Much is now being made of what China's state-run media isn't saying about the popular revolutions in the Middle East, which is hardly surprising.
But what is rather striking -- bold and courageous -- is the following Feb. 14 editorial published by the Chinese news and finance media company Caixin, which has recently been revamped under daring Editor in Chief Hu Shuli. As context, the opening lines are reacting to the common suggestion in the Chinese press that Egypt's uprising has led to dangerous "social instability."
Autocracy creates instability; democratic deliberations lead to peace. Support for the replacement of an authoritarian regime would only serve short-term interests. Only the establishment of democratic institutions in the Middle East will form a fundamental basis for long-term stability.
Recently, the Arab world has experienced a tide of democratic expectations. But the situation in Egypt is particularly striking. On February 11, President Hosni Mubarak agreed to give up power and transfer authority to the military's leadership. The Egyptian army issued a statement on the same day that it would ensure a smooth and orderly transfer of power and ensure that the upcoming presidential elections in September will be free, fair, and transparent …
The rest of the editorial (in Chinese) can be read at the magazine's web site here. The author(s) examine everything from the role of U.S. pressure on Mubarak to questions about whether a democratic Egypt will become Islamist -- a fear they largely dismiss.
Although it's hard to read without thinking of the implications for China, the article, tellingly, never explicitly mentions China or domestic politics.
While I nod to my colleague Colum Lynch's sage article on the dangers of using Twitter as a reporting tool, it's notable to see a great deal of activity on the Chinese Twittersphere -- even at 3 a.m. -- forwarding news of Mubarak stepping down. You can follow yourself here.
A few sample tweets, roughly translated:
"I am very optimistic about the future of Egypt. There are new national heros and they have acheived such an important victory, no matter what the future difficulties."
"In China, the next change will not produce another Tiananmen Square. People are learning. A lot of people are surprised at the sophistication of the Egyptian opposition groups' strategy, and also at the Egyptian military's power of restraint."
"An Egyptian blogger wrote: 'This is no leader of the Revolution' and 'three million individuals have chosen hope over fear.'"
UPDATE: China's Foreign Ministry hasn't yet released a statement in the wee hours, but I expect official reaction will be similar to what Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told a press briefing yesterday in Beijing: "China holds that Egypt's affairs should be decided independently by the country without foreign interference ... We believe Egypt has the wisdom and capacity to find proper solutions and get through the current tough time."
It took one year to design. One year to construct. And a few hours to tear down.
The Shanghai studio of Ai Weiwei, China's most famous contemporary artist, was razed to the ground on Tuesday. He had known since mid-October that his studio, which the authorities originally green-lighted and then declared in violation of local building codes, was slated for demolition. But he did not know when, exactly, the wrecking crews would arrive.
Two months, three weeks, and two days later, they came, unannounced. As Ai told the BBC, he had received no prior notice. Before long, his spacious brick studio was rubble and memory.
In November, he had organized a goodbye party of sorts at the studio over the Internet, attracting hundreds of fans, many of whom made cross-country pilgrimages to visit the celebrated artist's workspace. (For more, see the FP photo essay, "The Party Goes On.")
The next day, Ai told the New Yorker's Evan Osnos, "It all goes down so fast. There's no reason to stay.… Everything is in the past. And we have to look forward."
"Even in my worst nightmares I could not have conceived that this could happen," Lyutsina Khalip, the grandmother of a rosy-cheeked, 3-year-old boy who may soon become a pawn in Belarusian politics, told the New York Times yesterday.
The boy, Danil Sannikov, is the son of opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, who ran against incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus's Dec. 12 presidential election. His mother is investigative journalist Irina Khalip. Both parents have been in prison since election day. Lukashenko -- who has been in power for 16 years and is often called Europe's last dictator -- that evening watched as his police forces descended on Minsk's central square, where they detained hundreds of members of the opposition who had gathered to protest the presumed sham election results. Many were also beaten. Between 11 p.m. and midnight, several hundred people were forced into packed police buses and then driven to a KGB prison near Minsk.
