Thursday, March 21, 2024

It’s Thursday, March 21st, 2024. 

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. 

Part I

So Much for the ‘Special Autonomous Region’ — Hong Kong as a Test Case for What Totalitarianism Does

Sometimes we look at a clash of worldviews and it’s about an issue or a clash of one worldview encountering another, and it’s often in a geographic location such as a campus, in a city, as we say. It’s more likely you’re going to find progressivism on the coasts, so those C’s really matter: campus, coast, capital, city, that all adds up, but sometimes it’s an entire country and sometimes it’s an ideology that is located in one particular place where all of a sudden we see basic reality revealed, we see why ideas matter, we understand why worldviews have consequences. One of those places right now we can look is Hong Kong, because Hong Kong right now is in a very real sense, ground zero for what happens when a Communist Party in China gains control of this territory and then basically begins to reshape it in its totalitarian image.

Let’s just review history for a moment. If you go back during the heyday of the British Empire, Britain had gained rights for what is known as Hong Kong and that particular place, so strategic there off the coast of China, Hong Kong became a special territory under British rule, and furthermore, it flourished under that British rule. As happened so often in a situation like that in the British Empire, there were enormous economic incentives to create trade routes and also to establish offices, businesses. Hong Kong benefited from more than that though, it benefited from the stability of British rule, and that meant that Hong Kong, even in the period after World War II, where of course all kinds of strategic issues came down to the location of Hong Kong, in the period after the war, well, you saw Hong Kong take advantage of a vast explosion in wealth, profusion of business, transformation of the economies there in Asia.

And because of the linkages between London and Hong Kong and eventually the United States and Hong Kong, as well as the United States and Britain, you had a vast infusion of economic energy, of investment. You had a vast expansion of business in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s skyline was absolutely transformed into one of the most remarkable in the world, and in a place where there’s no obvious reason why you would have hundreds of skyscrapers and office towers. The fact is that Hong Kong stood out as a part of what was called “the Asian Miracle.” Remember, we are talking about a very small area in terms of landmass, about 426 square miles, so we’re talking about something very small, as you think about the world, map, but as you think about the world economy, you have a very different picture. In that 426 square miles, resides over 7 million people, almost 7.5 million people, and it is a vast economic powerhouse, or at least it was.

And the reason we have to use the past tense here is because there has been an immediate exodus of both people and capital from Hong Kong over the course of the last several years, and in particular, after 1997 when Britain’s lease on the island and other territories expired, and the Communist Party in China repossessed the island, and it created what was known as a “special administrative region” for Hong Kong. The big issue is, of course, Hong Kong represented capitalism, and I mean big-time capitalism, big capitalist investment, big capitalist companies, big-time capitalism producing that skyline, and now you have a communist regime that is going to take control. So the big issue was, well, will the Communist Party allow Hong Kong to continue as Hong Kong? You do have China’s designation of Hong Kong as a special administrative region, but as is so often the case, special in this case really doesn’t mean special at all.

What you have in recent days is China cracking down, even imposing a code that had been rejected a generation ago, which basically means that anyone who says anything the Chinese party doesn’t like can face criminal consequences. Now, as I said, there has been an exodus, an exodus of people, an exodus of companies, and an exodus of capital, but one of the big lessons, in fact, the biggest lesson we need to learn here, is that as we know that worldviews have consequences, the worldview of a totalitarian state is going to be, wait for it, totalitarian.

So, even as you might have the designation of a special administrative region, the fact is that a totalitarian government is going to act in totalitarian ways, but here’s something else. It’s really interesting when you look at the Chinese Communist Party, the PRC as it is known, now increasing its grip on Hong Kong, even at the expense of Hong Kong’s economy, vast investment leaving, people leaving, corporations leaving, you would think that the Chinese Communist Party, which right now is looking at a shrinking economy in China, that they would think maybe it is to their advantage to allow a special administrative district.

But if you allow yourself to think that way, you just need to correct that thought and remind yourself that totalitarian means totalitarian. So here’s the thing, the Chinese Communist Party actually believes in communism. There’s a reality check for you. It turns out that ideologically the Chinese Communist Party believes in communism far more in a very classic sense than the Bolsheviks did in Russia. That was where communism was actually transformed into what you call Leninism. And you had the same thing happen in China with communism that was basically recast as Maoism. But when it comes to the totalitarian and Marxist impulses of the totalitarian regime in China, you can see that even now to their own disadvantage, massive, almost incalculable economic disadvantage given the long-term picture there in Hong Kong, it shows you they really are totally, as in totalitarian, committed to their worldview. Now, if you want to know what the business community thinks about just about anything of consequence, the place to look in the United States is the Wall Street Journal.

