Month: December 2014

Why is China No Longer a “Sleeping Giant”

Napoleon Bonaparte once pointed at China and said: “There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! For when he wakes, he will shake the world.“.

China is a giant that has awaken

China is a giant that has awaken

When you think of economic powers the first countries that come to mind are: USA, the EU (European Union) as a block, India, and China. You have probably noticed that I’ve left South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and many others out of the equation. That is because I believe these countries most likely will not become global powers within the near future due to their inconsistency to deliver economic results (which is due to many reasons that range from commodity dependency to political corruption).

Looking back, the same countries seem to have held the top spot in the largest economy in the world ranking for centuries:

Year Country
1-1500 India
1500-1888 China
1888-present USA
2020-onwards China?

Although the world economic dynamics has changed dramatically in the 20th century (with the birth of the Internet), by looking at the past and analyzing current trends in the world it is reasonable to make certain predictions.

China currently has the largest population in the world, it holds the largest trade balance in goods surplus, the largest foreign reserves, and is quickly becoming one of the most important sources of foreign investment. All of these observations point at the same direction: China is well on its way to take away USA’s global power belt.

Most people would agree with that statement, however, very few could explain why.

China’s Strengths

Population

Up until 1520, India had the largest population in the world, until China took over and has been on top since then. Although population size represents a significant factor when determining a country’s global power strength, it can work against you if it is not properly controlled. And that is what happened to China, when they decided to implement the “One Child” quota throughout the country in 1979 – pushing birth rates to fall from 5.5 in the 70s down to 1.6 in 2012.

There was way too much poverty and the country was consuming alarming amounts of energy – although they continue to experience those same symptoms today. The policy was intended to alleviate social, economic, and environmental issues; however, it has caused some new problems in return. China’s population is aging, with the 25-54 age cohort representing nearly 48% of the population – in contrast with the 0-24 cohort representing only 32%. They are not replacing themselves.

Young Chinese are feeling the push and pull of family duty as they deal with aging parents. This puts a constraint in their productivity and well being.

With that, population-wise, India is forecasted to surpass China by 2030.

So, China’s population supremacy has been a two-sided sword, causing both benefits and damages to its development. But as of right now, they do possess an immense work force that willing to put in long hours, what has led China to grow its economy dramatically over the past few decades – currently second largest in the planet.

Gigantic Economy

China has a predominately goods’ – rather than services – economy. As of 2012, China had the largest trade balance in goods surplus in the world by a large margin, with Germany coming in second place – that is, when a country exports more than imports. With an increasing amount of foreign investors dumping money into Chinese companies and multinationals opening HQs in China’s largest cities, the giant of the East has proved to be a tempting place to bet your money on.

Here’s a quick overview of manifestations of global powers in the world over the centuries:

1800s-1914 1945-1990s 2000s-present
Largest Economy China until 1888, then USA USA USA (soon to be China)
Largest Trading Country UK USA China
Dominant Reserve Currency Pound Sterling Dollar Dollar and Euro

Economists forecast that China’s GDP will surpass USA’s by 2020. This is due to a changing level of play in the economic field. The effects of globalization have really benefited China, who until the 2000s had a tough time integrating its upsides with the Western world. But today, with the Internet so easily available and flights going in and out of China on an hourly basis, it has become much easier for the Chinese to offer their services to the Western economic powers.

China’s Drawbacks

Open ocean access

If you look at the global map you might notice that China does not have direct access to any ocean. Although this might seem trivial, it limits China from freely having maritime commerce, open ocean commercial fishing, and a significant navy force.

China's limited access to the ocean presents some serious economic drawbacks.

China’s limited access to the ocean presents some serious economic drawbacks.

If we look at the USA, they have direct access to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans. Off-shore oil drilling and goods’ exportation are only two of the many benefits the Americans experience with their geographic location. The Chinese, in the other hand, are limited to land.

This type of restriction forces the Chinese to maintain good diplomatic relationships with their land neighbors. Aside from India – which has become a strong economic partner of China over the past years leading to the so-called “Chindia” – most of the neighboring countries are economically poor, forcing China to feed the Western world with what it has to offer.

Currency convertibility

Before 2009, the Chinese government prohibited almost all export of currency or its usage in international transactions. The US Dollar – which, as of this day, still is strongly tied to the Yuan’s value – was the currency used to perform such transactions. So, with Chinese people unable to have US Dollars and the international community unable to hold the Yuan, all transactions were made through the People’s Bank of China, leading to a lot of bureaucracy.

In June of 2009, the Chinese government started a program that allowed certain places to utilize the Yuan for international transactions between certain countries, removing the hassle of converting everything to US Dollars beforehand. Nowadays, all Chinese provinces are allowed to do the same, however this type of trade is only available between certain countries: Russia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Japan.