The next day, Danil's grandmother received a letter from her daughter Irina instructing her to look after the boy. "She wanted me to tell Danil she really loved him," Irina said. She has not heard from Irina or her son-in-law, Andrei, since then.
Now, as the Times reports, the boy's fate also hangs in the balance:
The government warned recently that it might seize custody of the 3-year-old son of an opposition presidential candidate who was jailed along with his wife, a journalist. The authorities said that they were investigating the status of the child, who is now living with his grandmother, and that they expected to make a decision by the end of the month.
In 16 years as ruler of Belarus, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko has often been called Europe’s last dictator. But the plight of the child, Danil Sannikov, may represent a new tactic in the government’s persecution of the opposition, one that harks back to the Stalin era, when the children of so-called enemies of the people were sent to orphanages after their parents went to the gulag.
The above photo of Danil was sent to Foreign Policy by Belarus-based photographer Andrei Liankevich, who took profile portraits of several members of the country's long-suffering opposition on the heels of the election. (For more, see FP's photo essay, "Life Under Europe's Last Dictator.")
On Wednesday, a fascinating and eclectic group of scientists, journalists, policy makers, and entrepreneurs converged at the "Energy Innovation 2010" conference in Washington, sponsored by the Innovation Technology Foundation and the Breakthrough Institute. Speakers and moderators included the New York Times' Andy Revkin, DOE Under Secretary of Energy Cathy Zoi, MIT's William Bonvillian, Tom Kerr of the International Energy Agency, NPR's Richard Harris, Time's Bryan Walsh, longtime staffers for Sens. Richard Lugar and Jeff Bingaman, and many others.
One thing that immediately struck me was the stark change in tone from recent past conferences: After two years of fairly disappointing outcomes at the U.N. climate summits in Copenhagen and Cancun, and after watching hopes for cap-and-trade or other measures to regulate carbon fizzle in the U.S. Congress, a growing slice of those favoring investment in clean-energy are working hard to ditch the association with "climate," which now seems to many a losing political issue. As the Breakthrough Institute's Ted Nordhaus put it, "We need to free energy from the polarizing climate debate."
Thus, the new framing is that energy innovation is about building a stronger America; it's about leading the next global innovation wave. It's not about creating in the short-term "green jobs" (a term we don't hear so much anymore), but about recognizing that long-term economic prosperity will require greater investment in science and engineering education. (Tom Friedman was not present in person, but clearly in spirit.) And so, the ensuing conversations focused not on temperature targets or sea-level predictions, or even on the imperative of loosening America's dependence on Middle East oil, but largely on trying to sleuth out just what is innovation, where it comes from, and how to nurture it.
Over the last 100 years, America has had a pretty good track record at leading global innovation waves: developing and commercialzing the technologies for the combustion engine, aviation, the telephone, television, computer, and the Internet. How did that happen, and how can we make it happen again? The historic role of generous, sustained funding from the federal government, in particular the Department of Defense, in the early stages of developing the aforementioned technologies was several times mentioned. (Over at Time's Ecocentric blog, Bryan Walsh has posted a chart of government R & D investment over the last 50 years in various sectors, including basic energy research, which many argue is now too low.) The recent policy paper "Post-Partisan Power," co-published by theBreakthrough Institute, Brookings Institution, and American Enterprise Institute, is just one of myriad recent pleas for greater "federal innovation investment," which the authors now calculate at $4 billion and recommend bumping up to $25 billion. Needless to say, it's hard to argue against throwing more money at an important challenge, but also hard to imagine that money materializing in the next two years. But let's say it does. Where and how should we spend it?
One relevant upcoming report will be the International Atomic Energy's global study on green energy investments, which according to senior energy analyst Tom Kerr will look at both comparative national policies supporting basic and applied research and at policy tools to drive adoption of new technologies. When it comes to questions of how to build up a massive solar-panel manufacturing base in five years, we're collectively in awe of China. But when it comes to figuring out how to get utilities and customers to actually adopt new technologies at home, Kerr suggested we might learn more from boring Old Europe.
