As anyone who's attended a Bob Dylan concert in the past decade knows, the man ain't what he used to be. But it's not just the music that's changed (many fans complain that during shows Dylan alters the arrangements of his songs beyond all recognition); it's also his thinking on the relationship between art and commerce (read: "selling out").
But all the same, it's hard not to feel some sympathy for his fans with news that his upcoming East Asia tour has been cancelled following the cancellation of shows in Shanghai and Beijing.
Most media outlets have explained the cancellation as the result of Beijing's intervention. According to this narrative, Chinese government officials refused to grant Dylan permission to play in China because they feared the potentially subversive effects of his music on Chinese listeners.
While the dramatic appeal of this explanation is obvious -- it rehabilitates Dylan's protest singer-songwriter image, and imagines him as a poet-hero determined to challenge Beijing's censorship and authoritarianism -- as was the case with Google's pullout from China, there might be a simpler, more cynical explanation to be had: greed.
The Chinese government did not deny Bob Dylan permission to play in China. It was the Taiwanese promoter's outlandish financial requests that made the tour unrealistic."
While we'll probably never know which explanation is correct, Mexico's certainly seems to jive better with the fact that Dylan cancelled the entire tour rather than just the China shows.
Food for thought next time you're considering another one of Dylan's Greatest Hits album.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
The International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times, last week issued the following bizarre apology to top leaders of the government of Singapore:
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.
What the apology doesn't say, but an article published last week by the New York Times does, is that the company that publishes both papers paid $114,000 to the Singapore leaders to settle a libel suit out of court and had the article in question removed from the Web, according to the leaders' attorney. Hmmm.
Of course, it's impossible to unpublish things online these days, and the paper's strange apology has only attracted more attention to the fact that the current prime minister of Singapore happens to be the son of its former prime minister. Reporters Without Borders used the episode to fire off a harsh letter to Prime Minister Lee highlighting all the various ways his government inhibits press freedoms, and the apology even raised Henry Blodget's ethical hackles.
The offending paragraph, which ran under the headline "Are political dynasties good or bad?," appears to be this one:
The list of Asian countries with governments headed by the offspring or
spouses of former leaders is striking: Pakistan has Prime Minister Asif Ali
Zardari, widower of Benazir Bhutto, herself the daughter of the executed
former leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bangladesh has Sheikh Hasina, daughter of
the murdered first prime minister, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In Malaysia,
Prime Minister Najib Razak is the son of the second prime minister, Abdul
Razak. Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong is Lee Kuan Yew's son. In North Korea,
Kim Il-sung's son Kim Jong-il commands party, army and country and waiting
in the wings is his son Kim Jong-un.
Nasty company, but libel? Give me a break. "Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong is Lee Kuan Yew's son" is a factual statement.
So the question is: Why did the Times Company apologize? Why not just tell Singapore to stuff it? How many newspapers and ads does the IHT sell there anyway?
HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images
Between the ongoing clan violence in Mindanao, a rumored coup plot, the meddling of disgraced former President Joseph Estrada, and boxer Manny Pacquiao's first foray into the political ring, there are almost too many subplots to keep track of in the Philippines' fascinating upcoming elections. The latest is the return of former first lady and footwear enthusiast Imelda Marcos to the public eye. Marcos is running for congress for the sole purpose of burying her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, in a "heroes' cemetary":
Emerging from more than a decade of political obscurity, Marcos strode back with a vengeance. She led journalists at daybreak to the mausoleum of her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, in Ilocos Norte province, his northern stronghold.
Kissing his glass coffin (above), she said: "This is one of our major injustices." She then went to church and rode on a lorry festooned with balloons and posters as thousands cheered her along the way. She was flanked by her daughter Imee, who is running for governor in Ilocos Norte, a tobacco-growing region about 250 miles (400km) north of Manila. Imelda's son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, is seeking a senate seat.
Marcos said she will continue her campaign to have her husband buried in the national heroes' cemetery in Manila if she wins. His burial there has been opposed by officials amid public outrage after Marcos – accused of corruption, political repression and widespread human rights abuses – was ousted in a 1986 revolt and died in exile in Hawaii three years later.
TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
Nothing's confirmed yet, but this does not sound good:
A South Korean navy ship with about 100 personnel on board is sinking off the west coast near North Korea, possibly due to a torpedo attack, reports say.
The ship was sinking near Baengnyeong island, Yonhap news agency quoted navy officials as saying.
It also said another South Korean ship had fired shots toward an unidentified ship in the North. The involvement of North Korea has not been confirmed.
North Korea threatened the South with "unprecedented nuclear strikes" this morning over reports that Soeul was preparing for instability in the North. Such threats are hardly unusual, but if North Korea is indeed behind the sinking, that would be the biggest escalation of the conflict in years. With more reports of economic distress and internal strife coming out of the Hermit Kingdom, Kim Jong Il may have bargained that it was time to pick an international fight.
