to the city as a migrant worker. He was fortunate to have worked as a mechanic in his hometown. He got a good-paying job in the city. He fixed factory equipment, a skill that was in high enough demand that he received frequent raises. He stresses that he has enjoyed a life far better than most migrants. It is important to note, however, that he and his family still live in the same urban village to which he originally migrated. His humility is admirable. Yet, his standard of living is remarkably lower than the urban middle class. Nonetheless, he has devoted a lot of his time and personal resources to make life better for his fellow migrants.

He saved up his money, and with the help of several small donors, he rented a courtyard near his house. Over several years, he and his friends renovated the buildings to create a sanctuary for people in the neighborhood. The four single-story structures that line the courtyard house a small lending library, a game room, a community kitchen, and a thrift store. He uses money from the sale of donated clothing to fund other activities. At the back of the courtyard is a larger, two-story building that he turned into an auditorium where he holds regular performances free-of-charge. Sometimes there are plays. At holidays there are elaborate performances, for example a dragon dance for the new year. I even saw him give a guitar performance with a trio of him and two of his friends. They were really good!

During my three weeks with Mr. Wu, the center was very well used. During the day, older people used the gaming rooms to play mahjong and talk for hours over tea. In the evenings, the center bustled with lively conversations, children darting here and there, and plenty of traffic in the thrift store. On the weekends, performances in the auditorium usually played to a full house, even more so during the holidays.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Wu is quite popular in the community. A couple years ago, he was approached by a government official. Unlike the experiences of many other founders/directors in my study, the official did not offer Mr. Wu money for his community center. In fact, the official complimented Mr. Wu’s ingenuity and ability to run his organization without government assistance. He offered Mr. Wu enough money and resources to open a second center in another migrant neighborhood on the other side of the city. The official would find another manager to run the current center, so that Mr. Wu could focus on the new center. The plan was to open several of these centers across the city, and eventually expand to other cities. This is line with the government’s practice of using grassroots NGOs to develop effective programs that it then takes over (and takes credit for).

After much deliberation and soul-searching, Mr. Wu declined the offer. He thought a lot about why he had originally started his organization. He realized he had no interest in helping all migrants. He told me, “It’s a problem bigger than me.”[4] He has formed bonds with the people in his neighborhood. In many respects, they are his adoptive hometown. His organization is merely a vehicle to help them. He stressed that his organization would not exist without them. In this way, he defines his role as a good person in terms of his role within a local community, not on a larger scale.

Admittedly, less than five percent of the organizations in my sample run programs in more than one city. As the decision tree above indicates, all of these receive greater than fifty percent of their funding from the government. Interestingly, of the organizations that receive greater than half of their funding from the government, more than eighty percent operate in multiple cities. This indicates that the government recognizes the benefits of scaling up effective programs. Thus, it seems likely that more and more GONGOs will begin to operate in multiple cities. It follows that more and more NGOs will relinquish both financial and managerial autonomy to the government. So, how do the founders/directors of such organizations factor into their programs once they are effectively taken over by the government?

The simplest answer is that it is largely up to them. Given the small number of such organizations in my sample, I can only make limited conclusions. Yet, my data suggest some significant factors that influence how the founders/directors make decisions regarding this situation. For all of the founders/directors in my study, their programs are more than simply a job. At one point or another in my interactions with everyone in my sample, I heard them say, “This is my life’s work.”[5] For some, like Mr. Wu, this statement signifies a parent-child relationship. Mr. Wu gave birth to his organization, continues to nurture it, and is unwilling to hand over control simply out of convenience. In many ways, his life has come to be defined by his role in the organization and the ways it situates him within the community. Others, however, prioritize the success of their programs over their roles within them.

Objectively, both of these approaches can result in effective programs. In this type of situation, the temperament and preferences of the founders/directors appear to have the greatest impact. While some founders/directors decide to reject government funding or leave their organizations if they cannot retain control, others remain at their organizations even after the government takes them over. The latter perspective, i.e., prioritizing the program above all else, is less easily analogized than a situation like Mr. Wu’s. Are these founders/directors akin to helicopter parents, micromanaging their children even after they go off to college? Are they really just empty-nesters who are struggling to accept that their little babies are all grown up? More accurately, this decision seems rooted in an entrepreneurial spirit, defined not only in terms of founding an organization but also in terms Schumpeter’s (1934) notion of entrepreneurs as innovators who respond to needs in society (see also Cohen and Levinthal 1990). This innovation is not a one-time action but an ongoing process of improving societal problems. The impact of such motivations on decision-making is well exemplified by the case of Du Xin (pseudonym).

