Thursday 23 December 2010

"The Taiwanese green onion"

Followed a link from artist and fellow former Nanjing resident David Horton's blog to the last edition of the E-mag Fascicle and was struck by this passage from a poem by Taiwanese writer Chen Li:

"... The teacher taught us music, the teacher taught us Chinese,
the teacher taught us to sing “Counter-attack, counter-attack, counter-attack the Chinese mainland,”
The teacher taught us arithmetic:

“If each national flag contains three colours,
how many colours then do three flags have?”
The class leader said there were nine, the vice-leader said three,
the green onion in my lunch box said one.
“Because,” it said,
“Whether in the soil, in the market, or in the scrambled eggs with dried radish,
I am the green onion,
the Taiwanese green onion.”

(translation by Chen Li's wife, Chang Fen-Ling)

If I had to explain what the Taiwanese identity was, in as much as I understand it, I would point to this poem. It contains all the linguistic and culinary influences on Taiwan which make it such a fascinating place to live - Japanese, Chinese, European - and which are fused in the poem in that way which is particularly Taiwanese.

This does not mean that I necessarily support or do not support Taiwanese independence per se, although certain people are given to hurling accusations of support for "splittism" even at the suggestion that a Taiwanese culture exists. I would also say that Taiwan-based observers often under-estimate the degree to which mainland provinces and regions have their own distinct culture (particularly Sichuan, Guangdong, and the North-East) when they use Taiwan's cultural differences to mainland China alone to justify independence. However, it is foolish to argue that a Taiwanese culture does not exist, and that it cannot be enjoyed for its own sake.

You can read the rest of the poem here.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Japan - the setting of the rising sun

Last year's election of Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and head of Japan's first non-Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) government to have a genuine chance of ruling Japan in almost 60 years, caused many to express the hope that Japan might finally start to make progress after more than 20 years of economic stagnation. Unfortunately, this has proven to be a forlorn hope.

Rather than tackling the burgeoning public debt, Hatoyama declared a £630 billion government program funded in large part through borrowing designed to "save life". Rather than reducing unemployment, unemployment remained flat at around 5%. Rather than doing anything to resolve the dispute over US troops on Okinawa, Hatoyama dithered. Rather than doing much to improve relations with China and Korea, things are as bad as they ever have been. And, of course, rather than ending the leadership merry-go-round of Japanese politics which leaves even educated Japanese people unable to name the last three people to head their country's government, he resigned after only eight months over what would, in any other country, have been a minor matter.

However, I think even had he been successful in addressing all of these points the stagnation of the Japanese economy would have continued. This because the fundamental cause of Japan's two lost decades would remain - Japan's corporate structure. Put simply, Japan has the most risk-averse, inefficient, hierarchical, and misogynistic corporate culture that I have ever worked in. I say this speaking as someone who has ground-level experience of some pretty tough-to-work-in British firms as well as, of course, Foxconn.

The irony in this is that it is exactly the spirit of self-sacrifice engendered by this corporate culture which is credited for Japan's post-war economic miracle, when Japan grew by twenty times between 1965 and 1980, a rate of growth even faster than that of China after 1978. Having worked in this environment, though, it is clear to me that this was and is a two-edged sword. Yes, employees do sacrifice holidays which they are legally entitled to take merely because their managers do so also, but the result of this is an almost zombie-like approach to work in which work is completed at a snail-pace. Yes, employees do put in an extra-ordinary number of hours, working late into the night, but this leads to offices which are virtually empty until about 10-10.30 am, and employees who are kept in a state of near-exhaustion. Yes, workers are willing to forego weekends and public holidays, but the result is people with virtually no family life or personal life outside of their office, who must then compensate for this by engaging in office affairs, alcoholism, and many of the foibles that get such attention outside Japan. As Heang Chhor, head of McKinsey in Japan said when interviewed by the Economist for its recent special report on Japan:

“This is a country where the mindset is all about input. In Japan what is expected of you is always to try harder, to put in more hours. They don’t value output.”

The other aspects of Japanese corporate culture are hardly better. In the field of female equality in the work-place Japan has fallen behind even relatively less advanced neighbours like Taiwan and China. This is not a mere statistical anomaly, in the office I worked in, out of a company of more than 200 employees, the only female employee to rise above the level of secretary was essentially a glorified PA who owed her position to family connections to the boss. Something like half of the professional women I spoke to in Japan reported receiving what would in Europe and the United States at least be called sexual harassment from senior male colleagues.