As mentioned in the brief, Tanzania and Zambia were rebuffed today in their attempts to relax the international ban on ivory sales at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Doha. The decision is being hailed as a victory for conservationists after some setbacks earlier in the week:
The rulings were a rare victory for environmentalists at the two-week meeting where they have endured defeats of proposals ranging from an export ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna to a shark conservation plan to a measure to regulate trade of red and pink corals.
Not that I approve of killing elephants for their ivory, but the economic double-standard at work here seems troubling. The tuna ban, for instance, was strongly opposed by Japan, which imports 80 percent of the world's bluefin and led a concerted lobbying effort to have the current rules overturned.
Japan has, for years, employed a similar strategy in its campaign to loosen restrictions on whaling, exchanging foreign aid to disinterested countries like Togo and St. Kitts who join the International Whaling Comission and vote with the pro-whaling bloc. Economist Christian Dippel has studied this phenomenon and wrote about it in a recent piece for FP.
Aid-receiving countries like Tanzania and Zambia presumably don't have the resources to mount such a campaign, which is a large part of the reason they want the ban lifted in the first place. As Zambia's Minister of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources Catherine Namugala put it, "We can't justify failure to take a child to school because we are using resources to conserve elephants. I appeal to allow Zambia to utilize the natural resources given to us by God."
Again, I tend to side with the conservationists on this, but I certainly understand the frustration of poor-country governments who are expected to make economic sacrifices for the sake of endangered species while the world's second-largest economy continues to hunt species on the brink of extinction.
Update: New protections for hammerhead and white-tip sharks have also been shot down. Guess who led the opposition to them.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Thailand's red-shirt protesters not only made good on their threat to pour gallons of their own blood on Bangkok's Government House on Tuesday, they followed it up today by hurling more human blood at Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva's home today. The Red Cross has complained that the tactic is not only wasteful but dangerous in a country with a fairly high AIDS rate, but it's certainly succeeded in drawing attention to their cause. The only thing is, most people, including many Thais, have no idea what it all means.
The Guardian's Jon Henley looked into it:
There appear, however, to be relatively few examples of blood being poured as a form of modern political protest. That's what it plainly is, though, for those leading Thailand's pro-Thaksin demonstrations – even if they're not entirely certain why. Nattawut Saikur, one Red leader, said the blood showed the movement's "commitment in calling for democracy", and was an "important curse ritual". If Abhisit refuses to step down, Saikur added, "even though he does not have blood on his hands, his feet will be bloodied with our curses".Another Red leader, Veera Musikapong, said the gesture was "a sacrificial offering . . . to show our love for the nation, to show our sincerity". A third, Somsak Janprasert, told AFP: "This is a very symbolic way to express that our blood, the people's blood, is power."
Experts on Thai culture and beliefs appear no less nonplussed: as SP Somtow, a Thai author and composer, relates on his entertaining and informative blog (somtow.org) that a recent televised debate between an authoritative panel of "Thailand's leading astrologers and magicians" failed completely to arrive at any meaningful conclusion as to the efficacy – or, indeed, the meaning – of the blood-spattering ceremonies, beyond observing that many Red supporters come from "the superstitious north".
Possible theories, Somtow says, include the Cambodian "which states that pouring blood on the headquarters of the government is a Cambodian plot to ensure the return of Thaksin"; the Astrologers, propounded by the chairperson of the Thai astrology society, which holds that blood-spilling is "simple sympathetic magic in order to gain victory, and the sort of thing anyone would do under the circumstances"; and the Historical, which seems based on the legend that the 16th-century Thai king Naresuan once ordered his army to capture and behead the Khmer king Satha so he could "use his victim's blood to wash his feet in".
Personally, I think they're just trying to capitalize on the vampire trend.
Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images
The rollout of Kim Jong-un as North Korea's new leader continues, with South Korean sources reporting that an official portrait of the heir apparent has been prepared for distribution. Then there's this:
Last month, the Radio Free Asia also reported the regime began to restrict the use of the name "Jong-un," instructing people with the same name to change it.
Jong-un has also reportedly been more actively involved in military matters lately.
Time magazine's cover current package is the third of their annual “10 Ideas” issues; this time it’s forward-oriented, focused on "10 Ideas That Will Shape the Next Ten Years." One of those is a piece on the U.S.-China relationship by yours truly: “The Indispensable Axis: Their frenemy-ship will shape the decade.”
Every concept need some catchy jargon, right? A year ago we heard a lot in Washington about the "G-2," the notion that an expanded bilateral relationship between Washington and Beijing might steer the world. Well, there's certainly a lot less of that talk lately. Not only because heightened tensions between the two countries on myriad fronts have since taken the shine off the idea, but also because the notion of grand pooh-bahs from the U.S. and China hashing out the world order in grand summits was always a bit starry-eyed anyway. Last year, Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations sliced and diced that notion in a very smart Foreign Affairs article, "The G-2 Mirage." (Summary: "A heightened bilateral relationship may not be possible for China and the United States, as the two countries have mismatched interests and values. Washington should embrace a more flexible and multilateral approach.")
