Love is in the air…along with nitrous oxide and other goodies

I knew Beijing’s air was filled with poisons, but I didn’t know it could be this bad.


“US must re-think ‘One China’ policy and give Taiwan greater standing”

Via CDT, a powerful argument by Bruce Jacobs, professor of Asian Languages and Studies and director of the Taiwan Research Unit at Monash University, Melbourne. Jacobs insists that the US and its key allies must give Taiwan standing in international organizations like the WHO and desist from seeing it as a province of China. The world would be a safer place, he says, if China would renounce its false historical claim on Taiwan.”

The recent close mayoral elections in Taipei and Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s two largest cities, remind us that Taiwan remains a thriving democracy. Along with South Korea, Taiwan is one of two former Asian dictatorships that have made a true transition to democratic rule.

This democratization has won Taiwan many friends around the world, including the United States, Australia, Japan, and Britain. But this support doesn’t change the fact that Taiwan faces a severe threat from China.

At this moment, China has more than 800 missiles aimed at the island. Its military often conducts exercises relevant to an invasion of Taiwan. That kind of power makes some observers in government, business, and academic circles wary of upsetting China. Yet China has shown that it respects strong, principled stands rather than a submissive, begging attitude.

The US and other democratic nations must stand up for Taiwan’s right to determine its own future without China’s military threats. Taking this stand means welcoming Taiwan’s representation in more international organizations – and yes, rethinking their approach toward the so-called One-China policy, which declares Taiwan to be part of China.

Definitely read it all. Jacobs appears to carefully avoid calling for independence outright, but it’s not so hard to read between the lines, based on the parallels he draws between Taiwan and East Timor.


A Note on Etiquette from Your TPD Nanny

Howdy everyone, OtherLisa here.

I’ve gotten a number of responses since I started commenting and guest-posting on Richard’s blog. Some of them have been positive (and for those of you who have complimented me, I deeply appreciate it. Thank you). Others, well, not so much. But of the criticisms I’ve received and the names I’ve at times been called, I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of rudeness (or not too much, anyway). Which is why I feel qualified to write this brief note.

Lately a lot of comments here have been, well, rude. It seems to be a cyclical thing, and we are in one of those name-calling cycles again. It needs to stop, or at least die down to a reasonable, low-level flame.

What do I mean by “rude” and “name-calling”? I’m not referring to vigorously expressed differences of opinion. I’m referring to personal attacks these differences of opinion sometimes prompt.

It’s a personal attack when you call somebody a “fat ass” or “stupid” or a “hack” in response to a disagreement. It’s a personal attack when you call somebody a racist unless you have very good evidence to support that opinion. It’s perfectly okay to say, “this comment strikes me as racist,” or “this opinion is ill-informed” – even “stupid.” But that doesn’t make the person who made the comment either a racist or stupid by definition. And it’s not “trolling” to disagree.

It’s hard to judge what’s in other peoples’ heads and hearts. We’ve all got to allow each other room for mistakes of expression, for errors of ignorance. We’ve got to give each other room for growth.

I’m not saying there aren’t times when somebody deserves to be slapped down, and hard, but it seems to me that we’ve set the bar pretty low here lately. The blog and the comments are supposed to be a forum of discussion, for exchange of ideas, for socializing, etc. They aren’t for engaging in juvenile pissing contests.

I’m speaking on Richard’s behalf on this general topic because he’s got way too much on his plate to deal with this right now, but the specific opinions I’ve expressed here are my own, so please direct flames at me rather than him.

(one more note: I rarely edit comments. When I do, I will put my name in the edited comment so you’ll know it’s me)


Things I’ll miss about Taiwan

In many ways, Taiwan is a sad place right now (and not just because they know I’m leaving). There’s a sense among so many I speak with that they’ll never spread their wings again and soar. That they’ll always be in China’s shadow, and that China will continue to chip away at Taiwan’s businesses, which simply can’t compete with prices in the mainland. Everywhere you look in Taipei, there are long lines of taxis. Lots of taxis. Few passengers. A taxi driver was telling me just the other night how hard life has become for him and his family. What can you do? They always ask me when me I think things will turn around, when Taiwan will “bounce back.” I don’t know what to say.

In every industry, multinationals are cutting their budgets in Taiwan and other relatively small markets as they focus on the “BRICs” (Brazil, Russia, China and India), those as yet untapped markets that seem to hold so much promise, and you wonder how the other markets will cope. I want to think there’s still a lot of hope for Taiwan. There”s so much wealth here and so much success, and a visit down any of the main streets will tell you that people here are still buying. But everyone’s nervous. Just about all the young people I meet have plans to study abroad. The mindset is that the only way to survive is to get out, to master English and perhaps find a job in China. English schools are everywhere, and they, too, are thriving. English is thought to be one of the keys to getting out, or at least to getting a better-paying job. And it’s true. Jobs are scarce, but there’s a serious need for competent people who speak fluent English. If you can read and write English, you have a tremendous advantage.

