Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Singapore Dream I

“The anti-Americanism that surged through much of the world over the U.S. war in Iraq shows modest signs of abating, although distinctly negative views persist in the Muslim world, and many Europeans now have a more favorable view of China than of the United States, according to a major new international poll.”
- International Herald Tribune, Friday June 24

In Bali for five days of vacation, I had a chance to read the International Herald Tribune, which used to be a staple of my Taiwan reading, but has largely given way to online reading in recent years. Still an excellent paper. Friday's edition, virtually side-by-side, ran three stories interesting for their juxtaposition. The first, "Anti-U.S. Sentiment Abates Yet Still Lingers", reported the results of a poll documenting attitudes toward the U.S.

Countries with the lowest opinion of the U.S. were Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey, with 21%, 23% and 21% respectively. India had the highest positive rating, at 71% Other positives were Poland (62%) and Britain (55%). Notable ratings were Russia (52%), France (43%) and China (43%). Comparing China and the U.S., in France the pro-China spread was 53%/43%, in Germany 46%/41%. Pakistan had the largest pro-China tilt, 79% for China, only 23% regarding the U.S. favorably. Poland, on the other hand, was 62%/36% pro-U.S. The single country where a majority believed the Iraq War had made the world a safer place was India, by 45% to 26%. Most others were lopsidedly against the war. In a poll asking "Which country is your land of opportunity?", only one country named the U.S. - you guessed it: India. The single country to name China as the land of opportunity was Pakistan. Most Europeans expressed support for the idea that the world would be a safer place if there was another power to balance the U.S., but even those who had a more favorable view of China did not want China to play this role. Lamentably, results for Taiwan, Japan and Singapore were not reported.

Singapore Dream II

“Promoters of democracy in the Middle East will doubtless shudder at the idea of autocratic Arab states finding solace and refuge in soft-authoritarian Asia. Shaaban's (Muhammad Shaaban, advisor to the Egyptian foreign minister) belief that the process of democracy 'should take root through evolution and not through revolution' resonates strongly in Asia, where democracy has been slow to evolve. Shaaban thinks the time has come to look east for peace solutions. 'Asia is qualified to play a role', he told me. 'We are the East, be it the Far East, the Near East or the Middle East. Our common experience with the West was colonialism, so we have more in common than we have with the West.'"
- Herald Tribune, "Why the Middle East is Turning to Asia"

It is hard to know where to start responding to the second article, an opinion column by Michael Vatikiotis, "a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore". The essence of the argument being made here is that with the U.S. renouncing its "constructive engagement" mode of dealing with Middle East autocratic regimes in the wake of 9/11, there is an opportunity for the "Asian values" countries, led by Singapore, to cozy up to the alienated Baraks and Sauds. A rather cynical and opportunistic undertaking. Building on their tremendous success in helping Burma evolve toward democracy, the ASEAN nations seem to have decided to take their act on the road. A supporter of U.S. foreign policy might be tempted to ask: "Who are the idealists now?"

Painting countries as diverse as Singapore, Egypt, Saudi Arabia - or for that matter a true colonial trauma case like Congo - all with the same brush and indicating that they have some sort of common experience of colonialism is just not convincing. Egypt's encounter with western colonialism was primarily from about 1880 to 1945, not including the brief invasion by Napoleon in the previous century. That's a pretty brief time frame compared to, say, the centuries they were colonized by the Ottomans. Ten percent of Egypt's population is Copt Christian, and as recently as a hundred years ago a full one quarter of Egypt's population was non-Muslim. For those older populations, the last fourteen hundred years have been an experience of colonialization and marginalization. India, which had a far more protracted and profound experience of colonialism, is today the world's largest democracy and seems to be getting about the business of making their way in the world. The real problem for Egypt is not colonization but the encounter with the modern world, and the inability to adapt to it.

Arabia was under British suzerainty during the interregnum between the wars, but the Brits were mostly interested in controlling the coasts and sea lanes, protecting the routes to India. The interior was "controlled" by paying subsidies to the tribes – about 12,000 pounds to the Hashemites and 5,000 to the Wahabi- Sauds in 1919. The fact that the junior partners drove the favored patrons of the British off the peninsula hardly conforms to the idea that this was a conventional or heavy-handed colonial yoke. The western powers did traduce the tribes into rising against the Ottomons during World War I, and then broke their promise to grant them independence after the war. The colonialists, however, did not leave a deep mark on the culture and mores of the indigenous population. If anything, given the phenomenon of T.E. Lawrence and other "sand mad Englishmen", it was the English who were culturally infatuated. If the British had been more assertive colonialists, the more moderate Hashemites, and not the Wahabis, would be in control of all that oil and the sacred places of Islam, and the world would be a better place today.

Singapore Dream III

“More interesting was a speech by Tommy Koh before the play ('Viva Viagra!') began. He spoke in English about his pride in being Asian. He pointed out that bureaucrats were not always 'bad guys'; they could be 'good guys', too. This splendid new theatre was made possible, was it not, by the active support of the Singaporean government. The audience applauded. A blue spotlight, bouncing off Koh's glasses and the grey-blue highlights in his perfectly coiffed hair, gave him a weird shine, as though he were polished with wax. Many people, he continued, perhaps a bit incongruously, said that it would take many years to recover from the Asian economic crisis. But he didn't share that pessimistic view. The Asians were clever and industrious, and they had pulled off miracles in the past. A new economic miracle was just around the corner. However, the next step in the Asian miracle would surely be cultural. After Asian economic power, there would be Asian cultural power and, so Koh was happy to tell us, the whole world would sit up and take notice. Indeed, it was already happening now in Singapore. More applause. Ekachai, the ACTION Theatre's director, professed how moved he was, thanked Koh for all his help, and said there was a surprise in store. The lights dimmed, Koh blinked, and from the back of the theatre about fifteen actors and actresses came in, carrying a huge cake and singing, 'Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Tommy…' I thought here was an example of what was wrong with Singapore.”
Ian Buruma, "Bad Elements"

"'Moderate voices are in danger of being drowned out by extremist voices,' said Tommy Koh, a veteran diplomat who chaired the Singapore meeting."