Although Japan is a country with much respect for the aged, in the workplace, based on my limited experience, this does not seem to translate into better conditions for older workers. In the office I worked, old people with useful qualifications would be kept on so that they could sign off on work which required their specific qualification to complete, but these people would regularly be subject to loud-mouthed abuse from the management. I remember one 74 year-old man who, having made a minor error, was called a "fool" in front of the entire office and told to "hurry up and die" by a senior manager. The same manager also made it clear that, were it not for the old man's qualifications, he would have been fired long ago.

That Japanese companies are hierarchical in comparison to most Euro-American firms will surprise no-one, but the extremes to which this hierarchy is taken even in comparison to Taiwanese and Chinese firms certainly shocked me. Even relatively minor decisions were often referred to the highest level of management, with "CYA" being the general rule. Whilst I was working in an admittedly conservative industry, it was the degree to which this was taken which surprised me.

The virtual cult of personality which exists in some Japanese firms came as something of a surprise, once again, remember that I am comparing this to Foxconn, where quotations from Terry Guo were displayed all over the factory. In the company I worked in, a company song, written by the boss's wife, would be played at all meetings. These were called 'meetings' but were more similar to Maoist struggle sessions, in which the minor faults of certain employees would be outed and apologised for, and speeches would be made comparing the boss to national heroes and urging us to give "110%" for the company. Combined with risk-averse company policy, this served to crush whatever initiative existed within the firm. The net result, of course, was a loss-making firm becoming more and more reliant on more successful foreign clients.

From this perspective, it is clear that until the Japanese government intervenes to prevent undue pressure on workers to work excessive hours, until effective measures are taken to ensure equality for female employees, until abusive management is exposed and talent properly harnessed, Japan's "lost decade" will go on and on.

Japan and China - a culture clash waiting to happen

Now that I've been back in the UK for a while, I feel I can finally start to reflect properly on my year living and working in Japan. Obviously, having first lived in mainland China and Taiwan, it is perhaps natural that I should compare Japanese culture to that of China. Whilst the two are, for obvious reasons, similar in many respects, and there is still much in the way of cultural cross-pollination, I think that even without the historical factors it is not surprising that the two cultures do not always get on.

Whilst Japanese seem, on average,to prefer the quiet seclusion of the shuttered rooms of the Izakaya, Chinese people seem to prefer the cheerful chaos of the Huo Guo. The intense privacy of the Japanese household, the fears that Japanese people often express about crime in their neighbourhoods despite the extremely low levels of crime found in Japan, the extreme sensitivity to danger, all show a culture in which fear of the outside or unusual are deeply ingrained and only ones closest associates and family are trusted. Next to Japan, China is a country of flamboyant risk-takers.

Japanese people are, in the main, formal and deferential to authority in the extreme - anyone who has stood in a Tokyo side-street and watched people waiting at a pedestrian crossing for the light to turn green when there is not a car in sight and the street itself is only a couple of yards across will know this. Chinese people, on the other hand, despite (or, perhaps, because of) coming from a culture dominated for centuries by centralised, authoritarian rulers, are much less deferential, much more willing to criticise authority - so long as such criticism will not reach the wrong ears.

You sense that, at least in comparison to Japanese society, the characterisation of Chinese culture as being essentially democratic may have some truth in it despite the misfortune that the Chinese have had in their dictatorial leaders. The flip-side to this is that the description seen on Chinese nationalist websites of Japan as an essentially feudal society may have a glimmer of truth in it despite the fact of Japan's democratic political system. On this basis, it is not surprising that Taiwanese democracy has delivered two changes of power in the last fourteen years, but that Japanese has only seen one real handover in almost 60 years - and that only last year and driven by a two-decade-long economic crisis.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Another excuse not to learn the language - or, why I am a luddite when it comes to electronic translation.

Saw this wonderful new real-time translator on Andrew Sullivan's blog:

As much of a technical marvel as this undoubtedly is, I can't help but feel that technology is fast developing to the point where people can travel internationally without ever bothering to learn the language of the countries they visit.

I have already met more than one person whose way of getting by in foreign countries is to use electronic dictionaries for day-to-day communication without even bothering to learn the basic elements of the language of the country they live in. Some of these people had been in the same foreign country for as much as eight or more years without even learning the words for "good morning". Now such individuals will have even less reason to learn the language of the country they live in.

