Tuesday 21 July 2009

Trouble In Foxconn's Forbidden City

[Picture: A gatehouse in the Nanjing city walls]

From time to time people will ask me why exactly I blog anonymously, believe me when I say this has almost nothing to do with the Chinese government per se, and much more to do with trying to remain employable whilst speaking frankly about previous employers, especially when they include Foxconn. First off, whilst Foxconn have received a lot of bad press in the past, such as this story from the Daily Mail on work/living conditions at the Shenzhen plant, and the subsequent entirely justified outcry when Foxconn went after the Chinese journalists who also covered the story, they are actually quite a bit better than all the other fully certificated and inspected factories I saw during my time in China. Foxconn's Shenzhen factory is one of almost Dr. Evil mega-fortress proportions, the latest estimate of the workforce I heard whilst I was there was in excess of 300,000, with hundreds of new recruits arriving at the factory gates just outside my office every day. It was so big that I was assigned my own go-cart with driver to get around it, so it is quite possible that much went on that I was unaware of. That said, I find today's news of the suicide of an employee who lost a prototype sad but unsurprising.

Firstly, as perhaps the largest and most high-tech manufacturer operating in China, the company is subject to very high levels of corporate espionage. The high number of burglaries of Foxconn employee's residences I noted whilst I was there can perhaps be explained by Shenzhen's position as Crime City PRC, the company was the subject of numerous instances of trade-secret theft during my stay. The man who offered to share a taxi from Shenzhen airport and then promptly offered me a large amount of money for corporate documents certainly wasn't in town for the fresh air. As such the company is highly security conscious, and each employee is asked to sign a (perhaps unenforceable) non-disclosure agreement with strict and severe monetary penalties for non-compliance. All employees were told that possession of any unauthorised device onto which electronic information could be downloaded (including, ironically enough, the very iPods and MP3 players that are the factory's main product) would be grounds for instant dismissal. Cameras were also strictly prohibited, and this extended even to camera-phones (also a big Foxconn product).

Secondly, Foxconn's corporate structure is highly regimented. The most commonly used way to explain it amongst my colleagues was simply to describe each line-manager as a warlord manoeuvring for greater influence under the leadership of company president Terry Guo (郭台铭). As such even minor disobedience on the part of a subordinate brought high levels of pressure from the almost entirely Taiwanese upper-management. This extremely hierarchical structure is re-enforced from the very beginning of a mainland Chinese Foxconn worker's career by military-style drill (something that Taiwanese need not do, although most mainland Foxconn employees believe that this is simply how things are done in Taiwanese companies). One Taiwanese manager explained this to me in terms which could have come right out of the colonial play-book: "you have to shout orders at the mainlanders, you have to threaten them, it's what they are used to". My one brush with authority whilst I was there, a veritable chewing out I received for suggesting that I might help the publicity department improve the content on the lamentably bad Foxconn website during a particularly dry spell for my office, was simply a response to my infringement of this corporate warlordism.

My guess is that Sun Danyong (judging from his name probably a mainlander - most of the Taiwanese staff for some reason preferred to use their English names even in 100% Chinese-speaking offices) came up against the the heavy-handedness of the management as a result of his either accidental or intentional disposal of the prototype. This suicide has already led to calls for Apple to abandon Foxconn as a supplier, but this would be deeply wrong. You do not help 300,000 people by putting them out of work, you do not encourage better working conditions and practices by taking business away from what is probably among the most generous employers in Shenzhen and giving it to another China-based firm which may actually be worse. The people who work for Foxconn do so voluntarily, the workers are almost entirely fresh high-school and university graduates from provinces in the Chinese interior who send whatever money they can save to their families in an effort to improve their lot. They mainly look on the chance to work there as a great opportunity to gain experience - and many of them do gain valuable experience which they then take to other potentially better paying companies like Huawei.

Sunday 19 July 2009

China: an ideolological alternative?

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

A couple of weeks back Matt wrote a piece asking whether the Chinese political/economic system (i.e., a single-party dictatorship combined with relative economic freedom) should be considered an alternative to liberal democracy and the free market which might appeal to people in other countries in the third world where democratisation has seemingly brought little benefit. I have a few problems with this.

First off the current Chinese political/economic system is one that has been formed pretty much accidentally after the death of Mao. There is no way that any sane person would wish to put their country through the various stages of political oppression, strife, and brainwashing, merely to arrive where China is now. Basically only countries which have already suffered under a single-party system can hope to reproduce China's current system. The Chinese Communist Party even tacitly admitted this in its recently promulgated "6 Whys" saying (in what is also obviously a classic expression of the Marxist dialectic) that:

"The guiding role of Marxism in China has not been decided by any certain person or by the will of one party, rather it is a choice and circumstance of history"

The whole point of the Chinese system is that it is supposed to be suited to China and not transferable to other places, and that examples from other countries are not applicable to China. The Chinese leadership has long abandoned support for communist rebel groups in other countries using this exact excuse. The current Chinese system is in fact an increasingly-obvious anachronism rather than a new and revolutionary development.