Singapore, of course, has had a very different colonial experience from Egypt or Saudi Arabia. It was not colonized so much as it was a creature of colonization. The people who live there are the descendants of people who chose to live there because they found it more desirable than the places they were from. They learned the ways of the modern world under the (often insufferable) tutelage of the British, and graduated with top marks to become the peers of their teachers. There's a rather breathtaking lack of gratitude in Singapore's leaders ascribing all the positive things about Singapore to their own enlightened leadership, then joining the Egypts and Saudi Arabias in excoriating colonialism. Lee Kwan Yew, the city's patriarch, was an English schoolboy first, then discovered his Chinese identity as an adult. If a person from the Middle East was given to ascribing to colonialism all the troubles of the world, they would not necessarily be a friend or ally of Singapore. Singapore is colonialism, or at least one face of colonialism- a highly distilled essence of the thing itself.

For me, the way in which a state like Singapore infantilizes citizens (described devastatingly above by Ian Buruma) is enough to discredit it is a potential residence. I've got lots of gratuitous opinions, which is why I blog, and I'm also afflicted with the idea that if a million of us are all throwing our ideas around it actually (strangely enough) has a salubrious effect on society as a whole. But I have to admit, many of the people in Singapore don't seem to be put together the way I am, and seem pretty content. So is the Singapore model exportable?

The greatest danger of authoritarian government is the temptation of the oligarchy in charge to use their position to engage in corruption. The primary reason why Singapore has some claim to be taken seriously intellectually is that they've combined an authoritarian government with low levels of corruption. The question for people like Tommy Koh is 'Can you teach governments in the Middle East and Asia how to replicate this, or is the lack of corruption simply a product of social conditions specific to Singapore?' The Singaporean model is clearly widely admired by the leadership of China, and the cult has spread to leaderships in places like Burma and Egypt. Anti-corruption campaigns featuring executions and draconian penalties are a regular feature of life in China, but corruption continues to be a persistent and debilitating problem there. It is corruption in Saudi Arabia that has radicalized their population and sent them to the mosques for lack of any other outlet for their rage. An article in the Atlantic magazine last year documented how, among other abuses, restauranteurs who build up a successful business at a certain location are apt to get a visit from a Saudi prince, who will give them an offer for their restaurant at well below market price. If the offer is not taken, the restaurant starts getting a lot of unwelcome attention from government inspectors of fire regulations and zoning, as well as tax audits and the like. The restaurant doesn't last long. When such behavior becomes pervasive, and there's no political outlet, the link with radical Islamism is clear.

There's a guilty little secret behind the soaring American rhetoric about democracy:if the Singaporeans could really teach the Egyptians and the Saudis some magic formula by which those societies could become prosperous and corruption-free while retaining an authoritarian structure, most of us would heave an enormous sigh of relief, express fulsome thanks to Singapore's leaders and nominate Lee Kwan Yew for the Nobel Peace Prize. When I read Tommy Koh's remark about moderate voices being drowned out, it took me some time to figure out that he was referring to Barak and the Saudi princes. Oh. In Arabia, the principle constituency fighting corruption are the Islamists, who often adhere to a strict ascetic code while trying to deliver the world back to the seventh century. In Egypt there are genuinely progressive voices pressing for change, but many of them are in jail. Those are the moderate voices being drowned out, and Singapore has no intention of engaging with them.

The U.S. no doubt would prefer to see a genuine democracy in Singapore, but in truth, the U.S. is not really leaning very heavily on Singapore to "evolve" faster; but then, Singapore is not spewing terrorists out into the world like a pulsar, either. What makes me suspicious is that I didn't see the word "corruption" appear even once in the Herald Tribune account of this conference. If the formula can't be exported, Singapore is just an anomoly as a non-corrupt authoritarian city-state - one that is enabling and supporting a whole flotilla of authoritarian states that are very corrupt indeed.

Singapore Dream IV

“China's rhetoric about third world solidarity has an almost antiquated ring to it, with quaint echoes of the 1960s that are questionable on at least two grounds. The country is pushing for membership in the club of industrialized countries – the Group of 8 – where it will attend its first summit meeting next month in Scotland as a special invitee. At the same time, China's awesome performance in many basic industries, like textiles, which is achieved in part through overinvestment, comes at the expense of many of the world's poorest countries, which simply cannot compete. So far, the Chinese bargain offered to these countries has been all about natural resources, starting with energy. Search as one might for a broader, more uplifting theme, but the essence of China's approach was best put by the deputy foreign minister, Zhou Wenzhong, when he was asked in an interview last year about how Beijing justifies its position as the biggest foreign investor in Sudanese oil in the midst of an ongoing genocide in that country. 'Business is business,' Zhou shot back."
--Friday's Herald Tribune, “Is See No Evil A Stone in Beijing's Global Path?”

“A Saudi delegate said there was a need for genuinely neutral and disinterested parties to join the quest for peace and called Singapore's effort brave and timely. But an Asian contribution to the single most important conflict confronting the world would require a significant rewiring of the diplomatic grid. China would need to weigh in with its newfound global clout. The United Nations would have to play a bigger role….”
-Michael Vatikiotis, “Why the Middle East is Turning to Asia.”

