Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Charming China


In October, 2003, a few months after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and before the whole Iraq adventure turned sour, President George W. Bush arrived in Canberra, Australia’s capital, where he had been invited to address a joint session of parliament. He had every reason to expect a warm reception. After all, Australia and the US had fought side-by-side in the recent invasion – Australia being the third partner in the attack.

Instead, protestors dogged him from the moment his aircraft touched down in Sydney until he departed. In Canberra he had hardly begun his speech before Green Party senators began heckling him. After he left the chamber, he was booed by more protestors. Only a few days later, China’s president, Hu Jintao stood on the same dais, the first Asian leader, undoubtedly the first foreign communist, to address parliament. No heckling for him. Australia’s business community feted him at one barbecue after another.

What’s going on? Isn’t Hu the leader of a dictatorship that oppresses religious freedom, suppresses democratic aspirations and throws dissident journalists in jail? Isn’t Bush the representative of a sister democracy, an ally in five wars since World War II, a major trading partner? These side-by-side visits were powerfully symbolic of the changes that are taking place in Asia. China’s rise is mirrored by a decline in American influence. This is the theme of Joshua Kurlantzick’s informative new book, Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power is Transforming the World.

“China hasn’t started any wars lately,” deadpanned Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman. That is a reasonable observation to make for a country that has made hepin jueqi – “peaceful rise” – the public theme of its economic and diplomatic strategy for dealing with Asian neighbors, and, indeed, the world. Aside from the occasional veiled threat directed at Taiwan, warning Taipei not to declare formal independence, Beijing has deliberately played down border disputes with neighbors.

Only a few years ago, China was planting provocative bases on tiny atolls claimed by both China and the Philippines in the Spratly island group in the South China Sea. A few years earlier China had actually clashed with Vietnam over sovereignty claims to islands in the Paracel group. Today the once heated Paracel/Spratly island issue is quiescent. It is governed by a “code of conduct” among the eight nations that have claims to various islands to kick the issue resolutely into distant future.

Another important element of China’s Charm Offensive is its use of foreign aid. If there is to be a new foreign ministry building or presidential palace somewhere in Asia, the South Pacific or Africa, chances are it will be a gift of China. A billboard in front of East Timor’s future foreign ministry in the capital Dili loudly proclaims as much in bold letters.

Offering no-strings-attached financial and other economic assistance to Southeast Asia and Africa is a critical part of China’s new foreign policy. This has been dubbed the “Beijing Consensus” as opposed to the “Washington Consensus” of the US and the international agencies that are basically controlled by the US that links aid to preconditions such as good governance, the rule of law, respect for human rights and open markets. Little surprise that autocratic regimes welcome China’s soft power.

The US can still exert considerable soft power when disaster strikes. The prompt assistance extended to Indonesia in the wake of the deadly tsunami in late 2005 was widely appreciated in that Muslim country and won America buckets of good will. Aside from money, the US still has assets, like hospital ships and helicopter carriers, that China lacks. China’s contributions to ameliorating the effects of the disaster were, by comparison, minuscule, but one can be sure that the next time disaster strikes China will be far more generous.

China is opening dozens of state-sponsored Confucian Institutes around the world (even in the US) to teach the Chinese language and writing and remind people of its millennia-old culture. They are patterned after the British Council or the Goethe Institute of Germany. Beijing organized an 11-nation performance of the “Voyage of Chinese Culture to Africa” celebrating the 600th anniversary of the voyages of Admiral Zheng He. He touched on many foreign shores – without the Chinese pointedly note – occupying any of them.

By contrast, writes Kurlantzick, “Washington eviscerated US public diplomacy, the government-funded programs designed to influence public opinion abroad . . . Libraries and US government-sponsored tours by artists and musicians has brought jazz, Pop art and many other trends to foreign audiences. Now, Washington was destroying those success stories.”

