Yang Wang on Science and Technology in China, Hong Kong Protests, and Coronavirus – #34

Yang Wang is Dean of Science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Steve: Thanks for joining us. I’m Steve Hsu.

Corey: And I’m Corey Washington and we’re your hosts for Manifold.

Corey: This week we’re going to try something new. To make your listening experience efficient, we’re going to provide a guide to when we discuss particular topics during the upcoming show. The first 30 minutes of this show is about US, China relations and the development of science and technology in China over the past 30 years. The next 30 minutes are about the Hong Kong protests. In the last 15 or 20 minutes are dedicated to coronavirus. You’ll find a detailed description of these topics along with timestamps in the show notes. Thanks for listening.

Steve: Our guest today is Wang Yang. He is the Dean of science at the Hong Kong University of Science Technology. Corey, and I know him from his time at MSU where he was the chair of mathematics. Prior to that he was a professor at Georgia Tech and he earned his PhD in 1990 at Harvard University under the supervision of field’s medalist David Mumford. Am I correct about that last point Wang?

Yang: Yes.

Steve: Yes. So I always thought of you as a little bit more on the applied math side, but then I realize your thesis advisor is a fields medalist in algebraic geometry. So we never even talked about that.

Yang: Yeah. Actually, my thesis was really on the computer vision side. It’s a very mathematical problem computer vision called the [inaudible 00:01:44] problem. When I joined Harvard, my advisor was beginning to switch from algebra, geometry to computer vision and I caught the boat and I was either the last pure math student he had or the first, more or less the applied math student he had. Okay. And my work was not related to algebra, geometry, which was his field, what he was known for. So it was more in computer vision, but it was on the very theoretical side, it was actually a mathematical part, not any application or related problem.

Steve: Got it.

Corey: The two fields are not totally disparate, actually. If you’re going to try to figure out what… an area pure math that intersects with computer vision. It’d be harder to get closer than, I mean topology, et cetera, et cetera. But you’re in the general ballpark.

Steve: Okay. Well, I don’t want to get too much into technical stuff right now, but let me talk a little bit about your biography. So you grew up in China and your undergraduate degree is from university of science and technology in China, which is a famous university there. And your career has really spanned a period of immense change in the level of development of China, the level of advancement in academic research. So you want to reflect on that a little bit, like how you viewed the world in the eighties when you first came to America versus now you’re back in Asia looking across the Pacific at the United States. So maybe you can just riff on that a little bit.

Yang: This was actually a very interesting, in fact, when I was in China at the time, my family was making about, I will say maybe around 50 Yuan a month, which was used at the exchange rate at the time was about maybe $10 in US dollars.

Steve: Yeah, now it’s like $8 or something.

Yang: No, the official rate was like five Yuan for a dollar but the black market rate, it was more like a 10. Okay. So it’s more like five US dollars per month. And at the time, of course, we all dream of going out of the country. I mean, we’re looking forward, we were trying to find every opportunity we put on to maybe go to the US or Europe. It just happened I was selected as one off the students to go to the US. By the way, at that time we did not have a free choice system.

Yang: Okay. You can’t just say, “I want to go to the US, let me apply for a visa.” No, no, no, that was not the way it was done. You have to be selected by the university, in fact by the country and they actually provided you the stipend. So most of my fellow, maybe not most, but certainly many of them were on a national scholarship to come to the US. I actually was also on some national scholarship, but because my visa problem, I needed to speed up the visa, was already delayed. Actually, Harvard came through with a scholarship. It’s called a US-Japan Exchange Foundation scholarship. And I had nothing to do with Japan, but I was only too happy to take it. So I actually got to the US on this particular, weird soundings. I mean, not weird sounding, but certainly a strange sounding scholarship for me because I was in no way at the time related to anything Japan.

Steve: So you mentioned that everybody at that time wanted to get out of China and move to a more developed country. And where do you see that equilibrium now? And obviously you’re back in greater China now, if you’re a talented, say twenty-something kid, how strong is the pole to leave China and maybe work in Silicon Valley or London versus staying there today? What’s changed in that relationship?

Yang: Well, it’s also very interesting. I read somewhere a few months ago I will say, that right now the oversea Chinese coming back to China, the number has exceeded the number going out. Okay. So in the large picture, you see a brain game in China. So, why is that? Okay. So I can talk my personal feelings here. Actually, if you are interest in innovation, let’s say entrepreneurship, okay, China especially in the Bay area where we call the so called a greater Bay area that’s the Guangdong province, the several cities in Guangdong province including Shenzhen and Guangzhou and Hong Kong and Macau. Okay. So this is a so called the greater Bay area. It’s very, very exciting. And there are a lot of opportunities for innovation.

Yang: Let’s say if you have some research results, you want to form your own company, actually it’s quite easy to get some support in angel fund or even significant government support for you to form, to develop your ideas and your company,

Steve: Right. So this greater Bay area, which I believe it’s also called the Pearl River Delta region, is that fair?

Yang: Yes. It used to be called Pearl River Delta, now it’s called the greater Bay area.

Steve: And it comprises something like 60 million plus people, and including Shenzhen, which many people regard as the Silicon Valley for hardware in China.

Yang: Yeah. But also Ellucian’s now even… You have Tencent for instance is based in Shenzhen.

Steve: Yes. So it’s a super dynamic region in China. And I think most Americans, we’re subject to relentless propaganda against China. So basically everybody here thinks it’s a totalitarian police state and they can’t imagine that some talented person with the opportunity of either being in the US Silicon Valley or the various Silicon Valleys in China would choose to go back. It’s a little mind boggling for most Americans. So do you agree with that Corey or …?

Corey: I have to say I don’t agree with that. I think that’s a certain line you get, especially in the popular press. But if you’re at a university, you realize that quite a few Americans have been going to China for quite a while and staying a very long time. And so if you just make the inference, you’d see there has to be something very attractive and what’s attractive is there’s just a lot of money in China. I think Yang in fact did not put a dollar amount on it, but he and I have had a conversations. A few years ago I assume as I recall it, the government would put in something, order of $10 million to reasonable enterprise, at least a reasonable startup idea. And that money just isn’t available in the US.

Yang: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So actually many professors are coming back to China. I can give you a little bit of idea why young people are beginning to come to China. Right now there is 1000 talent program. You probably all heard about it and in fact, I know Steve you have to deal with some of the cases. So actually there is a similar program even with the same name called the Young 1000 Talent Program that’s explicitly targeting young people and people who graduated from PhD program within several years.

Yang: Well, just in giving a idea how attracted this has become. If you get one of these positions in a top university, let’s say, Tsinghua or Beijing University, especially if you can get, not these positions in Shenzhen for instance. Okay. The starting salary is typically between 400,000 to 600,000 [00:10:47] a year. If you divide the spy six point whatever, around seven, let’s say you divide by seven, which is exchange rate, you already get a pretty decent salary comparable to what you get in the US. On top of that, they also give you housing allowance. And in the case of Shenzhen, the government also has certain programs which give you additional income. For instance, one of the program give you half a million Yuan tax-free. So if you get one of these positions in Shenzhen and in other places as well, you are essentially making 1 million Yuan per year as assistant professor.