It's rare that absurd statements made in one article in a paper are so expeditiously rebutted simply by turning the page. The Asian values crowd has decided to join hands with the U.N. and offer their services to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Shaaban, a former ambassador to Europe and at the United Nations, says a fresh approach to making peace will need to start dealing with the problem without regarding all the players as security risks – without seeing everything through the lense of counterterrorism.” So, the way to bring the Singapore gospel to the Middle East is for Singapore to extend the hand of friendship in speeches, without even addressing the issue of corruption; then, building on that momentum, the way to solve the Middle East crisis is to ignore the terrorism that the unaddressed corruption breeds. And, of course we need to get China more involved in resolving the "world's most important conflict." This would be the China whose entire policy in Africa seems to be predicated on allying itself with governments like those in Sudan and Zimbabwe in order to gain access to energy resources? We can get some idea of the flavor of their neutral and disinterested mediation by examining the work of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which is a virtual Who's Who of China's new friends: in addition to China – Sudan, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Pakistan. Not surprisingly, 26% of this neutral and disinterested commission's condemnations have referred to Israel alone. Sounds like at the U.N., the Asian values crowd has already teamed up with the Middle East to make the world a better place.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Joe Strauss to Joe Six-Pack - New York Times

"The middlebrow impulse in America dates at least to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the belief that how one spends one's leisure time is intensely important. Time spent with consequential art uplifts character, and time spent with dross debases it.
It's true there was a great mood of take-your-vitamins earnestness about the middlebrow enterprise. But it led to high levels of mass cultural literacy, to Great Books volumes on parlor shelves and to a great deal of accessible but reasonably serious work, like Will and Ariel Durant's 'The Story of Civilization.'
Middlebrow culture was killed in the late 50's and 60's, and the mortal blows came from opposite directions. The intellectuals launched assaults on what they took to be middlebrow institutions, attacks that are so vicious they take your breath away. "

The New York Times is planning to make people pay for the op-ed page starting in September, and I'm really going to miss David Brooks. His recent column is on the reduction in circumstances of middlebrow culture these days. Reading the article, I kept thinking about Matthew Arnold. Arnold was a poet, until at some point he realized he was never going to be a truly great poet. From that point on, he wrote literary criticism. He believed that no truly great poetry could be produced except from a generally high level of understanding of and discussion of poetry in the society at large, and henceforth this would be his role. It seems to me that in a field like fiction writing, something like this has happened: writing has lost its hinterlands of middlebrow readers, so that more and more it seems that the only people who read fiction are other writers of fiction. It's hard to produce great artists that way.

The column hit home in another way. Hey, let's be honest - it takes a hundred blogs like this to create the kind of intellectual ferment out of which emerges a single great mainstream journalist like, say, Geraldo Rivera. Lately, I am aware, I've been letting the side down - it's been a sparse ten days. It's mostly a matter of better time-management. There's been a lot of ranting during that time to the effect that "The modern world just isn't made to let people read a book, much less do some writing!" This is true. The modern world has promised to make my views under consideration and it will try to do better in the future.

May Chin Attacks I

The Japanese treated aborigines as subhumans, the lawmaker said. "We were victims," she pointed out, "how could we tolerate the victims being honored together with their persecutors?"

I once had a non-salacious proposition for a close female friend, back in college days: "Okay, there's an angel, see, comes down from heaven and has a proposition for you: You can go down to Wrigley Field on a Sunday and have the entire three hours of the game to wander through the crowd – tens of thousands of handsome strangers sweating and cheering –and you're told by the angel that at the end of those three hours you can choose any one person from the crowd who will magically be made to fall in love with you and be willing to marry you on the spot. The only catch is, you must choose someone- a stranger whom you've only observed briefly - and you must get married to that person. Would you take the angel up on it?” She immediately said "No way", whereas I was, like, "DUDE, bring on the angel!”She then said, a bit too wearily, "Yeah, I know. I think most guys would say that. It's a fundamental gender difference.”I think of that conversation when I see aboriginal legislator and former actress May Chin (高金素美) in the news again. This is a woman of whom I can honestly say that, upon seeing her in "The Wedding Banquet", I would have been ready to make a life-long commitment then and there. All I can say is that every day's news brings home to me what a fool I would have been. And still, I have to say, at a convention of fools, she'd be the one that turned my head and made me nudge my buddies -“Damn, did you see that,bud? That was one good-lookin' fool!”

To generalize about the political inclinations of Aborigines on the island is tricky business, but it's probably not inaccurate to say that while there are plenty of exceptions, Aboriginals do seem to tend toward the pan-Blue KMT camp. As far as I can figure, this seems to be on account of the "the enemy of enemy is my friend" school of politics. The Japanese encountered resistance from both Aboriginals and Hokkenese on arrival in 1895, and dealt with both communities with the efficiency and ruthlessness characteristic of the Japanese government of the time. But Taiwanese seem to have learned to work – sometimes uneasily – with the occupiers, while the Aboriginals maintained a largely rejectionist posture.

When the KMT came along in the late forties, many Taiwanese had feelings of nostalgia for the Japanese reinforced as they realized that the Mainlanders were a rough and untutored bunch from a society that was at a distinctly lower stage of development than Taiwan. The 2-28 incident and the White Terror alienated Taiwanese further. Mainland soldiers often found it difficult to find Taiwanese brides, and a large number of them seem to have taken Aboriginals for wives (including May Chin's father). Perhaps the Aborigines thought that they could play the role minorities in so many colonized countries have played - the field bosses lording it over an oppressed native population. It didn't turn out that way for them. The loyalty the Aboriginals have shown to the KMT over decades of martial law has mostly gone unreciprocated. It doesn't seem to have improved their economic situation at all, for whatever reason, while the Taiwanese landed quite nimbly on their feet.

