Monday 28 February 2011

An unlikely guardian of human rights.

Yesterday at the UN a unanimous resolution was passed by the UN security council condemning violence, including the use of heavy weapons such as tanks, against demonstrators, and referring Colonel Gaddafi and his government to the International Criminal Court for investigation for war crimes under Chapter 7 of the UN charter. The chief prosecutor of the ICC had this to say about charges that may be brought as a result of this resolution:

"If people were on the square and they were attacked by soldiers, tanks or aeroplanes, in a widespread and systematic way, it's a crime against humanity."

That such a measure could be passed by a UN security council of which both China and Russia are permanent members, when both of these countries have seen the use of heavy weapons to suppress uprisings in their own countries within the last quarter century, is somewhat surprising. Whilst neither Medvedev or Putin took part in the shelling of the Russian parliament in 1993, the Chinese government still contains several people who were involved in the incidents in Beijing in 1989, most notably Wen Jiabao.

Even more surprising is that the members of the council should vote unanimously to refer Gaddafi to the ICC when three of the permanent UN security council members (China, the United States, and Russia) do not even recognise the jurisdiction of that court. For all three of these countries, recognition of the ICC's jurisdiction when the treaty establishing it originally came into force (i.e., the 1st of July, 2002) would have meant prominent figures in the military and the government would have been put on trial for war crimes committed during the intervening years. Particularly convenient, of course, was the United States signing of the treaty and then subsequent withdrawal from it before ratification during the Bush administration.

In the specific case of China, there is a long history of abstaining from voting in such resolutions. In the case of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, China abstained both from the original votes sanctioning Libya for involvement in the bombing, and a subsequent vote sanctioning Libya for failure to comply with the first two resolutions. Whilst China did vote to impose sanctions on Milosevic's Yugoslavia in the wake of the atrocities committed during the Bosnian war, and also voted to establish a war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia, it abstained from voting in many of the subsequent resolutions on the Bosnian and Kosovo issues.

On the resolution on establishing a court for war crimes committed during the ethnic strife in Rwanda, the Chinese also abstained, ostensibly because they believed the Rwandan genocide to be strictly an internal matter. A similar approach was taken to the war in Darfur, with China joining the US (which abstained out of opposition to the jurisdiction of the ICC) in abstaining from a vote referring the violence there to the ICC.

Does this, then, signal a switch away from Beijing's previous position that the violent repression of one group by another within the borders of a country is an internal matter for that country? It seems much more likely that this is an example of score-settling by China for the numerous slights that the Gaddafi regime has inflicted on them in recent years, as well as, perhaps, some concern as to what could possibly have happened to the 30,000 Chinese citizens living and working in Libya at the outbreak of the revolt had they been caught in the cross-fire.

Even if this is a mere act of score settling, though, it will act as a definite precedent for any future crisis in which a dictatorship wishes to suppress revolt by unleashing military firepower upon its own people. A precedent which China has explicitly supported.

[Picture: A screen-grab from a BBC report from Tiananmen square on the night of the massacre, showing an APC driving across the square under attack from demonstrators hurling stones. The APC was later destroyed. You can see the entire report here.]

Sunday 27 February 2011

Jasmine tea at a Shanghai Starbucks

Those who had been quick to dismiss the possibility of a Chinese version of the Jasmine revolutions may have been given food for thought by today's events. Whilst reportedly the Harbin demo was a no-show and at least one reporter was beaten at the Beijing demo, the protest (if that is the right word for an event at which no-one seems to have said much) in Shanghai seems to have been well attended.

Whilst many of the people in the above picture may simply have been there out of interest to see what happened (kan-ing the renao as someone I know used to put it), it cannot now be said that such gatherings are impossible, or that no-one would be interested in such a gathering. It also appears highly unlikely that these protest are being organised as a provocation, despite my earlier suspicions to the contrary.

However, a small demonstration like this is a million miles from the kind of mass-movements which have rocked autocratic regimes in the Middle East, but it is a start.

[Picture: People gather outside the Starbucks near the Raffles City Mall in Central Shanghai, 27th of February, picture via @Singaporeano AKA Kenneth Tan]

Saturday 26 February 2011

Eamonn Fingleton's "quiz": Just how wrong can an article get?

