Bernie’s Promise and China’s Jails

Recently, a plethora of (mostly liberal) news outlets have jumped on Bernie Sanders for promising that “at the end of my first term we won’t have more people in jail than in any other country.” Slate called Sanders “delusional.” Mother Jones said his plan “doesn’t add up.” Vox suggested his goal was “impossibly ambitious.” Chelsea Clinton called it “worrying.”

Bernie himself did not give a target number for the prison population, but the negative assessments are based on a simple calculation: America incarcerates 2.3 million people and China, the world’s second biggest jailer, has locked up about 1.66 million. Therefore, they assume that Bernie is planning to free around 600,000 prisoners in 5 years. The problem, the journalists point out, is that only 200,000 of the US’s 2.2 million prisoners are in federal prison. Since the President has relatively little control over inmates in state prisons and local jails, Bernie could not possibly keep his promise. Slate‘s Leon Neyfakh suggests that: “If Sanders wants to release more than 500,000 people by 2020, he’s going to have to break them out personally. If he has a more efficient approach in mind, he needs to share it before he makes this ridiculous promise again.”

Yet, Neyfakh and his compatriots should hold off on the ridicule. Although the World Prison Brief does provide an estimate of 1.66 million prisoners in China,there is a major caveat: “in addition to the sentenced prisoners, more than 650,000 were held in detention centers in China [as of 2009]. If this was still correct in mid-2014 the total prison population in China was more than 2,300,000.”

So, US and Chinese prison statistics are actually pretty comparable. In the US, about 1.26 million people are in state prisons with another 196,000 people in federal prison. That means the US prison population of 1.47 million is actually a little smaller than that of China, which has around 1.66 million people in its Ministry of Justice prisons. Then there are those locked up in jails, generally people awaiting trial or serving a short sentence. In the US that would add about another745,000 inmates, raising the total to just over 2.2 million. The equivalent number in China is unknown. But, in 2009 China reportedly had 650,000 in its detention centres, so the Prison Brief’s estimate of 2.3 million is not a bad place to start.

As someone who studies China’s legal system, I should point out that the number of people in detention in China might be smaller now than in 2009. This is because Beijing has made an apparently serious effort to bring an end to the, previously commonplace, form of administrative detention known as Re-education Through Labor (RTL). Nevertheless, many RTL centers continue to function after being rebranded as drug rehab centers. Alleged prostitutes have been sent to “custody and education centers“. Political dissidents and Falun Gong practitioners tend to end up in extra-legal “black jails,” “legal education centers,” or psychiatric facilities.

Estimated Incarcerated Population by Type, China and US in 2015


Sources: World Prison Brief, UN Human Rights Council, Yardley (2005), Seymour (2005).

We can do some back of the envelope calculations to estimate the total population in non-prison detention in China. If we 1) trust estimates that RTL held 190,000 people in 2009, 2) assume that the RTL’s drug users (approx. 33%) and political prisoners (approx. 7.5%) are still in detention in some form and that 3) the rest of the detention system has followed the prison population in a slight (approx. 2%) decrease, then perhaps 526,000 people are non-prison detention. This means a rough estimate of 2.18 million Chinese behind bars. Following these estimates, President Bernie would only need to reduce the prison population by a, very doable, 20,000 to fulfil his promise.

Frankly, all of this is a bit silly. Sanders may well have not considered the exact numbers and given the opacity of Chinese detention statistics we would probably never really know if he was able to keep his promise or not. Additionally, absolute numbers of inmates is probably a less-useful statistic than the per-capita incarceration rate. Nevertheless, prison reform and reducing America’s sky-high prison population is clearly a worth goal, which has finally achieved some level of bipartisan support. Making a poor statistical assumption to make Bernie’s support for prison reform look delusional seems unnecessary at best and malicious at worst.

There is a more fundamental issue at play, however, and one that is close to my heart as a Comparative Political Scientist. American political discourse needs to recognize that politics and policy is as diverse and complex in rest of the world as it is in the US. Bernie suggests the US could learn from Scandinavia. Trump assures us that “China is laughing at us“. Hilary says “America is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee paid leave.” Cruz claims that “socialized medicine is a disaster” in the countries that have it. Such statements should be carefully analyzed with full consideration given to the complex realities that exist in other countries. This means, of course, that journalists, pundits, and voters might need to bone up on the rest of the world. But this would be a good thing. The United States may be unique in many ways, but it is not so different that is cannot learn from other countries.