This underscores a major theme of Charm Offensive: that China’s soft power successes have been accompanied by a steady decline in America’s soft power and diplomatic initiatives throughout the region. Mao Zedong never left China except to visit Moscow once. China’s current leaders are veritable globe trotters, visiting neighboring countries and regional forums. It sometimes seems as if no country is too small for their attention. Former president Jiang Zemin even made a state visit to Iceland.

Meanwhile, American leaders have been stiffing important regional conferences. In 2005 Condoleezza Rice became the first top American diplomat to skip a meeting of the Asia Regional Forum, an important regional security bloc. The meetings had been attended by all previous US secretaries of state since its inception. Rice’s absence was widely noted and commented on in Asia.

President Bush just cancelled what would have been his first summit with leaders of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in September in Singapore. He said the timing was not convenient, and, of course, one could say that Bush has two wars to run, and September is a critical time for one of them.

Asian leaders complain that when Bush does visit Asia, principally the meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), he spends almost all of his time talking about terrorism instead of the things that his Asian hosts would like to talk about. “Cancelling a meeting here or there may not seem like a big deal, but the slights are piling up,” wrote Walter Lohman, a former vice president of the US-ASEAN Business Council.

In real life, of course, people do not get along on charm along, As China continues to prosper and grow more powerful it will inevitably throw its weight around in ways that other countries won’t find charming at all. A recent example is the allegation, denied in Beijing, that China recently muscled the World Bank in removing specific references to the number of premature deaths in the country linked to pollution. The report, The Costs of Pollution in China was still a pretty strong indictment.

Another element of China’s future power projection that Kurlantzick basically ignores is its massive and growing stash of dollar reserves. That is probably because, up to very recently, Beijing has been content to quietly accumulate these reserves and is only now deciding how it might deploy this vast wealth to further its interests.

So far China has amassed some $1.3 trillion in foreign currency reserves, mostly dollars. About $400 billion is invested in US Treasury Bonds, second only to Japan. This enormous potential purchasing power has been handed to China on a platter by American consumers and by a government unwilling to seriously pressure Beijing over its undervalued currency.

Beijing took the first step in late June when it injected $200 billion into a new agency, administered by the Ministry of Finance, that will buy assets abroad. So what distinguishes this move is not just the size of the pile but the fact that it will be deployed by an organ of the state. China will use currency reserves to advance its interests in much the same way that Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, is using state institutions to employ its vast natural gas reserves.

Having been burned two years ago when the China National Overseas Oil Co (CNOOC) scuttled its generous bid to buy the American oil company Unocal, Beijing will probably seek to avoid future confrontations by wielding its financial power through front companies, such as the Blackstone group, into which the new agency poured $3 billion just before Blackstone launched its Initial Public Offering.

In the long-run, a state-run agency with such enormous reserves will likely try to advance broad national objectives rather than just earn a better return on capital. The results may not be so charming.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Thai Renaissance Man

BANGKOK - Most visitors to Bangkok have been to the Jim Thompson House, a complex of Thai-style houses set in a garden along a canal that the silk magnate assembled before he mysteriously disappeared in 1967.

Less well known but of equal cultural and historic interest is the home of M.R. Kukrit Pramoj known as the Kukrit Heritage home, which is located off a quiet soi (alley) surrounded by hi-rises in the heart of Bangkok’s financial district.

Kukrit was a kind of Thai Renaissance man: a soldier, politician, journalist, novelist, aristocrat and patron of classical Thai khon dancing, and his traditional Thai style house, which was open to the public after his death in 1995, reflects his exquisite tastes. (The house was temporarily closed on June 30).

I visited the Kukrit house the last weekend it was open, and happened to meet Kukrit’s daughter Visumitra Promaj, a member of the Kukrit Foundation board of directors, which has managed the heritage aspects of the home since Kukrit’s death.

She told me there was only one dilapidated teakwood house leaning to one side in the middle of a betel nut field, when her father happened upon it in 1941 on the way to work. He bought the house and field for the then munificent sum of 3,000 baht. It took him 20 years to assemble the present mansion.

