Fighting Corruption: An Active Pursuit

On Monday, the U.S. State Department posted a story about Donald Trump’s private club, Mar-a-lago. The State Department deleted the post but not before it was tweeted by various U.S. Embassies. The Guardian referred to the post as a blatant “plea for corruption.” This most recent event is one in a series of incidents that have raised serious questions about conflicts of interest and other ethical violations on the part of the Trump administration. Since taking office on January 20, 2017, the Trump administration has faced criticism for a wide variety of potentially corrupt practices involving US corporations, foreign states, transnational and foreign corporations, and nepotism.

Concerns about corruption are not limited to one party or administration, and reports of political corruption and crony capitalism have emerged outside of the administration. These include sitting congressman Chris Collins, who invested $2.2 million dollars in the IPO of Innate, an Australian pharmaceutical company. The congressman exploited a loophole in disclosure laws that do not require the reporting of foreign stock acquisitions by elected officials.

Public anger toward government corruption is driving voter sentiment not only in the United States but also globally. Protests have occurred in Europe (particularly eastern European countries like Romania), Russia, and almost every country in South America. South Korea impeached its sitting president on corruption charges following massive public demonstrations, and Brazil is currently in the middle of its first general strike since 1989. 

Corruption can take many forms and directly affects the ability of citizens to influence their political systems. It widens economic disparities and increases political instability by undermining the rule of law.

If news of the daily shenanigans in Washington feels overwhelming, save time by checking in with a couple of sites that will cut down on the mental fatigue. What The F*ck Just Happened Today? is a well-curated, daily compilation of news about the “shock and awe” of national politics, and the website, corrupt.af, is tracking 292 reports of suspected corruption linked to the Trump administration. The sheer number of instances of corruption can seem overwhelming and intractable, but citizens do have the ability to advocate for change.

Donating to organizations provides financial support for anti-corruption efforts. The ethics watchdog group, Common Cause works to expose political corruption and address issues like political gerrymandering. The group filed an ethics complaint on behalf of the public about the Mar-a-lago post. Represent.us seeks to curb corruption at the city, state, and federal levels through the American Anti-Corruption Act. Transparency International also offers a number of ways for citizens to get involved with fighting corruption. 

Volunteering time or specialized skills to anti-corruption efforts through the organizations listed in this article may be of interest to some readers. Emerging possibilities for citizen participation include efforts to crowdsource fact checking.  More than 1000 volunteers participated in fact checking donor information for Donald Trump’s inauguration, which led to the uncovering of numerous errors. I spent about twenty minutes looking up information on the spreadsheet and really enjoyed participating. The non-profit organization Propublica recently shared access to financial disclosures of Whitehouse staffers with the public. These distributed efforts are in their infancy but show promise and are worth keeping an eye out for in the future.

American corruption and alt-right influence has gone global, with the Kushner family soliciting funds from real estate investors in Beijing in connection with a controversial visa program, and the American alt-right attempting to influence the 2017 French election. Global issues can be combatted on a local level. Help maximize grassroots efforts in your community and your voting power with this checklist. 

Quick tips for active citizenship: Active Citizenship Cheat Sheet

Taiwan: When a phone call becomes an issue.

Shortly after Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, he took a call from Taiwanese President, Tsai Ing-wen. In doing this he appeared to be ignoring or possibly discarding established US policy on Taiwan, which is that the United States does not have diplomatic ties to the island, which China considers to be its sovereign territory. The phone call sparked much media debate but little explanation about US-Taiwan relations and China-Taiwan relations, yet Taiwan plays a prominent role in a number of issues of vital global importance.

The following is a brief overview of important facts about Taiwan and its importance as well as key initiatives of mainland China that of international significance.

  • Where is Taiwan located?
  • Is Taiwan a democracy?
  • How are Taiwan and China connected?
  • How are the Chinese and Taiwanese governments different?
  • If Taiwan is functionally an independent country, why is there this “one China” policy?
  • Where is the US in this?
  • What happened to Taiwan when the US established formal relations with China (PRC)?
  • What effect does not having official diplomatic status as a nation state have on Taiwan?
  • Taiwan is a small island. How important is it in international affairs?
  • What are some of China’s key interests and initiatives?
  • What is the Belt and Road Initiative?
  • What is the AIIB?