If you are in London, where you look is the Financial Times. Major daily newspapers will have financial sections, but those two newspapers, one on either side of the Atlantic, they’re basically the financial papers of record. Front page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had the article with a headline, “Hong Kong’s New Law Worries Executives.” Now, once you look at the article, you recognize that as a vast understatement, sometimes newspapers overstate headlines, they exaggerate headlines in order to create interest. In this case, the Wall Street Journal has done exactly the opposite, which by the way, is somewhat characteristic of the Wall Street Journal. An article by reporters there in Hong Kong tells us, “Hong Kong lawmakers passed a bill that includes heavy punishments for foreign interference, endangering national security, and criminalizes the possession or disclosure of state secrets, measures that some foreign executives say could make the city less attractive to international business.”

Now, wait just a minute. If the headline was an understatement, the opening paragraph here, the lead of this story is incredibly understated. Sometimes you really see this by comparing, say, one newspaper against another, one news source against another. So, let’s compare the Wall Street Journal. Remember, I just read that opening lead paragraph saying basically there could be some problems here, compare that to the New York Times, also a story from local reporters there in Hong Kong, “Hong Kong on Tuesday passed national security laws at the behest of Beijing, thwarting decades of public resistance, in a move the critics say will strike a lasting blow to the partial autonomy the city had been promised by China.” The next sentence, “The new legislation which was passed with extraordinary speed grants the authorities even more powers to crack down on opposition to Beijing and the Hong Kong government, establishing penalties including life imprisonment for political crimes like treason and insurrection, which are vaguely defined.”

Now in this case, the lead in the New York Times is actually far more revealing and frankly, a better representation of the scale of what’s going on in Hong Kong, than that lead paragraph in the Wall Street Journal. So in this case, I think it’s fair to say that the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal tend to be more important than the opinion pages in the New York Times, but the news coverage in this case from the New York Times, well, it’s clearer than the news coverage from the Wall Street Journal, but that also shows something else. The business class is a bit reluctant to declare an emergency. The business class, given business interests, and the long-term perspective, especially a big business and of investors, they are very reluctant to make statements that they don’t want to live with for a very long time. The New York Times, representing a different kind of readership, it gets to the political really, really fast.

Readers of the Wall Street Journal, their first interest may be financial. Readers of the New York Times, far more likely, even as they may be involved in finance, what they’re looking for from the New York Times is politics. In an historical context, what’s really interesting about the development in Hong Kong is that it represents the tightening grip of the Communist Party in China and the Beijing regime basically breaking all the rules and deciding that they are going to, well, eventually crash the economy, because they want the political power, they want the control over Hong Kong. What was supposed to be a special administrative region isn’t going to be special at all. As the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times both recognized, you did have hopes on the part of at least some that China would say it is to our advantage to let Hong Kong be Hong Kong. This, by the way, is a remarkable warning to Taiwan, because the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party, it can’t be satisfied until totalitarian means absolute control of the totality and total control.

In retrospect, it’s now clear that Western nations and the business interest major corporations, they misread the situation in Hong Kong only in terms of the timetable. Eventually, there was no way that the Chinese Communist Party was going to allow any kind of autonomy, even semi-autonomy on the part of Hong Kong. But as you think about the measure of time and the passage of time, back in 2003, what is basically the same set of legal modifications was turned down. The Chinese Communist Party and its allies in Hong Kong backed down because of public opposition. This time there was virtually no public opposition, and the legislation passed so quickly that many people didn’t even know it had been proposed. The next thing you know it’s been passed and in this very strong and repressive form. Another thing we need to note is that when a totalitarian government makes up laws, it not only violates any sense of due process or political responsibility or accountability, it also writes laws that make the preservation of the regime even obviously, the goal of all the laws.

In this case, there are Draconian laws that could be applied against just by anyone who could be charged in acting in a way that would be by the view of authorities injurious to China’s cause in Hong Kong, and furthermore, outside interference, cooperating with outside interfering powers, and all this, you could recognize this is basically a way that a totalitarian government says, “We can arrest you anytime for any reason, no reason, and keep you basically indefinitely in jail for the rest of your life.” Now, I mentioned that the lead in the news story in the Wall Street Journal was not all that clear in making a point, but as is characteristic of the Wall Street Journal, the editorial page delivered. The editors of the paper said this yesterday, “More than two decades after it first tried, the Hong Kong government on Tuesday finally passed the Draconian national security law it wanted. The law makes the territory a far more dangerous place for foreign businesses, lawyers, journalists, and especially local citizens by eliminating freedoms that distinguished it from China.”

