Softer Power

April 22, 2017

Vice President Pence is finishing up his tour of Asia with a visit to one of our staunchest allies in the region, Australia, with whom we have long enjoyed a special relationship. Prior to Australia, Pence spent time meeting with two other crucial regional allies, South Korea and Japan, as well as a visit to a rising regional power, Indonesia. Pence’s trip to Asia came on the heels of trips to the region by Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis. Pence’s ten-day swing through the region was mainly to reassure our allies out here in the face of recent threats from an increasingly belligerent North Korea. It was probably wise to send Pence in Trump’s place as his relatively more presidential look would play better to calm jittery allies versus Trump’s off-the-cuff and sometimes dangerous unpredictability. This trip was primarily motivated by security concerns in the region with the U.S. seeking to shore up regional alliances. In the grand scheme of things, it’s only natural to wonder what Pence’s trip means in the context of the formation of any sort of “Trump Doctrine” when it comes to foreign policy. Analysts have been trying to piece together various actions taken by Trump and his administration in the past few weeks, from a missile strike in Syria after Assad’s use of chemical weapons to blustering about reviewing NAFTA and other free trade agreements to threatening North Korea, to come up with a cohesive rationale for his decisions. Let’s put aside for a second trying to guess into which school of international relations Trumps’ actions fall into and try to make sense of all of this recent attention on Asia, a region Trump spent much of the campaign chastising for either not paying enough for its security or engaging in unfair trading practices. The realpolitik reason for this renewed interest is that North Korea poses a vital threat to regional and perhaps global stability, thus the U.S. needs to step in to ensure that things do not spiral out of control. But Trump’s way of stepping in, while hewing to some semblance of behavior what we’d expect during the flare up of an international crisis, still represents a very short-term view and is rather consistent with Trump’s manic and ego-driven approach to governing where notching up “wins” are more important than laying the groundwork for lasting success. When it seems to come to foreign policy in this administration, hard power is all the rage.

Speaking of wins, in an administration nearly 100 days in and sorely lacking in many, Trump did carry through on one campaign promise. He pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) almost immediately upon taking office, a free trade agreement that would have re-wrote trade rules for the region and ensured that the U.S. remained an integral part of Asia’s rise. Free trade agreements such as the TPP are one of the best examples of soft power, a crucial complement to hard power when trying to build lasting regional stability. However soft power is a lot more subtle than the hard power we’ve seen demonstrated by the Trump administration. It’s a lot easier to express awe at our military might as rockets hit an airfield than it is for negotiators holed up for months on end trying to hammer out a free trade agreement. However, I would argue that a free trade agreement such as the TPP encompassing approximately 40% of global GDP and 20% of global trade would serve as a crucial building block to greater regional cooperation and cement the U.S.’ commitment to the region. Yet it seems that soft power has no place in whatever Trump Doctrine is emerging and instead of being proactive and regional institutions for regional and global stability, we maintain a reactive posture in the region that has us and our allies on the defensive in the face of a rogue state and begging China to help us rein in this rogue state.

As we fast forward nearly three months from when Trump pulled the U.S. out of the TPP, we will have had three visits to the region by some of the most senior members of the Trump administration.  They have been out here trying to temper the North Korean threat by reassuring our allies that we’ll stand with them.  However, this is the problem with hard power.  It looks impressive in action, but its effects tend to be either temporary, unsettling to the global order, or both.  That’s not to say that hard power such as firing missiles to send a message after a gross violation of human rights and international norms is a bad thing.  What is a bad thing is when hard power is not balanced out with the more nuanced and less tangible benefits of soft power, which quietly does it work when we’re not baring our teeth in a display of hard power and goes further in ensuring enduring peace and prosperity.

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China is allegedly building structures on artificial islands in the South China Sea that could potentially hold long-range surface-to-air missiles.  If this turns out to be true, this move is another step forward by China to lay claim to the South China Sea while simultaneously serving as another poke at the U.S. to see what they’re really committed to doing to ensure the South China Sea remains open and free.  However, China’s most recent alleged provocation is symptomatic of a bigger problem when it comes to the U.S.’ engagement with Asia.  During the Obama years, while he and others in his administration made much about a “pivot” to Asia or a re-balancing toward the region, the words were often much more substantive than the actions undertaken by his government.  Now we have a president who can barely articulate a single policy, let alone an entire grand strategy.