May Chin Attacks II

Our friends at Zmagazine have an article on the earliest conflict between the aborigines and Japanese, the Mudan incident, proving that Zmag can be perfectly reasonable and informative as long as the subject doesn't involve the U.S. Mudan is located in Pingtung County, on the road cutting east from Che Cheng, and is near and dear to my heart. It's one of my favorite places to cruise on the scooter, and you can pull up in Shi Men, the main village, around dinner time in the summer and play volleyball with some of the friendliest people you will ever meet until the sun goes down. I have lots of friends there, as well as a former girlfriend.

She used to tell me about her grandfather. He was a chief, and one of the fiercest of the fighters against the Japanese. As the Japanese gradually got the upper hand, he was forced to take refuge up in the mountains with even less domesticated Paiwans. As a result, although their chiefs usually do not hunt, the grandfather became that rare anomaly – a chief who was well-versed in all aspects of survival in the mountains. After some years, he was allowed to come down into the village, and even was drafted into the Japanese army. For the rest of his life, she said, he would periodically get the itch and disappear into the mountains for weeks, living the old way, hunting by day, sleeping in trees at night. Later- an image that makes me think of Ike McCaslin in Faulkner's story "The Bear" - when he got old, he would just go and sleep in the tree outside their house - among the last custodians of a consciousness that was attenuating and disappearing forever. In a strange twist suggesting that there were complicated feelings unhinted at by someone like May Chin, my friend said that in his old age he used have a drink or two, dress up in his old Japanese uniform and march up and down the street, with the kids of the village trailing merrily behind him trying to march in time.

An editorial in the Taipei Times, which for some reason can't be gotten online, made some excellent points:

“May Chin's visit to Japan is controversial in Taiwan because everyone knows she is simply a pro-unification politician who often hides beneath the cloak of her Aboriginal status. Since May Chin's father is a Mainlander, it's not surprising that she never fails to echo the pan-blue camp's political arguments, but she does this as though she is representing the Aboriginal community….The absurdity of the situation is that many Aborigines are unaware that their ethnic identity is in danger of being usurped. For example, the Paiwan and Rukai tribes in Pingtung take the hundred-pace snake as their totem. The offspring of Mainlander veterans often opt for Aboriginal status, but when they return home for tribal festivals, the hundred-pace snake has been replaced with the Chinese dragon in their ceremonial regalia. This makes us think of Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan's recent remark that Shanghai women should marry foreigners to help spread Chinese culture around the world. That Chinese are able to advocate interracial marriage as a tool of cultural conquest is really quite frightening.”

In America, when Big Business wants to push through legislation favorable to themselves, they know they really can't lobby for the legislation on those terms, since Big Business has some image problems. The solution to the problem is so-called "white hat" lobbyists –fronting the lobbying effort with groups that are more palatable. Small business owners paraded in to testify on behalf of legislation that primarily benefits large businesses are a common form of"white hat"lobbyist. The drama queen in May Chin, of course, finds irresistable the colorful costumes and opportunity to invoke the perennial cry of victimhood. Opportunities to dress up and give speeches through a bullhorn, tears running down face, voice cracking with indignation, are not to be passed up. Transparently, this classic"white hat" imagery is being put in the service of the political residue of one of the nastiest martial law regimes of the post-war era.

I want a divorce. But that Parminder Nagra - the one in“Bend It Like Beckham"? Do I hear wedding bells? In a second, dude, a millisecond. Let it not be said of me that I'm afraid of commitment to women I have never met.

May Chin Attacks III

The Japan War-Bereaved Families Association is a powerful vote-gathering machine of the LDP. Traditionally, it has campaigned for state protection of the shrine and urged successive prime ministers to pay homage to the shrine in their official capacity. Koizumi admitted that during the LDP presidential election campaign four years ago, he asked senior members of the association for their support on condition that he would visit the shrine. But now, the association's head has urged Koizumi to refrain from visiting the shrine.

The Japanese Asahi Shimbun injects a note of reasonableness that is rare in these precincts lately in an editorial. They take note of the likelihood that at least some of those upset about the visits are not manipulating the issue cynically for political gain. The organization representing the dead soldiers, after initially getting a commitment from the Prime Minister to visit the shrine, has released him from the pledge. The possibility is being discussed of a new shrine being built that would avoid the loaded issue of the class A war criminals buried at Yasukuni. One feels on entering into this editorial: this is the way people in liberal societies go about the process of resolving difficult issues. It is a world away from the machinations of May Chin, a legislator who represents only a portion of the aboriginal community in Taiwan, but purports to speak for them all; who disdains going through the Taiwanese governmental department designated to represent that community's issues in negotiations with foreign governments; who stages a loud, emotional demonstration in another country; then accuses the Taiwan government of not backing her up.

It puts me in mind of another demonstration held recently by yet another old line KMT constituency: teachers, specifically intern teachers. Historically, teaching has been a classic government "iron rice bowl" profession, with the KMT requiring most teachers to be politically loyal in return for lifetime job security. The DPP has been trying to rationalize and mainstream the profession, getting them to accommodate the dramatically falling birth rates on the island and, who knows, maybe one day getting them to pay taxes like everyone else. The former policies assured the loyalty to the KMT from the older cohort; the latter policies seem to be doing a good job of alienating the teacher interns. Me, I believe in public schools. I'm mostly a free markets kind of guy, but I tend to make an exception for education and health care, which I believe help knit a society together. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the DPP reforms are being implemented properly or not. What I would insist on is that the goal of the public education system is to provide education to the island's children,not to be a jobs program. The people demonstrating need to make their case on those terms – how is giving them jobs going to make the system better at acheiving its goal? What I saw were an awful lot of signs saying that the government is spending so much money on the military and they should be spending that money on education instead. Well, the government is not spending a great deal of money on defense, considering the threat to Taiwan - only the KMT views the government as a defense spendthrift. This line of reasoning only reinforces the suspicion that this is just another KMT constituency digging in its heels against the evolution of the society away from the old single party, machine politics and patronage days. At the very least – bad P.R. move, guys.

