Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Tough Talk to Taiwan

For months Washington has been growing increasingly frustrated by Taiwan’s lack of spending on national defense in the face of China’s rising arms expenditures and force modernization. But seldom has the U.S. delivered such a stern tongue-lashing to an old friend and ally as it did earlier this month.

The occasion was the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council-Defense Industry Conference Sept. 18 in San Diego. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia, Richard Lawless wrote the message, but it was delivered by defense department official Edward Ross, since Lawless was in Beijing taking part in the Six-Party talks.

Ross told the delegates that he was going to speak “straight from the heart untainted by political rancor and partisanship,” and he opined that the Taiwan press would misconstrue his remarks. Yet it would be hard for anyone not to get the basic message to Taiwan: stand up for yourselves if you expect the U.S. to stand by you in a crisis with China.

Washington’s complaints focus on two things. One is Taipei’s foot-dragging over a large arms procurement package that involves acquiring eight submarines, six Patriot anti-missile batteries and a dozen anti-submarine patrol aircraft. The other is Taiwan’s declining defense expenditures as a percentage of its gross domestic product.

The Bush administration authorized this arms procurement in April 2001, but money to pay for it has been blocked in Taiwan’s Legislature by the opposition parties. The package initially cost about $18 billion, which was too large to be covered in the normal annual budget, so it has been presented as a supplementary item, the “special budget.”

Actually, the total cost was negotiated down to around $11 billion. And desperate to get something passed, the administration of President Chen Shui-bian split the purchase of Patriot anti-missile batteries off and placed it in the regular defense budget. Nonetheless, the opposition recently announced that it would oppose that too.

Said Ross: “In the last year, the Special Budget has been submitted and rejected 28 times in the Procedural Committee. This means that it hasn’t even made it to the Defense Committee for consideration – 28 times, rejected out of hand, no debate and no opportunity for real compromise, just plain rejected.

“Instead, the special budget has become a political football. Its destiny was to be kicked and head-butted as the center attraction in the field of Taiwan domestic politics, as the centerpiece of a near five-year game of bait-and-switch. In fact, the neutral observer could draw the conclusion that this battered ball has been kept in play more to entertain the players - the politicians – than to serve the needs of Taiwan.

“Even as the Legislative Yuan has failed to take action on the special budget, the Chen administration in all of the regular budgets it has submitted has consistently placed defense spending behind other priorities. While defense spending has increased only marginally, spending on economic and social priorities has lept, often in double-digit terms.

“So the question begs; why would Taiwan, a society so prosperous, so well-educated, so highly developed, but yet so threatened, make the conscious decision to allocate only 2.4 percent of its GDP to its security?”

Ross noted that Singapore, a country that does not have 700 ballistic missiles pointed at it, spends about five percent of its GDP on defense. “In spite of growing GDP over the past ten years, Taiwan’s defense budget in relation to its GDP has declined, both in absolute and relative terms . . . in stark contract, China has been able to sustain double-digit increases in its annual defense expenditures for well over the past decade.

“I want to be clear. No one is suggesting that Taiwan engage in an arms race with China. No one expects Taiwan to outspend the PRC on weapons procurements. What we do expect is that Taiwan have the collective will to invest in a viable defense, to address a growing threat and be in a position to negotiate the future of cross-strait relations from a position of strength.”

He said Taiwan must “stop short-changing itself on reserves of critical munitions” – a reference, presumably, to the fact that the U.S. has outsourced replenishing the U.S. Army’s stores of small arms ammunition expended in Iraq and Afghanistan to Taiwan in order to keep production lines at the country’s sole armory in operation.

Counting on America
Ross made clear that his comments were not just about arms procurement per se but a perception that Taiwan doesn’t have to defend itself because it is counting on America to do it for them. “Richard [Lawless] and I have been asked frequently, ‘if Taiwan is not willing to properly invest in its own self-defense, why should we, the U.S. provide for its self-defense?’

“We always cite the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) because it is good policy and it’s the law. However, inherent in the intent and logic of the TRA is the expectation that Taiwan will be able to mount a viable self-defense. For too long, the Taiwan Relations Act has been referenced purely as a U.S. obligation. Under the TRA, the U.S. is obligated to ‘enable’ Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense, but the reality is, it is Taiwan that is obligated to have a sufficient self-defense.

