Sunday, March 25, 2007

The More Things Change . . .

“The dances will continue to dance, and the horses will continue to run.” So said Deng Xiaoping to reassure Hong Kongers about life after the return to China in 1997, ten years ago this July 1. He might have added: And the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens will go on and on.

Rugby played with seven-man teams traces its origins as far back as the late 19th century, but it really got its boost as a global sport in Hong Kong. The annual Rugby Sevens was cooked up in that bastion of British colonialism, the Hong Kong Club, in 1975 when the prospect of the British Union flag being hauled down was no more than a far distant worry.

Local rugby enthusiasts wanted to host a major tournament in Hong Kong, but if the teams were composed of the regulation 15 players with 80-minute matches, the event would be as long as the two week-long football World Cup, or the World Cricket tournament now being played.

The solution: Play the tournament using seven players on a team with matches lasting little more than fifteen minutes each. A round-robin tournament of two dozen teams could thus be packed into one tight, exciting weekend.

But the Rugby Sevens is more than just a sporting event. It is the Hong Kong expat social event of the year, a kind of spring bacchanalia. Much of the color and not a little of the action takes place not on the field but in the stands as the otherwise buttoned-down stockbrokers and currency traders let their hair down and their inhibitions loose.

The fact that a dozen national teams compete and the games are short (though often high-scoring), presents an ever changing panorama of nationalism to bring out the loyalties of Hong Kong’s motley international community.

Over the years the Sevens has spawned its own traditions and tribal rituals. For some reason lost in history it is obligatory to boo the Australian team as it takes the field. The stands are full of people with the British Union flags painted on their faces or wearing hats that are supposed to make them look like kiwi birds. And no Sevens would be complete without at least one streaker.

Ten years ago, when the handover to China was a nervous 100 days in the future, there was considerable anxiety whether the Sevens would even survive. Two high profile commercial sponsors, Cathay Pacific Airways and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp. both pillars of the British establishment for decades, announced that they would end their generous support for the games in 1998.

The companies threw out a lot of smoke about reordering their advertising priorities, and such. But it was obvious they were nervous about being so closely identified with such an expatriate, one might even say colonial institution.

Fast forward to 2007 and Cathay Pacific is proudly back as a sponsor (the HSBC slot has been taken by Credit Suisse). The Rugby Sevens has easily weathered the change of sovereignty and is firmly ensconced in Hong Kong’s social psyche (the expat side of it anyway; the Chinese majority is mainly indifferent) ten years after the British flag was hauled down forever.

Another thing that has not changed is the Antipodean dominance of the games. Teams from Asia, such as Malaysia, South Korea and even Hong Kong itself, compete, but none has ever won a tournament.

In the 30-odd years since the games began in 1976 Fiji has triumphed 11 times, New Zealand eight, Australia five times. But of late the perfidious Brits have returned to reclaim a small corner of their ancient patrimony, having won the last four tournaments.

Former British prime minister John Major (the man who appointed the much reviled [by Beijing] last governor, Chris Patten). was present in 2006 to watch proudly as England scored a try (why they call it a “try” rather than a “success” is a mystery) in the dying seconds of the final game to beat Fiji 26-24.

So the big question for this year’s Rugby Sevens, which will be played this weekend (Mar 30-Apr 1) is whether England will extend its winning streak. That is to be decided on the field, but there are other things that one can make book on.

The Fijian team will undoubtedly perform its traditional cibi war dance to psyche out the opposition. The Australian team will be booed. At least one streaker will cross the playing pitch. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Todd Crowell is the author of Farewell, My Colony: The Last Years of British Hong Kong

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Thailand’s Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont share two things in common. They both came to power six months ago in September, 2006. And for both it has been downhill ever since.

Of course, the circumstances of their coming to power were very different. Abe worked his way up through the ranks of Japan’s long-time ruling Liberal Democratic Party, finally succeeding Junichiro Koizumi, who chose not to seek another term.

Surayud worked his way up through the ranks of the Royal Thai Army ultimately becoming its commanding officer, then he retired. When his fellow generals ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup d’etat on September they chose Surayad to head the civilian government.

Both premiers started off with high popularity ratings. Abe basked in the reflected public approval of his predecessor, while Surayud benefited from the initial popularity of the coup, especially among the Bangkok middle class, happy to see Thaksin’s backside.

Since then both have seen their approval numbers plummet. Abe’s approval numbers have sunk into the 40% range. In Thailand it is a race to see when Thaksin’s rising approval numbers pass Surayud’s sinking ones.

The Thai coup leaders have become the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, moving it seems, from one bungle to the next. Surayud may be a well meaning and serious public servant, but he is clearly no Anand Panyarachan, the highly regarded interim premier who served after the 1991 coup.

As the coup approaches the six-month mark, the Thai media has become scathing in its criticism of the regime. It says something positive about the junta that it tolerates such criticism, but it also fuels occasional rumors of yet another coup – a kind of coup-against - a coup by elements in the army who think the junta is too soft.

Abe has no such fears, yet his first six months have not lived up to the promise that his easy selection seemed to foretell. He got off to a good start when, just weeks after taking power, he visited China and South Korea to repair strained relations with Beijing and Seoul.