Secondly, whilst it is fashionable to talk of China as almost a former-communist country now under a new system of its own devising, this ignores the way in which communism is both an economic system and a political system. Essentially whilst socialism has been abandoned, Marx-Leninism is still the basis of the political system. China is still run by the 'democratic centralism' of the 'revolutionary vanguard party', or, in plain speak, a single-party dictatorship. As such there is nothing new about China's political system, and for this reason it is unlikely to be attractive to people who have not grown up under such a system.

Thirdly, this ignores the essential glue that holds together the Chinese state under circumstances not dissimilar to those which tore Yugoslavia and the USSR apart: nationalism. Firstly under the nationalists and now under the communists China has been subject to the greatest and most successful program of nation-building ever seen. Whilst in India there are reportedly still whole villages in which nobody has ever heard of the country 'India', since 1912 the Chinese nation has steadily been built up, with ethnic and regional loyalties largely subsumed into the Chinese identity or race (中华民族). Whilst it is generally believed in China that this identity has existed for thousands of years, it is in fact an invention of nineteenth century theorists like Liang Qichao (梁啟超), intended to replace an imperial system fairly similar to the one that existed in the Austro-Hungarian or Russian empires. This has largely succeeded, and it is only in those areas with ethnic identities so entirely different to that of the majority as to be incompatible (such as Tibet and Xinjiang) that it has failed. The high level of nationalism in China (Australian China-hand Ross Terrill described it as "the nearest thing China has to a national religion") has allowed the Chinese state to survive pressures which would shatter other countries, as such the Chinese model cannot simply be transplanted to countries with strong regional identities.

A far more important question to ask, therefore, is what system will be adopted once the anachronism of communist rule is finally done away with?

Saturday 18 July 2009

Vietnam: "The student has gone ahead of the teacher"

[Cross-posted from Accumulating peripherals]

I recently came across this interesting article by a Chinese author with the pen name 云淡水暖 (roughly "Pale Clouds and Warm Water") on the economic and political reforms in Vietnam, a country whose development mirrors that of China, but where inflation has been breaking double figures for some time now. Before Vietnamese inflation became a problem some in China were minded to find lessons in Vietnam's reforms which have created a slightly more liberal political system than that currently existing in China. Writing in the The Observer-Star, in an article called “Vietnam’s Reform is Worthy of Attention” Zhou Yanjin (周瑞金) went so far as to say:

“. . . we can see that the Vietnamese Communist Party’s political reforms are on the right track, produce results, have effect. The student is already ahead of the master. At a time when Vietnam is ever more courageously and determinedly turning towards broad, open minded, and total reform, China’s reform is entrapped in backward thinking and disorder. From this can’t we see that Vietnam’s reforms are deserving of our attention?”

However, since inflation took off, hitting a year-on-year consumer price high of 28% last August, Chinese observers have been inclined to deduce a different lesson - that Vietnam went too far. Here's Guo Zhongxiao (呙中校) in an article in Southern Metropolis Daily entitled "Who took Vietnam from heaven to hell?":

“Since the implementation of reform and opening in 1986, economic reforms have been effective. From the system of agricultural contracts and national planning reform, to the socialist market structure of the economy, it was not hard to see the deep imprint of China. However, Vietnam’s reforms have been quicker than China’s, and steps were taken ahead of China’s reforms, no matter whether the reforms were economic or political in nature.”

It would seem that even the moderate political reforms introduced by Vietnam (such as multiple candidate elections for communist party chief as opposed to single-candidate rubber-stamping) are now firmly off the drawing board in China.

Friday 17 July 2009

Me! I Disconnect From You

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals, title explained here]

Despite weeks during which hashtags consisting of various expletives follow by the acronym GFW (or Great Fire Wall) first topped the trending charts on Twitter as a sign of protest against the Chinese government's blocking of various website, and were then, ironically, censored by Twitter for profanity, the Chinese government is not likely to pay much heed to China's Twitterati. Of course, the wave of blockings that have taken place since February this year, including at various times Google, Hotmail, and Twitter, and still covering all the main blogging services as well as Youtube. Particularly noteworthy has been the blocking of two very prominent China blogs: Danwei.org and PekingDuck.org. Both of these blogs are written by long-term China expats who have only rarely and seemingly accidentally been blocked in the past but who are now both subject to purposeful and permanent blocks, whilst both are in their own way critical of the Chinese government, both are also amongst the most objectively sympathetic monitors of modern China. The writer of Peking Duck, for example, was previously an editor for the Global Times, a state-owned publication. This appears even more illogical when you consider that foreign media such as the BBC and the Wall Street Journal remain available in English.

