My comments, less than a

My comments, less than a day old, seem to be erratic. They keep disappearing and then suddenly they’re back. I’m trying to fix it now.

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I’m not making this up, you know

Thanks to China Weblog, I was just directed to this fascinating study on how governments of different countries are doing all they can to prevent the use of the Internet as a tool for free speech.

For lots of specific examples of how “subversives” in China are being handed down stiff prison sentences for having the temerity to downoad and distribute material perceived to be critical of the government, just scroll down to page 24. It’s not a matter of a few isolated cases. People are being jailed for as much as 11 years for downloading articles, and not only “cyber-dissidents.” A must-read for those who would argue arrests are rare for such offences in today’s “changed” China.


The Joys of Chinese Justice

Please stop what you’re doing (i.e., reading this post) and read this heartbreaking article. Then come back.

I know, China really is changing in some ways. A genuine middle class is sprouting up rapidly and a few people are even getting rich. I am glad for this, because so many of the Chinese people are warm and wonderful and it is inspiring to see them rise up and break away from the shackles of the Cultural Revolution. That said, the system that rules over them is so rotten, so untouched by change and so terrible that, when I am reminded of this fact in articles like this (which, needless to say, cannot be accesses in China), I wonder what it will take to really get China to change. The article offers a single slim ray of hope, noting how scholars and students are protesting the atrocity; but it makes it quite clear there is no change on the immediate horizon.

Again, please read this article to the end. If you can access this blog but cannot access the article, please let me know and I will email it to you. I know there is a contingent of bloggers who believe I (and Conrad and Phil and others) exaggerate the badness of the Chinese government. They see me as strident and overly dramatic. They look at an article like this and say, more or less, “Well, just because there’s a corrupt official here and there does not mean the Central Government is to blame,” or “These things have to change gradually, give it more of a chance, you can’t change things overnight….”

I cannot buy that. China has changed many aspects of its old self quickly, even overnight. Just look at what Deng did back in 1976, ending the Cultural Revolution and instituting drastic change at lightning speed. But other things — things that ensure the survival of corrupt officials and the Party’s control over people’s lives and thoughts — remain utterly untouched. Of course, we hear now and then about “reforms” and plans to “clean up corruption.” There will even be a trial of a corrupt official, though usually that occurs only when the official causes the government to lose money. They cannot really crack down on corruption because it is the mainstay of their existence. A nationwide pattern of hair-raising corruption, known to virtually everyone in the country and given the wink and nod by all officials, is what keeps Party members loyal and citizens subservient.

I made an analogy recently that I feel is not that far-fetched. I said those claiming these “isolated cases” were acceptable and to be expected in a changing country, remind me of an actual conversation I heard as an impressionable teen in a NYC coffee shop, which went like this: “A lot of people only point to the negative side of Stalin. Look at how he pulled Russia up from its bootstraps, how he made it a great industrial and military power.”

I think it’s safe to say that any serious student of the USSR will find this an example of naivete at best and apologism at worst. While the nation improved in certain ways, look at the costs — the unnecessary costs: A vast portion of the population imprisoned and murdered in the Gulag for no crime whatever. Infinite corruption and exploitation of a terrified populace. The crushing of free speech and personal freedoms. The nation is still reeling from what Stalin wrought more than half a century ago. And it didn’t have to be that way. Who ever said that it takes ruthlessness and terror to achieve change? I cringe when I hear people say about the CCP (or about Castro or Ceaucescu [sp?] or any other strongman, to the left or right), “Well, they made some mistakes and they were tough on their people, but look at all the good that they did.”

A point I need to add: I am outspoken on this topic because I was once impressed with what I read/heard about Stalin, about Castro, about the CCP. It was painful for me to admit I had been hoodwinked, and part of me even today wants to defend Castro, because the idealized image I had of him was so comforting. The key episodes for changing my mind were visiting East Germany shortly before The Wall came down, and living in China, where I saw with my own eyes what the police can do. I still have nightmares.

As usual, what was going to be a paragraph has taken on a life of its own. I need to get back to my place, where later this afternoon I’ll get broadband and cable TV and will be free to write like in the old days.

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Comments anyone?

I’ve added comments. Now hopefully someone will use them. (Please, be nice.)

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The Great China vs. HK (and Singapore) Blog Debate Continues

Check out the latest arguments, this time over at Phil’s excellent site.

Probably the most common question I am sent is why this site has no Comments section. I would love to have one, and usually ask those who email me if they can refer me to a comments provider. And it’s always been the same story — the comments providers have stopped taking any new orders due to the blog explosion. So if anyone can help me in this regard, I’d be grateful — it would make this site a lot spicier.

The broadband installer comes on Saturday afternoon, and then I’ll be able to blog from home for the first time since leaving China. Stay tuned.


Extreme apologies, I just can’t

Extreme apologies, I just can’t find time and won’t have broadband at home until the weekend. So please hang in there. Singapore remains something of an oasis for me, but I am getting so homesick, so upset about being away from my loved ones (and especially my loved one) that at times I wonder how I can go on.

I go in for major surgery on July 2, the day after my birthday, to get my shoulder repaired. It’s supposed to be ridiculously painful, so I’m not very excited about it. I’ll be in a sling for a full 6 weeks afterward, but I’ll be able to type. And what else matters?

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Must, must read

Absolutely mind-blowing, bombshell article in today’s WP. (Thanks to Josh Marshall for the alert.) Washington must be totally abuzz. The 60-year-old National Security Council official under Bush who now says….well, check it out for yourself. When I see this sort of thing, I can’t help but wonder whether I was conned into wondering if the war in Iraq had some justitication. (That said, I’m still glad Saddam’s gone. It’s just that it seems we were sold a bill of goods, at least in regard to WMD.)


