Thursday, December 23, 2010

When it works for the West, it's free market economics

When it works for Asian countries, it's state controlled capitalism. This is just one of the scathing observations by John Cassidy written in the guise of book reviews in December 13, 2010 issue of the New Yorker.

Didn't UK and later the US rise to great economic power on the backs of free trade? Nonsense, Cassidy said. UK used gunboat diplomacy to force China to accept opium import in order for Britain to erase it's bilateral trade deficit. UK used tariffs as trade barrier to protect it's home grown industries until they were able to compete internationally.

The US economic policies followed UK. From Alexander Hamilton to Abraham Lincoln, the US used high import duties to protect domestic industries. Even today, selected American agricultural products are protected by tariffs and subsidies.

"Not one of today's economic powers practiced free trade during its developmental stage," Cassidy observed in his piece.

Some other quotations from Cassidy's piece are excerpted below:

"Compared with these naked exercises in industrial policy (by western powers), some of the Chinese infractions that have most exercised the W.T.O. seemed relatively minor."

"Part of the evidence he (referring to author Halper*) presents for China's malign influence is the fact that it helped build a hospital, an irrigation project and a vocational training center in Ghana--a multiparty democracy that, mystifyingly, is on his list of repressive African regimes."

"The heavy hand of American demostic and foreign policy in shaping economic outcomes tends to get ignored in current policy debates.."

"Western governments have used the methods of state capitalism for hundreds of years in their bid to shape the world around them....The idea that market forces alone led to the West's success is nonsense." This quote Cassidy attributes to chief economist of HSBC.

Cassidy's concluding remark: "The greatest danger that Western prosperity now faces isn't posed by any Beijing consensus; it's posed by the myth of the free market."

*Halper's book reviewed by Cassidy was "The Beijing Consensus: How China's Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the Twenty-first Century."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Why not Let President Obama Collect the Peace Prize?

The Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee is worried. What if they throw a celebration and Liu Xiaobo, the honoree, can't attend? He is in jail. The Chinese authorities apparently won't let his wife attend in his place, nor apparently any of his friends will accept in his place. So what to do?

I recommend asking President Obama to attend and accept on Liu's behalf. Why not? The Committee gave Obama the Prize last year, somewhat prematurely one might say, and what has he done for World Peace?

American soldiers are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq with no end in sight. One would be hard put to point the finger at any one spot on earth where his administration has been able to lower tension rather than raising the temperature.

Since President Obama has rendered the previously award rather pointless, adding another won't matter.

Like the Committee, I had harbored fond hopes that the election of Obama meant a different America. Unfortunately, he and his administration has not been able to break from the past.

The neoconpoop* mentality held over from the Bush Administration continue to dictate the foreign policy thinking of the current one. In other words, we still think of ourselves as the self-annointed champion of democracy and supreme ruler of the world.

In the meantime, our federal budget is bleeding red ink and our young men and women bleeding real blood. Increasing number of our allies dare to disagree with our views and are pulling out of troubled spots and leaving behind the Americans with perhaps a handful of Brits to put out the fires.

Obama's opposition fresh from electoral victories big and small has avowed that their top priority is to make sure Obama does not get re-elected in 2012. No one seems to care about getting anything done in the meantime that would rectify many of America's pressing afflictions.

Obama's recent trip to Asia did not accomplish much nor cover him with glory. He certainly can expect to do better with a quick swing to Oslo. Since he won't have to take along a huge entourage, the trip won't give cause for his opponents to make astronomical exaggeration of the bill to taxpayers.

And the Norwegians can still have their party, even with a familiar name brand.
* neoconpoop is abbreviation for neoconservative nincompoop.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Diaoyu Controversy Festers

Since the Chinese fishing trawler collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessel off the Diaoyu islands, the crew was detained, the captain arrested, China protested then tourism to Japan dried up and rare earth exports halted and finally the captain was released without charges. However, the bilateral tension and dispute continues today.

A recently released video clip taken from the coast guard ship strongly suggested that the ship swerved in front of the trawler in an attempt to stop the forward motion of the fishing boat. Since two objects cannot occupy the same space, the collision became inevitable. Claiming that Chinese trawler deliberately rammed the coast guard vessels seemed a bit of a stretch.

A more enlightened summary of the incident and dispute has been written by Professor Jerome Cohen in the Council of Foreign Affairs. It is recommended reading for those interested in the history behind the dispute.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Sure way to win in politics: Blame it on China

America is abuzz over the TV commercial running on national networks by Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW). In an ominous ad projected into 2030 and in a style reminiscent of Apple’s sledgehammer Super Bowl ad, the message is saying that federal government debt and waste is killing this country.

But the most obvious villains in the piece are not the Americans responsible for the mess but the dastardly Chinese. In 2030, the Chinese listening to the lecture in this commercial are chortling in delight at America as the most recent failed state to enter the trash bin of history joining the British Empire, Rome and Greece.

Actually, I have also reached the same conclusion that America is approaching that of a failed state. I just wasn’t smart enough to connect the dots and put the blame on China.

I see politicians lack the courage to tell the unpleasant truths that cutting taxes is no sure cure to economic revival, that continuous warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq is bringing America to ruin, and that allowing the Ponzi schemes on Wall Street to multiply and get too big to fail is destroying the credibility of the dollar.

I don’t see our leaders prescribing actions for the benefit of our country. I see the policy makers piling on national debt to be paid by future generations. By making the dollar worth less with time, I believe they are hoping to pay the mounting national debt with cheaper dollars. Shame on them if that’s what they are thinking.

A guest on NPR estimated that over $4 billion will be spent on campaign financing for this off year election, a ghastly increase of around 35% over the total spent for the last presidential election. Issues have been tossed aside in favor of 15-second, attack sound bites cloaked in half truths and outright lies financed by hidden donors.

The way to win elections is to raise overwhelming lot of money and fill the air with negative and even hateful messages and hope that enough sticks to tar the opposing candidate and carry the day. America is now a model of sham-o-cracy, not democracy.