However, this may not be as illogical as it seems, and may indicate a definite strategy. Last year's disturbances in Weng'an, to the surprise of many, relatively uncensored discussion of the incident was allowed on government-run websites whilst being suppressed on other websites. The reasoning behind this is not hard to grasp - fulfil the people's need for discussion whilst maintaining and directing the flow of the argument. Hence rather than the patchy and easily avoided blocking of the past in the future the government will allow access to foreign media sites up to a point whilst indoctrinating the Chinese public to thoroughly distrust them as weapons of foreign powers (a line now generally accepted in China), and simultaneously block any fora in which people might discuss Chinese issues but which are beyond Chinese government control. The objective has switched from the mere blocking of information to the control of discussion so as to run along lines favourable to the government.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Even More Bizarre . . .

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

Remember that evil robot computer attack on South Korean and US government websites which we thought was launched by North Korea? Apparently it was launched from my home town.

Race and China

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

I don't want to get into the general discussion on race in China, an old one on China blogs which has been done to death here, here, here, here, and here. However, this translation by Roland Soong of a story on today's protests in Guangzhou following the death of an African trader trying to evade the police, perhaps the first instance of an anti-government protest by foreign immigrants in modern China, is certainly big news as far as I am concerned. The idea of foreigners in China, who make up only a very small number of mainly short-term residents who do their best in the main to avoid any trouble is quite extraordinary.

The fact that it involved the African population in Guangzhou, who from my experience are mainly small-time traders resident on short-term visas (i.e., working illegally), and who suffer all the disadvantages of being a foreigner in China without most of the advantages enjoyed by those obviously from rich countries do, is not surprising. The violent language used in the article to describe their protest is not supported by the photographs, but typical of many articles written about foreigners, especially black people. I will be especially interested to see how the people at the demonstration are treated by the authorities, because whilst this kind of thing has happened at least once in most countries with immigrant populations, race relations (rather than trying to subsume all races into a single Chinese race) is an entirely new thing in China which the authorities may be unprepared for. Some may be inclined to find proof of Chinese racism in this story, all I will say is that Emmanul Egisimba is just as dead as Amadou Diallo, Steven Lawrence, or Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, and it will be the response of the authorities which will show their true attitude, especially if they choose to simply deport those who protested.

Will 2012 be the deadly date?

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Periperals]

"Deadly date" here doesn't mean "a nice little tete-a-tete that goes tragically wrong when you get a humongous fish-bone stuck in your throat and end up getting rushed to the hospital", although this has happened to me (twice - nowadays I stick to the salad). Instead it's the predicted date for Communist China's attempted annexation of Taiwan, at least according to former Canadian intelligence operative and current Taipei Times columnist J. Michael Cole. His reasoning?

". . . . after more than a decade of major investment in its military and new weapons systems, such as second-generation nuclear submarines and anti-ship ballistic missiles, Beijing is in a much better position to intimidate not only Taiwan but also the US, should it feel compelled to dispatch carrier battle groups to or near the Strait amid tensions.

During the presidential election campaign in 2011 and early 2012 the KMT could also exploit public fears of renewed tensions with Beijing to its advantage and accuse its opponents of risking war. A divided polity will by that time face a choice between irreversible political annexation or military attack.

Another factor that makes 2012 such a dangerous time in the Strait — especially if there is a possibility of the KMT suffering defeat — is Beijing’s awareness that time is not on its side, and that the longer Taiwan remains separate from China, the further Taiwanese identity will consolidate and more so under a pro-independence government.

Just as dangerous would be Beijing sensing that it had come close to realizing its dream of annexation only to see the chance slip as the result of a democratic process. Chances are that rather than admit defeat, it would use force to complete its agenda, an option all the more attractive given the cuts the Ma administration has made to the defence establishment."

Let us be under no misimpressions here: China's Communists have not abandoned their threat of 'reunification
through non-peaceful means', in fact this remains enshrined in the mind-bendingly bad-faith "Anti-Secession Law". Nor has China's program of military expansion slackened: official 2009 spending is set to increase by 14.9% (about twice the predicted rate of economic growth) to US$70 Billion, an official figure exceeding that of any country bordering the PRC, and the real figure may be far higher.

In the meantime, whilst official Taiwanese defence spending as a proportion of GDP is slightly higher than the PRC's (2.2% as compared to 1.7%), in real terms it is about 1/7th of China's outlay, and is unlikely to increase in the next few years.

My big problem with Cole's analysis is not his description of China's military growth, but his assumption that the CCP would wish to do a replay of its failed 1996 intimidation campaign, which instead of helping pro-reunification figures on the island actually led to a backlash in favour of the pro-independence KMT candidate Lee Teng-Hui. The more muted warnings of 2000 and 2004 also helped pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party Chen Shui Bian win, in fact, if anything could have saved the DPP from defeat in 2008, an aggressive PRC proclamation would have been it.