Now, what you see in those words is moral clarity. The editorial board, well, it’s absolutely right in making that declarative statement, but I want to point to another statement for its moral clarity before leaving this story. An accompanying story published in the New York Times, the reporter in this case is Keith Bradsher, comes with a headline, “Crackdown Could Damage City Standing as a Financial Hub.” Now, again, that’s an understatement, but understandably in this context, but here’s the sentence I want to draw our attention to, “Banks and consulting firms have already begun moving staff to Singapore for politically sensitive activities like assessing the performance of the Mainland Chinese economy.” Wow, just one sentence there tells you about the clash of worldviews.

Here you have the financial analyst sector and banks and consulting firms moving their personnel, that’s what’s so important here, getting them out of the way where they can be arrested in Hong Kong and what would be their subversive activity? Well, performing an analysis of the Chinese mainland economy, because the Communist Party in China doesn’t want and will not abide where it has legal reach any honest assessment and analysis of its economic performance. No, a totalitarian regime wants total control, and it also means control over what the regime will call the truth, even facts, even statistics. So sadly enough, in this clash of worldviews, it looks like the liberties of Hong Kong are basically over and predictably so much for the idea of a special administrative region. Frankly, in worldview analysis, that’s a slippery term anyway, as when someone turns to you and says, “Well, isn’t that special?”

Part II

Too Much Virtue Signaling from an Ice Cream Brand? Corporate Owner of Ben and Jerry’s Separates Itself Due to Pro-Palestine Controversy

But next, while we are talking about very revealing developments, sometimes big stories come with very strange headlines, and sometimes something that appears to be a very small story has actually a very big lesson.

And that’s the case with a headline on the front page also of yesterday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, so here it is, the headline, “Unilever is Set to Say Bye-Bye Ben & Jerry.” Front page of the Wall Street Journal, you have here a headline telling us that Unilever, the vast international conglomerate, has decided that it is going to sell the ice cream brand, Ben & Jerry’s. So, what’s going on here and why does it come with worldview significance? Well, it is because Ben & Jerry’s is not just another brand. That particular brand of ice cream, which is dated back to 1978 when it began in Burlington, Vermont, it has been associated with Vermont, the very same kind of association as Democratic socialist US Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, it has been associated with the Left and increasingly with the radical Left. And so when you buy Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, it’s just a reminder of the fact that there are very few products that are genuinely worldview neutral.

Now, that doesn’t mean that it really matters all that much, which brand of paper towels you buy. It might, but it doesn’t necessarily. You’d have to track things back in order to find out what some vast conglomerate is really contributing to, what its policies are. Is it DEI? Is it ESG? Well, you can just go down the list, but when it comes to niche brands like Ben & Jerry, which is after all a big, big company when it comes to finances, you’re talking about a company that built its reputation by positioning itself, in this case on the cultural and moral and political Left. It began that way in the 1970s basically with people who would be otherwise described perhaps as remnants of the hippie culture, and it has continued with that brand, even as a part of this big international conglomerate known as Unilever. Unilever has decided that it is going to sell the brand.

It is going to lay off 7,500 employees. It is going to recenter its business, and it is going to at least in part get out of the grocery business or the food business, but it’s really going to start with selling Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. So, you think maybe there’s a story there? Oh yeah, there’s a story there. The story is Ben & Jerry’s siding with the Palestinian cause basically in their international criticism of Israel and political actions that the company has taken, even in the occupied territories there in Israel and on the West Bank, and so Unilever has been paying a political price for owning Ben & Jerry’s. And you know what? Ben & Jerry’s is such a liberal brand, and the American Left is increasingly dominated by an extremely unfortunate infatuation with the Palestinian cause, which is rooted by the way in a Marxist analysis of oppression and oppressor.

And as you’re looking at this, you recognize there’s more to ice cream than ice cream. And in this case, Unilever is not really making just a business decision that, “We’ve been in this business for a long time, we don’t need to stay in this business.” There is the admission that it is costing the larger company to be associated with the Ben & Jerry’s brand. Now, as you look at the company formed back, as I said, 1978, Ben Cohen, Jerry Greenfield, you’re talking about men on the Left who created a company on the Left, but it has been selling itself across America for its eccentric ice cream flavors and what was presented as a counter-cultural product. It could be fun to eat Ben & Jerry’s, and yes, you’re making some kind of political statement, but given the scale of what’s going on morally in the fight between Israel and Hamas, an awful lot of people might be recognizing that’s a political statement they really do not want to make.

And when it comes to an international conglomerate like Unilever, it does tell you something that owning Ben & Jerry’s has just become too much of a problem, too much of a hassle, eventually perhaps, too much of a threat to the bottom line and the stock value. There’s one other dimension to this story that’s also of interest. Inflation as a problem here in the American economy is disproportionately affected, at least by impression especially, as families go to the supermarket and as they buy certain kinds of food. And when it comes to ice cream, this has been sometimes a particular issue. Why? Well, the back page of the Wall Street Journal actually gets to that point by underlining the fact that ice cream is an extremely expensive product, not so much to make, that’s not insignificant, but to transport and to keep frozen until the point of sale. You don’t have to worry about that with a bag of dried macaroni.

