Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Truth of Tiananmen

The 1950 Japanese film Rashomon owes its enduring appeal to director Akira Kurosawa’s superb treatment of an ancient and universal theme: What is the truth? A samurai and his bride come upon a bandit in a forest grove, where the traveler dies and his wife is ravished. The only witness is a woodcutter. The story turns on the magistrate’s efforts to extract the facts from completely different yet equally plausible perceptions of what occurred.

A similar conundrum awaits anyone who wants to unravel the meaning of the events that occurred on the night of June 3-4, 1989, in China’s capital. Most Americans think they already know the truth about Tiananmen. The communist rulers of China, determined to crush a pro-democracy movement, sent the soldiers and tanks of the People’s Liberation Army, guns blazing, into Beijing’s massive central square, mowing students down by the hundreds.

Here is what my own newsmagazine, Asiaweek, wrote in a retrospective six months after Tiananmen: “Beyond question a paroxysm of killing took place that night. What has never been clear was how many died. One June 4, the Chinese Red Cross allegedly issued an estimate of 2,600 dead. The figure was soon disavowed, but the June 5 edition of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post cited ‘diplomatic sources’ reckoning a death toll of 1,400. Next day it rose to 4,000. Two days later 7,000.”

Yet for years many publications in Asia have shown an extreme reluctance to put the words “Tiananmen” and “massacre” together. My own magazine pussyfooted around the subject by calling it a “crackdown.” Even today, the South China Morning Post uses the term “Tiananmen crackdown” in its headline reporting on the crowds that attend the candlelight vigil honoring the dead that takes place every year in Victoria Park, Hong Kong’s smaller version of Tiananmen Square.

In part this reflects an uncertainty as to how many people were actually killed on that fateful night and whether anyone was killed within the boundaries of Tiananmen Square, literally and narrowly defined. The Chinese government has always maintained that the death toll was “around 200,” including many soldiers, and that no student was actually slain on the square itself. Tiananmen is like our mall in Washington, so it is more than academic to the Chinese whether blood was actually spilled inside those sacred boundaries.

It also reflects a typically Asian penchant to soften traumatic events with euphemisms. On February 2, 1947 the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek suppressed island-wide rioting, killing thousands, many more, probably, than died in Beijing. It is known today even in Taiwan simply as the “2/28 Incident.” Japanese refer to the bloody coup attempt in Tokyo in 1936 as the “2/36 Incident.” For that matter, they refer to the years the Japanese army rampaged through China, killing millions, as the “China Incident.”

In a way it is irrelevant whether anyone was actually killed in Tiananmen Square itself. There is no question that a bloodletting took place in Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989. There was no question that Tiananmen Square was the objective of the Chinese army. Beijing was a city on the edge of insurrection. The PLA converged on the city center from all sides smashing and shooting its way through improvised street barriers. But by the time they reached the Square, the students were already filing out.

Similar questions still surround precisely what the students were demonstrating about. It is an axiom that the students were agitating for democracy in China, and the enduring symbol of their protest is the statue of the Goddess of Democracy, they erected in the Square. Yet it is a curious democracy movement that began with the death of Hu Yaoban, who as Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party was certainly no democrat but reputed to be a man of rectitude, and ended with the students singing the anthem of international communism as they exited the Square.

For many years my Chinese colleagues argued strenuously that it was wrong to say the demonstrators were agitating for democracy. The students were really against growing corruption that was becoming increasingly evident ten years after China introduced market reforms. Of course, insisting that the issue was corruption puts a more tolerable light on the student motivations from the government’s point of view. Being against corruption is very politically correct. The Chinese Communist Party conducts periodic crackdowns -- that word again – on corruption. High-ranking officials are caught, tried and sometimes executed. Oh yes, being against corruption is fine.

But it is much harder for China’s rulers to admit that Chinese people might actually want greater democracy. Perhaps it is a lingering Marxist worldview, but Beijing explains all such disturbances in purely economic terms. People are upset? It must be about the economy. The solution is to find ways to give them more prosperity. If people are busy getting on with their lives they will be happy and not agitate for political reforms. This was essentially how Beijing responded to Tiananmen, and it was how it read the mood of Hong Kong after half a million people demonstrated for democracy last year.

It can work for a while, but inevitably it will lead to further blowups. It may be true that the demonstrators sixteen years ago did not debate the finer points of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy for China. Yet, the Tiananmen was fundamentally and profoundly democratic. Yes, they may have been angry about their leaders’ growing corruption. But the people who say the revolt was against corruption are only half right. The underlying message was this: Our leaders are corrupt and we can’t do anything to get rid of them. And that is the truth of Tiananman.

