The Screaming Pen

Providing Global Insight, Context, and Perspective

Classic Pen: An Awkward Two-Step

A Beginner’s Guide to the World’s Most Important Relationship

“Which is best chemistry graduate school in England? Who is your favorite NBA player? How many centimeter are you?” Launched rapid fire by the throngs of residents that swallow any native speaker brave enough to wander into one of China’s many “English corners” – plazas and parks where Chinese meet to practice speaking the language on Saturday nights – the questions begin to take on the air of a personal press conference. Any lone Westerner at one of these can expect a similarly exhilarating evening, replete with overly eager late-20’s gentlemen popping into view randomly, making googly-faces from behind the rows of questioners for effect. Indeed, the curiosity and friendliness greeted foreigners here is hard to imagine for outsiders who rarely think of China without the menacing C-word directly preceding.

As the world’s largest and most visible Communist country this is perhaps inevitable. Much U.S. press coverage of China relates to textile quotas, exchange rate policy, and corporate takeovers; complicated issues more easily made exoteric by portraying the country as hostile, red, and monolithic. Avian bird flu, tense relations with Taiwan and Japan, human rights, and an intense military build-up are no less frightening.


Remembering her Conjunctions, and with Plenty of Questions for You

This misunderstanding by no means runs only one way. The xenophobic atmosphere that festered in China during the 1960’s and 70’s persists still, marooned by intellectual debates firmly quashed in public, on-line, and in the classroom. Problems with the U.S. media there may be, but American news organizations provide reporting less fettered by direct state control and censorship. Indeed, Chinese perceptions of America are influenced more heavily by the professional basketball player Dwayne Wade and the television sitcom Friends – wildly popular in Shanghai and Beijing– than through the cycle of accurate reporting, solid analysis, and measured reflection.

A fundamental misconception underlying common foreign discussion of China, but lacking in reality however, is that a massive reservoir of pent-up ill will exists towards America. In fact, many Chinese still proffer the old saying that they “dislike the government, but like the people” of America; a statement now obsolete in many parts of the world that abhor both. Widespread membership in the Communist Party primarily serves cadre’s bureaucratic and individual career objectives rather than zealous anti-capitalist indoctrination. And soldiers’ marching drills in Tiananmen Square are today largely equitable to those at Arlington National Cemetery. Scare-mongering photos of such are better left to tabloid articles covering North Korea.

Policy-makers on both sides have to move past these stereotypes if they are to successfully manage China’s emergence on the regional and national stage. Washington’s principals must also recognize that while Joseph Nye’s “soft power” is ubiquitous throughout the mainland and its peasants and laborers have plenty of bread and butter grievances, they’re hardly clamoring for a democratic revolution. President Hu and company rightly take serious America’s tough talk – a real-politic tendency regulated by its superpower status in a rocky unipolar world – but need to understand that an adversarial relationship is not the intended result, but the concern.

The necessity of maintaining peace is consequently pressed upon by Beijing’s legitimately unnerving actions: an exponential increase in military spending with no obvious military threat; bellicosity towards Taiwan and Japan; and political cover and economic assistance for unsavory regimes from Central Asia to Africa to Latin America. How leaders are able to deal with these issues will likely determine the answer to another question frequently posed at China’s English Corners: “Will there be peace between America and China?”

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

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September 30, 2006 Posted by | Author: DML, China, Country Profiles, International Relations, United States | Leave a comment

In Shallah

What to Make of Somalia

Until recently, Somalia had been relegated to the depressingly long list of squalid, penurious places so depraved that no one much hoped for any sunny result. The international community largely disregarded Somalia, because hadn’t they tried to help the country before? That forlorn hope ended gruesomely with Black Hawk Down and the messy withdrawal of United Nations peacekeepers in 1993, which additionally helped dissuade foreign intervention elsewhere in Rwanda a year later at the cost of 1 million lives. Spurned and with no supreme interests at stake, the world gave up on Somalia.

In the meantime, Somalia’s capital Mogadishu continued to be one of the most violent and dangerous cities in the world. A prime example of a “failed state,” murderous warlords ruled the country and governmental institutions were non-existent; there was no central bank, foreign aid groups ran makeshift hospitals, and Islamists operated private schools. The international community’s half-hearted efforts to help out centered on propping up an interim government, led by Abdullah Yusuf, that is only nominally in charge of the country. When trying to return to Mogadishu last year he was shot at, and forced to flee in opprobrium. Moreover, as a former warlord many Somalis think Yusuf an Ethiopian stooge, which is hardly a favorable association in a country that’s long been at odds with its northern neighbor.


Looking for a New Career?

