Friday, June 28, 2013

Return of the Communists

Three political party leaders had a reason to smile to the television cameras last Sunday as votes came in for the Tokyo legislative election. Of course, they included the leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its partner Komeito. After all, together they had just won a landslide victory.

Also beaming to the cameras before a back ground of little red roses attached to the names of its winning candidates was Kazuo Shii, the longtime leader of the Japanese Communist Party (JCP). His party had more than doubled its strength in the legislative assembly.
Astonishingly it won more seats – 17 versus 15 – than the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which not only had controlled the Tokyo assembly before the election but was also formed the government of Japan until about six months ago.

Elections to the Tokyo Assembly are often bell weathers to national elections. The success of the Democrats in the 2009 legislative election presaged its smashing victory one month later. Similarly, the governing party’s triumph in this election bodes well for its success in the House of Councillors election in July.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had very good reason to be cheered – his party and his electoral partner won every seat they contested – and to interpret it as an endorsement of his economic policies, dubbed “Abenomics” even though little has yet trickled down to ordinary people.

Six months in office, The Abe government continues to hold popular approval ratings in the 60-per cent range. This is almost unprecedented for recent Japanese governments. The main reason for this is general approval of Abe’s economic policies. The average person may not know exactly what “quantitative easing” is, but for the moment likes the idea that the government is doing something bold to fix the economy.
Of course, the Abe government has had pretty much of a free rein during its early months in office due to the almost total lack of any effective opposition. The DPJ, which should provide that kind of opposition, but it has been virtually invisible these past few months and is, anyway, still too toxic with the voters.

The new Japan Restoration Party led by Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto and former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, may be the third-largest bloc in the parliament. But the restoration party is also floundering, due in part to the mayor’s controversial remarks on comfort women. It did poorly in the Tokyo election losing one of its three seats.
Enter the communists. During the election, the JCP campaigned as the “only true opposition party”.  It succeeded in making itself the receptacle for many anti-LDP voters, who had given up on the democrats. Said its leader Shii: “it is important to take on the LDP and offer an alternative,”

But are the communists a viable and reliable vessel for the anti-Abe vote? After all, the party won only eight seats in parliament in last year’s general election to the 480-seat House of Representatives, an awfully small base from which to build on. It was the party’s poorest showing in 45 years.
The JCP’s declining fortunes have in some respects been linked to the democrats. As the main opposition party rose in popularity the communists seemed to recede. Now the shoe is on the other foot. The democrat’s fortunes are plunging and that of the communists rising.

Japan’s communists have always had two things going for them: persistence and constancy. Few political parties anywhere have put in so much effort into winning so few votes. In this month’s election large, expensive sound trucks harangued commuters at rail way stations to vote for them.

The JCP is the only political party in Japan that fields candidates in national elections in every one of the 300 electoral districts (the other parties, including LDP make deals with likeminded parties). It must cost the party a fortune in lost deposits.
Moreover, the JCP has traditionally championed just a few key issues such as opposition to the Japan-US Security Treaty and protection for the country’s pacifist constitution. It was anti-nuclear power even before Fukushima, an issue in which it is basically in tune with a majority of Japanese.

Of course, it can be expected to criticize the government’s economic policies as they unfold over the next few months, as benefitting the rich but not trickling down to the average worker That may strike a chord if, in fact, Abenomics does not work as well as the government hopes it will.
But can something called the communist party (the common production party in literal translation) really become the viable opposition? Can it fill the role that the now defunct Japan Socialist Party provided for years?  The socialists won many more seats (though never enough to form a government on its own) than the JCP ever did.

The over-arching theme of Japanese politics for the past twenty years has been a search for a viable, non-Marxist opposition party that the public could trust with the reins of government. These elements eventually coalesced into the Democratic Party of Japan, which abandoned such electoral baggage as opposition to the self-defense forces and the security treaty.

Eventually it achieved its historic mission removing the LDP from 50 years of nearly uninterrupted power, only to find itself beaten and virtually persona non-grata in its own country.
The coming months there will provide plenty of issues to challenge the Abe government from a center-left perspective. They include Abe’s desire to boost the status of the self-defense forces, revive nuclear power and rewrite the American-written constitution.

