In the latest development in the showdown between Taiwan and the Philippines over the death of a Taiwanese fisherman at the hands of the Philippine coast guard, Taiwan is holding military drills near Philippine waters. The Philippines -- its apology having been rejected by Taiwan -- is also standing firm, saying it won't "appease" the Taiwanese, while the United States is urging cooler heads to prevail. The standoff is just the latest in a string of geopolitical showdowns in which fishermen have served -- sometimes unwittingly and sometimes wittingly -- as lightning rods in East and Southeast Asian maritime territorial disputes.
The humble fishing boat, in fact, has been at the center of incidents between China and Russia; between China and Vietnam; between Japan and Taiwan; between China and South Korea; between North Korea and South Korea; between North Korea and China; between China and the Philippines; and between South Korea and Japan. And then, of course, there was the 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard patrol boats in disputed waters near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which set relations between the two Asian superpowers on edge for months.
How has the fisherman -- a seemingly unassuming practitioner of his ancient craft -- come to play this vital role on the international stage? There are a number of factors at play. For starters, Asian waters are running out of fish -- which means more fishing boats are straying into foreign waters in search of good hauls. Then there's the growing nationalism in many of these countries, which raises the stakes in these disputes and allows one arrested fisherman to take on national significance.
In addition, there's the suspicion that some countries -- notably China -- really do use fishermen as proxies in their ongoing disputes with other countries -- that these fishing boats are not the innocent bystanders caught up in forces greater than themselves that they seem. At the height of last year's tensions with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, it was reported that China was sending an "armada" of 1,000 fishing boats to the islands with the goal of overwhelming the Japanese coast guard -- though the reports later proved false.
Hung Shih-cheng, the 65-year-old Taiwanese fisherman at the center of the current row between Taiwan and the Philippines, appears to have ventured into disputed territory with the simple aim of fishing; the Philippine coast guard has said the crew believed he was trying to ram one of their ships and opened fire.
Venture astray, and face the chance of catching fire from a military vessel as a result of international border disputes? That's quite an occupational hazard.
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, China's Ministry of Public Security announced that the police had arrested 63 traders accused of buying rat, fox, and mink meat and then selling the meat as mutton. Apparently, the crime ring had been mixing the meat with gelatin, red dye, and nitrates before selling it in Shanghai and neighboring Jiangsu province. How appetizing.
It has been quite a year for food scandals, what with IKEA's horsemeat meatballs and China's floating dead pigs. To China's credit, the country appears to be tackling the food safety issue head on (state media report that Chinese law enforcement officials have arrested more than 900 people for selling fake or tainted meat in the last three months). But this latest revelation has shocked more than reassured, leaving many in China to wonder whether the "mutton" stewing on their stoves is really made of lamb after all.
But never fear! Foreign Policy reached out to North Carolina-based artist Laura Ginn, who, after organizing a rat-themed five-course dinner in New York last year, has become somewhat of a rat meat connoisseur. With her help, we hereby offer you five ways to know you're eating rat.
1. It smells like rat. Rats secrete an oil onto their skin that gives them their distinct "rodenty" odor. Some compare the smell to that of a warm tortilla, says Ginn, while others compare it to urine. Regardless, it's distinctive. While it's true that the odor lessens after the rat is skinned, and again after the rat is cooked, no amount of cooking can ever completely get rid of the smell.
2. It tastes like rat. The oil rats secrete gives them a distinctive taste as well. Ginn describes it as quite pungent and gamey -- most similar to raccoon or rabbit. Blended with other meats, rat becomes a lot less distinctive, so you'd have to be rather discerning to notice it.
3. It tastes delicious when brushed with a moonshine glaze and barbecued. Of all the ways Ginn has eaten rat, this is her favorite preparation. A close second is smoked rat jerky served on brioche French toast. So, if you happen to be savoring a moonshine-BBQ dish, or think there is something slightly "rodenty" about the gamey and delicious jerky you are consuming, you might want to check the ingredients.
4. It looks like lamb. When it's raw, pinkish/red rat looks very much like lamb. Unfortunately for the Chinese, when ground, rat can look a lot like any generic ground meat. When cooked, rat looks more like rabbit, Ginn thinks, just because of the shape of the cuts.
5. You're in Asia. According to Ginn, rats are most commonly eaten in Asia because of the rice crop. In areas where rats feed off rice paddies rather than garbage, the rodents are considered safer to eat. Of course, it isn't clear whether the rats marketed as mutton in China were healthy, rice-fed rats or sewer-dwelling, garbage-eating, Templeton-esque rats. The New York Times reports that the arrest announcement "did not explain how exactly the traders acquired the rats and other creatures." Rats are also disease carriers, so when Ginn organized her meal she ordered hers from a company that supplies specially raised, grain-fed rodents to zoos.
"Leader, Just Give Us Your Order" KCNA
North Korea's threats have dominated international news over the past month. But a quick scan of North Korea's state-run news agency KCNA suggests we've been missing something: Pyongyang's unique literary approach to bellicosity.
Every few days, it seems, KCNA publishes an article detailing songs and poems performed at official events -- remarkably literal titles that give you a sense of what it might sound like if Kim Jong Un adapted his provocations as a musical. Here are some of the top songs:
When it comes to poetry -- a literary form loathed by high schoolers the world over for its mind-numbing level of abstraction and obfuscation -- the North Koreans might be on to something with titles like:
If these are a little somber for your taste, there's always the poem that kicked off today's event celebrating the 20th anniversary of Kim Jong Il's election as the DPRK defense commission chairman -- the idyllically titled, "Great Joy in April."
For those who listened to "Leader, Just Give Us Your Order" and still want more, here are "We Will Defend General Kim Jong Un at the Cost of Our Lives" and "Provokers Are Bound to Meet Death":
We may not know much about the man currently plowing full speed ahead toward international nuclear crisis, but one thing we do know for sure is that he is young -- 29 or 30. And this, most news outlets seem to agree, is an important factor in understanding how we wound up where we are today -- and where we may be headed. CNN calls Kim Jong Un "a rash young leader." "Young, reckless, without great political savvy," writes the Christian Science Monitor. The Daily Mail calls the North Korean supreme leader a "boy despot."
It's conventional wisdom that age and experience are calming forces in international relations -- that with a few gray hairs comes the moderation and wisdom to avoid, say, calling other, much larger states, "boiled pumpkin[s]." But one academic study on the question finds the connections between age and political crises to be a little more nuanced. For every brash, brassy Louis XIV -- who, at 29, invaded the Spanish Netherlands in 1667 and was forced to give almost all of it back a year later -- there is a Nikita Khrushchev placing missiles on Cuba in his late 60s.
A 2005 study from the Journal of Conflict Resolution examined the ages of the leaders involved in 100,000 interactions between states from 1875 to 1999, and found that, in fact, the older the leader, the more likely he is to both initiate and escalate conflicts. Having an experienced counterpart on the other side of a dispute didn't seem to help much either. The study found that the risk of escalation -- to use of force, and then to all-out war -- also increases as the age of the leader in the second state goes up.
What's going on? The authors of the study, "Leader Age, Regime Type, and Violent International Relations," speculate that older leaders may have fewer institutional constraints on them, having gained credibility and freedom to act by virtue of their experience:
One example of this is the presidency of George H.W. Bush in comparison to the presidency of Bill Clinton. Bush, as a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, an ambassador, and a vice president, had amassed an enormous amount of institutional credibility ... that gave him a greater latitude to direct U.S. military policy.
In addition, the authors reason, the shorter time horizons of aging leaders may prompt them to take greater risks in the hopes of building a legacy.
So does this mean that we should all take a deep breath and relax about North Korea -- that young Kim is exactly who we want in charge in this situation? Not quite. The authors go on to look at how the relationship between age and leadership changes when the data set is reduced to just "personalist regimes" where power is concentrated in the hands of a single leader. Here, they find that the relationship is turned on its head: younger leaders are actually slightly more prone to initiate and escalate crises. Why? The authors hypothesize that young autocrats may face fewer institutional constraints from the get-go.
This is important to note when looking at Kim's behavior, because most North Korea watchers believe North Korea's institutions don't restrain Kim's behavior; if anything, they drive him to be more aggressive, as the only institution whose voice really matters in the Hermit Kingdom is the military (not an uncommon situation in many autocratic regimes -- perhaps suggesting that young despots beholden to the military are just as institutionally constrained as their counterparts in democracies, but pushed toward aggression rather than peaceful behavior).