I understand also that Cole here is attempting to counter some of the excessively laudatory commentary from Washington-based analysts who were always more comfortable with the old KMT, but I think he goes too far when he drags out the often-referenced but never substantiated allegation of a KMT-CCP deal. Furthermore, whilst the risk of invasion increases as Chinese military strength increases, there is no substantial proof is offered of any reason beyond this as to why 2012 is a year of danger. At current rates of growth, Chinese official military spending will be roughly US$110 billion in 2012, and even taking the highest estimate of current spending (US$ 150 billion) is unlikely to amount to more than a third of the spending of the United States - Taiwan's principle guarantor, nor is the Chinese government likely to be less distracted by internal unrest or external dispute away from the strait than it is now.

Finally, it must be said how often these kind of predictions have been made in the past decade without actually coming to pass, you need only think of Lee Teng-Hui's warning about 2008, or the warnings of trouble ahead of each of the elections since '96, to see how often they are proved wrong. I know Mr. Cole won't like me making this comparison, but this is all rather reminiscent of the on-going crisis surrounding the Iranian nuclear program, where pundits feel free to make regular predictions of the inevitability of military action against Iran, and never seem to learn from the failure of their predictions to come true. Just as with Iran, the most likely outcome is that in three years time we will be roughly where we are now.


2012 Fever seems to have been doing the rounds of late. (H/T Michael Turton)

Tuesday 14 July 2009

The Twitter Counter-Revolution

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

Despite incidents like yesterday's shootings, it seems that the lid has been firmly fixed back on the boiling kettle of Xinjiang race-relations, so perhaps now is the time to take a look at how this situation developed and was covered by the media, especially as compared to the ongoing situation in Iran. Obviously the situation in Xinjiang is very different, as it involves a revolt within a minority making up less than one percent of the Chinese population rather than the enraged outcry of the majority, but in both we saw autocracies attempt to control information potentially harmful to their rule.

Whilst both the Iranian rebellion and the Urumqi disturbances started with peaceful demonstrations involving university students, the young Uyghurs of Urumqi totally failed to set the agenda in the way that their counterparts in Tehran did. From the first internet access and mobile phone communications in the city were restricted, nor has any video come out yet that I have seen showing the police to have been the drivers of the subsequent largely anti-Han violence. In contrast to Tehran as well as last year's troubles in Tibet, foreign journalists were allowed limited access to the region almost immediately, and their reports largely meshed with those of the local government.

Despite being widely heralded as a potential weapon against autocracy, Twitter had little effect in spreading news about the disturbances unfavourable about the government. Blocked in Xinjiang and now the entirety of mainland China, the reports that were relayed from Xinjiang via it using the rapidly dwindling number of un-blocked proxies were largely repeats of Chinese state media, or reports from Han within the region. I have been unable to find even one Uyghur twitterer in Urumqi (although I would be happy to be put in touch with one) - this is not surprising, whilst China has a good number of people using either Twitter or the Chinese Tweet-a-like FanFou, these are almost entirely east-coast Han Chinese. Essentially, even the Twitterers who managed to get around the block were still largely repeating the government's line, nor has any evidence come out to disprove this line. Uyghur separatist movements carried reports which were, frankly, fanciful, and not borne out by independent reports, neither Rebiya Kadeer nor anyone else in the separatist movement was able to convey a credible message.

Even more impressive were the Chinese authorities actions to prevent a back-lash against the Uyghur. Websites like Anti-CNN.com, a site highly critical of the western media and supportive of the Chinese government often quoted approvingly by state media, were reportedly blocked in an effort to prevent inflamatory anti-Uyghur invective in the wake of the disturbances and the reports of attempted vigilantism by the Han in Xinjiang leading to violence. People's Daily even scrubbed editorials written in the immediate aftermath of the Xinjiang disturbances describing the rioters in excessively condemnatory terms. Compare these actions, those of a dictatorship secure in its position, with the continual accusations of treachery directed at Musavi even before the Iranian elections, and you can see just how expert the Chinese Communist Party's control of information really can be.

Did 'democratic' Boris Yeltsin pave the way for Putinism?

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

Whilst recently leafing through the back issues of the now sadly defunct the eXile, I stumbled across this opinion piece by Eduard Limonov, leader of the banned Russian National Bolshevik party and all-round odd-ball, and was particularly struck by this passage:

What should I say? They have forgotten what mighty force are the people. They think they can manipulate our political system and our lives. A small group of comrades from St. Petersburg, untalented and unconvincing small men, following the luck of one of their own. They think they are our masters. But they have been picked up by the most hated figure in Russian history, by Boris Yeltsin. It was no miracle whatsoever. They were just picked up, not arriving at the top of Russian society by the force of mind and talent, no.

Is this true? To what degree does Russia's current generation of leaders owe their positions to Boris Yeltsin, "the most hated figure in Russian history"? Has the Putin era been a continuation of the Yeltsin era but with higher-priced oil? Is the narrative offered by writers like Michael McFaul of a "democratic rollback" under Putin as compared to Yeltsin simply wrong?

