When it comes to navigating a new city, I’m as useless as they come. Really, I have a sense of direction akin to a baby sea turtle on a beach flooded with artificial lights. Although it drives my wife crazy, it has its positives too. I have met some incredible people in my life simply because I have had to stop and ask where in the heck I was, and how could I get where I was supposed to be. On a recent trip to Shanghai, my inner compass acted like a GPS with poor reception often does; pointing me one way, then the other, only to have me turn around and retrace where I just was. Resorting to my usual tactic, I’d ask the first person I saw—one that wasn’t on their phone—for directions. I quickly learned that the older generation didn’t understand a word I was saying. So if I wanted help, I needed to ask the younger crowd that grew up with the internet, pirating American movies.
But another problem emerged. Although the young in China know a lot of English words, their accent was very difficult for me to decipher. I started to wonder if the only people who didn’t have an accent are the people who live in my hometown in the Upper Peninsula of MI. When my fellow U.P. residents—”Yoopers”—talk, I don’t hear a trace of an accent. When I leave the area, people often ask if I’m from Canada, but I am sure they’re only asking because of my pasty white skin that is too far north for the sun to do its thing. It fer sher ain’t cuza my accent. An’ you can take dat too-da bank, eh!
The size of the younger crowd’s English vocabulary impressed me. Most knew enough English words to hold a casual conversation, if I could get past the accent. In fact, their accent was often more of a barrier to my understanding than the size of their vocabulary. At this point it is probably obvious to you that I don’t speak or understand a word of Mandarin, so this got me thinking about accents, and how everyone but us lucky Yoopers has one. The funny thing, if I ask someone where their accent is from, it seems they think they are the one who doesn’t have an accent. In this way, accents and propaganda are like step sisters.
When I was growing up, I heard about all the evils of communism and the stark life of the poor souls living under it. I heard that the Soviet Union was cold and gray all the time. How you had to ask for permission from the government even if you wanted to take a weekend road trip. How everyone lived in fear and was unhappy. Worse yet, their government constantly lied to shield them from learning how great the USA was. Just like accents, it’s always the other guy who experiences it, but not us. While the commies were fed carefully crafted soundbites and imagery. We Americans enjoyed a free press and knew the real truth about our homeland, and the real truth about how horrible things were in communist countries like China and the Soviet Union.
The reality is, just like an accent, everyone has their own versions of propaganda. Governments, especially, are experts in this field. It’s one of the most useful tools in their toolbox. Some nations tend to be more effective than others are at controlling their population through the careful use of propaganda. I recently visited a spot in the DMZ zone where I could see into North Korea. There was a quaint little village with colorful buildings. It looked pretty modern too! There were multi-story buildings that were bright and modern looking. What a contrast to what I was taught as a child! Where were the dark, grey, rundown buildings? Well, it turns out they were in the real town tucked behind the town that anyone standing in South Korea could see. (My wife’s telephoto lens captured both towns perfectly.) The brightly colored beautiful buildings I was looking at that were positioned front and center were purely a facade—they were totally empty. In fact, with the use of binoculars, I could see they didn’t even have windows, and there was so sign of life anywhere. The town was like a Hollywood movie set. But why? ‘Cuz Propaganda.
China’s Tiananmen Square incident is another example of government propaganda at its best. If you start typing Tiananmen Square on google while in the States, it will auto fill all kinds of things related to the 1989 massacre. But if you search for the same subject while on China’s mainland? It’s as if the incident never existed. Talking to a close Chinese friend of mine, he said the people in China know something happened because you can see bullet holes from the soldier’s automatic weapons. But did government tanks and soldiers with machine guns really declare martial law and forcibly put down a group of demonstrating students? Not if you read your news in China.
In the US, we are also victims of propaganda. Politicians hire pollsters to pre-poll potential voters to see what issues they respond best to. You can bet that if the pollsters research revealed that the color green caused a very favorable response from the masses, Washington D.C. would be a sea of green suits and dresses. So, even though the US is no exception when it comes to putting out propaganda, the big difference may be that it is easier to fact check, if you have the ambition to do so.
Still, the government and the mainstream media know that most Americans are headline readers. Give us a few carefully crafted sounds bites on the evening news or 280 characters on Twitter, and most people never even think to fact check. One of the reasons we are such strong proponents of traveling outside of your home country is because it allows you to see for yourself what is happening rather than to always be a recipient for the same carefully crafted and filtered information from the same sources day in and day out.
A classic example of how the exact same event is presented differently depending on which country you are in is how the Chinese and the US government reported the results of the recent meeting between Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires. At the meeting, Trump agreed to postpone additional tariffs for ninety days while the two sides renew negotiations. In summary, here is the story the two sides brought home for domestic consumption.
|US STATEMENT||CHINESE STATEMENT|
|Tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods won’t be raised on Jan 1.||There will be no higher tariffs.|
|The tariffs will be raised to 25% if a deal is not reached in 90 days.||Crickets.|
|Crickets.||Both leaders asked their teams to speed up talks, working towards scrapping all tariffs and reaching a win-win agreement.|
|Both parties will negotiate on forced technology transfer, intellectual property protection, non-tariff barriers and cyber theft.||Both parties will work together to reach a consensus on trade issues.|
|China will purchase “very substantial” farm, energy, industrial, and other products.||China will import more U.S. goods.|
|China will immediately restart buying agricultural goods.||Crickets.|
|China has agreed to reduce and remove tariffs on cars coming into China from the U.S. Currently the tariff is 40%.||Crickets.|
|Xi will reconsider Qualcomm-NXP deal.||Crickets.|
|US, China, and North Korea will work toward a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.||China supports another meeting of US and NK leaders.|
|Crickets.||U.S. agrees to continue respecting One China policy.|
|Crickets.||U.S. welcomes Chinese students to live and study.|
So, how did the propaganda put out about this meeting affect trading in U.S. equities? Since it happened on a weekend we saw the first spike higher happen in the futures market, which reacted with a 500 point jump in the Dow. Everyone was excited by this seeming breakthrough in the trade war. But slowly, over the next 24 hours, the markets started to realize that there really hadn’t been anything agreed to except the U.S. extending the tariff deadline 90-days. By the time the markets opened on Monday, the 500 point jump had been cut in half. By Tuesday, Trump tweets took on the tone that relations were good, but that China was on the clock now. The media headlines also changed to pointing out that there was no real deal yet—and then all at once, the bottom fell out, and the Dow dropped 3.1%. That’s how the view we are presented with impacts the markets.