Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Democracy Protests in Mongolia

"As someone who has worked in and with the country of Mongolia and its people for the past three years, I think that the protests are fascinating to watch, because they are actually protests for better democracy. As another blogger rightly pointed out, Mongolia has had a democratic system since 1990 - a change also brought about by peaceful protests. Mongolians have voted eight times in Presidential and Parliamentiary elections since then. "

Gateway Pundit has the story on democracy demonstrations in Mongolia. A country on the periphery of China, with an incipient, fifteen year old democracy? Sounds good to me!

It begs the question: Why is Taiwan the object of such obsessive interest from Beijing, while Mongolia escapes the irredentist net? Having declared independence in 1911, after two centuries under Qing Dynasty rule, they were "liberated" by Soviet troops in 1921, and allowed to form a country, closely aligned with the Soviet block. Mongolia challenges everybody's theories: We neo-con influenced commentators would seem to be shown up as wrong in saying that democracy is the real issue here; while our Chinese interlocutors would have to answer - given the history outlined above, why is it not a matter of non-negotiable doctrine that Mongolia is "Chinese soil"?

It seems unavoidable to me that it's specifically the fact of a Han Chinese democracy at the periphery that stirs up a hornet's nest in Beijing. Historically, central Chinese governments have been capable of maintaining a surprisingly relaxed attitude toward non-Han areas on the periphery, even as they condescended to them culturally. Time for a little Terrillblogging: "Surprisingly, the loose reign and the sense of superiority were not deeply contradictory, especially in dealings with the culturally alien people of the steppe. The conceit that made the Chinese court feel superior to the Barbarians inclined the court to keep its distance from people of whom Emperor Tai Zong said, with distaste: 'These people go about with flowing hair, and it is their habit to eat food uncooked.'" It is the lack of this cultural condescension toward Taiwanese that seems to make democracy in Taiwan such a fraught issue. The cultural well water that must not be polluted includes the Taiwanese, but not the Mongolians.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Fourth Grade Freeze Frame

"Compounding the problem is a phenomenon also seen in earlier grades: the 'push down' of curriculum, in which students are required to learn material once the province of higher grades. Kindergartners, who used to spent their days playing, are learning how to read, and first-graders are expected to know how."

The Post has an interesting series featuring articles highlighting primary school grades, one at a time. This: one is on the fourth grade. I'm all for challenging students, but battling "push down" takes up an enormous amount of parent-relations time and energy. Truth is, my fourth grade class is capable of reading chapter books and understanding the plot in a general way, but I much prefer using picture books with them. I can easily get a fifteen or twenty word vocabulary list from a book like Leaf Men or Hey, Al!. Moreover, because the kids quickly understand the plot, we can get right into the nuts and bolts of the language and nuances of the stories. But try telling that to parents from a social group where their peers are showing off the chapter books their kids are reading.

Besides, I like the pictures.

Gene Wilder at 71

"'I had dinner with him in 1987, right after my own book came out,' says actor Charles Grodin, who met Wilder in the 1950s and is a pal to this day. 'And he told me at the time that he wished my book had gone deeper. I was slightly irritated. I said, 'That's as deep as I get.' Now that his book is out, I see what he means.' "

Gene Wilder comes across as a man burnished beautiful and wise in this portrait in the Post. His former wife, Gilda Radner, is also remembered.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Taiwan's Right to Freedom (

"China has attempted to justify its anti-secession law by at times claiming a parallel to the U.S. Civil War and Lincoln's effort to forcibly preserve the Union. But the analogy is fundamentally flawed. Abraham Lincoln strove to maintain a Union of territories placed under sovereign control of the U.S. federal government in 1787 by a ratification process that rested on popular consent. China's 'law' is the product of one-party tyranny conducted by 'parliamentarians' who have never faced election. It refers to a Taiwan that has never been a part of, or under the sovereign control of, the People's Republic of China. And it ignores the most basic point: Lincoln wanted to preserve the Union in the name of freedom, not to deny it.