Still, I think it’s important not to get sucked into the trap of feeling grief and pity for Taiwan. As I said, there’s still a huge amount of wealth and opportunity here. It’s still one of the most vibrant places I’ve ever seen, and there’s a lot here to love and enjoy. And I know very soon I am going to miss these things terribly.

First, there are the people. The Taiwanese are truly a class act – gracious, polite, willing to stop and help strangers, always putting their best face forward even in hard times. And even the aforementioned taxi drivers – they, too, amaze me with their kindness and honesty and refusal to sacrifice their morals. At least three times, including just this past weekend, I’ve gotten into a taxi not knowing my destination was just around the corner, and they dropped me off and refused to take any money. (In Shanghai, I’ve been driven literally a few inches and paid the full fare, though the driver could simply have pointed and said, “It’s right across the street, over there.”) And the taxi drivers, and just about everyone else here, are just so nice, so decent and caring. Quite a different story than in Hong Kong. Similar to what I often experienced in Singapore, but no where else in Asia (or the US, for that matter).

I don’t think I love the people of any other country more than I love the Taiwanese. I can tell story after story about good Samaritans, delightful conversations with strangers, offers to help from out of the blue. And just thinking about it now, knowing I will be here only another five or six days (three days this week, and a couple days in January when I return and gather my stuff), I am filled with a sentimental mixture of sadness and appreciation and respect. I know I am going to miss these people soon. Very soon.

There are lots of little things that make Taiwan so magical. The throngs of people lining the main roads like Zhongxiao Dong Lu all through the night, even at midnight, shopping and eating and drinking. The immaculate subways and an infrastructure that really works. The courtesy of the drivers, who actually stop as the light turns red and always yield to pedestrians. The odd weekly ritual when seemingly everyone in the neighborhood gathers on the street to socialize with one another as they wait for the garbage truck to come and take away their trash. (There are almost no public wastebaskets here, and getting rid of garbage is a social event – you really have to see it to understand and appreciate it. Literally hundreds of people pour onto the street to participate, carrying their plastic bags of carefully separated recyclable and disposable rubbish.) The gorgeous mountains that surround the city, leading to the hot springs of Beitou. The boisterous night markets where the vendors never push you to buy and the prices are fair (bargaining doesn’t seem to be part of the general culture here). The little alleys that wind around the major streets filled with small shops and restaurants. Honest landlords who go out of their way to provide excellent service. Even honest real estate brokers. I know there must be crime and dishonesty here, but I’ve never seen it.

I’ve made it something of a Friday night ritual after work to eat at the TGI Friday’s at Zhongxiao-Fuxing, where I regularly meet up with employees of the AIT (the equivalent of the US State Department, which we can’t call the State Department because we don’t recognize Taiwan as a country) and other expats. The staff knows us all by name. They know I like my ice cream served with a long spoon, and that I want my salad dressing on the side. They help me with my Chinese characters and even send me text messages asking when I’ll be back. I am going to miss them like you wouldn’t believe. They offered to throw a party for me my last night here (I’m not much into parties and told them I’d rather keep my exit low-key).

Yeah, there’s a lot about Taiwan that is absolutely first rate. I’d recommend it to anyone considering living in Asia, especially if you have a family. It doesn’t have the sense of the unexpected that Hong Kong and Shanghai do, that sense that just about anything can happen as you walk into the night. It’s not a city of surprises. But it’s anything but boring, and I’d rate it high above Singapore in terms of things to do and see (though that’s not setting the bar very high, come to think of it). I know there will be moments in Beijing when I will look back longingly and wonder, Why on earth did I ever leave Taipei, where you can wear a short-sleeved shirt and no jacket in December, and where people walking in the pedestrian lanes aren’t considered moving targets? I know, Beijing has its own qualities, and comparisons like that aren’t fair; but they are inevitable.

So thanks to the people who brought me out here, especially Jerome Keating and Bill Stimson, without whose urging I would never have come. It was more than worth it, and I will have the fondest memories of this place and its people for the rest of my life. I’m trying to savor every moment I can as I prepare my belongings for the shippers and get ready to say my farewells. It’s when you prepare to leave a place that you suddenly realize all there is that makes it so special, and you feel the twinge of regret for the places you never got to and the people you never called. But Taiwan will still be here, and I know I’ll be back. And for all the angst and uncertainty, I think they will do okay. God knows they deserve to, and I believe a people as smart and motivated as this can’t be put down for too long. I can’t tell my friends when Taiwan will “bounce back,” but I can honestly say I believe it will.

