Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 137: What China wants from Trump vs Biden; where top Chinese talent goes; America's challenging future; and more...

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Whither the US - collapse or stagnation?

The FT has a good essay on what the US’s current political strife means for the country’s future. It looks at a range of outcomes from full-on collapse and fragmentation through to the possibility that "America will simply accommodate itself, Ottoman-style, to tenured stagnation but without the seraglios”. Both cases are worth considering. The first might seem farfetched but, as we discussed in TiB 118 and TiB 122, the likelihood of catastrophe always seems slim until it happens - and there are signs that the institutional capacity to hold America together is fraying.

Twitter’s censorship this week of a NY Post article accusing the Biden family of corruption was a fascinating example of the difficulty of finding shared truths when intra-elite competition is so severe. Depending on your politics, it might seem obvious which side is right here, but there’s no doubt that such moments fragment and erode trust in institutions on all sides. Adam Elkus has a good and nuanced piece on why it’s an episode no one should celebrate, even if you believe (as I do) that the story is likely fabricated.

Stagnation would be less dramatic, but perhaps no less damaging over the long run. I’m currently reading Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society (We looked at Peter Thiel’s review of it in TiB 102), which is an excellent concise introduction to the problem. I was particularly struck by this paper cited by Douthat, which shows the growing role of rent seeking and the declining role of economic growth in creating wealth. This Chris Dillow piece on the same theme is worth a read. It may be easier to practise self-defence against dramatic threats, but stagnation is the killer that’s already inside the house. 

Related: If this is all too gloomy, try Noah Smith's optimistic take on America today

Does China want President Biden?

We’re now into the home straight of the US election and Donald Trump looks very likely to lose. Lots of people, including the betting markets, disagree, despite all the polling evidence to the contrary. I suspect this is the psephological version of post-traumatic stress: 2016 was such a shock that people can’t believe the polls now, even though this time it really is different and the polls actually did pretty well last time. Perhaps I’ll be eating my words in a couple of weeks, but I don’t think there'll be an upset.

Here’s a different question: who does China want to win? The US Director of National Intelligence released an interesting statement on foreign interference in the election, which claims that China sees Trump as unpredictable and would (unlike Russia) prefer a Biden presidency. Rush Doshidirector of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative, has a good essay in Foreign Policy that argues it’s more complicated than this.

In Doshi’s framing, China’s preference is for a divided America that can't or won't play a global leadership role. China sees in Trump a major blow to the US’s standing with its allies, soft power and internal coherence, all of which creates new opportunities for Chinese leadership on the world stage. Trump therefore is perceived to present long term benefits, but short term risks. Of course, that’s not to say that Biden can necessarily reverse this: as discussed above, the US’s relative decline is more about economic and technological stagnation and hyper-polarisation than its foreign policy choices.  

Chinese talent is staying at home

A favourite TiB theme - and one of the animating questions of my career - is what the most ambitious individuals should do with their lives. The excellent Jeff Ding has a great translation of a Chinese article that looks at what students from Tsinghua and Peking Universities (roughly equivalent to Oxbridge / Ivy League) go on to do after graduating. There’s a summary here

One of the big themes of the 2020 State of AI report, which we discussed in TiB 135, is Western AI research's reliance on Chinese talent. But the inverse anxiety holds a lot of sway in China: too many top graduates are moving to the US. Although there’s data that suggests that the rate of return to China among those studying abroad is at an all-time high (we talked about this briefly back in TiB 18), there’s been a lot of debate in China about the risks of brain drain. 

This translation suggests these fears are overblown: only around one in six of these graduates goes on to study abroad (though slide 71 of State of AI suggests the leavers may be disproportionately those with the biggest research impact). There’s a similar picture in employment: the three biggest employers of Tsinghua graduates are all domestic Big Tech firms - Huawei (see previous coverage), Tencent and Alibaba. This feels like an important trend: neither of the latter two were in the top five as recently as 2016. Perhaps we’re seeing the de-globalisation of Chinese tech talent. 

Quick links

  1. Covid, covid everywhere. The FT's newly released, and definitive, data visualisation of the pandemic.
  2. Free(ish) money. Italy is borrowing on better terms than it has for 700 (!) years. Striking chart.
  3. "Just not equally distributed". Fascinating, and often depressing, charts of the world's educational inequalities.
  4. The fall and fall of US immigration. "The US hasn't experienced an immigration rate this low since World War II"
  5. Happy Ada Lovelace day. Is her writing on the Analytical Engine the greatest original paper in computer science?

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford