Mahathir’s Last Day

The Malaysian newspapers today and yesterday were thick and heavy, filled with special supplements. Each supplement was headlined as some sort of tribute to outgoing Mahathir, who released his chokehold on Malaysia earlier today after 22 years. When you open the supplements, there are scattered articles and letters, everyone nearly exactly the same, expressing love and thanks to the good doctor.

But that’s not why the paper is so thick. It appears that every company, from multinational financial institutions to local coffee shops feel that they need to pay for an ad wishing their leader farewell. Page after page after page after page after page — it’s really amazing. And just like the letters and articles and editorials, all of the ads read the same way. Nearly all of them even use the same photo! (Virtually every one has a photo of Mahathir splashed in the center.)

It’s all anyone is talking about, from cab drivers to hotel bellmen to the attendees at the conference I’m speaking at. And I have to say, it sounds as though the Malaysians absolutely revere him. (Some of the non-Malaysians at my conference have less flattering things to say, but I’m afraid to type them down, being in a Malaysian Internet cafe. I know how Thais are fiercely loyal to their king, and it seems many Malaysians feel the same way about Mahathir.)

So I suppose I’m lucky to be here in KL on the day he rides off into the sunset. It is definitely living history, on the level of the return of HK to China. Will it be the same country tomorrow? I’ll say yes, and speculate further that, just as in the case of Lee Kuan Yew (and Jiang Zemin), Dr. Mahathir may be off the stage, but to a large extent he’ll still be running the show.


Update: AIDS in China

Human Rights Watch has penned its most forceful and damning article yet on AIDS in China and the CCP’s veil of secrecy regarding it:

The deadly epidemic thrives best where it can be shrouded in secrecy, where inaction or counterproductive actions by governments can be hushed up, and where the needs of those at risk and those living with the disease can be swept under any available carpet.

Despite government promises of increased openness post-SARS epidemic, secrecy continues to be a hallmark of AIDS in China, where tens of thousands, maybe a million, maybe more — impossible to know for sure — have been stricken with HIV because officials conspired with private businesses to cash in on the highly profitable blood plasma of poor rural people. Some of those living with AIDS have been harassed and arrested for demanding that the state provide care and treatment. Stigma and abuse heighten the HIV risk faced by millions of other Chinese. And people courageous enough to speak out about the epidemic may land themselves in detention.

While the author acknowledges some very small but positive steps by the government, she says they don’t even begin to scratch the surface. She concludes,

It is time for the curtain of secrecy to be drawn open on AIDS in China. A national AIDS strategy based on repression and fear will fail unless its goal is the biggest AIDS epidemic in history.

Related post: The indescribable tragedy of AIDS in China


Three Gorges Dam Update

Just as Simon Winchester warned in The River at the Center of the World, Shanghai’s shoreline is being eaten away, thanks to the Three Gorges Dam:

Geological experts warn Shanghai is rapidly losing its waterfront and if efforts to protect beaches aren’t made soon, the coastline along the Yangtze River will shrink to half its size in 20 years.

Geologists warn that if the sand drops below 250 million tons a year, while sea level continues to rise, the city will lose 89 square kilometres of coastline every year over the next 20 years.

In other news about the great dam, a group of migrant workers displaced by the dam have written a moving appeal to the government protesting its breach of trust in regard to their relocation. It’s very moving, and very sad. As usual, when their representative went to Beijing to ask for justice, guess what happened? Yes indeed, he’ll be in a prison cell for two years.

This letter is an agonizing read. They obviously are being helped by somebody; this eloquent appeal was written by a professional. Will it make any difference?



Kuala Lumpur is incredibly beautiful at night, at least looking at those gorgeous towers. It’s just like the “Malaysia, truly Asia” ads that play nonstop, again and again, on CNN and BBC.


“Some of my best friends are Chinese….”

I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but I wanted to comment on a post by Adam about a post by me about a post by Water.

The gist of Adam’s post was that he had read what Water and I and others had to say on the “gimme phenomenon,” but that he knew a good many Chinese people who were wonderful people. (Adam, if I misunderstood your point, please correct me.)

I absolutely agree with Adam, but this led me to worry that there were maybe two separate conversations being mixed up as one.

The Beijingren I’ve known are among the kindest, most gracious and hospitable people in the world. The issue that I was commenting on was the self-centeredness that manifests itself when there is a situation of anonymity, when you are out on the street, when you are waiting in a line, when you are crossing the road. A lot of the kindness seems to be replaced by an attitude of survival — as in, I have got to go first or someone else is going to cut in front of me. There is no choice. It is automatic.

It’s not about whether they are good people; they are. But for a constellation of reasons, from the lingering influence of the Cultural Revolution to the one-child policy to the Chinese chalk-and-talk educational system, to the huge population, etc., there is the me-first attitude that emerges when, for example, they want to get a seat on the subway or pass another car on the road (and all of you know what I mean). Water gave some examples that were far more vivid.