This type of limitation ends up restricting the usage of the Yuan, which in turn ends up having little reserve currency power.

Conclusion

To determine a country’s global power we must look at more than just economic and military factors – and the ones discussed above are just a few of them. There are two types of power resources: hard power and soft power. Hard powers are factors such as the country’s economy, territory, population, military, and finance. Soft powers are things such as knowledge, technology, and culture.

China clearly has a strong economy, currently the largest population on planet Earth, a large military, and a territory the size of the USA. However, its soft powers are weak compared to the ones of developed nations. Most of the strongest universities in the world are in the USA, Japan, and Europe – China has only 3 universities in the top 100. Technological R&D follows the same pattern.

But, Thomas Friedman once said: “When I was growing up, my parents told me, ‘Finish your dinner. People in China (and India) are starving’. I tell my daughters, ‘Finish your homework. People in China (and India) are starving for your job.’.

Don’t be fooled by their limitations. China has changed a lot. But so has the economy. I hardly believe that one single country will dominate as global power from here and on. With a much “smaller” world today, a single country cannot do anything on its own. We are already seeing a shift in mentality on how things are done economically, and this new way of thinking will be easily translated onto how global governance operates, as well.

 

PA

 

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Jazz: an American Story

When we think about music today, popular music has been on the decline. The market has become a lot more segmented; rarely you will find artists’ fan bases as large as The Beatles anymore.

Miles Davis continues to be one of the biggest legends of Jazz.

Miles Davis continues to be one of the biggest legends of Jazz.

People have more freedom to choose. With the iTunes revolution, you can now download individual songs from various artists and group it into a playlist – or the so called mixed albums. Unless you are a die hard fan of a band, chances are that you won’t download the full album. Music producers have been struggling to put out strong albums that will sell in its entirety (and the vast majority is illegally downloaded online anyways). Marketing has more than ever become a crucial tool in the industry.

But let’s rewind a bit. Let’s discuss the origins of most of the music we listen to today… I am not talking about African music (the actual root of things), I am talking about Jazz.

Early days

By mid-1800s enslaved American people, who were extremely religious, were widely known for playing spiritual music. This genre was a major driver in the African-American community’s involvement with music. In turn, by the end of the 19th century another genre began to appear: the ragtime.

Some might argue that ragtime isn’t jazz, others would argue otherwise. So let’s put it this way, the genre was the embryo of jazzScott Joplin – a Texan born in 1867 – was widely known for it and played it in the red-district streets of St. Louis. The sound was very simple, yet extremely happy. Joplin liked to describe ragtime as something “that’s not to be played fast”:

In the transition to jazz, another artist had a great impact in the birth of the genre: Jelly Roll Morton. He likes to call himself the inventor of jazz. Born in New Orleans, the pianist had a foot in ragtime and a foot in jazz. His music was also very happy and people loved to dance to it. And he was the major influencer of the first type of jazz, known as Dixieland jazz.

Dixieland Jazz

Also referred to as Hot Jazz or Early Jazz, dixieland was originated in the beginning of the 20th century in New Orleans. The musicians were often very poor, since most of them were African-American. But this humility gave dixieland a distinguishable touch to its sound.

Artists strived to help each other rather than to steal the spotlight. It was a very easygoing sound, and often played in the streets. The standard band composed of  a banjo, a trumpet, a clarinet, a tube, and a piano or drums. There were also lyrics and it quickly became very popular in Louisiana. Musicians, such as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, like to describe dixieland as a style of playing rather than a style of music:

Kid Ory, another great dixieland musician, took the genre to Chicago where it developed a different variation. Since there were richer people in the Windy City, most of them white, dixieland was being played by people who had better quality instruments – which is evident when you listen to it. Ory brought with him a student by the name of Louis Armstrong, who eventually took the genre to New York. And that is how the early days of jazz began spreading.

With more sophisticated people jumping into the jazz scene, by the mid-1930s a new style was being born: Swing Jazz.

Swing Jazz

Swing had a Manhattan air to it. It was more sophisticated and the music was no longer improvisation. Great artists were born from Swing, such as Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Bobby Short and more.

Duke Ellington was an African-American academic from NYC who played the piano. His music was a little slower, and if you try closing your eyes as you listen to it you will be able picture the elite dressed up in suits dancing to it. It sounded “very NYC”.

Benny Goodman was another legend who played swing. He was a white man from New York who played the clarinet, and his sound was even finer. The transition of jazz from New Orleans to Chicago and New York began attracting richer and more academically inclined people, what highly influenced the genre.