Since then it seems his government has been beset with gaffes, leaving the impression that he can’t control his cabinet. First his health minister talked about women as “baby-making machines”. Then his defense minister said he felt the US invasion of Iraq was a mistake.

Abe gave them a talking-to, but almost immediately, his headstrong foreign minister Taro Aso, said similar things about the US, Japan’s main ally. But his most curious action of late was to plunge headlong into the sensitive issue of forced prostitution during World War II.

Of course, Abe’s conservative views on Japan’s wartime history are well-known. But he managed to finesse the question of visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in the lead up to his election and thereafter. But why reopen old wounds about the “comfort women” now?

After all, the premier’s remarks that he didn’t think that the women had been coerced by the Imperial Army to become soldiers’sex slaves came just as Japanese representatives were sitting down with North Korean negotiators in Hanoi. (The meeting broke up quickly – no reason why, maybe the comfort women remarks?)

The main stumbling block to normal relations from Japan’s point of view is the north’s abduction of its nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. But if Tokyo won’t come clean about the comfort women – an issue that particularly animates Koreans (North and South) - why should Pyongyang come clean about the abductees?

Abe may have been moved to comment because of a resolution before the US House of Representatives urging Japan to give a more forthright apology on the issue (which begs the question as to why the Congress, which usually and wisely avoids these kinds of historical issues, is busying itself with it now).

Both Surayud and Abe had the misfortune to follow in the footsteps of two larger-then-life predecessors. Whatever one thinks of Thaksin, he certainly imposed his personality on Thai politics and still does. Junichiro Koizumi also was one of the most vivid political figures in Japan’s post-war history. It almost had to be downhill.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

China as Big Brother

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo paid a strangely fawning tribute to China during the East Asian Summit held in December in Cebu (and from which the United States is excluded): “We are very happy to have China as our Big Brother in this region.

She was not using the term “Big Brother” in the Orwellian context that is familiar to most educated Westerners from his novel 1984. Rather she was using the term in its Confucian sense of respect and deference to a benevolent elder brother.

It was all the more unusual in that the Philippines is not a Confucian culture. Never mind. Throughout much of non-Confucian Southeast Asia, China is now perceived as a benevolent Big Brother in contrast with the United States, which is too often seen as a Big Scold.

Arroyo had good reason to be effusive. In September Beijing had announced its intention to extend a $2 billion loan to the Philippines with no conditions attached. More to the point there were no rude concerns raised about the epidemic of extra-judicial killings in her country attributed to rogue elements in the army and police.

Technically, the US is barred by the Leahy Amendment from providing military and police .assistance to governments that are found to be involved in systematic human rights abuses such as political killings, although it has not invoked the amendment. China, of course, is under no such constraints.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has been getting a lot of static these days from non-governmental organizations and donor groups about alleged corruption in his government. These donor groups are on a crusade to end corruption in the government by tying millions of dollars worth of aid to the government’s willingness to curb graft and to stop his habit of locking up critical journalists.

Hun Sen had to listen to them because donor groups have underwritten most of the Cambodian budget for the past decade since the first UN-monitored elections in 1991.

Enter China with millions of dollars worth of assistance to build hydroelectric power plants and other infrastructure, providing roughly the same amount of developmental aid as Cambodia’s traditional benefactors and no strings attached.

Little wonder that Hun Sen has been effusive in praising China. Speaking at the inauguration one of the Chinese-funded projects recently he said, “The Chinese prime minister never orders Cambodia’s prime minister to build this road or that. It’s up to Cambodia what to do.”

Shortly after the generals seized power in Thailand and ousted the elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup d’etat last September, the US suspended $24 million in bilateral military assistance, in accordance with American law that mandates such actions when democratic regimes are overthrown.

In the past, Thailand would have had to do without, at least until democracy was restored. This time China moved speedily to fill the gap by offering Thailand $49 million in military assistance and training. The welcome news was delivered in person to the junta leader, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin during an unannounced visit to Beijing earlier this year.

Soon thereafter Washington announced that it would indeed continue to participate in the annual Cobra Gold joint military maneuvers with Thailand and several other nations, the largest such exercises in Southeast Asia.

There had been some doubt whether the US would take part in the exercise this year in order to show its displeasure with the coup. But that was before it was learned that China was offering military assistance – and especially after China put out feelers to Southeast Asia to hold its own joint exercises or training.

Needless to say, Beijing has not condemned the Thai coup.

So it goes. With China’s rapid rise, Asian governments are increasingly able to pick and choose between engagement with the US or with China. Given a choice, many might prefer to deal with Beijing since China’s aid comes with no apparent strings attached, no hectoring to expand democracy, improve human rights or open markets further.

To be sure most Southeast Asian countries are not yet ready to throw themselves entirely into China’s welcoming embrace. Memories of Communist China’s support for insurgencies still lingers as do uncertainties about Beijing’s long-term goals. And the region still welcomes the US as a potential counterweight to China’s influence.

Nevertheless, American foreign policy in the region is increasingly confronted with choices it never had to face before. Should it try to maintain the high ground in accordance with its ideals – and see its influence steadily drain away? Or, should it compete on China’s terms?

These days many Asian nations are finding they prefer to deal with Big Brother rather than the Big Scold.