It's telling that one of the strongest proponents of the "G-2" concept has been former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose vision of how two superpowers get along (or don't) was shaped by the Cold War. But we aren't really back to the U.S.S.R. Although Soviet-era memories and defensive reflexes are apparently never far from the thoughts of Washington and foreign-policy elites (in his New York Times column, Tom Friedman is lately fond of billing China's expanding green-tech manufacturing sector as the "New Sputnik," tapping into latent anxieties on Capitol Hill), we aren't headed for a new Cold War. The U.S. and China are far too mutually dependent and economically intertwined -- a notion that's been widely explored in recent books and already birthed its own jargon, from Niall Ferguson's "Chimerica" to Zachary Karabell's "Superfusion."
So if we aren't going to see future smoke-filled summits on par with Yalta or SALT negotiations in which the leaders of two superpowers decide the world's fate -- nor a cozy alliance resembling the United States' "special relationship" with Britain -- what will we see? With apologies to Madeleine Albright, who declared the United States as "the indispensable nation," here's how I frame the next decade of the U.S.-China indispensable axis:
There is no precedent for this unique evolving relationship, one in which the two sides will both compete and cooperate, perhaps simultaneously, as they shape and support a global system they can benefit from.
In some ways, this axis might resemble the fluidity of the G-8, the group of industrialized countries that cooperate on economic issues where they share interests but go their separate ways on issues where they don't. Washington and Beijing will increasingly be the 800-lb. gorillas in multilateral architectures like the G-20 or Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation while developing a shifting bilateral relationship, working together closely on some issues and hampering each other's unilateral actions on others.
The good folks at Time, bless 'em, shortened this in the headline to: "frenemy-ship."
The thing about wacky Kim Jong Il stories is that they're generally impossible to prove or disprove so it's gnereally best to treat them as little more than curiosities. That's certainly true of Kim's apparent taste for all things Austrian:
"He only ate foreign food," the colonel said. "In Vienna, there was a special attache, a friend of mine, who only procured special foreign food for the dictator."
Kim Il-sung's craving once led to a delegation of cooks being sent to Austria to visit renowned culinary schools and some of the country's finest restaurants to collect recipes. The colonel, who speaks German fluently, served as translator.
"'Learn everything' – that's what they were told," the defector said. "The crazy dictators heard rumours that Austrian cuisine was world-famous and that's why they wanted [the cooks] to come here."
No offense to the homeland of Mozart, Frued and Rilke but I'm not sure Austria would be my first choice for culinary delights if I were a dictator with unlimited resources.
The Heritage Foundation has pulled together a fascinating study of Chinese investment -- showing (with really nice charts and maps!) just where all of those yuan are heading overseas.
A few things to note, plus one question....
While it's famously difficult to obtain information from within North Korea, author B.R. Myers has written a fascinating account based on DPRK propaganda, "North Korea's Race Problem," for the current print issue of FP. Hermit Kingdom poster art, it turns out, is chock full of such pastoral images as plump, happy cherubic children and leaders.
Meanwhile, as The Wall Street Journal reports, the reclusive government has recently released the results of a national census conducted in 2008. The picture that emerges is bleak. By the government's own admission, the population is considerably older and sicker than at the time of North Korea's last census in 1993. Some highlights:
North Korea's census said the country's population has proportionately fewer children and more middle-aged people than it did in 1993.
It also reported that people are less healthy.
Babies are more likely to die: The infant mortality rate climbed to 19.3 per 1,000 children in 2008 from 14.1 in 1993 ...
North Koreans are living shorter lives—average life expectancy has fallen to 69.3 years from 72.7 in 1993.
Poster art from North Korea courtesy of Melville House Publishing and B.R. Myers, author of The Cleanest Race—How North Koreans See Themselves and Why it Matters.
Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a great story on the "My Way" murders in the karaoke-obsessed Philippines. The Times story noted that over the past decade, at least half a dozen people have died just after (or while!) performing the Sinatra tune, ginning up a local legend and landing the story on the NYT's most-read box, a rarity for an international affairs piece.
I looked back at some English-language Filipino news sources, where stories about the "My Way" murders and Filipino karaoke culture abound. A 2002 Philippine Daily Inquirer piece entitled "Rage Against the Machine," for instance, reads: "'My Way' still holds the record for sending the most number of local singers on their way to their Maker. I just read from our Metro pages last week that another fellow got knifed to death that way....Maybe the suspect objected violently to the way his [duet] partner carried his part? Maybe he felt being drunk was not an excuse?...Extreme aesthetics."
Here at FP, we wondered how karaoke became so popular in the Philippines in the first place. The sing-along machine is apparently a fixture in bars, clubs, and private homes, and popular even at funerals. It turns out, that is in part because Filipinos consider karaoke to be a local invention -- though its provenance is a long-standing international dispute.
It all comes down to Daisuke Inoue of Japan and Roberto "Bert" del Rosario of the Philippines. Inoue argues that he built the first karaoke machine and rented it to various bars and clubs in Kobe, Japan, starting around 1971. He coined the phrase "karaoke," which means "empty orchestra" in Japanese -- and never filed for a patent for the invention.
