Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

How not to handle China – Jonathan Fenby

A happy new year everyone, good travels and remember the key, is to breathe deep.

It has been a recurring problem for the longest time, impositions. As much as the West has been unable to see things in context, it looks like China might just grow to be equally narrow-minded if it is not careful. The middle path, and respect is the key.

Quotable Quotes – “Mark Lynas’s much-remarked piece in the Guardian puts the blame squarely on Beijing, but takes no account of how the Chinese system actually operates, seemingly imagining it runs on western lines…

How not to handle China

From Copenhagen to Akmal Shaikh’s execution, the west’s failed diplomacy has shown it doesn’t get how politics works in Beijing
By Jonathan Fenby
Source – The Guardian, UK, 30 December 2009

What is becoming ever more clear as this year rattles to an end is that the west has no idea how to handle China. Since the relationship of the People’s Republic will be a key factor in the year (and many more years) ahead, that makes this a core question for the Obama administration and Europe – and, closer to the mainland, for India and Japan as well. But there still seems to be an almost childish reluctance in the west to accept China for what it is, whatever one may think of what it is.

It might be nice if China was more like us, but it isn’t going to be. Expecting it to fit into the paradigm set by the west is not only futile but positively dangerous. The sooner governments start to work out a meaningful China policy rather than depending on wishful thinking, the better. It would make a good New year’s resolution. But I’m not holding my breath.

The sad case of Akmal Shaikh, the London man executed in China on drug smuggling charges provides the latest example of how little the conventional approach to China on decent humanitarian grounds yields, just as concern abroad about the fate of Charter 08 dissident Liu Xiaobo did nothing to prevent him being sentenced to 11 years in jail on Christmas Day. China has reacted indignantly to the protests about Shaikh. The argument that China has made a mockery of justice has been made on Cif by Clive Stafford Smith. Less convincingly, we have had the descant of a reminder of the opium wars, as if Shaikh was a reincarnation of the East India Company, and relativists trotting out the tired old fallacy that human rights abuses in the west and executions in the US disbar us from protesting at the way the trial was conducted.

Behind this froth, what is plain is that China has once again asserted its determination to protect its own sovereignty whatever the issue, and is intent on doing things its way. Given its economic progress in the past three decades and the immediate effect of its huge pump-priming over the past 12 months in restoring growth (even if the second half of next year may prove more problematic), the leadership and the population feel pretty good about themselves. They are in no mood to take lessons, moral or otherwise, from the west.

In this context, the Shaikh case fits into a string of scratchy non-meetings of mind between China and the west over the last couple of months.

First there has been the long-running issue of the under-valuation of the Chinese currency. The case for appreciation of the yuan is undeniable. Equally undeniable is that Beijing is going to do no such thing until its exports rise back to their pre-crisis levels. Even then it has large amount of excess capacity to keep employed, and tens of millions of workers to provide jobs for when the current infrastructure programme starts to come to an end in the second half of 2010. So, however well-founded the arguments put it by the treasury department in Washington or the European Central Bank, the leadership stands firm.

Then we had the spectacle of Obama’s visit to China, during which his “town hall” meeting in Shanghai was transmitted only by one local television station, and during which the Chinese arranged a programme for him that was heavy on tourism. Yes, it ended with a lengthy list of general agreements to co-operate and assurances that the basis was being laid for long-term relationship. But the beef was missing, and US briefings that the two sides had reached meaningful agreement on climate change were swiftly blown apart by the fiasco of Copenhagen.

That conference showed just how western leaders are for understanding how China really works. The idea that, by crashing the meeting of major emerging economies, Obama could reach a last-minute deal with the Chinese prime minister to save the planet would have been laughable if it had not been tragic. Did the US president really think Wen Jiabao had any wriggle room to succumb to his charm and reason? Did he imagine that the prime minister would suddenly jettison 60 years of suspicion of the outside world to allow independent monitoring?

Mark Lynas’s much-remarked piece in the Guardian puts the blame squarely on Beijing, but takes no account of how the Chinese system actually operates, seemingly imagining it runs on western lines. The Chinese position would have been set out in advance and approved by the standing committee of the politburo. Wen could not deviate from that, even if he had been minded to do so. He may be prime minister but he ranks third in the standing committee and moves carefully. On such a crucial issue, he would be able to do absolutely nothing that might be seen as jeopardising the domestic economy; China accords importance to the environment but a good deal more to growth.

In addition, several key Chinese leaders were out of Beijing at the time and this is a leadership that likes to have everybody in the room when decisions are made and doesn’t believe in long-range teleconferences. So it is safe to assume that China was not in negotiating mode, and that, unless Beijing was being set up as the fall guy, Obama, Brown, Miliband et al should have know this, and negotiated accordingly. The same goes for the currency, human rights and, unfortunately for him, for Shaikh. It is also likely to be the case if trade disputes swell next year, as one must anticipate.

That leads to an underlying element which, again, seems insufficiently appreciated by western governments. General Secretary Hu and Wen operate by consensus. They are careful bureaucrats who do not command an automatic majority in the nine-man standing committee. Gone are the days of Mao getting out of bed one afternoon and deciding on a major policy initiative or of Deng Xiaoping imposing himself on those who nominally held positions superior to him. That is, in a way, healthy, but it means inflexibility at the top. Hu and Wen have to deal with factions, lobbies and powerful state companies. For all the liberation of the goods market, the economy is still tightly controlled in key input areas, buttressing the power of entrenched interests. The Communist party knows it needs to reform itself but is terrified of the effect of doing so.

All that is a recipe for caution. Not for the kind of reasoned flexibility and give-and-take which the west likes to make the basis for relationships between nations (however fallible this proves in practice). Repeating mantras about the need to revalue the yuan, respect human rights, join in independent monitoring or accept emission targets which would threaten the growth that provides the regime’s prime legitimacy may be necessary for the west’s own self-respect and defence of its own values. But the chances of getting results is razor-thin until a new policy context is evolved.

Filed under: International Relations, Politics, The Guardian

Lee Kuan Yew: S’pore can’t be a satellite

Quite timely this, Singaporeans are beginning to worry, or have been worrying for a while that Singapore has been serving as an outpost for Chinese ideas for a while now. But, what does keeping its own point of view mean when born-and-bred Singaporean citizens are fast dwindling in numbers? Already 1 out of 4 Singaporeans are foreign-born. Granted a new dynamic point of view will organically grow in time, but right now? I am not sure.

Highlights – “Singapore must keep its ‘own point of view’, or it will lose all effectiveness in the new world order…

S’pore can’t be a satellite
Singapore must retain own point of view to be effective
By Clarissa Oon, Senior Political Correspondent
Source – Straits Times, 30 December 2009

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said Singapore must keep its 'own point of view', or it will lose all effectiveness in the new world order. -- ST PHOTO: CHUA CHIN HON

SINGAPORE has built up an unspoken understanding with China that will serve it well in future relations with the emerging giant, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said on Tuesday night.

But it must never descend to becoming a satellite of Beijing or any other power, he stressed to some 200 officials and businessmen who have dealings with China.

Singapore must keep its ‘own point of view’, or it will lose all effectiveness in the new world order, he said in a wide-ranging dialogue, part of a dinner to mark networking group Business China’s second anniversary.

Mr Lee is patron of the non-profit organisation, which helps Singaporeans – especially businessmen – learn more about China. It was set up by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The 50-minute dialogue, which spanned the highs and lows of nearly 20 years of bilateral ties, was chaired by Mr Robin Hu, Singapore Press Holdings’ senior executive vice-president of Chinese newspapers and newspaper services.

Also at the dinner were Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan, Manpower Minister Gan Kim Yong, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and labour chief Lim Swee Say, and China’s ambassador to Singapore Zhang Xiaokang.

Lee Kuan Yew with an exchange with Chinese leader Hua Guofeng in 1976

‘He said to me: ‘You are in a military alliance with Taiwan.’

I said: ‘What gave you that idea?’

He said: ‘Your troops are there. Taiwan is part of China. You need our permission.’

I said: ‘No, we train separately, we are not part of the Taiwanese armed forces.’

He was not satisfied.

I said: ‘I understand your position, and the day you are in control of Taiwan, I will come to you to ask for permission.’

After that, he provoked me into asking him a difficult question.

So I said: ‘You said last night, China does not interfere in the affairs of other countries. But you are interfering in my affairs. You are helping the Malayan Communist Party to undermine Singapore. You are giving them support.’

He knew nothing about it (but did not want to) lose the argument. So he said: ‘Let me tell you this, wherever Communists go, we fight, we win.’

So I said: ‘Thank you, we understand each other better.’

So it was a good start.’

Filed under: International Relations, Politics, Singapore, Straits Times

Singapore: Refine bilingual policy

The bilingual policy is here to stay for Singapore. Also, to read more about Singapore’s announced changes to Chinese lessons, go here.

Highlights – “six in 10 Primary 1 Chinese students speaking English at home now, he noted. Six in 10 Indian pupils and 3.5 Malay pupils are also using English predominantly with family members.

Refine bilingual policy
By Amelia Tan
Source – Straits Times, 29 December 2009

EDUCATION Minister Ng Eng Hen on Tuesday spent much time re-affirming Singapore’s bilingual policy, especially the teaching of the Chinese language, the subject of much discussion in recent months.

The policy remains relevant for economic and cultural reasons, as bilingual skills will benefit the children given the rise of Asia, he said.

But it has to be re-calibrated to cope with what he called an ‘inexorable change’ in the language environment in homes, with six in 10 Primary 1 Chinese students speaking English at home now, he noted. Six in 10 Indian pupils and 3.5 Malay pupils are also using English predominantly with family members.

He made it clear that those who can excel in the Chinese language will have the pportunity to do so. If more students want this, he would even add a new Special Assistance Plan school to the present 25 which teach language at a higher level.

But accepting change also means that for the rest of the students, expectations, teaching methods and even tests have to re-calibrated to keep the language alive and useful.

Mr Ng said: ‘Our aim is to emphasise and teach Chinese language for students as a live language they can use, in the modes which they are likely to use.’ He added that language teaching will be more engaging and fun, ‘but students will still have to make the effort to learn” the language.

Filed under: Culture, Education, International Relations, Overseas Chinese, Singapore

Tomb of legendary ruler unearthed

The legendary Cao Cao has always been a huge part of my imagination of China growing up, so this glorious find (if true) is quite significant to me. Known to many as one of ancient China’s super-villians (mostly thanks to the novels, historically not so much so), Cao Cao was one of the fine examples of the lingering Chinese thought that unification under heaven was the noble goal above all conduct.

Highlights“It is also clear that the tomb was built and furnished austerely, which is in accordance with historical records saying Cao ordered his tomb to be built “on non-arable highland, with no (pyramid-shape) mound or any plantation upon it”, and “no treasures of gold and jade in it”

Tomb of legendary ruler unearthed
China Daily
Source – China.org.cn, December 28, 2009

Legend has it that Cao Cao, King Wu of Wei kingdom in the Three Kingdoms period (AD 208 to 280), had built 72 tombs to thwart tomb raiders.