Boris Yeltsin came to power in the wake of the failed August coup of 1991. Whilst Russia's economic performance during the nineties was lamentable, the degree to which Yeltsin could have done anything to prevent this considering the inevitable turmoil of the post-Soviet space is debatable, although the general consensus is that what was done in the way of economic policy was an utter failure. What we may be much more sure of is Yeltsin's record as a democrat, and what we see is that it was dubious in the extreme. From the secret dealings involved in the break-up of the Soviet Union, to the assumption of unconstitutional powers to push through economic reform, to the use of military force to destroy both his opponents in the Russian White House and in Chechnya, to his alleged rigging of the 1996 election, to his final act of anointing his successor, there was little sign of any deep commitment to democracy. For each of Putin's acts of autocracy there appears to have been an equivalent, if less effective or decisive act by Yeltsin. The main difference between Yeltsin and Putin seems to have been the relative efficiency and effectiveness of the latter, who also benefited from ruling over a country where expectations had become very low indeed. Far from 'rollback' of democracy, what we have seen is entrenchment of autocracy.

Sunday 12 July 2009

Taiwan Expats and the Saigon Syndrome

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

It doesn't necessarily involve helicopters flying off the roof or embassies under siege, but the Saigon Syndrome is a real phenomenon: it strikes when people become so invested in a person or faction that seemingly was on the rise but which subsequently failed, and they simply cannot admit that their initial decision to back them was wrong. Instead of backing out like they should, they throw bad money after good, adopt the most ridiculous positions, endorse the most reprehensible characters, and generally make damned fools of themselves. In the end the tangible outcome is the same but the loss of face far greater then necessary - and made worse much worse by the refusal to admit it.

Two big examples of this syndrome have recently come into view. The first are the backers of a certain ex-mayor and now ex-governor. Sarah Palin may have come within touching distance of the White House last year, but if she hasn't imploded in the meantime, she has now. Any further boosting of such an unpopular and incoherent woman is bound to wasted effort, but this doesn't stop people trying. So here we have British-born American commentator Tony Blankley trying to boost a clearly lost cause:

"last weekend, the professionals were sneering confidently that Palin had made a fatal mistake by giving up the governorship of Alaska because everyone knows that an aspiring candidate for higher office clings to his or her current office while running for the next one.

Well, I'm not so sure that being an incumbent is an advantage if the world seems to be going to hell and government is seen to be at least part of the cause for that journey. And though many conventional politicians might be seen as quitters if they resigned their offices, I have a very strong hunch that Sarah Palin is constitutionally incapable of being seen as a quitter. Because she is not. She constantly is taking on the biggest challenge on her horizon."

That's right, Sarah Palin is just 'misunderstood', and someone who quit the position they were elected to is not a quitter because, hell's bells son, they ain't no quitter. This joke is going to roll on right up to the point when Palin loses the Republican nomination to someone who actually knows what they are talking about, and it's going to be fun to watch.

It seems that this syndrome has also struck the English-language Taiwan blogs of late (see, that was a great segue there) where people who really ought to know better have been forced into the most ridiculous of positions by their support for a lost cause. Having been swept from power by a landslide election result, Taiwan's vaguely pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party looks set for more electoral woe. As if this weren't enough former DPP president Chen Shui-Bian is currently in rotting in jail due to his alleged involvement in a money laundering scam for which his daughter, son, and son in law have already pleaded guilty as accessories. You would think that all of this would be enough to give the usually maniacally pro-pan-green (i.e., independence-centric parties) Taiwan bloggerati pause for thought. I mean, why exactly is it that people who are most probably more sympathetic to assertively Taiwanese politicians are abandoning the DPP for the pro-reunification KMT? However, you'd be wrong.

No, instead the last year has seen the most amazingly paranoid declarations from otherwise sane individuals. In this piece, for example, Taiwan blogger A-Gu all-but called for a revolt against Taiwan's elected government, and compared the current situation to that in Iran. When not trying to make excuses for racial discrimination, Taiwan blogger Michael Turton has been making comparisons between the current KMT government and Stalin. Even Taipei Times columnist J. Michael Cole has declared Taiwan a "Democracy in peril", apparently as a result of its elections.

Particular odium has centred around the KMT-backed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with the PRC. Despite the lack of any evidence of the agreement extending beyond the economic sphere, it has been labelled an attempt at 'anschluss'. An often-referenced narrative is of a secret agreement between the KMT and the Chinese communists to annex Taiwan to the mainland, needless to say that there is no actual evidence of any such agreement. The truth is, I'm afraid, much more banal. Whilst the KMT certainly favours re-unification, it stands as little chance of achieving it as the the DPP did of successfully achieving independence. Essentially the requirement under the constitution for a 50% quorate referendum before any significant constitutional change can be carried out renders any such move incredibly vulnerable to a boycott of the referendum by one side. Moreover Ma has repeatedly forsworn any such move whilst the Chinese mainland remains undemocratic. Paranoia is not the way to appeal to the Taiwanese people, and the DPP will remain in the political wilderness until this is realised.