This is not a comment on niceness or friendliness or goodness, nor is it unique to the Chinese. When I lived in Germany for a year, it didn’t take me long to feel that a crowd of Germans could be dificult to deal with (pushing and shoving in a way I wasn’t used to); and yet the German people I knew were wonderful, and many are still my friends today. But when those same people were part of a crowd, I am sure many took on the less savory characteristics described.

What can be so disconcerting to Western sensibilities is the degree to which this can be carried in China. Pushing and shoving is one thing. But driving in a manner that could easily result in death(s) is another.

One of the most interesting observations I made in Beijing was how I, too, began to adopt some of these characteristics (a sure sign that I had to leave). For many weeks when it was snowing, I would try to hail a taxi, and when I did, a lady or a guy would run ahead of me and jump in, even though they knew it was stopping for me. One fiercely cold and snowy day in January, a young couple waked over to a taxi to ask the driver if he were free, and I just walked to the other side of the taxi and jumped in, and we were off.

And I didn’t feel ashamed. I simply felt, if I do not act like the others, if I stand here with my Western politenesses and courtesies, I will never get a fucking taxi. They did it to me every day, I was going to do it too. My colleague, a New Zealender who’d lived in Beijing with his wife for 12 years, would lunge into elevators before anyone got off, and he told me very matter of factly, That’s just the way you have to do it here. But he’s a delightful person.

My point, I thnk, is that even the nicest people, kind-hearted and caring, can be influenced by a Darwinian environment to do whatever it takes for them to get ahead, to survive. Everyone, absolutely everyone who drives a car in China is a maniac. And I’m sure many of them are lovely people, as well.

Sorry for going on so long about this, but writing it out helped me to understand it a lot better.


I don’t like to delete comments….

But someone was posting comment after comment after comment, each one a nasty attack. Only the second time I’ve ever had to do it, and I hope I don’t have to do it again.


Why Shanghai? Good question.

I had quite a laugh reading Hemlock Diary’s hilarious recounting of his thoughts upon seeing an invitation to attend a conference titiled Why Shanghai? This guy is sharp:

Why Shanghai? The title inadvertently hits the nail on the head.

It’s just a Third World dump, with exchange controls, censorship, no law and an array of tacky skyscrapers intended to give gullible observers the impression that the place hosts important business like Hong Kong, if not London or New York. But the conference will be one of those surreal events where the politically correct mingle with the shallow to take this fake financial centre seriously, like the loyal subjects who admired the emperor’s new clothes.

I can only put it down to excessive use of hallucinogenic substances in senior levels of Government. “Why not Timbuctoo?” would be an equally valid question. “What did I do to deserve this?” would be another. Still, I have four days in which to arrange something less tedious, like some root canal work.

Precious. Not only has Hemlock mastered the fine art of obnoxiousness, the craft of finely honed and chiseled abuse, he makes some valid points about Asia’s most over-rated city. (Actually, I enjoy Shanghai for short visits. As to its being a global business center — more on this myth to come.)


Harbourfest – a uniquely Hong Kong scandal

Friends of mine in HK have been urging me to cover what they say is a monumental scandal encompassing fraud, conspiracy, kickbacks, cronyism, lying to the public and general shittines on the part of the HK government and the American Chamber of Commerce in HK. And it’s all about a friggin’ rock concert called Harbourfest!

I was just about to cut and paste today’s article from the SCMP when I noticed that Conrad beat me to it. Check out the story — it is larger than life and will probably make its way into the western media soon. If Mike Rowse’s and Jim Thompson’s heads don’t roll, HK will lose all credibility in my book.

Rowse, who one of my friends describes as the closest thing he’s ever seen to an albino monkey, writes a weepy letter in today’s WSJ (I only have the print version) about the “good intentions” behind Harbourfest, and reluctantly admits that while “teething problems have emerged,” his heart was in the right place. One look at the letter and I knew it had PR Agency all over it.

UPDATE: Another good link on Harbourfest.


More news of the weird: Attack of the penis melters

“Panic in Khartoum: Foreigners Shake Hands, Make Penises Disappear.”

That’s the headline of this article that is so bizarre you have to read it yourself. It’s from the Midle East Research Institute, so I guess it’s no big surprise that at the end of the article they accuse the penis melters of being Zionists.

Link via Sanskrit Boy.


Andrew Sullivan on the synchronized Iraq bombings

Sullivan gets it right:

There’s not much point in sugar-coating what happened. It was a great victory for the Baathists and international terror. If they can keep this up, the chances of a peaceful reconstruction in Iraq look more remote than they did last week. Why? Not because this was that sophisticated an attack, but because it was relatively unsophisticated. Not so much because the Baathists can win, but because they don’t have to. All they have to do is prevent the coalition from winning, which keeps Iraq in limbo, and tilts American public opinion against the war. I’m not an expert but obviously we need a more successful military strategy to defeat these insurgents.

Obviously. If this sort of thing continues, there is no way to avoid the perception of Iraq as a quagmire. And perception is always more powerful than reality. Always.