Experts, however, have always doubted this, believing it was more a fabrication that reflected Cao’s political cunning as portrayed in the classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Now, they have come up with solid evidence to prove it wrong.

Archaeological officials confirmed yesterday the discovery of Cao’s mausoleum in Xigaoxue, a village in Anyang county of Henan province, which, much to the surprise of many, was indeed built as austerely as recorded in historical archives.

“Excavation has been going on for nearly one year, and we’ll come up with further evidence. But even based on what we’ve got, we can tell for sure that the mausoleum belongs to Cao Cao,” Guan Qiang, deputy director of the department of cultural heritage conservation at the State Administration of Cultural Heritage (SACH), told a briefing in Beijing.

Experts also unearthed bones of three people, through which they identified their ages: One male of around 60, and two women, one in her 50s and the other between 20 and 25.

Experts believe the male was Cao, the elder woman his empress who died in AD 230 and was buried at Cao’s tomb with her close companion, the younger woman.

The tomb was discovered in December last year when workers at a nearby kiln were digging for mud to make bricks. The discovery was not reported and local authorities knew of it only when they seized stone tablets carrying inscriptions of “King Wu of Wei” – Cao’s posthumous reference – from some tomb raiders.

The culprits claimed to have stolen the tablets from the tomb, according to Sun Yingmin, vice-director of the Henan Provincial Cultural Relics Administration (HPCRA).

Over the past year, archaeologists have recovered more than 250 relics from the west-to-east two-chamber tomb that covers an area of 740 sq m. Among them are stone paintings featuring social life of Cao’s time, stone tablets bearing inscriptions of sacrificial objects, and Cao’s personal belongings bearing the inscription “personal belongings frequently used by King Wu of Wei” such as the one found on a stone pillow.

Hao Benxing, an HPCRA researcher, said it was hard to tell if the mausoleum was robbed before the damage done by recent tomb raiders.

“But it is clear that the tomb was built with imperial solemnity and scale, the 40-m tunnel leading to the tomb’s gate being one example,” Hao said.

It is also clear that the tomb was built and furnished austerely, which is in accordance with historical records saying Cao ordered his tomb to be built “on non-arable highland, with no (pyramid-shape) mound or any plantation upon it”, and “no treasures of gold and jade in it”, Hao added.

The fact that the tomb’s location is only a few kilometers from Yecheng (to the southwest of today’s Linzhang county, Hebei province), historically the political center of Wei kingdom, is also strong proof that it is Cao’s tomb, according to archaeologist Liu Qingzhu of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In Yecheng, Cao built the famous Bronze Sparrow Terrace, where musicians and dancers would perform to entertain guests at his banquets.

Before his death, Cao left word he wanted his tomb to be built in a place where his children could see from the terrace anytime they remember him, or from where he, as a spirit in the underworld, could enjoy the performances on the terrace.

“The stone tablets bearing inscriptions of Cao’s posthumous reference are the strongest evidence,” said Liu. “No one would or could have so many relics inscribed with Cao’ posthumous reference in the tomb unless it was Cao’s.”

Experts agree that excavation of the mausoleum has just started and further research and study would prove the historical importance of the discovery, considering the important role Cao played in history.

“The tomb is a capsule of the historical time in which Cao lived,” said Liu. “For example, it will serve as a clear chronological reference for many other relics, whose age would otherwise be too difficult to tell.”

As a king’s mausoleum is often built in the center of a tomb compound, it is likely that there are many burial sites in the surrounding area, Liu added.

Filed under: China Daily, Culture, History

China’s U.S. Debt Quandary

Rather old news coming from March earlier this year, but a good read nonetheless. China can not be a limitless sponge for US debt forever, and the quagmire it has gotten itself into deserves a bit of understanding.

Quotable Quotes – “Some of these critics suspect that the Federal Reserve essentially prints more money not just to stimulate the economy, but also to devalue China’s U.S. dollar portfolio, undermining a rival power.

China’s U.S. Debt Quandary
by Gady Epstein
Source – Forbes, 19 March 2009

U.S. investors may have cheered the Federal Reserve’s decision this week to pump more than 1 trillion new dollars into the economy, but at least one faction in China was on the verge of tears.

“I want to cry, really want to cry,” wrote one Beijinger on Thursday, posting on one of China’s most popular portals, Sina.com. The problem was that by issuing more currency, the Fed was potentially weakening the U.S. dollar, making China’s dollar-based investments worth less. “Those elites insist on buying American bonds.”

One of “those elites” under fire is Premier Wen Jiabao. When he expresses public angst about the safety of China’s holdings of U.S. debt, he is speaking partly to domestic critics who believe Chinese leaders have unwisely tied their country’s fate to the U.S. economy. Many of the critics may be crackpots and conspiracy theorists, but they have a point.

They know that their government is now America’s largest creditor, with more than half of its $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves invested in Treasury securities and other U.S. government bonds. Some of these critics suspect that the Federal Reserve essentially prints more money not just to stimulate the economy, but also to devalue China’s U.S. dollar portfolio, undermining a rival power.

It may be a paranoid theory, but it is a popular one. One of China’s bestselling books in the past 18 months is Currency Wars, a conspiratorial screed that suggests that Western financial interests, including the Federal Reserve, seek to destroy the Chinese economy. The book has sold more than 1 million copies officially, and probably several million more pirated copies, and remains a bestseller now as economic conditions deteriorate.

Any leaders who choose to ignore this populist thinking risk being branded as sellouts. Last fall, as the financial crisis was unfolding, an incendiary letter circulated on the Internet claiming that a clique of Chinese elites, led by investment banker and former Premier Zhu Rongji’s son Levin Zhu, formed a “foreign financial interest cartel” that has betrayed the interests of the Chinese people to enrich themselves and their cronies.

The letter named as co-conspirators the men running China’s $200 billion sovereign wealth fund, whose disastrous investments in the Blackstone Group (nyse: BX – news people ) and Morgan Stanley (nyse: MS – news – people ) have lost China billions. People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan, China’s Ben Bernanke, was singled out for investing too much in Treasurys as the dollar was depreciating–more reasoning straight out of Currency Wars.

The believers are not just fire-breathing ideologues. “Many technocrats believe in this argument that the U.S. is trying to screw over China by cheapening the dollar,” says Victor Shih, a political economist and China specialist at Northwestern University. Shih learned of the influential reach of “Currency Wars” when he visited last summer with bureaucrats from the People’s Bank of China.

“Many PBOC officials bought into the arguments of this book and I think they’ve been writing a lot of reports to Wen Jiabao saying we’re holding a lot of dollars and we’re exposed to this risk,” Shih says. “And essentially that’s true.”

There’s the rub. Almost by accident, the conspiracy theories cut straight to what many economists consider a fundamental weakness in China’s monetary policy, and the leadership knows it. China has accumulated huge U.S. dollar reserves to keep the value of its own currency down, economists say, increasing its dependency on exports and decreasing its ability to invest more domestically.

“You’re making your economy more dependent on the rest of the world,” says Brad W. Setser, an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations who has closely monitored China’s sovereign investments. “You’re relying on demand from the rest of the world to maintain domestic employment rather than, say, running a fiscal deficit.”

Now China is locked into a situation where it needs the U.S. economy to rebound, but as the U.S. spends trillions of dollars to make that happen, it devalues the one currency China is most heavily invested in and pegged against. That forces China to continue buying U.S. dollars both to keep the value of its currency down and to protect its portfolio, so China ends up helping finance the U.S. economic recovery plan.

According to Setser, there is “no good historical analogy” for this situation. Never before has the U.S. been so heavily financed by one country. That relationship has already been the subject of much hand-wringing in the U.S., but it may be an even more volatile political problem for China.

It’s the old debtor’s aphorism, writ on a sovereign scale: If you owe China $1 billion, it’s your problem. If you owe China $1 trillion, it’s China’s problem.

Filed under: Economics, Forbes, U.S.

China jails critic and sends message

Quotable Quotes – “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.” The Charter 08 manifesto

China jails critic and sends message
Source – The Age, December 25, 2009

IN AN unequivocal rebuke to those pursuing political reforms, a Chinese court has convicted Liu Xiaobo, one of the country’s best-known dissidents, of subversion and sentenced him to 11 years in prison.

Liu, 53, a literature professor and a vocal critic of China’s single-party political system, was detained in December 2008 after he helped create a petition known as Charter 08 that demanded the right to free speech, open elections and many other liberties.

The 11-page verdict, largely a restatement of his indictment, was read yesterday morning at the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate Court by a court official, said Liu’s lawyer, Shang Baojun.

In addition to his prison term, Liu will be deprived of his political rights for an additional two years,which will prevent him from writing or speaking out on a wide range of issues.

”We are just extremely disappointed,” said Mr Shang, who added that Liu intended to appeal the verdict.

Although Liu faced a sentence of as many as 15 years in prison, legal experts and human rights advocates said the punishment was especially tough and intended to send a message to others who might agitate for political reform in one of the world’s longest-running authoritarian governments.

Nicholas Bequelin, a senior Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch in Hong Kong, described Liu as ”a sacrificial lamb” and said the Communist Party leadership was trying to intimidate critics.

He and others said Liu’s prosecution for violating rights that are enshrined in China’s constitution suggested a political hardening, a trend that began before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Charter 08 manifesto, which went online last year and has been signed by more than 10,000 people, calls for the protection of basic human rights and the reform of China’s one-party communist system.

It specifically demands the abolition of subversion in China’s criminal code – the very crime for which Liu has been jailed.

”We should make freedom of speech, freedom of the press and academic freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that citizens can be informed and can exercise their right of political supervision,” the manifesto says. ”We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.”

Liu’s trial on Wednesday lasted two hours and was closed; his wife, Liu Xia, and diplomats from the US and the EU were among those barred from the courtroom.

US and European officials have condemned Liu’s detention and trial, and urged China to release him. On Thursday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman dismissed such demands as a ”gross interference of China’s internal affairs”.

This is not Liu’s first brush with China’s harsh judicial system. He spent 21 months in detention for his role in the 1989 pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square. In 1996 he was sent to a labor camp, where he spent three years, for demanding clemency for those still imprisoned for their roles in the demonstrations.

In addition to his role in creating Charter 08, Liu’s charge for ”inciting subversion of state power” was based on six articles he published on the internet.


Filed under: Human Rights, Politics, The Age

The Singapore Solution [National Geographic]

Merry Xmas everyone!

Blessed new year ahead!

Not quite China stuff, but a great story on how an overseas-Chinese Lee Kuan Yew built a city based on “precise portions of Plato’s Republic, Anglophile elitism, unwavering economic pragmatism, and old-fashioned strong-arm repression“… plus a huge dose of Confucianism in my opinion. It is in a nutshell, a startlingly good piece on the place I was born.

HighlightsOver time, the MM says, Singaporeans have become “less hard-driving and hard-striving.” This is why it is a good thing, the MM says, that the nation has welcomed so many Chinese immigrants (25 percent of the population is now foreign-born). He is aware that many Singaporeans are unhappy with the influx of immigrants, especially those educated newcomers prepared to fight for higher paying jobs. But taking a typically Darwinian stance, the MM describes the country’s new subjects as “hungry,” with parents who “pushed the children very hard.” If native Singaporeans are falling behind because “the spurs are not stuck into the hide,” that is their problem.