I didn’t really know what this post was going to morph into as I started it, I just knew I wanted to tell the world how much I love Taiwan before i depart. Now that the post is written, I’m a little embarrassed at its meandering and occasionally mawkish tone, but its completely from the heart. So let me say it one more time: I love Taiwan.


“Cybercriminals threaten us all in 2007!”

I really hope people take a look with a critical eye at this article featured prominently in Yahoo’s headlines. It’s all about the terrible risks we all face next year because of sophisticated and ruthless hackers. It quotes one expert after another, each offering a grimmer and more sensationalist/alarmist scenario.

Who are these experts? Two are with Trend Micro and one is from McAffee. And what do these companies do? They make a living by scaring us into buying increasingly expensive security solutions. They are the ones who are always quoted when a new virus hits, whipping up as much fear as possible.

Internet threats are real and we all need anti-spyware and virus protection. But this isn’t news. It is pure public relations, and a damned good piece of work at that. The only ones quoted are those who directly and significantly profit with every new nervous reader. It’s a coup, especially with it landing in the little headlines box on Yahoo’s home page. As journalism, however, it truly sucks. Never is it mentioned that those quoted stand to gain by the perception of cyberthreats. There is no balance anywhere. I especially liked this quote:

“The attacks are becoming more sophisticated,” said Dave Rand of Internet security firm Trend Micro. “It’s all about making money. And they’re making a lot of it,” he told Reuters.

Yes, they certainly are. Reuters should be embarrassed.


Chen Shui Bian’s party decimated in easy-to-predict election

No, not really. Those who have been following ESWN’s interesting series on polls in Taipei may find the reality of the situation somewhat inexplicable, but here it is.

Taiwan’s ruling party defied expectations that it would be trounced in local elections Saturday, handing President Chen Shui-bian some breathing room after months of fighting off scandals. But the mixed results probably will result in continued political infighting at least through the 2008 presidential election, analysts said.

In the two most closely watched races, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party narrowly won the mayoral race in the city of Kaohsiung and the opposition Nationalists won handily in Taipei.

The elections were seen as a referendum on Chen, who has been battling corruption-related allegations for six months. Chen’s wife and three former aides were indicted last month on charges of embezzling $450,000 from a national affairs fund under presidential control. The prosecutor said Chen could face the same charges when his term – and presidential immunity – ends.

The Kaohsiung victory boosted morale in the president’s office: Pundits and opinion polls had predicted a humiliating loss for candidate Chen Chu. The results also bolstered the party’s reputation for running excellent grass-roots campaigns.

This was suposed to be a slam-dunk for the blues. Go figure.


“China did it right, Russia screwed up”

Here’s an intriguing and disturbing article by a native Muscovite turned NY-based economist on how China has secured its position as, in effect, the linchpin of the world’s economy. The article is fascinating on multiple levels. First, there is its argument that Russia in effect committed suicide with its rush to democracy while China, by taking a different path, went on to become master of the universe. Second is its argument, which I find more compelling than the previous point, that any blow to the Chinese economy could reverberate to cause unimaginable fiscal strife for America (and thus the world). It’s an eyeful and should be read in full, but here’s a taste.

China’s rapid economic development is the most amazing story of the past decade — just as the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia’s slide into irrelevance was the main historical event of the previous 10 years.

Until the mid-1980s, Russia and China vied for the supremacy of their respective brands of communism. Then, in the early 1990s, the focus of the rivalry shifted to the best model for transition to the free market.

After the Russian default in 1998, it became accepted wisdom that the Soviet Union should have delayed democratization, reforming its economy along Chinese lines first. The rollback of democracy and reassertion of the role of the state under President Vladimir Putin can be seen in this light as a shift toward the Chinese model.

As recently as at the turn of the century, Russia still seemed to be in the running. Even now, Chinese gross domestic product remains low on a per capita basis, and many Russians retain a sense of superiority toward everything Chinese, from goods to people. But the race for economic supremacy is over. After 25 years of annual growth averaging nearly 10 percent, China’s economy on a purchasing-power-parity basis is approaching $10 trillion, gaining inexorably on that of the United States. Its annual exports have increased sixfold in the past decade alone and measure close to $1 trillion.

China is not just an enormous producer of manufactured goods. In accordance with the Marxist law of transformation of quantity into quality, its global weight has increased substantially. It is now a linchpin of the East Asian manufacturing network. With its trade surplus breaking records, and its stock of direct foreign investment approaching half a trillion dollars and central bank reserves hitting $1 trillion, China is also a pivotal player in the global financial system.

After this comes the analysis of how China’s economic misfortune can (and most likely will) launch a global crisis hitherto unimaginable since the Great Depression.