The authors do close on a somewhat reassuring note -- they encourage further study of the effect having children has on leaders' aggression: "Testosterone concentrations ... [are] lowest in the new father population immediately after their wives" give birth, they write.
Good news for those of us who want peace on the Korean peninsula: Kim Jong Un is rumored to be a new father.
It looks like rare earth elements aren't the only commodity China has been allegedly keeping to itself. According to a recent study published in the journal Fish and Fisheries, the Chinese have been drastically underreporting the number of fish that Chinese ships catch in other countries' waters every year.
While China tells the UNFAO, the U.N. agency that tracks global fishing data, that Chinese distant-water fishing vessels take in roughly 368,000 tons of fish a year, the Fish and Fisheries report estimates that the actual weight of the collective catch is more than 12 times that number -- around 4.6 million tons a year. At the same time, China exaggerates its domestic catch.
The report claims that the majority of the haul (64 percent) comes from off the coast of West Africa, where Chinese fishing practices could have a serious impact on the local population. "The study shows the extent of the looting of Africa, where so many people depend on seafood for basic protein," Daniel Pauly, a professor at the University of British Columbia and one of the authors of the study, told the Guardian. "We need to know how many fish have been taken from the ocean in order to figure out what we can catch in the future. Countries need to realize the importance of accurately recording and reporting their catches and step up to the plate, or there will be no fish left for our children."
It's important to note that just because the fishing goes unreported doesn't mean it's illegal. The Chinese government may have negotiated special (and usually secret) agreements with certain African coastal states allowing Chinese vessels to fish in the waters.
It's also true that the Chinese are not alone in exploiting West Africa's abundant fishing grounds. But, if these estimates are correct, Chinese fishermen are doing it on a much larger scale than anyone else, catching as much as 22 West African coastal countries and the other 38 countries fishing in the region combined. The long-term consequences for food security could be quite severe.
Dirk Zeller et al / Journal of Fish and Fisheries
In her article for FP today, Laurie Garrett wonders whether thousands of dead pigs washing up in Shanghai's rivers and two Chinese citizens dying of a new flu strain are early symptoms of the next big pandemic. What's more, she writes, the potentially contaminated pork has already entered the Chinese food supply. "On March 25," Garrett notes, "Chinese authorities seized manufactured pork buns that were found to be made from Zhejiang pigs that had died of the mysterious ailment."
The prevalence of dicey food products -- including dead, diseased, or otherwise dodgy pork -- has long been an issue in China. But the recent tide of dead hogs sweeping through Shanghai -- said to partially stem from a crackdown by authorities on the dead-pig trade -- has produced some fascinating reporting that gives us a more detailed look at the economics driving China's market for illegal pig meat.
It's pretty straightforward: farmers who can't send a pig to be butchered once it has died don't want to totally write off their investments -- not when there's a chance to still make some of the money back. But according to recent reports, Chinese authorities have some policies in place that aren't exactly making the problem better.
According to this report, from the Oriental Morning Post, a 100-kilogram (roughly 220-pound) pig sells for about 600 yuan ($100) -- still a hefty sum in rural China. Feed costs total at least 150 yuan ($25).
Since July 2011, the central government has had a policy in place to pay some farms -- those that raise more than 50 pigs a year -- compensation of 80 yuan ($13) for every dead pig, according to the South China Morning Post. But 89 percent of the pigs raised in the city of Jiaxing -- thought to be the main source of the hogs that wound up in Shanghai's Huangpu river -- come from small farms, according to the report, and don't qualify. Even those that do often don't see the money.
To make matters worse, this thorough Shanghai Daily primer on the illegal pig trade says farmers in Zhejiang province were supposed to pay 50 yuan ($8) per carcass to so-called "dead pig collectors" hired by the local government who would then dispose of the carcass. Not surprisingly, most farmers opted not to pay this fee when illegal pig traders were around who were happy to pay 1 yuan per 500 grams of pig flesh. The result? Jiaxing pig collector Lu Gensong told Shanghai Daily he didn't collect a single carcass between 2009 and 2012. ("You Shanghai residents just don't realize how many dead pigs you have eaten before," one restaurant owner told Xinhua.)
And those illegal pork butchers? They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves -- perhaps well enough to pay even more than they're already shelling out for dead pig flesh if necessary. A CCTV investigation into the dead pig trade found that three butchers -- sentenced to life in prison last November -- had processed 77,000 carcasses, making almost 9 million yuan ($1.5 million) in profit.
If you're wondering why you'd pay to have your pig carcasses disposed of when you can be paid for them instead, well --it seems some farmers in Zhejiang province have been wondering the same thing.
This past weekend, Zeng Jia prepared and participated in her own funeral -- except she was alive the whole time. The Chinese college student, whose grandfather's recent death inspired her to organize her own -- rather premature -- funeral, said that she staged the event in order to think about her life and to find her true self. "I feel so good after coming out of the coffin," Zeng told China Daily. Yeah, I bet.
Though the funeral was fake, at least the friends and family in attendance were real -- something that is apparently not so much of a given anymore. The market for paid "mourners" -- professionals hired to attend a funeral (and sometimes grieve rather dramatically) so that the deceased appears popular -- is fairly large (and growing) in parts of China and the Middle East. And now, the trend has popped up in Britain. According to its website, "Rent-a-mourner," a new company based in Essex, rents out "professional, discrete people to attend funerals and wakes" for about $35 an hour.
Whether fake mourners are a sign of societal breakdown, as one Catholic Herald article claims, or just a way to make a grieving family feel a little better, the practice, along with Zeng's funeral stunt, does raise the question: What does it mean when funerals aren't quite so real anymore?
The Chinese government on Tuesday continued to deny that a Chinese frigate locked its radar on a Japanese destroyer earlier this year. The denial comes a day after Tokyo-based Kyodo News quoted unnamed "senior Chinese military officials" admitting for the first time that it happened -- but only by accident, they said.
It's worth noting, especially in light of Beijing's official denial, that we don't know who these Chinese officials are, or why they're speaking up now. But the report, if true, is disturbing precisely because the alleged standoff happened accidentally. According to the officials, the radar lock was an unplanned, "emergency decision" taken by the commander of the frigate -- one that did not include communication with fleet command or navy headquarters. This line in particular from Kyodo's report does not inspire confidence:
"The communication system used by the Chinese navy is not as advanced as those of Japan and the United States, a senior official said, explaining why the commander did not seek guidance."
Great. At a time when Chinese authorities seem to be making efforts to dial down tensions with Japan over disputed islands, could a war between East Asian superpowers be sparked by accident -- by some frigate commander gone rogue?
That nuclear war could come about in just such a scenario was, of course, a major concern during the Cold War. But decades of tension, as well as apocalyptic visions of global annihilation as a result of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. locking horns, produced carefully designed systems to minimize the damage any one rogue actor could inflict (only the president can access the nuclear codes), and to minimize misunderstandings from more minor incidents (the Kremlin-White House hotline).
But East Asia -- relatively free of military buildup until recently -- doesn't have these same systems in place. A soon-to-be-released report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies highlights the danger that emerges when a region's military systems develop faster than its communication mechanisms, and finds that accidental war in East Asia is a real possibility:
Across East Asia, advanced military systems such as anti-ship missiles, new submarines, advanced combat aircraft are proliferating in a region lacking security mechanisms that could defuse crises. Bilateral military-to-military ties are often only embryonic. There is a tangible risk of accidental conflict and escalation, particularly in the absence of a strong tradition of military confidence-building measures."
The Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands dispute has been marked by an increasing number of deliberate provocations on both sides: surveillance vessels entering nearby waters, patrol planes making passes by the islands, scrambled fighter jets. These are planned actions, designed to incrementally heighten tensions. But the more fighter jets that get scrambled without good communications systems in place, the higher the chances that these deliberate moves escalate beyond what either Japan or China is anticipating.
That being said, it's important to note that historians still question whether any wars have truly been started by accident. (War "is almost by definition a deliberate and carefully considered act," writes Michael Howard.) The origins of World War I -- sometimes dubbed the accidental war -- are still hotly debated, for example. But Reuters recently noted that China, while seeking to cool tensions with Japan, is at the same time taking steps to increase central control over its military (putting paramilitary agencies under a single command, for instance) to prevent accidents -- a sign, at least, that one party in this conflict is taking the possibility seriously.