The Singapore Solution
How did a sleepy little island transform into a high-tech powerhouse in one generation? It was all in the plan.

By Mark Jacobson
Source – National Geographic, Jan 2010 edition (text only)

If you want to get a Singaporean to look up from a beloved dish of fish-head curry—or make a harried cabdriver slam on his brakes—say you are going to interview the country’s “minister mentor,” Lee Kuan Yew, and would like an opinion about what to ask him. “The MM? Wah lau! You’re going to see the MM? Real?” You might as well have told a resident of the Emerald City that you’re late for an appointment with the Wizard of Oz. After all, LKY, as he is known in acronym-mad Singapore, is more than the “father of the country.” He is its inventor, as surely as if he had scientifically formulated the place with precise portions of Plato’s Republic, Anglophile elitism, unwavering economic pragmatism, and old-fashioned strong-arm repression.

People like to call Singapore the Switzerland of Southeast Asia, and who can argue? Out of a malarial swamp, the tiny island at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula gained independence from Britain in 1963 and, in one generation, transformed itself into a legendarily efficient place, where the per capita income for its 3.7 million citizens exceeds that of many European countries, the education and health systems rival anything in the West, government officials are largely corruption free, 90 percent of households own their own homes, taxes are relatively low and sidewalks are clean, and there are no visible homeless people or slums.

If all that, plus a typical unemployment rate of about 3 percent and a nice stash of money in the bank thanks to the government’s enforced savings plan, doesn’t sound sweet to you, just travel 600 miles south and try getting by in a Jakarta shantytown.

Achieving all this has required a delicate balancing act, an often paradoxical interplay between what some Singaporeans refer to as “the big stick and the big carrot.” What strikes you first is the carrot: giddy financial growth fueling never ending construction and consumerism. Against this is the stick, most often symbolized by the infamous ban on chewing gum and the caning of people for spray-painting cars. Disruptive things like racial and religious disharmony? They’re simply not allowed, and no one steals anyone else’s wallet.

Singapore, maybe more than anywhere else, crystallizes an elemental question: What price prosperity and security? Are they worth living in a place that many contend is a socially engineered, nose-to-the-grindstone, workaholic rat race, where the self-perpetuating ruling party enforces draconian laws (your airport entry card informs you, in red letters, that the penalty for drug trafficking is “DEATH”), squashes press freedom, and offers a debatable level of financial transparency? Some people joke that the government micromanages the details of life right down to how well Singapore Airlines flight attendants fill out their batik-patterned dresses.

They say Lee Kuan Yew has mellowed over the years, but when he walks into the interview wearing a zippered blue jacket, looking like a flint-eyed Asian Clint Eastwood circa Gran Torino, you know you’d better get on with it. While it is not exactly clear what a minister mentor does, good luck finding many Singaporeans who don’t believe that the Old Man is still top dog, the ultimate string puller behind the curtain. Told most of my questions have come from Singaporeans, the MM, now 86 but as sharp and unsentimental as a barbed tack, offers a bring-it-on smile: “At my age I’ve had many eggs thrown at me.”

Few living leaders—Fidel Castro in Cuba, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe come to mind—have dominated their homeland’s national narrative the way Lee Kuan Yew has. Born into a well-to-do Chinese family in 1923, deeply influenced by both British colonial society and the brutal Japanese occupation that killed as many as 50,000 people on the island in the mid-1940s, the erstwhile “Harry Lee,” Cambridge law degree in hand, first came to prominence as a leader of a left-leaning anticolonial movement in the 1950s. Firming up his personal power within the ascendant People’s Action Party, Lee became Singapore’s first prime minister, filling the post for 26 years. He was senior minister for another 15; his current minister mentor title was established when his son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004.

Lee masterminded the celebrated “Singapore Model,” converting a country one-eighth the size of Delaware, with no natural resources and a fractured mix of ethnicities, into “Singapore, Inc.” He attracted foreign investment by building communications and transportation infrastructure, made English the official language, created a superefficient government by paying top administrators salaries equal to those in private companies, and cracked down on corruption until it disappeared. The model—a unique mix of economic empowerment and tightly controlled personal liberties—has inspired imitators in China, Russia, and eastern Europe.

To lead a society, the MM says in his precise Victorian English, “one must understand human nature. I have always thought that humanity was animal-like. The Confucian theory was man could be improved, but I’m not sure he can be. He can be trained, he can be disciplined.” In Singapore that has meant lots of rules—prohibiting littering, spitting on sidewalks, failing to flush public toilets—with fines and occasional outing in the newspaper for those who break them. It also meant educating his people—industrious by nature—and converting them from shopkeepers to high-tech workers in a few decades.

Over time, the MM says, Singaporeans have become “less hard-driving and hard-striving.” This is why it is a good thing, the MM says, that the nation has welcomed so many Chinese immigrants (25 percent of the population is now foreign-born). He is aware that many Singaporeans are unhappy with the influx of immigrants, especially those educated newcomers prepared to fight for higher paying jobs. But taking a typically Darwinian stance, the MM describes the country’s new subjects as “hungry,” with parents who “pushed the children very hard.” If native Singaporeans are falling behind because “the spurs are not stuck into the hide,” that is their problem.

