Two funerals, and Weibo

In the interval between when BBC aired reports of Kim Jong Il's death on Monday and when CCTV and other Chinese state media got around to making their own reports in the late morning, the Chinese Internet was already abuzz with news and commentary on the North Korean leader's passing, from famous and unknown Weibo users alike. Any remaining notion that Chinese netizens wait for Party papers with Beijing's stamp of approval to tell them what's going on in the rest of the world was, once again, disproven.

One of the first to weigh in was Hu XuJin, editor of the Global Times, whose freewheeling personal Weibo account has more followers (1,523,565) than the newspaper's own Weibo.  His long post began: "North Korea has announced the death of Kim Jong Il. The stability and future of North Korea now face a test. South Korea and the United States will spare no effort to influence NK, and even threaten it. China should not back down at this critical moment. China should resolutely defend the special relationship between China and NK, which is crucial to the strategic interests of China in East Asia. China should help NK onto a normal prosperous road."

Among the Weibo responses from ordinary users, however, nationalism was not necessarily the dominant response - often cynicism and humor were, regarding both the North Korea-China relationship and the nature of authoritarian regimes. "Does the system of hereditary monarchy belongs to the socialism with Korean characteristics?" one Weibo user wrote.  "If Kim Jong Un becomes the new leader of DPRK, it certainly shows the essence of North Korea as a feudalist country," wrote another.  And one more, "DPRK lost a fat man again." And, then, too, a series of bawdy jokes, like this one: "Kim Jong Il died of overwork. Yes, he had six wives - anyone would become fatigued. And was there a lot of sex on the train?" (Kim Jong Il was famously afraid of flying, and always took a special secure train on trips to China.)

More ominously, Zhang Wen, a memorial of the editorial board of China Newsweek  (no relation to the U.S.-based Newsweek), wrote: "The collapse of North Korean is in near future, and the unification of Korean peninsular is in near future."

As Kim's death came on the heels of Czech dissident leader and poet Vaclav Havel, many Weibo users also compared the two men's very different legacies, of freedom and dictatorship. (Xinhua published a dubiously truncated obituary of Havel yesterday). One Weibo user wrote: "Both Havel and Kim Jong Il have died; one let us see the efforts of a man of conscience, while the other the stubbornness of a dictator." Another: "The only way in which Kim Jong Il ever came in front of Havel was by dying first." The Chinese poet Sang Ke wrote, "Mr. Havel, had it not been for you before, I would have walked in the dark even longer. Thank you." But as Cheng Yizhong, a Chinese journalist with an independent streak, observed sadly, with a nod to North Korea and perhaps China as well: "Havel passes away, but totalitarianism remains."


The Election 2012 Weekly Report: The Newt Era

Iowa Debate

The GOP candidates faced off in Sioux City on Thursday in what will likely be the last primary debate before the Iowa Caucuses. Foreign policy was very much on the agenda. Responding to a question about the downed U.S. drone in Iran and president's request that it be returned by Iran, Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of weakness: "Does timidity and weakness invite aggression on the part of other people? Absolutely," Romney said. "A strong America is the best ally peace has ever owned. A spy drone downed over Iran and he says ‘pretty please?'"

Rick Perry repeated his call for Attorney General Eric Holder to resign over the controversial Operation Fast and Furious undercover gun-running scheme on the U.S.-Mexico border. In response to a question about whether Holder should take responsibility for the incident even if, as he claims, he didn't know about, Perry said, "If I'm the president of the United States, and I find out that there is an operation like Fast and Furious and my attorney general didn't know about it, I would have him resign immediately." Perry also disputed the president's assessment that the border is safer that it's ever been.

Jon Huntsman took a counterintuitive approach, using lower immigration numbers as evidence of the president's failures: "In terms of immigration, and illegal immigration, this president has so screwed up this economy, nobody is coming anymore. There is nothing to come for. There's not a problem today! Look at the numbers coming across. The numbers posted the other day -- lowest in four decades."