In a Fox interview following the repeated airing of the CAGW ad, Donald Trump declared, “This country is in serious trouble.” I heartily agree. But then he goes on to say, “The Chinese are making everything. They are smart and they are cunning.”

The Fox anchor proceeded to gush to Mr. Trump in admiration, “Sounds like you are getting ready to run for president.”

Wow. This country is in even more trouble than I thought. Just think, all our troubles will go away if we just blame the Chinese. Blame them loud enough and one can even sound presidential. If I were the Chinese, I wouldn’t wait till 2030, but would unload the trillion dollars they are holding now.

A version appeared in New America Media.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Domestic Politics Hurting Relations with China

As Congress approaches the midterm election, China-bashing has once again proven to be the convenient wool to pull over the voters’ eyes. It is, after all, easier to put the blame on China than explain to voters why America is still in the doldrums.

The House of Representatives seems determined to label China a currency manipulator and enact a law that would force the Obama administration to impose a countervailing duty on goods from China to adjust for the perceived undervaluation of the renminbi. So far, no one in the bipartisan effort has seen fit to explain how to calculate the alleged undervaluation.

Not even a Nobel Prize–winning economist has been able to present a case to prove how making imports more expensive to the American consumer would create more jobs for America. The last time the United States pressured China to take the yuan off the peg, the currency appreciated more than 20 percent against the dollar and, perhaps to the lawmakers’ surprise, the trade imbalance didn’t shrink but widened by about the same relative amount.

Premier Wen Jiabao, in his speech in New York before attending the UN General Assembly meeting, declared that the value of the yuan could not be responsible for the subprime mortgage scandal that led to the financial meltdown and the resulting record budget deficit and national debt. He suggested that Congress should be addressing the real root of the problems of America’s economy rather than distracting America’s attention by picking a fight with China.

It’s universally accepted that the protectionist Smoot Hawley Tariff Act did nothing to pull America out of the Great Depression but only made matters worse. Surely, some of the politicians on Capitol Hill must know that protectionism is the road to a lose-lose outcome. Most probably, the House is counting on the Senate or the Obama administration to not let the charade go too far.

On the other hand, instead of politics as usual, our elected officials could devote their energy to doing what they have been elected to do—namely, to think about and solve the many real problems confronting America.

For example, no one has the courage to ask: How can we balance the budget if we don’t raise taxes but continue to spend like we have with no worries instead of sitting on a record budget deficit?

How can we reverse the downward spiral of the value of the dollar if all we are doing is piling on our national debt?

No one is asking why our economic stimulus package doesn’t seem to work and is not creating jobs. Is it because too much was allocated to bailing out car companies and banks deemed too big to fail?

Why do we continue to act like the world’s only superpower when Iraq and Afghanistan are bleeding America into potentially fatal state of anemia?

Why does it take a comedian to point out to Congress that hating illegal aliens is contrary to our desire for affordable fruits and vegetables?

Our leaders continue to pat themselves on the back, expressing pride that our outstanding colleges and universities are world class, yet seem oblivious that these institutions depend on foreign students to maintain their excellence. Why are they not doing something about improving the quality of K-12 education in America?

Chinese cuisine has a delicacy called “fried live fish.” The head of the live fish is held out of boiling oil while the rest of its body is fried to a crisp. When served on a plate, the cooked body is covered in a sauce while the head is still alive and gasping for air. Sad to say, this dish is an appropriate metaphor for our Congress.

China’s options and leverage to counter Congress are complicated and difficult. Of the hard currency reserve China is holding, more than 1.5 trillion are estimated to be in dollars. Any retaliation that would materially weaken the value of the dollar would not be in China’s interest.

China is already America’s second-largest export market and growing faster than China’s export to America. Obama’s recent announced intention to reform the export control process will boost high-tech sales and add to the momentum. China could halt imports from the United States, but its vested interest is in a stronger U.S. economy, not a weaker one.

The Chinese embassy spokesperson in Washington, Xie Feng, has just publicly confirmed that China’s President Hu Jintao has accepted President Obama’s invitation and will visit the United States in January. He added that China considers this visit to be the highest national priority.

Xie also indicated that both sides—meaning Beijing and the Obama administration—expressed confidence that all the thorny issues facing the bilateral relations can be worked out.

Given Congress's determination to sidetrack the relations, there is always a chance that the January visit will be postponed or cancelled. Or worse, Washington could force Beijing’s hand into making a mutually destructive move in order to get America to focus on the real issues.

This version appeared in New America Media on October 1, 2010

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Is Congress working on behalf of America's Interest?

As Congress approaches the mid-term election, China bashing has once again proven to be the convenient wool to pull over the voters’ eyes. This time around, Japan got in the act first by literally bashing a Chinese fishing vessel to roil the international waters.

The House of Representatives seems determined to label China a currency manipulator and enact a law that would force the Obama administration to impose a countervailing duty on goods from China to adjust for the perceived undervaluation of the renminbi. So far no one in the bi-partisan effort has seen fit to explain how to calculate the alleged undervaluation.

No one, not even a Nobel Prize winning economist, has presented a case as to how making imports more expensive to the American consumer would create more jobs for America. The last time the US pressured China to take the yuan off the peg, it appreciated over 20% against the dollar and to the law makers’ surprise the trade imbalance didn’t shrink but widened by about the same relative amount.

Premier Wen Jiabao in his speech in New York before attending the UN General Assembly meeting declared that the value of the yuan could not be responsible for the sub-prime mortgage scandal that led to the financial meltdown and the resulting record budget deficit and national debt. He suggested that Congress should be addressing the real root of the problems of America’s economy rather than distracting America’s attention by picking a fight with China.

About three weeks ago there was a collision between a fishing trawler from China and two Japanese naval vessels near the uninhabited but disputed islands off the coast of Taiwan. The Chinese call the islands Diaoyu while Japan called them Senkaku.

China has claimed sovereignty over these islands as part of Taiwan for centuries. Japan came into control of these islands when the US handed them over to Japan along with Okinawa and the rest of Ryukyu chain of islands in 1972.

At the time, mainland China and Taiwan were hostile adversaries not on speaking terms and were not in a position to protest America’s unilateral action. China contends to this day that the islands should have reverted to China after World War II when Taiwan was returned to China.

Since 1972, Japanese patrol boats would periodically interfere with fishing boats from the mainland and Taiwan. Noisy protest from the Chinese in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities would invariably follow such acts by the Japanese navy. In 1996, David Chan, a Hong Kong activist, tragically drowned while attempting to make a point by swimming to one of the islands.

Contrary to the western media’s notion that conflicting interests in these uninhabited islands stem from possible oil deposits beneath the sea, the feelings of the Chinese are rooted in nationalism based on history and full of passion.

The latest incident raised the bilateral tension to new heights when the Japanese coast guard seized the fishing boat and took the crew into custody. Japan’s action immediately caused protests with increasing stridency as the trawler and crew was held. They were released about a week after the incident but the captain remained in captivity for 17 days before he was let go.

The only explanation offered for this provocative action attributes domestic politics within Japan—an election was going on--as the cause. Beijing repeatedly called in the Japanese ambassador to lodge protest in strongest terms, but Japan insisted that they would charge the captain under Japan’s domestic laws.

Japan finally dropped charges and released the captain after China nipped the tourism bloom in Japan by discouraging travel to Japan and stopped export shipments of rare earth minerals critical to Japan’s electronic industry.

China’s options and leverage to counter US are far more complicated and difficult. Of the hard currency reserve China is holding, more than 1.5 trillion are estimated to be in dollars. Any retaliation that would materially weaken the value of the dollar would not be in China’s interest.

China is already America’s second largest export market. Obama’s recent announced intention to reform the export control process will boost high tech sales and add to the momentum. China could halt imports from the US but China’s vested interest is in a stronger US economy not a weaker one.

The Chinese embassy spokesperson in Washington, Xie Feng, has just publicly confirmed that China’s President Hu Jintao has accepted President Obama’s invitation and will visit the US in January. He added that China considers this visit to be the highest national priority.

Xie also indicated that both sides—meaning Beijing and Obama Administration--expressed confidence that all the thorny issues facing the bilateral relations can be worked out.

Given the Congressional determination to sidetrack the relations, there is always a chance that the January visit will be postponed or cancelled. Or worse, Washington could force Beijing’s hand into making a mutually destructive move in order to get America to focus on the real issues.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Obama Delivers on Export Control Reform

The White House recently announced its intention to fundamentally reform the US export control process. This overhaul has been long overdue and will have significant impact on the American economy particularly in Silicon Valley, strengthen US China bilateral relations and simplify the lives of ethnic Chinese professionals working in high tech industry.

As the announcement said, “The current export control system is overly complicated, contains too many redundancies, and, in trying to protect too much, diminishes our ability to focus our efforts on the most critical national security priorities.” Amen. Those of us working in the high tech companies have been saying that, probably in more pungent terms, for decades.

The reform if implemented as announced will greatly simplify the licensing procedure. By strictly defining those items that are subject to control and eliminating multiple and often conflicting agencies, the new policy should render export license application transparent and take away the pain of exporting.

The White House release cited the brake pads for the M1A1 tank as one example of what ails the current export control practice. Same degree of control is applied to the export of the brake pads as it is for the entire tank. Yet the same brake pad is used in fire trucks which can be exported without control. This is the kind of regulatory contradiction the reform hopes to remove.

While the announced intent for export control reform is in general terms and not specifically addressing exports to China, it will have the greatest impact on trade with China. Heretofore, China has been placed in not outright foe and not exactly friend category--which means even export of heavy duty brake pads, in the aforementioned example, is subject to intense scrutiny as regulators examine the likely “dual use” nature of the export sale. Dual use is bureaucratic speak of items for civilian use that could have military application as well, and thus need to tie red tape around the transaction.

China is potentially America’s biggest customer for high tech export. Because of the ambiguity of prevailing export control policy, much of the potential has not been realized. Instead, China buys from Western European countries and Japan because they do share the same concern as the US.

Obama’s intention is good news for Silicon Valley—and other high tech regions—as these companies can now concentrate more on exporting and less energy on walking through the labyrinth of government approval.

This development should also be good news for Chinese Americans working in the high tech industry. Since China has become a major buyer, many of the Silicon Valley companies have wisely employed ethnic Chinese in their firm to engage in marketing and sales to China. Such occupation carried unexpected hazards.

Silicon Valley has witnessed cases where the export manager to China landed in jail for alleged sale of dual use items to China. In one case, it involved the sale of shaker tables. The government accused the ethnic Chinese export manager of selling to a missile making facility in China rather than the locomotive factory stated in the application. By the time the government dropped the charges for lack of substantiation, the ex-export manager had been out of a job for months and confronted with the reality of a ruined career.

With the new regulations, such ambiguity should not happen again and exporting to China no longer a cause for racial profiling.

The export control reform, while long overdue, will be an all around win. We can only hope that politics do not interfere.
A similar commentary was posted on New America Media.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Don't Miss this Documentary on WWII History, Part 2

Last month, China’s CCTV presented a fascinating 12-part documentary series on a part of WWII not particularly well known in the West--namely, the Burma Theater. The presentation was in English, very factual and professionally done, absent of any propaganda. The program gave impartial rendering of the roles of Chiang Kai-shek, General Joe Stillwell, General Sun Liren and many others. In the second half of this series, the atrocities of the Japanese soldiers were graphically described.

Episode 6, Pincer Movement – In this episode, the Chinese troops from India entered Burma and mounted a large scale offensive and scored a major victory. They over ran Japanese division command headquarters, and the Japanese incurred heavy casualties, more than twice as many as the Chinese side. This is unprecedented up to now. Chinese success can be attributed to better trained and better equipped soldiers. Just as critical was American air support. American planes provide air cover, detailed maps of the terrain via recon flights and timely drops of arms and supplies.

Episode 7, Victory at Myitkyina – While the battle in episode 6 was going on, General Stillwell conceived of a brilliant surprise attack to capture a strategic airfield at Myitkyina. The capture of the airfield would enable the Allies to fly in troops to the front line of battle. The surprise attack was successful but unfortunately the commanding General Frank Merrill (of the famed Merrill Marauders) made a terrible decision not to press on and take the town while the Allies had overwhelming numerical advantage and thus allowed the Japanese to send in reinforcements. It then took the Chinese troops another two months at great cost in casualty to finally capture the town of Myitkyina. This victory at Myitkyina marked the beginning of the end of the Japanese in Burma.

Episode 8, Stalemate at Nujiang River – While previous two episodes described the successes of forces under Stillwell’s command, this episode talked about the stalemate in southwestern Yunnan where the Japanese forces held on to the west bank while the Chinese were in the east bank. This stalemate lasted for two years. During this time, the Japanese troops committed all forms of atrocities against the local people in their territory. Besides usual gang rape of women, random killing and bayoneting, a particularly gruesome practice was described. The soldiers would bend a tall bamboo sapling and tied the entrails from the rectum of the victim and then watched in great entertainment when the bamboo snapped back and dangled the victim by the stretched out intestines. These activities were a deliberate attempt to dehumanize the Japanese soldiers so that they could become unfeeling fighting machine. Each soldier were given two coupons per week that entitled them to the services of comfort woman. The comfort women, mostly from the local villages, did not even have time to eat but must eat while servicing their clients. After the Americans re-equipped the Chinese, FDR began to push for offensive against the Japanese across the river. CKS reluctantly agreed but by then, in April of 1944, the rainy season was upon them.

Episode 9, Battle of Gaoligong Shan – Commander of the Yunnan based Chinese troops was General Wei Lihuang. He devised a pincer surprise attack on the Japanese via a small mountainous road, not used in generations. Alas his plans fell into Japanese hands and they were dug in and prepared. A bitter hard fought battle ensued. The difference that turned the tide was the minority people of those mountains. They willingly fought alongside, provided food and supplies and as porters for the supplies. The Japanese had no local support and were cut off. Afterwards, the Chinese found plenty of evidence that the Japanese resorted to eating human flesh, smoked, boiled and dried. They even found evidence of Japanese soldiers trapped in pillboxes having to eat the flesh of their fallen comrades.

Episode 10, Battle of Songshan – Having encountered heavy resistance in Gaoligong, General Wei and his staff changed their plans and moved their troops southward to attack Songshan, the highest point that looks down the Yunnan Burma Road. Again their intelligence proved faulty and the Chinese encountered heavy resistance from far more troops than anticipated. It took three months of hard fighting and a casualty of 7000 to finally secure the top of Songshan and about 1000 Japanese dead.

Episode 11, Capture of Tengchong – Capture of Tengchong was crucial to the allied plans to re-open the Burma Road and join forces with the Chinese troops from India. The capture did not come easy. The walls of Tengchong could not be breeched by regular gun fire. It took American bomber planes many runs to create openings for the Chinese soldiers. The wall was built during the Ming dynasty made from volcanic rocks.

Episode 12, Battle of Longling – Concurrent with the battles of Songshan and Tengchong, another part of the Expeditionary Forces were dispatched to capture Longling. Longling sat at the junction of the Yunnan Burma Road and the road to India and its capture would mean the reopening of the lifeline to China. The battle took 4 months and three major offensives before the Japanese troops were pounded into submission and totally annihilated. The victory was complete when the forces then moved south to Burma and joined the Chinese forces from India. January 1945 marked the end of Japan’s influence in Southeast Asia. The Chinese sent forces into Burma in 1942 and again in 1945 at great cost suffering casualty of nearly 100,000. They could not have won without the air cover provided by the American Air Force and the heavy artillery supplied by the Americans.

It was one of the highlights of US-China bilateral colloboration in WWII.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Don't Miss this Documentary on WWII History, Part 1

This month, China’s CCTV presented a fascinating 12-part documentary series on a part of WWII not particularly well known in the West--namely, the Burma Theater. The presentation was in English, very factual and professionally done, absent of any propaganda. The program gave impartial rendering of the roles of Chiang Kai-shek, General Joe Stillwell, General Sun Liren and many others. The one nation that did not come out very well was UK. They were portrayed as arrogant, treacherous and had no stomach for battle.

Episode 1, Arduous expedition – By 1941, the Burma Road was the only lifeline to the outside world remaining for China. CKS recognized the strategic importance and sent an expeditionary troops of 100,000 to fight alongside the British. Undermanned and underequipped, the troops fought the Japanese to a standstill for 12 days at Toungoo until the Brits unilaterally withdrew, thus exposing the flanks to the Japanese and leaving the Chinese surrounded and cut-off. The Chinese under the command of Dai Anlan managed an orderly withdraw with a casualty of under 2000 compared to 5000 of the Japanese. The Japanese occupied an empty town and the Japanese general ordered the burial of all the Chinese dead with honors for their bravery.

Episode 2, Rescuing the Brits – The Brits plus the Chinese soldiers had the Japanese outnumbered, but the Brits ran until they were trapped by a pincer movement and it remained for the Chinese to come to their rescue again. About 800 of Sun Liren’s crack troops rescued the 7000 British troops, dying because of lack of drinking water. For this act of bravery, General Sun was awarded the medal of the highest honor by the British government. The actual general in command was Liu Fangwu who was to go unrecognized until much later when Margaret Thatcher visited the U.S. and personally thanked him. Despite this rescue, The Brits still had their own agenda which was not to defend Burma. They withdrew towards India without telling the Chinese and blew the Mandalay Bridge behind them and thus cut off the Chinese retreat back to China. The Chinese was to pay dearly when the Japanese used stealth to go behind the Chinese and cut off their retreat to China.

Episode 3, Ordeal on Savage Mountain – While the Brits withdrew to India, CKS did not want the Chinese to follow suit for fear of losing the command to the Brits. Du Yuming obeyed and order his command to retreat northward across primordial forest called Savage Mountain (野人山) where most his troops were decimated by disease and starvation. A fallen soldier was nearly instantly turned into skeletons by leeches, ants and others that crawl in the jungles. The 200th Division commanded by Dai fought rear guard action and were the last to leave. Dai was wounded and died and his body was carried all the way back to China by his followers. Sun Liren did not heed Du’s orders, reasoning the primordial forest was deadly to his troops. Instead his troops marched southward, caught the Japanese by surprise and broke through and then headed westward into India. The Brit commanding general ordered Sun’s troops to stand down and disarm at the border. Sun threaten to fight into India. Just in time, the general of the Brit troops rescued in Burma rushed to see the commanding general to tell him that his British troops were no match for Sun’s and it was no way to pay back for the heroic rescue. Of the 100,000 Chinese troops sent into Burma, only about 30,000 survived.

Episode 4, Recuperating in India – Sun’s 38th Division virtually intact became the core fighting force resting in Ramgarh. The remnants of 22nd Division that straggled out of Savage Mountain joined. General Stillwell finally had an opportunity to build a fighting force directly under his command and he equipped and trained the two divisions with the best weaponry possible. Sun also asked CKS to send him new recruits to fill the ranks of his army and CKS responded by sending patriotic students as recruits. The British was responsible for provisioning the troops. For the first time, the Chinese soldiers had two sets of boots, two underwear, two pairs of thick socks and two pairs of thin socks, etc. Sun with the help of American trainers taught his troops not only how to fight, but how to swim with pack, to climb mountain and walk in jungles. He was getting the two divisions ready to engage the Japanese with trained and toughened soldiers better equipped to fight than the Japanese. The American objective in Burma was to tied down the Japanese troops, the Chinese to keep the lifeline open while the Brits had interest in Burma only to the extent it would keep the Japanese from invading India.

Episode 5, Counter attack begins – Finally the counter attack by the Chinese troops from India to northern Burma began in this episode. The Chinese soldiers were entirely different from those that fought earlier when they along with the Brits were defeated by the Japanese and had to retreat to India. These were physically fit, well trained and well equipped. This was the beginning of the turning of the tide. They were to face the crack Japanese troops that fought in Shanghai, participated in the Nanking massacre and occupied Singapore despite greatly outnumbered by the British troops stationed there, troops that had no stomach for fighting. At the Cairo Conference CKS thought he got Churchill's agreement to commit the British troops to the joint counter attack. Few days later, Churchill reneged and decided not to join in the battle.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bill Richardson Makes Important Decision

Governor of state of New Mexico is deliberating on whether to posthumously pardon Billy the Kid, some 130 years after he was gunned down as an outlaw.

One would have to admire Governor Bill Richardson for his willingness to tackle such a weighty issue and one would likely jump to the conclusion that unlike its neighbors, all must be well in New Mexico.

Unlike Arizona, New Mexico must not have any conflict over illegal immigrants.

Unlike Nevada, Richardson’s state must be enjoying robust employment.

Unlike California, he must not have to wrestle with budget deficits.

And for sure unlike the rest of the country, New Mexico’s school system must be doing just fine and leaving no child behind.

Hard to know how the people of New Mexico feel about their governor, but surely William Bonney is rolling over in his grave in gratitude.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Borobudur near Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Four days in Yogyakarta (Yogya for short and first y is pronounced as a j) were enough to form some impressions about Indonesia. The roads we traveled on were by and large in good shape though some in the countryside can be quite narrow and for this reason favored smaller, narrower foot print cars. Especially in the city, the streets swarmed with motorbikes. I guessed that for every car, there might be 10 mopeds and the like but our guide thought the ratio was closer to 25 to 1. Most of the scooters and mopeds looked less than 3 years old, perhaps an indicator of the recent improvements in the Indonesian economy. Most people, particularly in the city, wore helmets when they rode or drove the motor bikes. Ironically, young children rode sandwiched between their parents and usually were without helmets.

Despite varying degrees of aggressiveness among the drivers, the traffic was fairly orderly. We did not witness any road rage or arguments and did not see any traffic collisions. In general the people were friendly to each other and to foreign visitors. I believe the gentleness of Javanese culture fosters harmony among the people far more successfully than say the Chinese culture has.

It’s no surprise that Indonesia, being a nation of archipelagoes, has many ethnic people and many local languages. Bahasa is the national language that was created in the 1930’s by revolutionaries as part of the attempt to unify the chain of islands that was to become the nation of Indonesia. The language apparently borrowed a lot from the Dutch and looked easy to learn. Some words were naturally intuitive such as gratis, polisi (police), taksi (taxi), apotek (pharmacy). Other words, we saw so often that we can figured out what they meant, for example, masuk (enter) and keluar (exit), nasi goreng for fried rice and mie goreng for chow mein.

Day 1

We left Singapore in the midst of a huge tropical storm. The Air Asia flight was only a few minutes late. Yogyakarta airport did not have gates that connect directly to the terminal but we alit on the tarmac and walked into a small entry to go through immigration. Buying the visa on arrival was actually a shorter line than the line for foreigners carrying passports with visas already in them. On the spot tourist visa at $25 per person was also cheaper than getting it ahead of time in America. Mr. Herry, our guide, was late getting to the airport so that a momentary panic was creeping in when he showed up. I had just gotten a new HTC Droid phone and did not really know how to use it yet and was trying to call Mr. Herry when he appeared.

Prambanan temple complex was located near the airport, both east of Yogya. The temple complex was restored from rubble of gray volcanic rocks that we were to see a lot of during this visit. Volcanic rocks being the most available were used to erect temples, unfortunately without any binders. The tongue and groove method of constructions proved unable to resist the shaking from the movement of the faults over the centuries. While the volcanoes provided the building material, the earthquakes destroyed the man-made structures leaving piles of rocks for puzzle loving archeologists to solve.

From Prambanan, we headed west into the city of Yogyakarta to the Phoenix Hotel. Phoenix was located near the center of town but not in a very interesting neighborhood. The hotel itself was interesting from an architecture point of view, converted from a previous British estate.