Trump’s idea of policies are not-so-pithy one-liners like branding China a currency manipulator or claiming that Japan does not pay enough for U.S. security.  His actions are meant more to rile up other parties and hew much more closely to the reality show theatrics with which he’s more comfortable , whether it was fielding a call from Taiwan’s president in the aftermath of the election and holding out as long as possible before re-affirming the “One China” policy that undergirded U.S.-China relations since early 1970s. North Korea tests a long-range missile and Trump decides that during dinner at his private club is the best time and place to plot the U.S.’ reaction to such a provocation.  Even the theatrics are of a low-budget variety.

The only action Trump seems to have followed through on was his executive order pulling the U.S. out of the TPP and effectively ceding to China the power to write the rules of commerce for Asia and most likely the rest of the world.  Abdicating a voice in such a crucial policy sphere that is vital to continued American prosperity is going to have the opposite effect of making America great.  Rather than keeping its seat at the head of the table and crafting the evolving rules of global trade, America is going to have to play by the rules set by others that may not be as advantageous to our long-term prosperity as those rules we were able to lay out in the TPP.  Putting aside the merits of the TPP for a second, what was most important about that agreement was continued American leadership in coming up with Version 2.0 of the rules and frameworks that have taken the world to this point from the aftermath of WWII.  If Trump has his way, it won’t only be the TPP, but NATO, our vital alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, and even the EU which has more often than not been a trusted and intellectually equal partner spurring us to do better on many matters of global importance.

We are at an inflection point in Asia and the rest of the world where a grand strategies with  far-reaching and enlightened thinking is needed.  Unfortunately, very little coming out of Washington these days seems all that grand except perhaps that atrium in Trump’s DC hotel.

In recent days, Vice President Pence and others from the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Tillerson and Defense Secretary Mattis have made the rounds in Europe reassuring our allies that the U.S. stands with them against Russia and other threats to the West.  Why was such a tour necessary so early on in the new administration?  It’s because President Trump has been doing everything he can do to stir fear in Europe that the U.S. is prepared to abandon its commitments that have undergirded peace and prosperity in the region since the end of WWII.  It’s problematic that you have the leader of the free world tweeting and giving speeches expressing adoration for Putin and his Russia while undercutting allies who have stood by America’s side for over 70 years.  Then you have his supposedly loyal lieutenants doing the equivalent of an apology tour to reassure those same allies that nothing is going to change, even with a megalomaniac in the White House.  Whose take on the future should we trust?

It’s naive to think that the triumvirate of Pence, Mattis, and Tillerson matters more than what Trump says or tweets.  In Trump’s first month in office, it’s been clear that anyone with a shred of reason or maturity is quickly sidelined.  Pence was kept in the dark for two weeks by the President and his people that Flynn had lied to him about discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Kislyak and only learned about it from The Washington Post.  Tillerson was not included in White House meetings with Netanyahu that were supposedly being led by Jared Kushner, who we all know is extremely well-versed in international affairs.  And then there is Mattis, the oft-cited grown-up in the room who is supposed to be the voice of reason in a Trump administration.  He seems to be more a show pony having already been to Asia and Europe to reassure our closest allies that nothing is going to change in these alliances even as Trump says and does the opposite of what Mattis is saying.  What happened in the aftermath of North Korea’s missile test except an open-air discussion during dinner at Mar-a-Lago?  Nothing.  While the theater of these three men reassuring allies is well-executed, it’s a stretch to believe that any of them hold any real sway with Trump who seems hell-bent on doing his own thing.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of anything Pence, Mattis, and Tillerson have said to our allies. However, I doubt that their boss shares their sentiments or cares to listen to what they have to tell him.  That is what scares me the most – the lack of a coherent and convincing foreign policy in the early days of the Trump presidency.  It seems that the same man who wanted to keep ISIS guessing as to his amazing plan to eradicate them also wants to keep our allies guessing how committed we are to supporting the Western world as we know it.

