Conrad Lives!

The once “King-of-the-Hill” Conrad of the Gweilo Diaries has been in touch with me lately, but I didn’t write about it because I wasn’t sure he wanted me to. But now I see that another blogger has broken the story so I have no need to stay silent. Conrad’s fine, and he says he may be popping up in the comments sometime soon. Sadly for all of us, he won’t be blogging anymore.

It really doesn’t feel the same without him. While he was consistently wrong about US politics, his manner of expresssing himself was inimitable and irreplaceble. Let’s all hope that he reconsiders, no matter how misguided his political stance may have been.

Thanks to the reader who sent me this link — I really appreciate it.


Orville Schell on the death of Zhao Ziyang

A very fine obituary.


Are we becoming a nation of mindless automatons?

Yes, I am afraid we are. How stupid can we be? How have we allowed ourselves to be so dumbed down?

One in three U.S. high school students say the press ought to be more restricted, and even more say the government should approve newspaper stories before readers see them, according to a survey being released today.

The survey of 112,003 students finds that 36% believe newspapers should get “government approval” of stories before publishing; 51% say they should be able to publish freely; 13% have no opinion.

Asked whether the press enjoys “too much freedom,” not enough or about the right amount, 32% say “too much,” and 37% say it has the right amount. Ten percent say it has too little.

The First Amendment is what America stands on. And it sounds like these birdbrains don’t even know it exists. Shocking.


I removed the controversial picture

If you’re looking for the heated thread about the belly-button photo, I’ll have to disappoint you. I removed it, not because I felt it was misogynistic or derisive of obese people. I just felt it wasn’t “me” – when I scrolled by it on myhome page, I wasn’t comfortable with it. I put it up under intense circumstances, and if I’d had more time to think about it, I probably wouldn’t have posted it at all.(And Mark, do not take this as a victory and don’t presume it means I now support the Marxist revolution.)


Iraqi elections

My immediate impulse is to be guardedly pleased with the seemingly good news of Iraq’s first true elections. It seems to tell me that the majority of Iraqis do not want to see the insurgents win (otherwise, why would they vote?), and that they really do crave this important freedom to choose their leaders.

On the other hand, Iraq is such a mess that no matter who wins, it’ll take a long time before we see any positive change. And, of course, the next government could take the country in an entirely unexpected direction and become another dictatorship. (Much stranger things have happened.)

Finally, I saw a clip (via Kos) from a 1967 NY Times article (unlinkable) that reminded me that one election does not a robust democracy make:

U.S. Encouraged by Vietnam Vote :
Officials Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror

by Peter Grose, Special to the New York Times (9/4/1967: p. 2)

WASHINGTON, Sept. 3– United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam’s presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.

According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong.

The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the nation election based on the incomplete returns reaching here.

Deja vu all over again, no? It’s something to think about, though I honestly believe the political situation in Iraq is diferent enough from Vietnam in 1967 to offer at least a glimmer of hope. For one, the Iraqis are more urbane and better educated than was the average Vietnamese, and most Vietnamese adored our perceived enemy Ho Chi Minh; in Iraq, the insurgents are supported by a minority (although the US occupation is opposed by a majority). The only thing I can say with certainty is that things are incredibly dicey right now.

We’ll see, right?


“North Korea disintegrating”

There’ve been a flurry of reports over the past six months claiming that Kim Jong-Il’s regime is on the verge of collapse. None, however, is more convincing than this piece in the London Times.

We had already witnessed one sign that North Korea’s totalitarian system is dissolving, even as its leaders boast of owning nuclear weapons to deter their enemies.

“It’s just like the Berlin Wall,” Pastor Douglas Shin, a Christian activist, said by telephone from Seoul. “The slow-motion exodus is the beginning of the end.”

In interviews for this article over many months, western policymakers, Chinese experts, North Korean exiles and human rights activists built up a picture of a tightly knit clan leadership in Pyongyang that is on the verge of collapse.

Some of those interviewed believe the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong-il, has already lost his personal authority to a clique of generals and party cadres. Without any public announcement, governments from Tokyo to Washington are preparing for a change of regime.

The death of Kim’s favourite mistress last summer, a security clampdown on foreign aid workers and a reported assassination attempt in Austria last November against the leader’s eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, have all heightened the sense of disintegration.

The Japanese intelligence agency, in an unclassified report issued on December 24, referred to “signs of instability” inside the political establishment and predicted a feud among the elite as they strive to seize power from Kim.


Analysts in Seoul say that in recent propaganda pictures the bouffant-haired dictator is wearing the same clothes as in photographs from two years ago, suggesting that they may have been taken then. Observers await Kim’s official birthday, February 16, to see if the state media accord him the usual fawning adulation.

According to exiles, North Korean agents in Beijing and Ulan Bator are frantically selling assets to raise cash — an important sign, says one activist, because “the secret police can always smell the crisis coming before anybody else”.

This sure sounds ominous, though many Koreaphiles have viewed such articles with extreme skepticism. I wonder, can so many insiders be completely wrong on this subject?


Rural elections

A recent thread generated a lot of comments about whether or not the Chinese people are ready to vote, another hot-button topic that always arouses emotions. Some pointed to the rural elections instituted around 1989 as a positive sign, while others said the rural Chinese are not ready to vote. There’s a short but sweet must-read post about this very subject that hits several of the nails squarely on the head. Just go there.


Sprite’s advertising campaign in Hong Kong

Now, this is really amazing. (Be sure to read the captions under each photo.) Can you imagine a similar ad campaign on the Mainland? Or, come to think of it, in George W. Bush’s America?


Taiwan and China – Ne’er the twain shall meet?

Those of you following this volatile topic must read an opinion piece in today’s LA Times by Sam Crane, who teaches Chinese politics and philosophy at Williams College. It’s very straightforward and reasonable, and I don’t think the tortured arguments I’ve been reading from commenters on the topic can take away from the piece’s essential truths.

I usually shy away from snipping entire articles, but this one is relatively brief and I’d like to have it here as a reference.

Democracy has transformed Taiwan, and the change demonstrates how political participation can shape national identity and international politics.

Fifteen years ago, it was easy to accept the idea that Taiwan was a part of China. Most people on the island defined themselves as Chinese, and their government was named and was acknowledged — though not diplomatically recognized by many countries — as the Republic of China. The official policy of the People’s Republic of China demanded that Taiwan be viewed as a province of the mainland, and the United States vaguely accepted a “one China” principle.

Some things are not so straightforward anymore.

Mandarin discourse is still useful on the streets of Taipei, and the Chinese cuisine is the best anywhere. The National Palace Museum remains an extraordinary trove of Sinological art treasures.

National identity, however, is more than cultural practices and traditions. Linguistic and other affinities are not enough to classify Taiwan as “Chinese,” just as the United States could hardly be considered part of a “British” empire anymore.

What matters for any national identity is politics. And Taiwan’s domestic politics have long been detached from China’s. Since 1895, a mainland government has ruled the island for only about four years, 1945-49. When the Nationalist Party lost the civil war in 1949 and fled to Taiwan, it maintained for many years that it was the government of all China, though it never was.

Since democratization began in Taiwan in 1986, the “return to the mainland” myth has further receded. Free and fair elections have turned people’s attention inward.

The democratic political life shared by millions of Taiwanese is forging a common civic identity distinct from China’s. This Taiwanese national identity is not merely an invention of those who want to publicly declare independence, something that Beijing’s leaders say they will go to war to prevent. It is the natural evolution of democratic participation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the notion of the “status quo.” For mainland China and the U.S., it refers to the “one China” principle, a reflection of the politics of the 1970s — before democracy took root in Taiwan. For many Taiwanese, perhaps most, it has come to mean the situation that has actually prevailed since 1986, an empirical independence that allows them to rule themselves without Chinese control.

But the people of Taiwan are not unanimous in seeing themselves as wholly separate from China. Debates about national identity are a central feature of the island’s boisterous democracy.

The momentum of nationhood, however, seems to have reached a point of no return. Taiwan is a democratic nation; China is not. It is difficult to foresee circumstances that would allow for real unification.