“For the past ten years, the leaders of Taiwan appear to have calculated U.S. intervention heavily into their resource allocation equation and elected to reduce defense spending despite an ever prosperous and stable economy. And this short-change math does not work. We’re watching the partisan stalemate over Taiwan’s defense spending, and we’re doing our own math. In a crisis . . . Taiwan will be stood up against the yardstick of ‘national will’ and will be measured accordingly.”


What is the reaction to all this in Taiwan? It’s hard to say, although several thousand people demonstrated Monday in Taipei in favor of the special defense budget. Some held banners reading “Strength is Defense.” President Chen Shui-bian, visiting Nicaragua, said he was confident that U.S. would “prevent Taiwan from being annexed by China.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sea Change in Japan

The longtime dominance of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has sometimes been called a model of Asian-style democracy. The people expressed their will in regular elections, yet the same party always won. The country rode the resulting stability to economic greatness.

The LDP’s recent landslide victory seemed to confirm that nothing has changed. The opposition Democratic Party of Japan looks destined to spend years, maybe even decades, in the political wilderness. At first glance, the cause of a genuine two-party democracy in Japan has had an enormous setback.

Japan’s ruling party has now held virtually unbroken power for 50 years, almost as long as the decidedly undemocratic Chinese Communist Party. The brief administration of the former LDP rebel and prime minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, in 1993 hardly counts as a change in administration.

Almost alone among the Asian democracies, Japan has yet to pull off that fundamental trick of any democracy – namely, a peaceful transition of power from one party to another. That’s one reason why some people, even today, don’t think Japan is a truly functioning democracy.

In other words, Japan has not accomplished what Taiwan has done, what South Korea has done, what even Indonesia has done. On the other hand, such a transition may be more important for countries emerging from years of authoritarian rule than Japan. For them it was a kind of rite of passage, a sign that they had really arrived as full-fledged democracies.

For more than a decade political reforms in Japan have been aimed at creating a genuine two-party system, resulting in contests between two basically non-ideological parties, one just to the right of center, the other to the left. One party might be more nationalistic, the other relatively internationalist, one sensitive to consumer interests the other to producers.

The recent general election actually had many aspects of such a duel. The democrats were noticeably more international in outlook, criticizing Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for needlessly antagonizing China, for instance. They didn’t make much headway this time against Koizumi’s theatrics and focus on one issue, postal privatization.

Yet the magnitude of Koizumi’s victory demonstrated a fundamental shift in the political tectonic plates in Japan. Just look at the election returns from Tokyo. Of the 25 seats in Tokyo, the LDP won 23. The main opposition Democratic Party, supposedly the urban party, won only one seat out of the 12 it held before the election. Komeito picked up the other one.

Election Returns in Tokyo

Before Sept. 11
DJP 12
LDP 10
Kom 1
NPN 1 *

After Sept. 11
LDP 23
Kom 1

NPN is New Nippon Party, one of the small splinter parties formed by LDP rebels who voted against postal privatization.

In the greater Tokyo area, including Saitama, Chiba and Kanegawa prefectures, the LDP took 63 out of 71 seats. The democrats lost 30 seats, wiping out the gains it had made in several previous elections. The LDP was so successful it literally ran out of candidates on the Tokyo proportional list and had to forfeit one seat to a Social Democrat.

For longtime Japan watchers, this result was revolutionary. Not so long ago it was an axiom that the LDP was the party of farmers and rural interests. They were said to exert power and influence out of all proportion to their numbers. By some kind of extraordinary political slight of hand, the LDP has transformed itself into an urban party.

Prime Minister Koizumi owes his huge majority to skillful manipulation of the media that attracted tens of thousands of unaffiliated voters to his side. These are the famed “floating” voters of Japan’s cities, whose influence was previously noted more in local elections. They floated overwhelmingly to the LDP this time, but given the right kind of leadership and issues, they might just as easily float to somebody else.

It is hard to imagine that the “ninja assassins” and “madonnas” that Koizumi recruited to run, not to mention the more than 80 brand new lawmakers, will develop the kinds of personal election machines that returned so many of the older style LDP pols (not to mention their sons and grandsons) year after year.

It may not look like it today, but the stage is set for a genuine two-party system in Japan, and it probably will come about a lot sooner than many people think.

Todd Crowell was a Senior Writer for Asiaweek and the author of Tokyo: City on the Edge.

Friday, September 23, 2005

North Korea's Nuclear Ghost Town

Near the village of Kumho, on North Korea’s northeastern coast, the partially completed shell of the reactor containment building for light-water reactor Unit 1 rises from the countryside. Site preparations for Unit 2 are completed, but concrete was not yet poured when construction was suspended in 2003.