This from a column in the Washington Post by Frank Hsieh. Bruce, at Naruwan Formosa, is all over this one, and I will defer to his impressive erudition. It is interesting to note, however, as Paul Johnson does, that "No (Confederate) state held a referendum (on secession). It was decided by a total of 854 men in various secession conventions, all of them selected by legislatures, not by the voters. Of these, 157 voted against secession. So 697 men, mostly wealthy, decided the destiny of 9 million people, mostly poor."

"China is a group-centered culture that puts the well-being of the whole ahead of the interest of individuals (i mean "ahead", not "replace") i think it is this culturally originated mindset that makes a "referendum" that favors a part of the country and harms the whole totally unacceptable." This from Bingfeng Teahouse.

Even if this were a valid claim on all Chinese (what Ross Terrill calls the belief that the Beijing authorities are "the arbiters of the soul of every Chinese"), where does it leave Beijing's claim on the non-Han minorities held involuntarily in the Chinese 家, the Confucian family-state? This is a belief held by large numbers of people in the Han heartland, (although I would suggest that the vast Chinese diaspora of overseas Chinese have voted with their feet on the issue), but what of Tibetans, Uighurs, and Mongols who have very different cultures? Do they lose all right of self-determination if it can be shown that Han Chinese culture really is group-oriented in this way? "Today, although Han people make up 92% of the PRC's population, 60% of the PRC's territory is occupied in considerable numbers by China's 55 minorities." (Terrill) Do these non-Chinese also not have a right to opt out of the unitary state?

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

American Civil War Analogy

I haven't been able to get the Bingfeng Teahouse blog out of my head today; in particular, the post dealing with the current cross-strait situation (it was a few days ago, so you'll have to scroll down a bit). The blogger is a Chinese businessman from Shanghai, who's undertaken the admirable project of blogging in English, despite it not being his first language (I'm told there are blogs by foreigners written in Chinese - better, braver men than I). It is, as I've mentioned, an elegant, tech-savvy, and often quite interesting blog. Another reference to Bingfeng that I came across was from a Shanghai (foreigner) blogger, who remarked that he was looking forward to getting together with Bingfeng at the next Shanghai blogger klatch.

In the post that got my attention, he's favorably quoting a correspondent: "The American Civil War was fought over a bunch of territories trying to secede from the Union. In a more modern context, if California announced it was going Communist and leaving the USA, would the rest of America accept that blindly?"
Bingfeng adds: "Many western readers refuse to see this simple fact that no country would allow a part of it to become an antagonistic force, and in addition to this pure national interest consideration, the equally important fact is - Taiwan is Chinese soil."

The U.S. Civil War analogy is often used by defenders of China's Taiwan policy. Is it valid? For one thing, California is not only contiguous with the continental U.S., it's been continuously a part of the U.S. since its (California's) inception. Taiwan has been politically separate from the mainland for over a century, has never been a part of the PRC, and the transition of the KMT (itself localizing) into the opposition has further attenuated the vestigial links to the mainland. Moreover, it is 2005, not 1860. If Puerto Rico or Alaska or Hawaii wishes to secede, yes, they would be permitted to do so - permitted to debate the issue openly, permitted to hold a referendum, and permitted to leave if the referendum so indicated. Here is a Hawaiian blog that advocates doing precisely that. But would the West let a province go that had been a contiguous part of the nation since its inception? Quebec has had secession referendums in 1980 (rejected by 60% of the voters) and 1995 (lost by a 1% margin). If they win the next referendum, they will secede. There is not the slightest suggestion by any serious commentator in North America that the rest of Canada ought to engage Quebec in a war to prohibit this. Keep in mind that the very idea of a referendum is seen by Beijing as a casus belli (Chen Shui Bian, just this month, bowing to international pressure, pledged to not hold a referendum on independence during this term). The very expression of even a moderate Taiwanese viewpoint on these issues is not permitted - not only not permitted in Beijing, but not in Hong Kong, either. Recently, Taipei Mayor Ma Ying Jeou, who was born in Hong Kong, was denied a visa to travel there and speak at a university because of fears that he would express an unfavorable opinion about the so-called Anti- Secession Law. There is simply no analogy to be made with the way this would be handled in North America, or other Western democracies.

