Monday, April 26, 2010

The Powers That Beijing


Yesterday's Post brought the occasionally tragic, occasionally hilarious "From China's Mouth to Texans' Ears," which documents Texan reaction to Chinese international broadcasting from a station in Galveston:

Cruise southeast out of Houston, past the NASA exits and toward the Gulf of Mexico, and you pick up something a little incongruous on the radio, amid country crooners, Rush Limbaugh, hip-hop and all the freewheeling clamor of the American airwaves.

"China Radio International," a voice intones. "This is Beyond Beijing."

Way, way beyond Beijing.

Sandwiched between a Spanish Christian network and a local sports station, broadcasting at 1540 on your AM dial, is KGBC of Galveston, wholly American-owned and -operated, but with content provided exclusively by a mammoth, state-owned broadcaster from the People's Republic of China.

Call it KPRC. Or as the locals quip: Keep Galveston Broadcasting Chinese.

The little Texas station may be modest, but it is part of a multibillion-dollar effort by the Chinese government to expand its influence around the world. As China rises as a global force, its leaders think that their country is routinely mischaracterized and misunderstood and that China needs to spread its point of view on everything from economics to art to counter the influence of the West.

Tragic because China is essentially using U.S. consumers' money to influence them (I know, I know, Hey Paul, enough already about Chinese economic dominance and trade surpluses) and hilarious because the PRC isn't exactly nimble about competing in the home of the First Amendment.

In their inimitable, Five Year Plan fashion, the powers that Beijing have decided to use coastal Texas as the springboard for achieving information dominance in the U.S. (What is it about superpowers wanting to influence oil-rich desert nations, which is how at least west Texans might characterize themselves?)

It's good to hear that someone besides the U.S. is having difficulty getting their foreign-influence story straight. Turns out that AM broadcasts from Galveston don't really reach metro Houston, which was the PRC's intention, and it also turns out that the tension between following the Party line in Beijing and reporting anything that anyone in the U.S. actually wants to hear is rather high, all of which sounds familiar to those who follow U.S. international broadcasting.

Friday, April 09, 2010

"Specialty" Steel and Economic Recovery


As I emerge from beneath a pile of work, I see I'd set aside "Geithner Asserts 'Critical Role' of Manufacturing" from last Thursday's Post. In it, the Treasury secretary visits Allegheny Technologies Inc., which makes specialty metal products in Pennsylvania and elsewhere for aerospace, automotive and other applications.

The story quotes Geithner thusly:

"This is a sector that will play a critical role in helping to spur our economic recovery and contribute to our long-term prosperity."

The story then notes that the company has remained profitable through the economic downturn.

All well and good, but Allegheny is profitable not because it makes things everyone wants and can use, but because it makes relatively exotic items that other countries can't produce yet; for example, titanium is notoriously difficult to work in anything more complex than a mountain bike and if other countries can't use it to make aviation parts, Allegheny has pricing power and thus profitability for the time being.

But this doesn't change the fact that, as the article also notes, there has been

"a steady loss of jobs as the production of textiles, consumer electronics and other products has shifted overseas."

This is a polite way of saying that the U.S. is permanently, completely non-competitive in making things that everyone wants, from t-shirts and shoes to cell phones and TVs to my Apple laptop ("designed in California" its packaging whines, as if that matters).

Try this experiment: Find a parking meter near you and read what's written on the steel post holding the meter up. If it was installed 20 years ago, the steel is probably from Korea; 10 years ago, from Thailand.

The U.S. can't settle for just being the best at making things no one else makes (yet); it needs to find ways to be the best at making things everyone else makes and thus everyone wants. This is what will actually contribute to U.S. prosperity in the long term: a decades-long reindustrialization where the U.S. turns the tables on its foreign competitors and uses their technologies as the basis for building new, even more efficient factories in the U.S.
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