How true

Signs of hope. A columnist I love and hate gets it totally right on today:

Why doesn’t Alan Simpson include in his critique of the religious right their obsessive hostility to any recognition of gay citizens? He’s right about the politics of abortion; and he is on the record saying the same things about gay equality. And yet he still balks. But in some ways, the gay issue is the primary one that the far right will insist on using to gin up their base and make life difficult for president Bush. They will treat the long-overdue reversal of blatantly discriminatory sodomy laws as some kind of assault on the family. And they will surely try to respond to any civil recognition of gay relationships with a truly poisonous bid to amend the federal constitution to keep marriage from including all citizens, gay and straight. Their threat to a sane conservatism is as profound as their indifference to fomenting deep social division. At some point, the president must realize this. Let’s hope it’s not before it’s too late.

But tell us, what if the president doesn’t realize it in time? What then? Will sane conservatives like you still support a president who supports “truly poisonous” amendments to the constitution? Because as far as this topic goes, I see no way out. Our president has sold his soul to the too-far right, and there is no reclaiming it. I truly hope I am wrong on this, but it appears that Bush has passed the point of no return. What then?

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And so we come at last to Singapore, the strange city-state that so many of us associate with rattan canes and a tough dictatorship and no mercy for gum chewers.

It’s not quite accurate. In fact, it’s totally wrong. I mean, sure, if you are dumb enough to commit a felony you may face the cane, and chewing gum is prohibited, and the government is in essence a dictatorship. But Singapore is much, much more than these disparate parts, which for most citizens and vistors here are irrelevant. Singapore is in many ways a beautiful little paradise, perhaps the closest thing to utopia on the planet.

So many dictators have tried to create a utopia, and in so doing managed instead to create hell on earth. The Soviet Union was the first attempt of the last century, wherein Stalin managed to liquidate a huge chunk of the population and make the Gulag Archipelago his legacy. China under Mao was another, with the Cultural Revolution and inconceivably dreadful famines the result. Maybe the most awful in terms of sheer horror was Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. All of these social experiments draw striking similarities and you can only wonder why we are so incapable of learning from the past. The very last living example of a utopia imposed from the top down, a living, breathing nightmare, is today’s North Korea.

So how does this relate in any way to Singapore? I’m not yet sure if my argument is valid, but I do see a parallel: As with the above examples, Singapore as it is today is founded on the vision of one man, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He envisioned a city with green trees and green grass everywhere, a city with no crime, where the trains and buses run on time and the people live in harmony with one another. The people would be free, but the wise and benevolent dictatorship would protect its citizens, its children, from obviously dangerous influences — narcotics and stimulants, pornography, dirty words, unsocial beahaviour (like spitting and putting used chewing gum where it doesn’t belong), etc. Crime would be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.

Being the liberal that I am, aspects of this vision bother me. Everything here is censored by a government that knows more than its citizens. If you bring video tapes into the country, be prepared for the customs agents to take them and watch them and cut out any segments with nudity or foul language. (And they send you a bill for doing this.) I hate censorship, and yet….

There can simply be no denying that Lee Kuan Yew’s vision has materialized and succeeded. Crime is all but unknown here. The city is lush with greenery, perfectly trimmed and manicured; everything about the city has been made to suit Lee’s vision, and, amazingly, I have to admit there is a lot to say for it. Yes, the beauty is entirely man-made, but it works.

The attitude of the Singaporeans toward the imposition of this vision on their nation and on their lives is most interesting. From all I can tell, most of the citizens are thrilled with it. They admit some freedoms are restricted, but they believe that the payoff makes it well worthwhile. They are protected by a loving and paternalistic government that knows better than they do — a government that can indeed be tough when the situation warrants it, but that will in general be their friend.

The media can usually say what they please, but it is understood that they can go only so far when it comes to criticising the government. If they cross that line, foreign media can be threatened with expulsion and on occasion have to pay up hefty fines. (Of course, compared with China it’s a bastion of free speech, where there is never a worry that jotting an essay can land you in a dungeon for a good portion of your life.)

There are many examples of how exquisitely the government has choreographed life here. The public transportation system is immaculate and ingenious. To stem rush hour traffic, every car is equipped with an infra-red detector that automatically “taxes” the owner if the car goes past certain intersections during rush hour. It works. Traffic is minimized. There are also occasional signs along the highway that read, “Report discourteous driving.” Thus, one rarely witnesses discourteous driving.

The net minus is that Singapore is a sterilized, somewhat antiseptic place, at least on its surface. It could sure use some of the earthiness of Hong Kong. But the net plusses are truly awe-inspiring. The no-nonsense approach to SARS, for example, was vintage Singapore: video cameras were installed outside the homes of those in quarantine and stiff sentences imposed for violators, and it worked. (In the case of SARS, the government did much more, including a 24-hours-a-day SARS information TV channel and a massive public education campaign.)

So for the time being I am impressed with Singapore. I’ve only been here a few weeks, and maybe I’ll see some of these illusions shattered. For now it looks pretty good, especially after my last host country.


Greg Packer explained

A reader has helped explain the Greg Packer phenomenon to me, and steered me to this link, which does help explain why Packer is always on hand when a quote is needed. The writer ads, “This is a case of journalistic laziness on the New York press’s part, and surprise, surprise, on Ann Coulter’s part. Greg Packer’s at every important New York event and the press know he’s always good for a quote. Ann is trying to create a SCLM conspiracy where one doesn’t exist. She knows the yahoos who read her column religiously don’t know any better.”