In the interest of brevity, I know that I should stay away from the Civil War, but .... okay, I'm over that. It's often said that Lincoln did not prosecute the war in order to end slavery, but to preserve the Union. It is true that, having been elected, and the war commenced, he did for political reasons play down the slavery issue and stress unification. This was because racism in the North was such that many people simply were not willing to go to war in order to free black slaves. For Lincloln, the slavery issue was the union issue - the two could not be separated. Specifically, the war was about whether slavery would be extended to the western states, but the issue was impossible to geopgraphically compartmentalize that way. The "House divided..." speech is often cited as portraying Lincoln as an absolutist on union, but examining it in context makes it clear that union had everything to do with slave versus free:
"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure half slave and half free. I do not expect the union to be dissolved. I do not expect the House to fall. But I do expect that it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."

A troubling thing for me is that the correspondent feels it is necessary to add, "if California announced it was going Communist", and Bingfeng concurs that an independent Taiwan would necessarily become "an antagonistic force." We may be getting close to the nub here. Taiwan does not conceivably present any kind of military threat to China. What is being referred to, obliquely, here, is the fact that Taiwan is democratic. This has the remarkable effect of not only equating Beijing with Lincoln, but equating the moral imperative of fighting against slavery with the moral imperative of fighting against democracy. I'm sorry - Starbuck's, musical blog, western businesspals notwithstanding, there may be a values chasm here that simply can't be bridged.

Speculating about someone's motives involves a kind of mind-reading that I try to stay away from. But I can't help wondering if it bothers Bingfeng at all that, having taken a position consonant with that of his government, if he had drawn a different conclusion, his blog would almost certainly be closed. I think if my government and I agreed on an issue, but the government forbade other Americans to express their contrary opinion, I would most likely simply not speak on the subject, in deference to the dignity of my silenced countrymen. Scrolling down a bit, there is a photo of the vote tabulator on the day of the anti-Succession Law's passage, showing hundreds of votes in favor, three abstaining and none against. His remark (presumably sarcastic) was "I wonder who the three were?" I wish he'd said more. I'd like to hear what he had to say on the issue, but then, as a relatively "liberal" Chinese, that might not be advisable for him. But in a real sense, the "debate" in which he participates on his blog is a bit like the simulacrum of the voting apparatus of democracies represented by that "vote". Bingfeng clearly (unlike this blog) has a following and a blogging community of which he is a respected member. His other posts often have comments attached to them. Yet, on this, the most pressing issue of the day, and his longest post in length that I've read, there was not a single comment. It's a loaded silence.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

X Thousand Years of Civilization?

Then there's this piece of work from the School of Chinese Nationalism. Question is, how far is he from the leaders of China?

Our Allies

Bingfeng Teahouse is a very sharply designed blog by a Chinese businessman from Shanghai. Check out the guy circled in blue in the bottom picture. Japanese legislature.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Social Security Comes to Taiwan

On the subject of large lacuna in the Taiwan press' coverage of important topics (I like that word "lacuna" -it sounds like a fish - as in, "a large lacuna was discovered yesterday in the press room of the Taipei Times..."). The administration, it seems, has recently implemented a retirement plan similar to Social Security. Employers now will have to contribute 6% of a worker's salary into a retirement account, similar to Social Security (although American Social Security, of course, doesn't actually have an individual account for each person). At the age of sixty, people will start to get monthly payments, based on a rate at which, if they live past eighty, they will start to get more than they put in. Not a word about this in the papers, and a google search turns up nothing, but it's the hottest topic among my Taiwanese acquaintances (foreign workers are exempt from the law).

A company with sixteen or seventeen workers is therefore adding the equivalent of one worker's salary to the payroll without any added productivity for the company. At my former school, workers will get salary cuts of an amount not yet determined. They will have to sign an agreement to the cut, or else they will be let go. The prevailing opinion is that the government is trying to get their hands on cash in order to pay off the deficit, studying the Americans, who use Social Security this way. Not only does the government get an immediate infusion of cash, but people's "accounts" will accrue interest at the lower rate they would get at a bank, while the government, pooling the money, will get a much higher return, and pocket the difference. I wonder what the political fall-out from this will be? Not too many happy campers among my friends in Free China these days.