Day 2

We got up at 3:30 AM in order to be picked up at 4 to see the sunrise at Borobudur. The sunrise tour was available exclusively through the Manohara Resort Hotel situated next to the site. The tour included a give-away flashlight for each person and tea or coffee with pastries afterwards. We could have selected a tour that included staying at the Manohara and sleep an hour longer. The other advantage was that the temple was just a short walk away and hotel guests could then go to the Borobudur at any time at no extra admission charge. For anyone thinking of seeing only Borobudur and not stay in the area for more than 2 nights, Manohara would have been an appealing option.

We were not rewarded with a spectacular sunrise as we took the dawn trek up the terraced temple site but we did enjoy the serenity of the morning calm undisturbed by any throng of noisy tourists—which we were to meet on our way down. From the top of Borobudur, we watched the post-dawn fog rolled into the valley providing a veil over the hillside and the light from the sun behind the clouds gradually giving definition to sculptures of sitting Buddha in various poses of meditation. On our descent, we made partial circles of each terrace to enjoy the artistry of sculptured stone panels. On the very bottom terrace, Mr. Herry told us to go clockwise from the east gate to see the beginning-to-end portrayal of Ramayana, the classic Hindu epic of good vs. evil, abduction and rescue, heroic battles and heart breaking suspicion of marital infidelity.

In line with the Borobudur were two other small Buddhist temples that we stopped briefly to see. Be they Hindu or Buddhist, the temples were uniformly gray due to the use of volcanic rocks. The differences in style were subtle and the casual tourist would be tempted to dismiss them in the mold of “seen one, seen them all.”

From Borobudur we drove back to Yogya and headed for the Sultan’s Palace and then the Water Palace where once the Sultan and his many wives cavorted. The Sultan’s palace was in part a museum and in part the living quarters of the current and 10th Sultan and his family (off limits to visitors). We were told that the Sultan’s father (the 9th) joined the struggle for independence from the Dutch early on and at one time served as the vice president of Indonesia when Suharto reigned as president for life. The tenth is the current governor of the province that has Yogya as the capital.

Our guide also took us to a batik making factory and show room and then to a silver shop called Ansor in the southern part of the city. Both were located in upscale neighborhoods.

We got back to our hotel shortly after noon but it already seemed like a long day for us. We walked to a nearby Chinese restaurant for a late lunch. We ordered mie gorang (chow mein) along with chicken with vegetable and pork with pickled vegetables. We must have been hungry and felt that we didn’t have enough to eat and supplemented with an order of nasi gorang (fried rice). Food was inexpensive in Indonesia while beer was comparatively more pricey though still cheap compared to US prices. For dinner last night and lunch today, we ate for less than the equivalent of ten dollars but a large bottle of beer cost about $3.

We were supposed to see a performance of the Ramayana ballet tonight. We ended up in traffic gridlock and Herry saw that we were not going to make it on time. He quickly cleared with his boss and changed our attendance to the following night. Even then turning around and getting out of the traffic was a challenge. The driver of the car obstructed by our driver’s attempt to make a U turn on a narrow two-lane road quickly got out of his car to halt traffic so that our driver could complete the maneuver smoothly. Nobody honked but waited patiently. We found out later that there was a chemical fire near the theatre that had caused the traffic congestion.

Day 3

We didn’t have to leave quite so early but it was still a 7:30 AM departure. We were heading for Dieng Plateau, about 3.5 hours away. Along the way, we came to a farmer’s market on a small village half way up the mountain. At the lookout point, our next stop, someone spoke to May first in English to find out if she spoke Chinese and then broke into Mandarin. They are overseas Chinese apparently many generations in Indonesia but still they felt so proud of China’s achievement and talked wistfully of visiting China someday.

The ostensible object of our tour today was the oldest known Hindu temple complex dating back to 5th century AD and only restored in 2008. This temple complex was on a much lesser scale than Prambanan and couldn’t justify a trip on its own merit. On the plateau we then came to scalding hot springs and Lake Warna, known for multi-colored water in a scenic setting. On the way home, we stopped at a roadside restaurant known for their satay for a real cheap meal. By chance a parade celebrating a mass circumcision of boys coming of age (10) and their families riding in horse carts came by. The designated boys dressed in white were being honored and unaware that they were about to encounter the first traumatic experience of their young lives.

Tonight we attended the Ramayana ballet that we missed the previous night. It was lightly attended, consisting of one Japanese tour group and one European tour group along with a handful of others, altogether may be 40 in the audience. It was colorfully costumed and appeared to be well done. We were given an English description of the story so that it was easy to follow along. The actors/dancers were good at catching arrows shot at them across the stage, that and one of the actors rolling on a trough of fire added color to the performance.

Day 4

This was another early morning departure at 7 AM. About an hour later, we were at the slopes of the Merapi volcano, youngest of 11 active ones on Java at about 150 million years old. Herry showed us the bunker where two foreign journalists were baked to death during the eruption of 2004, when the lava flow went right over the bunker. After some roadside photo stops, we went into Solo, also known as Surakarta (pop. 900,000), a much newer and more modern city than Yogya (pop. 600,000). Our first stop was to see the Sultan’s Palace, where the ninth, 58, still lived there with his second wife and kids. His first wife was a daughter of Sukarno. Not being an early supporter of independence, he did not become governor of his province.

The palace was nicely kept up since the Sultan still lived inside with his immediate family. As our guide explained, the sultan still ruled inside the palace grounds. The visitor can take photos on the grounds and inside the first reception hall but not inside the next room, which doubled as former throng room and a museum of the sultan’s memorabilia. There were some priceless jewelry and other objects of art, but it was poorly displayed in dim lighting that greatly detracted from the appeal.

After the palace tour, we went to a nearby Chinese restaurant for lunch. The owner came to speak Chinese with us. One of his sons was cutting swatches from rolls of material. The material is for an apparel factory that he also runs, he explained.

We had fried whole fish, sautee’d soft shell crab, spinach and chow mein, plus beer and tea for under $14 but nearly took all the Rupiahs in my wallet. The ATMs in Indonesia worked very nicely. Usually the maximum amount one can withdraw at one time was one million Rupiahs. I was to feel like a millionaire about three times while in Yogya.

After lunch, we went to see the antique market, said to be the largest in Java. The shop owners did not seemed to be doing much business and made only half hearted attempts to entice us into their stores. We probably look too much like tourists and not like serious buyers.