Mr. Du (pun intended) was, like many founders/directors, a migrant himself. In his early twenties, his favorite band went to university in Beijing. On a whim, he decided to move hundreds of miles from his hometown to be closer to them. He got a job washing dishes at the cafeteria and was able to go to all their concerts. His impulsiveness was well-tempered by an innate desire to improve himself. These character traits have defined much his professional life. He soon learned about the adult gaokao and decided to take it. The gaokao is a college entrance exam taken by high school students. The adult version is somewhat less rigorous, but still enables people with a passing score to attend university.[6]

He passed the test and was accepted into a computer engineering program at another university in the city. After graduation, he secured a good job in the tech industry. Within a few years, he became a VP. After a successful career, he wanted to help other migrants do what he had done. So, he started a program to get university students to volunteer to teach migrants prep courses for the adult gaokao. In fact, one of the members of his favorite band become a major donor to the program, and even attended events to talk with migrants.

Mr. Du estimates that more than ninety percent of the migrants in his program passed the adult gaokao. This enabled them to receive professional training and get significantly better jobs than they could before attending his program. Not surprisingly, after a few years, the government offered to take over his program. Without hesitation, he accepted their offer. He remained on as an advisor and helped them expand the program to several other eastern cities. Though he dislikes the inefficiency of government bureaucracy, he acknowledges that state funding has allowed his program to help far more migrants than he could on his own. Moreover, he has come to realize that his time and effort can be better spent on establishing new programs. It is here that his entrepreneurial spirit shines through.

In the course of running the adult gaokao program, his thinking on the migrant situation evolved. He has come to understand that the root of the problem is not finding migrants better jobs in the city, but rather giving them ways to make money in their hometowns so they can avoid coming to the cities in the first place. In this vein, he started an online marketplace to help local farmers sell their products.[7] Unlike the experiences of the organization I discussed in Chapter 2, Mr. Du has found that Chinese consumers care that they are helping local farmers, and he advertises this by telling the stories behind each of the products he sells online. He buys direct from farmers, paying them on average eighty percent of the final retail price. He uses the net profit to maintain the online store and subsidize shipping costs. He has also raised significant funding from venture capital[8] and has plans to expand his program to several more provinces.

He has already received support from local governments and expects to hear from national officials in the next few years. After all, his program is right in line with their goals of keeping people in the inner provinces. This is the type of thinking China needs. If the central government is going to disincentivize migrants to stay in the cities, then it needs to instate more programs that give them money-making opportunities in their native provinces. It will be interesting to follow up in a few years to see where this program has progressed, whether the government has continued to support it (if not take it over), and how Mr. Du’s thinking about the migrant problem has evolved.

Despite the theoretical implications of an NGO accepting government money, my data suggest that in China this is not an inherently bad decision. I found effective (and certainly ineffective) programs on both ends of the spectrum. In the end, the limiting factor in the success of any given program is the decision-making of the founder/director. Naturally, asymmetrical information and political headwinds also factor heavily. Yet, even in such a top-heavy political and economic environment, the decisions made by individuals remain central to civil society organizations.



Cohen, Wesley M, and Daniel A Levinthal. 1990. “Absorptive capacity: A new perspective on learning and innovation.”  Administrative science quarterly:128-152.

Schumpeter, Joseph Alois. 1934. The theory of economic development: An inquiry into profits, capital, credit, interest, and the business cycle. Rutgers, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Tufte, Edward R. 1983. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press.

Wong, Daniel Fu Keung, and Grace Leung. 2008. “The functions of social support in the mental health of male and female migrant workers in China.”  Health & Social Work 33 (4):275-285.



[1] 政府给你的钱是为了让你不反对政府的一种费用。

[2] Professor Kemper was a strong proponent of Tufte’s (1983) approach to precise and uncluttered data visualizations. I hope this article lives up to his high standards.

[3] 6月4日

[4] 比我大问题

[5] 这是我终身事业。

[6] Mr. Du thinks that the assumption of the adult test is that life experience can compensate for lower academic aptitude. As usual, it is impossible to know the exact thinking of the Chinese officials who administer the test, but Mr. Du’s theory seems reasonable.