Work was suspended in 2003, and the site is now a lonely place. Where more than 1,500 construction workers once labored, now only a few more than 100 people live in the construction village. Many of the living and community quarters are empty. A skeleton crew takes care of preserving the equipment and documentation until . . .

Until when?
The twin reactors belong to the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization – known by its initials as KEDO. The international consortium was created in 1995 to fulfill the promises made to North Korea in the 1994 Agreed Framework.

In that deal, Pyongyang agreed to shut down its one operating reactor, stop construction on two others and leave the nuclear fuel untouched rather than extracting plutonium from the spent fuel rods. In return the U.S. promised to provide 500,000 tons annually of heavy fuel oil to burn in power plants and arrange to build two modern light-water nuclear power plants.

As everyone knows, that deal unraveled in 2002 after Washington accused North Korea of being engaged in a clandestine program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. Washington said, and the press reported as fact, that Pyongyang’s delegates had confirmed the enrichment story. Pyongyang says its negotiator’s remarks were misconstrued. (For a detailed examination of this issue see Selig Harrison’s article “Did North Korea Cheat?” in the Jan/Feb issue of Foreign Affairs).

Nevertheless, Washington stopped shipment of heavy oil in December of that year and work on the two reactors, then about 35 per cent completed, was also suspended. North Korea restarted the reactor at Yongbyon, removed the spent fuel for reprocessing and expelled international inspectors. In February this year it announced that it was a nuclear weapons state.

The reactors at Kumho were slow to get going. From the beginning, Congress balked at having anything to do with the project and never appropriated funds to help build them (they did pay for the oil). That left South Korea and Japan to foot the bill, and it took five years before funding arrangements were finalized and eight years before the first concrete was poured in 2002 (ironically only two months before the agreement unraveled).

Pyongyang didn’t help its cause with such provocations as beaching a midget submarine off South Korea’s northeastern coast in 1996. That caused Seoul to suspend energy aid for a while. In 1998 it test-tired a three-stage ballistic missile over Japan, which, not surprisingly, annoyed Tokyo. But by 1999 most of these difficulties had been resolved, and work proceeded.

South Korea and Japan have sunk about $1.5 billion into the project. The main components of the nuclear steam supply system, including the reactor cores as well as cooling pumps and control rooms panels have been purchased. They are being maintained under “mothballs” at the manufacturing sites. This means they are swathed in plastic sheeting and smothered with nitrogen to prevent corrosion.

So What Next for KEDO?
KEDO itself continues to go through the motions. Officials still hold meetings with their North Korean counterparts to iron out problems. Indeed, KEDO is one of the few forums where Americans maintain something like normal social and commercial intercourse with North Koreans. The consortium is set to expire on Dec. 1, 2005 unless the board agrees to extend its life for another year, as it did last year.

Conspicuously missing on the KEDO board are the Chinese. The consortium, initially made up of the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, has added such participants as Chile and Uzbekistan. It should invite the Chinese and Russians, both parties to the six party talks, to join. When the Agreed Framework was negotiated in 1994, China was almost incidental to the issue; now it is pivotal.

During the recent negotiations in Beijing, Washington balked at Pyongyang’s demands that it be allowed to operate civilian nuclear power plants. At China’s urging it reluctantly agreed to consider the matter at a later date. Later Pyongyang said it needed a reactor before it could move on dismantling its nuclear program, seeming to throw the agreement in jeopardy.

North Korea could be trusted with modern light water reactors because they require slightly enriched uranium to run (North Korea’s old-fashioned graphite-moderated units run on naturally occurring uranium). Since the North supposedly had no enrichment capability it would have had to rent the fuel from abroad and return it after it was used. That way no plutonium could be recovered for bombs.

But if North Korea can enrich uranium, as the U.S. suspects, and therefore can make its own light-water reactor fuel even at the very low enrichment levels required for normal reactor operations, this safeguard is removed (not to mention possibly being made into highly enriched uranium suitable for atomic bombs). But does North Korea have an enrichment program?

Washington will be reluctant to agree to resumption of the work at Kumho until it is satisfied that the North does not have this capability. This will be difficult. North Korea’s reactors and other nuclear facilities are well known. Intelligence satellites regularly monitor them. But can anybody say within 500 miles where even a suspected enrichment site might be located?