This is not mere snobbery of the "Check out how good my Chinese/French/German/Japanese/Polish is" that expats often engage in. When people visit any country they, and the societies they come from, are judged by the degree to which they are willing to integrate into the societies which they visit. This is true to a certain extent in Japan and China, and to a much greater extent in countries where people practically refuse to speak foreign languages on home soil like the US and the UK.

Electronic devices are useful for short trips, or the translation of a language which it is not reasonable to be expected to understand. Working in patenting I have often had to deal with foreign-language documents in an assortment of languages from Tagalog to Russian in relation to a single case. However, they are no replacement for learning the language of a country when you have committed to live there long-term - both in terms of the deeper understanding of the language that a thinking, feeling human being is capable of, and in terms of the cultural knowledge which is gained at the same time as learning the language.

Uh-oh - man killed in another clash involving Chinese fishermen.

This doesn't look good - Chinese fishermen have clashed with the South Korean coastguard. The South Koreans claim to have been attacked after intervening to prevent "illegal fishing". There's no word as to the fishermen's version of events, but at least one died in the fighting and two are missing.

This cannot have come at a worse time - this year has already seen clashes between the Japanese coastguard and Chinese fishermen in disputed waters, and it's only a few weeks ago that South and (PRC-backed) North Korea were exchanging fire across this very sea.

Thursday 16 December 2010

The One Where I Fisk Shaun Rein

Forbes not being a magazine I read much of, I first found out about Shaun Rein's Forbes column about a year or so ago via this post on (veteran Sinoblogger) Richard Burger's excellent Peking Duck blog. At that time Shaun's pieces were laden with pro-CCP rhetoric, factual inaccuracies ("real poverty in China is pretty much gone"), and shameless plugs for his marketing company.

Nowadays, thankfully, most of the plugs have gone, but the error-laden hackery continues, Shaun's latest piece being a prime example.

First Shaun sets the scene:

"Tension between China and the West has been inching up over the past year. There have been disputes over everything from Google's stand against censorship and protectionism to China's trade surplus, the valuation of the yuan and the problem of North Korea's thuggery. Bad relations do not help anyone, and they certainly don't solve any of the very real economic problems the world faces. We need to have the West and China working together. Otherwise we could collapse into another Cold War."

Here he introduces something you see throughout this piece: the lazy use of the words "the west" to basically refer to the United States - home of Google, critic of the valuation of the Yuan, and chief ally of South Korea. His characterisation of Google as standing against "censorship and protectionism" is an odd one though. Let's see what he previously said about Google's decision to exit the China market:

"Has Google really thought through the implications of its actions, beyond just giving up the world’s fastest growing digital advertising market and the welfare of its employees and legal representatives in China? Or is this the impulsive move of an arrogant and immature leadership team used to getting its way?

Looking beyond the implications of what is, in effect, a new mode of statecraft, we should ask whether Google isn’t using censorship and cyber terrorism as an excuse to get out of China because of business failings there. If Google were making more money in China, would it necessarily have taken this stand?"

What was, in Rein's view "impulsive and arrogant" and an "act of war" is now a stand for freedom of speech, but I guess time heals all. Or perhaps Rein found the severe criticism he received for his Google hit-piece just a little to hot to handle.

We then get on to Rein's central premise - that "the west" should "fix" relations with China by awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Deng Xiaoping and Mohandas K. Gandhi:

"I have an idea that could help get Western-Chinese relations back on track, improve human rights in China and make the Chinese government and people less suspicious about Western intentions. Next year the Nobel Prize committee should confer a special one-time-only double posthumous Nobel Peace Prize, on both Deng Xiaoping, the former Chinese paramount leader, and Mohandas Gandhi. Doing so would properly give due respect to Deng and Gandhi, both of whom helped billions of people, would right the wrong that Gandhi never won the Nobel and would rally Chinese support for continued reform."

This suffers from a definite problem - both Deng and Gandhi are dead, have been for a long time, and the Nobel Peace Prize can only be awarded posthumously. Shaun probably noticed this a bit too late and so put in the caveat that this would be "a special one-time-only double posthumous Nobel Peace Prize", but the problem still exists and is not properly recognised. However, even with this you are still left with a conceptual problem - "the west" does not award the Nobel Peace Prize, a small committee of Norwegians does. Rein seems to be following the line of Chinese government propaganda - that the Nobel Peace Prize is an instrument of "western" (i.e., US) foreign policy, rather than a prize selected by a few elderly Norwegians.

Put simply, the idea that giving the Nobel Prize, an award that the Chinese Communist Party and it's various organs, apologists, and paid-for shills have spent months now castigating, to Deng Xiaoping would "...rally Chinese support for continued reform." is simply laughable. Shaun's protests to the contrary aside, no meaningful political reform has been introduced for at least ten years, but this is not where his real error lies, for that you should look to the next paragraph:

"Many Westerners see Deng as someone who ushered in economic reforms and got companies like Coca-Cola, Nike and Motorola to invest in China, but he did far more that gets scant attention in the West. If the Tiananmen incident in 1989 hadn't happened, Deng probably would have won the Nobel and would be viewed in the West with the kind of respect and love Gandhi enjoys around the world. That's how much he is appreciated in China."

Let me break this one down for you:

1) Deng is known in "the west" for his definitely praise-worthy "Reform and Opening" policies.

2) Deng did more, but his other achievements get scant attention in "the west".

3) If the Tiananmen "incident" hadn't "happened" (translation from apologistese: if thousands of innocent pro-democracy demonstrators hadn't been shot to death on the streets of Beijing on Deng's orders) Deng would have won the Nobel prize and would be as popular as Gandhi.

The logical fallacies here are so stark, so obvious, and so numerous as to be almost mind-boggling:

- Deng's greatest achievement was reform and opening - if he did not win the prize for this, then nothing else he did would have won the prize.

- Why would awarding the prize to Deng make him as popular as Gandhi when Gandhi himself never won the prize? Surely it was Gandhi's actions that made him so revered, and if Deng is not a hero on a par with Gandhi it is because he did not do the great works for peace that Gandhi did? Why then would further debasing the prize (if this is still possible) by awarding it to Deng make Deng more popular?

- Given the people who have won the prize (Begin, Arafat, Kissinger, Le Duc Tho etc.) why is Rein so sure that it was the Tiananmen "incident" which stopped Deng from winning the prize? What about Deng's unsuccessful 1979 strafexpedition against Vietnam? What about his surely justified, but certainly violent crushing of the Gang of Four and their supporters?

- If Deng really had done other things which made him deserving of the prize and these were not recognised in the west in the eight or so years during which Deng ruled China before Tiananmen, then why does he think that they would have been recognised had Tiananmen not "happened"?

And just what were these things that Deng did, other than "Reform and Opening" that, in Rein's opinion, make him so deserving of the prize?

"Here are reasons why Deng deserves to win next year's Nobel Prize, despite what happened in 1989.

First, by the time Deng passed away in 1997, he had a total grip on power--not in the manic way of Mao Zedong, but rather from the respect he commanded because he had restored calm to the country."

So Deng should receive the prize because he wasn't Mao and "restored calm" through things like the Tiananmen "incident" and his suppression of the Gang of Four? Strict standards indeed.

"I remember walking the streets when he died and seeing shopkeepers put out small empty bottles in their windows in mourning (in Chinese, Deng's name sounds like" little bottle.") Instead of hoarding power for himself and his family, like the Kims in North Korea, Deng had the great foresight to push through policies to prevent the offspring of cadres of the highest-ranking from rising above a certain level in government. The offspring of the most influential members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo may be influential, but they have never made it onto that Standing Committee."

Oh, I get it, so Deng should also receive the award for not being Kim Il Sung. Of course, there is the alternate interpretation that the Crown Prince Party clique of apparatchik offspring lost out to the Shanghai Clique in the behind-the-scenes power struggle at the 1997 National Congress, but why let facts like that get in the way? Especially now that Xi Jinping, son of first-generation leadership member Xi Zhongxun, is so close to becoming president, with Deng Xiaoping's son Deng Pufang, vice chair of the CPPCC national committee, in tow.

"How many times have you seen anyone with such absolute power put into law that his children could not maintain a generational grip on power?"

Answer: never. I have searched the internet and read every bio of Deng Xiaoping I could find, but as far as I can see, he did not enact any such law. Maybe someone can correct me on this?

"Deng effectively created a healthy diffusion of power throughout the country. There may still be too much cronyism in China, but the situation is far better than if he had pushed his children into leadership positions. Today most offspring of government leaders go into business. Few grandchildren of the most powerful leaders from the late 1970s and '80s are in government service."