You don’t have to worry about that with a bag of flour. You don’t have to worry about it in the same way with a package in their produce department of radishes. They’re perishable, but they’re not perishable like ice cream. So, this is another reminder that we are in an age of economic miracles in such a sense that we take for granted the fact that we can walk into just about any store, grocery store, large convenience store, and find ice cream that was frozen somewhere in the world in an ice cream plant, and is still frozen when we take it in our own hands out of the case. There are firms that, by the way, will even send ice cream on an individual purchase or an individual order virtually all across the United States. We do live in a time of absolutely amazing economic, logistical, and commercial developments.

We take them now for granted, we shouldn’t. We remind ourselves that worldview is embedded in every decision we make in the economy, sometimes too are frankly remarkable achievements that we take so much for granted we don’t think about them. But one final thought about Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, they worked hard to have that liberal reputation. They deserve that liberal reputation. They deserve the consumer response of people who don’t like that liberal reputation, but it’s going to be very difficult. Maybe Unilever just recognizes this to change it, so sell it.

Part III

Yes, Your Phone is Tracking You: Major Concerns Behind Big Tech and the Use and Sale of Your Data

Finally, while we are thinking about, well say totalitarian threat, liberal ice cream, it seems like the day to mention that the data collectors are hard at work using your cell phone even when you don’t know it. I first became aware of this when I was in a department store in Berlin, and as I was looking at a certain display of men’s clothing, a coupon showed up on the screen of my phone.

I hadn’t sought it, hadn’t Googled it, hadn’t taken a picture of it, nothing like that, but somehow I now know it was an embedded chip. That display of men’s clothing was communicating with my phone, and I’ll admit, there I was in Berlin, it did feel a little totalitarian. But we now know that is using collected cell phone data or data from cell phone companies in order to make decisions, for example, on business locations, because that cell phone data as it turns out, even if it’s not traceable to you personally, even if it is not traceable to your phone, is very revealing. People are using our data all the time. They’re collecting our data all the time, and sometimes it’s made it convenient for us. It’s convenient that our phone does anticipate some of our own moves. We can do some things faster because the phone’s kind of trained in that way.

You can put in part of a name from your contact file and the phone will fill in the rest. There are some conveniences. It’s also something that can be a safety factor. Our phones know where we are, and so if you have someone who’s in trouble, if you have someone who’s in need, your phone can actually cry out for help, and now you add that to a smartwatch and all the rest and the kind of health monitoring that can happen, your phone can actually call 911 when you don’t even know, you’re not even conscious to call 911, but if your phone can call 911 and that data is available, then that same capacity can be used by someone else for a very different purpose. And of course, our first thought may be that it would be a deeply nefarious purpose, someone meaning to do us harm, who could track us with our phone, locate us with our phone against our will.

But it turns out that maybe the greatest threat is not just a nefarious actor, it’s the fact that our information is actually revealing a great deal about us, what we like when it comes to flavor, well, let’s just say it again today, of ice cream, when it comes to what restaurants we prefer, when it comes to what church we attend, does our phone show up in this church parking lot Sunday after Sunday? Maybe that would be of interest to someone someday. I think we can anticipate that just might be a problem. By the way, one last thought on all of this data, much of it is not aggregated by cell phone companies, but rather by third party companies, which are now a growing part of the economy that will buy the data from one source, analyze it for its own purposes, and sell that data to another source.

And as so often the case, and Christians understand this when it comes to technology, at one moment, your may be working for you, at another point, your phone may be working against you, because somebody wants to buy that data and they’re not buying it because they have just a passing interest. They buy the data because they have an intention to use it. We’ve all been warned. 

I’m happy to tell you that Southern Seminary’s next preview day is coming up and it’s coming up fast. It’s coming on Friday, April the 12th.

In our secular age, we see an increasing need for those who are called to ministry, and we see the need for them to be trained with the highest level of biblical and theological education for a lifetime of faithful service and faithful conviction. That’s why Southern Seminary is committed to providing rigorous theological education that you and the church can trust. That preview day, April the 12th, you’ll tour our beautiful campus, meet our world-class faculty, and learn how God is using Southern Seminary to train faithful ministers of the gospel. Listeners to The Briefing, now get this, can register for free at by using the code, now you’ve already figured this out, The Briefing. 

I look forward to seeing you there. 

Thanks for listening to The Briefing. 

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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