Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Seige of Zhongnanhai

Ten years ago ten thousand demonstrators converged on the walled compound in Beijing where China’s leaders live and work. They carried no signs or banners, and chanted no slogans; they just stood there silently staring at the street in front of the compound. Then they quietly dispersed.

Yet nothing, at least since students began to mass in Tiananmen Square twenty years ago this month, spooked China’s leadership more than this peaceful demonstration. The rest of the world, that part not already familiar with qigong exercises, learned of the existence of the Falungong.

The Chinese Communist Party, for all its intelligence-gathering and security apparatus, did not have an clue of what was taking place until they woke up that bright April 25 morning to find their enclave, the nerve center for China since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, surrounded.

That was bad enough, but the leadership became even more apprehensive when they learned that party cadres, even generals of the People’s Liberation Army had become attracted to the Falungong.

The demonstrators were protesting the arrest of some some of their followers in the city of Tianjin a few weeks previously and were seeking to have their peculiar blending of breathing exercises and Buddhism recognized as a religion (previously it had been under the purview, like all Chinese exercises, of the Ministry of Sports).

The opposite occurred. Two months after the demonstration a nervous Chinese government branded the Falungong an “evil cult”, banned its practice in China, confiscated its literature and began a campaign to forcibly convert the millions of followers in re-education camps that continues to this day.

The Falungong, combine traditional Chinese qiqong deep breathing exercises with some philosophical precepts drawn from Buddhism and Taoism, though most mainline Buddhist organizations disavow the Falungong as legitimate practitioners of their faith.

The leader at the time of the 1999 demonstration and now was one Li Hongzhi, now 57, a former government grain clerk and gigong master then living in New York and now believe to be in hiding somewhere overseas probably in U.S. The Falungong have ascribed many supernatural attributes to Li including an ability to heal the sick.

The government’s panicky reaction to the siege of Zhongnanhai resulted more from political rather than any ideological differences. Until then, the party had no particular quarrel to pick with the sect, or with the practitioners of various other Chinese exercises.

Spontaneous demonstrations, even riots, break out in China almost daily. They are usually quickly suppressed through a combination of police action and concessions without causing undue alarm. But any group that could secretly muster 10,000 (the sect claims as many as 80,000) for a protest at the very nerve center of China’s power looks a lot more serious.

Indeed, a retired army general (the Falungong had attracted a surprising amount of interest from aging military officers), was later accused of masterminding the demonstration and sentenced to prison. Then president Jiang Zemin, thus, had some reason to worry that the demonstration presaged an attempted coup.

The Falungong organized their demonstration using the Internet, and as one result of the incident, China’s security forces now pay much more attention to what is appearing on the net and have censored and closed sites that they consider subversive.

The sect has powerful reasons to believe that they are being suppressed, but as a group they can be intimidating also. A few weeks before the siege at Zhongnanhai hundreds of followers descended on the office of an obscure magazine with a couple of thousand readers that had printed an article critical of them. It was the arrest of 42 people in that incident that led directly to the April 25 protest.

Ten years later, the Falungong continues to be suppressed in China with no sign of any relaxation of the ban. According to its followers outside China, the government continues to arrest people who publicly express their loyalty to the sect. A couple thousand people, they say, have died in police custody, more than 100 as recently as last year.

But while effectively suppressed in China, the Falongong is flourishing worldwide. Major demonstrations marking the April 25 protest in Beijing were held in Chicago, Hong Kong, Tokyo and other cities. The sect publishes a newspaper, the Epoch Times, and owns several radio and television stations that broadcast messages in many languages.

Interestingly, the Falungong is legal and operates above board in Hong Kong, which, since 1997, has been a part of China. The fact that Falungong practitioners can do freely in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park what they would be arrested for doing in Tiananmen Square is one of the best advertisements that Beijing has that it honors its promise to allow Hong Kong to keep its freedoms.

The followers often display posters denouncing the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders as “evil” at scenic points in Hong Kong that are popular with Chinese tourists, where they are exposed to messages that they would never see or hear back on the mainland.

The rise of the Falungong has been explained in part as a consequence of the spiritual void created by the decline of communism as a viable belief and the rampant materialism that has gripped China in recent decades. The government itself admits there were at least 40 million followers before the crackdown, 200 million if other gigong sects were included. That is considerably more than the number of Christians in China.