Strangely enough this "healthy diffusion of power" is not obvious to anybody outside the communist party, and, as pointed out above, the children of the first generation CCP leadership are staging a come-back.

"Deng's foresight also brought about China's first peaceful transitions of power in the past century, from himself to Jiang Zemin and on to Hu Jintao and most likely next to Xi Jinping. Such peaceful transfers of power were unthinkable not very long before, when President Liu Shaoqi was tortured and died in prison, or when Mao's heir apparent, Lin Biao, died in a mysterious plane crash."

Once again, Deng's main accomplishment in Rein's eyes appears to be "not being Mao", whose Red Guards murdered Liu Shaoqi and who was probably behind Lin Biao's death as well. Moreover, the 20th century did see a peaceful transition of power within the territories claimed by China's rulers - the democratisation of Taiwan after decades of KMT dictatorship, but perhaps Rein doesn't think this is worthy of recognition.

"Finally, Deng pushed for greater academic exchange and economic interdependence. In so doing he not only created a more stable and vibrant economy and way of life for ordinary Chinese ..."

This appears in the main to be just another way of referring to Deng's greatest achievement - the "Reform and Opening" policy.

"... but also diminished the threat of military disputes spiraling out of control ..."

Whilst Deng also deserves credit for his "Don't claim the leadership" policy of reducing China's assertiveness on the world stage, this is hardly Nobel-worthy stuff.

"... More than a million Chinese have studied in the West in the last three decades. When they come back to China they bring back positive feelings for America..."

Actually, according to the latest figures available (i.e., those from 1978 to the end of 2008) the total number of Chinese students who went to any country is about 1.2 million, of whom a large proportion went to 'non-western' countries like Japan, South Korea, and Russia, and fewer than 400,000 of whom returned to China. The total of students who studied in 'the west' is therefore probably less than 1 million, and the number of people currently living in the PRC who have studied in "the west" much less.

This, however, is a minor quibble. Much more objectionable is Rein's seeming inability, noted above, to distinguish between 'the west' and the United States. Or does he think that Chinese students studying in, say, Germany come back much the wiser about the US?

"... Perhaps surprising to many Americans, most of China's leadership actually likes the American way of life. They are often exasperated at the way China, and they personally, are portrayed in the West.

A couple of years ago I went fishing with a very senior official who the Western press liked to attack for being evil and a thug. He seemed pained by the criticism, because he liked America and didn't understand why reporters jumped to conclusions about him as he tried to do what was best for the Chinese people. Many of China's up-and-coming leaders were educated in the U.S., for instance, Zhu Min, former vice governor of the People's Bank of China, who studied at Princeton and Johns Hopkins."

Here we get to Rein's real motives for writing this piece: his livelihood relies on his cosy relationship with the CCP leadership. Never mind that the 'western' media should not care a fig if the CCP leadership likes the US or not when reporting on CCP wrong-doing (especially if they are not US-based) - the important thing is that Shaun's friends in the CCP dictatorship have had their feelings hurt. Shaun then gets CCP kudos for firing back in his Forbes column, his business prospers, and everybody wins - right?

"Deng kept China from turning inward like North Korea or Myanmar and got it instead to push outward, to learn from the rest of the world and to minimize tensions and misunderstandings. Not only did he thereby create a more peaceful world, he also eroded some of the apprehension within China about the motives of the West."

Once again, Deng's main achievement, in Rein's eyes, is not having been a dictator in the vein of Kim Il Sung or Mao although he could have been - laudable, but not Nobel-worthy.

2010 should have been a great year for China's relations with the West ...

2010 was different from any other year how? This isn't a reference to the Expo is it?

"... but it has instead been marked with tension and misunderstanding. The Nobel Prize committee should step up to help diffuse the situation by giving Deng and Gandhi the recognition they both deserve for doing so much for the Chinese and Indian people. That is something that Chinese would rally behind, and it would be a fitting tribute to two great leaders who did more for peace than anyone else in the last century."

It's odd that Shaun should end on this note. Here's a quick question that maybe he should ask his CCP chums next time they go on a fishing trip together: just why is it that we do not see nearly the kind of tension between India and its fellow democratic nations that we see between China and the free world? Where does this tension come from? Just why does he believe that it's necessary for "the west" (which in Rein's mind clearly means America) to extend an olive branch? What has "the west" got to apologise for? A group of Norwegians awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo?