Several months ago, I wrote about day trading and the thousands of investors who see it as the avenue to quick riches (“Easy money,” Feb. 2). They use new technology to scamper through markets in ways that were impossible for ordinary citizens only a few years ago.
There are about 100 day-trading offices scattered across the U.S., with 3,000 to 10,000 people using them on a daily basis.
Day trading is risky business, a whisker away from pure speculation. They are looking for fast money and that means they want a market to move. At some companies, they average 500 trades a day, often focusing on Internet stocks, which are easily pushed by day traders and other eager profiteers. It’s a volatile mix — and a risky business — as I pointed out in the previous column.
It was only a matter of time before a Mark Barton showed up, venting his frustrations over losses — and “the people that greedily sought my destruction” — with the biggest weapon he could get his hands around. Twelve people are dead, including his wife and two children, and the fingerpointing has already begun.
On Friday, the North American Securities Administrators Association said companies “need to be more vigilant” in checking out day-trading newbies. By sheer coincidence, the National Association of Securities Dealers Thursday issued a long-planned proposal to do just that. The problem is that, on paper, Barton would have passed stringent checks. He apparently had the assets to qualify; and despite his suicide note, on the day he went on his rampage, a $50,000 check he wrote cleared the bank.
Money isn’t the only concern: Some people can’t handle the psychological pressure. Some get addicted to the rush, others fold. Apparently, Barton was a volatile trader: exuberant when he was up — fellow traders dubbed him “the Rocket” for the way he rode sizzling Internet stocks — and morose when he was losing money.
So who will be the culprit in this round of sua culpas — the Net traders that pushed him over the edge or the gun makers that supplied the 9 mm pistol and the 45-caliber handgun? It’s not crazy to equate the two. The Net took some of the blame after the massacre in Littleton, Colo., and every couple of months there is another round of breast-beating over access to pornography. The speed with which there is talk of new regulations on trading suggests someone somewhere is already feeling some heat.
That sort of thinking may not be crazy — I’ll bet the NRA will try to make the case — but it is wrong. As in Colorado, the Net may have created the opportunities/risks that pushed Barton over the edge, but he needed something else to do the damage.
If any government has a right to feel queasy about the Net, it is China. It has good reason to feel threatened by the Falun Gong sect. (Get that straight: I’m not saying the crackdown is justified, but fears of the group and its use of the Net are.)
The group follows a mix of traditional Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, leavened with the particular views of its leader, Li Hongzhi, who now lives in the U.S. They seem like your ordinary Chinese martial arts practitioners, the ones found in public spaces in the early mornings, doing their exercises. The sect is alleged to have tens of millions followers in China. Members have set up Web pages all over the world in many different languages. (The official Web page is www.falundafa.com)
The group unnerved the Chinese leadership in April when 10,000 followers showed up unannounced and surrounded the Communist Party headquarters in downtown Beijing. They stood silently all day and then dispersed the same way they came, by just melting away, after receiving promises from Premier Zhu Rongji that the government would not persecute the group.
That show of strength unnerved the powers that be in Beijing. At the official Falun Gong Web site, a message in early June warned of reports of an upcoming government crackdown. It came late last month. The government banned the sect, arrested its followers and burned its books and manuals. Li has been declared a criminal and the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in a full-scale purge. Diplomats say the last time they saw something like this, on this scale, was after Tiananmen. Ugly parallel.
The government’s fear is that the sect will challenge the CCP’s grip on the hearts of the people. Amid corruption and the loss of old certainties, Falun Gong provides solace that the party cannot. The millions of ordinary Chinese that have embraced the group are proof of the government’s failings and the allure of Li’s brand of stylized breathing.
Strangely for a war being fought with “a mystical sect,” cyberspace is a prime battlefield. The group’s ability to mobilize was reportedly facilitated by the Internet. That, more than anything else, is reportedly what unnerved the Chinese leadership.
The government has its own Web page (ppflg.china.com.cn) to attack the group; as propaganda sheets go, it ain’t bad. The Falun Gong site has posted rebuttals to the charges against the group and its leader.
The Chinese leadership signaled its concerns about the Net earlier this year, when a software entrepreneur was sentenced to two years in prison for “inciting the overthrow of state power.” His crime: supplying 30,000 e-mail addresses to an online prodemocracy magazine in the U.S. For that, he has the dubious honor of being the first person in China to be charged with Net-based espionage.
The Falun Gong have proved that fear isn’t paranoia. The Net offers motivated groups the ability to organize, mobilize and challenge a government. How severe a threat they become really depends on how tough the crackdown is.
There is another odd parallel between the Atlanta shootings and the Falun Gong sect: Mark Barton feared that he was losing his money; the Falun Gong win support from all the Chinese who feel empty and irrelevant as China abandons tradition in the race to get rich. It isn’t the Net that is the root of all evil — it’s money!