Steve: It’s pretty good.

Corey: So I think Steve, you’re seeing a choice we’ve had before between dollars and alleged civil liberties, whatever. Americans may have some gripes about whether they’re living in a police state in China or how much surveillance there is, but people are going to be willing to sacrifice that if they think they’re going to make a good salary with big economic upside.

Steve: Well, yeah, I think in general they don’t regard their own government as sinister. And so the fact that the government has more powers there than the government here has, it doesn’t frighten them so much. I want to come back to these Thousand Talent programs because it’s a huge thing that’s in the news these days. And these programs have been around for a long time. It seems like more than 20 years. And so just 10 years ago when the relationship between the US and China was not so fraught, universities here did not have a problem with a faculty member here having sometimes some joint appointment or dual appointment where they had access to laboratory space in China and students there and could do some of their research in China but still were full time professors in the US and it wasn’t really an issue.

Steve: But now because of the tensions rising between China, this has become a huge issue. Where if you watch the news, for example, this professor of chemistry at Harvard, Lieber, was in federal prison for not declaring the benefits he was receiving through one of the Thousand Talents programs in China. Was it at Wuhan University? I forgot which university it was.

Yang: Yeah, it’s in Wuhan University. I don’t actually think he’s in the 1000 Talent program. He might be in some other program. There is like youngs river program for professors in foreign university to be appointed for the summer for instance.

Steve: Right. So we went from a period where as a vice president for research 10 years ago, you would have strategized. In fact, I had conversations like this with other VPRs just five years ago where you strategize to say, “Oh, if we can form some strong relationships with some Chinese universities and help the researchers at our university by getting them access to these resources that are available in China, it would be a win-win for everybody.” And we actually just five years ago were strategizing about how to do these things. Whereas now the zeitgeists has changed so much that you just want to not have these things go on and-

Yang: It’s hot potato now. You just want to throw it away.

Steve: Yes. So everything has changed very drastically in five years. Now, if you just read the media accounts of what these programs are all about, i.e, they’re portrayed as basically being intellectual property theft plans by the government of China. That certainly wasn’t how they were perceived five years ago. And back to Corey’s point, I do think that if you… see you yourself have traveled to this region that we’re talking about and seen it yourself. But if your only exposure to China was, and I hate to say this, but reading the New York Times, I think you would be very accepting of the idea that it’s a terrible dystopia where you’d be crazy to want to move there. So yes, anyway, but the Thousand Talents program has become a really difficult hot potato for universities now.

Yang: Yeah, exactly. I think it’s very unfortunate. I mean a lot of these exchange programs are really legitimate, but there is such a xenophobia around in the US now. I really feel that the aggressive pursue or prosecution of the faculty who have any research exchange collaboration with China is going to backfire, really, it’s going to backfire. I mean from your point of view, attracting talent from China is already getting more difficult, I see. I can see from my end that many of the faculty are of Chinese origin are calling us, sending us emails like, “Well do you have a position there open for us?” And the abreast of recruitment by Tsinghua and Beida have also yielded some pretty high profile recruits from US.

Steve: Can I drill down on this a little bit more? There’s a saying that I often encounter in China, maybe not so much these days, but I did certainly 10 years ago that hardware is easy and software is hard. And what was meant by that is, it’s very easy to build a building, they’ve mastered that. It’s very easy to build a state of the art laboratory, they’ve mastered that. It’s even easy to have money available for researchers. But what’s harder to replicate is that sort of a spirit of discovery of being a Maverick innovator, of having creative new ideas. And for a long time in China, they felt that that was the main thing that they still lacked.

Steve: And so if I talked to a cynical academic in the US maybe somebody with fairly broad exposure to greater China, they might say something like, “Yeah, if you go there, you can get an army of grad students, you can get a modern lab.” But when you go there, the collegial dialogue and idea exchange and just some cultural sensibility of how really advanced science is done here in the West is still somewhat missing there. Do you think that’s still true or do you think that problem has largely been fixed now?

Yang: Well, it’s not completely fixed. In fact, I think it’s to some extent still true. The research landscape in China is driven primarily by KPI. Okay. And KPI’s a very different from the KPI we have seen in the US, for instance, you are not even going to consider counting a paper that is not in SCI journal for instance. Okay. So the university simply don’t count it in the mirror review. And if you get papers published in some very high profile journals like nature or science, you actually get award. Okay. So a lot of these awards don’t have an expiration date. So you can be one of the, what we call [foreign language 00:18:30]. That means outstanding young scientist award. Okay. And that has the age limit. However, once you get that, you pretty much have that title for your life and a lot of promotion, salary increase and benefits, getting grants all depend on these titles.

Yang: So that’s why the KPIs are essentially focusing on top notch journals and getting publications into these journals. And once you have a few of those, you are positioning yourself for awards and eventually becoming academician in China, which also come with a lot of benefits.

Steve: Right. So let me contrast the incentive structure or the metrics used to measure success in say, China and even South Korea versus say Japan. So Japan industrialized earlier and caught up with the West scientifically much earlier and they are much more willing in my view, to go their own way. Whereas South Korea and China have adopted these very metric driven performance indicators, which basically just assume that nature and science know what they’re doing. And some Japanese journal doesn’t necessarily know what it’s doing. They just look at the impact factor or they look at some other very numerical indicator of whether it’s good journal or bad journal.

Steve: Whereas in Japan they have their own research culture. They can have idiosyncratic people that are working on their own thing for a while. And so it seems like a more mature, self-assured research culture than what, at least in previous years we had in South Korea and China. But do you see any indications that you’re going to break out of that systems?

Yang: I have absolutely no doubt that in let’s say 10, 15 years, this culture will also change. I think right now, China, if you look at the scientific community in general, there is still a lack of self confidence in evaluating your own achievements. Okay. So I think that you have made a very good point. I mean that’s right on the money about Japan. I think Japan, if you look at the scientific community in Japan, they have confidence and that’s why they can go their own ways. But China is also beginning to change. I think it’s just a matter of time. People are getting more and more competent about what they can bring to the table, to the innovation table.

Steve: I think any scientist like yourself that has spent significant time in the US or European system and then goes back, they have confidence because they’ve seen all the systems of the world and they understand what’s good and what’s bad. The question is whether the local people who have never been outside of China will accept this more confident view of what is quality, what is not quality and how long that will take to take hold in China.

Yang: That’s actually also true. I would even say that it’s not really the local scientist who are driving this KPI system. I think more often it’s the administrators and government officials. Remember all the Chinese universities are public universities. I mean there are private university, but very few. Okay. And almost all the good universities if you look at from Tsinghua, Beida to USTC are all public universities. And there are subject to the rules and regulations of the Chinese government including ministry of education and the many university receive government funding from the central level to the provincial level. So everybody has to show what they have done with their investment. And the easiest thing to do are those KPIs.

Steve: Yes. So it’s really top down from the bureaucrats actually. Maybe that-

Corey: I sort of sense the gist that we’re criticizing the system, but I think for any country that’s attempting to bring itself up to a top level international standard, this is probably the best approach. I have friends who live and work in Southern Europe and they’re just appalled by what gets through as far as qualifications for top notch jobs. They would love to have something like this where you simply assess someone and something that’s remotely resembling objective criteria rather than simply who you know. I think it’s totally reasonable to this approach.

Steve: I think it’s a function of stage of development. So as you try to ascend having some very metric driven, but fair mechanism is probably your best choice. And South Korea and China have entered into that system. The question is when are they going to be able to bust out of it and basically have a very mature system in which subtle judgments of value can be made because there’s a high trust environment and a high confidence in the quality level of the professoriate and the scientist. And so that last transition, the question is when is that going to happen in China? That’s really, I think what we’re focused on.

Corey: I just want to emphasize that there’s a whole set of countries, right, that are in far worse situations from the point of view, academics inside of it where they just feel that even if they do do quality work, they simply cannot advance because of there’s essentially nepotism that infects the entire system.

Steve: I mean, I totally agree with you. If you want to look at the limiting case of academic cynicism, you should talk to Italian scientists and academics because they have very little confidence in their own system and there’s all kinds of corruption and nevertheless they’re an extremely talented and old civilization. Right? So yes, but I think because we’re talking to Wang Yang, I think my main interest is when is that last step in maturation likely to happen in China? And then I think that will free up quite a lot of energy and talent. I mean there’s just probably, I think it’s fair to say that if you look at nations just by the size of China and the level of the human capital, there’s no greater potential for scientific and technological advancement than what they have there. It’s just a question of when they’re going to get there.

Yang: Yeah. Actually, Corey, I actually agree with you. What I said wasn’t really a criticism of the system in China, in fact I think it’s a necessary stage of the development. For a long time, China had a hierarchal system. You don’t have to be super active, but as long as you have seniority, you have the respect of the community, you’re automatically being put in position of power, let’s say. Okay. So you dictate how resource will be distributed and how jobs will be distributed. And this KPI driven system is actually to counter such a hierarchal system. So it play the extremely positive role for the scientific community, the development of scientific community in China. So I will say even today, still playing a relatively positive role. On the other hand, there is a limit to how much this system can lead to. And I think that’s when 10 years from now we’ll see a much more confident in Chinese scientific community with its own ways of evaluation.

Corey: Sorry to interrupt, but Yang and that hierarchical system max exists today in Japan and France, if you’re a young scientist coming up in Japan, you spent a lot of time in another scientist lab that you’re in another science lab long past the point at which you’d have your own lab in the US and so there is still this hierarchical structure that dictates where resources are allocated. So I think US is maybe it’s in some sense an ideal in this case. I think US is not an ideal in many respects, but I think the scientific community is close to being an ideal as far as the fact that if you’re a talented young person who develops a new program, you’re cut loose pretty easily and early on to pursue your own research.

Steve: I agree with you that among all the different large scientific and technological infrastructures or systems that we have in the world, the US is probably the best, although obviously there are many problems that you and I are always talking about. One of the big factors in the US which often doesn’t exist in these other countries is that we have intense competition between our universities. We compete head to head with the university of Michigan, which is just down the road. And then collectively we compete against all the other big 10 universities and now we got to compete against Georgia Tech and Harvard. And so it allows for new ideas to take hold and we will bid for talent. We’re not driven by some KPI. If we see some scientists that we think is awesome, we’ll try to recruit that guy away from UCLA. Right? So that’s advantage of the US system.

Steve: So even though many of these universities I’ve mentioned are state universities, they’re not part of any monolithic system like the Ministry of Education, right? They’re actually maybe beholden to a state system of higher education or maybe somewhat quasi independent the way that we and University of Michigan are. But anyway, we have lots and lots of competition in the US for scientific talent. And I think that’s the main reason we’re good.

Yang: But the competition is heating up in China as well. I mean, actually, if you look at the Chinese higher education landscape, it’s behaving today more and more like the US system. You have a lot of competition. The resources are not uniform. Tsinghua and Beida have far more resources than many of the say second tier universities. Okay. So if you look at the budget allocation to Tsinghua, it’s actually a lot more than MIT for instance. But other university are stepping up their effort as well because they know it’s a positive cycle, you have to invest in getting top notch scientists into your university in order to build up your portfolio and to get more funding from the government so that everybody is playing this game.

Steve: Yes. One of the things Corey and I talked about with an earlier guest on a different podcast was the different levels of techno optimism, China vis-a-vis, the United States vis-a-vis Europe. And a part of that is actually university optimism. So optimism in investments in research, basic research in science and technology. And if you look at any big budget, whether it’s the budget of the state of Michigan or the budget of the United States or the budget of the province of Hubei, education is higher ed or higher ed research is a tiny little thing. So if the governor of that province just says, “Hey, I believe in this, we’re going to invest in it.” They could double the budget overnight and doesn’t affect anything else. Road building is so much more expensive than hiring quantum computing researchers.

Steve: So just because China has more faith and optimism in technology and in education, I just see they would have to screw things up a lot not to really close the gap with the United States over time. That’s how I see it.

Yang: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, absolutely. With the amount of investment the country’s putting in, as you say, it is just a matter of time and it’s the matter of time we’re talking about maybe in less than 10 years.

Steve: Yeah. It’s amazing how much emphasis right now in the US press is being in this current government, they’re placing on the idea that the Chinese are stealing intellectual property from the United States. But it really ain’t like that. There’s just so much talent. I mean the stealing is in a sense the fact that people came from China and got educated here and now they’re able to produce their own innovations. That’s the main source of ketchup. There may be some point situations where they did steal nuclear secrets or stealth technology or this or that, but most of the ketchup has not been due to theft. It’s been actually just due to talent accumulation and capability accumulation.

Yang: Exactly, exactly. Yeah. For instance, today we’re on Zoom, right? I mean when I look at the Zoom, the founder of Zoom used to work for WebEx and he just formed his own company. I mean, you can say maybe if some way in China does Zoom, he will be accused of stealing the idea of technology. But this is essentially due to talent, as you said, there are so much talent going back to China and there are also so many talent, I mean, so much talent homegrown in China today. I’m actually quite impressed by the young people I’ve met in China.