The U.S. embassy in Beijing has an air-quality monitoring station that tracks the level of certain pollutants in China's notoriously smoggy capital -- and then broadcasts results via Twitter. Most tweets from the sober-minded scientists behind @BeijingAir look like this:
11-17-2010; 10:00; PM2.5; 154.0; 204; Very Unhealthy // Ozone; 0.2; 0
But yesterday a new reading was pronounced, one not listed on the US EPA's usual air-quality index:
11-19-2010; 02:00; PM2.5; 562.0; 500; Crazy Bad
A "Crazy bad" day, apparently, is one in which the pollution reading -- a score typically from 1 to 500 reflecting measurements of ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide in the air -- is literally off the charts. That is, it exceeds the EPA's maximum score of 500, the upper bound for a "hazardous" day. The definition of a "hazardous" day is pretty ominous: "Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected." But what's beyond hazardous?
The new category of "crazy bad" will not be formally incorporated into the EPA's index, but will first be renamed, as the embassy later told the Associated Press. Just another record broken in China for which we have yet no name.
Hat tip: @gadyepstein
China's authoritarianism is at times ruthless and at times, well… confused. A case in point is the decision to put Ai Weiwei, arguably China's best known artist (a co-designer of the "Bird's Nest" Olympic Stadium who also has current exhibit at the Tate Modern in London) under house arrest. Ai has been a longtime critic of the Chinese government, and he is increasingly in the international spotlight. If the authorities had wanted to merely silence him, they have their ways. If they had wanted to allow him to speak his mind -- perhaps as an example to the world that China is more open than its critics charge -- they could have done so.
Instead, here is what happened, as Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reports:
In what he described as a farcical series of visits by the police, Mr. Ai was told he would not be allowed to host a mass party he had planned to hold in Shanghai on Sunday as a protest against the authorities.
"They came at half past midnight and told me they did not wish me to go to Shanghai," Ai said by telephone from his walled compound home on the outskirts of Beijing. "I said that I had already announced the party and that I could not not go.
"They suggested I should announce that I was under house arrest," Ai said. "I told them I could not say that unless I was under house arrest."
After three more visits and continued discussion on Friday morning, Ai recounted, "they told me at 1:30 this afternoon that I was under house arrest."
The backstory is that Ai, who lives in Beijing, had planned a party of sorts to commemorate the destruction of his studio in Shanghai. The local government had declared the studio, not a dissident hotbed, but an "illegal structure" and so slated it for demolition.
The fact of the government taking action to restrict the movements of such a prominent figure is troubling, and in this case a bit surprising. The manner in which Ai is being supressed is rather wobbly. It is "farcical," as Ford says Ai put it, and reveals something of the government's confusion or indecisivness (should we or shouldn't we arrest him?), also worth taking note of.
Last night I went to one of those quintessential Washington odd-couple events, where Bianca Jagger in a floor-length leopard-print sheath said some words about research and rainforests and presented a trophy to President Obama's national advisor on science and technology, John Holdren, on behalf of the Federation of American Scientists. The take-home gift for guests was a reprint of the 1946 bestseller, One World or None, a collection of essays penned by scientists warning of the coming nuclear age.
Holdren talked a bit about the role of science and technology in the Obama administration. He noted the happy uptick in intellectual capital over the Bush years, pointing to the multiple Nobel laureates at the helm of federal agencies, and the administration's increasing willingness to examine the role of technology in achieving other priorities, such as healthcare delivery and development assistance. But even so, darn it's hard making progress, he said, in this political and economic environment. Not many big concrete, accomplishments to brag about. No projections on future climate or carbon policy.
Yet, one passing remark gave me some hope: When Holdren took the job, he had expected much of his role to entail educating the president. However, Holdren found, as he put it, "When I go in to meet with the president, I almost never have to explain to him how the underlying technology works. We go immediately to the question of: 'What should we do?'"
Liu Jin/Getty Images
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