In part to fill this spiritual void, the government has for the past decade been promoting Confucian concepts and other traditional Chinese precepts as an alternative.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Dress Codes

In Thailand’s protracted political crisis, it is easy to tell what side people are on and who they are against, even if it is a little bit harder to understand exactly what they stand for. The people now protesting the government wear red and are “red shirts”; those who support the government are “yellow shirts”.

That much is clear, but where did these colors come from and what do that stand for? To understand, one has to back up a little. The significance of yellow goes back a long way. In Thailand it is the royal color, worn to show respect and affection for Thailand’s long-serving King Bhumibol.

In Thailand everybody wears yellow, or at least they did during the two years, 2006 and 2008 that I lived and worked there. They were auspicious royal years since they marked, respectively, the King’s 60th year on the throne in 2006 and his 80th birthday in December 2007.

Go into a restaurant, or a bank or the post office and everybody working there will be wearing yellow. This is especially true on Monday, which is “yellow day”. In Thailand the days of the weeks are accorded colors, and Monday is yellow day. The fact that the King was born on Monday makes yellow the royal color.

(Queen Sirikit was born on a Friday, which is a blue day, and in August, her birth month, you see people wearing blue T-shirts and displaying blue banners out of respect for her, but far fewer than yellow. Lately, there has emerged an ominous third color in Thailand’s crisis – “blue shirts”, apparently worn by pro-government militia.)

Even I bought and often wore a yellow T-shirt while I was there. I considered it my lucky golf shirt. If were visiting Thailand now, I’d be more circumspect, as yellow has morphed into a political statement of support for the current regime.

Foreign embassies, including that of the U.S., have advised their citizens to use caution in choosing their attire so not to be thought of as being sympathetic to one side or the other. The crisis in Thailand has not taken on an anti-foreigner color, but people everywhere get upset when they think foreigners are taking sides in their own domestic disputes.

In any case, when the shoe was on the other foot and crowds of demonstrators were trying to oust the then government of supporters of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, removed from power in a military coup in September, 2006, it was natural that most of the protestors wore yellow shirts. It was their normal attire.

It was probably only incidental that they also tended to be more ardent defenders of the Thai monarchy or that they harbored suspicions that the folks who wear red these days are closet republicans. Nevertheless, any protest group last year looked like a sea of yellow.

Sometime during theyear the pro-Thaksin side decided it need its own color to distinguish its own troops of protestors. But why they chose red is something of a mystery. In the Thai weekly zodiac red is the color of Sunday, but there is no reason to believe that that day has a special meaning for them.

Some of the people started wearing red late last year, but the practice didn’t really take hold until last month as protests built up against the government of “yellow shirts” culminating in last week’s trashing of the East Asia Summit and police crackdown in downtown Bangkok.

It is tempting to suggest that red is historically the color of revolution and communism, an effect underscored by the red banners that some of the demonstrators carried. True, there is an element of a class struggle in Thailand’s political crisis, and the red shirt’s electoral stronghold in the impoverished northeast was, in the 1960s, a breeding ground for a communist insurgency.

During his five years as prime minister Thaksin, it is said, endeared himself to the masses in Thailand through such progressive policies such as extending development aid to rural villages and instituting a health care program affordable to the poor while earning the lasting enmity of the middle and upper classes. But this is hardly radical by international standards.

However, it should be noted up until a few months ago, the red shirts were the government of Thailand, installed after the pro-Thaksin People’s Power Party won a convincing electoral victory to restore civilian government after the 2006 coup. Under different names it had won the two previous elections, including the 2006 poll boycotted by the opposition.

The yellow shirts, at least always had a cheerful kind of individuality. Some people wear yellow T-shirts, while others wear batik. Some have the royal cartouche on it, others images of Mickey Mouse. One detail I’ve noticed from pictures of the most recent disturbances was the uniformity of the red shirts, as if their clothes had been issued from the same depot. It is one small sign that things are getting serious.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Missile Fizzles of April

Japanese government officials must have pivately breathed a sigh of relief that North Korean’s rocket launch this past weekend did not require any defensive action by Tokyo. The Taepodong-2 rocket flew over Japan without any part of it falling on the country.