Enough is enough.  Or is it?  I live 13 hours ahead of Washington, D.C., so when I wake up in the morning I am hit with the full force of the day’s news versus the usual sporadic updating of headlines I would normally be subject to if I was still living in the U.S.  Reading about the absurdity that is American politics in such a concentrated form means my morning coffee is usually punctuated with quite a bit of head shaking, the occasional expletive, and calls and texts back home filled with words like “ridiculous”, “crazy”, “nightmare”, “horrible”, and “insane”.  I often feel like I have run out superlatives to describe what’s going on and we’re only a month into what is supposed to be four years of a Trump presidency.

Just when I am about to write about how the latest tweet or actual utterance is going to ruin the republic, something else happens that’s even worse than what preceded it.  The upside to not writing about what’s been going in real-time is that I have had a month to let things sink in for a bit of perspective, though I am not sure what good perspective is when facts are lies and lies are facts and when we have double-speak coming from within the same administration, whether it’s about our commitment to Europe or relations with Russia.  What’s missing from all this activity are actual policies, which to some may be a good thing, but it also means Trump can perpetuate the lies he needs to solidify support from his base.

I think it’s important to meet with and record interviews with his supporters to understand why they stand behind this man.  The Washington Post, part of the cabal of fake news, had an article with quotes rom Trump supporters.  Forget about the actual article and it’s macro point about a real divide in the country and focus on the words of his supporters.  They believe Trump and his attacks on the media and feel as if he is not getting a fair shake at things.  Trump’s PR plan is masterful in that his supporters believe him hook, line, and sinker.  When he says he saved thousands of jobs with the signing of an executive order or that Sweden suffered a terrorist attack, his supporters only look at the his tweets or the headlines that support his point of view and make up their minds.  This blind following begs the question – when do they lose faith?

That question is one that vexes me to no end.  What will break this almost spell-like enchantment with Trump?  Will it be when Republicans actually do something to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and people realize that when they next go to the doctor, they have no insurance?  Will it be when people who thought Trump was bringing back their jobs are still unemployed two years later?  Will it be when he gets us embroiled in another global conflict and American troops are being sent into battle?  Will it be when he launches a trade war and inflation skyrockets as the cost of imports soars?  I worry that given where we are as a country, none of these things will matter because Trump has these people hooked on the twin beliefs that all news that runs counter to his narrative is fake and any problems that arise will be deemed to have been handed to him by his predecessor, even a year or two on from when Obama was last in office.  Perhaps the better question is this one – what happens if his supporters, in spite of bad things continuing to happen, do not lose faith in him?

Then the answer depends on what the so far feckless Republicans decide to do about Trump and his lies.  I won’t even begin to discuss the Democrats because they’re still out in the wilderness trying to figure out the best way to make themselves heard.  It’s the Republicans, the part y of the majority, that have the power and moral imperative to ensure that Trump does not destroy the republic.  Yet, what we’ve seen from Republicans is more of the same that they pulled when Obama was president, except now they are in power and actually have to do something to ensure that our country continues moving forward.  House Republicans led by the increasingly unprincipled Paul Ryan are still talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails when it’s possible we may have a president and his administration colluding with what should be the true enemy, Russia.    Thank goodness for Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who while perhaps not aligned with my politics, speak about protecting the same country that am proud to call mine.  But other Republicans have not shown the same respect and concern for our country, blinded more by advancing a specific agenda that would be meaningless if what made America truly great was no longer.  Yet these Republicans are unable to see what could be the unraveling of America as a beacon of freedom, liberty, and democracy.  Rather they continue to operate in an environment that is increasingly looking like a quaint anachronism, where Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal, left and right, were all we had to worry about when governing.  Unfortunately, it’s bigger than that.  It should not matter what side of aisle or political debate we are on.  Rather this is about America and the future of our country, what is stands for at home and abroad, as well ensuring we have something we’re proud off to hand off to future generations.

Today we face a president and his inner circle of truth-bending loyalists who boast of non-existent policy achievements and disavow themselves of any mistakes or errors in the first month of this administration.  Yet we have others hanging out in the other branches of government, namely Congress, willing to look away while he chips away at the foundations of our country in the hopes that they can get some policy concessions out of him.  Such behavior is not only short-sighted, but increasingly so partisan as to be nearly non-American.