It's sad to see some aboriginal leaders trying to hold their constituents in the old dependent relationship with the KMT. Did all those decades of condescending Confucian patriarchalism really benefit their community? The DPP may pay them the respect of challenging them - in somewhat the way Clinton challenged America's poor with his welfare reform - to join the modern world. It shouldn't follow automatically that Chen's party is their enemy. As for the future, as the KMT cozies up to the CCP, they might ask themselves: "Is life for the poor, minorities and labor likely to get better if unification comes about?"

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Crime Over Courage In Iraq

"Sordid details of thugs and kidnappers such as these cannot compete with the romantic images of Iraqi 'insurgents' taking desperate measures in desperate times, so don't expect to see Hayssam's story on the evening news here or on al-Jazeera's Arabic broadcasts."

An excellent examination of the people Michael Moore has described as modern-day Minutemen in today's Washington Post by Jim Hoagland. I can't imagine why, but George Galloway also came to mind as I was reading.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Early 70's Nostlagia Time

I don't have any real deep thoughts to add to the revelation that Mark Felt, FBI Hoover loyalist, was the storied Deep Throat of the Watergate era. Nixon was a politico who, in the espionage unsavvy world of politicians, fashioned himself as a kind of worldly Big Fish dirty trickster in a pond full of Small Fish dirty tricksters. His problem was a bit reminiscent of a cliched scene from a dozen gangster movies: a thug tells the respectable citizen who'd always idolized gangsters and finally kills somebody "Now you've crossed the line. Now you're one of us, and we'll see how you do." Nixon played the tough guy who knew all the angles at the expense of people like Helen Gahagan Douglas for so many years that he seems to have convinced himself that he was a real graduate of spook culture, out of the Wild Bill Donovan School that so many tough guy wannabe's of his generation idolized. When Hoover died, he took on the Hoover loyalists at the FBI and, despite the huge institutional advantage of the presidency, they outspied him, outleaked him, out dirty-tricked him. He didn't (and doesn't) get the sympathy other politicians might, precisely because he'd eroded the fire-wall between politicians and sleuths that ultimately protects politicians. He was one of them now. Playing against the big boys.

Of course the Hoover loyalists were, if anything, an even nastier bunch. These are the people who taped Martin Luther King cheating on his wife, then threw a brick with the tape onto his front porch to try to get him to stop marching. Their fingerprints are all over the Malcom X murder. Elijah Muhammad's people were the ones looking for Malcolm to kill him, but no matter how much Malcolm tried to hide, they always seemed to know where he was, which was way beyond their espionage resources. It was Hoover with whom Robert Kennedy had to battle over the priorities of the FBI and the Justice Department. Hoover insisted on beating the dead horse of anti-Communist subversion, even as Kennedy made a credible case that the threat of organized crime was far more pressing. This is why Kennedy ultimately had to form his Justice Department team against organized crime outside the Bureau. Taylor Branch wrote in "Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years": "Like the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, the FBI's clandestine political arm (called COINTELPRO for 'counterintelligence program') adopted the premise that the civil rights movement was a disguised arm of Communist conspiracy. COINTELPRO grew into active use just as the actual threat of Cold War subversion diminished, expanding into new territory against the connective alliances of the civil rights movement." Nixon was completely correct in wanting to break the grip of the Hooverites on the Bureau. In a lot of ways, they remind one of the KMT old guard. He just didn't realize that he wasn't positioned to do so, which is the kind of thing politicians have to know. In the end, Nixon had to resign, the Hoover loyalists were brought to heel, and people like Mark Felt were convicted in court for at least a bit of their illegal wiretapping. Mostly, the system worked, but it was a rough ride.

Mostly, the re-emergence of the Watergate story evoked a wave of nostlagia for me, on account of my having been raised in Washington and, at twelve in 1972, just at the age of starting to read newspapers just as that story hit big. Of course, my family didn't get the Post, much as I'd like to report that the earliest stories I read were the Woodward and Bernstein classics. No, we were loyalists of the Washington Star, the Republican-leaning paper delivered in the evening. The Star was the older and more established paper, but evening papers were going the way of the dodo, and the Star, alas, failed to adapt. It was a great writer's paper, though, and a far more worthy counterpoint to the Post in the nation's capital than today's Washington Times.

It's remarkable how evocative these old pictures can be of a certain time and place. The hairstyles, the Never-Wear-Cotton sartorial preferences, and the before-the-deluge whiteness of the world in these photos all amaze me: "I was there!" More than any of the specifics, the very texture of life that comes through the photos is recognizable to me as from the stage of development when one has first arrived at the "age of reason", but the mind still retains much of the pliancy and retention of childhood. I don't mind confessing to a bit of pride at having made the long and far journey from there to here, with enough energy left intact so that- even if I don't have quite the horsepower I used to- like Curious George, you probably don't want to leave me unattended for too long.