I originally wasn't going to write anything about Eamonn Fingleton's somewhat daring "quiz" on East Asian topics because I have done too many of these Fiskings in recent months, but then I caught a friend of mine approvingly reposting it on Facebook and felt I had to say my piece. Quite simply, the man appears to know very little and is not afraid of advertising the fact. Let's start with this passage:

"Question 1: Can you name an atrocity that happened in East Asia in the 1930s that, on a one-day, one-decision basis, probably ranks as the worst atrocity in history?

Answer: It was an event that happened in China -- but, no, it was not the Nanking massacre. Rather it was the Huang He (Yellow River) flooding of 1938 . . . What is beyond question is that even many China specialists at U.S. universities have never heard of the Huang He massacre."

Let's get this straight, the flooding of the Huang He caused by the demolition of the river dams in 1938 was not a massacre, that is to say, it was not the intentional unjustifiable killing of a large number of innocent people. The Huang He flood was, arguably, justifiable as an act of scorched-earth policy designed to defeat the Japanese invaders, and its object was not the deaths of innocents, but the defeat of the Japanese invasion. Whilst it may have been wrong, and may even have back-fired resulting in the loss of innocent life along with the deaths of invading Japanese troops, it was not a "massacre". If an atrocity was committed, it was the Japanese invasion which necessitated the flooding.

Even more ridiculous is Fingleton's assertion that "China experts" (and I presume he means people with at least some background in Chinese history here) at US universities have never heard of the demolition of the Huang He dams. I personally read about them first in my childhood encyclopaedia and I cannot believe that anyone who studied modern Chinese history even superficially would not have heard of this event.

"Question 2: In what nation did the campaign for justice for the so-called comfort women (the sex slaves used by the Japanese imperial forces in the 1930s and first half of the 1940s) begin?

Answer: No, it was not South Korea; rather it was the Netherlands."

That the Netherlands should be the first country to seek compensation for the so-called "comfort women" is not surprising - the Netherlands was an independent and reasonably peaceful country in 1945. But more to the point, just who is it that is under the misimpression that South Korea was where such a campaign might start? Not anyone I know, and that's for sure.

"As for the comfort women issue, this came to be widely discussed in the English-speaking media only as recently as the early 1990s."

The existence of "comfort women" has also been known for a lot longer than since the 90's. As a simple matter of fact, the famous Australian author Neville Shute wrote about the rape of female prisoners in A Town Like Alice. J.G. Ballard also wrote about this in Empire Of The Sun. Perhaps the translated euphemism "comfort women" has only relatively recently been used for women who suffered this atrocious crime, but the fact that wide-scale abduction and continuous rape was conducted by the Japanese army during its rampage across Asia is something known to any reasonably well-read person.

His point about US politicians having "a lack of understanding of East Asia" may have some truth in it, but he then discredits himself by writing how had his own opinion on the Iraq war been listened to, things might have been different. Is he really claiming to be an expert on Iraq? Or is he saying that his understanding of Japan gives him an insight into how Iraq works? At any rate, it cannot be the latter because he himself says that "the only thing Iraq and Japan have in common is they are not the United States".

But it gets worse: just why is Fingleton emphasising the terrible nature of the Huang He floods and specifically pointing out that they killed more people than the Nanjing Massacre - something that was an intentional act of mass murder? Just why is he giving the treaties signed with the Mao and Park regimes denying further compensation equal weight to the crimes themselves? All of this reads a lot like the kind of apologia for Japanese war crimes familiar to anyone who has lived in Japan.

[Picture: Japanese soldiers stuck in the mud during the Huang He "massacre"]

[Update: You can see Fingleton's website here. As expected, his posts seem to consist mainly of cheer-leading pieces for the Japanese economy and government that are a bit off considering Japan's GDP growth over the past 20 years.]

From the annals of hyperbolae: "Taiwan also needs a Jasmine Revolution"

It's been a while since I last read the Taipei Times. Though I was once a regular reader, since leaving Taiwan I've more and more found its editorial line on Taiwan politics to be increasingly bizarre in its criticism of the KMT, and this has been particularly so since Ma Yingjiu's victory in the 2008 elections.

Now don't get me wrong, Ma has been deserving of criticism from his time as Mayor of Taipei onwards, but the accusations thrown against him and his government from the pages of the Taipei Times have been excessive to say the least. The Taipei Times and its Chinese-language cousin, the Liberty Times, have even gone as far as suggesting that Ma "might even secretly sign a capitulation agreement with Beijing".

However, the latest editorial, comparing Taiwan, a democratic society since at least 1996, and one in which both the KMT and the DPP have won and lost power via elections, to the dictatorships of the Arab world, truly takes the cake. In an editorial written by Chang Yeh-shen, vice chairman of the Northern Taiwan Society, entitled "Taiwan also needs a Jasmine Revolution", Chang opens with a bleak portrait of the Taiwanese economic situation:

Prices have skyrocketed, putting pressure on the public, while the unemployment rate has seen a sharp increase. With a government that only cares about big conglomerates, Taiwanese live in hardship with no hope in sight, and the lower class passes their poverty on to the next generation.

There's only one problem with this description: it's total baloney. Unemployment has not "seen a sharp increase", in fact unemployment in Taiwan is now lower than it was at the time of the 2004 election, and Taiwan actually experienced deflation last year [Edit: Some doubts about the Indexmundi figures, see comments]. The picture Chang draws of Taiwan somehow suffering crisis-level poverty is rubbish, plain and simple.

Chang then goes on to accuse the Ma government of failing to defend Taiwan, with government officials being accused of allying "themselves with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against Taiwan". One wonders which government official Chang could possible be talking about, since Ma's government did (after years of KMT-led blocking) finally succeed in passing an all-important arms-procurement bill directed specifically against an attack across the strait.

It seems that in Chang's world no level of engagement with the Mainland can be allowed, with even the recent moves to allow mainland students to study in Taiwan being condemned as ". . . threatening to limit Taiwanese students’ educational and job opportunities". Even the visits of Mainland officials to Taiwan are described, in a mind-blowing exaggeration, as allowing "Chinese colonial rule in Taiwan".

Let me be clear on this: Mainland students visiting Taiwan cause little or no harm, will bring money into the Taiwanese economy, will create jobs in Taiwan, and may just allow some Mainland students to see that they have been lied to about Taiwan by the government-controlled media on the Mainland. Visits by PRC officials to Taiwan, far from being a harbinger of colonialism, are 100% necessary if relations between the two sides of the straits are ever to be normalised. Whilst the Taiwanese should certainly be careful to ensure that no compromises are made that might threaten Taiwan's democratic institutions and self-determination, there is no solid evidence that any such compromise has been made or is even being considered.

Having got this far, you might wonder if any further hyperbolae were even possible, but the kicker is in the last paragraph:

"Taiwan’s situation today is not much better than that of the Arabic countries in the throes of the Jasmine Revolution. We must use our votes to oust Ma to save Taiwan and rebuild the country, perhaps through a “lily revolution.”"

Let's keep this simple: Taiwan is a democratic society with levels of freedom of speech, judicial independence, and economic development and equality comparable to any country in either Western Europe or North America. As an example, in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, Taiwan has a higher per-capita income than 15 of the 50 US states and 15 of the 27 EU member-states. To compare the situation in Taiwan to that of even the richest of the Middle-Eastern countries which have experienced unrest in the last month is an immense distortion. You wonder what possibly could have been going through the minds of the editors at the Taipei Times when they okayed this piece.

Thursday 24 February 2011

China's rocky relations with Libya

Whilst the rift between Libya and the United States during the 80's is well-known, the story of Libya's somewhat spotty relations with the People's Republic is little known in China, Europe, or America. However, even a bit of research turns up a treasure-trove of Libyan actions in recent years which will have left the Chinese with little in the way of sympathy for Gaddafi's government.

You want support for Taiwan? You've got it:

"Earlier, in 2006, the two countries squabbled over Libya's relations with Taiwan. The deterioration began in January when Sayf al-Islam Qadhafi—chairman of the Libyan Qadhafi Foundation—met President Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan, acting as an envoy of his father, Mu'ammar Qadhafi. Libya, which had maintained diplomatic relations with Taiwan from 1959 to 1978, recognized the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1971 but delayed the establishment of diplomatic relations until 1978. Qadhafi invited Chen Shui-bian for an official "state visit" to Libya and said that his father was resolved to develop relations between the two countries, with Libya serving as Taiwan's gateway to Africa. "He hoped that the two nations sign a memorandum on establishing mutual representative offices before his departure" [1]. Adding insult to injury, this invitation came on January 19, precisely when PRC Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing was meeting Qadhafi (the father) in Libya. An online Libyan newspaper reported recently that Sayf al-Islam Qadhafi was officially and practically appointed as successor to his father (Libya al-Yaum [Libya Today], October 15).

