Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Year 2014 in Asia

Who would have believed that a middle-sized national air carrier for a middle-sized Asian country could have been involved in two deadly air crashes under mysterious circumstances that at year’s end still were not fully explained? Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 with 239 people on board disappeared in March on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. No one claimed responsibility for the disappearance, and at year’s end it remained one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history. In July another Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down over Ukraine while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with loss of 298 passengers. In this case the cause was fairly certain but not the perpetrator. Suspicion fell heavily on Russian separatists using a sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile; Moscow blamed the Ukraine. Other notable stories during 2014 include:

The Umbrella Revolt: For 79 days the most serious anti-government protests on Chinese territory since the Tiananmen affair in 1989 paralyzed much of central Hong Kong. The immediate cause of the protest movement, dubbed the Umbrella Revolt by the press, was a decision by the National People’s Congress keep control of nominations for Chief Executive firmly in friendly, pro-Beijing hands. An underlying cause may well have been growing inequality in the territory and frustrations over sometimes boorish behavior of mainland visitors. It was called the “umbrella revolt” as protestors used umbrellas to ward off pepper spray from the police (and also to stay dry.)

South Korean Ferry Sinking:  All of South Korea mourned the sinking of the ferry Sewol on April 16 with the loss of 304 people, most of them secondary school students on an outing. The accident was the cause for much hand-wringing, soul-searching and not a little scape-goating in Korea, especially over the government’s supposed tardy response caused so many deaths. Many heads rolled in the aftermath, including that of the prime minister, the captain and three other officers were convicted of murder and given lengthy prison terms. The line’s owner Yoo Byong-eun was found dead of an apparent suicide. A vice principal at the high school also committed suicide.

Thai Premier Ousted in Coup: The Thai army seized power in Bangkok on May 22 for the umpteenth time, ending a six-month political crisis and mounting pressure for Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign and replace Thailand’s elected parliament with an unelected council.  Yingluck is the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who himself was ousted in a coup in 2006 and has lived in exile ever sense. She was appointed premier after her Pheu Thai Party won a majority in 201l. She attempted to fend off critics with a general election in February, but it was declared void by the constitutional court. The coup leader, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, was later appointed prime minister. He shows no sign of wanting to restore democracy, which always seems to return the Shinawatras and their allies to power.

Jokowi Elected Indonesian President: Indonesia held its third democratic presidential election in July elevating Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi,  to the presidency. It was also the first peaceful transfer of power in Indonesia’s young democratic era. Widodo ran on a populist platform and was opposed by former army general Prabowo Subianto who called for stability. Despite Widodo’s clear majority (53 per sent versus 47 per cent), Prabowo appeared intent on challenging the results as fraudulent, but he withdrew his complaint shortly after the constitutional court upheld the election results allowing Widodo to take office in August.

Taipei Turns Back on China: Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang Party suffered an historic defeat in local election held in November. Where it had previously held 14 of 22 municipalities, it ended the election with only 6. In all, the opposition, led by the Progressive Democratic Party won nearly a million votes more than the KMT. Significantly, an independent, Ko Wen-je was elected mayor of Taipei, which is often a stepping stone to the presidency and was held by a KMT for the past 16 years. The vote reflected an on-going tension in Taiwan between those seeking greater economic integration with the huge China market next door and those fearing it might lead to a loss of autonomy.

Oil Rig Showdown off Vietnam: Beijing’s decision in May to move a large oil drilling rig into waters off the coast of Vietnam led to a two-month confrontation on the sea and serious anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam before the rig was moved to another less sensitive location two months later. The oil rig Haiyang Shiyou 981was located outside Vietnamese territorial waters but inside its 200 nautical mile Economic Exclusion Zone. It led to daily sea clashes between Vietnamese fishing boats and Chinese and Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels. It also led to three days of riots in Vietnam and several Chinese (or at least foreign owned – the rioters were not too discriminate) factories were burned to the ground.

China’s Anti-Corruption Drive: Every year it seems some very senior Chinese official succumbs to China’s latest anti-corruption drive. This year’s big fish, Zhou Yongkang, was head of the police and a former member of the politburo standing committee of the communist party. This year’s anti-corruption drive, launched by President Xi Jinping, is said to be unprecedented in targeting errant party, military officials and heads of state-owned enterprises. The net is wide spread even capturing a deputy chief of the Beijing zoo accused of earning millions of yuan through “part-time work” like driving a taxi.

Japanese Win Nobel Prize: Three Japanese-born scientists won the Nobel Prize for physics for their work in helping to develop energy efficient white LEDs, which are replacing incandescent bulbs in lamps around the world. It was a source of encouragement in Japan, where the news had focused on a scandal concerning stem-cell research after the prestigious international science journal Nature retracted two research papers prepared by the Riken Institute in Kobe about a purportedly new and simple way to generate stem cells. Efforts to replicate the research failed, and the young female lead author, Haruko Obokata, resigned from the institute, amidst some grumbling that she was singled out because she was a young, attractive woman.

Hacking Attack on Sony: Although more of a Hollywood story, the hacking of the Sony Pictures and Entertainment’s computers had Asian reverberations. This villain in this story was North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un, who took umbrage at his portrayal in Sony Pictures’ comedy of a CIA assassination plot against him and took out his revenge on Sony in a particularly effective way.  Sony executives in Tokyo had tried to tone down the gruesome climax. For a while, Sony Pictures withdrew the movie, but later relented and allowed its showing in theaters across the U.S., but not in Asia.

Non-Story of the Year: probably the biggest ho-hum story of 2014 was Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s curious decision to call for a general election in mid-December two years before he had to. The results could be summed up in one headline – Abe Wins Big. Nothing Changes. The voter turnout for this non-issue election, at roughly 52 percent, was the lowest since the end of the war.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Clash of Values

From the point of view of Asia, the Sony affair can easily be read as a clash of values, an inherent Asian respect for leaders against the Western value of unrestrained artistic license.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un and his regime are widely and thoroughly reviled throughout Asia as in the rest of the world, yet there is also a widespread sense of unease about depicting a named living figure by name in such a gruesome way.
Sony’s chief executive Kazuo Hirai’s head metaphorically exploded when he learned about such scenes in the Sony produced movie, The Interview, about the assassination of Kim Jong-un, showing Kim’s hair on fire and chucks of his skull flying in all directions.

He intervened unsuccessfully to have the scene toned down, and also pulled the movie from Asian distribution, save for those bastions of Western values, Australia and New Zealand, well before the film was withdrawn globally following threats of violence at theaters where The Interview would be shown.
“A film depicting the killing of a living leader for the shock value of it is simply too rude and crude for Japan,” wrote Philip Cunningham, a writer and film critic. “Despite the predictable petulant cries of ‘caving in’, Sony Japan finally found the gumption to say no to its decadent and derelict Hollywood division.”

Very likely Hirai came under considerable behind the scenes pressure from the Japanese government, worried that the movie’s depiction of Kim might endanger some of its initiatives with the North, such as returning some of its citizens kidnapped in the 1970s and 80s.
North Korea might as well be on the planet Zog for all Hollywood moguls know or care, a strange place with a strange leader good for a few chuckles. But for Japan it is a close and dangerous neighbor.

The Interview was produced by Sony Pictures and Entertainment, which is technically a subdivision of Sony but historically has acted as virtually an independent player. Hirai’s attempted intervention was said to be almost unprecedented, and no doubt reflected growing worry in the Tokyo head office.
The movie division may well be practically independent, but it still has the name Sony in its title. Sony, one of the most widely recognized brands, is a word that is virtually synonymous with Japan.

“It was a stupid idea to have the movie made in the first place,” says Andrei Lankov, a Russian-born expert on North Korea based at Kookmin University in Seoul. “I don’t think they would have made about the assassination of the Chinese president or Iranian Ayatollah, especially using their real names”
A Confucian respect for the dignity of leaders, is engrained in the Asian character, regardless of whether they publically espouse fealty to “Asian Values” or not.

Draw a moustache on a poster showing the face of the King of Thailand can get you a fifteen-year prison term in Thailand. A British writer spent a couple weeks in jail after publishing a book that was deemed to injure the “dignity and integrity” of the judiciary.
Japan has a generally freewheeling press, but much of that freewheeling stops short of delving too deeply into the subject of the Japanese Imperial Family, who are never subjected to the indignities that the British royal family has often had to endure from the tabloid press.

This is not to say that Asians are always right. The draconian lese majeste laws in Thailand have been roundly and deservedly criticized by both outsiders and many Thais themselves. Foreign journalists have long had to chafe against strict rules of Singaporean authorities eager to preserve their leader’s dignity.