Todd Crowell served as the Asiaweek's chief of correspondents during Tiananmen.

Monday, May 23, 2005

America's Iron Rice Bowl Cracks

Iron Rice Bowl In China a system of guaranteed lifetime employment and care in state-owned enterprises.

Pick up a newspaper or turn on the television news, and the evidence is all around. One day it is United Airlines dumping its employee pension plans. The next day executives at General Motors are complaining that burgeoning health care costs will sink the company.

America’s state-owned enterprises – oops, I mean blue chip corporations – are teetering, we are told, under the strain of pension costs, medical costs and the effects of an aging population – not to mention foreign competition. They may have to shed social services for millions of Americans or go under.

It may seem strange to use a Chinese term to describe America’s old-line corporations, like General Motors, as being state-owned enterprises (SOE). After all, they are joint-stock companies, publicly listed companies answerable to shareholders and operating in a capitalist country. This isn’t Red China. Or is it?

We have more in common with China than you might think. After the revolution China’s industrial economy was organized into huge enterprises, owned by the state. More than factories, they were virtually self-contained communities. They provided what elementary social services were then available to Chinese workers such as housing, health clinics, old-age pensions and life-time employment.

In China this is known as the “iron rice bowl.”

Similarly, America’s blue chips are, or have been, massive welfare machines. General Motors says it will spend more than $5 billion this year to provide health coverage for its more than one million employees, retirees and their dependents. That does not include costs of old-age pensions.

Beginning in the 1980s, under reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping, China began to shrink the state sector, closing down huge industrial combines or selling off pieces to the emerging private sector. In the course of this restructuring millions of Chinese workers were let loose with no real social net to protect them.

In China’s case it was the result of a deliberate policy and thus in some ways amenable to control. Money-losing SOEs can be and are nursed along by the central government for fear that their closures would put too much of a strain on the social fabric. In the U.S. change is coming in an unplanned, helter-skelter way, blindly responding to the inchoate forces of globalization.

Many mistakenly assume that since China is a communist country it provides everyone with the basic necessities of life, even if they are meager. It may be a dictatorship, people say, but at least they provide free health care. No so. Chinese parents even have to pay to have their children immunized.

Indeed, few of the social services that people take for granted in the West exist in China outside the SOEs, or they are provided at the most rudimentary level. Here is a list of basic social services that don’t exist in China:

Unemployment insurance
Universal health insurance
Social Security
Non-fee charging public schools

In Mao Zedong’s time, nine out of ten rural residents had access to subsidized health clinics run by “barefoot doctors.” In the two decades since the beginning of market reforms and the move towards “market socialism” this arrangement collapsed. Now the vast majority in the countryside and many in the cities have no real health care unless they can pay for it out of their pockets.

Some years ago I was involved in a church project to help fund education in a poor part of rural Guangdong province. In this case the local authorities took the unusual step of returning a school, originally founded by a church and confiscated by the Communists, back to the church. We rebuilt the school and aided students who couldn’t afford the fees.

At the moment, Beijing is seeking to rebuild a social safety net almost from scratch. It wants to encourage private health insurance schemes and probably will work towards some kind of retirement accounts funded with employee/employer contributions, perhaps modeled on Singapore’s system. Development will be slow given that China’s capital markets are still weak and distrusted by investors.

For the time being there is nothing like 9.5 per cent annual GDP growth to cover up the cracks in the social safety net. The stupendous economic revival that China has undergone has permitted Beijing to provide employment for the younger population and, for the most part, keep a lid on social discontent.

The imperative to create something like 20 million new jobs every year to accommodate layoffs and a growing population powers the country’s relentless export machine and is partly responsible for America’s gaping trade deficit with China. But many of the middle-aged, raised in the state system, have had to fall back on families for support or eke out a living as street hawkers.

China’s millions have to provide for themselves the old-fashion way, either by saving or falling back on families for support-- call it the family responsibility system. The uncertainties of daily life plus the need to pay for their children’s education are one reason why Chinese are such prodigious savers.

In an abstract way there is something admirable about this, and many might applaud it as an example of thrift and family values. Yet if the Chinese could divert more of the money they put under the mattress towards greater consumption it would help create a bigger internal market, thus lessening the need to export. It would also create a bigger market for goods from America and other countries.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Hong Kong Model

“May I see some identification, please?” asked a retail clerk taking my check. I said certainly and handed the woman my Hong Kong identity card. She looked at it blankly for a moment then said, “Can I see some other kind of identification?”