To be sure, a few months later, in May 2006, Libya allowed Chen Shui-bian to make a stopover in Tripoli, and used the opportunity to negotiate the issue of representative offices in the two countries, despite Beijing's protests and "strong opposition." A PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "We demand that Libya live up to its commitment and immediately cease all official exchanges with Taiwan in whatever forms so as to maintain the overall China-Libya relations…This is a serious violation of Libya's long-term commitment to the one-China policy and will exert a negative impact on China-Libya relations" (Xinhua News Agency, May 11, 2006)."

You want blocking of Chinese businesses seeking to enter the Libyan market? You've got it:

"Libya will exercise its right to buy the assets of [Libyan oilfield operating] Verenex Energy Inc., blocking a roughly US$400 million deal that China had sought with the Canadian oil producer, said the country’s top oil official.

Libya will match the amount that China National Petroleum Corp. had agreed to pay for Verenex, Shokri Ghanem, head of Libya’s National Oil Co., said on the sidelines of an energy conference.. Libya wants to buy the company out of "commercial interest" as it tries to boost its oil-pumping capacity, said Mr. Ghanem."

In the same interview in which Musa Kusa attacked the Chinese government for alleged "imperialism" in Africa, Musa Kusa also accused China of bypassing the African Union in its dealings with African nations, an organisation which Colonel Gaddafi has made his own pet project:

"is an insult to the African Union. […] Is it reasonable for China—as a single country—to preside over an entire continent? This is an injustice. […] China's unwillingness to accept the presence of African Union commissioners means that they do not want the African Union, or African Unity, but rather China wants to cooperate with Africa as separate nations, rather than as a union."

It seems that if Gaddafi's government is somewhat lacking allies at the moment, it has no-one to blame but itself.

What Gaddaffi failed to learn from the CCP

Whilst I'm still concerned that the result of the Libyan revolt may yet be a prolonged civil war on the Spanish model, that fear has retreated. The reason is simple:

The thing that made the Spanish civil war particularly long and brutal was that, far from one side being a reactionary movement against an Ancien Régime, both sides, in their own way, unleashed revolution on the areas they controlled before attempting to seize the rest of the country from the other.

Gaddaffi, however, showed himself in his last speech to be incapable of this. Despite specifically citing Tiananmen as his model, Gaddafi has seemingly forgotten the rest of the story: the Tiananmen demonstrators were crushed by force, but the populace have been turned against the demonstrators and anyone else advocating human rights in China through the simple device of labelling them traitors in the pay of the western powers. A similar strategy has been successfully used in Russia.

Instead of doing this, and perhaps mobilizing anti-western and nationalistic sentiment to his support, Gaddaffi made a speech which seemed directed at gaining support form the western powers themselves by blaming Osama Bin Laden for the uprising. To say the least, leaders in Europe and America are unlikely to be swayed by such rhetoric.

Probably much more blood will be shed before this is all over, but unless Gaddafi has some as yet unknown trick up his sleeve (WMDs?) it looks like he is finished.

On a side note, it should not be forgotten that Libya has been through a frosty patch in its relations with Beijing in recent years following an interview in which Mussa Kussa, Libyan foreign minister and pro-Gaddafi hardliner, said that:

"When we look at the reality on the ground we find that there is something akin to a Chinese invasion of the African continent. This is something that brings to mind the effects that colonialism had on the African continent [in the past]. […] Therefore we advise our Chinese friends not to follow in this direction i.e. [sic] bringing thousands of Chinese workers to Africa under the pretext of employment, for at the same time Africa is suffering from unemployment." He went on saying that China's programs of training and employing thousands of Africans is welcomed "but this welcome does not mean [accepting] the Chinese coming to settle in Africa."

Whilst by all reports this has not stopped thousands of Chinese workers going to Libya to work in the same oil companies that employs tens of thousands of other foreigners, the Chinese government will certainly not have forgotten this snub.