It may be difficult for Washington to concede that such a program does not exist. It would mean admitting that it exaggerated North Korea’s interest in enriching uranium, much as it exaggerated the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. After all, North Korea’s supposed secret program to enrich uranium was the reason – or, if you prefer, the pretext – for breaking the 1994 accords.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The $10 Million Man

Kai-Fu Lee raised his hand and flashed the two-fingered “victory” salute. A judge in Seattle had just ruled that the former Microsoft executive could start work for Google and begin collecting his new $10 million salary. Thus Google won the first round in what is developing into a titanic struggle over the services of this highly valued Chinese-American computer engineer. That, in turn, is only one aspect of the fierce struggle between the two IT giants over China’s software market.

Microsoft sued to prevent Dr. Lee from jumping ship. It asserted that he violated the “noncompete” clause of his employment contract, which prevents him from working for a competitor for one year. While the judge ruled he could begin work for Google, Dr Lee cannot, for a year, work in his technical areas of expertise, search and speech technologies. Nor can he disclose proprietary information or recruit Microsoft employees to join Google.

Nonetheless, Dr Lee said he was happy to be getting down to work. His initial task is to establish and staff Google’s first R&D center in Beijing. He has done similar work for Microsoft in China and Apple in Singapore. Microsoft disparaged Dr. Lee as little more than a glorified college recruiter. Yet, both companies are competing fiercely for the cream of China’s universities.

Dr. Lee said he expected to build a Google research team of 50 by the end of the year with some 200 by end of 2006. Microsoft has about 1,200 employees in its various China operations. Both companies are moving in on each other’s territory. Microsoft is developing music, games and search engines. Google, synonymous with search engines, wants to develop other software.

He testified that growing frustration with Microsoft’s “bungling” of its operations in China led him to approach Google (see below) earlier this year about a job. In court Dr Lee described Microsoft’s China operations as being scattered, dysfunctional and unfocused. The company operates 18 facilities that report back to the seven major division heads in Redmond, a suburb of Seattle. They operate like “feudal barons,” to use Google’s words.

Said Dr. Lee: “I’ve been very frustrated that Microsoft wasn’t really getting it about China. Their attitude was, ‘We’re successful in 50 markets. Why should we do anything different in China’.”

Google’s lawyers sought to downplay Lee’s usefulness to Microsoft as a China expert, noting that he had no direct line responsibilities for China operations since 2000. Lawyers’ for Microsoft noted that he often advised Gates and CEO Steve Ballmer about China and was in charge of the company’s promise to outsource $100 million worth of software testing services to China.

Another trial is scheduled to begin in October for a counter suit that Google filed in California, which is said to have weaker “noncompete” laws. Trial is also scheduled to resume in Seattle in January over the main contention that Lee broke his contract with Microsoft.

Who is Kai-Fu Lee?

What makes Kai-Fu Lee such a hot commodity?

In short, he combines considerable expertise in cutting edge technology with vast experience and contacts in China, the world’s next great Internet market. See here.

He earned his doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Penn. His dissertation on speech recognition technology is said to have been a major breakthrough. After earning his degree in the late 1980s, Dr. Lee joined Apple Computer, where he worked on such hot products as QuickTime and other speech-related technologies. He also set up Apple’s R&D Center in Singapore in the mid 1990s.

After a stint at Silicon Graphics’ multimedia software unit, he joined Microsoft in 1998 and founded Microsoft’s Research Asia Center, turning it into what MIT’s Technology Review called, “the world’s hottest computer lab.” Born in Taipei and fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Dr. Lee used his time in China to develop extensive contacts in academia. He has made some 300 speeches on Chinese campuses and communicated with thousands of students through e-mail.

When his two-year contract expired in 2000, Dr. Lee secured a new executive position as vice-president of the Natural Interactive Services Division at Microsoft’s headquarters. He has even written a self-help book, “Be Your Personal Best” which is to be published in China later this year.

How to Get a $10 Million Job
Following is the text of the e-mail that Kai-Fu Lee sent to Google, initiating his first contact. Eric is Eric Schmidt, Google’s co-founder and chief executive. (source: court records).

Hi Eric,

It’s been over ten years since we last met – hope you still remember me (we were discussing the Sun-Apple collaboration on Java+QuickTime). Congratulations on your success at Google.

I have heard that Google is starting an effort in China. I thought I’d let you know that if Google has great ambitions for China, I would be interested in having a discussion with you. I am currently a Corporate VP at Microsoft, working in areas very related to Google.