Invasion Talk Heating Up

Ever since Andrew Sullivan scaled back his blogging, I've been looking for candidates to fill the aching void in my life.(I suspected this day would come. Afraid of commitment, Andy?) It's amazing how quickly you can visit a new site, size it up (nice little caboose there!), and know within a minute or two if you'll be dating steady. Lately, the boys I just can't stop thinking about are The Dignified Rant and Nobody's Business.

It's been said that you haven't really lived a full life unless you've: been in love; been poor; and experienced war. Well, I am currently in my longest sustained adult relationship (uh, yes, a female); the no money thing I've got down cold; and now, there's this promising news from Dignified Rant:

Ready. Set. Go?
The Chinese will invade Taiwan.

The only question is when China will go. I think it will be on the eve of the 2008 Peking summer Olympics. China will have the security issue to cover mobilization and movement of military units. And everybody will assume China is using the attention as a coming out party to highlight their advances and their place in the sun. I think swallowing China under the nose of US and Japanese protection will be even better to demonstrate their power. Why else go on a crash building program for naval units?

RobertKagan refutes the commonplace that the Chinese leaders are subtle and deft beyond our comprehension, bringing to bear their thousands of years of unbroken culture. In fact, from imperial times to today(that is to say, today's Chinese imperial times) the singular drawback of the Chinese leadership has been their very limited knowledge of, and experience of, the world outside of China:

"What's striking about this bellicose 'legislation' is not only the content but the timing. It comes on the heels of an election in Taiwan in which pro-independence forces are widely assumed to have suffered a bit of a setback and when President Chen Shui-bian seems set on improving the climate of cross-strait relations. He recently declared publicly that he would 'not declare independence', would not seek an amendment to the constitution to change Taiwan's status, and would not 'promote a referendum to change the status quo in regards to the issues of independence or unification.' Perhaps Beijing thinks it is wise to follow this softening of the Taiwan position with a renewed round of threats and intimidation, though if history is any guide, such interference will produce the opposite effect in Taiwan."

Meanwhile, Thomas The New York Times>Opinion> Friedman approaches the issue from a different angle, one suggested by recent remarks made by Warren Buffet on the dangers of America's borrowing binge:

"The excessive tax cuts for the rich, combined with a total lack of discipline on spending by the Bush team and its Republican led Congress, have helped China become the second largest holder of U.S. debt, with a little under $200 billion worth. No, I don't think China will start dumping its T-bills on a whim. But don't tell me that as China buys up more and more of our debt - and that is the only way we can finance the tax holiday the Bush team wants to make permanent - it won't limit our room to maneuver with Beijing, should it take aggressive steps toward Taiwan."

Now, I have no patience with the reflexive Bush-haters. I have no problem with Bolton at the U.N. or Wolfowitz at the World Bank. But I absolutely do not trust the Bushies on this kind of thing, and, yes, I think they are making class war domestically in the context of singularly dangerous times internationally. I keep thinking of the comment from Don Cheney related by ousted Treasury Secretary O'Neill, to the effect that it was not necessary to worry about deficits, since Reagan got away with playing fast and loose. "I used to listen to the people who say don't drink and drive, but then my buddy got wasted and drove home without getting in a crash. So now I don't worry about it." I find myself thinking wistfully that if the constitution did not prohibit it, I'd be ecstatic about a return of Bill Clinton. Well, maybe Hillary. I'm serious. She's looking more and more like a serious person every day. Bill as Secretary of State?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Guardian on Bjork,by way of TaipeiTimes

In order to break the long hiatus of blogging(due to trip to Singapore, bad,bad cold front, diverting books bought in Singapore,etc.), something special is required. What a gift, then, this exclusive onBjork. Fortunately, Bjork is not sticking to singing. She is branching out into politics and feminism. Let's dive right in, shall we?