If there is a single word that sums up the Singaporean existential condition, it is kiasu, a term that means “afraid to lose.” In a society that begins tracking its students into test-based groups at age ten (“special” and “express” are the top tiers; “normal” is the path for those headed for factory and service-sector work), kiasu seeps in early, eventually germinating in brilliant engineering students and phallic high-rises with a Bulgari store on the ground floor. Singaporeans are big on being number one in everything, but in a kiasu world, winning is never completely sweet, carrying with it the dread of ceasing to win. When the Singapore port, the busiest container hub in the world, slipped behind Shanghai in 2005 in total cargo tonnage handled, it was a national calamity.

One day, as part of a rehearsal for the National Day celebration, I was treated to a veritable lollapalooza of kiasu. Singapore armed forces playacted at subduing a cabal of “terrorists” who had shot a half dozen flower-bearing children in red leotards, leaving them “dead” on the stage. “We’re not North Korea, but we try,” said one observer, commenting on the rolling tanks, zooming Apache helicopters, and earsplitting 21-gun salutes. You hear it all the time: The only way for Singapore to survive being surrounded by massive neighbors is to remain constantly vigilant. The 2009 military budget is $11.4 billion, or 5 percent of GDP, among the world’s highest rates.

You never know where the threat might come from, or what form it will take. Last summer everyone was in a panic about swine flu. Mask-wearing health monitors were positioned around the city. On Saturday night, no matter how stylo milo your threads, there was no way of getting into a club on trendy Clarke Quay without a bouncer pressing a handheld thermometer to your forehead. It was part of the unending Singaporean state of siege. Many of the newer public housing apartments come with a bomb shelter, complete with a steel door. After a while, the perceived danger and excessive compliance with rules get internalized; one thing you don’t see in Singapore is very many police. “The cop is inside our heads,” one resident says.

Self-censorship is rampant in Singapore, where dealing with the powers that be is “a dance,” says Alvin Tan, the artistic director of the Necessary Stage, which has put on dozens of plays dealing with touchy issues such as the death penalty and sexuality. Tan spends a lot of time with the government censors. “You have to use the proper approach,” he says. “If they say ‘south,’ you don’t say ‘north.’ You say ‘northeast.’ Go from there. It’s a negotiation.”

Those who do not learn their steps in the dance soon get the message. Consider the case of Siew Kum Hong, a 35-year-old Singaporean who thought he’d be furthering the cause of openness by serving as an unelected NMP, or nominated member of parliament. With only four opposition MPs elected in the history of the country, the ruling party thought NMPs might provide the appearance of “a more consensual style of government where alternative views are heard and constructive dissent accommodated.” This was how Siew Kum Hong told me he viewed his position, but he was passed over for another term.

“I thought I was doing a good job,” a surprised Kum Hong says. What it came down to, he surmises, were “those ‘no’ votes.” When he first voted no, on a resolution he felt discriminated against gays, his colleagues “went absolutely silent. It was the first time since I’d been in parliament that anyone had ever voted no.” When he voted no again, this time on a law lowering the number of people who could assemble to protest, the reaction was similarly cool. “So much for alternative views,” Kum Hong says.

The Singapore government is not unaware of the pitfalls of its highly controlled society. One concern is the “creativity crisis,” the fear that an emphasis on rote learning in Singapore’s schools is not conducive to producing game-changing ideas. Yet attempts to encourage originality have been tone-deaf. When Scape, a youth outreach group, opened a “graffiti wall,” youngsters were instructed to submit graffiti designs for consideration; those chosen would be painted on a designated wall at an assigned time.

Similarly, the government has maintained a campaign against the use of “Singlish,” the multiculti gumbo of Malay, Hokkien Chinese, Tamil, and English street patois that is Singapore’s great linguistic achievement. As you sit in a Starbucks listening to teens saying things like “You blur like sotong, lah!” (roughly, “You’re dumber than squid, man!”), Singlish seems a brilliantly subversive attack on the very conformity the government claims it is trying to overcome. Then again, one of Singlish’s major conceits is the ironic lionization of the flashy, down-market “Ah Beng” culture of Chinese immigrant thugs and their sunglass-wearing Malay counterparts. You know that won’t fly in a world where the MM (“minister de-mentor” in Beng speak) has advocated “assortative mating,” the idea that college graduates should marry only other college graduates so as to uplift the national stock.

Perhaps the most troubling problem facing the nation is a result of its overly successful population control program, which ran in the 1970s with the slogan “Two Is Enough.” Today Singaporeans are simply not reproducing, so the country must depend on immigrants to keep the population growing. The government offers baby bonuses and long maternity leaves, but nothing will help unless Singaporeans start having more sex. According to a poll by the Durex condom company, Singaporeans have less intercourse than almost any other country on Earth. “We are shrinking in our population,” the MM says. “Our fertility rate is 1.29. It is a worrying factor.” This could be the fatal error in the Singapore Model: The eventual extinction of Singaporeans.

But there is an upside to all this social engineering. You could feel it during the “We Are the World” production numbers in the National Day show. On stage were representatives of Singapore’s major ethnic groups, the Chinese, Malays, and Indians, all wearing colorful costumes. After riots in the 1960s, the government installed a strict quota system in public housing to make sure that ethnic groups did not create their own monolithic quarters. This practice may have more to do with controlling the populace than with true multiracial harmony, but at the rehearsal, as schmaltzy as it was, it was hard not to be moved by the earnest show of brotherhood. However invented, there is something called Singaporean, and it is real. Whatever people’s grumbles—and as the MM says, “Singaporeans are champion grumblers”—Singapore is their home, and they love it despite everything. It makes you like the place too, for their sake.