Before this job I started Microsoft’s research and R&D efforts in China. My efforts in China has led to what MIT Technology Review calls “the World’s Hottest Computer Lab,” and the group I established is now the most desirable place to work for top CS graduates in China.

Please let me know if you would like to have a chat.

Kai-Fu Lee

Friday, September 16, 2005

Zeng Qinghong's Charm Offensive

While China’s President Hu Jintao was speaking to the United Nations, meeting with President George W. Bush and visiting Canada and Mexico, the country’s vice president, Mr. Zeng Qinghong, was on the road too – to Hong Kong, where he presided over the grand opening of Hong Kong Disneyland.

No doubt Mr. Zeng had more on his mind than Donald Duck. One key purpose was to demonstrate Beijing’s support for Donald Tsang, the new chief executive who took office in July. During his three-day visit the veep pressed the flesh, toured an old folks home and was genial and approachable to everyone, People lapped it up.

During the first few years after handover in 1997 major state leaders, such as ex-president Jiang Zemin, confined themselves to their hotels or the Convention Center, where China’s flag is ceremoniously raised on the morning of July 1, the anniversary of the hand over. They did not then feel comfortable mixing with ordinary people.

Premier Wen Jaibao broke that mold in 2003 when he mounted a charm campaign in a Hong Kong just recovering from the trauma of the SARS epidemic and embroiled in a furious controversy over government plans to enact a “national security law,” delineating actions against treason, sedition and protection of state secrets.

Mr. Wen toured a downtown shopping mall and paid a call at Amoy Gardens, a housing estate that suffered many deaths during the epidemic. His visit was a public relations triumph, though one overshadowed by the humungous protest march that scuttled the national security ordinance. The marchers directed their ire at Hong Kong’s leaders not Beijing.

Eight years after the handover Beijing’s communist leaders no longer looks on Hong Kong, as it did in the wake of the Tiananmen protests of 1989, as a base to subvert their rule. From what one can tell there has been no pressure on Hong Kong to ressurect the anti-subversion laws.

Beijing has come around to the idea that to run Hong Kong effectively it has to expand its contacts beyond the familiar small circle of business tycoons and old-line Hong Kong left-wingers while ignoring the democrats. That strategy failed in coping with the crises that engulfed Hong Kong almost from the day the SAR was born: the Asian Financial Crisis, bird flu, SARS, Lexusgate, and the anti-subversive activities law.

So Beijing took a new tack. Its biggest move was to push former Chief Executive Tung-Chee-hwa out and replace him with Donald Tsang. They did so even though Tsang had served the British, prospered under them and even accepted a knighthood. He is sitting pretty. His public approval ratings are sky-high, and he is secure in the Beijing’s backing. Though he rose through the civil service, Tsang is proving to be a natural in his second calling as a politician.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s attitude towards the democratic opposition seems to be moderating, as it reaches out to broader spectrum of people. Previously, Beijing’s leaders looked on Martin Lee and other leading democrats as essentially foreign agents, out to undermine the loyal and patriotic officials it had picked to run the territory after the British departed.

As far as anyone knows, Zeng did not have any one-on-one meetings with democrats but he was the guest of honor at a banquet at the former Government House, where all 60 members of the Legislative Council (Legco), including members of the Democratic Party and allies, were invited. “All strata, all circles and all political groups in Hong Kong should put Hong Kong’s overall interests first,” Zeng toasted.

On September 25-26 Donald Tsang plans to take all 60 members of the Legco to meet with local officials in Guangzhou, including the Guangdong province Communist Party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, a member of the Politburo. For many of the democrats it will be their first visit to the mainland in years. They have been barred from entering since 1989, when they threw their support wholeheartedly behind the students in Tiananmen Square.

It probably helps Beijing’s own comfort zone that the democratic alliance is currently fragmented. The Democratic Party stumbled in the Legco election a year ago. Although democrats as a whole increased their influence in the legislature, the Democratic Party actually lost seats. Chairman Yeung Sum resigned to take blame, and the party is regrouping under its new leader, Lee Wing-tat.