 

I’ve just returned to Hong Kong after two weeks of what I think is a very typical twenty-first century vacation where it was ostensibly supposed to be about unplugging and enjoying time with family and friends, but ended up being more of a hybrid of work and vacation with the boundaries never as clear cut as I would have liked.  My trip home also happened to coincide with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, which means I was able to catch bits of pieces of what was a very dark and angry four days, culminating in an acceptance speech by Donald Trump that perfectly embodied all of the hate, fear, pessimism, and anger with a dose of the ridiculousness that characterized not only the prior four days, but much of his campaign.  And yet coming back to Hong Kong, I am still happy to be an American.  There is always something about these trips that makes me appreciate where I come from in a way that I did not when I was younger and lived overseas.  While part of it may have to do with the abundant choice in America’s stores, there is also something about being home and recognizing I am a product of my home. Now being happy to be an American and proud of my country are two different things and after witnessing the debacle that was the RNC last week, my pride is being held back until the outcome of the presidential election in November.  There is a lot of hate and fear in the U.S., which is part of the same strain of hate and fear that propelled the “Leave” campaign in the Brexit vote and almost saw a right-wing nationalist get elected to the presidency in Austria.  Beyond these countries, fear and hate are mobilizing large parts of electorates in other European countries as we seem to be caught in a moment where openness, tolerance, and optimism are in short supply.  I understand that I am fortunate as someone who has been able to live and travel around the world and have benefitted from globalization in ways that large segments of the world population have not, but it also frightens me that those who are fearful of the future or angry about what is happening around them cannot take a step back and put things in perspective and realize that we are better off today in so many ways than we were yesterday.  I can’t pretend to know what it is like to have lost one’s job and struggle to find another one because there are no job opportunities available to them, whether its because they simply do not exist where they live or they do not have the requisite skills to get a new job.  I can’t pretend to understand a feeling of being trapped or in despair because I can’t pay my bills and am one medical emergency away from not being able to keep a roof over my head or food on my table.  Yet, the irony in all of this is that it’s me or more accurately, people like me who do not have a clue who are supposed to come up with the policies to help people facing untenable life situations.  One thing I can understand is the appeal of someone who seems to offer a quick fix or has no qualms scapegoating individuals and worse, entire groups of people.  It’s comforting to have someone give voice to the things you may be thinking and to attack those whom you perceive as partly responsible for your lot.  What I have been struggling with is how to connect with people who feel disconnected and angry with the way things have gone, but in a way that is constructive and positive versus destructive and negative.  Unfortunately, the Democrats have not done any better than the Republicans in figuring out how to accomplish this seemingly impossible task.  What the Democrats have done for the most part is not degenerate into name calling and personal attacks, but have actually had debates on policy including the proper role of government in righting these wrongs.  It’s just hard to stomach policy debates when you’re worried about where your next paycheck in coming from or you feel threatened by all of the changes taking place by you.  It’s easier to hark back to another time when things seemed simpler and frankly better.  Even I do that sitting here thinking my life was so much easier when I was younger, but forgetting the angst that came along with adolescence.  I am not trying to pretend I can understand the anguish, hopelessness, or fear that seemingly large segments of the American population are feeling, but I can relate to the idea that we tend to look at the past with rose-colored glasses because it’s known whereas the future is a giant unknown and these days tends to be tinged with darkness.  The challenge is to find a way to regain that optimism that makes Americans uniquely American.  If this post sounds at all jingoistic, I apologize because I am also deeply aware of my country’s flaws and will be the first to acknowledge them, but I also know that in spite of the whatever terrible thing may be happening in the U.S., whether its obstructionist government, a recession, buffoonery among our political class, or more common lately, a gun-related tragedy at every turn, we as a people tend to rise above and move forward.  What scares me now and something I feel more acutely being over 8000 miles from home, thus able to look at things with more perspective, is that we seem to be losing the ability to look and then move forward.  That inability to keep progressing is what may be the most worrisome thing about where we’re currently at as a country.  One side of our political spectrum has decided to capitalize on that inability and turn it into a rallying cry to govern.  The challenge for the other side is to figure out how to appeal to the desire in all of us to move forward and be even better tomorrow than we were the day before, regardless of party affiliation or personal circumstances.  If there ever was a time when we needed hope, it’s more so now than it seems to ever have been, whether it was 1860, 1932, or 2008.