The kicker is that things are about to change. In a famous quote, Lee Kuan Yew said, “If you are going to lower me into the grave, and I feel something is wrong, I will get up.” But this is beyond even him. “We all know the MM will die someday,” says Calvin Fones, a psychiatrist who runs a clinic at Gleneagles Hospital on Orchard Road. Fones likens his homeland to a family. “When the country was young, there was a need for wise oversight. A firm hand. Now we are in adolescence, which can be a questioning, troublesome period. Coming into it without the presence of the patriarch will be a test.”

The great engine of cultural change, of course, is the Internet, that cyber fly in the authoritarian ointment. Lee acknowledges the threat. “We banned Playboyin the sixties, and it is still banned, that’s true, but now, with the Internet, you get much more than you ever could from Playboy.” Allowing pornography sites while banning magazines may seem contradictory. But attempting to censor the Internet, as has been tried in China, would be pointless, Lee says. It is an exquisitely pragmatic reply.

And so bloggers, like the satirist Mr. Brown and the urbanely pugnacious Yawning Bread, are free to broadcast opinions unlikely to be found in the pages of the government-linked Straits Times. As a result, more and more young people are questioning the trade-off between freedom and security—and even calling for freer politics and fewer social controls.

Last August, a wide-ranging speech by new NMP Viswa Sadasivan created a lot of buzz on the blogosphere: “I do lament our lack of freedom to express ourselves, and the government’s seemingly unmitigated grip on power and what appears to be an inconsistent willingness to listen to public sentiment that does not suit it,” Viswa said before parliament. “Accountability requires the government to go beyond lip-service in addressing the call for greater democracy … If not, people are likely to feel increasingly alienated.”

Irked by Viswa’s criticisms of the way some ethnic groups are treated in Singapore, LKY interrupted a medical treatment to angrily refute the “highfalutin” speech in a rare appearance on the parliament floor. The patriarch, in case anyone needed reminding, was not yet in his grave.

Singapore can be a disconcerting place, even to the people who call it home, though they’d never think of leaving. As one local put it, “Singapore is like a warm bath. You sink in, slit your wrists, your lifeblood floats away, but hey, it’s warm.” If that’s so, most Singaporeans figure they might as well go down the tubes eating pepper crabs, with a couple of curry puffs on the side. Eating is the true national pastime and refuge. The longer I stayed, the more I ate. It got so I’d go over to the marvelously overcrowded Maxwell Road Food Centre, stand in the 20-minute queue for a plate at the Tian Tian food stall, eat it, then line up again.

On my last day, I climbed the hill in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, at 537 feet the highest point on the island and the closest thing in Singapore to the jungle it once was. In the unexpected quiet, I returned to what the MM had said about Confucius’s belief “that man could be perfected.” This was, the MM said with a sigh, “an optimistic way of looking at life.” People abuse freedom. That is his beef with America: The rights of individuals to do their own thing allow them to misbehave at the expense of an orderly society. As they say in Singapore: What good are all those rights if you’re afraid to go out at night?

When I got to the top of the hill, I thought I might be rewarded with a view of the entire city-state. But there was no view at all—only a rusting communication tower and a cyclone fence affixed with a sign saying “Protected Place” and showing a stick figure drawing of a soldier aiming a rifle at a man with his hands raised.

Later I mentioned this to Calvin Fones, the shrink. “See, that shows the progress we’ve made,” he said. “Until a few years ago, we had the same sign, except the guy was lying on the ground, already shot.” And then, being a Singaporean, living a life he didn’t believe possible anywhere else in Asia, he laughed.

Filed under: Chinese overseas, Culture, National Geographic, Singapore

Beijing tightens control over the Net

Quotable Quotes – The “Internet has become an important avenue through which anti-China forces infiltrate, sabotage and magnify their capabilities for destruction.” Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu

Beijing tightens control over the Net
New York Times
Source – The Malaysian Insider, 19 December 2009

BEIJING, Dec 19 — China’s government censors have taken fresh aim at the Internet.

It has rolled out tough new measures that limit ordinary citizens’ ability to set up personal websites and to view hundreds of other online sites offering films, video games and other forms of entertainment.

The authorities said that the stricter controls are intended to protect children from pornography, to limit the piracy of films, music and television shows, and to make it hard to perpetuate Internet scams.

But the measures also appear designed to further tighten the government’s already strict control of any organised political opposition.

In various pronouncements over the past several weeks, top propaganda and security officials have stressed anew the need to police the Internet on ideological and security grounds.

The “Internet has become an important avenue through which anti-China forces infiltrate, sabotage and magnify their capabilities for destruction”, Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu wrote in the Dec 1 issue of Qiushi, a magazine published by the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

“Therefore it represents a new challenge to the public security authority in maintaining national security and social stability,” he said.

The newly-announced restrictions are the government’s broadest effort yet to control the Internet since last June, when it tried to require manufacturers to install Internet filtering software on all new computers, experts said. Officials scaled back that programme, known as the Green Dam-Youth Escort, after an outcry by both Internet users and corporations.

Under the new initiative, unveiled piecemeal over the past month, more than 700 websites have been shut down, including many that offered free movies, television dramas and music downloads.

The government has also intensified pressure on cellphone companies to prevent transmissions of online pornography.

Among the video sharing or BitTorrent (BT) websites shut down by the authorities, who cited copyright violations and lewd content, was BT China which recorded at least 250,000 visits daily. China’s largest file-sharing site, Very CD, must obtain a new licence or face possible shutdown as well, according to reports.

Individuals have also been banned from registering websites using China’s country code domain, .cn. That domain is now limited to registered businesses.

Although individuals can still register websites in other domains, such as .com and .net, the new rule will dull the vibrancy of the Chinese Internet, analysts said.