My dad was a civil servant in the State Department, part of the security detail for the Secretary of State. He served as a bodyguard for both Dean Rusk and William Rogers, but he said Rogers was a cold fish. Rusk he worshipped. Rusk, a protege of George Marshall, was for my father everything a statesman and a man should be. Nothing I've read about Rusk in subsequent years has lead me to believe otherwise. On winter nights, in those sleepy days before Munich woke everybody up, my dad would take a blanket and a thermos to work the midnight shift. Mrs. Rusk would bring hot drinks out to him. Among my childhood brushes with great power, I can boast of having been taken in one night to see the desk of the Secretary; we also had a weekend at Camp David, as a treat to State Department staffers. It was puzzling to me why it was so terribly important to my parents that I play nicely with a particular little boy, but it was the only son of the Camp Commandant and apparently it was a rare thing for him to have a child his own age to play with.

The Watergate stuff made me nostalgic about my teacher, Willie Studevent. I was in sixth grade that year, and I'd accumulated a singularly colorful rap sheet in the previous five years as a hell-raiser and tantrum thrower. Of a staff of about twenty at our suburban school, Willie was one of only two black teachers (the other a woman), and one of only two male teachers. He was the only teacher who sat with the kids and ate with us at lunch. He told us "They just sit in there and talk about you guys every afternoon and I don't want to hear it. When kids come into my class in September I want to form my own impressions." He had a highly ritualized way of eating - just so many chews on one side of the mouth and just so many on the other - and he shared that with us, too. When he fought with his wife on the weekend, we heard all about it on Monday morning. Called us all by our last names, which was a new one on us - "Get your anatomy over here, Carlton!", he'd bellow at demure Jenny Carlton, who'd never in her life been called anything but Jenny, much less had reference made to her anatomy. But his language was infectious. You'd hear kids out on the playground yelling "Don't give me any of that shuckin' and jivin', Davis. Throw me the ball!"

Willie went to the same college in North Carolina as Earl Monroe - I think it was Winston-Salem College - and used to hang with the Pearl back in the day. He told how he stood by the tunnel one day after a Bullets game and extended his hand and said "Hey, Earl, it's me Willie Studevent!" and the Pearl just kept on going without a glance. He misted up when he told us that and I thought he was going to lose it, but that's the way it was with Willie - he shared everything with his class, uncensored and unguarded. Willie was on the football team and told us apochryphal stories about how, for instance, his coach made them not take a bath for a week before a big game they were underdogs in, and they stunk so bad they won going away. We believed every word - the boys, at least. Forced us to diagram sentences on the board, old school. When a whole world of fathers were commuting in to town, Willie was commuting the other way every day, and I don't think the teachers in that school ever really recovered. His protection was the white male principal of the school, who loved him. When that principal died in a car crash a couple of years later, Willie was toast. They wanted diversification, and that's what they got - and most of them didn't handle it very well at all.

That was a year of great opening up for me. I started reading the paper. Willie said he always started with the back of the paper, because the editorials was where all the action was. I still read the paper that way today. He'd tell us "J. Edgar Hoover's got files on every one of those senators and congressmen. The president, too. He knows every one who stepped out, who with, and when they did it. He sends them a letter telling them that in the course of routine surveillance his agents inadvertantly came across this image of the senator with his secretary. He tells them as a friend that they need to be more discreet, because the papers might get wind of it. Then they know Hoover's got the goods on them." Nobody'd talked to us like that before - like we were equals, who should know what was really going on. I didn't read the original Woodstein articles, but I know Willie did and, believe me, we got the synopsis and the free editorials for no extra charge on a regular basis. Circa-1972 blogging, and it was like a spoonful of wasabe shooting up my nose and into my brain and it woke up things there that haven't been able to be put back to sleep ever since.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Chinese Students' Top Ten Heroes


In a poll of Chinese Junior High students' Top Ten Heroes", Mao Ze Dong won first place. "Parents" were in second place. Of course it was Mao who told children to inform on their parents, and parade their elders about in the "airplane" posture. Good to see Chinese young people are still putting the Chairman first, in front of their parents. Parents were followed by Zhou En-lai, who used all his ormidable skills to try to mitigate the effects of Mao's madness. Third for him. Fourth place went to Cultural Revolution-era "model worker" Lei Feng. (I'm not sure if it was Lei Feng or some other model worker who, when the cement mixer down at the plant broke down, jumped into the vat of wet cement and began to flail around wildly in order to mix the cement. I love that story.) In fifth place, and the first contemporary - the first mortal, really - was Olympic hurdler Liu Hsiang. Sixth place was 成龍 himself, Jackie Chan.

Liu Hsiang, who seems like a nice young man, was interviewed for the article, and is quoted above. He says "Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou go without saying. They are both our Party's and our country's leaders. I have revered them as well my whole life." I think it's notable what an enormous shadow the Cultural Revolution still casts over this country, even over those who were too young to experience it. And because people's access to information about it has been managed and politicized by the CCP we can see the warping effect in that two of the three "heroes" exemplify the idea that this was a great and glorious time in Chinese history. The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward are huge, undigested chunks of experience that this traumatized society is far from having digested.

"Liu Hsiang said 'As for Lei Feng, I have to admit I wouldn't have expected him to make the list. I would have expected today's Junior High students to have forgotten him. I think it's great, though. Whether it's today or in the future, we all need more of the Lei Feng spirit'....Brother Chan's inclusion also elucidates a problem: It seems to me that in the past a movie star could never have been included in the top ten list, but Brother Chan's movies have become all the rage. His movies exhibit the elegant bearing and panache of the Chinese. Actually, I think this is a great thing."