Del Rosario says he never heard of or saw Inoue's invention. The music-school head says that he created his "Sing Along System" around 1972 and patented the first prototype, under the name "The One Man Combo," in 1975. He alleges that a group of Japanese businesspeople visited his offices, saw his machine, and replicated it in Japan.
"I can rightly claim to be the inventor of the SAS or karaoke because of the international patent ruling that the first person to patent his product is the inventor," del Rosario told the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2002, after years of disputing the karaoke machine's origins. "The main reason why I developed the SAS is the fact that Filipinos love to sing."
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images
The Toyota logo is displayed on a box of auto parts at City Toyota February 5, 2010 in Daly City, California. Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda issued an apology today for saftey issues that have prompted the recall of nearly 4 million Toyota cars and trucks that could have accelerator pedals that can stick.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Remember how I said 2010 would be a rough year for U.S.-China relations?
The first shoe to drop was Google's announcement that the privacy of Chinese human rights activists using its email software had been violated, and that cyberattacks on its servers had been traced to within China.
Now, China is expressing furious anger over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan -- threatening unprecedented actions in response, including sanctions on U.S. companies, and hinting darkly of a broader unwillingness to cooperate with American diplomatic priorities (read: North Korea and Iran). Military-to-military cooperation between the U.S. and China now seems to be off the table, and deputies-level talks will be suspended.
Truth be told, China hadn't been and probably wouldn't be super helpful on Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs, but the direction the relationship is taking is worrying. In February, President Obama is supposed to meet with the Dalai Lama, and that is sure to provoke further ire in Beijing.
Obama administration officials had been expecting some blowback from the arms sales, and are downplaying China's reaction, but I wonder if even they see Beijing as upping the ante. Is this going to be the usual loud, public show of anger, followed by a return to business as usual? Or is China feeling its strength and looking to demonstrate that it can force the mighty United States to change course?
I detect a bit of arrogance in Beijing right now. Most recently, Colum Lynch reports, China sent a third or fourth-tier diplomat to U.N. discussions over Iran's nuclear program. At the climate talks in Copenhagen in December, not only did China seem to renege on promises it had made earlier, but Premier Wen Jiabao famously snubbed other top world powers by sending his deputy to a high-level meeting (I'm told by one participant that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was especially angry about the slight). This kind of thing may not make headlines, but it shapes other countries' willingness to make concessions and accomodate China's interests at the margins.
China is going to learn sooner or later that the famous line from Spider Man -- "with great power comes great responsibility" -- applies to real-world superpowers as much as it does to fictional superheroes. Let's just hope it's sooner.
With Google threatening to pull out of China, immitation versions of the search engine and its video subsidiary YouTube have emerged to take their places on the Chinese internet:
YouTubecn.com offers videos from the real YouTube, which is blocked in China. The Google imitation is called Goojje and includes a plea for the U.S.-based Web giant not to leave China, after it threatened this month to do so in a dispute over Web censorship and cyberattacks.
The search engine behind Goojje was likely designed before the Google-China kerfuffle began then renamed as a marketing gimmick, and indeed the results it returns are fairly different than Google's. (Goojje vs. Google searching for "Foreign Policy".). The site apparently complies with Chinese censorship guidelines, like the old chinese google. I tried searching for "Dalai Lama" and got his official website. "Rebiya Kadeer" worked also. When I typed in a Google-translated version of "Dalai Lama" in Chinese characters, the top result was an article titled, "The Road of Treason." When I typed in "Falun Gong," in English, I got an error message. The same thing happened on multiple computers.
YouTubeCn is more more freewheeling, with videos on the persecution of Falun Gong and Rebiya Kadeer available. While the layout is an almost exact rip-off of YouTube, the videos are really buggy with many requiring new versions of flash player and others not working at all.
Neither site seems like much of a substitute for the one it's based on in terms of functionality. I don't think Baidu should have much to worry about.
In China, a few dozen mournful souls have begun a candlelight vigil outside Google's Beijing offices.(I'd love to know more about who they are). But for the most part, the debate in China over the higher meaning of Google has been more muted than in the United States, where Google's threatened withdrawl from China has been widely interpretted as a harbinger of worsening US-China relations.
Within China, the Chinese-language state-run media carried relatively cursory coverage of Google's threat to pull out of China, with scant mention of the alleged cyber security breaches. Here's the (translated) barebones text of the Chinese-language Xinhua wire story:
Google announced on January 12th that it might shutdown Google.cn and withdraw from Chinese market completely.
Google's chief legal officer David Drummond declared the announcement on Google's official blog in the afternoon of the 12th.Chinese reporter later verified the announcement with Google and Google'scommunication department confirmed Mr. Drummond's posting.
Google indicated that they will discuss with Chineseofficials about those legal issues in the next few weeks.
Google also cancelled its scheduled negotiation with China'sWritten Works Copyright Society on the 12th afternoon withouttelling why.
(That last line, perhaps, is meant to make Google sound like an especially irresponsible player?)
Meanwhile for the benefit of foreign reporters, China's Foreign Ministry did convene a press conference to state that China's laws are China's laws:
After a day of silence, the Foreign Ministry said that China welcomed foreign Internet companies but that those offering online services must do so “in accordance with the law.” Speaking at a scheduled news conference, Jiang Yu, a ministry spokeswoman, did not address Google’s complaints about censorship and cyberattacks and simply stated that “China’s Internet is open.”