[7] He gave me permission to publish a link to his website, but to protect his identity I have opted not to. Anyone interested in checking out his online store, can email me directly at: ijdorfman(at)

[8] 风险投资

One in a Billion Names

For students of Chinese, one of the first rights-of-passage is being given a Chinese name. Usually a teacher or other person versed in the the subtle art of naming has this honor. The process occurs by: (1) Selecting a one-character family name from the surprisingly short list of most common names, one that typically begins with the same sound as the English last name; and (2) Selecting a one- or two-character given name, one that typically begins with the same sound as the English first name, and may or may not sound like the whole first name. The given name generally comes from an obscure literary or mythical reference, or coveys a grandiose sentiment, such as heroism for men and elegance for women (perhaps not so different from our own naming practices).

After much consideration, my first Chinese teacher gave me the name 杜照石 (dùzhàoshí). The surname is relatively common, and has the “d” from my last name. Mimicking the sounds of my first name within the confines of Chinese phonetics, the given name comes from consecutive lines of a poem by the 8th century tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei. Together the characters mean “illuminated rock” – and fortuitously the first character 照 is used in the word for taking pictures (photography is a lifelong hobby of mine, though my teacher did not know that).

It’s a good name, very intellectual sounding, and many Chinese friends and colleagues have complimented me on it. But, honestly I don’t really like the name, and one thing in particular bothers me: though the surname is common, not a single Chinese person that I’ve ever met or heard of shares my given name. Though some Chinese choose unique names, they are generally discouraged by the government, and thus rare. When Chinese come to the US, they either go by their Chinese names (which is only confusing because the surname comes first and pinyin are somewhat hard to pronounce for English speakers), or they adopt a common English name and keep their Chinese surname (many of which English speakers have become familiar with). Why, then, do we not do the same?

My parents named me after my great-grandfather, a man who was greatly admired as the family’s patriarch. It’s a name I use proudly. Although my Chinese name is functional (people in China can easily pronounce it, and I have gotten pretty good at explaining its origins as a conversation starter), it really has very little personal meaning to me. It’s simply a part of  the way I present myself in everyday Chinese life (see Goffman 1959).

I understand that Chinese phonetics cannot easily accommodate my english name. But, why can’t I just use a common Chinese name? Why do non-Chinese go to such lengths to create pseudo-Chinese names? This seems to further accentuate our foreigness. In the end, I’d rather keep the name I was born with and remain who I am: An American trying to speak Chinese – not an American trying to be Chinese.

What remains unclear is whether taking a Chinese name is simply a gimmick, or whether it serves a function for non-Chinese trying to engage with China. There’s certainly a precedent for phoneticizing foreign words with Chinese characters, notably foods and place names. But, these are generally commonly used words, with which the Chinese have become familiar. The same is true for a handful of foreign names, for example 大卫 (dàwèi) for “David”. But, how do the Chinese view foreigners’ names not common in China, either with their native pronunciation and spelling or using Chinese characters?

The First China War


I’ve spent the weekend devouring and digesting The War for China’s Wallet. Shaun Rein takes a deep dive into China’s economic strategy, stability, and appeal to developing nations, as well as a timely critique of America’s weakness on all of these accounts.

In my notes, I began using the shorthand WCW I, as this is likely the first of many iterations of China wielding its economic weapons.

Shaun wisely advises governments and corporations alike to be strong over conciliatory, in order to earn the respect of the Chinese. Yet, this reveals a sobering reality: we must now earn the respect of the Chinese.

With trillions of consumer dollars at stake, WCW I is being waged squarely in the Chinese arena. Shaun generously refers to the authors of current US policy as “intellectuals”. Yet, these ideologues remain entangled in the outdated narrative of China’s economy being exclusively export-oriented.

Shaun provides a clear roadmap for waging WCW I. Yet, the rules of engagement are largely out of our hands. We have become reactionaries, much like the paper tigers described by Mao.

It appears WCW I is largely about profit and influence. Yet, if the US does not begin to develop economic strategies independent of the Chinese, the stakes of WCW II may be far greater.

More than a Middle Class

A billion people in China are NOT in the middle class.

Typically we hear about the roughly 300 million people that make up China’s middle class. This figure makes marketers drool, and is the cause for much self-congratulation by the central government. Even the most cynical China watchers concede a hearty applause. Indeed, over the past generation, improvements to the lifestyles of this rising middle class are nothing short of amazing.