Sometimes when I’m feeling cranky or mischievous, I hand over my Hong Kong ID card when I need to produce some kind of identification. Why not? It is a perfectly valid document. It has my photograph on it. I know of no law that specifies that my driver’s license has become a national ID card. At least not yet.

The United States is groping towards a national ID card system, compelled both by worries about security in an age of terrorism and the need to control immigration. But Congress is going about it in the wrong way by trying to elevate driver’s licenses into some kind of identity card.

Call me too literal-minded, but a driver’s license is for driving. Identity verification is something else. Why should citizenship be confused with a demonstrated ability to parallel park?

This seems to be a typical half-way measure. We’ve clearly developed a need for some kind of identification card to cash checks, to board airplanes, even to enter a federal building to pick up tax forms. But since nobody actually has to have a driver’s license, we kid ourselves that it is still voluntary.

Before returning to the U.S., I lived for sixteen years in Hong Kong, where everybody over a certain age must obtain an ID card and carry it with him at all times. I never considered this a serious infringement on my freedom, although there certainly was a hassle having to go down to obtain one (and to replace one when lost.)

The identity card system long predated the recent concerns over terrorism. In Hong Kong it is used primarily to control illegal immigration into the territory, something that is of concern, since, being a rich territory, it is a magnate for migrants from all over the region, especially from across the border in mainland China.

The Hong Kong police can and do stop people at random and ask them to produce their ID cards. It is not uncommon on the streets to see a couple policemen huddled around a young Chinese man inspecting his ID.

That this involves racial profiling is undeniable. In the sixteen years, I never once was asked by a policeman to produce my card. It was assumed that being a Westerner I had entered on a valid work permit.

Of course, I had to produce my ID, or at least provide the number on it, numerous times during the week in the ordinary course of living, from opening a bank account to applying for a job to voting (yes, foreigners do vote in Hong Kong elections, if they’ve been there long enough).

Creating a national card, probably issued through the Department of Homeland Security, would lift a burden from state motor vehicle authorities that they were never intended or equipped to shoulder. It would end the debilitating arguments over whether illegal aliens should have driver’s license.

With a proper ID system, legal resident aliens could apply for driver’s licenses like everybody else. Why shouldn’t your Guatemalan nanny have a driver’s license to drive the kids to school so long as she is in this country on a valid work permit?

In Hong Kong, ID cards are issued to everyone, whether or not they are born there, have become permanent residents (analogous to citizenship) or are on short-term work contracts such as the tens of thousands of domestic helpers from Indonesia and the Philippines. In the same way, a national identity card is also a requisite if this country is to have any kind of orderly guest-worker program.

A standardized, secure national ID card issued by the federal government is essential for controlling immigration in this country. In short: it’s the way it’s done. Anybody who is opposed to issuing these cards may have reasonable grounds to do so, but they should stop complaining about “securing our borders.”

This post appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Times

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Waiting, Waiting

It seems like everybody who follows events in Asia is waiting for the next shoe to fall, or to be more accurate, the next two shoes to fall. The first shoe is the much-anticipated revaluation of the Chinese currency, the renminbi. The second is North Korea testing an atomic bomb. Let’s take them one at a time.

Speculation over revaluation of the renminbi reached a fever pitch at the beginning of the month. It was rumored that Beijing would begin its much-anticipated move during the series of holidays following May 1 known as “Golden Week.” Speculators piled on, renminbi forwards went to the moon, but the week passed with no announcement.

About ten days ago The New York Times reported that the renminbi had actually been allowed to float against the dollar 20 minutes in late April. The writer did not know if this was a deliberate testing of the waters or just a technical glitch. Lo, the yuan did rise from 8.29 to 8.20 during those 20 minutes.

The story started on the front page of the business section and then jumped inside, running on and on. It’s extraordinary that this newspaper would devote so much ink to a 20-minute revaluation. One wonders how the Times will play the story when the Beijing finally acts – banner headlines on the front page? Tell me this isn’t going to be the Chinese Century.

It seems as if the entire financial community is paralyzed, waiting for Beijing to make its move. Some analysts say it is one reason why the dollar seems to have stalled as opposed to continuing its downward path like it is supposed to do. China should get the thing out of the way for no other reason than to put the market out of its collective misery.