Twitter is, of course, officially banned in China, but the most tech-savvy Chinese "netizens" have found a way around the Great Firewall to use the micro-blogging service nonetheless. This group is, as Rebecca MacKinnon duly observed, a highly select sampling of Chinese public opinion: "The Chinese Twittersphere -- comprised exclusively of people who aretech savvy enough to know how to get around censorship or they wouldn'tbe there -- is generally cheering the news [that Google won't continue to follow existing censorship rules]."
@Fenng Ten years online has turned me from an optimist into a pessimist #GoogleCN
That last tweet is from Zhao Jing, a prominent political writer and blogger in Beijing who writes in English-language media as Michael Anti. He spoke at length with The New York Times' Andrew Jacobs, explaining why he thought that Google’s pulling out would “set a bad example for thebusiness climate in China and make a joke of the government claims of afree Internet.”
My colleagues here have been weighing in on Google's "bombshell" revelation that China has been spying on dissidents and human rights activists, trying to crack open their Gmail accounts, presumably with the aim of monitoring and disrupting their activities. A lot of commentary is so far focused on the immediate issue at hand -- China's crushing censorship and Google's controversial policy of accomodating it in the hopes of gaining market share (see Jordan Calinoff's excellent dispatch on how this policy has largely failed). Of course, we already knew China did this sort of thing, but having the details so dramatically thrust into the public sphere is shocking. This is going to be a huge, ongoing story, not only because Google and China are two of the biggest and most widely debated news topics in the world, but also because nearly everyone's going to sympathize with the people whose privacy and peace of mind has been violated.
There's a larger story developing though, of a very tense year in relations between China and the West. Eurasia Group's Ian Bremmer made that prediction earlier this year, and it's probably happening even faster than he imagined. In addition to this Google story, which U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already jumped on, there's also a brewing U.S.-China fight over arms sales to Taiwan, China's recent missile test in retaliation, and a guerrilla trade war that now seems more likely to develop into a full-blown trade conflict.
By overplaying its hand with the activists, and messing with a huge global company with a massive ability to get its message out, China has foolishly just thrown away whatever goodwill it has built up over the years through its "charm offensive" -- at least in the West. Now, those arguing across a range of issues that China is a bad actor have been handed an enormous rhetorical club to beat Beijing over the head with. It's going to get ugly.
Last month Google's operations in China noticed that a sophisticated hacking operation had illegally attempted to access the records of dozens of targetted Gmail users -- specifically those of prominent human rights activists, based in China, Europe, and the United States. This information, which obviously aroused great concern within the company, wasn't made public until yesterday, when Google announced a significant change in how it would operate in China.
In a press release posted on its web site Tuesday, Google explained that it would cease to comply with China's internet censorship provisions, which had prevented users of China.cn (Google's China web portal, launched in 2006) from accessing "sensitive" sites:
These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered--combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web--have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.
On Wednesday late morning Beijing time, Internet users in Beijing and Shanghai reported being able to access -- for the first time -- formerly forbidden images and web links, including photos of 1989 Tiananman Sqaure demonstrations and links to freetibet.org, through Google.cn searches. This led to speculation that Google had already removed filters.
Google's apparent defiant stand -- that it will operate freely within China, or not at all -- quickly launched a heated debate. Many applauded the company' principles; others wondered how much Google really has to lose if it does exit China, given that business there has not met expectations.
I’ll give Google this much: They’re taking a bad situation and making something good out of it, both from a human and business point of view. I’m not saying human rights didn’t play into the decision, but this was as much about business....
Google’s business was not doing well in China. Does anyone really think Google would be doing this if it had top market share in the country? For one thing, I’d guess that would open them up to shareholder lawsuits. Google is a for-profit, publicly-held company at the end of the day. When I met with Google’s former head of China Kai-fu Lee in Beijing last October, he noted that one reason he left Google was that it was clear the company was never going to substantially increase its market share or beat Baidu. Google has clearly decided doing business in China isn’t worth it, and are turning what would be a negative into a marketing positive for its business in the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, Wired reporter Kim Zetter traces some of the steps Google has taken between when it discovered the cyber attacks and now, both to protect its own employees in China and to warn the international human rights activists targeted.
[A] source who is knowledgeable about the investigation [said] that Google’s decision to disclose the attack on Tuesday was also partly due to a decision made by the other targeted companies to keep the attack under wraps.
“They made a specific decision not to go public,” the source said. “You can either go out [with the information] or not, and for whatever reason, they’ve decided not to [disclose].”
He said Google felt it was important to alert the people who are potentially affected by the attack — the activist community.
Among many looming questions, one key one is: How will Microsoft, Yahoo, and other web portals react? Is Google setting a new precedent?
One of the biggest stories of the weekend -- that some $50 billion in state funds was smuggled out of China over the past 30 years by as many as 4,000 corrupt officials -- was broken by Chinese state media. (Western sources, such as the AFP, alternatingly source China Daily and Global Times, both state-run publications based in Beijing.)