Nearby was the so called Solo’s Chinatown. It consisted of one large complex that looked like any farmers’ market selling fresh produce, fruits, meats, herbs, and other sundries. Across the way, sandwiched between two larger buildings was a Chinese temple. The temple was undergoing renovation, especially being painted. The smell of paint persuaded us not to tarry.

Day 5

We got up early in the morning again to catch a 7 AM AirAsia flight back to Singapore. One thing our guide forgot to tell us was airport departure tax, which was 100,000 Rupiahs per person. I thought I had carefully and cleverly spent every one of my Rupiahs the night before only to having to make a last minute change of my Singapore dollars to pay for the departure tax.


Judging from a scarcity of bicycles on the road (but numerous new scooters and mopeds) and relatively few beggars on the streets, I have the impression that Indonesia’s current government is working effectively and the country is on a trajectory of economic growth. However, we did not see modern high rises. Pedicabs out-numbered taxis and most restaurants were not air conditioned. Therefore Indonesia does not appear to be on the verge of an economic boom like that of China.

Historically, Java had its share of powerful kingdoms but apparently never one strong enough to take control of the entire island and perpetuate a culture and language that would endure. Consequently, the people of Java do not enjoy an institutional memory of the glory days of old. Borobudur, Prambanan and other edifices are man-made wonders without the benefit of human records and thus remain enigmas for generations to ponder.

Getting there: AirAsia offers non-stop flights between Singapore and Yogyakarta. Other airlines connect via Jarkarta and turn the 2 hour flight into a much longer proposition. Everything with this no-frills airline is a la carte. You can prepay your meal and be the first ones to eat and you are charged for checked baggage depending on the weight (free for one carry-on plus one personal handbag). By booking well in advance, I got two round trip tickets for around US$350, meals included.

Friday, June 11, 2010

In Taiwan's Corruption Trial of the Ages, Money Talks

Taiwan's high court has ruled on former President Chen Shui-bian's conviction for money laundering, corruption, falsifying documents and accepting bribes. The high court's ruling did not overturn Chen's conviction from a lower court but lessened the penalty of his crimes. The most obvious was to reduce his life imprisonment to 20years in jail. Instead of being deprived of his citizen's rights for life, it is now only ten years.

There were no explanation given for the reduction of penalty which left open the speculation that perhaps Taiwan's judiciary is still hoping to recover the rest of the funds Chen and his family had illicitly absconded and put in overseas accounts.

Chen's family has been remitting funds from various overseas accounts in drips and drabs back to Taiwan apparently as part of the negotiating strategy with Taiwan's judiciary.

The strategy seems to be working. Chen said in court that he can guarantee the return of the remaining 570 million NT dollars held overseas within one week of his release on bail. Nothing subtle about Chen. To him, money has always talked louder than rule of law.

In the court room, Chen's supporters went through the motion of protesting loudly because Chen did not get exoneration but a mere term reduction, albeit with big smiles on their faces.

In Taiwan's peculiar brand of democracy, who knows how many more remittances it will take for Chen to become a free man? He apparently has two more layers of the courts where he can take his plea and by judiciously parcelling out the return of his ill gotten gains, he just might be able to buy his way out of jail.

I am hardly the only person to point out the inconsistency of the latest ruling. See for instance a translation of an editorial of one of Taiwan's major newspaper.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How long will the Strategic Triangle remain strategic? - Part II

I missed the second day of the Stanford symposium which was to concentrate on the future of Taiwan and the dynamics of the triangle. The following are my own observations on the matter.

The dramatic change in the cross strait relations since the change in the regime from Chen to Ma could not be overstated. Chen feared opening Taiwan to tourists from the mainland. Ma went after them. Now, thousands arrive from different points of the mainland daily providing multi-billion dollar boost to Taiwan’s economy. In the most recent negotiations for direct cross strait flights, it was the Taiwan side that wanted more flights and more destinations while the Beijing side was more reluctant.

Barely noted at the Stanford symposium was the remarkable change in Taiwan’s ranking in World Competitiveness Scoreboard as measured by the Lausanne based IMD. For the current 2010, Taiwan has risen to No. 8 in ranking from No. 23 in the previous year. No other economy has made such a dramatic leap in one year. This can only be attributed to the more enlightened policies under Ma, countermanding many of the policies in effect under Chen and the extent Taiwan has already integrated with the mainland.

The current expectation is that the parties across the strait will conclude the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in June. ECFA was something eagerly sought by Ma’s administration as the most crucial development that will enable Taiwan to enter the global trade on more equal footing relative to other countries. The potential benefits to Taiwan’s economy would be enormous. Yet, the greatest opposition is being mounted by DPP because to them, the threat of integration with the mainland trumps any economic benefits.

Of course, DPP’s fear is not groundless. Beijing, under the leadership of Chairman Hu Jintao, finally understood that the way to winning the hearts and minds of the Taiwan people was not with missile intimidation but to encourage more people to people exchanges. Taiwan’s business people already understand the benefits of closer ties with the mainland, but they represent less than 10% of the populace.

Since Ma came into office, there have been direct flights, bi-directional cross strait tourism, and increasing visits from government and non-government officials in both directions. I believe Beijing is seeking every opportunity to tell the mainland side of the story directly to the people in Taiwan.

The previous regimes under Lee and Chen did not permit free exchange of people across the straits. They did not want direct contacts that could alter the perceptions of distrust that Lee and Chen had so carefully cultivated on the island of Taiwan. Lack of access and interchange certainly can explain why the high percentage of Taiwanese prefer the status quo.

I frankly believe integration across the straits is inevitable. Taiwan’s economic health is dependent on integration with the mainland. Economic cooperation will be accompanied by more people to people exchange. Increasing exchanges will build trust across the straits.

Taipei will also need to do its part. It will be up to Ma to explain to the people of Taiwan of the up-side benefits of closer cooperation with the mainland. Taiwan has suffered severe loss of confidence and sense of who they are after Chen’s eight years of misrule had isolated Taiwan from the world community. Ma needs to explain to the Taiwan people that rather than fear, they can be proud that they share the culture and history with the mainland.