Jackie ("Taiwan's election was a joke") Chan is rapidly becoming the poster boy for the CCP's New China. Lyndon Johnson famously commented that he sometimes wondered if Gerald Ford hadn't played a few too many football games without his helmet on, and I'm beginning to wonder if Jackie hasn't done his own stunts a few too many times. We know what Jackie thinks because he has unfettered access to the media, but Zhao Ziyang, even posthumously, seems to be having a harder time getting his views on democracy out. Jackie's embrace of Chinese nationalism is a good career move, but the career of Ching Cheong, the Singaporean journalist who wanted to let Chinese young people read the words of Zhang, seems to stalled. As for Chan's native Hong Kong, I wonder if he thinks
their elections are a joke? I haven't seem him comment on it, but we can surmise that Jackie's not going to be making any bad career moves any time soon.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

KMT Land I

Bait them with the prospect of gain, bewilder and mystify them
Use anger to disrupt them, humility to make them arrogant
Tire them by running away, cause them to quarrel among themselves.
Attack them when they do not expect it, when they are least prepared
Be so subtle that you are invisible.
Be so mysterious thaat you are intangible.
Then you will control your rival's fate.
Use espionage and mystification in every enterprise.
All life is based on deception.

I've never really had much patience for the Sun-Tzu cult. I'm sure he's worth reading as an academic pursuit, on account of his having influenced countless generations of Chinese imperial courtiers and emperors,the same way you could spend your time reading through the works of Ptolemy because the idea that the planets revolve around the sun held sway for 1,500 years. Most people who passionately recommend that I read Sun-Tzu assure me his thinking is of blinding relevance to navigating the modern world. I remain a sceptic. One of the secrets of the success of the Western financial system that ultimately became the international system is that, whereas many business deals in the past had to be done based on trust,or faith, today there are elaborate and rather effective mechanisms to detect liars and cheaters. There's still a fair amount of the old school kind of trust-building around today, of course. Let's just say that if I were at a KTV doing the kind of trust-building socializing businessmen do, if my counterpart were to tell me he was a big fan of Sun-Tzu he would not be moving closer to sealing the deal. Most people who are convinced they are far more subtle, facile and clever than those around them are just frauds, usually shielded by privilege of one kind or another, with limited awareness of how transparent they are to others. In egalitarian situations, people get disabused pretty quickly of the conceit that they're masters of deception.

For people who've been vacationing on Mars, the KMT, as political parties are wont to do, has been trying to have a primary election to determine the next party chairman. Lien is the incumbent, having served as losing candidate for the party in two general elections. Now, flush from his handshake with Hu Jin-tao, he's back to preside over the ascension of a new generation of KMT leaders, with Ma Ying-jeou and Wang Jin-ping as contenders. Straightforward enough – for most parties. But the Kuo Min Tang is not most parties. There's an enormous weight of history, thousands of years deep, of mostly unedifying precedents imported from across the Straits, that keeps this party awake late into the night howling at the moon. The KMT's Old World is a world of imperial palace court intrigues, of thick-face-black-heartery, of feints and deceptions and an understanding of transitional politics as a show performed on a stage while knives are quietly unsheathed backstage. So it appears that, no, the KMT is not yet ready to conduct a normal democratic party primary.

For weeks, getting any sense of what was going on from news reports was like the old profession of kremlinology. The papers announced that Lien had said he was not going to run. He was going to hold a press conference in which he would announce his plans, and when it was held he informed the world that he did not intend to run for party chair. He sent a KMT spokesman out to say "Candidates should state clearly how they would like to lead the party, as well as the future development of it." Okay. Straightforwardness and clarity- good things. Lien then said – again- that he was not running. Hmm. "I'm not interested in joining the race," he reiterated on May 25. Okay. Godspeed to ya on yer way to the pantheon of whatever, oh noble knight! Good-bye. Good-bye. Wang Jin-ping offered that if Lien did run- which of course he had no intention of doing- he (Wang) would renounce his candidacy in deference to Lien, "to avoid splitting the party." When asked by the press if he, too, would fall on his sword, Ma made it clear that he intended to forgo that option and he would run for the position of KMT party chair. Full stop. Which part of I-intend-to-run don't you understand?

KMT leaders (Lien loyalists) announced a debate format that consisted of a thirty minute "report" by each of the candidates, followed by a question-and-answer session in which members of the Standing Committee (read Lien loyalists) would ask the questions. Enigmatically, so subtle that he was invisible, a black-clad ninja shadow on the rooftop, Lien stated once more for the record "I'm not interested in joining the chairmanship race.” But wait - a twist! (That Volkov – wasn't he third from the right of Stalin on last year's May Day viewing platform? And now, he's fifth from the right? What could it possibly mean?) Lien added "There is room for discussion if people still harbor doubts about he candidates" after the "debates". "The reports," the Taipei Times reported, "were arranged based on a proposal by KMT Chairman Lien Chan, who reiterated on Wednesday that he had no interest in seeking re-election."


Meanwhile, a KMT legislator, one Wu Den-yi, also reiterated that Lien had no interest in seeking re-election, suggesting that there was no implied disloyalty to Lien in Ma's running. "Arriving at KMT headquarters yesterday, Lien was tight-lipped when asked to comment on Wu's remark," the Times reported (wasn't Karamovski wearing a hat last year? Why isn't he wearing a hat?) "Wu also said that Lien had told him personally that he would not seek another term as party chairman." But then there were media reports that Lien (so mysterious that he was intangible) had called Wu in and rebuked him for saying these things. This was not denied by the KMT. "Commenting on the report, KMT spokewoman Cheng Li-wen said Lien made the move because he did not want the public to think he is siding with either Wang or Ma in the race." Huh? Wang gave further credibility to the idea that rebuking Wu was in the name of impartiality by enthusiastically endorsing it.