When the government of the Philippines announced last month it was taking China to court over territorial claims in the South China Sea, it was seen by some as a surprising but savvy move -- a first step toward establishing some sort of law and order in East Asia's waters, which, up until now have been a sort of aquatic Wild West, with nations planting flags on rocks, roping off shoals, and building up tiny reefs to stake their claims.
The hearing was to determine the validity of China's claims to a wide swath of ocean that encompasses waters near the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, among other countries. Manila even generated some buzz by hiring D.C. lawyer Paul Reichler to argue its case, a man who's made his name as a "giant-slayer" in the world of international law for his often-successful track record of suing the U.S. Russia, and Britain on behalf of countries like Nicaragua, Georgia and Mauritius.
Then, on Tuesday, China made clear it had no plans to participate in any international court arbitration. Though the hearing will go on without China's participation, the decision, some may think, doesn't bode well for hopes that China might abide by a ruling that doesn't go its way.
Still, Reichler, who was hired by the Philippines last year, thinks the rising power could come around.
"They're very smart people," he said in an interview last week. "And I think they might come to understand that in the long run their best interests are served by being a responsible member of the international community."
Reichler's faith in the power of international law to wrangle even the largest of powers comes from his success suing the United States. He took America to The Hague on behalf of the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, over U.S. support of the Contras, and won -- an effort that earned him the ire of figures like John McCain. As a result of the victory - and the international pressure that accompanied it -- he says, Congress cut off funding for Contra support.
"It's a very high cost to prestige to be branded as an international wrongdoer and then not comply," he said.
The decision not to take part in the arbitration is "unfortunate," Reichler said in an email (China has long said it doesn't want to its territorial conflicts "internationalized"). "They had an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the international legal order, to show respect for its procedures, and to agree to be bound by its rules. Had they seized this chance, they would have proven that they are not only a great power, but a responsible one."
But the pressure on Beijing to comply with an unfavorable ruling - even if it doesn't participate - will still be there, Reichler said.
"To me, China has always denounced imperialism, denounced unilateralism, has denounced violations of the U.N. Charter," he said. "This is an opportunity for China to really show its true colors."
We hear plenty about drugs and conflict diamonds; but the international black market for timber -- a global trade that has been plaguing the forests of South America, Central America, and Asia for years, and one that is estimated to be worth anywhere from 30 to 100 billion dollars a year -- gets a lot less attention.
Illegal wood had a rare moment in the spotlight on Feb. 19, when Interpol reported the results of its first international operation to target timber trafficking. "Operation Lead," which brought together law enforcement agencies from twelve Latin American countries, was carried out over a month late last year and resulted in the seizure of the equivalent of 2,000 truckloads of timber (worth millions of dollars) and the arrests of more than 200 people.
While individual countries in the region, such as Columbia and Brazil, have cracked down on the illegal trade in the past, the transnational nature of the crime makes it difficult for domestic law enforcement agencies, which are limited in their jurisdiction, to be very effective. An international approach has the potential to be more successful. According to the head of Interpol's Environmental Crime Program, Operation Lead has laid the foundations for future efforts to combat the global trade.
So why timber? It is not as lucrative as the drug trade, but it still brings in a fair amount of cash. According to a recent Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) report, in Laos, rare rosewood logs can fetch $18,000 per cubic meter. The EIA also notes that traffickers can earn $1,700 for a high-quality mahogany tree on the Peruvian black market, and about $1,000 for a cedar tree. In 2006, illegal logging in Peru was bringing up to $72 million in profits per year. Some estimates put the yearly profits in Columbia as high as $200 million.
In Latin America, the drug and timber trades aren't mutually exclusive. Though the extent of the connection is not yet clear, timber trafficking overlaps with organized crime and the drug trade in interesting ways in countries like Colombia and Peru.
For one, it has been suggested that timber offers drug traffickers an opportunity to invest in a new illegal market -- to "diversify their portfolios" -- as some governments become more successful (however slightly) in cracking down on the drug trade.
In Peru, where an estimated 80 percent of total timber exports are illegal, the wood trafficking network has become so sophisticated that drug traffickers are now piggybacking on the timber trade -- literally. In 2006, a U.S. State Department cable (later released by WikiLeaks) reported that drug traffickers in the Andes moving coca paste and opium "appear to be getting involved in transport of illegal timber, for both its profitability and its utility as concealment." In 2010, Peruvian police seized nearly 400 kilos of cocaine and coca base hidden in a single shipment of Sinaloa cedar.
Logging may also be viewed as a profitable way to open land for the farming of coca. According to a 2011 UN report, since 1981, more than 3,000 square miles of Columbia's forests have been cut down illegally to make way for coca crops. In 2008, then Columbian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderon announced, "If you snort a gram of cocaine, you are destroying 4 square meters of rainforest."
All considered, it isn't surprising that the illegal logging trade has taken a violent turn in some countries. Last year in Cambodia, an anti-logging activist and a reporter covering the illegal trade were both murdered. Three Brazilian activists were killed in 2011 -- just three out of dozens that have been murdered over the past several years.
It should be noted that illegal logging is not entirely run by timber kingpins and "wood mafias." Local communities also cut down wood illegally (to use, not to sell), and have probably been doing so for generations.
The countries affected are going to have to take strong action if they want to save their forests, because the problem is not going to fix itself. The world's appetite for high-value wood is high and is only getting higher. In its report entitled "Appetite for Destruction: China's Trade in Illegal Timber," the EIA states that between 2000 and 2011, the quantity of global log imports tripled, with a value that increased fivefold. China -- with wood product exports that have increased almost sevenfold in the past decade, with new construction projects beginning every day, and with a new bourgeoisie that covets fancy rosewood lounge sets (which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars), cars with wood-embellished interiors, and yachts -- comprises a large part of that demand. According to the EIA, China is the world's top importer of illegal timber. "More than half of China's current supplies of raw timber material are sourced from countries with a high risk of illegal logging and poor forest governance," including Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Madagascar, Myanmar, and Papua New Guinea.
Nicaragua in particular has seen enormous growth in its illegal timber market thanks to Chinese demand. In 2008, Nicaraguan exports of granadillo totalled about $127,000. In 2011, after other Central American countries enacted stricter wood export regulations, that number grew fifty fold, to $6 million.
China Photos/Getty Images
Chinese government officials considered using an armed unmanned aerial vehicle to target a drug trafficker hiding in Myanmar, according to an interview with Liu Yuejin, the director of China's Public Security Ministry's anti-drug bureau that appeared in Global Times on Monday. The target, Naw Kham, wanted for a drug-trafficking related attack that killed 13 Chinese sailors, was eventually captured last April in a joint Chinese-Laotian operation in Laos and is now appealing a death sentence in China. Yuejin's comments are an unusual glimpse into China's considerations for the use of drone strikes, a tactic that is no longer used exclusively by the United States.
The proposed Chinese strike would have occurred in Myanmar's restive north, where the Naypyidaw government has struggled to control ethnic conflicts and a thriving drug trade. Much like the U.S. official rationale as for strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, China could have either sought Naypyidaw's support or credibly claimed that the government was "unwilling or unable to suppress the threat posed by the individual being targeted," in the words of the Obama administration's white paper on its own targeted killing program. Similarly, as a violent drug trafficker tied to the deaths of Chinese sailors, China could have justified the potential drone strike under the white paper's loose definition of the "imminent threat of violent attack" against the homeland -- much as the United States justified targeting al Qaeda militants tied to the bombing of the USS Cole with drone strikes, beginning Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2002 (well before the white paper was authored).
The admission that the Chinese government considered a drone strike comes as its relationship with Myanmar has become increasingly strained amid stalled economic projects and new competition for influence with the West. China also appears to have placed special emphasis on their UAV programs in recent months, unveiling new models (that look suspiciously like U.S.-made Predator and Reaper drones) and retrofitting old Shenyang J-6 jets to fly by remote control.
Yuejin told Global Times that the drone strike option was passed over because of instructions to capture Naw Kham alive, but his comments demonstrate that China is weighing targeted killings seriously. When -- almost certainly not "if" -- China conducts its first drone strike, it will join just three other nations -- the United States, Britain, and Israel -- and place itself among the drone powers in the ongoing international assessment of the legality of these operations and whether they abridge international law and the established concept of sovereignty.
PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
China's 2-week New Year festivities kick off this weekend. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people will travel home and an obscene number of fireworks will be set off, causing cities throughout the country to sound like warzones.