The move comes against the background of heightened social unrest, some of which was allegedly organised or promoted through the Internet, peaking in ethnic riots in July in the Xinjiang region, the Financial Times said this week.

In March, China banned Google’s YouTube. Twitter, Flickr and Facebook were banned this summer, and last week, Sun TV (based in Hong Kong) lost its licence to air in the mainland.

Analysts say the latest measures are a continuation of the state’s increasingly sophisticated effort to control the Internet’s influence on more than 300 million Chinese users.

“They are basically improving their censorship mechanisms,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Hong Kong.

Reaction to the government’s latest crackdown runs the gamut from enthusiastic support from Chinese parents who want to shield their children from pornography, to harsh criticism from those who view the Internet as the best antidote to government propaganda.

‘It’s all hypocrisy. Under the guise of weeding out undesirable content, what the authorities are really doing is to cut off a channel for the exchange of information,’ raged a netizen posting on Baidu.com’s message bulletin.

Beijing Business Today, a weekday newspaper, in a report last week interviewed sellers of pirated discs who said they expected business to improve after the closure of BT sites. ‘As long as there is an original version, there will be a pirated edition,’ said one hawker.

Young Chinese, including college students who are accustomed to downloading music, films and other materials easily and cheaply, said the new measures would be proven to be ineffective as users would find ways around the new online obstacles. — New York Times

Filed under: Internet, Media, Social, The Malaysian Insider

Report to signal thaw in China, Japan ties

These two East Asian giants have long endured conflict and painful memories, for both sides. Hopefully a step forward, and not two steps behind.

Quotable Quotes – “Both nations used to put history related issues on the back burner and focused on the economy and current affairs…” Niu Zhongjun, professor at China Foreign Affairs University

Report to signal thaw in China, Japan ties
by Zhang Jin
Source – China Daily, 24 December 2009

China and Japan are expected to release in Tokyo today a joint report that acknowledges Japan’s invasion of China during the Second World War – a document that analysts said was a positive start to removing a long-standing irritant in bilateral ties.

The report, featuring 13 articles by Chinese historians and an equal number by their Japanese counterparts, is likely to cover historical and contemporary relations between the two nations, a source close to the compilers of the report told China Daily yesterday.

Historians on both sides are agreed on the fact that Japan invaded China, the source said, but due to wide differences, the report may not cover post-war history. “Research will continue on that part,” the source said.

The report is also expected to touch upon events such as the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, during which, China says, Japanese invaders slaughtered 300,000 civilians in the city.

The report, which will record views from both sides in case of disagreements, is the result of discussions spread over three years among 30 historians from the China-Japan Joint History Research Committee.

In October 2006, President Hu Jintao and then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to set up the committee to salvage bilateral relations, which had touched bottom during the time of Abe’s predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi.

Rows over the understanding of history, at times, soured bilateral relations between the Asian neighbors.

The most pronounced spats dealt with Japan’s revision of its history textbooks and its leaders’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the tablets of war criminals such as Hideki Tojo.

A Beijing-based analyst said the report was the latest sign of warming ties between Beijing and Tokyo.

“Both nations used to put history related issues on the back burner and focused on the economy and current affairs,” Niu Zhongjun, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, said yesterday.

The release of such a report showed that ties have been strengthened to a level where both nations could address “this sensitive and thorny matter”, he said.

Calling the report a “milestone”, Japanese writer and commentator Kato Yoshikazu said the document, for the first time, “offered an authoritative version of history and enabled both peoples to clear their doubts”.

Yoshikazu, however, cautioned that the report could arouse opposition from Japan’s right-wingers.

“Debates are welcome, but we shouldn’t politicize the report,” he said.

Niu also warned that different perceptions of history will prevail between China and Japan, and “they will not be solved overnight.”

An official from the Japanese embassy in Beijing did not confirm the release of report.

“The two sides are working on the final arrangement of the meeting and release,” he told China Daily yesterday, adding the joint research was conducive to “promoting mutual understanding and trust between Japan and China”.

Sino-Japanese relations have improved since Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama took over in September. “Hatoyama’s pro-Asia policy is in favor of Beijing”, Niu said.

Earlier this month, Hatoyama told visiting Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping that Japan should courageously face up to history.

Filed under: China Daily, International Relations, military

China to establish state social security fund

Making China a better/more secure place to live?

Highlights – “As of 2008, about 219 million people have pensions and about 317 million have basic medical insurance. An additional 124 million have unemployment insurance, 138 million have work injury insurance and 91 million have childbirth insurance…

China to establish state social security fund
Source – China Daily, 23 December 2009

BEIJING: China will establish a state social security fund as a “strategic reserve,” according to the country’s first-ever draft law on social insurance submitted to the ongoing session of China’s top legislature for its third reading.

The state security fund will be financed by the central government budget and other funds granted by the State Council, or China’s cabinet, and should be used as a supplement for social security expenditure, the draft law said.

The fund should make public its income and expenses, management processes and investment, it said.

The draft law, revised after its second reading last December to take into account public submissions, specified a common right for all citizens to pay premiums and enjoy old-age pensions and insurance for medical care, work injuries, unemployment and childbirth.

More than 70,000 submissions have been received since the draft law was open to public comment a year ago, according to the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee.

The revised draft law also highlighted individuals and employment units that pay social insurance fees according to the law should have the right to inquire about their payment records.

China has established several policies concerning social welfare since 1984. As of 2008, about 219 million people have pensions and about 317 million have basic medical insurance. An additional 124 million have unemployment insurance, 138 million have work injury insurance and 91 million have childbirth insurance.

Filed under: China Daily, Economics, Politics, xinhua

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