To the original house he added four other Thai houses brought from central Thailand, creating a complex centered on the main sitting room, an adjacent bedroom and library and two smaller outlying rooms. He later built a theater for khon dances and other public performances.

Traditionally, Thai houses are made from teak and held together by wooden joints or pegs without nails. Such houses can be dismantled and reassembled somewhere else with relative ease. So it was really a case of house moving. Jim Thompson was doing the same thing about this time.

It was not all that hard to find Thai houses at that time, recounts Visumitra. The aristocracy at that time was more interested in building palaces of marble rather than teak. “A lot of people threw their houses away because they thought they were haunted or something bad had happened in them.”

This is one of the best-preserved examples of vernacular architecture in the capital. It represents a way of life of a well-to-do class in Thai society, which is rarely seen nowadays. “We need to preserve this house to show the kind of mansions that the elite lived in,” she said.

The heritage house is stocked with many priceless artifacts that Kukrit, a man of many facets, collected in his long life. They include in the sitting room a day bed used by Kukrit’s ancestor on his father’s side, King Rama II.

Connecting the house with the performance hall is an interior garden, and small pond filled with Kukrit’s collection of sculpted miniature trees that are sometimes confused with Japanese bonsai but are a Thai art form known as mai dat.

In the 1960s Kukrit gathered some students from Thammarat University in Bangkok to form the Khon Thammarat Troupe to preserve the classical dance. The hall is the first thing a visitor sees on entering the estate. On either side are cabinets of rare khon masks.

But Kukrit did not turn his nose up at more contemporary art forms. He played the prime minister of a mythical Southeast Asian country opposite Marlon Brando in 1960s movie The Ugly American. He would reprise that role in real life during a brief term as prime minister of Thailand in the turbulent mid-1970s.

Anyone who has been to both estates will quickly acknowledge that the Jim Thompson House has more sophisticated and tourist friendly management, while the Kukrit home is a bit slapdash. For example, the Thompson House has a restaurant; Kukrit has a vending machine.

The Thompson house is open daily, Kukrit only on weekends. Thompson has guides fluent in several languages immediately available for tours, Kukrit only with advance notice. And, of course, Thompson has one of its many silk shops on the premises, while the Kukrit Heritage home has no gift shop.

Therein lies the crux of a family dispute that brought the heritage home to what will hopefully be only a temporary closure. The Kukrit Foundation, which has managed the premises for the past seven years, wants to correct some of these deficiencies. Kukrit’s son and current owner, Rongit Pramoj, wants to keep things the way they are.

Visumatra pointed out that there is virtually no parking for visitors, obvious to anyone who has trekked to the home from the nearest train station. Vacant lots that once provided some ad hoc parking are now filled by high-rise buildings encroaching on the property from all sides.

The foundation also wanted to build a kind of “presidential” library to house Kukrit’s voluminous writings that include both journalism and literature (his family epic novel “Four Reigns” has been translated into English) in time to honor his 100th birthday anniversary in 2011. But the foundation and Rongit could not agree on terms of a lease, leading to its closing.

The only logical place to put in any improvements would have been on a part of the long expanse of lawn that stretches behind the house and the adjacent lotus pond, and the closing of a dog kennel at one far end.

The dogs seem to have been the sticking point. One of Kukrit’s hobbies was collecting and caring for stray dogs, and it is a passion that his son Rongit seems to have inherited. “Where will the foundation move these dogs? He queried in an interview with The Nation newspaper. “Like my dad, I really love them.”

Rongit has said the he too wants to see the Kukrit Heritage House preserved, and plans to donate the property to the Fine Arts Department of the Thai Ministry of Education. So it presumably will reopen to the public someday – dogs and all.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

India Joins the Jihad

Many people in the US were surprised to learn that some of the alleged terrorists in the London and Glasgow attacks were medical doctors. But Asians were more interested to learn that they were Indians.