The fireworks on sale to the general public range from cheap spinners to extravagant Olympics-grade pyrotechnics. These include a $200 66-pound package called Tonight Is So Beautiful that fires red and green bursts several stories high, writes David Pierson in the Los Angeles Times.
The most controversial fireworks this year are ones that reference Japan, including "I Love the Diaoyu Islands," about the small islands in the East China Sea administered by Japan (which calls them the Senkakus) and claimed by China, and the less subtle "Tokyo Big Explosion." For $54 "you can blow up Tokyo," the news portal China News Web said, explaining why the fireworks were so popular in Beijing. China-Japan tensions are worsening; the latest sign, in, early February, was when Japan said that a Chinese military vessel focused a radar used to direct weapons on a Japanese naval vessel near the islands.
But Beijing seems to have cracked down on the sale of anti-Japanese fireworks: a manager of the company selling them told the Associated Press that the government said to company that "China is a peace-loving country and should not do something damaging to the China-Japan friendship."
Why does this matter? Cracking down on sales of patriotic fireworks doesn't mean that Beijing's going to try to reduce tensions.
Rather, it's a nice illustration that China's non-democratic government is more restrained than the people it represents with regards to Japan. Chinese grass-roots hatred of the Japanese runs deep; officials can harness this hatred and allow protests against Japan, like they did in September, while keeping tensions in check. Sadly, if many Chinese had their way, "blowing up Tokyo" might be more than the name of a firework.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
With a North Korean nuclear test looming imminently on the horizon, the nation's propaganda machine appears to be in full 1980's-pop-swing. Last weekend, the government uploaded a video to its official website depicting a young Korean man falling asleep beside a telescope --don't we all?-- and dreaming happily of a rocket circling the globe. As an instrumental variation of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie's hit charity single from 1985, "We are the World," plays in the background, viewers are treated to images of celebrating North Koreans before the video takes a more ominous turn, depicting a war-torn U.S. city-scape, (incidentally lifted from the video game, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3). The captions running across the screen confirm the video's threatening intentions:
"Somewhere in the United States, black clouds of smoke are billowing," runs the caption across the screen.
"It seems that the nest of wickedness is ablaze with the fire started by itself," it added.
The video ends with the young man concluding that his dream will "surely come true".
"Despite all kinds of attempts by imperialists to isolate and crush us... never will anyone be able to stop the people marching toward a final victory," it said.
This isn't the first time the U.S. has been the target of North Korean propaganda. With some of the country's most popular cartoons depicting similarly chilling themes, is it any wonder this young man started dreaming about it?
The new user-generated Google Map of North Korea unveiled with some fanfare on the company''s blog Monday is a bit less than it initally seems. It isn't the most detailed publicly available map of North Korea. It's not even the most detailed map produced by Google -- that title belongs to the North Korea Uncovered project, produced by Google Earth, which has truly extensive mapping of the isolated country from its dams to its power stations and even its restaurants. (The head of that project, Curtis Melvin, comes off a touch bitter about all the attention the new Google Maps project has received in this Wall Street Journal story).
Where Google Maps does win out, however, is in easy accessibility (North Korea Uncovered requires a few downloads before it's usable). As an added bonus, the user review feature has produced a bit of a snarkfest. Users have left reviews on North Korean landmarks ranging from parks and monuments to gulags and nuclear testing facilities. While some are earnest, the vast majority are decidedly not. Here's a sampling of what's been posted:
Nuclear Test Facility, North Hamgyong, North Korea
Of all the barren, post-nuclear, wastelands I have visited this was by far the best. Of course Los Alamos is the classic, but no where else do you feel the warmth of the radioactive decay take you in its soft embrace quite as vividly as in the Hamgyong Nuclear Test Facility. However, be warned, reservations are required, as Hamgyong, is very exclusive. In fact, it is not uncommon to encounter the upper echelons of North Korean society. Once, I even met the North's biggest film star, Zao Xioping, who has stared in such famous films as, "Glory to the Industrial Proletariat in Their Moment of Triumph Over the Decadent Capitalists," and of course who could forget his appearance in the 2010 classic "Kim Il Sung and the Temple of Doom." If you're visiting the nearby Hamgyong Concentration Camp, the Nuclear Test Facility is a must!!
Whilst it doesn't have the international reputation of Bukchang, Hwasong is certainly worth a visit for any gulag enthusiast.
Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Pyongyang
I found the fish tacos to be really underwhelming
East Pyongyang Market, Pyongyang
Service is good, but selection is sub-par.
Just a handful of what's out there, and there will surely be more to come
More than 800,000 Americans packed the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Monday to listen to President Obama deliver his second inaugural address, but many more were listening around the world. Here are a few interesting global reactions:
In the Chinese media, Obama's promise to "try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully" and argument that "engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear" than military force was taken as a sign that the U.S.-China relationship will be at the top of his foreign policy agenda for the next four years. Of course, as the state-run Global Times notes, there's a bit of skepticism that the president will live up to his words:
"If the president really lives his words, he would agree that for the sake of the world's peace and prosperity, it is important for the United States and China to foster mutual trust, for trust is the cornerstone for every relationship, no matter between people or between nations...The words also show that he agrees that the two nations should properly solve their disputes, either economic or political."
News agency Xinhua was a little more positive, describing the overall approach Obama outlined in his Monday address as "balanced" and "decidedly progressive."
One Guardian writer described Obama's speech as "urg[ing] Americans to reclaim from conservatives the spirit of the founding fathers" and as "more inspirational than 2009," praising Obama's strong support of climate change and gay rights. Another was more cautious in hispraise, maintaining that Obama's speech was less of a populist manifesto and more of a "to-do list [covering] what he has still to do to make good on the economic promises of his first term."
Peter Foster of the more conservative Telegraph granted that Obama's speech was well-received
by the spectators on the Mall, he reminded readers just how deeply divided the United States still is: "It was apparent," writes Foster, "that only half of the nation had showed up to listen
to [Obama's] call...Overwhelmingly, the crowd of 800,000 people was filled with
the faces of the young, female, urban, African-American coalition that ensured Mr. Obama's re-election for a second term last November. They were Obama's people, and they
were there to celebrate their victory."
In his article for the Australian, Troy Bramston praised Obama's rhetoric, but argued that Obama cannot rank amongst the truly great American presidents until he "translate[s] a presidency of promise into a presidency of action."
That may be hard to do, claims Janet Hook in another article for the Australian, in which she points out that Obama's speech made little effort to readch out to the GOP.
After the inaugural address, the headline of Saudi-owned, pan-Arab daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat read "The decade of war is over," referencing a line from Obama's speech. Yet in an op-ed for the same paper, Abdul Rahman Rashed, though praising Obama's experience in Middle Eastern affairs, was not so sure about peace in the coming decade. "Obama's second term will possibly be reconciliatory, particularly after John Kerry and Chuck Hagel join his administration...but who can tell if the region will be in a reconciliatory mood?"
In his article for Palestinian-run, London based newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi (translated into English by the Times of Israel), Abdel Al-Bari Atwan writes that Obama "completely shut the door on any military intervention, stressing that a decade of wars has ended and that the only way to peace is dialogue." "President Obama's message is very clear," the article continued. "In short, he said that he does not intend to militarily intervene in Syria; will not wage a war on Iran, succumbing to Israeli pressure; and will focus on rescuing his country from its crippling economic crisis."
Atwan continues: "Obama disappointed many of his allies in the Middle East by neglecting to mention any of them in his speech." (Obama didn't mention any foreign countries by name in his address.)
Obama's equal opportunity rhetoric made news in Mexico. In its coverage of the inaugural address, El Universal highlighted Obama's commitment to immigrants, women, and gays. The article quoted Obama's statement promising immigration reform:
"Our trip (as a nation) will not be complete until we find a better way to welcome the hopeful, striving immigrants in the U.S. are still the land of opportunity, until the brightest students and engineers are listed on our strengths work instead of being expelled from our country."
The headline of the article read, in Spanish, "Obama calls for welcoming immigrants."
The president's inaugural address was a chance for Canadians to pat themselves on the back, the Ottowa Citizen snarkily reports:
"On the key issues that President Barack Obama pledged to dedicate his second term to in his inaugural address, Canada has already made substantive progress: on supporting democracy around the world; on providing equal rights to gays and lesbians; on creating an aspirational immigration system."