Rick Santorum continued his attack on Latin America policy and claims that Islamist militant groups are using the region as a safe haven: "This president has ignored that threat, has insulted our allies like Honduras and Colombia deliberately and embraced like other scoundrels in the Middle East, embraced Chávez, Ortega, and others in South America not promoting our value and interests."

Ron Paul, who has seen a recent surge in the polls, dismissed concerns about Iran's nuclear program, saying, "There is no evidence they have a nuclear weapon. This is another Iraq coming. There's war propaganda going on." Michele Bachmann responded incredulously to Paul's attitude, saying she had "never heard a more dangerous statement."

The Gingrich-Huntsman debate

Newt Gingrich finally got his wish for a three-hour Lincoln-Douglas style debate he sat down on Monday at New Hampshire's St. Anselm College with the trailing Huntsman. It was a cordial affair -- after all, a strong showing by Huntsman in New Hampshire can only be to Gingrich's advantage against Romney -- with few major disagreements between the two. (Huntsman even referred to Gingrich as a "great historian.") Gingrich disapproved of the way Obama had handled the Arab Spring, particularly how he "dumped" U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak in a "very unceremonious way." Huntsman anticipated "a hubristic, nationalistic generation" poised to take power in China.

Are Gingrich's 15 minutes up?

Once again, Newt dominated the news this week, particularly for his controversial comments that Palestinians are an "invented people," a remark that generated a sharp backlash from Palestinian leaders. Even Romney, hardly known for his pro-Palestinian views, went after Gingrich's "erratic outspokenness."

This also seemed to be a week when major Republican figures turned on Gingrich. Columnist George Will blasted the front-runner, saying he "seems to believe there is always some higher synthesis, inaccessible to lesser intellects, that makes all his contradictions disappear." The National Review piled on: "His character flaws -- his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas -- made him a poor Speaker of the House."

Whether attacks like these will resonate with primary voters remains to be seen, though Gingrich's numbers do seem to be slipping somewhat in Iowa.

Obama touts Iraq pullout

At a modest ceremony in Baghdad this week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta marked the official pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. In a new web video from the Obama campaign titled, "Promises Kept," the president touts his commitment to ending the Iraq war, saying, "Over the next few days, a small group of American soldiers will begin the final march out of that country... Iraq's future will be in the hands of its people." The pullout, despite being conducted along a timeline previously agreed by Obama's predecessor, is likely to be a centerpiece of Obama's pitch to voters, along with the killing of Osama bin Laden.  

Cain for SecDef?

Guess who's back? Former candidate Herman Cain, who famously struggled with even the fundamentals of foreign policy during his campaign, was interviewed by Barbara Walters this week as part of her annual "most fascinating people" segment and told her that if he had his choice of Cabinet positions, he'd like to be secretary of defense. This response prompted a rare "what?" from the veteran interviewer. Perhaps he'd settle for ambassador to Uzbekistan?

What to watch for

All eyes are on Iowa this holiday season as residents of the Hawkeye state prepare for caucuses on Jan. 3. There's now increasing speculation that Paul might have his turn as the next "anyone-but-Romney," following turns by Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich. Paul has consistently polled in second or third place in Iowa, and with Gingrich's numbers beginning to fall, he may be in a position to capitalize. Expect more scrutiny of Paul's views, particularly his neo-isolationist foreign policy, in the days ahead.

The latest from FP:

Defense writer Sharon Weinberger examines Gingrich's far-out futurist vision of warfare.

Former candidate Tim Pawlenty tells FP's Josh Rogin that Gingrich is a flip-flopper on foreign policy.

Michael A. Cohen laments that more genuine disagreements weren't aired at the Gingrich-Huntsman showdown.

Poll-watcher Scott Clement explains why, despite Iraq and Osama, the president shouldn't feel safe from attacks on his foreign-policy record. 

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