One final thought: there have been many delusional promises made on the campaign trail this season, so let’s reserve the label for those that really deserve it.



Could Sweden’s “Singing Sailor” Prevent the US and China from going to War over Uninhabited Rocks?

Recently, a CNN correspondent rode along on a Navy surveillance flight over the disputed Spratly islands, a group of uninhabited reefs, atolls, and islands claimed by the People’s Republic of China, among others. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell apparently even told CNN that the flight and subsequent warnings from the Chinese indicate that there is “absolutely” a risk of the U.S. and China going to war sometime in the future.

Subi Reef (Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands (Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

A few days before that, US secretary of State John Kerry concluded a two-day summit with China’s top leaders. The major subject of the talks was US “security concerns about Beijing’s maritime ambitions in the South China Sea.” To put that another way, when top leaders of the world’s two most powerful countries met, they primarily discussed a small handful of uninhabited rocks in the middle of the ocean. This article argues that the increasing attention the media, the U.S., China, and its neighbors are paying to South China Sea “disputes” is counterproductive and exacerbating an otherwise minor security issue.

Kerry and Xi talk about uninhabited islands (Evan Vucci/AP)

Kerry and Xi in an earlier 2014 meeting (Evan Vucci/AP)

Teaching Chinese politics, I often find that after explaining a particular institution, situation, or reality in China, I end by commenting that the comparable system in this or that democratic country is hardly perfect either. When students inevitably ask: “what country does it the best?” I tend to come up with the same answer over and over, Sweden. Of course, no country is perfect, but Sweden, or more precisely in this case the nongovernmental Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society (SPAS), is once again demonstrating its remarkable ability to produce better solutions to common problems.

In the wake of allegations that Russian submarines have recently violated Swedish waters, the SPAS recently installed the Singing Sailor, an underwater “defence system” that consists of a neon sign showing a pink figure in white briefs and sailor hat. The sign reads “Welcome to Sweden – Gay since 1944” (a reference to the year Sweden legalized homosexuality). It also emits the message “this way if you are gay” in morse code. The sign is, of course, a reaction to recent official Russia repression of homosexuality.

The Singing Sailor (The Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society)

The Singing Sailor (The Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society)

But it is also far more than that. According to the SPAS “the sign is also a way to try to persuade the Swedish authorities to rethink using military means for national security.” As SPAS understands, the problem with responding to military provocation in kind is that this is often exactly what the other side wants, and generally leads to escalation or, even worse, actual conflict.

When Putin starts sending in unmarked soldiers and missile launchers into your territory, you should be worried, very worried, and may need to respond with force. But if you think a small Russian submarine probably passed through your territorial waters, it is appropriate to respond with a bit of gentle mockery. Calling out this type of meaningless sabre-rattling as jingoistic machismo is a far better response than giving belligerent foreign generals the appearance of conflict that they desire.

This is a lesson that China and its neighbours, as well as the US, badly need to learn when it comes to their disputes over uninhabited rocks in the South China Sea. Despite having little to no value either strategically or economically, these rocks have increasingly garnered attention as a potential flashpoints.

As with so many conflicts, hydrocarbons are involved in some of the disputes. The Chunxiao gas field is located near the disputed senkaku/diaoyu islands. Yet, the value of these resources is relatively small, especially compared to annual trade between the two nations (see my sarcastic graph from 2012). Additionally, China and Japan actually came to an agreement in 2008 to jointly develop the fields. Finally, at least some of fields extends into undisputed Chinese waters which means that China can safely drink Japan’s milkshake regardless of any sovereignty issue.

Typically-sized island in the Diaoyu/Senkaku chain

Typically-sized island in the Diaoyu/Senkaku chain

A Google News search shows that over the past 10 years, there were over 180,000 articles that included the term Senkaku, Diaoyu, or their equivalents in characters. Assuming a word count of 1,200 words per article and an average circulation per newspaper of 1,000 (perhaps unrealistic as many of the articles are online only) we are talking about approximately 7 square kilometers of newspaper, just enough to cover the entire surface area of that island chain.