[Picture: The young Colonel Gaddafi meets the father of Arab nationalism, President Gamal Abdal Nasser of Egypt, 1969]

Wednesday 23 February 2011

China: Not too rich for a "Jasmine Revolution"

A lot of people have linking to this excellent article on the Granite Studio blog on the relatively small chances of there being a revolution in China similar to those which have rocked the Arab world in recent weeks. I would certainly advise anyone who's been following this subject to go there and give it a read, but I would also like to highlight one of the reasons given for dismissing the chances of a revolution in China:

"Over the last twenty years, rapid economic growth has raised the standard of living to an unprecedentedly high level. Most families enjoy a life style that previous generations couldn’t have even imagined. For example, my mom could only afford a small piece of sugar for lunch during the Great Famine in 1960, but her daughter traveled in three continents before she turned 25. Few urban Chinese seem eager to trade their chance at prosperity for dreams of revolution."

Whilst it is certainly true that China has seen high economic growth in the past 20 years, and that many have benefitted from this, this is also true to a significant extent in all of the countries which have seen insurrections over the last month:

The above graph has two problems, though. One is unavoidable - the high per-capita GDP of Bahrain makes the Chinese GDP look small and smooths out the rapid growth that country has seen. The other is a bit more troublesome - it only extends to 2008 during the period when economic growth was strong in all of these countries, but all the other countries, except China, experienced some kind of economic slow-down in 2009.

Still, is China "too rich" to experience a revolution, as some have said, and as some might interpret the Granite Studio post as implying? Most definitely not - China is only marginally richer than Tunisia, was poorer than Egypt until 2002-2003, and has about a third and a fifth of Libya and Bahrain's per capita GDP respectively. Nor is there any evidence that China is a more equal country than it's Arab counterparts, with the latest Gini indices being much higher for China than those of Egypt, Iran, and Tunisia.

Instead, I think the point that Ya Jun was trying to make was that it is the promise of future prosperity, rather than the actual state of development in China today (impressive though this is in comparison to previous poverty) that keeps people relatively loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. As with all delayed gratification, once denied the backlash can be intense.

[Edit: A commenter over at The Peking Duck managed to say all of this so much more succinctly in the thread discussing Ya Jun's post, see their comment here]

People's Daily Editor Li Hong Mei: "Chinese netizens are under educated and under paid"

In the latest of a long line of pronunciamentos from the pages of the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party which fails to do anything but shoot the Chinese people straight in the foot, Li Hongmei has released this bizarre editorial pooh-poohing the power of the internet:

"As of 2010, the Internet coverage rate in China has reached 34.3%, with approximately 457 million netizens, and more than 63 million micro-blogging users. Meanwhile a survey conducted nationwide also sheds light on a noteworthy phenomenon, that is, among the Chinese netizens, 76.7% of them have no higher learning background, and 83% get the monthly income under 2,000 yuan (US$305).

This indicates that the absolute number of Chinese netizens is gigantic, but if compared with China's large population of 1.3 billion, it is still a limited proportion. Also in light of the reality that the majority of the Chinese netizens are under educated and under paid, how much they can represent the Chinese "public opinions" must be highly dubious."

Strangely enough, I don't recall this kind of circumspection about the representative nature of internet commentary when was running its campaign accusing the foreign media of 'bias' back in 2008, which the state media just couldn't seem to get enough of. So what has sparked this change in attitudes? Perhaps this section sheds some light on that:

"Just give another thought to the case of Egypt, the Western media again never hesitate to cash in on the idea that the Egyptian uprising was Internet Revolution, and it was Twitter and Facebook that helped spur on international coverage of the events unfolding, which ultimately led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. However, the West pays no heed to the true feeling of the ordinary Egyptians who actually have no access to computers, and pushed to streets by the few elites with some idea of reform enlightened by the Western-style democracy, and motivated to follow suit by the slogans and symbols which sound all alien to their knowledge.

Most of the Egyptians, in actuality, have no idea about what it should be like after Mubarak, nor can they imagine any change to be ushered in their banal life by ousting him."

Obviously Li Hongmei doesn't like the idea of an internet-driven revolution because it's not inclusive enough. Perhaps one arranged by a small clique of mainly foreign-educated and funded insurrectionists is more her sort of thing. Still n' all, something just ain't quite right about the idea of "Egyptians who actually have no access to computers" being "pushed to the streets" by internet commentary.