"A self-confessed 'punk anarchist', she found herself politicized by the Iraq war." Now, there are some people who have staked out an anarchist position after a long period of introspection and study, which, while it strikes me as an incorrect position, is at least intellectually defensible. The thing about anarchism is that is that - like all radical departures from received tradition - it pretty much has to be a well considered position. That is to say, if I am going to be the genius who throws out musical conventions about chord progressions in music, I would do well to be someone like Philip Glass, who has long since mastered those conventions. The chronology involved in being an anarchist, and then becoming politicized, is a bit confusing.

"She would never wear jeans and a t-shirt, she says, because they are "a symbol of white American imperialism, like drinking Coca-cola."
Good, strong position, Bjork! And be sure not to let any American imperialist influences into your music, like blues, jazz, or rock. That's a terribly brave, iconoclastic position to be taking in hip European circles these days. Be sure not to make any compromises!

"Her last album, Medulla, was certainly Bjork's most political - but in a unique way. She came up with an a capella album featuring only human voices: yodelling, beatbox, Icelandic choral music. It was, she says, a way to counter 'stupid American racism and patriotism.'" Now, wait a minute - since Jimmy Rogers, I believe yodelling has been, incongruously, thoroughly appropriated by stupid Texas cowboy culture. Beatbox and Icelandic choral music, as far as I know, continue to be unpatriotic.

"I was saying, 'What about the human soul? What happened before we got involved in problematic things like civilization and religion and nationhood?" Gee, I don't know what happened then; but somehow the question conjures up an image of Australopithicans sitting around a campfire gnawing on mastodon bones...

The article informs us that she is thirty nine, and, uniquely, had several relationships that didn't work out in her twenties. "Then, four years ago, she met the American multimedia artist Matthew Barney. Today they live in an old house across the Hudson from Manhattan, with their baby daughter, Isadora. It seems a marriage of true eccentrics. Barney is a master provocateur (in 2003 he filled New York's Guggenheim with tapioca, petroleum jelly and beeswax) and he has worked as an athlete, model and medic." How eccentric! How provocative! But it would have been more provocative if the Guggenheim had brought charges against him, instead of paying him for the privilege.

On her "politicization" after the Iraq war: "People like me, who don't follow the news that much, suddenly I was looking on-line every day, just to see what was going on." Really? Discovered newspapers, have we? So now we have your new, political album. When can we expect the feminist album? "I think this is the first time in all the hundreds of interviews I've done, that I've actually jumped on the feminist bandwagon. In the past I always wanted to change the subject. But I think now it's time to bring up all these issues. I wish it wasn't, but I'll do it, I'm up for doing the dirty work!" Bravo, Bjork! What an unconventional turn to your career!

"It's interesting to me to bring up a girl. You go to the toy store and the female characters there - Cinderella, the lady in Beauty and the Beast - their major task is to find Prince Charming. And I'm like - wait a minute - it's 2005! We've fought so hard to have a say, and not just live through our partners, and yet you're still seeing two year olds with this message pushed at them that the only important thing is to find this amazing dress so that the guy will want you." Hello? Your child is two years old, and she's been brought up by Bjork and the petroleum jelly man, and you think it's because of social conditioning that she wants the Cinderella doll?

Then there is Michel Gondry's film "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind": " 'Michel did a great work there. He gave Kate Winslet , who's obviously such a huge spirit, such a vivacious lady, so much space. Usually when you see females in movies, they feel like they have these metallic structures around them, they are caged in by metallic energy. But she could be at her full volume without restrictions,' a contrast (the Guardian reporter intones) one senses with Von Trier, who loves brutalizing his actresses." Yes. Indeed. Von Trier's anti-American polemic compromised. Metallic structures around actresses. She was brought up in Reykjavik in a hippie commune by her mother and stepfather, a blues musician. The mother has a little homeopathy business from her home, thanks to her daughter's success, but, as Bjork tells us, "she's almost sixty", so the indictment against males is hardly mitigated.

Man, it's good to be back blogging!