Steve: Just to take that example of Zoom, people here are shocked to learn that basically all the capabilities you can think of that are in Skype and Zoom and Facebook and everything else, it’s all in WeChat. So you can actually do all of these things. I could have a video conference with you right now in WeChat. And so Chinese actually have access to actually much better internet technology than what Americans are used to and people just can’t believe it here. Oh, we have to use 10 different apps to basically accomplish what I could do if I were in China just using WeChat.

Yang: Everybody is on WeChat today. In fact, you cannot do anything without WeChat. I mean you order food on WeChat. Okay. Yeah.

Steve: Okay. Let me switch gears. There are two other topics I want to get to and actually we’d love to have you as a regular person because you can be our eyes in on the other side of the Pacific. Right?

Yang: sure. Absolutely. I’d love to. Yeah.

Steve: But two things I want to get to today are Hong Kong protests and the political situation in Hong Kong. Spend a little bit of time on that. And then the other big one is coronavirus. And so let’s take Hong Kong protests first and spend a little bit time on that. So everybody sees these protests happening in Hong Kong. It’s not unexpected that there would be some resistance to the eventual full absorption of Hong Kong integrator China. Now you yourself are a main lander, you didn’t grow up in Hong Kong but you work in Hong Kong. So I suspect you have a very special view of what these protests mean perhaps who is behind these protests that are happening in Hong Kong. So say what you think, but I understand you can get in trouble in Hong Kong for having the wrong opinion about the facts on the ground. So obviously don’t say anything that’s going to get yourself in trouble. So let me give you a pointed question. So who is behind these protests?

Yang: There are all kinds of theories about who is behind. You see George Soros, you hear CIA, the national and dominant for democracy. You hear Taiwan, you hear about certain tycoon scene in Hong Kong and actually the conspiracy theory I like most is that it’s the mainland tycoons who lost favor under Xi Jinping [crosstalk 00:34:24] this protest in an aim to overthrow the Xi government. All these are theories. I actually don’t know. Really, I do not know. I’m pretty sure there are foreign elements, amount of supporters and among those who provided support in both in material and the organization.

Corey: Why do we think anyone’s behind the protest aside from the protesters, why go to the conspiracy theory in the first place?

Steve: So I think no one doubts that there is a segment of Hong Kong society that is sufficiently unhappy that they’re willing to go out and protest in the streets. So no one’s saying it isn’t to some extent popular movement. Now the degree of exactly how popular it is, depends on exactly what positions you’re talking about. The mainstream in Hong Kong maybe doesn’t support the more violent or aggressive parts of the protest movement. The question is whether when you have the potential for a popular movement, which would destabilize the existing government, do you sometimes also get foreign involvement in which they’re actually trying to foment color revolution in a nation that they view as a competitor?

Corey: Okay. So I would rephrase the question. Instead of asking who is behind it, you might say which external powers may be supporting?

Steve: Yes. Who’s behind it is a leading… I’m trying to-

Corey: It’s provocative.

Steve: Yeah. It’s a provocative way of phrasing the question.

Yang: Corey, let me say the following. So if you look at the protest, is a strict protest itself and the violence coming with the protest movement, you see a lot of material support and these material support cannot be from the protestors.

Corey: What kind of material support? They’re using-

Yang: Oh, they’re lots of material support. I mean all these helmets, all these umbrellas, all of these… basically all the material including food and including cash being paid out to people. In fact, my helper, my Filipino helper was asked to join the procession and she will get $400 or something to join and she’s not alone. Some of them were offered a lot more.

Corey: I’m skeptical a little bit. Yes. I don’t think umbrellas are that expensive and I haven’t seen a huge number of helmets. But anyway, look, I think protests first of all they’re heterogeneous always, movements have people who have varying inclinations towards using violence. But I’d like to see more evidence that someone’s actually paying people to come out because that’s a consistent argument against many protest movements and people are fundamentally… it’s called astroturfing here in the US, you essentially pay people to protest.

Steve: So in the early two thousands I ran a startup which developed encryption technology and one of our investors was the CIA venture fund. And we worked with the national endowment of democracy, the CIA, Radio Free Asia. Those are all US government organizations in order to get information through the Chinese firewall. So for you to tell me that governments don’t do stuff like this, is just crazy. [crosstalk]. Let me finish. Let me finish.

Corey: Personally, I didn’t say that.

Steve: Okay, let me finish. Okay. Maybe I mischaracterize what you said. I’ll take it back. But through those associations, it’s very clear to me that the US is active in these situations and those guys regard it as their job, their spooks to actually give a little nudge to the opposition in countries that they want to destabilize or that they regard as their competitors. And it’s they would just tell you over coffee, this is what they do.

Corey: Sure. Look, it’s a standing argument you’ve heard in every protest movement across the world.

Steve: I’m talking about actual inside knowledge of how it’s done.

Corey: No, no. You said in your case you had a startup that was funded by this. Look for all X. Okay. X, a country with a protest movement. People have said the CIA’s behind X, every country for 50 years.

Steve: I’m not endorsing all conspiracy theories. The question is, does the US sometimes intervene in these covert ways in popular movements in other countries? And so you could look at Ukraine, you could look at what’s happening in Hong Kong. And I would be very surprised. In fact, if I were at Langley and I said, “You guys aren’t involved in this, why are you not involved in this? It’s a big opportunity for you guys.” So to say that they’re not doing it seems very crazy to me.

Corey: Well I didn’t-

Steve: Whether they’re the dominant effect is another question, right? Maybe without their aid, everything would’ve happened exactly the same way or almost exactly the same way, is it a 1% effect or is it a 10% effect?

Corey: One question is where’s the burden of proof? Is the default assumption that a significant proportion say quarter of be a support for a purchase move is coming from external sources? Part of the CIA? It’s unclear to me. Look, the general assumption among people across the world, as I said for a long time is the default assumption is protest movement in country X, not particularly in good relations with the US is funded by the CIA. That’s been a blankets conspiracy theory.

Corey: Now it’s question is, is that a reasonable assumption or do you actually require evidence in a particular case that it’s occurring or you simply assume, as a matter of fact, that it is occurring at a significant amount. Now what’s a significant amount? I agree with you, the US may very well be involved, but honestly don’t know whether you’re going to assume the large percent of the resources are coming from the CIA.

Steve: Right. I think it’s unquestionable that, especially in the case of a place as strategic as Hong Kong and China, vis-a-vis the US that the CIA and US intelligence services wouldn’t be involved. Now, whether they are a 1% effect, maybe they’re very ineffectual, they’re talking to all the wrong protesters. They spent the money on the wrong stuff, maybe they’re totally ineffectual and everything would have proceeded exactly how it proceeded regardless of US activity or maybe they are quite important in helping to organize these guys, buying the… I forgot what color the umbrellas were, but overnight, millions of umbrellas of the same color appeared on the streets. Oh, sure. I’m sure that they just ordered them from eBay or something or a towel [ball 00:41:06] or maybe they actually just helped. It doesn’t cost that much for the Intel services. You just make an order and say, “Hey guys, here have these umbrellas. Right?