What Gaddafi learned from the CCP

Saw this on the Big Lychee and couldn't believe it:

In Gaddaffi's own words:

“When Tiananmen Square happened, tanks were sent in to deal with them. It’s not a joke. Do whatever it takes to stay united… People in front of tanks were crushed. The unity of China is more important than those people in Tiananmen Square.”

Strangely the Chinese government does not seem to be pleased by Gaddaffi's explicit copying of their own 1989 play-book, and has joined the rest of the UN Security Council in issuing a statement condemning the use of force against protesters:

"The members of the Security Council expressed grave concern at the situation in Libya. They condemned the violence and use of force against civilians, deplored the repression against peaceful demonstrators, and expressed deep regret at the deaths of hundreds of civilians. They called for an immediate end to the violence and for steps to address the legitimate demands of the population, including through national dialogue."

Whatever happened to imitation being the sincerest form of flattery?

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Libya: a civil war?

This report from the BBC has the eastern part of Libya, the part that was known until not so long ago as Cyrenaica in under the control of those who wish to topple Gaddafi. The forces opposing the Gaddafi regime appear to be well armed and have the support of a good part of Libya's diplomatic corps, yet a substantial part of the military has also sided with Gaddafi, and is reportedly also supported by mercenaries.

Let's be clear on this: Libya now stands close to where Spain stood in July 1936 - either one side will throw in the towel, or, as seems increasingly likely, one faction will have to destroy the other in an open civil war. If this happens, I think there should be no doubt as to which side should have the support of the democracies of the world. However, hopefully this will not be necessary.

[Picture: The Ruins of Guernica, 1937, one of the 80,000 plus photos provided by the German Bundesarchiv to Wikipedia on a CC-BY-SA license]

Monday 21 February 2011

China Law Blog on Rein's latest.

Don't miss Dan Harris' masterful take-down of (super CCP-apologist) Shaun Rein's latest.

Dan, a man who, unlike me, usually does his best to avoid blog-on-blog disputes, is quite right to point out that not all those who criticise China's monetary policy do so out of anger and hatred. He is also quite right to point out that no serious China observer puts down China's success entirely to "stealing American jobs and intellectual property" and that Rein's criticism is therefore something of an Aunt Sally. Dan is also correct in saying that a rising Yuan would lead to some job creation in some areas, although of course there may also be a commensurate cost in jobs as well.

I could go on, but you'd be better off getting it from the horse's mouth.

An Arab Tiananmen

In more sense than one. The same level of demonstrations, the same fissure in the regime, the same partial defection of the military. Perhaps thousands are dead already, but democracy may yet be the winner.

The only thing that democratic countries can do at the moment is make it clear that there will be no return to the easy days when Gaddafi shmoozed about with European leaders like Blair, Brown, Sarkozy, and Berlusconi. A Tiananmen massacre should be punished with Tiananmen sanctions, at the very least.

One other point the fact that this uprising now threatens to topple one of the Arab worlds most extreme regimes shows that all this talk of the Arab uprising being a Islamist terror-supporting fifth-column is pure nonsense.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Calls for a Chinese "Jasmine revolution": Performance art, prank, or provocation?

Hat-tip to Catherine Yeung of Under the Jacaranda Tree for pointing out this report of calls for demonstrations echoing Tunisia's Jasmine revolution in China tomorrow (my time) which have been spreading through the internet via twitter and other microblogging sites. Nobody knows who posted these messages. One of the main websites on which they were posted (US-based pro-democracy website now claims to be under a DoS attack. Whilst the English-language section of the site is still accessible, the Chinese-language section cannot be accessed. Chinese micro-blogging sites also appear to be blocking searches for the term "Jasmine" as can be seen above.

Why is this all happening now? Whilst some have suggested some kind of prank or performance art piece is being performed, I have the horrid - but unsubstantiated - suspicion that this is an attempt by the Chinese authorities to bring its opponents out into the open. Recent weeks have seen a rash of arrests and beatings of pro-democracy and human rights campaigners like Chen Guangcheng, but nothing in the way of wide-spread unrest or anything that could serve as a catalyst for protest, so it is hard to believe (but not impossible) that any of the known anti-government elements in mainland China could be calling for protests in this way.