Meanwhile, China stands accused of being a serial manipulator of its currency, deviously plotting to give itself a trade advantage. The U.S. Senate voted a month ago to impose a 27.5% tariff on Chinese goods across the board if it did not do something to raise the price of its currency, and presumably the price of its exports

Manipulation is a strange word to apply in this case . We are after all talking about a currency peg. The renminibi doesn’t budge from a benchmark that was set years ago. If it is undervalued, it is because it is hitched to a currency, the dollar, that has been steadily weakening for reasons that have little to do with China.

The other shoe yet to fall may come in the form of a big thump in the northeast corner of North Korea, where, it is widely reported, Pyongyang is thought to be planning to conduct a nuclear test. North Korea claims to have such weapons. The only thing left is for them to prove it.

Before that happens, if it happens, Washington wants Pyongyang to return to the six-party talks, although it is hard to imagine what it hopes will be accomplished. Defending its strategy, President George W. Bush said at his press conference on April 28, “It’s better to have more than one voice sending the same message to Kim Jong Il.”

Same message? Maybe the president thinks the six nations (North and South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the U.S.) have the same message discipline as his own political message machine. In fact, the reason why the six party talks are failing is because none of the six is “on message.”

All the parties have different, sometimes conflicting aims. Washington, basically, wants to see Kim Jong Il and his regime disappear. South Korea’s long-term goal is reconciliation, and it doesn’t want to do anything that might make North Korea into more of a basket case than it already is. Japan wants an honest accounting of its citizens kidnapped in the 1970s.

And China, supposedly the linchpin? Beijing wants to be seen as being helpful, cooperative and a good world citizen by hosting the talks. But I doubt that its leaders worry very much about North Korea getting a couple pop-gun atomic bombs, and they certainly don’t want to have to be put in a position of vetoing a sanctions bill in the U.N.

Indeed, ignoring repeated appeals from Washington, Beijing served notice Monday [May 9] that it has no intention of imposing any serious economic sanctions on its neighbor. “Normal trade should not be linked with the nuclear issue,” said a foreign ministry spokesman. So much for China. Back to you, Mr. Bush.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Zimbabwe on the Mekong?

Cambodia Part 2

Not very many people pay much attention to Cambodia these days. Not even the 30th anniversary of the capture of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975, ushering in a four-year reign of terror, elicited more than a few anniversary pieces on the op-ed pages of American newspapers.

However, there is one highly influential group in Washington that does pay very close attention to Cambodian affairs. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is one of several interest groups formally “dedicated to advancing democracy, freedom, self-government and the rule of law worldwide” created during the Reagan years.

Aside from being well connected with conservative think tanks, foundations and policy institutes, the IRI also occupies strategic positions in Congress. Its operatives are well placed in the Senate Subcommittee on Foreign Appropriations, chaired by the Republican Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, that controls aid money to foreign countries.

We have already seen in Part 1 how this committee has blocked any American financial assistance to the International War Crimes Tribunal that is expected to convene later this year in Phnom Penh to bring the perpetrators of the last century’s second-worst genocide to justice before they die comfortably of old age.

To hear them tell, Cambodia is a second-tier member of the Axis of Evil and its longtime premier, Hun Sen, is a kind of junior grade Kim Jong Il without nukes. Cambodia, they argue, is in the same class as such dictatorships as Zimbabwe or Myanmar. It is an absurd comparison that nobody in Asia shares.

Myanmar is run by a junta of army officers, who ignored the results of the only election held in Myanmar in 1991. Cambodians have held three general elections since the first one was organized under the auspices of the U.N. in 1993. Hun Sen does not win elections with 99.9% majorities. His party received about 47% of the last vote, which translated into 73 seats in parliament. The opposition secured 50 seats.

Cambodia has three major political parties. The largest one is the Cambodian People’s Party led by Hun Sen; the second goes by the French acronym FUNCINPEC and the third is the Sam Rainsy Party, headed by one Sam Rainsy. But as far as IRI is concerned there is only one legitimate party in Cambodia, the one led by Mr. Sam.

Forming a government in Cambodia is not easy. The people who drafted its constitution made the same mistake Americans made in Iraq. They required a two-thirds majority in parliament to form a government. It is complicated by the number of posts to be distributed: seven deputy premiers, 15 senior ministers, 28 ministers and 135 secretaries of state – the largest cabinet in the world.

It took one full year following the 2003 election before Hun Sen was formally installed (he headed a caretaker government in the interim). During that time IRI operatives in Cambodia and Washington constantly counseled the two opposition parties not to cooperate with Hun Sen in forming a government even though his party clearly and fairly won.