Yang: Who knows, right? Who knows.

Steve: Right? So the question I’m saying is, is it a 1% effect or 0.1% effect or is a 10% effect? That’s the question, right?

Corey: I have no idea.

Steve: I’m asking Yang Wang because he has more access to Chinese language media. I’m sure he’s falling this quite carefully. He lives there. He talked to his Filipino nanny about it. So the question is what’s his view? Because he has access to much more information than you and I have about the situation on the ground in Hong Kong.

Corey: Well it’s not clear that he has more access to information what the CIA is funding.

Steve: No. He clearly has more access to general information about what’s happening.

Corey: That’s right. That’s right. But on this particular question, right, the question is, do you have more information about whether the CIA is funding a particular-

Yang: Yeah, no, I don’t have more information on that one. Yeah. But Corey, I can tell you that there is very little doubt that there are external party that found this movement. Whether without this external fund, the movement will keep going. That’s really a different question. In fact, I personally believe most people actually took to the street voluntarily because they really feel strongly about the cause of the movement. It doesn’t mean I agree with the cause of the movement, but I do believe that most of them took to the street upon themselves.

Corey: That’s what my Hong Kong friends here have been telling me. Their view is that they see this slow moving takeover, and they understand that look, people there who haven’t gotten out are going to fight tooth and nail to at least try to prevent it for as long as possible and they themselves aren’t quite happy not to be under the system. Right? So granted, they’re a little like ex-pats. Ex-pats are like converts, they scream the loudest and so they themselves are probably not represented in people, but their view is that they see this as a pretty legitimate response to reductions in civil liberties.

Steve: I don’t think anybody denies that it’s natural for the Hong Kong people to react to this to some extent. And no one doubts that there is a popular basis of some sort for all of this. The question is just what’s the level of external activity here and how inconsequential is it?

Corey: Let’s step back and actually I want to take the role of our audience ombudsperson. Let’s remind people why these protests started. And it was originally a law of extradition. There was a case in which Hong Kong resident was in Taiwan. He killed his girlfriend and then he came back to Hong Kong and he could not be extradited to Taiwan because there was no treaty. And then a law was put in place to allow extradition to Taiwan.

Steve: The extradition treaty was not initiated by the mainland government. It was initiated by the Hong Kong government. And because of this case involving Taiwan, it had nothing to do when it was initiated with extradition to China. But then of course it has some input. Laws have other implications, right? So.

Corey: The question is did the Chinese government see, “Hey, this is an opportunity for us to get in here.” You’re expecting skepticism, why not? They see, they’re smart-

Steve: I think it was an own goal by the Hong Kong government to push this. And I don’t think it was that strategic for the… The mainlanders have been willing to actually literally kidnap people from Hong Kong when they-

Corey: So I think their views is, this is a cleaner way of doing it, right? They see, look, instead of having to kidnap people for which we got all this bad press, let’s just have an extradition treaty and we can bring these booksellers or whoever else we want to get in prison. So maybe I’m an opportunist. Anyway. Yeah. Can you give us your sense of what it was like when it started?

Yang: Yes. So the extradition treaty, was as you pointed out, was essentially triggered by this particular murder case. So in Taiwan and the man fled to Hong Kong and there was no way to extradite him to Taiwan. So there was a push actually to get extradition treaty with Taiwan. And at the same time they didn’t have extradition treaty with Macau, with the mainland China. So they wanted to do all these things in one goal. Okay. And that was to me, a big political miscalculation and that triggered this huge… First, it triggered a big debate about why we should do this with mainland China? But when you think about it, Hong Kong is part of China. It was actually in my view, quite natural to have such a treaty if you’re going to do this at all. But the problem is there was a deep distrust in the society off the mainland government. Okay.

Yang: Now Corey, going back to your point, whether the Chinese government actually pushed the Hong Kong government to do this. Okay. So I do not have any inside informing. I did talk to someone who was actually pretty high rank in the Chinese government and he told me in no uncertain terms that this was completely a Hong Kong government decision. In fact, he even told me the central government was actually pretty upset at the Hong Kong for pushing really hard on this and failed to address the anger in a timely manner. Okay. Now, so that was what I was able to get.

Yang: Now, of course, I don’t think I know the full detail and I don’t think any office have access to the inside info. I can only judge from what I hear and the, my gut feeling, my gut feeling is the central government did not push for it. However, the current chief executive was so confident in what he was able to achieve. During his brief tenure as a chief executive, he managed to push through several controversial legislations or act appropriations for instance for basing the many initiative that were meeting some resistance from the Democrats, but he was able to push them through. And by and large, I actually like what she was doing as many of these had no political agenda. For instance, the high speed train. I mean she helped finally pushing it through. And the increased funding for higher education, doubling the RGC, the Research Grant Council. All these things have really no… or building hostel for students and everything. All these had difficulty passing through the LegCo and under her leadership they were able to push through some of these metrics.

Yang: But she became really, in my view, a bit too cocky and she thought she could push through this despite the opposition. And I think she really underestimate the opposition. So she managed to push strongly for this and it really backfired. In the end, they actually modify the expedition basic of the condition bill so that only violent criminals who will be sentenced to seven years or more in prison can be an extradited. But that was already after the discussion of having the extradition treaty and that already created a lot of anxiety. So even with this revision, people just simply didn’t take it and they took it to the street. It was a huge number of people in the beginning to the street. So that was a total political miscalculation and eventually just one completely out of control.

Steve: I think that the trigger event for all of these protests is clearly what you described, but there’s a longterm problem in Hong Kong that real estate is controlled by a relatively small number of super oligarchs. And the provision of public housing has really been quite slow and underdeveloped. And so what you have is very strong disenchantment of younger people and working class people because they know they’ll never be able to buy an apartment in Hong Kong. And so that whole dynamic really has very little to do with the mainland government. It is somewhat exacerbated by rich mainlanders buying real estate in Hong Kong and driving up the prices. But this idea that it’s basically wealth inequality gone crazy in Hong Kong and that’s driving a lot of the protests, I think not just this particular extradition treaty.

Yang: Steve, actually, this was the point I was trying to make to many of my American friends earlier. I’m beginning to have some second thought about it because throughout this movement, no one ever mentioned about these inequalities to my big surprise, actually it was never on the menu for the grievances there were addressed, trying to address or to demand. Of course original was about extradition then was mainly about the police brutality and the distrust of the central government and to some way the distrust of any mainland Chinese to Hong Kong.

Steve: Yes. But I agree with that. And in terms of official demands of protest organizers, et cetera, et cetera. But I think there’s also, if you look at sociology on the ground when reporters did interview young people and say, “Why are you out there? Isn’t this going to destroy your future if your caught via face recognition as one of the guys who destroyed property during the riot, why are you out here doing this?” Sometimes the kids would say, “I have no future in Hong Kong. I will never be able to buy an apartment.” Right? And so I think that at a base level played a role in the people. So you might ask like the violent extremists are always a tiny fraction of any movement. And the question is, well, what made them despair to the degree that they were willing to take these violent actions?