[Picture: A screen-grab of a search I performed for the term "Jasmine" (茉莉) on the Sina Weibo micro-blogging site a few minutes before posting, the caption says "Due to the relevant laws and regulations, we cannot show the search results"]

A "land-locked" island?

Is Taiwan a culturally "land-locked" island? Hsia Li Ming, a professor at NTTU's Institute of Regional and Policy development thinks so. Whilst there will be many whose views on this will be largely decided by whether they are for or against independence for Taiwan*, I think he has a point even if, leaving the independence issue to one side, you view it only from the point of view of culture and geography.

Taiwan's population largely lives in the west of the country, facing the mainland**, with the beautiful Pacific-facing east coast only sparsely populated. Taiwan's mountainous terrain (the mountains of central Taiwan are Asia's second tallest next to the Himalayas) means that you don't have to go far from the sea for it to seem as if it were hundreds of miles away.

In my home country, the UK, everything - road, rail, ancient fortifications, canals, the orientation of streets and houses - seems directed towards the seas. The sea-front is the heart of a seaside town, and people living further inland do not hesitate to head off to the beach on a public holiday (presuming it is sunny).

In Taiwan, on the other hand, the impact of the sea is not felt in the designs of even the large ports like Gaoxiong. Hsia's description of (beautiful) Taidong as being a city which is geographically next to the sea but unconnected to it matches my own impression of the place.

Outside of Kending, the Penghu islands and a couple of other locations, the beaches rarely draw crowds, and a large percentage of people cannot even swim. Whilst Taiwan is a relatively small island compared to the UK, its people have a more distrusting attitude towards the ocean than people in the UK, and you will rarely meet anyone who has been to sea.

Given the centrality of the Pacific Ocean to Taiwan's economy and history, I think Hsia is correct that Taiwanese should develop a better understanding of and familiarity with the sea around it. Though some particularly mainland-oriented observers may disagree, Taiwan is a Pacific society, and it should start to act like one.

*One thing I rarely ever see discussed on pro-independence forums is the actual importance of independence for Taiwan per se rather than the mere avoidance of conquest by a mainland currently dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. Perhaps the necessity for a more ocean-oriented culture might be an example of this?

**Nowadays my independence-oriented Taiwan friends rag on me for using this word to refer to the territory currently controlled by the CCP. Guys, when I lived in Taiwan, this is what everyone - pro-independence or not - called it, but now you want to change things up? This seems like a form of political correctness to me. At any rate, it's also useful for distinguishing Hong Kong and Macao from the territory controlled by the CCP before 1997, so I'm not going to stop using it.

[Video: Green Island Serenade by US-born pianist and singer Vienna Teng, a traditional song sung on Taiwan and a favourite of mine when I first started to learn Chinese because of its simplicity]

A half-dozen revolutions

Observers in Europe and America have been surprised, confused, confounded, and elated by recent events in the Arab world. The eventual result of these simultaneous uprisings in six or more countries across the Arab world from US/UK ally Bahrain to former international outcast and US adversary Libya cannot be forseen and may well be a mixed bag. However, you can't help but be impressed that neither significant economic growth, the liberal dispersion of oil money, nor the dubious "honour" of having your leaders readily rubbing shoulders with the Euro-American elite has been enough to distract people in the Arab world from the basic fact that they have been denied a significant say in their country's governance.

Other people have discussed whether a repeat of these spontaneous uprisings may at some point be seen in China and the other dictatorships of the East-Asian landmass. I think this is unlikely in most cases because the main examples have either arranged a regular turnover in the leadership (China, Vietnam, Laos), have recently shown how willing they are to use violence to suppress an uprising (Burma, China), or have all-encompassing control of the minds of the populace (North Korea). Cambodia, with its long governance by Hun Sen, and its high degree of corruption, appears more vulnerable to the kind of frustration which overthrew Egyptian and Tunisian regimes, but I do not know enough about the political situation there to say more than this.

[Pictured: A graph of recent uprisings in the Arab world taken from Wiki, brown shows countries which have experienced a revolution, red indicates a change in government, orange shows major protests]

[Edit: For a more informed view of Cambodian affairs, check out Steve Dickinson's latest piece on the country.]