It’s been quite some time.  Again.  I feel like weeks go by in the blink of an eye out here and I think about all of these things I want to write about, then something else comes up to keep me away from doing it.  But one of the smartest and wisest people I know, my mom, suggested I set aside some time every week or two to write something, which should help me get back into the habit of doing it more regularly.  And it’s not because I have not wanted to write, but more because the demands of work and challenge of disentangling work from what I want to write since often my ideas arise from something I am doing for work has made it easier to just not write at all.  Yet that’s not why I started this blog or in the grander scheme of things, why I cam back to Asia.  I am here this time around because for the rest of my career, I want to help others better understand China. Unfortunately, you can’t understand what’s going on here by just sitting in the U.S. and reading about things.  I wanted to be back on the ground experiencing what’s happening here first hand and hopefully get that much closer to becoming an “expert” on the region.

So now that I’ve given some context to my absence, I can write about what’s been on my mind of late.  As you know, I now live in Hong Kong and I am always careful to make a distinction between the city and the rest of China.  I don’t know if others are as exacting about the relationship between this city and the mainland, but as someone who has been coming here since 1998, one year after the handover from the UK to China, and considers himself an amateur scholar of China who has also lived up there, I know that there are major differences between the two territories.  However, of late it seems like those lines get blurred more and more.  The latest incident surrounds Lam Wing-kee’s return to HK after spending nearly eight months on the mainland.  Lam was one of the five booksellers detained in China for selling politically sensitive books in HK, a city that is supposed to have the right free speech, so the publication and sale of these books would not be a problem here.  However, China claims he was selling these books to mainlanders and actually shipping and bringing them to the mainland, which is not allowed.  That right there should give you a sense as to how different the two places are.  I have often written about and remarked on how devoid of what’s going on around them many mainlanders seem to be, existing in a kind of middle world where most of what they know is spoon-fed to them by the government-directed propaganda machine.  Anyway, Lam returned to HK to supposedly get the hard drives with the bookstore’s customers’ names on it and turn it over to the Chinese authorities.  Instead, as soon as he returned at the end of last week he held a press conference detailing his captivity in China, including what the special operations forces made him do.  Now there has been damage control on all sides with the Chinese government and pro-Beijing politicians in the city trying to discredit him and those decrying the dismantling of “one country, two systems” and advocating greater independence holding him up as a hero.  While there may be some inconsistencies in Lam’s story, I attribute part of that to being held in captivity and ill-treated by his captors for months on end.  Anyone’s memory would be a bit hazy at best after an ordeal like that. I am also skeptical of those trying to discredit his story, especially those from the Chinese government or affiliated with it because if there was nothing to hide, this ordeal would not have dragged on for eight months and Beijing would have been forthcoming with details from the get-go.

Yet I digress.  I write about this incident again because I am either asked how I like HK since being back or listen to people visiting for a week or two extol the city’s virtues, of which there are many.  But for someone just dropping in and out or even those expats who live in the pure expat bubble, China’s ever-encroaching shadow over the city wouldn’t register for most of those people.  Perhaps I read too much or it’s just something to which I am particularly attuned because of my background and history with this part of the world. but it’s happening and it’s unclear what the next move is on either side – whether it’s those here advocating for a change in the relationship between HK and China whereby HK has more autonomy or those in Beijing who see any dissent from the people of HK like a baby throwing a tantrum, albeit  very public tantrum that must be quieted.  What I wonder is to what lengths will Beijing go to actually prevent this simmering situation from exploding.  Acquiescing is not really an option for Beijing, so there is either an uneasy tolerance with subversive moves to quiet the dissenters or something more overt and potentially more explosive.