The dilemma for Taiwan is the contradiction between its democratic development and its geopolitical context. China’s nationalist passions are real. For any mainland Chinese politician, President Hu Jintao included, to be seen as soft on Taiwan independence is to open oneself to charges of treason. Even if political liberalization were to emerge tomorrow, Chinese demagogues could argue that a separate Taiwan is a wound to the nation’s pride. So Chinese leaders continue to threaten and isolate Taiwan.

If the Bush administration thinks the Taiwan question has faded, it is sorely mistaken. Taiwan is not really a part of China any longer. It has grown into a thriving and mature democracy where people join together in constructive self-government and see themselves as a nation like any other. The status quo has changed.

“Taiwan is not really part of China anymore.” Those are strong words, but anyone with a rational mind and common sense can see that it’s simply the truth, painful though it may be for many in China to accept. Trying to fuse the two back together again would go against nature, as Taiwan has evolved into an altogether different species.


China loves elections, just not in China

Need one be a genius to spot the cynicism here?

China has contributed $1 million to help organize Sunday’s election in Iraq, raising questions at home and abroad about how a country that supports balloting in another land can deny its citizens a chance to vote for their leaders.

As China gains a growing role on the global political and economic stage, it increasingly faces such twists of logic. So far, Chinese officials seem undeterred by the apparent contradiction.

“They behave as a normal power on the international scene, but keep a lid on everything at home at the same time, blocking websites and preventing free expression,” said Jean-Philippe Beja, a China specialist at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris. “Elections are all right in other countries, as long as they’re not done at home. And it works. That’s what’s incredible. It’s very cynical.”

The article later gets to the heart of the matter, which is that China is proclaiming its love of free elections (in Iraq, anyway) to curry favor with the US and continue its repression in Xinjiang without criticism from Bush. Love of fredom and democracy scarcely enters the equation.

The article makes some other fine points, so pardon me for snipping a large portion for your reading pleasure:

Elections won’t work in China because the masses aren’t wealthy or well-educated enough to understand the issues, Chinese officials often argue. Elections are at odds with 5,000 years of Chinese history and, anyway, the country already has a democracy with socialist characteristics, they say.

It’s becoming more difficult, however, to argue that the people lack the necessary income and education when the nation’s performance is rising on both counts. Meanwhile, more impoverished Indonesia recently pulled off an impressive peaceful transfer of power; and India, with its lower literacy rate, remains the world’s largest democracy.

“Two years ago I went to Cambodia, which is poorer than China, and watched a very good election,” said Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute, a Beijing think tank focused on rural democracy. “It’s a silly argument.”

The idea that Chinese are precluded from voting by their history tends to buckle with a glance 100 miles across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing often cites Taiwan’s bumpy electoral ride since 2000 to bolster its case, but the island’s citizens chalk this up to inexperience, not some cultural predisposition to authoritarian rule.

“China is still under a Communist regime, so they focus on Taiwan’s negatives for their propaganda,” said Lin Wen-Cheng, a professor with Zhongshan University’s Mainland Research Institute in Taipei. “Our democracy is not yet mature, but we’re confident we’ll overcome that. With Taiwan maturing as a democracy, they have no argument.”

China’s last refuge is often in the argument that it already is a democracy with socialist characteristics and that the Communist Party enjoys widespread support that makes elections unnecessary.

Even insiders acknowledge, however, that party corruption and arrogance are an enormous source of popular resentment. In addition, the system of one person, one vote is carefully restricted to sectors of the political process where no real decision-making power exists, namely villages and a few towns in the countryside and neighborhoods in the cities.

Critics say the real reason China lacks elections is that the Communist Party doesn’t want to be voted out and, after decades of absolute rule, is distrustful of any process it can’t control.

Critics say the Communist Party wants to hold onto power? Well, I’ll be damned. But then, what do critics know? Obviously they don’t watch CCTV. The CCP only wants to ban elections for the good of the people, who “aren’t ready” to vote. How can we thank the CCP enough for their loving protection and magnanimous concern for its people’s well being?