Since the elite had money, they were often traveling to Europe, and with them they brought Jazz to France. A notorious artist from Paris who went by the name of Django Reihardt made the American swing jazz sound very French. The man had only three functioning fingers and that’s how he played his guitar (alongside his good friend Stephane Grappelli):

As the the African-Americans began losing their “market share” in jazz to the white people, they grew mad and that is when a new style was born in the 40s: the Bebop Jazz.

Bebop Jazz

This was a more modern style of jazz, which was extremely hard to play because it was a very broken-up sound that only specialists could manage the chords. Due to its level of difficulty there were not many musicians in the scene – some artists hated the style, claiming that it took away the romance from jazz, and often boycotting the bebop musicians. With that, bebop didn’t last very long, but it was a very important phase in the history of jazz.

Charlie “Bird” Parker played the saxophone and was a major player in the scene. His music had a lot of improvisation – like usual bebop sound – and consisted of a very complex melody. Parker had a lot of problems with drug addiction and died at 34, but his footprint in the history of jazz inspired many others who came after him:

Another great artist who played bebop was the one and only Dizzie Gillespie. Although Dizzie started in swing jazz, the trumpet genius had many talents and his great friend Parker eased him into bebop.

As mentioned earlier, bebop didn’t last very long, specially because of a popular jazz style that was about to take over in the late 40s: Cool Jazz.

Cool Jazz

With the intention to take out the “excess” from bebopMiles Davis gave birth to Cool Jazz with the release of his historical album “Birth of Cool” (1957 – but recorded in 1949).

This was a slower jazz and in it you could really listen the notoriously known “walking bass”. It was a radical movement that incorporated elements from classical music. It was popular in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York – it was exactly what people needed after the war:

By the 1960s, the African-American jazz musicians began a new movement: Free Jazz.

Free Jazz

This style did not have a fixed harmony anymore, it was free improvisation. Geniuses like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman led the way with its often criticized style of play.

Coleman drew a lot of attention and generated some controversy due to the lack of harmony in his music – even more than Parker and Gillespie did with Bebop Jazz. Not anyone could follow because it was so free and open:

Alongside Free Jazz in the 60s, another movement was occurring: Fusion Jazz.

Fusion Jazz

That is when jazz players decided to join forces with Rock n’ Roll. Although rock musicians often lacked instrumental skills at that time, they were taking jazz’s audience away. So Miles Davis decided to take the leap.

Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” (1969) was the first fusion jazz album of all time. If you listen to it you might ask yourself: where is the rock? That is because only a few elements of rock were incorporated into the jazz genre, such as the beat and the electric guitar. Although there aren’t any heavy rock and roll solos, you can listen to some guitar “attacks” here and there.

Now, in Chuck Corea’sReturn to Forever” album (1972) you can feel the rock a little more. And with that, most of the jazz after the 70s was a style of fusion. This is V.S.O.P. (with Herbie Hancock) – another great fusion band:

You can really see how jazz influenced rock after this phase, when bands like YES and Pink Floyd – which played with a higher level of complexity than others in the past – began to run the progressive rock scene. The superior instrumental skills from jazz musicians had been transferred over.

A parallel movement that began in the 50s was also unfolding: the Third Stream.

Third Stream

This was a mix of jazz with classical music. Extremely complex which also had some improvisation involved. Bands like The Dave Brubeck Quartet released a really good album named “Time Out” (1959). This was very classical, with a little bit of jazz here and there:

And here it “ends” the main jazz styles that really took off over the years past. But this isn’t all, as jazz has an amazing way to adapt with any genre of music…

Jazz Nowadays

Nowadays a lot of music is considered jazz – what makes jazzists really mad. But sometimes it is hard to classify what kind of jazz certain sounds are, as the art is so easily adaptable with any other music genre. And this is what makes jazz so dynamic and interesting.

It is important to note that all the styles discussed above continue to be played today, some more than others, but overall the spirt has not died for any of them. However, with so many cultures being affected by the “jazz contamination”, I have selected a few really good jazz adaptations seen today worth listening to:

  • Jazz + Bossa Nova: Stan Getz Quartet
  • Jazz + Samba: Pat Metheny Group – “The Road to You”
  • Jazz + Spiritual: Take 6
  • Jazz + Pagode: Dizzie Gillespie featuring Trio Mocoto
  • Jazz + Latin Music: Machito (Cuba) featuring Cannonball Adderley (USA)

Enjoy!

Note: I must give credit where credit is due: Paulo Porto Alegre (my father, acclaimed musician and professor) who gave me a compressed Jazz course one afternoon. He’s a Jazz specialist and the reason why I began listening to this great genre.

 

PA