Where is Taiwan located?

Taiwan is an island off the coast of mainland China bordering the South China Sea (SCS). When the Chinese Nationalists (国民党, KMT, Kuomingtang), led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled the Communist Chinese (共产党, CCP, Chinese Communist Party) in the mid-twentieth century, the bulk of the Nationalist army retreated to Taiwan. Other names for Taiwan include Republic of China and Formosa. Taiwan has conflicting claims with China to islands in the SCS.

Is Taiwan a democracy?

Yes. Taiwan has a free press, rule of law-based system of governance, independent judiciary, and democratic elections. It also maintains its own military. Taiwan was governed under martial law by the KMT (the party of Chiang Kai-shek) until July 14, 1987 but then successfully transitioned to a democratic system of governance.

How are Taiwan and China connected?

The governments of both China and Taiwan have their roots on the Chinese mainland. Chiang Kai-shek inherited the leadership of the KMT from Sun Yat-sen, who is regarded by both the KMT and CCP as the father of the Republic of China (1918-1937).

A civil war (the 1949 Communist Revolution) between the Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists ended in the defeat of the Nationalists. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist (KMT) army retreated to Taiwan.  Chiang Kai-shek did not acknowledge the Chinese Communists as the legitimate government of the China. Over time the two countries established separate systems of governance, but the PRC has not given up its claims to Taiwan, which it refers to as a “rogue province,” and Taiwan still officially refers to itself as the “Republic of China.”

How are the Chinese and Taiwanese governments different?

China is a single party state under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. Taiwan has developed a two party political system and holds democratic elections. Taiwan has two main political parties–the independence leaning DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) and the KMT.

If Taiwan is functionally an independent country, why is there this “one China” Policy?

In pragmatic terms, the “one China” policy preserves a status quo where China and Taiwan avoid armed conflict and issues related to Taiwanese independence. Countries must choose to have diplomatic relations with either Taiwan or the People’s Republic of China. Taiwan’s official name is still the “Republic of China.” China-Taiwan relations are also referred to as “Cross-Strait Relations.” China has stated that it will invade Taiwan if the island declares independence.

Where is the US in this?

The short answer is that the United States supported Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT over competing warlords in the early twentieth century and later over the Chinese Communists. China was invaded by Japan in 1937 and joined the Allied Powers when the United States entered World War II. The dynamics of armed conflict in China during the twentieth century are complex. The United States maintained diplomatic ties with the “Republic of China” under the KMT until 1976.

What happened to Taiwan when the US established formal relations with China (PRC)?

The United States switched its official diplomatic ties to the PRC in 1979 following then President Richard Nixon’s landmark 1972 visit to the Chinese mainland. The PRC replaced Taiwan in the United Nations and on the UN Security Council in 1971. The United States continues to maintain strong economic ties with Taiwan, its fourth largest trading partner, and also sells defensive armaments to the island per the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act.

What effect does not having official diplomatic status as a nation state have on Taiwan?

Lack of official status puts Taiwan in a difficult position internationally. It operates independently of mainland China, but cannot claim the rights and privileges of an independent nation state. As the PRC grows in power, it has taken steps intended to bring the island under the control of Beijing.

It is difficult for Taiwanese representatives to participate in international organizations and decision making bodies, including academic conferences, model UN meetings, and the Olympics. Recently, China has pressured a number of countries to deport Taiwanese passport holders to the PRC, claiming them as “Chinese citizens,” and arrested a pro-democracy activist who is a Taiwanese national.

Taiwan is a small island. How important is it in international affairs?

As China gains international strength and prominence, it also grows in international influence. Taiwan is one of many areas in Asia that maintain democratic systems of governance, and its political system is affected by Chinese influence. In some senses, Taiwan is a bellwether for how democracy and democratic institutions in Asia are responding to China’s growing influence.