India has the world’s second largest population of Muslims after Indonesia, but this is the first instance of Indian Muslims being involved in international terrorism. For example, not one Indian citizen is detained at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the US keeps terror suspects.

Three of the core suspects in the London/Glasgow affair, Kafeel Ahmed, his brother Sabeel Ahmed and their cousin in Australia Mohammed Haneef all came from the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Although Mohammed and Sabeel were doctors, Kafeel was an aeronautical engineer.

The man that British authorities believe tried to ram his Jeep Cherokee into Glasgow International Airport had worked for Infotech, an Indian outsourcing company based in Bangalore that designs aircraft parts for Airbus and Boeing.

All three had studied in Bangalore, which is India’s information technology capital and probably its most cosmopolitan city, the poster-child for the “flat”, globally connected world. India prefers to think of itself as part of this world, not the global jihad.

As far as anyone knows, the alleged terrorists did not come from some impoverished Muslim ghetto; nor did they get indoctrinated at the madrassa religious schools. That’s not to say that they were radicalized only after they emigrated to Britain and Australia.

Kafeel is reported to have undergone a radical transformation through fundamentalist organizations while studying engineering near Bangalore. He later joined the Tablighi Jamaat, which is usually described as a kind of Muslim missionary organization, but which some authorities believe has links to terrorism.

While in Bangalore, the brothers were expelled from their local mosque after loudly complaining that it was too permissive. They wanted the leaders to follow the strict Saudi Arabian brand of Wahhabism, which is not popular among India’s Muslims.

Up to now, India’s 175 million Muslims have been somewhat aloof to the call for global jihad. They did not flock to Afghanistan, like their co-religionists in Pakistan, in the 1980s to fight the Soviets. Indians tended to view that conflict through their own prism as being in arch-enemy Pakistan’s sphere of influence.

This is not to say that India is immune to terrorism. A nasty Naxalite insurgency motivated by communism has killed thousands of innocents across the center of India. Mumbai, the financial capital has had deadly bombings in 1993 and 2006.

The latter bombing on July 11 of the subway in Mumbai killed 209 people and injured 700. It was blamed on Pakistani elements linked to the Inter-Services Intelligence organization not on local Muslims.

Muslims have gone on rampages in India, but they have usually been tit-for-tat reactions to Hindu provocations, such as the 1992 destruction by militant Hindus of the Babri Masjid Mosque, which stood on ground sacred to Hindus. In other words, they were strictly Indian affairs.

“Indian Muslims, it seemed, were not drawn by calls for jihad or to join international terrorist groups,” wrote Indian journalist Sudha Ramachandran in Asia Times Online. “That myth appears now to have been shattered.”

Another myth shattered was the comfortable belief that Indian Muslims were immune to the call of Osama bin Laden and company because India is officially a secular democracy rather than a military dictatorship like Pakistan.

British authorities, too, may have to rethink their assumptions. The combination of their professions and origins may have helped ease the Ahmed brothers entry into the country. It is reported, that British intelligence had no inkling of the attacks until they occurred.

If would, of course, be a mistake to make sweeping generalizations about 175 million Muslims based on the actions of three of them. Nevertheless, the incidents will provoke some soul-searching in India and force anti-terrorism authorities around the world to recalibrate their suspect profiles.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Just Another Chinese City?

Hong Kong has never been fully democratic, but it had, under the British, always been free. How well have those freedoms been preserved under the Chinese flag? I like to think in terms of canaries in a coal-mine – certain activities that are freely practiced in Hong Kong that can get you arrested in Beijing.

One of these canaries is the annual June 4 memorial to the people killed in Beijing on that fateful night in 1989. Though it is now nearly 20 years since Tiananmen, democracy advocates still fill Victoria Park for the annual candlelight vigil (strangely, the number of Chinese tourists in Hong Kong always seems to drop off about then).