When I am asked about how I feel about HK or listen to people go on how awesome it is, I try to explain that it’s a city that while still cool in so many ways, feels like it’s lost its way. When I first came here in 1998, it felt like a magical place that was a real hybrid between East and West with an incredible infrastructure and everything just seemed to hum.  Now I wonder if the power outages in the MTR stations and rows over the size of garbage bins on the street portend something worse for this city – a place with no leadership and no plan to differentiate itself in the face of a ruler intent on snuffing out the things that made this city so special.  It’s telling that the leader is the Chief Executive (CE) and since the handover there has not been one CE who people would consider to have been an effective leader.  Of course when China is the one effectively picking the CE and so famously pushed off universal suffrage in 2014, sparking the Umbrella Protests, it’s in their best interest to not choose a leader who actually dares to lead too much.  For if they chose a leader with leadership capabilities who could actually serve the people, that same leader might also rally his or her people to turn against Beijing.  So rather than pick someone who could accomplish something or give this city back it’s purpose or raison d’etre, Beijing chooses feckless and ineffective individuals who are basically their puppets to lead this city down a path of meandering mediocrity.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I love this city and think it still has a lot of potential, but without someone at the helm who has vision and actually represents the people, you are going to have a city that merely exists rather than inspires.  On top of that, you have a legislature that is sort of elected by the people and definitely represents elements of the population that would never find a voice in the CE’s office.  But the CE does not come out of the legislature like he or she would in a parliamentary system and the CE is not elected by the people, so you have a figurehead who is also divorced from the rest of the city’s governing structure and ultimately answers to one – Beijing.

I fear I paint a rather helpless picture and at times it feels that way.  There is a resignation underlying most things in this city that HK is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. I’d use more colorful language, but I think you get the point.  Resignation is not inspiring and it’s unclear where the city goes from here.  Stay tuned.

Blue Skies and Clean Air

April 17, 2016

This past Thursday, I was fortunate enough to visit a Chinese school and spend some time with middle and high schoolers.  It’s been a few years since I was last in front of Chinese students when I was teaching at Linyi Normal University, so I was excited to get back into an academic setting and see what was going on with the next generation in China.  It was a quick trip to Jinan where I was tasked with presenting our U.S. schools to these students and their parents for study abroad opportunities.  I was then given maybe an hour or so to “interview” 20 or so students, which only allowed for come cursory conversations about why they wanted to study in the U.S. and their favorite and least favorite subjects.

What was interesting about the whole exercise was the motivation of these students to sit down with a random American guy and answer my questions all with the intent of wanting to study in the U.S. next year.  I needed a system that guaranteed some consistency, so I asked all of the students why they wanted to study in the U.S. and quite a few replied that they were drawn to the “blue skies” and “clean air” of the U.S.   Others extolled the quality of the teachers and freedom to do what they want in school, such as extracurricular activities.  Yet others told me that they saw a year in the U.S. as a way to help guarantee the ability to study there for college.

While it’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about what’s going on across a certain generation in a country as large as China, the numbers behind my day in Jinan support the proposition that more and more Chinese parents see educational opportunities outside of China as more advantageous for their children than staying within the Chinese system.  In 2014, over 450,000 Chinese students studied abroad, up from about 115,000 a decade ago, and that number is sure to continue to grow.  Spending the day in what is really a tier three city, but only tier two because it’s the capital of Shandong province, these kids took time out of their busy day to wait in line to meet with me and other school representatives with the hopes of spending a year or more overseas.

The Chinese government is also aware of this growth in students seeking to opt out of the Chinese educational system and is worried about Western values infecting their students. There has been a subtle shift in certain major cities like Beijing and Shanghai to discourage international education options.  In Beijing, the government has allegedly stopped approving international programs and in Shanghai, the government mandated that some programs to slash their fees closer to the level of ordinary schools, which would make it harder for them to operate.  Motivating the government is the desire to ensure that students remain patriotic, but it’s also a short-sighted attempt that goes against the wishes of large swaths of China’s upwardly mobile middle and middle-upper class that sees these programs as the extra push to get their children into a university overseas and out from underneath the constricted Chinese educational system.  Prevent enough of these parents from being able to send their children to such programs and you have another segment of the population with a grievance against the government, which is not something that they want to happen.  It’s a bit of a catch-22.  Keep students from these international programs to presumably preserve the Party and system, but run the risk that their parents raise bloody hell from being denied the opportunity to send their kids to such programs.  It’s not clear that Beijing can win and as I’ve learned about China, if you block one path, people will simply find another way to achieve the same ends.  And in the meantime, as long as there are enough kids who yearn for blue skies and more extracurricular activities, Beijing is going to have trouble preventing it’s kids finding a way to find such things.