Update: I was going to leave it at that but can’t resist quoting the final grafs:

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union could annihilate the United States with its nuclear weapons — and face instant annihilation in return — but it could not make a serious impact on its economy. China has emerged as probably the only nation in the world that can single-handedly undermine the U.S. economy. If China suffers an economic or political crisis, the United States will likely be plunged into a severe recession — if not an outright depression.

This scenario is ominously similar to that of the Great Depression of the 1930s, which was largely a U.S. crisis taking place after a decade of breakneck economic growth. The stock market crash occurred on Wall Street, but its shockwaves promptly spread around the world. Ultimately, the Depression marked the demise of British economic dominance and the end of the pound as a global currency. While the next global economic crisis is likely to originate in China, it will almost certainly mark the end of the dollar as the linchpin of the global financial system and a substantial diminution of the central role of the United States.

I do not see this as being at all unrealistic. Sobering stuff.

Via CDT.



For many years, I’ve had a sort of phobia about shopping malls. It came from growing up in San Diego and watching previously undeveloped coastal sage lands disappear into a morass of parking lots and franchises. Aside from hating what they did to once beautiful scenery, malls made me nervous. You could go to one and find the same things at another several states away – the same stores, the same products, the same muzak. Where was the creativity, the originality, the expression of culture? Is everything reducible to a commodity, and is that all we value? And even if so, what happened to all those quirky little businesses that were one of a kind? Was every form of commerce doomed to that which could be replicated on a mass scale?

So this kind of scares me:

With 30,000 stores crammed on four sprawling floors, International Trade City – about 200 miles south of Shanghai – is the largest wholesale mall in the world.

The S-shaped building, painted orange and pale yellow, is 18 million square feet. That’s about the equivalent of 350 football fields and about six times the size of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza, one of the biggest shopping centers in the U.S.

You won’t find any cinemas or food courts here, but Yiwu officials boast that the market sells 400,000 different items. Situated in bustling Zhejiang province, the giant 4-year-old mall illustrates the power of China Inc. today: enormous scale and specialization, driven by ambitious private entrepreneurs.



Becoming a power blogger in China

ESWN does us all a service with this translation of a blog post on how blogging is developing in China. (You can find the original Chinese version here.) It sounds like Chinese bloggers are finally learning how to use blogs to get things done and to interconnect, as opposed to using them simply as a place to post some personal poems, essays and photos.

Now, if only the blogger had avoided the hackneyed phrase about Chinese blogs having “strong Chinese characteristics.” The characteristics she describes actually sound pretty universal – e.g., blogs that get lots of links get noticed more than blogs that don’t, and some bloggers are using their sites to generate advertising revenues.


CCP pushes cadres to be more honest, less corrupt

That’s certainly a good thing – but is it a serious attempt to stamp out (or at least rein in) corruption, or is it mainly for show? You decide.

China’s Communist Party leaders have quietly filled top anti-corruption spots in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin this week in a bid to stem embarrassing scandals linked to public pension funds and the construction industry.

The move is also aimed at sending a signal to ordinary Chinese and party members that the administration of President Hu Jintao is serious about cracking down on power abuses before the 17th Party Congress next fall. Senior officials have said they consider corruption a grave threat to the legitimacy of the one-party state.

…Shen Deyong, a former Supreme Court vice president, was appointed Shanghai’s anti-graft head after the Communist Party secretary of China’s most international city, Chen Liangyu, was dismissed in September. There was no formal announcement of Shen’s move, but state-run media have in recent days started referring to him as secretary of the Shanghai Commission for Discipline Inspection.

Although Hu has a reputation for tackling corruption more aggressively than his predecessor, Jiang Zemin, many analysts believe the problem is so widespread that the party risks collapse if it adopts a zero-tolerance policy. Others say anti-graft campaigns are selective, often tied to ulterior political motives.

Chen, for instance, who was implicated for allowing $400 million in pension fund assets to be used in speculative real estate and toll road investments, was seen as a Jiang supporter who defied Hu’s call to tamp down economic growth in Shanghai.

The latest moves place Hu allies in key positions and send a warning to cadres in smaller cities. But some question the effectiveness of the moves.

“They’re using these appointments to demonstrate their intention to fight corruption, yet they don’t make any new appointments to judicial bodies,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “That gives you some idea of their priorities.”

Under the Chinese system, the Communist Party is above the law, and there is little indication this situation will change any time soon. Party leaders also have resisted calls for internal checks and balances to address what some see as a flawed structure.

To me, it sounds like basically another move by the CCP to protect and preserve its grip on power. They can’t seriously go after corruption on a massive scale because it would be an act of suicide – corruption is the glue that binds the many disparate and distant segments of the party together. Without it, the CCP loses support from its cadres and, in effect, falls apart. So while I appreciate any efforts to make officials more accountable and honest, you’ll have to pardon me if I feel forced to look skeptically at the latest “reforms” of Mr. Hu.