Nonetheless, everybody knows that one way or another the issue of expanding direct elections will return. Hong Kong is rife with rumors that Tsang will propose an initiative, perhaps in his October policy address. By some accounts, this would involve adding ten seats to Legco, half of them directly elected, the other half from an electoral college of district board members (most of whom are directly elected)

An agreement apparently has been struck with Beijing that staves off, for the time being, a move to elect the chief executive directly (never mind that Tsang would win any such contest handily) while fulfilling the pledge in the Basic Law to move forward steadily but gradually to universal suffrage. The democrats will probably accept it.

This would represent a fairly large retreat by Beijing. In April, 2004, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress served notice it would not approve a popular election of the chief executive or any change in the legislature (currently half directly elected, half from functional constituencies). Maybe they will rationalize this by saying they didn’t actually rule out enlarging the Legco.

Todd Crowell Wrote Farewell, My Colony: Last Days in the Life of Hong Kong

Monday, September 12, 2005

Japan's Election Blow-Out

At times the general election in Japan these past couple weeks seemed more like a ninja action movie than an election. The plot was populated with “assassins,” ex-cons, rebels and a real life terminator, who ended up blowing away rebels and scores of opposition politicians in an exciting climax.

Almost every commentator, including this one, had described Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s decision to call a snap election as a gamble, indeed, almost a reckless gamble, one that might crack up his party. But when the votes were counted, it was Koizumi who was holding all of the chips.

On Sunday the Liberal-Democratic Party had won 296 seats. It is probably will go over 300 when the handful of successful but chastened rebels, who ran as independents or under tiny party banners, are allowed to return to the fold. It was the Japan’s second largest electoral blowout since World War II.

A little background. The Koizumi government had tabled a plan to privatize the postal system, including its savings and insurance subsidiaries that have assets of about $3 trillion. The bills narrowly passed the House of Representatives in early August but were defeated in the House of Councillors, Japan’s Senate.

In both cases a significant number of Dietmen from Koizumi’s own party broke party discipline to vote against the government. Koizumi decided to dissolve the House of Representatives (the upper house has fixed terms and can’t be dissolved), and call an election on this one issue and to run new candidates against the rebels.

Many leaders pleaded with Koizumi not to do it. Commentators thought it folly to run with a divided party against an opposition emboldened by recent electoral successes The voters were nervous about relations with China roiled by the PM’s visits to the Yasukuni shrine; the public was not especially engaged with his big issue, postal reform.

Any kind of “consensus” politics went by the board. He cut off arguments from other party members with a short, “I’m the prime minister; I make the decisions.” As president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), he drummed rebel lawmakers out of the national party (Some local chapters stayed loyal to their representative).

In absolute terms, Koizumi’s strategy of running candidates who were strangers to their new districts had only fair success. Eighteen of the 33 rebels who ran for office were re-elected. Koizumi’s arch foe Shizuka Kamei crushed his high-profile would-be terminator, the Internet mogul Takafumi Horie, in Hiroshima.

But in the larger sense it was a masterstroke. The national press focused on the selection of rival candidates, whom they dubbed “the assassins,” almost to the total exclusion of any other issue. By the time the press tired of this issue, the two-week official campaign period was over and the election was on them.

More grist for drama was added by a handful of former Diet members who had been convicted of various corruption scandals, known as the “ex-cons;” all of them were elected. With so much color to write about, nobody paid much attention to the main opposition or its issues.

I always had a hard time believing that Japanese people would storm the voting booths because they were hell-bent for postal privatization. Most people, if left to them selves, probably would prefer to keep the system that is familiar to them. The purported benefits of change are long-term and sort of abstract.

Nonetheless, Koizumi harped constantly on this one policy, turning the polling into a one-issue election. His genius was to persuade large numbers of floating (independent) voters that the reform of the postal savings system is a necessary first step in other important changes that will be good for Japan in the long run.

The opposition Democratic Party of Japan offered a potpourri of mild reforms, which they never seemed able to implant in voters minds against the force of Koizumi’s one fixed idea. Having lost more than 60 seats, the party is set for a long spell in the political wilderness, if in fact it doesn’t crack up.

Foreign policy played almost no part in the election, even though opposition leader Katsuya Okada promised specifically to do things, such as withdrawing Japanese troops from Iraq, that are generally supported by most Japanese, according to most polls. But that seems to have had no impact at all.

The premier was adroit enough not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine this past August 15, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. It seems likely he will resume regular visits, possibly before the end of the year. Meanwhile, a Chinese naval flotilla sailed provocatively in disputed waters, a reminder of tensions between the two countries..