Saturday 11 July 2009


Take it easy, there's whisky in the Jar-o . . .

Rebiya Kadeer and the irrelevence of exile

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

The line on the Xinjiang disturbances from the Chinese government, whilst initially dabbling with a condemnation of terrorism, has coalesced around the narrative of 'foreign forces' interfering with China and the 'three evils' of 'separatism', 'extremism' and 'terrorism', just as it did after last year's riots in Tibet. Just as with last year's events 'evidence' has been produced showing how the entire thing was organised by the World Uyghur Congress, of which Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uyghur businesswoman, is the head. The evidence produced so far would seem to point to the WUC having communicated with people in Xinjiang before the initial demonstrations and encouraged them. Whilst I'm sure this will convince a lot of people in China, at least to the extent that the government can convince people of anything, there is an obvious difference between 'demonstrations' and 'violent riots leading to the deaths of innocent people' , more to the point, large scale demonstrations (such as in 1997) have taken place without any foreign involvement whatsoever.

In fact, there's good reason to doubt that exiled movements can have that much of an impact on circumstances within a dictatorship. Whilst the Tibetan devotees of lamaist Buddhism continue to follow and obey the current Dalai Lama, he owes much of his influence (as did Khomeini pre-1979) on his position as a religious leader. In contrast, the student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen protests are nowadays either unknown or largely reviled within China. When ethnic-Uyghur 1989 student leader and "China's second most wanted" Wu'er Kaixi (for some reason he prefers to use his Uighur name as transcribed in Chinese characters) attempted to return to the mainland last year he was refused entry. Some might ascribe this to the desire to avoid giving him a public platform or to avoid an open breach with Taiwan where he has now taken up citizenship, but given the way such trials take place in secret another explanation presents itself - that he is more useful to the Chinese authorities where he is.

It is exceedingly easy for a dictatorial government to smear a person as being a foreign puppet when their first move on being pushed into exile is to go directly to a country which is a hated enemy and rely on funding from either the government of that country or from an NGO (such as the NED) which may or may not receive government funding, and provides grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists. The fact that these people did not choose to go into exile, that few countries would allow them entry, and that they had no resources to rely on in that country, are not communicated to public. Even those exiles who decide to avoid politics may still be useful in government propaganda. 1989 student leader Chai Ling now runs a software firm in the US with her husband, and has enjoyed a level of success not unexpected for someone who got into one of China's top universities. Pro-government commenters nowadays emphasise her enrichment in the US and abandonment of the democracy movement.

Even where an anti-government movement gains traction inside a dictatorship, this is often little to do with the efforts of exiles. As Chinese exile Wan Runnan wrote about a visit to Poland after the fall of communism there:

"we asked Solidarity Union friends a stupid question: When the Polish military government began suppression, a number of dissidents went into exile overseas. What did these people do in the latter changes inside Poland? They replied without any pause: Nothing whatsoever. Then they sensed our embarrassment and consoled us: "Those exiles served some purpose because they gave us some fax machines and stuff." . . . . I was aware of the effect of overseas democratic movement very early on. I met Dai Qing (戴晴) overseas and she said: "You do not have a place in the future change in China." I replied: Yes. The change in China is like a chemical reaction with reagents and products. We are just the temperature, pressure and catalyst that bring about this chemical reaction and we do not have a position in the final product."

Recent events in Xinjiang show the truth of this, whilst it is possible that the Rebiya Kadeer and the WUC were the driving force behind the demonstrations, all the evidence that we have shows that the initial demonstrations were carried out by university students organised by their lecturers. Whilst it is impossible for me to confirm this, a long-time Xinjiang resident friend of mine described the subsequent riots as being the work of "scumbags from outlying areas who move to Urumqi after being slung out of their towns and villages". The fact that the demonstrations took place in Urumqi only would also point to the WUC not actually being the driving force of these demonstrations, subsequent demonstrations at other towns appear to have been in response to the crackdown, especially the closing of mosques. Should the Iranian government succeed in running Mousavi overseas a similar dynamic is likely to take over.

Friday 10 July 2009

Are Western journalists working for oppressive regimes 'stooges'?

[Cross-posted at Accumulating Peripherals]

The news that Nick Ferrari, a presenter of Iranian state-owned English-language news channel Press TV, has quit his job at Press TV's London studios in protest of the crushing of demonstrators there, has brought into focus the issue of western journalists working in the state media of oppressive regimes. Whilst it might be natural to simply label all such journalists either has-beens or willing tools of their employers, the fact that a journalist of the calibre of Andrew Gilligan (Telegraph 'London Editor' and he of David Kelly-affair fame) works for them was enough to give me pause.