Another canary in the coal-mine is tolerance for the Falungong. This quasi Buddhist organization is banned and actively suppressed in China as an “evil cult”. For a long time a silent protest was held outside the headquarters of China’s Xinhua News Service until the building was torn down and the protestors moved to another location.

There is another canary that does seem in danger of expiring. That is the government-owned broadcast station Radio Television Hong Kong. Ever since the handover Beijing’s friends in the territory have sniped at RTHK, complaining about slanted coverage. Commentators have been called “traitors” and even threatened with harm.

Most of this harassment comes from “pro-Beijing” elements in Hong Kong rather than from China proper (at least not openly). These people have only a limited commitment to freedom of expression to begin with, and they find it even harder to wrap their minds around the idea that there can be a government-funded broadcast outlet that permits criticism of itself.

Hong Kong was extremely lucky in the timing of the handover. One can only imagine how Hong Kong would have fared had the handover taken place in 1957 at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine. Or, if it had taken place in 1967 at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Or even in 1987 when the trauma of Tiananmen was still two years into the future instead of a fading eight years in the past.

Instead, the first years of Chinese rule have coincided with the most prosperous and perhaps least oppressive period of China’s long history. Polls have consistently shown that Hong Kong people hold China’s leaders in higher regard than their own. A particular favorite was the pragmatic former premier Zhu Rongji.

Hong Kong University last month conducted an interesting survey. For the first time since the handover, it found that more students thought of themselves as Chinese rather than “Hong Kongers”. They have developed a different frame of reference from their parents.

Their grandfathers remember a China that confiscated their property and forced them into exile in Hong Kong. Their fathers remember a China torn apart by the Cultural Revolution. But for today’s youth China is a place of unprecedented prosperity, a country that can put an astronaut in space, that is hosting the Olympic Games, in short a place they might like to be a part of.

Indeed, all of Hong Kong’s people have had to readjust their attitudes to their “compatriots” on the mainland, whom they used to look down on as peasants. That’s especially true as thousands of well-heeled Chinese tourists descend on Hong Kong’s shopping districts, flashing their yuan (which since last November is actually stronger than the Hong Kong dollar).

There are those who lament that by joining the mainland, Hong Kong sacrificed the special cache and allure it had enjoyed as a British colony and become “just another Chinese city” - the ultimate putdown.

Yet, Hong Kong still retains many outward signs of its former Britishness. Hong Kong never indulged in the post-colonial vandalism that seized other outposts of empire on independence, destroying all reminders of the British and renaming everything in sight.

The streets still bear the names of colonial governors. The statue of Queen Victoria still sits in the park named after her. It took the PLA five years to get around to scraping the words “Prince of Wales Building” off their headquarters. The British war memorial, minus British service flags, still occupies its prime location in Central. The Hong Kong Rugby Sevens flourishes.

That’s not to say that Hong Kong people are particularly nostalgic about the left over artifacts of the colonial period. If they get in the way of progress, they can be very unsentimental. Recently, they demolished Queen’s Pier, where arriving British governors used to alight. But this was part of a redevelopment project that has also seen the Hong Kong Island terminal of the famous Star Ferry relocated.

And what does it mean to be “just another Chinese city” anyway? Compared with Shanghai? Beijing? Have any of the detractors been to these cities lately? All are undergoing furious urban redevelopment guided, in places, by the world’s most famous architects. In contrast Hong Kong’s skyline has barely changed in the past ten years. (But then it is a great skyline.)

Rather than fretting about being “just another Chinese City” Hong Kong people worry constantly about being overtaken by other Chinese cities, especially Shanghai. To my mind, these worries are overdrawn. China is big enough to host two, three, four world- class cities.

Presently Hong Kong sits at the gateway to the biggest conglomeration of factories in the history of the world. Add to these the enduring legacies from the British such as its excellent civil service and rule of law. With assets like these and how can Hong Kong miss?