In the end people simply trusted Koizumi to do what he says he would do. In a world of diminished political figures, an ailing French president, a tired Gerhard Shroeder, a wounded Tony Blair, a floundering George W. Bush, Koizumi stands out as a real leader. Odd that he should be a Japanese.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Day Japan Stood Still

A sense of complacency compounded by incompetence. Bureaucratic bungling and a lack of clear lines of authority. A slugglish response leading to a feeling of betrayal. New Orleans in 2005? No, Kobe in 1995.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it is tempting to make comparisons with the tsunami that devastated the coasts of Sumatra and Sri Lanka less than one year ago. Yet fearsome as the death toll was, the disaster hit what was basically an economic backwater.

A better comparison would be Kobe, like New Orleans a modern, industrialized city and an important port with a population of about 1.5 million Kobe that is about three times larger than New Orleans. Now that ten years have passed since the January 17, 1995 earthquake, it provides a good example of what to expect.

Japan prides itself being prepared for earthquakes, which are common throughout the archipelago (though not so much in the Kansai area surrounding Kobe). Japan spends a fortune on trying to predict coming quakes. Every year on Sept. 1 (anniversary of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake) the country holds earthquake drills.

Yet the authorities were caught completely flat-footed when a 7.2 scale earthquake struck. The quake killed 6,433 people, injured about 40,000 and made 300,000 people homeless, some of them for years. Economic losses exceeded $100 billion, or fully two percent of Japan’s gross domestic product.

The government’s response was sluggish and confused. It took Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama nearly 24 hours to decide whether to dispatch troops to Kobe (though looting was fairly low). No clear lines of authority for disaster relief had been established that would permit an effective response.

Nobody complained about the performance of Japan’s equivalent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the simple reason that Japan had no equivalent of FEMA – still doesn’t to the best of my knowledge. The government couldn’t even declare a state of emergency.

Japanese customs officials held up specially trained search dogs from Germany at the airports because of quarantine rules. Some of the most effective disaster relief was performed by the Japanese gangsters, known as the yakuza. At least they had a national network and clear lines of authority. Other private companies, such as Seven-Eleven also provided help.

“[The experience] demonstrates the failure of Japanese government policy to keep up with environmental changes and challenges. We learned that we had no system for civil security. We have a security system for international crises, but for defense of people against natural hazards it simply was not there.”

Drop the world “Japanese” and you would think it is somebody talking about Katrina. In fact, it was an assessment from Haruo Shimada of Keio University, quoted in the San Jose Mercury News about four years after the earthquake. “People were suffering, but still no troops were sent.”

Kobe would come back, of course. Water, electricity and telephone service were fully restored in six months. Railroad service resumed eight months after the earthquake. Port facilities were about 80 percent repaired at the end of the year. In about one year Japan’s GDP had returned to the level prior to the quake.

In three years the national government would spend more than $58 billion on rebuilding infrastructure, public facilities and public housing for the tens of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed. The Hanshin Expressway, whose collapse became the enduring emblem of the quake, was reopened about a year and a half after the quake.

But two years after the quake 70,000 people were still living in spartan temporary housing while more permanent accommodations were built. While the government spent billions on public facilities it balked at compensating individuals. The victims were dependent on insurance, family and charity.

As in New Orleans, the poorer neighborhoods suffered the most. In Kobe it was Nagata Ward, mostly a collection of individual wooden huts that caught fire and burned. This area looked like it was carpet-bombed after the quake, one observer said. Four years later some residents were still living in container boxes.

It took ten years for Kobe’s population to return to a pre-quake level. Most rebuilding has been completed; the homeless are now living now in concrete apartment buildings. The port facilities were rebuilt fairly soon after the quake, but the city permanently lost some container business to other ports. Kobe would never really be the same.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

When is a State Islamic?

Ever since the drafting committee completed work on Iraq’s new Constitution, there has been plenty of discussion, much of it uninformed, about what is and what is not an Islamic state and whether we should worry about it. Consider the following exchange from last Sunday’s Meet the Press:

Mr. Russert: “[Iraq is] going to be an Islamic state by the wording of its own Constitution.”

Gen. [Wayne] Downing: “There are other Islamic states. Turkey is an Islamic state. Malaysia is an Islamic state. Indonesia is an Islamic state. These are all Islamic states which are acceptable to the U.S. and acceptable to the world.”

It is worth remembering that there are more than two dozen countries in the world where a majority of the people are Muslims. Only a few of them could be called Islamic states. I would define and Islamic state as one that declares itself to be one – ie the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” or one that enforces hudud the criminal code spelled out in the Koran, complete with whipping, stoning and amputation of limbs.