Of course, in China having 300 million people in the middle class means that approximately 1 billion people have yet to reach this socioeconomic level. This group includes marginalized rural populations, the urban poor, and nearly 300 million migrant workers.

While the business opportunities and economic success stories typically come from the middle class, my research suggests that the real space for innovations and market disruptions can be found among the 1 billion people forgotten or left behind by China’s breakneck development trajectory.

{To give credit where credit is due, I have adapted this perspective from CK Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.}

Knowing what we don’t know: the Chinese economy

One thing that strikes me about us serious China observers is that we are frequently and completely wrong about the direction China is headed. In the 1980s many top analysts predicted that without democracy China would be unable to grow its economy. Later, many asserted that only with a free and open Internet could China maintain its growth.

Wrong on both accounts.

The Chinese development model has now become the first serious competitor to the Washington Consensus since the Cold War. More and more developing countries model their growth strategies on the Chinese state-managed market economy.

We must continue to be vigilant with both our investigations and critiques of the Chinese system. However, it seems unwise to view it as an immature or inherently flawed system that will inevitably evolve to look more and more like the US model. And its success is emboldened by its growing popularity.

As it has in the past, failing to accept this will continue to produce misguided policies toward China.

Zika: The China Connection

Growing concern about the Zika Virus may seem like a strange topic for this blog. In recent years, China has of course had a variety of viral epidemics. However, the knee-jerk response of several South American countries raises an unfortunate reminder of parallel histories of forced population control in the two regions. China famously used doomsday models to justify its one-child policy (Greenhalgh 2005), and forced sterilizations were all too common throughout South America, for example, in Peru.

At present, El Salvador, due to perceived risks from Zika, has begun to urge woman to refrain from getting pregnant until 2018. In a characteristically heavy-handed responseBrazil has deployed its military to “spread awareness” of Zika in the lead up to Carnival. Though there is not yet a vaccine, Zika has a very low mortality rate. While evidence suggests that the virus may be the cause of an uptick in birth defects, the correlation remains unverified. Thus, given the dark history of forced population control in the region, it seems reasonable to suspect that Zika is just another in the long list of justifications for targeting poor, rural groups – where Zika-infected mosquitoes are likely more prevalent.

While based in historical precedent, this theory is not meant to be a conclusive assessment of the current situation in South America, of which I am by no means an expert.  This is merely a caveat from a China scholar to the experts who must now assess the broad implications of the Zika outbreak.

Debt to a Master, Fei Xiaotong

A student of Bronislaw Malinowski, Fei Xiaotong presented an empathetic and prescient account of the problems facing changing village economies in his native land of China. His career was greatly disrupted by two decades of persecution under the Cultural Revolution (Fei 1981). So much suffering and mismanagement could have been avoided if only Mao had listened to the brightest social scientist in the land. Fei nearly mirrored the communist ideology (though not its action-plan), foreseeing that the decline in domestic industry and high land rents would lead to a peasant revolt. He argued for a “reasonable and effective land reform” (Fei 1939:286), knowing that “if the agrarian situation is defined in technological terms only, the actions followed will be limited to technological improvements” (Fei and Chang 1945:306). This foreshadowed, if not directly informed, a main argument of the post-development critique, namely that traditional societies are incorrectly assumed to have inefficient means of production which must be replaced in order for development to occur (see Frank 1966; Dos Santos 1970; Escobar 1995).

Fei sought to include the land and business owners, whom he viewed as victims of the government’s funneling of capital to the foreign treaty ports instead of into the rural districts (Fei 1939:284). Though this inclusive approach doomed him during the Mao years, it ensured his legacy and influence among anthropologists, both in East Asia and worldwide. In fact, in 1980 he was given the Malinowski Memorial Award at the 40th annual meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology in Denver, CO. During his acceptance speech, a tearful reunion with colleagues from whom he had been separated for years, he framed the central role of a “People’s Anthropology” in the creation of a peaceful and prosperous society (Fei 1981:19). He knew that rural areas must not be left out of the development process (Fei 1989:106), and that peasants are not stupid simply because they are illiterate, “just as an urbanite is not stupid for being unable to catch grasshoppers” (Fei 1992:46). Such empathy serves as the benchmark for inquiries into the societal changes resulting from the transition to industrialization and capitalism as experienced by the billion+ people in twenty-first century China.