Hong Kong is another such case. As a former British colony that returned to mainland China in 1997, the city is supposed to operate under an autonomous and democratic system of government for the next 30 years; however, there are signs that Hong Kong’s democratic institutions are being eroded. Other Asian democracies–Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and India among them–must negotiate their own strategic interests with an increasingly powerful Chinese state.

What are some of China’s key interests and initiatives?

China has initiated economic initiatives, including the “Belt and Road” and established the AIIB as a competitor and possibly alternative to the World Bank. It has acted to assert claims to the South China Sea, which is an area of importance in terms of commerce and natural resources.

What is the Belt and Road Initiative?

The Belt and Road initiative is also known as One Belt, One Road (OBOR) (一带一路). The Belt and Road initiative is the PRC’s strategic economic initiative to develop a southern “maritime Silk Road” and land-based Silk Road or “belt” through Central Asia and extending into Europe.

What is the AIIB?

The AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) is an organization spearheaded by mainland China as an effective alternative to the World Bank, which it views as an institution dominated by the United States and other western countries. The United States, while invited to join the AIIB, has not done so. China has attracted the participation of AIIB countries by offering incentives, such as investment in the infrastructure of participating countries. AIIB strategically advances China’s economic interests and complements its Belt and Road (一带一路) initiative.

Energy and Independent Thought

This was a really long process! I explored debunking a number of widespread beliefs/myths–environmental legislation costs jobs, people in the US pay the highest taxes, access to family planning increases abortion. The answer to most of these, was not in a single fact that was true or false, but in a framework of beliefs and approaches to viewing the world that foster the acceptance of particular arguments.

Environmental legislation and regulation: It’s complicated–but not really.

Upshot: The majority of new jobs in the energy sector domestically and internationally will be renewable energy jobs and related support services, but there will be and are “losers” (i.e., coal industry miners and related support services). Pro-environment legislation and state subsidies to businesses and private citizens in states like California have created a booming renewable energy market and spurred technological innovation. States like Ohio and West Virginia, which have actively resisted moves toward renewable energy are not well-positioned to take advantage of emerging production or related support jobs in this sector. Renewable energy and related jobs will be global economic drivers regardless of whether or not the Unites States chooses to participate. Other countries have made independent decisions regarding their energy futures and chosen to pursue renewables. Independent, publicly-funded research and policy making efforts attempt to analyze complex issues in a non-partisan manner, but the media (and research) ecosystem is pervaded by partisan think tanks, private money, and even foreign dollars. These factors undermine the credibility of sources of information and correspondingly public trust in those sources.

Why so complicated? 

1. Energy is actually complicated – Energy use and production affects individuals, businesses, corporations, and governments–each with competing and sometimes overlapping interests.

2.  Poor-quality or biased [mis]information – A decrease in publicly-funded science and non-partisan governmental organizations resulting in less transparent, less reliable sources of information. Prior to neoliberal globalization, government agencies, universities, and think tanks were much less affected by corporate interests and lobbying (see Science-Mart for a particularly in-depth treatment of the topic).

The energy sector is an appropriate case study of a phenomenon that has occurred in other previously public areas (i.e., education).

Both renewable and fossil energy lobbying groups and think tanks have a strong presence. These groups are motivated to generate research and studies supporting their economic aims. When the organization is private, the public cannot access records of financial contributions and identify donors. This undermines transparency and credibility.

Domestically, [political, social, economic] a variety of actors have invested themselves in the creation of a research and development framework that favors private, corporate interests over the public good and civic society.

The Think Tank Watch project at the University of Pennsylvania classifies and tracks think tank activity. The think tank picture is further complicated as foreign governments buy influence in American think tanks.

Think Tank Project’s Classification System               http://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=think_tanks

An energy-related project, Think Tank Map, tracks think tanks that conduct climate-related research. The Buckeye Institute is a conservative, pro-fossil fuel private organization with an annual budget of 2.7 million dollars. Members of its Board of Trustees have ties to the fossil fuel and plastics industries. This organization generates reports that would fail to meet basic academic standard as objective research. There’s nothing wrong with lobbying for policy, but to do so under the guise of an “independent think tank” misrepresents the mission of the organization and undermines the work of independent, publicly-funded think tanks. Pro-renewable think tanks and lobbyists further cloud the picture with reports that lobby for their interests.