Steve: It’s probably people often with less to lose and they just don’t feel they have a future in Hong Kong because Hong Kong is for rich people basically. And so I think that the dynamic plays there. I am a little surprised that the movement didn’t ask for things like more public housing, better public housing, public housing which is more central to the main part of Hong Kong. I’m a little surprised that that hasn’t emerged yet, but that part I don’t really understand.

Corey: So let’s review the five demands before we go on too much. Let’s just remind our listeners of the demands of the protestors. They want the extradition bill withdrawn fully. They want a commission to investigate police brutality.

Yang: Independent commission.

Corey: Independent commission, yeah. They want a retraction of the classification of the protesters as rioters. So it’s very narrow. They want amnesty for arrested protesters and they want dual universal suffrage, meaning both legislative counsel and chief executive should be popularly elected.

Steve: It’s that last one that has longterm implications. The other ones are all very narrow, right? But the last one might help fix this issue of inequality in Hong Kong. Right?

Corey: I mean, it’s not clear how good democracy is at stopping inequality as you see in the United States. But I see your point. It’s a potential weight through the door. It’s interesting. Let’s give a little context. Yang, do you have at your fingertips an estimate for how expensive Hong Kong real estate is? Because I think it would shock many people to know how much a basic one bedroom apartment would cost.

Yang: So let’s say if usually is measured by square feet or square meter. Okay. So in mainland is square meter, so let’s just use square meter.

Steve: So it’s 10 square feet.

Yang: 10.4 or something. Okay. Yeah. 10 square feet. Yeah. So in Beijing, the list price for properties in Beijing is about maybe on average at 80,000 Yuan per square meter. So you are talking about over maybe 12,000 US dollar per square meter. Okay. That’s very expensive in Beijing. In fact, the more expensive areas in Beijing could go for more than a 100,000 Yuan maybe per square meter. And Hong Kong, just think about Hong Kong is more expensive than the most expensive places in China.

Steve: The way I often think about this and Corey, you should chime in because I know that you are an actual New York city landlord. Basically the metric, if you want to do it in square feet for the most expensive places, it’s of order, rough justice, $1000 a square foot. Right?

Yang: In the Us, in New York?

Steve: Yeah, like New York city, Manhattan. I mean if you want an upper East side apartment, I’m thinking it’s an excess, maybe a thousand dollars a square foot. Yeah, that’s about right. And similar in Hong Kong. And that would apply-

Yang: Hong Kong is more expensive.

Steve: Even more, but not factor too. I mean rough justice, it could be 50% more expensive, but not two times, right? Now it’s not 2000.

Yang: I would say probably more than 50%.

Steve: Okay. But it’s not $20,000 per square meter yet.

Yang: 20,000?, Actually in the Hong Kong Island, I would say that’s more or less the price.

Steve: okay. That’s the Island. But so if you’re a working class person and you want to buy an apartment and you’re willing to live a couple of Metro stops away from Hong Kong Island, thousand dollars a square foot or 10,000 per square meter is maybe what-

Yang: Yeah. I will say, all the more than $10,000.

Steve: Yeah. So you’re talking about a guy who maybe works at a restaurant or does some blue collar stuff being asked to pay what someone pays on the upper East side for an apartment. So how can they have any future? How can they have family formation? How can they do anything? Right? So that’s the problem. And a lot of them want to immigrate to Taiwan for example, because it’s much more reasonable, the cost of living. So that’s, I think the fundamental problem and that’s there because the oligarchs they want to preserve these very high property prices because it’s in their interest because they own most of it.

Yang: Yeah. But also it’s more than the oligarchs. Actually even the middle class, many of the middle-class in Hong Kong actually do own properties they inherited or they bought it a while ago. For example, many people bought houses during the SARS crisis and at the time the price was really, really low. Okay. So everybody was afraid the market would just completely collapse. So the housing was falling to the rock bottom and the many just were brave enough to buy a few flats and now they own the house. And these are the people who don’t want to see the price drop. They want to see this price be my pain. On the other hand, you have the young people who really cannot afford it, not just young people, several even middle class people, even people who have a really good job. I’m talking about people who work in the financial industry in Hong Kong and they cannot really afford a very nice apartment at all so [crosstalk].

Steve: One of the things Peter Thiel said famously a few years ago about California, about the Bay area, was that if you’re a venture investor, most of your dollars, if you track where they’re going, they’re going into the salaries of startup employees and then to pay for rent in the Bay area. And similarly, why would you want to do a tech startup in Hong Kong if you’re going to have to compensate your engineers so much so that they can just live in Hong Kong. Why not just go to Shenzhen or some other city and put the start up there?

Yang: That’s a really good point. In fact, Shenzhen is also very expensive. Okay, is catching up to Hong Kong, I mean, not quite, but it’s catching up. So, but the Shenzhen government is far more, I would say farsighted. So they actually build houses, apartments just for rental to attract [inaudible ] people.

Steve: Yeah. It’s that last step that Hong Kong has not, right? They’ve not executed on low cost housing for working class people or maybe even engineers that you want to attract to the city or something.

Corey: But Hong Kong is also one of the dentists cities on the planet. How much space is there?

Steve: This is where you’re wrong. So if you go up to the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, there’s plenty of open space. And so everybody who first goes there says, “Why aren’t they building here?” And then it turns out, well the property developers bought all this land and they are not developing it. Right? Is that fair?

Corey: So as a fraction, the current lead developed real estate in Hong Kong. How much is there in this interstitial space that’s not [crosstalk]?

Steve: There’s plenty. A lot of the low cost stuff is built far from the city core. So you have to ride the Metro multiple stops to go out there. And that’s where the low cost housing is. And it’s isolated away from the core. But as you ride the train out there, you see a lot of open space you’re like, “Oh, I could put another 20 story apartment complex here, I can put one here. So just square foot acreage is not really the limiting factor as far as I understand.

Yang: Yeah. Actually, also Hong Kong has many parks that were preserved so you could not develop. In fact, some people get their capital if you just open up the peripheral of these parks. You could pretty much solve the housing problem in Hong Kong.

Steve: Yeah. But nobody wants to do it. Maybe Xi Jinping will force them to do it.

Yang: I mean in all honesty, I think Steve, you are right. In fact, China, if you want to address the housing problem or the economic problem, China, the central government, ironic, could be the only solution to the current Hong Kong prizes.

Steve: The enlightened Leviathan, so to speak.

Yang: Yeah. Let me just go back to one point Corey was making about the freedom being fringe and everything. Okay. So, I mean that was the sentiment I got when I talked to some of my Hong Kong friends who were supportive of the protest movement. And I always ask them, “Which freedom you feel it had been taken away.” And they could not give a definitive answer because in fact, in my view, not a single item had been taken away.