By that definition there are probably only four Islamic states: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and Sudan. The new Constitutions of Afghanistan and Iraq enshrine Islam, but Afghanistan doesn’t yet have a parliament to enact any Islamic laws. Nigeria and Malaysia have enacted hudud ordinances in some of their subdivisions. My expertise is in Asia not the Middle East, so I’ll discuss Indonesia and Malaysia in more detail.

Sorry, general. Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, is not an Islamic republic. The guiding principle of Indonesia is pancasila not Islam. Pancasila, which means “five principles,” refers to belief in one supreme God, humanism, national unity, democracy and justice. As a philosophy, pancasila lacks substance. It is really nothing more than a collection of platitudes, but it has been very useful nonetheless.

When the Constitution was written, Indonesia’s founders insisted on a culturally neutral identity rather than defining Indonesia by any one religion. Pancasila equates Islam equally to four other religions: Buddhism, Balinese Hinduism and Protestant and Roman Catholic Christianity. More than 80 per cent of Indonesia’s 230 million people are Muslims, but the country is so big that the other 20 percent make up a lot of people.

In this way the minority religions and their practitioners are officially on an equal plane with the Muslim majority, not second-class, barely tolerated citizens as in true Islamic states. The Constitution guarantees “all persons the right to worship according to their own religion or beliefs . . .” and restricts Islam to family, mosque and prayer.

The central government has allowed Shariah, or Muslim religious law, to be enacted in only one province, Aceh, best known to the world at large as the site of last year’s tsunami. Aceh is noted as being exceptionally pious and also in rebellion against the central government in Jakarta, so this was a kind of sop.

But even so, Aceh is not allowed to enforce hudud laws, only “traditional Acehnese Islamic practices and values,” such as wearing a headscarf, which women would do anyway. Jakarta keeps a strong grip on the criminal code, so it would be difficult for any subdivision to become an Islamic state unless the whole country became one.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia adopted their Constitutions at Independence (1945 for Indonesia, 1957 for Malaysia), which was a time when colonialism and communism were the burning issues, not Islamic fundamentalism. One wonders what kinds of pressures these countries might be under if they had to write them today.

But it is worth noting that as recently as 2002, the People’s Consultative Assembly, the body that amends Indonesia’s constitution, voted down attempts to enshrine Islam in the Preamble of the Constitution. Over the years Muslim groups have sought to establish an Islamic state but the mainstream community has always rejected it.

Unlike Indonesia, Malaysia’s Constitution recognizes Islam as “the religion of the federation” but says that other religions may be practiced in “peace and harmony.” For the past dozen years Malaysian politics has been roiled by efforts to enact hudud laws in some of the country’s states. Malaysia is a federal union of fourteen states in peninsular Malaysia and on the island of Borneo.

The Parti Islam SeMalaysia (better known by its initials PAS) is dedicated to creating an Islamic state in Malaysia through constitutional means. PAS has never won more than a handful of seats in the federal parliament, but it controls the state of Kelantan on the east coast and for a while it governed the neighboring state of Terangganu.

In 1993 the Kelantan state assembly enacted the “State Syariah Criminal Bill” The pure hudud code covers such offenses as drinking alcohol, illicit intercourse, theft, blasphemy and apostasy (renouncing Islam) and applies to all Muslims. The penalties are whipping, amputation of limbs and death (by stoning for adultery).

No one has been prosecuted under Kelantan’s hudud code. Malaysia’s constitution makes the criminal code is a federal matter, and the police, answerable to Kuala Lumpur, decline to enforce the code. Since hudud discriminates against non-Muslims and women, it would seem to be unconstitutional under the document’s equal protection clause. However, as nobody is prosecuted, there have been no convictions to bring before the Supreme Court. So the issue has never been tested.

Malaysia’s Constitution makes religious affairs a matter for individual states, and they have enacted laws and established religious courts to judge personal matters such as marriage and inheritance for Muslims. Some states enforce restrictions on public drinking by Malays, too.

But except for Kelantan and Terengganu alcohol is generally available everywhere. Chinese restaurants dish out pork next to Malay restaurants observing halal. Chinese girls in miniskirts share the pavement with Malay women wearing headscarves. Women are highly emancipated and occupy important posts. Nobody would ever confuse Kuala Lumpur with Riyadh.