Tokyo had loudly promised that it would shoot down the first stage or any other aberrant debris that might have fallen on the northern tip of Honshu. It moved two destroyers equipped with anti-missile weapons into the Sea of Japan and two batteries of PAC-3 missiles to northern Japan along the projected flight path.

It was always unclear whether these asserts would succeed in downing any rocket flotsom, not just because they are untried, but because the debris would be following an unpredictable trajectory. The failure would have been supremely embarrassing to the Japanese who experienced enough embarrassment from this exercise as it was.

In the event, the first stage fell harmlessly into the Sea of Japan, a couple hundred kilometers off the coast, while the second, and apparently the third stages too, fell harmlessly in the northern Pacific Ocean. Pyongyang, of course, proclaimed the mission a success, but the U.S. expressed doubts that the North succeeded in its stated goal of putting a satellite in orbit.

This was probably the most over-hyped “crisis” in recent memory. In the two-week buildup preceding the launch, the Japanese media went into a frenzy, with daily stories of the impending launch, endless reproductions of satellite pictures of the launch site in North Korea and speculation about fallout from the missile.

The event was a godsend to both political parties, who must face off against each other in a general election sometime before autumn. For Prime Minister Taro Aso, whose public approval ratings are very low, it was a chance to display crisis management skills, moving missile batteries around the country and dispatching warships.

Unfortunately, his crisis management skills were undercut by a series of hair trigger alert blunders by the Japanese military, known here as the self-defense forces. They sent out two false warnings that a launch had taken place, resulting in emergency messages to the region and municipalities.

For opposition leader Ichiro Ozawa, the missile crisis was welcome too as it diverted media attention away from his own public relations problems. For more than a month the press had focused overwhelmingly on the arrest and later indictment of his private secretary for accepting illegal campaign contributions.

The scandal had threatened the scuttle any chance the Democratic Party of Japan had in ousting the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party from power in the upcoming election. The military snafus gave the DJP, for the first time in months, an issue on which the beat the government.

Meanwhile, some pundits in the United States are calling this President Barack Obama’s first major foreign policy test since taking office. No doubt the U.S., Japan and South Korea will feel obliged to do something, having spent so much energy attacking the launch. Tokyo will probably extend sanctions that have been in place since the North’s nuclear bomb test in 2006.

All of this invests much more into this event than it probably deserves, in a way playing into the hands of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il. Ridicule rather than handwringing might be the more appropriate response. After all, if the U.S. initial assessment is correct, the test was for North Korea just another in a long line of failures.

In 1998 North Korea fired a multi-stage rocket over northern Japan, which landed in the north Pacific without boosting a satellite in orbit. In 2006 it attempted to send a missile aloft which exploded less than a minute after it took off. This week another rocket test fizzled. So in eleven years North Korea’s ballistic missile program has gone exactly – nowhere.

It should be noted that the same is not true of North Korea’s short and medium-range missiles, which are not only in good working order but present a much more direct threat to South Korea and Japan. Indeed, it is the main justification for Tokyo’s expensive expenditure of money in developing a missile shield.

(Ironically, if North Korea really did hurl a ballistic missile across Japan aimed at Alaska or Hawaii, as some fret about, Japan legally could do nothing to shoot it down, since its American-written constitution prohibits “collective defense” even of supposed allies like the U.S.)

Of course, North Korea’s people are not likely to hear anything about rocket failure. In North Korean mythology, the 1998 missile test was a brilliant success sending a satellite into orbit that beamed praises to Kim Jong-il and his father Kim Il-sung back to earth. (audible to nobody but Koreans) and this launch was another brilliant success.

In their view, the newest North Korean satellite is now in orbit broadcasting songs and praises of the Dear Leader. If you don’t believe it, somewhere in Pyongyang there is likely to be a transmitter sending the messages out over the one government radio channel that ordinary North Koreans are allowed to listen to.

In the minds of ordinary people and probably the elite in Pyongyang too, North Korea has become a full-fledged, ballistic-missile-armed nuclear power, virtually the equal to the U.S. and the other great powers. It is a delusion on their part but nevertheless a dangerous delusion.