Rainsy was born into the French-speaking elite of Cambodia. He spent more than 25 years abroad, living in France and running an accounting service before returning to Cambodia in 1991 after the U.N. brokered an end to the Civil War. He is urbane, well connected and sophisticated. He fits in well in the drawing rooms of the Heritage Foundation.

Hun Sen is the son of a peasant and an ex-guerilla fighter. Who joined the Khmer Rouge army and rose to be a regimental commander. He defected to Vietnam and was installed as a minister during the occupation. He has cultivated Cambodia’s farmers, who make up the bulk of the population -- and electorate -- who return the favor by voting for his party.

Hun Sen is no angel. It is fair to say that surviving the many trials his country endured since the end of the Vietnam War required a certain amount of ruthlessness. Rainsy fled the country earlier this year after parliament voted to strip him of parliamentary immunity, leaving him open to defamation suites. But Hun Sen has also brought much needed stability and the beginnings of prosperity

It is a slippery slope from advocating freedom and democracy around the world, as President George W. Bush did in his second inaugural address this year, to trying to influence, some might say meddle, directly in the politics of other countries. The IRI and its allies long ago crossed that line in Cambodia.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Cambodia Closer to Justice


Craig Etcheson waited a long time for this moment. Ever since the American first came to Cambodia in the early 1980s, shortly after it was liberated from the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, he has been honing his forensic science skills to prove beyond legal doubt that surviving leaders committed one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century.

He is the keeper of many lists, locations of yet unexcavated mass graves (defined as one with more than four bodies) should the prosecutors need more skulls to clinch their case against a number of aging Khmer Rouge leaders accused of having tortured and murdered some 1.7 million people between 1975-1979.

It was thirty years ago that the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, occupied the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, its population swollen by war, and proceeded to virtually empty the city of its inhabitants, setting out four years of unspeakable horrors that ended only after Vietnam invaded and occupied the country.

For the first time since those events, and barring some new obstacle, the surviving leaders of the genocide (Pol Pot died in 1998) will be held to account. They number from six to a dozen – actual indictments await the convening of the tribunal – who would be tried for crimes against humanity.

It has taken a long time. But the trials are ready to begin. All the parties, including the U.N., reached an agreement on the modalities at the end of 2004. The Cambodian National Assembly ratified the agreement last October. It was agreed that the tribunal would be held in Cambodia with a complement of Cambodian and international judges.

But as of the end of March the organizers were still short of their goal raising the $43 million needed to fund the tribunal for the three years it is expected to run. Of that, about $38 million has been pledged, most of the money coming from Japan, the rest from France, Britain and Australia. That leaves it about $4 million short.

Conspicuously absent is the United States. Washington, in theory, supports the tribunal, but Congress passed a law that barred the U.S. government from providing a single penny. The law states unequivocally: “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to provide assistance to any tribunal established by the Government of Cambodia.”

The Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee is headed by Sen. Mitch McConnell ® of Kentucky, the powerful Majority Whip of the U.S. Senate. It is fair to say that he and his friends in the International Republican Institute (IRI) have had it in for Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen for a long time. McConnell makes no bones that he favors regime change.

He is the author of one of the most extraordinary pieces of foreign policy legislation ever proposed in American history: the “Cambodia Democracy and Accountability Act of 2003.” It would have conditioned further aid to Cambodia on having “a new leadership . . . elected in free and fair elections.” The latter are defined specifically as ones in which “Prime Minister Hun Sen is no longer in power.”

Their animosity towards Hun Sen dates back to 1997, and possibly beyond. In March of that year some grenades were tossed into an opposition party rally. They killed more than a dozen members of the Khmer Nation Party (now the Sam Rainsy Party). Also wounded was an American, Rod Abney, who was working in Cambodia for the IRI.

Cambodia may not be a model of good government. The bureaucracy is bloated and the judiciary is often corrupt, which is one reason why the agreements provide for the inclusion of foreign judges. One could wait until Cambodia’s body politic reaches perfection or until Hun Sen leaves office, but by then most of the perpetrators of the genocide, now in their 70s, will be dead and there won’t be any point in holding a tribunal.

The tribunal may or may not go ahead without America’s participation. Some other benefactor may come up with the additional funds. But it would be a shame if trial of the greatest mass murder since the Nazi death camps were held up because of a vendetta by one powerful senator and a fistful of dollars.

Meanwhile Etcheson waits with his lists.