It doesn't stop there either. The column went to on say that Canada has also beat Obama to the punch in securing a budget deal and repairing its economy.
When Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird hosted a largely American gathering at the Canadian embassy on Monday, he was more tactful. "This is not a time for long speeches," he said. "We have very different systems, so we don't exactly want to be bragging," a Canadian embassy spokesman said.
Rob Carr-Pool/Getty Images
For the past week or so, Beijing has suffered from some of the worst pollution it has seen in years. The pollution levels seemed to peak on Saturday when the U.S. Embassy in Beijing's popular @BeijingAir twitter feed, which uses standards from the Environmental Protection Agency, posted a reading of 755 on the Air Quality Index standard. The scale only goes up to 500. Ed Wong in the New York Times reported that "levels between 301 and 500 are ‘Hazardous,' meaning people should avoid all outdoor activity. The World Health Organization has standards that judge a score above 500 to be more than 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe."
Three quick points:
1. What's different this time?
Besides the scale; which, though depressing, is not unprecedented, Chinese media is more openly reporting on the weather. This is cannibalized from an email from a friend in Beijing, who wants to remain anonymous:
China's state broadcaster CCTV used to call pollution "heavy fog" (dawu) they're now using the term that means something close to "haze". (wumai) On Friday they dedicated a surprising amount of time to the issue, and a Jan. 12 article on the Chinese weather service website reported that the air pollution was higher than the index is designed to handle.
The friend in Beijing also mentioned changing attitudes among Chinese towards pollution:
"Before the outrage over the discrepancy between official statistics, American embassy PM2.5 statistics, and individual perceptions of pollution, I had not one example of someone using the Chinese word for haze in casual conversation nor in weather reports. With this first bout of bad winter pollution I am shocked by the level of coverage but more so that air pollution is no longer "heavy fog" but now "haze."
PM 2.5 refers to the smaller polluting particles that have not typically been included in government air quality statistics. This Wall Street Journal blog post offers a comprehensive explanation of the term and how it entered the Chinese lexicon, as well as further examples of state media referring to China's ivory skies.
2. How do foreigners deal with the pollution?
Didi Kirsten Tatlow, a Beijing-based correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, writes about her family rules: "Above 100, and the air purifiers -- all four of them -- go on. Above 200, we wear face masks outdoors. Above 300 and no one exercises or plays outside, even with a face mask on. Above 500 and we try not to go out at all."
For my last 2+years in Beijing I lived in an apartment that, when I leaned out the window, had an unobstructed view of the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, a pair of roughly 100 feet high structures that were just over 2 miles away. When I could see the towers, I would run outside; otherwise, no deal.
3. What do you call pollution this gross?
Ed Wong writes of a day "when all of Beijing looked like an airport smokers' lounge," and cited Beijing residents online described the air as "postapocalyptic," "terrifying" and "beyond belief." The second worst day I remember in China, the skies were the color of gargled milk. The worst day the sky managed to turn colorless.
It's an odd match, to be sure: a country with some of the most restrictive internet laws in the world (not to mention its other laws), and a company that still claims "Don't be evil" as its motto, and has been burned by authoritarian governments before. But the AP is reporting that Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt will be traveling to North Korea soon -- possibly as early as this month -- accompanied by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
The news comes a day after a rare New Year's Day speech by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that called for a "revolution" in science and technology in the poverty-stricken Hermit Kingdom. But it also comes just a few weeks after the country received international condemnation for a sneakily-timed rocket launch.
Google didn't officially confirm the story to AP and Schmidt has yet to make a public statement on why he's visiting the isolated country, which does hardly any business at all with U.S. companies. Also, it's not yet clear who exactly Schmidt and Richardson will be meeting with once they arrive. However, Schmidt has been working with former State Department Adviser Jared Cohen on a book called "The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business," and has long been an advocate of the power of internet access to improve quality of life and openness.
Still, North Korea controls its internet with a far heavier hand than China, which Google has tangled with in the past. Those who have computer access mostly log on to a system known as the Kwangmyong, essentially a country-wide intranet run by a lone, state-run ISP provider (the BBC story linked to above includes the amazing detail that any time Kim Jong Un is mentioned on this intranet, his name is displayed slightly larger than the text around it). Just a few dozen families have unfiltered access to the real thing.
Can the power of "connectivity for the individual" be harnessed in a country where the government still cracks down on cell phones that can dial the outside world? Here's hoping Schmidt speaks up soon so we can hear what exactly he has in mind.
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
In the wake of a knife attack at an elementary school reportedly driven by predictions about the coming end of the world, Chinese authorities have detained dozens for spreading rumors about the coming apocalypse.
According to Xinhua, 93 people -- many of them members of a religious group called Almighty God, which promotes belief in the upcoming Dec. 21 Mayan doomsday -- have been detained as potential day of reckoning grows closer. At the same time, authorities have sought to play down any talk about the world ending, ordering media last week to "strictly vet reports on the so-called "end of the world" and "strengthen positive guidance and forcefully guard against the creation and spread of rumors, as well as working up panicked feelings." The order appears to have been taken seriously, with newspapers publishing soothing quotes from various experts arguing that Friday will be like any other day, reports The Telegraph:
"Speaking to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, Sun Xiaochun, a top professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said: "The event will be as destructive as when we throw an old table calendar into the rubbish can at the end of the year."
The idea that Friday will be the end of it all has gained quite a foothold in parts of China. Hebei Province farmer Liu Qiyuan, pictured above, has begun making "survival pods" out of fiberglass and steel for the event, while Business Insider reports that,
"...in Sichuan province, panic buying of candles has swept through two counties in the fear that an ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end on December 21 proves to be true.
"Candles are selling by the hundreds, with buyers constantly coming to the market. Many stores have run out," said Huang Zhaoli, a shopper at the Neijing Wholesale Market, to the West China City Daily newspaper."
The panicky feeling was not helped by an unnerving meteorological phenomenon last week that made it appear that the sky over parts of eastern China contained three suns.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
For many Americans, there's a sense that the United States has not fared well in the comparisons inevitably invited by the attacks that occurred on the same day in elementary schools in Newtown, Connecticut and Guangshan, China. In Newtown, 20 children were killed. In Guangshan, 22 may have lost fingers, or ears, but they survived.
"That's the difference between a knife and a gun," wrote James Fallows in the Atlantic. Writing on Salon, Mei Fong asked "what good is freedom of speech and a democratic system, when these rights can't prevent the slaughter of innocents?"
But the societal soul-searching on the Chinese side has focused more on the aftermath of the tragic attacks, and many, including some state-owned media, have voiced admiration for the humanity and compassion displayed by U.S. public officials following the attacks, as well as the transparency with which the Sandy Hook shooting has been handled.
In a story headlined "Anger at attack response" published Monday, the typically nationalist Global Times newspaper reported that no local officials have visited the Guangshan hospital where many of the injured children have been treated, while a report from Xinhua, noting that no village officials could be located after the attack and that the only employee to be found was playing video games has prompted widespread disdain.
Xinhua also reported that news of the attack at Guangshan, in which a man knifed 22 children in central Henan Province, was initially deleted from the website of the local party committee, and that a news conference on the attack planned by the local government for Saturday was cancelled without explanation. The China-watching site Tea Leaf Nation notes that the names of the children injured in the attack have yet to be released.
Meanwhile, Chinese internet users have watched the aftereffects of the two tragedies play out with disapproval.
"We know much about the American killer, even his family and childhood, but know little about the Chinese suspect," wrote Weibo user and writer Zheng Yuanjie.
"In an instant, information about the deadly gun attack in an American school that claimed 28 victims blanketed Chinese media," wrote economist Han Zhiguo. "On the same day, there was a campus attack in Henan province's Guangshan county, in which 22 students were injured with lacerations....you could only find information about it on Weibo. Was mainstream media's difference attitudes [toward the two incidents ] because Chinese children's lives aren't valuable?"
The perspectives generated by these same-day tragedies on contrasting societal strengths and weaknesses may be interesting to note; still, it's worth remembering that neither society's grass is looking particularly green at the moment.
H/t Tea Leaf Nation
He's performed with Madonna, has been on the Today show, and is scheduled to perform at a "Christmas in Washington" concert this weekend that President Obama plans to attend with his family.
But now South Korean rapper Psy -- chubby, goofy Psy, who horse-danced his way into so many American hearts this past year -- is now being dogged by some surprisingly vitriolic anti-U.S. comments from his past.