Energy policy set by Washington only influences but does not dictate the paths followed by other countries and transnational corporations. Failure by Washington to invest profitable sectors, including renewable energy, will have a long term effect on the American economy.

Taxpayers have invested in their own futures and the success of businesses by funding the underlying physical (i.e., highways) and virtual (i.e., the internet) infrastructure upon which corporations rely. Independent and transparent research and organizations are critical to the continuation of cycle of success.

Posted in All

All the Gossip That’s Fit to Tweet

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In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, US media has focused much of its scrutiny on the Trump Administration’s possible ties to the Russian government. Although mainstream media coverage of possible ties between the Trump Administration and the PRC has been sparse, China experts have paid close attention to official and unofficial signs of the dynamics of emerging US-China relations.

When would Xi visit the United States, and where was the follow up to the New York Times revelations about deals between Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and China’s Anbang Insurance Corporation?

Reporters tracked foreign investment by Chinese corporations.

New York Times Reporter, Mike Forsythe:

Anbang Stories - Pinned on January 31

Anbang Stories – Pinned on January 31

 

 

 

 

On March 2, a rumor surfaced on Twitter via a Chinese businessman visiting Mar-a-Lago. 

On March 13, the news broke that Xi would be visiting Mar-a-Lago. 

Followed almost immediately by:

Conversation ensued:

 Who does own Anbang?

But, wait, what’s happening to the data on Anbang’s website?

Mike Forsythe tweeted: 

10:07am

10:09am 

12:10pm White House Press Briefing:

But then, late on March 14, Anbang released a statement saying there was no intention to invest in the Kushner property:

Following up with Anbang

Following up with Anbang

 

What will develop next? Think this story’s over? Don’t believe a tweet of it…..

NYT Reporter tracking Anbang financials

NYT Reporter tracking Anbang financials

 

 

Incorporating an Interview

This story uses fold to discuss the 2014 Rolling Stones account of sexual assault on the University of Virginia campus. It discusses the long term social impact of the story on the UVA community as well as the effect the story had on a UVA alumna’s perception of media credibility. A Question of Trust

Posted in All

Anne C’s Media Diary

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I set up Rescue Time after our first MAS.700 class (February 8) and tracked my time through February 21. I entered offline time, trying to be especially diligent when the time was dedicated to media consumption. For example, during this time period I spent a considerable amount of time reading actual print media for another course I am taking.

I found Rescue Time to be fairly accurate, though I had to customize and clean up the data. I removed times that were idle (i.e., new browser tab, login screen).

A day-by-day comparison of top activities reveals Facebook is the top single time consuming activity.

Comparison of Media by Day

Comparison of Media by Day

When I customized the categories in Rescue Time to reflect their productivity value, the data revealed a shocking amount of time is spent on social media (e.g., Facebook, Twitter). Perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising, but seeing it displayed in a bar graph, provided visual confirmation of my suspicion.

Media by Productivity Categories

Media by Productivity Categories

The visual display of my “productive activities” showed a fairly high amount of engagement spread across a variety of tasks.

Another useful visual is the output of productive versus non-productive engagement by time of day. My productive time, which includes reading, research, and writing occurs between 2:00pm and 10:00pm. There is a large spike in social media use around midnight or 1:00am, during which time no actual work occurs. Additionally, I often have some type of video streaming simultaneously at this time. This content ranges from news reports to comedy clips to TV shows.

Media Consumption by Time of Day

Media Consumption by Time of Day

This was a useful graph as it helps me understand how my schedule breaks down. I would have hypothesized that my most productive time actually began around 10:00am, but it turns out that time is spent on email and scheduling—time that is spent using gmail, google calendar, and other similar tools.

I come away from this experiment with two commitments. First, I would like to cut my communication time in the morning from two hours to one hour. My second goal will be to reduce my overall social media time, especially during the window of time before I go to sleep.

I will repeat to myself, “there’s no such thing as multitasking” and try to avoid losing efficiency by working on unrelated topics at the same time.