Of course, the over-coverage of this “crises” pales in comparison to even less weighty stories – equivalent calculations suggest that reporting on Kim Kardashian could cover the entire island-nation of Malta. Yet, there is the possibility of doing real damage here. Because the material stakes in this dispute are so low, the entire issue largely boils down to one of rhetoric and face. The more attention is paid to what should be a non-issue, the higher the stakes become, the harder it is for both sides to back down, and the more likely the world will see the first war in history to be fought over some uninhabited rocks.

Japan's Coast Guard intercepts an activist Chinese boat on Aug. 15, 2012 near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. (AP Photo/Yomiuri Shimbun, Masataka Morita)

Japan’s Coast Guard intercepts an activist Chinese boat on Aug. 15, 2012 near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands (AP Photo/Yomiuri Shimbun, Masataka Morita)

Hawks argue that allowing China to expand its influence in the South China Sea would set a dangerous precedent. Yet this concern is overblown. The only precedent being set is that no one is going to bother to stop China from asserting sovereignty over some handfuls of uninhabited rocks. This would hardly be a signal that the US would fail to protect real strategic interests such as freedom of navigation through the South China Sea or to assist Taiwan in the case of invasion, an obligation that is more or less written into US law. Because these rocks are so insubstantial, the less attention they receive the harder it will be for the Chinese state to sell any outcome as a meaningful victory. China’s generals may boast, but if foreign powers treat it as the non-issue that it is, it will be harder to convince average Chinese that anything has actually be accomplished. Indeed, as yet unpublished research by a Chinese graduate student of mine suggests that netizens’ interest in these disputes is at its lowest point in years.

Chinese land reclamation efforts on Fiery Cross reef in the Spratly Islands (Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

Chinese land reclamation efforts on Fiery Cross reef in the Spratly Islands (Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)

If only China and its neighbors had organizations like the SPAS who understood the value of diffusing pointlessly tense military situations with a bit of levity. Of course, China would be highly unlikely to let a civil society group of that kind flourish, which is a far better topic of discussion for John Kerry and Xi Jinping.

The Standing Committee Blogs in Service of the People

The speed of China’s rise to global prominence is unprecedented. Perhaps inevitably, it has not been matched with a comparable improvement in popular discourses or media coverage about China. The Standing Committee started this blog, therefore, to provide scholarly perspectives on contemporary China that are entertaining and informative, but also unorthodox and thought provoking.

The Standing Committee seeks to move past dominant narratives in the vein of: “China is a threat; China is falling apart; China needs democracy; China is polluted; China is corrupt; China is enamored with luxury brands; etc.” The People’s Republic is undoubtedly all of these things and much more. Even the hackiest hack rarely apply such broad strokes in an analysis of the US, yet China is over four times as populous and every bit as complex.

Not only do these types of stories oversimplify, they tend to gloss over facts in order to fit neatly into pre-existing discourses about China. A few years ago, for example, an article was published claiming that Chinese authorities banned Bob Dylan from performing in China. The story fit so well with narratives like “Bjork Provokes Chinese Censors” and “China bans Oasis” that the claim was frequently repeated despite being based more on innuendo than fact.


Bob Dylan plays China after all (Photo: TONY GOES)

This blog is unabashedly academic. China is a large country with a long history and Chinese is an extremely difficult language. Whereas many journalists are transferred to China for just a few years, China scholars are often fortunate enough to spend the better part of our lives studying China. Additionally, journalists face serious restrictions and harassment at the hands of the Chinese state. By contrast, academics are far more free in terms of where they travel, whom they speak with and on what subjects. Indeed, on more than one occasion this blogger was told by an interviewee that they would speak to him, but not to reporters. Nor are we subject to the same political pressures as business people, government officials, and sometimes-even NGO workers. Despite possible penchants for sophistry, China scholars tend to find themselves surprisingly well equipped to explain current events in the People’s Republic.

This Committee member is as guilty as most scholars of becoming deeply involved in the academic minutiae and complaining about popular discourses rather than trying to fix them. In this blog, therefore, we will endeavor to share our expertise in ways that are accessible, possibly irreverent, and entertaining. We blog in service of the people!