In 2004, Psy, whose real name is Park Jae-sang, took part in a live performance of Korean band N.E.X.T.'s song "Dear American" in which he rapped:
Kill those f****** Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives
Kill those f****** Yankees who ordered them to torture
Kill their daughters, mothers, daughter-in-law and fathers
Kill them all slowly and painfully
The rap came two years after PSY had participated in a protest concert against the presence of 37,000 troops in South Korea. During the concert, Psy lifted a miniature American tank above his head and smashed it on stage, to cheers from the audience.
As many have noted, it's important to remember the context here: the protest concert came shortly after two middle school girls in Korea were killed after they were struck by an armored vehicle operated by U.S. soldiers (the soldiers were later acquitted of charges related to their deaths). And the 2004 rap came in the wake of the beheading death of a Korean missionary in Iraq, after South Korea rejected the kidnappers' demands that it withdraw its troops.
Korea is an American ally, but has long been ambivalent about the presence of U.S. troops on its soil; many have also questioned the presence of South Korean troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Psy -- whose Gangnam Style video passed Justin Bieber's "Baby" last month to become the most-viewed video ever on Youtube -- has yet to comment.
Update -- Psy has responded in a statement: "As a proud South Korean who was educated in the United States and lived there for a very significant part of my life, I understand the sacrifices American servicemen and women have made to protect freedom and democracy in my country and around the world. The song I was featured in - eight years ago - was part of a deeply emotional reaction to the war in Iraq and the killing of two Korean schoolgirls that was part of the overall antiwar sentiment shared by others around the world at that time. While I'm grateful for the freedom to express one's self, I've learned there are limits to what language is appropriate and I'm deeply sorry for how these lyrics could be interpreted. I will forever be sorry for any pain I have caused by those words."
"I have been honored to perform in front of American soldiers in recent months - including an appearance on the Jay Leno show specifically for them- and I hope they and all Americans can accept my apology. While it's important that we express our opinions, I deeply regret the inflammatory and inappropriate language I used to do so. In my music, I try to give people a release, a reason to smile. I have learned that thru music, our universal language we can all come together as a culture of humanity and I hope that you will accept my apology."
Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Alright, I can't believe I need to say this, but the future will not look like Call of Duty.
The latest entry in the bestselling game series, Black Ops II, takes place in the not-too-distant future, a version of the year 2025 in which the United States and China are engaged in escalating tensions after a U.S. cyberattack hits the Chinese stock exchange, prompting officials in Beijing to halt exports of rare earth minerals. Chaos ensues. Drones! Invisibility cloaks! There's a villainous Nicaraguan drug lord pulling strings for good measure, and David Petraeus is the secretary of defense.
The technology is science fiction, but the politics, that's just fiction. You'd never know it by reading some of the responses, though. Probably as a result of game studio Treyarch's effort to bolster the game with the input of some high-profile consultants, including Brookings Institute future-warfare expert Peter Singer and disgraced gun runner-turned-media personality Oliver North, some people are taking the game's premise disturbingly seriously. Fox News' review points to the game development's "eerie resemblances with the serious war-gaming exercises conducted by the U.S. military and government officials," while CNN's review explains that the expert consultants saw the "dwindling supply of rare earth elements" as "a feasible backdrop for a new Cold War."
Yes, China controls 95 percent of rare earth mineral production today, and that does constitute an "undisputed monopoly," as Hal Quinn and Michael Silver wrote in their editorial for the Washington Times. But there's no reason for all this hyperventilating. Despite their name, rare earth minerals aren't all that rare -- the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that the supply of these minerals, which are critical to high-tech gadgets from cell phones to advanced weapon systems, will last well into the next century, if not longer. Despite China's current market dominance, Chinese reserves constitute only half of global rare earth supplies, and other countries -- notably Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Australia -- are beginning to exploit their deposits and become reliable suppliers in an increasingly diversified rare earth mineral marketplace.
As to whether competition over these resources could come to blows, Christine Parthemore, who now works in the office of the assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs and is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, cautioned against cold war alarmism in a Center for a New American Security report on rare earth minerals. "History," she wrote in 2011, "indicates that conflict over absolute scarcities is unlikely." While supply disruptions are possible, the report argues, they'll look more like the 1973 oil crisis than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
So let's certainly open up different sources of rare earth mineral supplies, but let's not have a collective freak out about a potential cold war with China over iPhone batteries. It really is just a video game.
On Thursday, the Chinese Communist Party announced the seven people who would lead the country for the next five or ten years. Helmed by Chairman Xi Jinping, they're a mysterious bunch -- the world knows very little about what they think and how they will act. But still, their ascension is very significant, and whether or not they decide to institute "political reform" (i.e., liberalize the party) will help determine where China goes over the next decade.
As usual, this has caused a dilemma for western newspapers: Extremely important event + extreme surfeit of information = vague headlines.
The Financial Times seemed slightly more optimistic the Friday headline, "Chinese transition leaves many questions". The subtitle was, "Change of leadership prompts reform speculation."
Granted this vagueness is better than baseless predictions, but it's still worth noting again just how in the dark we are about elite politics in China.
Xi is slightly less than a mystery than his predecessor. Ten years ago Hu Jintao took power amid widespread bafflement about the man or his policies. Articles in respected media outlets in 2002 expressed bafflement at the "faceless apparatchik" set to run the world's most populous country. Hu turned out to be fairly conservative, though that took a few years to be apparent. (In the meantime, there were headlines like that of the New York Times July 2003: "China's Leader Gives No Sign of Changes to Come".)
The most accurate prediction about Hu that I've seen comes from a Nov. 15, 2002 article in The New York Times:
''People think Hu will fulfill their own dreams,'' said Wu Guoguang, an expert in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. ''The liberals see a reformer; the conservatives see a hard-liner. Sooner or later he will have to make some choices, and people will see his real colors. But it may take years for that to happen.''
It's a comment worth remembering when guessing about what direction Xi will take China in his early days in office.
This is a guest post from Liz Carter, a DC-based author and translator of several Chinese textbooks:
China's 18th Party Congress began yesterday; delegates from across the country gathered in Beijing, ostensibly to make important policy decisions and determine the make-up of the top leadership ranks for the next five years or more.
China's chattering classes, on the other hand, tend to analyze the significance of the meetings from their carriage and appearance, that is, when they're not mocking it. Delegates' expensive clothing and accessories are recurring hot topics: delegate Yang Lan, a Chinese talk show host, was spotted carrying a Marc Jacobs handbag and wearing a Giorgio Armani jacket at a less important Congress earlier this year. Yesterday, as in sessions past, netizens also saw the apathy of delegates as yet more proof of the meetings' meaninglessness. Pictures of a bored and yawning former President Jiang Zemin went viral before disappearing from Chinese social media.
Attempts by authorities to reinforce the legitimacy and security of these meetings - of which the party congress is arguably the most important - have backfired; the recent ban on the sale of kitchen knives in Beijing led to widespread mockery of officials' paranoia. Well-known Weibo (Chinese for microblog) user Zuoyeben, reposted an image - since deleted - to his more than four million followers: of a sign warning the reader not to open a window during the party congress "or else." The writer Tian You simply remarked "Absurd."
With the dawn of the Weibo era, in which social media often serves as a watchdog for China's officialdom, it is harder to control public opinion and easier to be controlled by it than ever before. Still, this has not stopped China's censors from influencing online discussion of political events. Several previously prevalent homonyms for the 18th party congress, including "Sparta," have been blocked as search terms on Weibo and commentary about the sessions had been scrubbed.
With control so tight, many see disruption as the only opportunity for meaningful action. Chinese Twitter user and signer of pro-democracy petition Charter 8 Dai Xindong wrote "I'd like to pay my respects, in advance, to the first journalist at the 18th party press conference who is brave enough to ask where the funding for these sessions came from."
Analysts, journalists, and China watchers have put forth a variety of theories about how to interpret the congress's official pronouncements - the Hong Kong-based China Media Project even ran a series of articles analyzing the official language used in the party congress reports that postulated what the appearance and frequency of certain political buzzwords like "Mao Zedong Thought" might mean. Still, foreign and Chinese onlookers alike have acknowledged that the paucity of actual information is ridiculous. On Weibo, many users commented, "I agree!" and "Long live the Communist Party!", but with many internet users paid to guide public opinion, it is impossible to determine how much of that is genuine.
