Recommended Books

Just finished Everything Under the Heaven: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power by Howard French.

As we have noticed over the last few years, Xi Jinping’s China has abandoned Deng’s hide-light-under-bushel approach to foreign affairs and gone much closer to aggressive, hegemonistic, neo-imperialist, territory- and- and resources-grabbing getting-in-people’s-faces. And even more recently, Xi has taken a firm line on enforcing the ‘correct’, nihilism-free version of history (in Hong Kong, too).

One explanation for this quite sudden transformation is Xi’s sense that it is now-or-never: China’s long-term demographic and environmental problems give it maybe a 10-year window to lock in some serious aggrandizement in its peripheral regions and beyond. With clown Trump in the White House, it might be worth gambling on even quicker, riskier gains.

Another explanation is the well-nurtured sense of grievance and the ‘century of humiliation’, and a sense that China simply deserves to be top dog in Asia because it always was, and that’s what nature intended. It’s about entitlement – and vengeance.

Among French’s many interesting points: the tributary system was in some ways for domestic consumption. Vassal states paid homage to give the emperor face, while their leaders ruled independently when the Chinese weren’t looking. When the 1793 Macartney diplomatic and trade mission turned up, banners informed the local people that the visitor was a king who had come to witness civilization. The rise of Japan in the later 19th Century was a particular shock because the Chinese had no idea their inferior neighbours had any such capacity.

So the past that is shaping China’s push for global power is partly a fictitious one. Calling them out on this will be important. (And Duterte leads the way!)

(Many reviews out there – eg here.)

Also just finished: Attack of the Fifty Foot Blockchain: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum & Smart Contracts by David Gerard.

This is an accessible look at the cryptocurrency phenomenon from an economic and social as well as technological viewpoint – from bold (let’s say) libertarian experiment to crime-enabler to semi-cult to today’s bubble. The weirdest part is perhaps the rise of coin mining as an industry devoted to verifying transactions through absurd amounts of electricity-consuming calculations. A more bizarre or wasteful method of maintaining a spreadsheet would be hard to devise.

It goes into a bit too much detail on the identity of Satochi Nakomoto (who cares?) but does an excellent job explaining the rest. The author – a techie with experience also in music – tries to find applications for the ever-so trendy blockchain, but fails. Maybe someday. Meanwhile, there are still people out there ‘investing’ in these electronic blips.

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2 Responses to Recommended Books

  1. Chinese Netizen says:

    Accessible meaning plenty of pictures?

  2. LRE says:

    @Chinese Netizen
    I think the time-saving tl;dr version at the start of the book in the “Amazon look inside” is probably accessible enough for most:
    Short Version
    Should I buy Bitcoins?

    But I keep seeing all this stuff in the news about them and how…
    No. Tech journalism is uniformly terrible*, always remember this.

    How does this work? It doesn’t make any sense!
    No, it really doesn’t. It’s impossible to accurately explain Bitcoin in anything less than mind-numbingly boring technical terms so you should probably just not worry about it. Go do something useful instead.
    *Harsh but fair — eg. SCMP’s tech writer used to be Alex “low bar” Lo.

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