It is hard to see the democrats becoming such an effective opposition anytime soon. It seems equally unlikely that even those in the Japanese public that oppose such conservative initiatives will turn whole-heartedly to the communists.  But if not them, then who?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Saving Private Snowden

Hong Kong has taken Edward Snowden to its heart. That could complicate American efforts to formally extradite him back to the U.S. to face charges of espionage or other charges. Any that smack of treason or offer severe penalties will play badly in the territory and stiffen their resolve to protect him,
Last Saturday (June 15) a couple hundred people representing various civil liberties groups demonstrated outside of the American Consulate bearing signs such as “Defend Free Speech” or uphold “Hong Kong Law.” A poll taken by the South China Morning Post reported that 50 percent of the respondents do not want to see Snowden sent back to the U.S.

Snowden told one of his interviewers: “my intention is to ask the courts and people of Hong Kong to decide my fate”. That initially seemed touchingly naïve, but on reflection is beginning to look pretty shrewd. It is not known if this was serendipitous or calculated. Either way, public opinion in the territory seems to be solidifying behind him.
Hong Kong has its own legal system separate from China. There are no provisions in its code for the kind of charges that Snowden is likely to face. The reason goes back to a seminal event in Hong Kong’s post-handover history, whose 10th anniversary on July 1 is fast approaching.

On that date in 2003 some 500,000 people, out of a population of only seven million, turned out to protest implementation of laws they thought would undermine civil liberties. It was the largest anti-government popular demonstration in Hong Kong since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989,
At issue was legislation to enable implementation of a provision in Hong Kong’s post-1907 charter which requires Hong Kong’s government to “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or the theft of state secrets . . .”

This massive public show of resistance turned even normally “pro-Beijing” legislators from the business community against the proposed new law. Faced with imminent and embarrassing defeat, the government quietly shelved the law. It has never been revived.
How does this relate to Snowden?

Hong Kong has an extradition agreement with the United States, but any attempt to extradite Snowden would have to cite offensives that violate the laws of both countries. Money laundering, yes; insider trading, sure; corruption, no doubt.  
But espionage? In a territory with no armed forces and no independent foreign policy? Had that demonstration not taken place nearly ten years ago, laws prohibiting “the theft of state secrets” would now be in force, and Snowden’s goose may have been cooked.

Hong Kong does have an Official Secrets Ordinance, enacted in June, 1997 just a couple days before the handover. Some provisions might be pertinent to Snowden, but it could also be argued that it is aimed at preventing exposing details of specific on-going criminal investigations not the general architecture of surveillance.
Snowden supporters have more than mere abstract concerns. Martin Lee, founder of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, complains that China snoops on Hong Kong communications in an even more intrusive way and shares any embarrassing or damaging information they find about Hong Kong’s democrats with pro-Beijing publications.

It may be that the relatively small turnout Saturday will be all of the effective moral support Snowden gets. However, July 1 is fast approaching, and it is certainly conceivable that it could turn out into a massive anti-government and anti-Beijing rally with “freedom of speech” thrown in for good measure.
Ever since  2003, July 1, a date that is supposed to commemorate the glorious return of Hong Kong to China after 140 years of colonial oppression, has turned into a day to protest against the government and Beijing (the fact that it is a holiday and the weather is usually good doesn’t hurt).

Last year’s July 1 demonstration was the largest since the epic 2003 march. The annual vigil to commemorate the dead in the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown has also been growing instead of receding into memory even though it is now almost a quarter century after the event
All of the elements that made 2003’s demonstration so huge are at play this year: a hugely unpopular local chief executive, (chosen last year by a stacked college of 1,200 electors) plus growing irritation with Beijing, widening income inequality and other grievances. Add to it the Snowden affair.

After all, what better way to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2003 demonstration for free speech than to hold another massive protest for free speech? One can almost envision Snowden as the grand marshal of the parade.
It is of course, possible that Beijing will take the Snowden affair out of Hong Kong’s hands and declare it is matter for the central government, which by treaty has the right to handle the territory’s foreign affairs under the “one country, two systems” arrangement.

Yet Snowden presents Beijing’s leaders with a problem they would probably prefer to do without. To be sure, the Chinese media will have fun exposing America’s “hypocrisy” in criticizing China’s own surveillance programs. But it will not want to have this to develop into another issue with Washington.
But if Sino-U.S. relations are testy at the moment, so also are Beijing’s relations with Hong Kong. If Beijing decides to dig down into Hong Kong to extract and then return Snowden to U.S. authorities, overriding Hong Kong law and flying in the face of growing local sympathy, it may find its actions spark even more unrest, and not just on July 1.