Corey: Well hold it-

Yang: Until the last two years or so.

Corey: Hold it, but take the extradition treaty itself. If you take a look at the requirements and fair trials in China, there are very few protections if you’re extradited to China. There’s no presumption of innocence. The judge is involved in investigations, they’re often had their opinion decided before the case comes, there’s no exclusionary rule. So you can say those are rights being taken away. If you’re being extradited to a country where you have no rights effectively, that’s implicit elimination of a right you have in Hong Kong right now. So maybe they couldn’t state it. But that’s as far as I could see a legitimate grievance.

Steve: I think you’re right Corey, but for example, people tend to ignore that in Japan, also once you’re charged with a crime, your rights are not nearly as great as what you would have in the United States. And their conviction rate is like 99%. So people don’t think of Japan as a dystopia even though also your rights to a fair trial are maybe a little different in Japan than they would be in the United States.

Corey: But you see why someone might be anxious about the thought of being extradited to place where you absolutely can’t defend yourself.

Steve: Sure. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Yang: Yeah. So my point is, actually, when you look at the freedom, the so called freedom index, okay. I mean, take whatever face value you may give to the freedom index. Hong Kong has been ranked number one in the world until two years ago, which I think the rank was number three and this year, again, despite all of the protests is still on number three. Okay. Now in my view, the problem of Hong Kong is it has too much freedom, especially too much economic freedom and the inequality was actually a result of too much freedom, not the lack of freedom. I think that Corey, you may agree with this. In fact, I learned this from you. I mean you were [inaudible 01:03:26] critical.

Corey: Yeah. No, I think you’re right. When you think of libertarian, tend to think of someone’s right wing, right? They divide freedoms implicitly into two areas, right? Economic freedom and then civil liberties basically. As far as I know, you’re thinking that there’s just too much economic freedom. It’s too economically libertarian. But you have to realize that these two freedoms can vary inversely, fundamentally. Steve was probably getting the idea that protesters probably should be concerned of economic freedom and they might’ve brought that up but they in fact haven’t [crosstalk].

Steve: Maybe economic justice.

Corey: Yeah. However you want to put it. But no, I agree with you.

Steve: Can we switch to coronavirus because we’re running out of time.

Corey: Sure.

Yang: Yeah, sure.

Steve: So you want to give us your quick take on where it is now and where you project it to be in the next couple months.

Yang: Oh, first of all, let me just say it has a huge impact on the society now. Okay. So now we’re switching all the courses online where for the whole semester and the Chinese university are doing the same thing as I previously said.

Corey: Oh let’s just be clear. People are not coming to class anymore. They’re taking everything and-

Yang: No. And they don’t have to, in fact, if the government… so we’re going to follow the government schedule. If the government deemed the schools to be safe for primary school students or is the high school students, we will allow the student to come in. Right now, even if you want to teach students face to face, you’re not allowed to. Okay. So in some places in mainland China, you are not even allowed to have a meeting if the meeting had more than five people for instance. Okay. So this is the impact we’re talking about. All the factory have essentially stopped and most of the economic activity has been stopped. So I personally feel we have a little bit of a overreaction in some way. Okay. So I’m not saying we should not have this really strong measures to prevent the further spread of coronavirus, but some of these measures we have implemented are really fairly strict and I’m just afraid of the impact on the economy, especially in Hong Kong today.

Steve: I think there’s no doubt there’ll be some dip in economic activity, significant dip over the next few months. I’m curious whether you think this virus will be sufficiently contained in China where they’re taking very draconian measures. Maybe that’s plausible to me, but once it gets out a little bit to some countries that maybe aren’t willing to take such draconian measures or not able to, maybe big populous countries like Indonesia for example. Is there really any way to contain this or is it basically going to sweep the planet? That’s my question.

Yang: I don’t think it’s going to sweep the planet. Also, right now the virus even though it’s gathered all these headlines, doesn’t seem to be particularly dangerous. I mean it’s worse than the flu, obviously.

Corey: But less bad than SARS. Right? I think of the lethality, it’s like 1% lethal and I think SARS was far higher. A few people have died so far. [crosstalk].

Steve: So if I could throw out parameters and see if you guys agree so are not, which is the expected number of people infected by one infected individual is on the order of two to three. And of course that depends on what’s being done to isolate people.

Yang: If you don’t have the controlling mehcanism in place.

Steve: Yes, and then secondly, the lethality rate might be around 1% and highly concentrated in older people.

Corey: Exactly.

Steve: And maybe highly concentrated in East Asians too.

Corey: I think there’s a sensitivity.

Steve: Yeah. There’s some claims, there’s this thing called the ACE receptor that the genetics of that are a little bit different in East Asians. And so it’s possible that for this disease, East Asians are more vulnerable to serious consequences. It’s still early days because I think almost everybody has been affected so far is actually East Asian. But so we won’t know the answer to that for a while. But it’s possible.

Corey: I just remember thinking about 20 years ago when SARS hit there was a… I don’t even know exactly the lethality rate, but it was significantly higher. And I remember a story about one guy who survived, people trying to figure, “How did this guy possibly survive this?” And apparently he just phenomenal, he’s phenomenally healthy. This guy ran 14 miles a day. He was some real outlier. And the thought was, “This guy’s extraordinary, health got him through this.” That’s something that you don’t hear about this because it just seems like it’s much less lethal. People aren’t shocked when people come through this condition.

Steve: Right. So coming back to the spread of it, Yang Wang you don’t think it’s going to break out and sweep the planet?

Yang: No, I don’t. Actually, I can look at the data. In fact, I keep a table of new cases being diagnosed. For the new cases outside of Hubei province, actually, the data looks quite encouraging. The anode is less than one overall. Okay. You can see a slow decreasing trend, at most it’s linear. And so it’s not exponential. That means the measures of quarantining or they were discouraging people from going out is working. No question about it. Okay. In Hubei it’s fluctuating, the overall trend still is either linear or slightly upward. Okay. Meaning a very slow growth. So that means the anode on average is probably either one or 1.05 or something like that.

Steve: So my understanding is right now that up till now the Chinese government has not allowed external WHO scientists in to participate in containment of this epidemic. And so first of all, there’s a question of how much you trust the Chinese government self reported data, but secondly, in the other countries outside of China where I think WHO does have some access to what’s going on, looking at those numbers, those are also encouraging, it seems to me. It seems like I don’t see uncontrolled outbreak in any of the other countries where it’s gotten to, but do you trust the government numbers?