It may be that only the powerful know what they powerful are doing. CEO of the investment bank China eCapital and Weibo celebrity Wang Ran remarked, "A colleague of mine said, ‘In China, if you do business but don't pay attention to the 18th party congress reports, it just shows that your business must not be very big.'" One netizen agreed that, "that's just how state capitalism is," while another said: "If you're really doing a lot of business, you would have already picked up on everything before the party congress. If you're doing alright, you're paying attention during the party congress. Everybody else should just read the tabloids." But ultimately, Chinese and China-watchers continue to watch the congress, not because its informative, but because of the lack of information available elsewhere; in a one party state it's the best show in town.
MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
The sigh of relief from China was almost audible. Now Chinese officials "don't need to deal with unnecessary disputes over issues like currency and trade while dealing with its own political transition," said Vincent Ni, a correspondent for the Chinese business magazine Caixin, who's been covering the U.S. election. The state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua reported optimistically that "Obama has a unique opportunity to make an even more far-reaching impact on China-U.S. ties, if he has the political courage and wisdom to cast away the uncalled-for worries over China's rise."
The Chinese reaction hasn't been all positive. Woeser, a prominent half-Tibetan half-Chinese dissident blogger, wrote on Twitter (blocked but accessible in China) last night that although she hadn't supported Romney, she was disappointed with Obama's victory. I asked why, and she pointed to an essay she had written in response to his 2009 trip to Beijing, where although she was happy that Obama had mentioned the importance of basic human rights to "the head of the world's largest totalitarian system," he didn't come out and explain what those rights were. Writing for FP in mid-October, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University Shen Dingli said that Sino-U.S. relations tend to be better under Republican presidents. "The logic is simple: no delusion from the outset, fewer human rights distractions, frank talk, and concrete cooperation whenever possible," he wrote.
But the overwhelming response for Chinese netizens seems to be a sense of triumph, even vicarious glee at Americans' ability to choose.
This being the Chinese internet, things got a little weird. "It's same reason porn films are popular," the Wall Street Journal quoted a Chinese internet user as saying. "You want to do it but you can't so you content yourself with watching others." The British condom manufacturer Durex wrote a post on its Sina Weibo account that seemed to capture the spirit of Chinese views-and indeed, was forwarded an astonishing 43,000 times. It features the photo of an enthusiastic Michelle Obama with her hands out wide, above a photo of a tense Ann Romney holding up her thumb and her index finger. The caption reads: "The difference between Obama and Romney."
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
In February, 2010, the International Herald Tribune published an article by then columnist Philip Bowring about Asian political dynasties, in which he included Singapore. A month later The New York Times, which owns the IHT, published a very bizarre apology:
In 1994, Philip Bowring, a contributor to the International Herald Tribune's op-ed page, agreed as part of an undertaking with the leaders of the government of Singapore that he would not say or imply that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had attained his position through nepotism practiced by his father Lee Kuan Yew. In a February 15, 2010, article, Mr. Bowring nonetheless included these two men in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit. We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended. We apologize to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for any distress or embarrassment caused by any breach of the undertaking and the article.
In 1994 lawyers representing Singapore's leaders had taken the newspaper to court for the article mentioned above and another one (which, ironically, suggested that some Asian leaders relied "on a compliant judiciary to bankrupt opposition politicians" without even mentioning Singapore.) The IHT apologized, settled the $678,000 in libel damages, and, as part of the settlement Bowring agreed that he would not say or imply that Lee Hsien Long took office through nepotism. (Singapore has been ruled by Lee Hsien Long since 2004; his father Lee Kuan Yew ruled as prime minister from 1959-1990 and then behind the scenes after that.) Singapore courts found the newspaper and Bowring guilty of libel in 2010--because they broke the terms of their 1994 agreement to refrain from alleging that Singapore's leaders engaged in nepotism--and the newspaper paid $114,000 in damages and costs.
Singapore, a city-state of 5 million people armed with some of the world's strongest libel laws, successfully coerced the world's most prestigious newspaper into retracting coverage that was only mildly critical.
Fast forward to Thursday October 25, when The New York Times published a damning investigation into the family of China's Premier Wen Jiabao, uncovering that his family has controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion. It was the third story published by Western media this year (Bloomberg published the other two) that discovered great, possibly ill-gotten wealth in the families of high-ranking Chinese officials. On Friday, China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the article "smears China and has ulterior motives."
The website of the official newspaper of the Communist Party, the People's Web, published a poorly crafted critique of the New York Times. The website of the New York Times English and Chinese language site was blocked, and the New York Times business in China is likely to suffer. Up until this point, China's reaction to the article had been standard and, besides some lost traffic from the blocking, ineffective; smoke and no fire.
But worringly, on Sunday, two lawyers representing Wen's family issued a statement in a Hong Kong newspaper claiming that "the so-called 'hidden riches' of Wen Jiabao's family members in the New York Times' report does not exist," and adding that "we will continue to make clarifications regarding untrue reports by the New York Times, and reserve the right to hold it legally responsible."
What if Wen and his family decide to take the New York Times to court and sue it for defaming Wen Jiabao or the Communist Party? Sure, Wen and his family would likely prefer the embarassing story to fade away, especially as it's just weeks away from the 18th Party Congress, where Wen and his peers are expected to formally begin to yield power to the next generation of Chinese leaership. And because China has a far worse reputation for cracking down on press freedom than Singapore does, one can expect the Times to fight much harder this time. But this is a case that Wen and his family could surely win in a Chinese court.
Back in April 2010 the then New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt wrote an article addressing the Singapore apology. He explained the outsized importance of Singapore as a market for English-language media, expressed how Singapore's leaders had never lost a libel suit in their own courts, and quoted Stuart Karle, a former general counsel of the Wall Street Journal, saying, "If you want to be a global paper, it has lots of banks, lots of commerce, a highly educated, English-speaking population...It's hard to turn your back on that.
Hoyt added: "For The Herald Tribune and all the other news organizations that have paid damages to Singapore's rulers (The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Bloomberg) or had their circulation limited there (Time, The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Economist), the choice has been to stay."
Singapore's successful authoritarianism has long been seen as a model for China. China's market is also much larger than Singapore's. For the sake of press freedom, here's hoping that the Times is not forced to apologize to China.
An article in the New York Times yesterday uncovered proof that family members of China's premier Wen Jiabao -- though not Wen himself -- "have controlled assets worth at least $2.7 billion." The story results from months (if not years) of impressive sleuthing from NYT Shanghai bureau chief David Barboza, and while the online version of the story doesn't cite contributions from other correspondents his China-based colleagues probably had a hand in this 4,700 word behemoth.
The story, landing just two weeks before the expected starting date of the 18th Party Congress, where Wen and his colleague President Hu Jintao will begin to formally yield power, is the latest in a stream of excellent reporting on the interplay between often shady business dealings and princelings-the well-connected sons and daughters of high-level leaders-- by Western reporters in China.
Here are four of the best, published over the last 12 months.
Although there was some controversy over whether the son of the then high-flying (and now disgraced) Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai actually drove a red Ferrari, the story masterfully details the money flowing through China's red elite:
On a recent afternoon at a new polo club on Beijing's outskirts, opened by a grandson of a former vice premier, Argentine players on imported ponies put on an exhibition match for prospective members.
"We're bringing polo to the public. Well, not exactly the public," said one staff member. "That man over there is the son of an army general. That one's grandfather was mayor of Beijing."
Bloomberg, with a flush reporting budge and financial acumen, took the first deep dive into the wealth of a top Chinese official. Published on April 23, less than 2 months after Bo was removed from his post in Chongqing in the biggest Chinese political scandal in a decade, the Bloomberg piece uncovered that Bo's family fortune was at least $136 million:
The Bo clan's wealth contrasts with his modest official remuneration. As the Communist Party boss of Chongqing, he rated a salary of about 10,000 yuan ($1,585) a month, according to a report on the website of the Communist Party's official People's Daily newspaper."
General Liu Yuan, the son of Liu Shaoqi, a former head of state of China, offered a fairly unvarnished view of the military, in this April article by John Garnaut, China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age:
‘"No country can defeat China," Liu told about 600 officers in his department in unscripted comments to an enlarged party meeting on the afternoon of Dec. 29, according to sources who have verified notes of his speech. "Only our own corruption can destroy us and cause our armed forces to be defeated without fighting." This searing indictment of the state of China's armed forces, coming from an acting full three-star general inside the PLA, has no known modern precedent....