This may strike some as odd. To western readers, China Daily is famous mainly for funny headlines, as lovingly ridiculed by The Atlantic's James Fallows and others. How could state-run media, presumably not the pinnacle of tough-minded investigative journalism, break a big story? But the truth is that this makes perfect sense.
First, the original story announced a problem (massive fraud) in the context of explaining how Beijing had recently established a new task force to curb the problem. The original Global Times story, from last fall, began the gripping lede: "The Communist Party of China (CPC) is showing more grit in its determination to fight corruption by urging officials to disclose personal assets such as housing and investments ..." In general, western news outlets focus on problems, but Chinese newspapers hold back until there's also news about what the vigilant government is doing in response.
Second, the sources for this story were not uncovered through months of shoeleather inquiry and secret meetings, Woodward-Bernstein style, but rather were government officials themselves. In particular, it was a party official with responsibility for disciplining wayward cadres who was the source that revealed details of the government's recent anti-corruption investigations.
"Investigative journalism" such as we know it in the West doesn't exist in China. But it is not uncommon for the government to use state-run newspapers to publicize information about crackdowns or to shame bad-apple officials. While foreign observers tend to focus on what's left out of Chinese press accounts (what's censored), it's often forgotten what an enormous interest the state also takes in shaping a news story (pushing out information).
A virtual hat-tip for this insight goes out to Wang Haiyan, a former reporter for Southern Metropolitian Daily in Guangzhou, whom I met last spring in Oxford, UK. She was preparing a report on "Investigative Journalism and Political Power in China" and had meticulously catalogued how five leading newspapers in south China had covered corruption between 2004 and 2008 -- in almost every case, the primary source was a government official with clear reasons for wanting to publicize results of a recent government inquiry.
It's been a rough week for activists, dissidents, and opposition movements of all types across Asia.
On Friday, Christmas Day, the Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of "subversion" for his role in writing and promoting the Charter '08 petition for political reform last January. Flouting international criticism and calls for Liu's release, the sentence handed down in a Beijing courtroom is the longest ever for subversion charges.
By Sunday, police in Iran had opened fire into crowds of protestors as authorities sought to snuff out calls for political reform. As my colleague Blake Hounshell pointed out, "killing people on the Shiite holiday of Ashura [was] something even the shah never dared to do."
On Monday, in Vietnam, a country that in recent years has enjoyed somewhat greater religious and political freedoms than China, former amy officer Tran Anh Kim who advocated for democratic reforms, was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison on charges of "subversion." The case is seen as an ominous sign of shrinking space for political discussion in Vietnam. In the coming weeks, four similiar cases will be tried in Vietnam; at least one would-be reformer, human rights lawyer Le Cong Dinh, may face the death penalty.
On Tuesday morning, at 10:30 am local time, the first European national to be sentenced to death in China in more than 50 years was executed. Akmal Shaikh had been convicted of drug smuggling. His execution sent a chill throughout the international human rights community. The frantic mercy pleas of relatives, lawyers, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown -- all claiming that his history of mental illness impaired his judgement -- fell on deaf ears in Beijing.
Meanwhile, new details emerged this week about the brutal conditions endured in prison by crusading Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who had taken the government to task for fraud. Magnitsky died in prison, after nearly 11 months in detention. Although it is little comfort to those who personally knew Magnitsky, at least the Moscow Public Oversight Commisssion is examining the case.
UPDATE: In response to a couple comments, I wanted to clarify that the British man executed in China was not himself comparable to activists in China, Vietnam, Russia, Iran, or elsewhere adovocating for domestic political reform -- but the concern of the international rights community, and the sight of frustrated but helpless foreign ministers (here Gordon Brown) appealing to Beijing, was in some ways parallel.
A little more than a year ago, Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo helped author and organize a petition known as Charter '08, which called for greater openness, rule of law, and free speech within the Chinese political system. The petition, which was unveiled on Dec. 10, 2008, eventually attracted some 2,000 signatures in China and the attention of global China watchers.
On Dec. 25, 2009, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "subversion." The sentence was handed down two days after Liu's 3-hour trial in Beijing. Liu had spent the previous year in detention. Although there is little hope of reprieve, his lawyers plan to appeal the decision on procedural grounds.
The Chinese government's wariness about public discussion of political reforms (i.e., apart from factional disputes within the CCP) is nothing new. But Beijing has in the past preferred to handle such matters as quietly as possible, muting voices it perceives as troublesome without bringing more attention from critics and western observers than necessary.
In general, among critics of the Chinese political system, such as rights lawyers and environmentalists, those with extensive contacts in the west have tended, in the past, to receive less extreme or less visible punishments. (For example, while obscure provincial anti-pollution protestors have been jailed or beaten, the well-known environmentalists Yu Xiaogang, who received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2008, quietly had his passport taken away to limit his activities.)
Now some China watchers believe Beijing is becoming more brazen and confident in flouting international pressure. Hu John Kamm, founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, which advocates for human rights and the release of Chinese political prisoners, told the New York Times: “Many people see this trial as a tipping point ... The government seems to be getting tougher and more unyielding.”