Yang: I trust the number. I mean, I’ve been telling people that it’s my view, the figures outside of Hubei are trustworthy. I mean, I don’t see any motive for the government to conceal these numbers. In fact, they have every incentive now to report the situation, either maybe even exaggerate the situation a little bit, so I don’t really have much issue with the data coming out of Hubei. Okay. On the other hand, I also, for the Hubei [inaudible 01:10:58], I think code the number of death and the number of people who are being released from hospital should be fairly reliable. Okay. However, I think, I suspect there is a significant under counting of people who who actually are infected by the virus simply because they just don’t have enough personnel, enough hospitals. I mean the hospital are completely overwhelmed.

Steve: Right. Well, I mean at any given moment there are plenty of people who just happen to have flu like symptoms and then unless you actually run the test, to see whether it’s actually coronavirus, the new coronavirus, you won’t know.

Corey: This cruise ship is a natural laboratory for actually estimating the accuracy of your initial diagnoses because it seems like the numbers are creeping up and they pretty clearly underestimated the number of people infected. It seems like there probably aren’t any more infections happening because people are confined to their cabin. But they did not know who was infected initially on the basis of symptoms and Tessa made it pretty clear.

Steve: But I think the latest news from Hong Kong involves some plumbing. They actually now think through the plumbing system.

Corey: It’s a hypothesis. There’s one woman, I think on the 10th floor who had it and the guy on the third floor.

Yang: Yeah. So they quarantined those who live on the same… in this whole vertical units. Yeah. Same vertical units affected by the pipe. Yeah. But I’m actually confident, I mean, the coronavirus so would not do very well under hot climate, right. When the temperature rises, it will go away. So at worst, it will stop in June, in my opinion, but I think it will be earlier actually.

Steve: Yeah. But I think the worst case scenario some people have, is that, yeah, it’ll burn itself out by June. But if it does get out and spread around the world it’ll have another slightly more lethal version of the flu that’s out and about in… Because we already have lots of versions of flu and pneumonia that are out and about. I think that’s the worst scenario.

Yang: Yeah. The fatality rate right now is heck at about 2%. But I think in the end it will be much lower than that.

Steve: Yeah. Because of the people that are undiagnosed with it.

Yang: All the reported confirmed cases. Yeah.

Corey: Again, my question is whether we’re exaggerating this because it’s a new virus and it’s caught our attention when in fact we have the flu percolating in the background killing substantial numbers of people. But it’s something we’re familiar with and as a result, less scared about,

Steve: right. I mean, flu is endemic. It’s basically spread everywhere, but it is on a per capita basis, much less lethal, right?

Corey: Yes, that’s right. But much more widespread.

Steve: Yes. But this one could end up there if we’re not careful. This one could end up widespread and 10 times or a hundred times more lethal than ordinary flu.

Yang: Right. Exactly. I think a lot of a fear can be attributed also to unknowns because we do not know about as far as at all. I mean maybe the second time around it will be treated just like a worst case of flu.

Steve: Yes, correct.

Corey: And we’ll know a lot more about the epidemiology of who’s actually at risk because I think as you point out, people at risk tend to be older. Probably actually not far from our age range. And it could be that it’s really just people who are in that age range at risk and that people in your university who are young and healthy aren’t really that much in danger and if they get a shot, they’ll be fine.

Steve: So Yang Wang, can you tell me what your travel calendar looked like before coronavirus for the next few months and what it looks like now? Have you canceled all your travel?

Yang: Yeah, I actually, I had a lot of trips planned for mainland China, for Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. And I had even thought about… Actually did have a trip scheduled to go to the US, in fact I was planning to go to Michigan state because I already talked to Andrew Christlieb and I’m still doing it.

Steve: We’ll see you in June when the weather’s warm.

Yang: Exactly, exactly. [crosstalk].

Steve: To me it seems like the use of video conferencing is still mainly constrained by social convention, not by the effectiveness of it. So just to give you-

Corey: Hold it, actually this is a direct contradict of your own view, which is that, we should big primate. We have a saying in our office, which is big primates interact best face to face. And we’ve basically a policy that whenever we can, we don’t interact by video conference because it is less effective. You and I want to be in the same studio if possible when we do these recordings because it just works out better.

Steve: Yes, but in this case the cost is relatively low for us to get into the same room together. Whereas if you’re flying all the way to Silicon Valley to take a meeting, then maybe video conferencing is better. Another social aspect of it that I might mention is that I have been trying to get my friends, my buddies from high school and college. We regularly text or talk to each other on the phone, but I said, “We should just set aside a time every month where we’re just all on video conference for a couple hours and we can just hang out and chat.” And as far as I can tell, it’s mainly just social convention that people just aren’t into that.

Steve: But it seems like coronavirus could be a thing that just pushes people past a certain tipping point where they for a few months are going to have to invent video conferencing solutions to a lot of things. And then they’ll realize like it’s 90% is good or 80% is good. And then for a lot of things they’ll start using it more. Does that seem plausible?

Yang: This is already happening. I mean here, I just had a Zoom meeting with my friends. I mean, we don’t have a conference, we don’t have any math to discuss is simply just that these friends are trapped in Wuhan, well several are trapped in Wuhan and they have nothing to do. So I say, “Okay, let’s have a Zoom conference just to chat and actually the experience was good.

Steve: You can have a seminar on P Manifolds or something.

Yang: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Yeah. So about the coronavirus, I will also say one thing about the government’s all the responses. Actually the Chinese government of course has been criticized in the social media all over China. Actually people think they’re not doing enough, blah, blah, blah. And some people feel they’re deliberately trying to climb down on information and things like that. I don’t know about information side, but I’ve been telling people that if you want to see the virus get controlled, the most critical thing to do is to isolate people, to quarantine people who are known to be infected. That’s the only way to really effectively stop the spreading of the virus.

Yang: And on that front, the government has done a few things, which I say I applaud. They built several hospitals in record time seven days. I mean, we will not be able to think about the same Hong Kong, how can you build a hospital in seven days? But that’s what they have done. They’ve built below two hospitals in that speed, and they turn several hotels into quarantine folders and they utilize sports halls, stadiums for quarantine of infected patients. All these things I think have contributed to the slowing down of the spread of the virus.

Yang: But I also got the feeling that in Wuhan and Hubei province in general, that’s not even enough. I think it’s just too many people getting infected. And even with this effort, we still see an upward kick in number of newly infected. So it’s not going to be easy. I mean we’re not going to see the end as some models predicted in the beginning of March. But I certainly don’t believe some of the model, one of the virologists in Hong Kong claimed that… that was two weeks ago. Hong Kong will have 140 million people infected in two weeks, and of course we are already two weeks. After his prediction, right now we have 42 cases. Okay. So I don’t believe in these doomsday predictions, but I also don’t believe it’s going to go away by the end of the month.

Steve: So we’re out of time, but it’s been great chatting with you and catching up with you.

Yang: Yeah, it’s great.

Steve: Okay, well thanks a lot.

Yang: Okay.

Corey: Been a pleasure.

Creators and Guests

Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University.
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