Nothing about this excuses the apparent retaliation by the North Koreans by hacking and exposing in a kind of Wikileaks fashion Sony Picture’s dirty laundry in public, although it is worth pausing to consider the implications of this unprecedented cyber attack.
It is not so much the technical aspects of the attack; the Northerners have previously attacked cyber targets in South Korea and possibly elsewhere. It may also have gotten help and technical advice from China’s extensive cyber warfare units. It has shown that Pyongyang can fight back effectively.

No, the most interesting aspect is cultural. Somehow the North Koreans knew exactly what to target to cause Sony Pictures the most grief and expense. Certainly, Pyongyang had a better sense of Hollywood culture than Hollywood has of theirs. Is there a Hollywood agent who has gone missing?
Pyongyang has a history of kidnaping people, especially Japanese, to teach their secret agents not just the language but important aspects of foreign cultures. For that matter, in 1978 South Korean film director Shin Song-ok was kidnapped from Hong Kong on orders from Kim Jong-il to help make movies.

He made several movies for Kim Jong-il before he escaped at a film festival in Austria. If nothing else, the Sony affair shows how much that the North Koreans understood and respected the power of cinema long before they understood the power of the internet.


Sunday, December 07, 2014

To Boldly Go . . .

Following the epic voyage of the first Hayabusa space probe to the asteroid Itokawa (named after Japan’s first Nobel Laureate in science) – and back, Japan last week launched a new and improved version. It’s mission? Nothing less than uncovering the mystery of life.

The space probe Hayabusa-2 set off Dec. 3 from the Tanegashima Space Center for a round-trip voyage that will last about six years, returning to earth with precious samples of “asteroid rocks” in 2020.
It is due to arrive at the “near earth object” 1999JU3 ( the Japanese are seeking permission to name the asteroid) in about the summer of 2018 then spend about a year surveying the surface of the solar object before returning to earth.

Probably because it does not take pictures and beam them back to earth like the European Space Agency’s recent Rosetta probe to a distant comet, the Hayabusa missions have never garnered much global interest outside the world of scientists and space enthusiasts.
However, the Japanese space vehicle does one thing that the Rosetta probe and other probes to Mars and the moon don’t do. It lands and then returns to Earth. Indeed, the Hayabusa-1 mission was the first round-trip space mission since the Apollo moon landings of the 1970s. It was also the deepest.

In a sense, both the Hayabusa-2 and the Rosetta probes are seeking the answers from two different planetary bodies to the same questions: what was the origin of the solar system and what was the origin of life. The holy grail of both mission would be to discover amino acids.
Many scientists believe that life-giving acids may have traveled to Earth by “hitching rides” on asteroids or comets. The asteroid 1999JU3 is also believed to be about 6 million years old, which places it at the beginning of the solar system and might provide answers to its origin.

Hayabusa-1 failed in its main mission, when the instrument that was to stir up dust collect it and bring it home malfunctioned (although the scientists did try to analyze some of the few particles that did make it back to Japan.)
This time the plan is have Hayabusa-2 drop a “bomb” on the asteroid, “hide” behind the far side of the asteroid until it explodes and then land the probe in the crater. The mission also hopes in that way to recover rocks from beneath the surface that would not be altered by cosmic rays or other phenomenon.

Unlike China, which is clearly aiming to put a Chinese man on the Moon, Japan has essentially carved out a special niche in space exploration, eschewing manned flights in favor of deep-space probes. Not all have been successful Japan too has had its share of misadventures.
In 2009 Japan launched Akatsuki on a voyage to Venus specifically to study its turbulent climate to understand global warming better, but it failed to enter the plants orbit. The first Hayabusa mission too almost failed to return.

Technicians at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had to overcome numerous set-backs during the long voyage of the first Hayabusa. Three of the four ion thrusters stopped working during the trip, a fuel leak rendered the chemical engine inoperable two of the three attitude control antennas broke down and communication was lost for 50 days after the landing.
Despite these trials and nail-biting moments, the first Hayabusa did return and landed safely in the far reaches of the Western Australia following a 600 million km round trip.

The second Hayabusa space craft features a host of technologies that were not aboard the original space craft but were developed to answer many of the problems the original probe experienced. They include an improved antenna and communications system, a redesigned ion engine and more backup equipment.