Frustrated by rapacious warlords, anomie, and political impotence, Somalis turned to the Islamic Courts Union. The Union began as a collection of local courts settling routine grievances and grew as militias turned out to enforce decisions, eventually coalescing to challenge and defeat the warlords.

So far the judgment is mixed. The ICU’s militias are imposing order and making the streets safe for the first time in memory. Optimistic stories abound of shops reopening and citizens venturing outside without bodyguard or arms. Yet others fear the introduction of Taliban-style theocracy and extreme rectitude. Indeed, there are already rumors of movie theater closings and beatings dealt out to young lovers for frolicking in public. Ultimately, there are more questions than answers at the moment.

Outsiders’ main concern is, unsurprisingly, with terrorism. Yusuf for one is claiming that the ICU is filled with foreign jihadists, although doing so also favors his own agenda; ICU gains are wresting control of territory from his grip. Long before recent interest in the country it was rumored that the CIA was channeling aid to the warlords so long as they kept al-Qaeda out. The ICU does appear to have a varied makeup, ranging from moderate to opportunistic and extreme.

The next concern centers on intervention. Such thoughts are premature, however, because despite recent media interest in the country there remains no legitimate party capable of effective governance that is therefore worthy of support. Unfortunately for Somalis, intervention may come from Ethiopia, which reports indicate has been moving contingents towards the town of Baidoa where Yusuf is holed up.

More promisingly, the ICU and the interim government recognized each other today and signed a cease-fire mediated by the Arab League. Surprisingly perhaps, Somalia’s kismet may not be entirely gloomy: breakaway regions of the country – Puntland and Somaliland – are already safe by comparison. Reassuringly, the concession with Yusuf wouldn’t have occured were al-Qaeda running the ICU. If moderation prevails Somalis may at last be able to affect how their country is governed.

Other peoples are itching for the day when this opportunity is afforded them. In Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the oil monarchies and beyond, volatility and years of conflict are likely to pass before extremism’s inability to build a healthy society is exposed. No matter others’ prior experience with this, oppressed peoples throughout the Islamic crescent can’t be told that currently oppressive regimes are better than an alternative they’ve never tried, especially when it claims to have all the answers and promises eternal salvation. Once given the chance extremism will be shown for the failure that it is, people will tire of listlessness, and they’ll search for a sensible alternative. Let’s hope Somalia has already reached that point.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

June 23, 2006 Posted by | Africa, Country Profiles, Intervention, Politics, Somalia, The War on Terror | 2 Comments

The New Amsterdam?

Minorities Crime & Drugs in China

The meanest bowl of la mian – steaming sweet noodles and meat that renew life on a frosty winter evening – you’ll ever find will be in a Uighur restaurant. Fortunately for survival, the dish can be found for 40 cents in noodle stalls located in neighborhoods throughout China. Less auspiciously for Chinese authorities, the widespread presence of ethnic minorities is, combined with the drug trade, making domestic control increasingly harder to maintain.

People from the Xinjiang (the place) Uighur (the people) Autonomous Region, China’s most western province, are noticeably different-looking than the ethnic Han that make up around 95% of the nation’s population. On average, the Uighurs are taller, with sharper features and lighter eyes. They appear more like Central Asians as they are indeed from that corner of the world. Unlike the officially atheistic Chinese, they are Muslim and wear a doppa, or Uighur hat.


Visine: Gets the Red Out

Uighurs are overwhelmingly a friendly, hospitable, and decent people. As is inherent in human nature, however, a small minority exists with less savory motives and the will to resist. They also have legitimate grievances: Xinjiang was only really pulled into Beijing’s orbit in the 1950’s when the People’s Army arrived. In a successful effort to prevent independence – similar to that witnessed in former Soviet states with similar histories in Central Asia – China has been moving its citizens to the province by the millions in an effort to pacify the Uighurs through demography and breeding; the Han now make up 50% of Xinjiang’s population. Furthermore, widespread human rights abuses and the absence of choice in the political arena lead to increasing frustration and unrest among Uighurs. Beijing’s solidarity with America’s war on terror is frequently thought to stem from domestic desires in Xinjiang. Remember the screeching woman on the White House lawn during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s speech in April? She was Uighur, and never would’ve been heard in China.

Yet as long as the central government possesses a monopoly on force restive groups find it virtually impossible to challenge its rule directly. Instead, dissent will undermine the state through other outlets. With little stake in a system that discriminates against them, some minorities seek profit through street crime and drug smuggling. Noodle stalls and niu rou (meat stick) vendors often sell hasheesh alongside their edibles. During 2005 they became even bolder, approaching shaggy-looking foreigners on Shanghai’s main tourish promenade. They also sustain a healthy trade in stolen goods, lifting cell phones and wallets, and push imitation Marlboros.