While Chinese leaders regard the United States as a likely future adversary, Liu is more worried about what the PLA, which hasn't seen significant combat since a militarily disastrous invasion of Vietnam in 1979, is doing to itself in times of peace. In his February speech, he described the army beset by a disease of "malignant individualism" where officers follow only orders that suit them, advance on the strength of their connections, and openly sell their services at "clearly marked prices."
The story that got Bloomberg blocked in China after it was published on June 29 revealed that Xi's extended family (though not Xi himself) have controlled assets of at least $376 million.
"Most of the extended Xi family's assets traced by Bloomberg were owned by Xi's older sister,Qi Qiaoqiao, 63; her husband Deng Jiagui, 61; and Qi's daughter Zhang Yannan, 33, according to public records compiled by Bloomberg...
Bloomberg's accounting included only assets, property and shareholdings in which there was documentation of ownership by a family member and an amount could be clearly assigned. Assets were traced using public and business records, interviews with acquaintances and Hong Kong and Chinese identity-card numbers."
Besides blocking Bloomberg's website as retaliation, The Financial Times reported that "people believed to be state security agents have tailed some Bloomberg employees; Chinese bankers and financial regulators have cancelled previously arranged meetings with Matthew Winkler, Bloomberg's editor-in-chief; and Chinese investigators have visited local investment banks to see if they shared any information with Bloomberg, according to people with knowledge of these incidents."
The New York Times' Chinese language edition published an uncensored version of their story on their website (a decision that other English language newspapers with web presences in China don't always make when they publish sensitive stories.) Their website has already been blocked; whether their reporters receive the Bloomberg treatment remains to be seen.
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In the wake of a series of cyber attacks from Chinese I.P. addresses at the height of the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute, Yomiuri Shimbun reports that Japan is pushing a plan to create a "cyber defense network" consisting of Japan and 10 ASEAN countries.
"Under the system, the government intends to share information about cyber-attack patterns and technology to defend against the attacks. It also plans to carry out exercises to verify the effectiveness of the system within the current fiscal year."
More details will be discussed during meetings on information security in Tokyo this week, but the countries reportedly interested in participating include Thailand and Indonesia.
While the network's present plans -- sharing technology and information about attack patterns -- don't seem particularly innovative or groundbreaking, the fact that the network is being formed could be seen as another sign of widespread, cross-border fears of Chinese hackers.
More than a dozen Japanese websites belonging to banks, a government minister, a hospital, and some courts were hit during the row over the Senkaku Islands, many altered to display Chinese flags or to proclaim that the Diaoyu islands belong to China. Similar attacks took place on websites in the Phillipines - again related to a territorial spat over an island - earlier this year (although in fairness, Filipino hackers struck back) while last week saw a flurry of reports claiming that Chinese hackers had targeted the White House in a cyberattack (the White House said the attacks were a simple spear-phishing email, and that no harm had been done).
Yomiuiri Shimbun also reports that ASEAN countries might be interested in the network because their protections against cyberattacks haven't kept up with the increased use of computer equipment that has accompanied economic development.
TEH ENG KOON/AFP/Getty Images
Since Japan "nationalized" the disputed Senkaku Islands on September 11, much ink has been spilled in Chinese media on the resoluteness and integrity of China's claims on the islands, which it calls the Diaoyu, a group of uninhabited islands and rocks in the East China Sea with a total area of roughly 4 miles. After a Tuesday meeting at the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, China's state news agency Xinhua quoted Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi telling his Japanese counterpart "China's solemn position on the issue of Diaoyu Islands, which have been China's sacred territory since ancient times."
Regardless of which side has the better territorial claim, it's worth pointing out that Chinese leaders in the modern era have an abysmal record of winning border disputes. Chinese leaders have conceded territory, "or at least given up long-asserted territorial claims, rather liberally in recent years to settle frontier disputes with neighboring countries," writes Edward N. Luttwak in an upcoming book on Chinese strategy:
"In bilateral negotiations, the Chinese side conceded 100 percent of the Afghan claim, 76 percent of the Laos claim, 66 percent of Kazakhstan's, 65 percent of the Republic of Mongolia's claim, 94 percent of Nepal's, 60 percent of North Korea's, 96 percent of Tajikistan's, and 50 percent of Vietnam's land claim (in sharp contrast to Chinese intransigence over its maritime claims). With the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation, successive negotiations were also concluded successfully on a roughly 50/50 basis."(Luttwak is in part citing a 2008 book by MIT professor M. Taylor Fravel.)
With the amount of attention the island's are getting and China's changed place in the world, it's extremely unlikely Beijing will yield on the Diaoyus, or to its claims in the South China Sea. Perhaps the memory of past failures will lead to more resolute defense of the current disputes. But it's worth remembering that despite the bluster, China certainly has given up "sacred territory" in the past.
It's been a rough year for China's one percent. Just yesterday Reuters reported that demand for Chinese luxury brands -- down of late -- is unlikely to rebound after Beijing imposed a "frugal working style" on government employees in an effort to curb conspicuous consumption (read conspicuous corruption.) Now the Financial Times is reporting (behind the paywall) that the number of US dollar billionaires in China fell last year for the first time in seven years:
In its annual report on China's super-wealthy, released on Monday, Hurun [Rich List] said China had 251 people worth $1bn or more, down 20 from last year but still sharply up from 2006, when there were just 15...Nearly half of the 1,000 richest people in China saw their wealth shrink in the past year, 37 of them by more than 50 per cent. The average wealth of the top 1,000 also fell 9 per cent to $860m, at a time when growth in the Chinese economy has also decelerated, the property market has declined and the stock market has fallen sharply. Chinese GDP growth hit a three-year low of 7.6 per cent year on year in the second quarter of this year.
Reduced Chinese demand for luxury cars has also forced Toyota to scale back the production of Lexus cars for export to China. With the economic outlook so grim, there's no telling what could be next -- party officials might even be forced to think twice about buying Porsches for their kids!
With all the attention being paid to the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands at the moment, it's worth keeping in mind that they aren't the only remote pacific islets that China and Japan are feuding over. And despite their much-maligned size and lack of resources (besides bat guano), the Diaoyus/Senkakus aren't even the most desolate of the ocean rocks inflaming tensions between the two Asian superpowers.
See: Okinotorishima (pictured above). This singularly unimpressive coral atoll barely remains above the waves at high tide -- and only does so thanks to human help. Japan has spent $600 million taking measures to defend Okinotorishima from the sea by encasing parts of the islets in concrete and steel. Several years ago it sent fishery officials to plant extra coral around them in an attempt to beef them up and protect them from erosion (the islets sit in a particularly stormy corner of the Pacific). Yet even so, at high tide the two chunks of the island that protrude from the water are described as hardly larger than a pair of king size beds, and remained threatened by rising sea levels.
To be clear, this fight differs from the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute in that China does not want Okinotorishima (translated as "remote bird island"), or challenge Japan's claim. But the Okinotorishima fight highlights the geopolitics often underlying these island feuds: Japan has gone to such lengths to preserve Okinotorishima because possession of the tiny islets lets Japan claim an extra 150,000 square miles of exclusive economic zone, strategically located between Taiwan and US military bases on Guam. China - which been accused of violating Japanese sovereignty by mapping the sea floor around the islands - claims that they are not islands at all, but marine rocks, and therefore not entitled to their own EEZ (the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea says that rocks must be able to sustain "human habitation or economic life" before they get an EEZ). A recent UN panel on the issue has generated claims of victory from both sides.
At this point, the geopolitics of the Diaoyu/Senkaku fight have been mostly overshadowed by issues of historical grievances and nationalism - however, these islands, too, would give China and Japan EEZ rights to waters potentially containing significant oil and gas reserves. Similarly, the Okinotorishima fight, while at heart a geopolitical one, has occasionally also been complicated by nationalist feelings: following the Chinese crying foul over the islets in 2004, the right-learning Nippon Foundation scrambled to construct a lighthouse that would help generate "economic life", and help bolster their claim that it's morethan a reef.
While the Diaoyu/Senkaku furor is clearly top priority for the moment, Japan hasn't forgotten about Okinotorishima: earlier this year, the Cabinet approved legislation that gave the Coast Guard new law enforcement powers in some of the country's disputed territorial waters. The Diaoyu/Senkaku islands were on the list; so was Okinotorishima.
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