Iran is just one of the oppressive or authoritarian regimes to launch its own English-language news media in the past few years in an effort to get its own version of the story across. Chinese Central Television (CCTV) launched its English-language station CCTV 9 back in 2000, including news programs fronted by western journalists, one of whom went on to front a program at Press TV. The Russia Information Agency (RIA) launched its Russia Today news channel in 2005, which came to particular prominence during last year's South Ossetia war when one of its western correspondents also quit over skewed reporting. Another channel which might be included in this is the Al-Jazeera news channel, subsidised as it is by the Emir of Qatar, although this channel has gained much more of a reputation for fair reporting than any of the other channels mentioned here.

The question is, why would anyone who is aware of the nature of the governments behind such channels wish to work for them? Firstly, some would seem to have an almost child-like ignorance of the potentially compromising position that their work puts them in. When asked in an interview with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post why he would work for CCTV, Eddie Maher, a New Zealand-born who achieved a degree of fame whilst working as an weatherman in Australia, replied that he saw his job as:

"not trying to read into the news, not thinking about what is behind the content. Politically sensitive news, like any other news, has to be read clearly. That is my bottom line. Because I'm in China, some news may be regarded as politically sensitive or whatever, but that doesn't affect my interpretation of it to the audience."

Others are clearly ideological fellow-travellers of their employers. For example, self-styled 'anti-zionist' and host of Press TV's "The Real Deal" George Galloway presumably sees nothing wrong with Press TV's hosting of articles denying the Holocaust on its website. However, there are those who seem to genuinely believe that they can make a difference through working for what are little better than government mouthpieces. Richard Burger, long-time China-blogger and, until recently, foreign editor and columnist for the Chinese state-owned Global Times said in a recent interview that:

"My own conclusion is that they sincerely want to present the foreigners and English-speaking Chinese here and abroad with a different type of newspaper experience. Sure, they toe the party line on certain topics, but even on the most sensitive of these, they seem willing to present alternative viewpoints, even if they are directly and outspokenly critical of the government.

I think this will be their signature, a panoramic view of the news with lots of analysis and discussion. As I said, it does tow the party line, but they seem genuine about allowing
serious dissent and disagreement "

Indeed, Global Times has made some relatively liberal moves, such as an editorial which, whilst not actually describing the events, dealt with the impact of the Tiananmen square massacre in a sympathetic way. All the same, the taint of having worked for the state media of an oppressive regime and rendering overt assistance to government policy, as compared to the tacit assistance rendered through working for such a government in education or industry will be difficult to avoid.

Return of the Il-matic

[cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

Nuke tests, missile tests, and now what appears to be a massive denial-of-service attack on South Korean government websites? Whilst the thought of Kim Jong-Il commanding an army of robot computers brings forth thoughts of 'ronery' dictators in people like me who've seen way too much Team America: World Police, the real question should be: why?

The answer until recently has been that this posturing is motivated by the North Korea elite positioning themselves ahead of a transfer of leadership, but now that the Il-est is back (even if looking distinctly Il-er) then we have to ask whether it it's actually Kim who is driving these moves. B.R. Myers suggested a possible answer in a recent WSJ article:

"North Korea is a state more interested in enhancing national pride and strength than in raising the masses' standard of living. Its militarism is ideologically driven and not a reaction to U.S. policy shifts. This runs counter to current thinking on the left in Washington, which argues that North Korea, a chronic violator of contracts and treaties, would have adhered religiously to the Agreed Framework of 1994 if U.S. had only kept its side of the bargain. This is worse than mere naivety. The "military first" policy was premised on the principle that a normalization of relations with America was neither possible nor desirable. It proclaimed a mere 10 weeks after that agreement was signed."

This could explain the missile shots and the nuclear test as moves to show some result from the Korean people's sacrifices, but it doesn't explain the latest web attacks (presuming that they come from NK) which are necessarily both secret and hardly a show of strength. In fact if they were announced at least some North Koreans might be given cause to think that their relative invulnerability to such attacks is far more a sign of how much they are missing out on due to their country's backwardness and isolation. On the other hand, if this move is all part of some preparation for war, you would need to explain why they used a method more commonly employed by killjoy geeks to put offline websites they don't like. As always with North Korea, we are unlikely ever to know what is going on, let alone why.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Xinjiang - The limits of nationalism?

[Cross-posted from Accumulating Peripherals]

First off I'd like to thank Matt for allowing me to blog-sit whilst he's away in France. When he first approached me to stand in for him I came up with a list of possible post topics, but last weekend's events in Xinjiang, where more than 156 people have now been killed in ethnic violence, have blown these to the four winds and will no doubt dominate posts over the next few days.

Whilst the immediate cause of these disturbances appears to be what was perceived as an inadequate response to the killing of two Uyghurs in a factory riot more than 2,000 miles away from Xinjiang (itself sparked by the posting of a rumour on the internet, as one Chinese Tweetnik put it, a better example of the 'butterfly effect' cannot be found) the roots of this conflict extend much further into the past. The Chinese claim to Xinjiang stretches back as far as the establishment of garrisons in the region by under the Han dynasty, pre-dating the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans. Whilst the Chinese presence in the area has ebbed and flowed along the Silk Road over the years, they have never entirely left the region but also, until relatively recently in historical terms, never entirely dominated it.