An Unhappy Bunch

The Uighurs are not the only groups in China with varying loyalties: Tibet has long been a high-profile cause celebre, and the people in Southern China – Guangdong and Hong Kong – don’t consider themselves Chinese because they aren’t Han and don’t speak Mandarin, but Cantonese. Economic dynamism has led to relative calm from Hong Kongers who were more than a little uneasy when the People’s Army arrived as the British pulled out in 1997. And while they have very different aspirations and live under widely divergent conditions than the Uighurs, they are increasingly pushy about their freedoms. Mongolian, Laotian, and Burmese groups also call the PRC home.

Definitely Worth the Trip

Nationalities from far beyond Asia are developing a presence in the country as well. In May, in conjunction with the United States, China seized 300 pounds of cocaine from a Colombian narco-gang with local partners in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Even more disturbingly, less than a mile from Zhongnanhai – the Chinese leadership’s central headquarters in Beijing- lies Sanlitun Rd and its shady cousin, Sanlitun South. The former is a dull stretch of karaoke bars with awful beer that guidebooks tout as having the best nightlife around. Just a few blocks away, hidden on all sides by apartment blocks, emerges an expatriate college student’s dream: a dusty dirt road where animals roam freely, lined by tiny alleys with wild-west bars that stay open all night serving Coronas for 50 cents. Indeed, the latter looks more like Mexico than what you’d expect to find in the heart of the Chinese capital. Less benignly are the Nigerian lookouts that man each end of the street offering everything from marijuana to crack to the passerby.

In a country that places a premium on prying into both its own citizens’ and foreigners’ lives, combined with the blatant visibility of the practice, one wonders how it can exist without the authorities’ complicity. This is doubly so given that the Nigerians are legally in China on student visas. How they got the visas is not so difficult to discern: Nigeria is a significant source of Chinese oil imports, and thus the necessary immigration papers get filed rather quickly. Yet the opacity of the government means that its role in the drug trade – whether through tacit approval and taxation or active facilitation – cannot be ruled out. Do high-ups have knowledge of it? Could it be that the Colombian drug bust accomplished two tasks at the same time: cracking down on a rival gang without connections while showing America’s Drug Enforcement Agency that it’s a good-faith partner in the War on Drugs?

If so, not only is it grossly illegal and disingenuous but illogical. Both petty and violent crime are on the rise in China, and figures will continue to climb in the future. China’s leaders should be careful about the short-term profits they seek from the trade, as the networks it creates will undermine their authority and prove impossible to stamp out. Politically, the communist party exerts a firm hold on power, but increasing revolts – numbering 87,000 last year according to party reports – will lead to a day, unlikely to be soon, when this changes. When it does the Uighurs, Tibetans, Cantonese and others will hardly help slow its fall.

June 17, 2006 Posted by | Asia, Author: DML, China, Corruption, Country Profiles, Crime, Human Rights, Nigeria, War on Drugs | 2 Comments

An Awkward Two-Step

A Beginner’s Guide to the World’s Most Important Relationship

“Which is best chemistry graduate school in England? Who is your favorite NBA player? How many centimeter are you?” Launched rapid fire by the throngs of residents that swallow any native speaker brave enough to wander into one of China’s many “English corners” – plazas and parks where Chinese meet to practice speaking the language on Saturday nights – the questions begin to take on the air of a personal press conference. Any lone Westerner at one of these can expect a similarly exhilarating evening, replete with overly eager late-20’s gentlemen popping into view randomly, making googly-faces from behind the rows of questioners for effect. Indeed, the curiosity and friendliness greeted foreigners here is hard to imagine for outsiders who rarely think of China without the menacing C-word directly preceding.

As the world’s largest and most visible Communist country this is perhaps inevitable. Much U.S. press coverage of China relates to textile quotas, exchange rate policy, and corporate takeovers; complicated issues more easily made exoteric by portraying the country as hostile, red, and monolithic. Avian bird flu, tense relations with Taiwan and Japan, human rights, and an intense military build-up are no less frightening.


Remembering her Conjunctions, and with Plenty of Questions for You

This misunderstanding by no means runs only one way. The xenophobic atmosphere that festered in China during the 1960’s and 70’s persists still, marooned by intellectual debates firmly quashed in public, on-line, and in the classroom. Problems with the U.S. media there may be, but American news organizations provide reporting less fettered by direct state control and censorship. Indeed, Chinese perceptions of America are influenced more heavily by the professional basketball player Dwayne Wade and the television sitcom Friends – wildly popular in Shanghai and Beijing– than through the cycle of accurate reporting, solid analysis, and measured reflection.