Liu's case has certainly attracted extensive international attention in the past year. Last January, 300 prominent international writers, including Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, Margaret Atwood, and Ha Jin, penned a letter calling for his release. In March, Václav Havel awarded the Homo Homini prize to Liu in Praque (in his absence, fellow signatories of Charter ‘08 accepted the award).
In the end, Liu's sentence is the longest ever issued for the charge of "inciting subversion."
Meanwhile another case is attracting foreigners' attention -- and heated speculation as to whether this indicates another turning point of some kind in China. The Times of London and BBC are reporting that a British citizen held for allegedly smuggling heroin in China might face execution -- tomorrow. If he is executed, it will mark the first time a European national has been put to death in China in 50 years.
Mike Clarke/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
He came; he spoke ... he did not conquer. It's unclear how much impact Obama's speech (text here) at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen this morning will have in nudging negotiators toward an agreement.
I found the most interesting line of his remarks this one:
Mitigation. Transparency. Financing. It's a clear formula -- one that embraces the principle of common but differentiated responses and respective capabilities"
Here he is picking up a favorite bit of Beijing's own rhetoric, the oft-repeated insistence on "common but differentiated responsibilities."
The original phrase derives from Kyoto, but it's been infused with so much meaning in Beijing -- basically meaning the rich countries should do more, and poor countries less for now -- that one could be forgiven for assuming it was as Chinese as fireworks.
Meantime, the full translated text of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's remarks are here.
And the FT has linked to a copy of a recent draft of potential agreement here.
The Democratic Party of Japan apparently doesn't travel light. Mainichi Shimbun reports:
Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa won't be lonely when he heads to China and South Korea on Thursday, as he's taking an entourage of about 630 people with him.
The group, including DPJ supporters and 143 fellow DPJ Diet members, will accompany Ozawa while he's in China to meet with President Hu Jintao. Ozawa will continue on to South Korea alone for a dinner meeting with President Lee Myung-bak on Friday, but overall the trip looks to solidify the impression of Japan's regime change both in and outside the country, as well as emphasize Ozawa's political power.
143 Diet members is about a third of the party's entire delegation. Imagine 100 Democratic members of congress all going on one foreign trip. Ozawa apparently also hopes to discuss an exchange program between the DPJ and the Chinese Communist Party during the visit.
The DPJ came into power promising a closer relationship with China and a Japanese foreign policy that was more oriented toward the country's Asian neighbors. Ozawa's mega-junket certainly seems like a pretty big statement to that end.
TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images
Today, Sweden's Noko Jeans is launching a line of designer denim manufactured in North Korea. The company claims that these are the first 1,100 pairs of jeans to ever be produced in North Korea.
One of the founding partners, Rauden Kallstigen, explains the motivation behind their project to produce denim in the "Hermit Kingdom":
"'It was a way for us to contact the country ... Our interest for North Korea goes way back because it's just a black spot on the map."
Despite reservations of supporting the present regime of Kim Jong Il, the Swedes decided to pursue their fashion venture, which has been in the works since 2007. After downing an entire glass of Swedish vodka during a visit to North Korea, these three entreprenuers, with no international fashion or trade experience, and the North Koreans agreed: "There would be jeans."
Noko Jeans are only available in black. The designers claim this is because "blue jeans" are stigmitized in North Korea due to their historic association with American culture. Regardless, jeans have been banned in North Korea for years, according to a recent Associated Press article, making it unlikely for North Koreans to enjoy the newest fashion craze.
The reptilian brain is human kind's link to our primitive ancestors. Millions of years of evolution helped us develop reasoning, shame, and verbal communication. But in the reptilian brain, fight-or-flight survival instincts survive.
The reptilian brain, I think, is what powers the insane ramblings of talking heads whenever a U.S. president bows to a foreign leader. Immediately, the submissive vs. dominant trigger is pulled, and all anyone sees is one dog rolling over for another.
This outrage is repeated about once every six months. President Obama bowed to The Saudi King earlier this year, and today the internet is buzzing about Obama's bowing to the Japanese emperor on Saturday. The same thing happened when former President Bush nearly locked lips with Saudi royalty. When Richard Nixon was in China he gave a toast to Chairman Mao that included an excerpt of one of Mao's poems.
ThinkProgress points out similar occurrences and links to some photos of President Eisenhower bowing to just about anyone he can find, and I doubt there would have been much speculation about Ike's submissiveness.
In some cultures people kiss on the cheeks, in some they shake hands, in some they bow. All of which have some long anthropological explanation that isn't worth going into. The point being that it isn't a sign of weakness when a world leader understands that when in a different country, it is proper to use their customs. Though next time it might be nice if Obama could at least get the gesture right.
Photos by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
This afternoon in Shanghai, U.S. President Barack Obama held a townhall-style meeting with university students. It was an event that his staff had worked hard to include on his China trip itinerary. After a brief speech extolling the importance of core values to the success of the United States as a nation and Americans as individuals, Obama took questions from the audience and online.