Thursday, June 13, 2013

Journey to a Dying Town

KAMAISHI, Japan - Two years after the disastrous March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami, most of the debris from the deluge has been cleared away in this small city on the northern edge of Japan’s tsunami coast. The cars and vans once piled on top of each other like some kind of apocalyptic traffic jam have been sorted out or sold for scrap.
My guide, a local teacher who lost three of her aunts in the deluge, drives us up to a lookout. Spread out below us is the coastal village of Unosumai, or more accurately, what once was the village of Unosumai. The view reminds me of pictures taken of Hiroshima after the atomic bombing, everything flattened except for one surviving building still standing like the former Industrial Promotion Hall in Hiroshima’s Peace Garden.

The village hall is still standing, broken windows and all with the huge clock over the main entrance still fixed forever on 3:25, the time when an enormous wall of water washed in drowning many of the village workers. A small shrine and flowers is set in front. While we stopped there, several people arrive to pray and give obeisance.

Kamaishi is a hilly city with little flat land. Rising directly behind the central business district are three steep hills and a network of wooden ladders, stairways and pathways that have long provided a natural shelter against tsunami, a kind of local version of the storm shelters in Oklahoma, tsunami being an historic threta in the same way that deadly tornadoes are there.
These stairs and pathways were critical in saving many lives. The town is extremely proud that not one of the approximately 3,000 elementary through high school children was killed in the surge, even though their schools, located along the shore were inundated. It is often called the “Kamaishi Miracle.”

By all accounts, the teachers and students performed admirably in the thirty minutes or so between the earthquake and the tsunami. Teachers had the presence of mind to tell their charges to literally take to the hills. Don’t wait.  Older students carried the younger elementary school children on their backs as they climbed the nearby hill to safety.
Kamaishi was famous for its network of seawalls built at considerable expense before the tsunami that ultimately failed utterly to hold back the surging tide. Plans to rebuild or strengthen these seawalls using money from the national reconstruction fund however are controversial. Why spend so much money on a system that demonstrably failed to ultimate test?

Some argue that the sea walls gave the residents a false sense of security. Loud speakers all over the city had warned people to flee, with enough time to get to higher ground. Most of the town is within a couple hundred yards of this nearest evacuation stairway “I do believe that, unconsciously, the breakwater’s presence did give people a false sense of security,” says Mayor Takenori Noda.

 There isn’t much evidence of construction going on. The national government has appropriated billions of yen to facilitate the rebuilding, but not much is being spent in this town. When your slate is wiped totally clean, it is not surprising that one takes time to decide what to write in replacement.

What Kamaishi, and other Japanese towns along the northeastern tsunami coast need even more than millions of yen in reconstruction aid sunk into greater seawalls, is something more basic –namely, a rationale for their existence. For more than a hundred years, that rationale in Kamiashi was grounded on its famous Steel Works.
Kamaishi was the location of Japan’s first steel mill blast furnace built in 1857, even before the Meiji Restoration began Japan’s transformation into a modern industrial society. The furnace was established initially to provide the steel needed for modern artillery to defend the country.

Probably the heyday for Kamaishi was in the 1950 and 1960s when some 12,000 people were employed by the mill, and the town had a population or more than 90,000. However, Nippon Steel closed the works in 1988 putting thousands out of work. The town’s population has steadily declined, now around 40,000 today.
Kamaishi Steel Works  never found a niche to justify itself, unlike Japan Steel Works a little further north on the island of Hokkaido. It too supplied the steel needed to build the large guns for the Imperial Japanese Navy and then evolved a lucrative niche business forging reactor pressure vessels for nuclear power plants, for which it has virtually a global monopoly.

Kamaishi struggled to find a substitute, recruiting various metal-working enterprises, some of which stayed and others left because they were too far from regular supply networks. The small harbor was thought to have container-ship potential but never developed into the kind of terminal that some of the city fathers had planned. The day I visited it was quiet and empty of ships.
In 2010 Foreign Policy Magazine used Kamaishi as an exemplar for an article “The Japan Syndrome” on what it thought ailed Japan’s economy, especially the propensity to spend billions of yen on unneeded and ultimately useless public works projects, including Kamaishi’s famous city breakwater.

One element of the town’s new reconstruction plan involves a request for funds to build a rugby stadium. But one wonders who would play there? After all, the once formidable Kamaishi Nippon Steel Rugby team is long gone.