A fundamental misconception underlying common foreign discussion of China, but lacking in reality however, is that a massive reservoir of pent-up ill will exists towards America. In fact, many Chinese still proffer the old saying that they “dislike the government, but like the people” of America; a statement now obsolete in many parts of the world that abhor both. Widespread membership in the Communist Party primarily serves cadre’s bureaucratic and individual career objectives rather than zealous anti-capitalist indoctrination. And soldiers’ marching drills in Tiananmen Square are today largely equitable to those at Arlington National Cemetery. Scare-mongering photos of such are better left to tabloid articles covering North Korea.

Policy-makers on both sides have to move past these stereotypes if they are to successfully manage China’s emergence on the regional and national stage. Washington’s principals must also recognize that while Joseph Nye’s “soft power” is ubiquitous throughout the mainland and its peasants and laborers have plenty of bread and butter grievances, they’re hardly clamoring for a democratic revolution. President Hu and company rightly take serious America’s tough talk – a real-politic tendency regulated by its superpower status in a rocky unipolar world – but need to understand that an adversarial relationship is not the intended result, but the concern.

The necessity of maintaining peace is consequently pressed upon by Beijing’s legitimately unnerving actions: an exponential increase in military spending with no obvious military threat; bellicosity towards Taiwan and Japan; and political cover and economic assistance for unsavory regimes from Central Asia to Africa to Latin America. How leaders are able to deal with these issues will likely determine the answer to another question frequently posed at China’s English Corners: “Will there be peace between America and China?”

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

June 6, 2006 Posted by | Asia, China, Country Profiles, International Relations, Politics, The Media, United States | Leave a comment

Out of the Shadows

Cambodia’s Good Fortunes

When speaking of the Asian tigers, Cambodia isn’t one of the countries that come to mind. For most of the past 40 years this Southeast Asian nation has been plagued by civil war, foreign domination, and even genocide. The reprehensible, murderous Khmer Rouge was beaten back long ago but it continued to play spoiler in the west and northwest near the Thai border until just five years ago, emerging from jungle sanctuaries under cover of darkness to battle despairingly against government soldiers. Ordinary Cambodians hated them.

Despite Rouge devastation, the highest HIV infection rate in Asia, widespread corruption, and ineffective and unresponsive government, it is perhaps astonishing then that Cambodia saw 13% GDP growth in 2005 according to the IMF. For a Cambodian or any visitor to the country though this is unsurprising: having endured so much privation and devastation for longer than most can remember, Cambodians are ecstatic to know peace and ready to get on with things.


Angkor Wat: At least they didn’t destroy this one

Helped by tranquility and the friendly and sanguine attitudes of the Khmer people (as Cambodians are known), tourism has been a boon. Cambodia has possibly the world’s most awe-inspiring and fantastic attraction in the world: the temples of Angkor. Each year brings increasing numbers of visitors flooding north from the capital and east from more prosperous Thailand to visit Angkor Wat, bringing with them valuable cash to a region often ignored –political retribution, many suspect, for the Rouge’s former influence in the area – by the central government in distant Phnom Penh. Instead, informal patronage networks distribute cash to those who need it most. Tourist operators ferrying busloads of foreigners to their destination slow while passing cash to women on foot along the muddy roads. Less blithely, they are also required to make payment to government soldiers manning antiquated checkpoints.

While Cambodians won’t leave their future to the whim of outsiders, there is much that other nations can do to assist. Governments and aid agencies looking for a positive model of development aid should look to Japan’s grant that established the building of National Route 6. Ask any resident of Siem Reap – the busy town adjacent to the Angkor temples – what he is most proud of and he is likely to name the flat and evenly tarred road, a bustling artery that facilitates so much commerce and industry. Other laudable assistance include efforts to create sustainable aid by rebuilding temples destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, thus generating greater tourist revenue in future. A solid next step would be the paving of the 100-or-so-mile ruin that runs from the Thai border to Siem Reap, and which takes about 8 nerve-wracking hours to traverse. And after that, the replacement of Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-serving, ruthless, inexorable, one-eyed Prime Minister.