It has since come to light that not all of the questions came from bonafide students. One questioner was a vice director of daily affairs for the Communist Youth League; another was a young-looking teacher. Obama's answers about Internet freedom weren't heard by most remote audiences because several networks, including CNN, mysteriously cut away for commentary at that moment. The response among expats in China was, by and large, negative -- with many complaining Obama had minced his words, talking for instance of "universal rights" rather than "human rights." If one is looking to be cynical, there's plenty of fodder.
On the other hand, from the point of view of most Chinese I've spoken, these official efforts at censorship might have been silly, or nefarious, but they didn't have much impact. The notion of a president taking questions, not a frequent occurrence in China, was itself the point. The symbolism was more arresting, to them, than the content. "Why does he want to talk to Chinese students?" one 29-year-old Chinese woman asked me, without irony. She was puzzled, impressed, and a bit amused at the spectacle.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
No cabinet-level U.S. official has visited Taiwan since Clinton administration Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater in 2000, but Taipei is hoping to change that with an invitation to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki:
Representatives of Taiwan's Veterans Affairs Commission recently met Shinseki in the United States to extend the invitation, said Hans Song, the commission's overseas liaison department director.
Taiwan's commission, which was founded in 1954 when Taiwan stood on the brink of war with China, has modeled itself on its U.S. counterpart and has used U.S. money to build hospitals.
"Because the Taiwan veterans system has studied the U.S. system, we hope he can give us some suggestions," Song said.
Shinseki is also just prominent to be counted as a diplomatic victory for the KMT government, but perhas not prominent enough to anger China too much. Shinseki is still mulling the decision apparently.
It does seem a little strange that the U.S. is apparently willing to invoke China's wrath by selling $421 million in missiles to Taiwan, but a short stop-over from a high-ranking cabinet official would be considered a brazenly provocative act.
Chinese President and vocal free speech advocate Hu Jintao vowed to continue safeguarding the rights of foreign media working in China, reports the state-run paper China Daily.
"It is more important than ever before that the media should establish and uphold social responsibilities," Hu said at the World Media Summit. Apparently Hu cares so much about the media doing the right thing that he employs about 30,000 "Internet Police" to discourage everything from negative news to pornography. China's Internet filtering (AKA "The Great Firewall") was especially frustrating for overseas reporters covering the 2008 Olympics in Beijing; the control of the Internet probably has something to do with why Freedom House ranks Chinese media the 181st least-free out of 195 countries surveyed, tied with Iran and Rwanda.
On the other hand, Hu did say, "The media should uphold the ideas of equality, mutual trust, mutual benefit and common development, and better facilitate exchanges and cooperation." And if you can't trust friends like these...
Photo: PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
Last week, the Hurun Report released the top two on its 2009 China rich list, a ranking of the wealthiest people on the mainland: Wang Chuanfu at $5.1 billion, whose company makes electric cars and batteries, and Zhang Yin at $4.9 billion, whose company produces recycled paper products. The rest of the list comes out this month.
A few things about these two titans and the rich list and its older versions interested me. First, as the United States' billionaires are getting fewer and poorer, China's are getting more plentiful and richer. There are now 131 dollar billionaires in China -- compared with around 350 in the United States.
Second, an exceedingly obvious point but one to marvel at: Rich people in China own companies which make things. The country remains the organ that produces the world's stuff -- batteries, cars, paper, widgets, tires, you name it. And these companies remain relatively undiversified, vertically, not horizontally. One member of the rich list, for instance, owns a company that produces pig feed. 20 years from now, he might own a conglomerate that makes pig feed, feeds it to pigs, slaughters them, and sells the meat. Then, 20 years from then, he might own a holding company which subcontracts out all of those functions to workers and producers in cheaper markets.
In contrast, the 10 richest people in the United States (in descending order: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Larry Ellison, assorted Waltons, Michael Bloomberg, and Charles and David Koch) run diversified companies which trade in finance, technology, information, and real estate.
I also took a bit of interest in the producer of the Hurun Report -- one Rupert Hoogewerf. He's a Luxembourgian alumnus of the accounting firm Arthur Andersen who produced Forbes' China rich list between 1999 and 2003. At that point, it seems that Forbes fired him, possibly due to "public doubts and questions of the accuracy and authority of the wealth ranking year after year," according to state paper China Daily. It added: "It is understood that he received no compensation settlement from Forbes."
The official line is that Forbes simply decided to have a Shanghai editor manage the production of the list. But I like the idea of list-maker Hoogewerf going rogue. Does make you wonder about the accuracy of those lists, though...
In Japan, it's becoming increasingly popular to hire actors to fill out the crowd at events like weddings and funerals:
Agencies such as Hagemashi Tai - which means "I want to cheer you up" - charge around £100 for each "guest". Other services such as giving a speech in praise of a bride or the groom cost extra. [...]
Office Agents, the largest provider of pretend friends, makes sure that its employees have done their homework and know all about the bride or groom before the wedding.
Hiroshi Mizutani, the company's founder, said the fake friends he provides must look happy, be well dressed and look like people with good jobs.
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