In contrast to the trade-driven expansion of the Han, the Uyghurs arrived in the region as nomads amid the shifting sands of Central Asia some time before the 4th century AD, and established their first Khanate during the 8th century. At the same time the region was and is populated by many other peoples, from the Kazakhs to the Zungars, and Uyghurs nowadays make up only a bare plurality of the region's population, with the Han a close second. Since the Chinese de-facto control over the region was re-established following the Second World War the region has rarely been entirely peaceful, but the reasons for this are complex.

Whilst the Muslims of Xinjiang are no less oppressed than the Muslims and Christians in any other part of China, the regular outbursts of violence in Xinjiang as compared to other Muslim-majority regions requires explanation. The first and foremost cause is the distinct ethnic identity of the Uyghur, whilst Muslims in other parts of China are either ethnically Han or can pass as Han, the Uyghur remain a visible minority to whom the worst characteristics and stereotypes are applied. Outside of Xinjiang the Uyghur constitute a poor minority who seemingly make their living through the running of kebab stalls and Xinjiang-themed restaurants. Perhaps driven by poverty or alienation, some drift into petty crime, and it is the stereotype of Uyghurs as pick-pockets and violent knife-wielding thieves that is most prevalent in China today. Otherwise respectable Chinese lawyers, teachers, professors, and accountants think nothing of repeating these stereotypes in polite conversation, or of loudly complaining about the positive discrimination policies applied to all ethnic minorities in selection for university or government positions, and this attitude informs Uyghur-Han relations both inside and outside Xinjiang.

Added to this should be the absolute failure of the nationalist rhetoric adopted by the Chinese government in the wake of the tacit abandonment of communism to make any significant impact on the Uyghur. Whilst the Muslims in the rest of China are mainly the descendent of merchants and share the language and history of the majority, the Uyghur have their own separate history. Talk of the "genius of the Chinese race" has little appeal to them, nor does the characterisation of China as a happy family in which the Han and the Uyghur are "brother races" convince. Attempts to assert the Uyghur identity through the revival of traditional customs have only been haltingly accommodated by the Chinese state. The definite streak of misogyny in Uyghur culture as compared to the relatively socially liberal, modern, and feminist attitude of the Han majority is also a significant factor.

Finally, Xinjiang's position as a border region drives conflict. A battleground during the 'Great Game' of the 19th century, and then a definite candidate for Soviet expansion for much of the 20th century, it now lies in the heartland of the war on terror. The large-scale settlement of the region through military colonies known as bingtuan from the Sixties until the Eighties was carried out to counter the Soviets, and government propaganda across China still urges people to go west "where the people and the Motherland need you", which, joined with Xinjiang's status as a California-like place of opportunity, drives Han migration. It is for this reason that the Chinese government will not act to accommodate Uyghur sentiment, or in anyway risk its hold on the region, and since the policy of marginalisation and settlement is going to continue, so will these occasional outbreaks of violence.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Uprising in Xinjiang?

Only just heard about this myself, but New Dominion has the low down:

The BBC, the AFP, the Times of India, and Radio Free Asia are all reporting riots in Urumchi (Urumqi). RFA says that protests against the events at Shaoguan, Guangdong began at People’s Square, People’s Theater (presumably the one in Nanmen), and Döngköwrük/Erdaoqiao at 5:00 PM local time and are still in progress. The 3000 or so protesters consist of university students and other youths. About 300 protesters have been arrested. Protesters have overturned a traffic guardrail and blocked traffic, as well as damaging vehicles. Some news outlets have reported two fatalities thus far.

Posts on Chinese-language message boards describe the protesters at People’s Square as around a thousand Uyghurs shouting slogans in both Uyghur and Chinese. There are also reports of explosions in the Döngköwrük area.

The protest may have been broken up. Reports from Uyghur activists in Japan suggest that about 400 people are trying to reignite them. We will keep you updated.

Check out the videos over at New Dominion, when you remember the Tibetan riots of last year, as well as the recent Iranian protests, it all looks very familiar, especially with scenes like this:

The demonstrators seem organised and purposeful, it looks like the result of a definite decision to follow Rebiya Kadeer's order to protest in response to last week's Shaoguan incident, where Han Chinese and Uyghur workers clashed amid rumours of the rape of a Han girl by Uyghurs at a factory in Guangdong (more than a thousand miles to the south of Urumqi), rather than anything spontaneous, but it's hard to tell.


New Dominion have a Twitter feed, give them a follow here.

Friday 3 July 2009

Black Mass

[Photo: Charles Graner poses with the body of a dead Iraqi prisoner]

" . . . the picture of post-war Iraq that neo-conservatives disseminated was a tissue of disinformation and wishful thinking, while the willingness to use intolerable means to achieve impossible ends showed the utopian mind at its most deluded."

- John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, my emphasis