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 17, 2006 Posted by | Asia, Author: DML, Business, Cambodia, Country Profiles, Emerging Markets, Foreign Aid | Leave a comment

The China Counter

A Survey of Media Portrayal of America in the Middle Kingdom

People’s Daily, From May 9th, 2006
Favorable: 14
Unfavorable: 10
Neutral: 53

China View, From May 9th, 2006
Favorable: 4
Unfavorable: 3
Neutral: 9

During Chinese President Hu Jintao’s April 2006 tour of Seattle, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey, Chinese media coverage of the trip was overwhelmingly favorable, and not only of Hu himself but of the United States in general. This stood in stark contrast to the oft-perpetuated image of a belligerent, power-hungry America inimical to the P.R.C.’s interests. Indeed, beginning in late 2004, throughout 2005, and into 2006 The Screaming Pen observed that Chinese media coverage of the United States appeared to become more conciliatory. Yet this was an admittedly subjective conclusion.

 
Wo hen gaoxing renshi ni!

The Method

The China Counter is thus forged out of a desire to quantify the accuracy of this hypothesis. The Counter monitors and classifies articles published in the People’s Daily (“the National Voice of the Party;” Beijing) and China View (a direct arm of the State, published by the Xinhua News Agency; Beijing), two large newspapers with national readership. Only original pieces are counted (not those pulled from a wire service such as the AP or Reuters), and when an article appears on both sites (as the news agencies sometimes share material) it will be counted once.

The scope of The China Counter includes only those articles whose main focus is either the United States or U.S.-China relations. From these there are four main kinds of articles. The first consists of those stories about cultural, social, athletic or other events and trends in the United States. These tend to focus on “soft” issues and are usually favorable or neutral. The second discusses U.S. domestic politics or international relations, often with no explicit mention of the effects these have on China, but these are usually only a short logical leap away. The third deals directly with U.S.-China relations. The fourth are opinion pages, op-eds, or blogs linked to the two sites’ homepages.

The articles are marked as favorable, unfavorable, or neutral/balanced. Favorable articles are those that focus on cooperation, admiration, or friendly relations between the two countries. Unfavorable articles are those that center on disagreement or are intended to highlight tensions. Neutral articles are those that are balanced and impartial, providing analysis without conclusion.

Conclusions

The correlation of the media’s tone to the thinking of Chinese leaders – a relationship made plausible due to heavy government censorship and even control of the press – might thus, through quantifiable measurement, contribute to the currently ubiquitous debate in America: Will China be peaceful or hostile? This assumption must nonetheless be presented along with a caveat: because news articles are inherently public, the ideas presented may be merely a product of China’s obligatory, or declared, policy. Put simply, it may represent what officials “want us to see,” not the leadership’s true thoughts and motivations. The relevance of The China Counter should accordingly be taken at face value.

-DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

More on the People’s Daily
More on the Xinhua News Agency
China Media Guide

May 10, 2006 Posted by | Asia, Author: DML, China, Country Profiles, International Relations, The Media, United States | 1 Comment

Buying Korean

The Trouble with Entering the South Korean Market

There is perhaps no country with such loyal devotion to its homegrown companies as South Korea. Domestic all-stars Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and others have easily maintained dominance due to the fealty of Korean citizens and, also importantly, favorable relations with government, while foreign darlings from Apple to Hollywood’s movie industry have run up against tremendous difficulty penetrating the market.

While even conservative estimates of the worldwide market share controlled by Apple’s iPod put the figure around 25%, in Korea this plummets to 1.8%; Korean firms iRiver, Samsung, and Cowon are the clear mp3 industry leaders here. In cinema, government regulation mandates that movie theaters run only Korean movies for 146 days a year. From July this number will drop to 73 days per year, yet the reduction will be brooked due to robust demand for domestically produced movies.

 
Not Seoul Tasty

Allegiance to things Korean is found in sports too – from soccer to ice skating – and in health care, with many Koreans living abroad in the United States and Europe preferring to return home for complicated surgeries. Moreover, many Koreans question whether last year’s cloning scandal involving Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University, despite his own admission of falsification, was truly worthy of international opprobrium or merely an attempt by foreigners to undermine the nation’s scientific achievement. Foreign brands looking to enter the Korean market should be fully aware of this national mindset, which additionally doesn’t appear to be changing with the generations: young Koreans routinely preoccupy themselves with a firm’s nationality and prefer to “buy Korean.”

Difficult, but not Impossible

American brands looking to make inroads in Korea can take solace, however, in the success made by at least one foreign firm. With over 50 locations in the country as of May 2006, Outback Steakhouse – an American-based (Tampa, Florida), yet Australian-themed concept restaurant – is viewed as fine dining by many Koreans. Outback’s prosperity clearly may relate to its identification with “the lucky country,” a place better liked in Korea than is the United States. Next: Kangaroo-inspired iPods?

– DML

 2006. All rights reserved.

May 7, 2006 Posted by | Asia, Author: DML, Business, Country Profiles, Korea, World Markets | Leave a comment