"But Wang also repeated his commitment that if Lien decided to seek another term he would quit the race for the chairmanship. 'We should allow Mr. Lien to think about this and make his own mind up,' he said. Wang also said that he could not understand why a senior party member (Wu) had accused party leaders of impeding democratic reform within the party. 'The spirit of democracy is diversity. If someone has made such an accusation he has probably failed to comprehend the spirit of democracy,' he said. Got that? Diversity is the spirit of democracy, which is why if the incumbent lets it be known through winks and nods that he wishes to run again, all other candidates should voluntarily remove themselves from the race and allow him to run unopposed.

The effect of Ma's not removing himself from the race has been to flush to the surface the palace intriguers; at least some of the palace intriguers. Lien continues to be subtle as the wind, a spectre moving in the twilight. But 22 members of the party's Central Committee (would this be the same "impartial" Central Committee that Lien designated to shoot impartial questions at the candidates in the format he insisted on instead of a normal debate format?) signed a petition "begging" him to serve another term. Then a group of elderly supporters with the words "support Lien to save the nation" on their caps got down on their knees to dramatize the request. Ma's father,Ma Ho Ling, an old KMT warhorse whose connections gave Ma his start in the KMT so many years ago, weighed in with the opinion that his son should not run if Lien wished to run. Then, as if to underline that we are not dealing with people here who have the slightest inkling of what democratic, modern societies are about, he offered helpfully that he would consider killing himself if his son did not withdraw. Now, my first thought on hearing this was that we may be dealing with an Alzheimer's patient here. The truly scary thing is that, on closer inspection, this does not appear to be the case. Ma Ho Ling appears to be, in the medical if not the colloquial sense, entirely in his right mind. He's just, like so many of the KMT old guard, from another time, another world altogether. As I was beginning this essay, I was watching on the news a Taipei City Councilwoman named Lu roundly lighting into Ma for his lack of filial piety and for not caring whether his father lived or died. Ma, deadpan, kept replying throughout the tirade "Thank you. Thank you for your concern. My whole family thanks you for your concern about my father's well-being." Ma's sister later showed up at one of his campaign events to make clear that he was by no means isolated within his family. Amazing.


A Taipei Times article says what needs to be said: "Similar charades from imperial times can be read in history textbooks. After a power struggle the victor would say that 'The support of so many people left him no choice but to take the throne.' It was a hackneyed ploy even back then, but Lien has never been one to avoid a cliché. It is time to say enough is enough and put an end to this soap opera, this comedy of horrors. By putting on such an outmoded spectacle, the KMT has once again demonstrated that it is out of touch with reality and with the democratic era." The Times's editorial on the most recent developments can be found here.

Credit does need to be given to Ma, however. The rap on him has always been that he was a bit to soft to be an effective administrator, too soft and deferential to the elders to represent a new generation of leadership for the KMT. He is fighting the good fight now, though. Taiwan does need a credible, modern opposition to the DPP to continue to develop democratically. The question is whether what Ma's fighting to save is worth saving. The constituency will still be there and will reform under some new banner, with the influence ofthe Old Guard vastly reduced. The KMT, with its vast, ill-gotten wealth acquired during the martial law era, and its control of a media empire, may not be worth saving.

The two most important cross-currents in Taiwan political life are: attitudes towards cross-straits relations and attitudes toward democratization. Of all the main players in Taiwan politics, Ma is unique in the degree to which he's wind-sheared by these two currents. Brought up by a father with a characteristically feudal way of thinking, he was then sent to Harvard Law School. He conducts himself as a man who understands and respects democratic processes, yet he believes, against all evidence, that Beijing would genuinely honor a one country, two-systems arrangement. He also believed in the KMT Old Guard. It's easy to jeer now that the incompatibility of these ideas is being brought home to him by his own father. But we might remember that Ma had another mentor/father-figure, Chiang Ching-kuo. Chiang was a classic henchman of the party through the darkest years of the White Terror period, but I believe he also did more to break the momentum of the authoritarian state in the last years of his life than any other figure. The late life evolution of Ching-kuo into a proto-democrat is one of the most implausible turn-abouts in Taiwan history and also one of Ma's most important early formative experiences. He'll wait a long time and cut an increasingly plaintive figure waiting for the others in Chiang's cohort to grow and evolve similarly, but he seems to be sincere.

An article from the Chinese-language Dong Lin News Service (which I apologize, I lost the link to) made a number of good points. First, Ma could probably not win a general election without the endorsement of Lien Chan, so he is in a very delicate position. On the other hand, what level of support could possibly be expected from people like Wu Den-ying if Lien were to actually run for a third time? We saw in the days following the visits to Hu Jin-tao that there was a crisis of limited duration and intensity for Chen Shui-bian in the wake of those visits. What we are seeing now is that the implications for the KMT are far more ominous, and the crisis deeper. The Dong Lin article concludes:

“Wang Jin-ping has also received a severe blow to his reputation. He has not had the ability to steer his own course in the wake of the meetings of Lien and Song with Hu Jin-tao. Ma has also had to struggle to find a viable path in the wake of the meetings. An example of the kind of dilemma that could become routine for the party in the wake of the rapprochement with the communists will come on June 4. Will Ma attend the commemorations of the Tian An Men massacre on that date, as he has every year previously, or will he not risk offending his party's new allies and stay away? The tectonic plates are shifting under the feet of the KMT, having received the kiss of death from Hu. Who would have thought that the fate of the KMT would rest in the hands of the Communist Party? It begins to appear as if the imprecation of Hsu Hsin Liang, uttered so many years ago, could turn out to be prophecy: “Let the Kuo Min Tang vanish from the face of the earth.”