The offer to negotiate ECFA was a surprise gesture of goodwill by Beijing. I believe the next surprise move will be when PLA redirect the aim of missiles away from Taiwan, a largely symbolic but psychologically important gesture to the people on Taiwan. Eventually, polls in Taiwan will swing away from independence and even status quo will look less attractive then the intriguing possibility of unification.

Given the speed that cross strait relations has warmed, I am confident that by 2015 Taiwan will drop from the ranks of the hotspots of tension while the world will still be dealing with the likes of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq, India-Pakistan-Kashmir triangle, and the two Koreas.

Monday, May 31, 2010

How long will the Strategic Triangle remain strategic? - Part I

Stanford University recently held a symposium to discuss the future of the strategic triangle between the U.S., China and Taiwan. The symposium was led and chaired by Larry Diamond, Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

The invited participants consisted of Americans who at one time or another had been in government service and held senior positions directly engaged in the bilateral relations with Taiwan but have now joined the academic ranks. A typical but by no means the only one would be Richard Bush who was the de facto ambassador to Taiwan at the time Chen Shuibian came to power.

Participants from Taiwan had mirror image backgrounds, i.e., having served in the Taiwan government and now in the academia, including Dr. Su Chi who just stepped down as Ma Yingjeou’s senior advisor on national security. Remarkably and without exception all the speakers from Taiwan received their advanced degrees in the United States.

No one came from mainland China to present possible PRC perspectives on the three bilateral relations of the triangle, although there were academicians, originally from the mainland now working in America, who spoke at the symposium.

In general the American presenters tended to focus on how Taiwan had been the tail that wagged the U.S. China bilateral relations, sometimes to the endless exasperation of the White House that had many more pressing global issues to deal with. However they seemed ready to forgive and dismiss past actions because Taiwan’s actions were that of a democracy and not some unilateral actions of petty dictators.

As a reflection of their former diplomatic and official positions, their comments on the roles of the then presidents of Taiwan, Lee Tenghui and Chen Shuibian, were politely muted and simply called them “unique” personalities and hoped that Taiwan will not see the likes of any more like them.

No one was tactless enough to point out that Lee’s peculiar behavior could be explained by his innate bias in favor of his Japanese roots and upbringing. Iwasato Masao, Lee’s name at birth, did not particularly want Taiwan to become independent so much as using that as an interim step to becoming part of Japan’s colony again. As he came to the end of his term of office, he adroitly engineered a split of the ruling KMT party that enabled Chen leader of the ostensibly opposition party to back into the presidency with less than 40% of the votes cast.

Chen, of course, kept everyone guessing as to his true colors during his first term of office when he declared “three no and one don’t have”—one of the no’s being no declaration of independence. It was during his second term that his pro independence stance became public knowledge and not incidentally his rampant corruption also became common knowledge.

The speakers from Taiwan were not as ready to declare Taiwan’s experiment with democracy an unqualified success but quite modestly claimed that theirs is an immature democracy going through some growing pains. However, even they did not mention one of the on-going developments that baffle any observers of Taiwan politics, namely the machinations of Chen in trying to get out of jail.

Having already been convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on the first series of charges, he has continued to demand to be released on bail so that he can defend himself against a second series of charges. Presumably, a third series of charges would be his get out of jail card if he were to be convicted on the current charges. This could be endless depending only on his skill in gaming Taiwan’s legal system.

After months of wrangling, his family has returned one million dollars of the twenty one ill-gotten millions stashed away in Switzerland into a pre-agreed designated government account. His son has hinted that at least 70% more of the accumulated payola would be forthcoming as soon as Chen is released from jail.

Needless to say, resorting to this kind of negotiations between a convicted felon and the government via the public media would be unheard of in any matured democracy.

Unlike the American contingent, the participants from Taiwan weren’t all political scientists but included an economist and a sociologist. The economist pointed out that from 1952 to 1987, Taiwan enjoyed the kind of economic boom that the mainland has seen in the last thirty years, namely annual average economic growth of 8.9%.

Under the KMT administration from 1993 to 1999, Taiwan continued to grow at the rate of 5.9% per annum and was the second best among the 8 major Asian economies. From 2001 to 2007 under Chen and his DPP party Taiwan’s economic growth rate fell to 4.2% per annum and came in last among the 8 Asian economies.

The legacy of Chen’s dismal performance on the economic front along with his blatantly corrupt practices has led to a disenchanted populace that greatly distrusts the government. According to recent polls taken in Taiwan by the economist, after two years under Ma Yingjeou, the people of Taiwan have more confidence in the KMT than DPP in being able to get along with Beijing. By better than 3 to 2, people of Taiwan believed KMT can better protect Taiwan’s interest with Beijing than can the DPP.

The sociologist from Taiwan then reported that integration between Taiwan and the mainland has proceeded to a degree far more extensively than has been generally understood. In the mid 1980’s the “unplanned” migration of Taiwanese businesses to the mainland may have been economically driven, but because of their socio-cultural affinity with the mainland, they have thrived. There are now more than one million Taiwanese business people in just the greater Shanghai area.

Another sign of integration not widely reported, he said, Taiwanese fishing boats off the Somalia coast have been routinely asking the PLA navy for escort service.

The second day of the symposium was to deal with the future of Taiwan and the dynamics of the triangle. Since I had to miss the second day, I felt unburdened by what was said to make my own observations in Part II of this blog.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Shanghai World Expo Guide for Dummies

Shanghai World Expo is huge, grand, massive and crowded. There are other adjectives that might be appropriate to this venue but I spent only two exhausting days there and barely scratched the surface. I can liken my Expo experience to the group of mahouts milling around the elephant, each only getting a partial and possibly less than accurate view of the animal.

On my first day, I visited Zone C which consisted of pavilions from the Americas and Europe. Next day, I tour Zone A which included the China pavilion and others from Asia. I did not spend time in Zones B, D or E except passing though E on my way to the exit. I also did not visit any of the theme pavilions, entertainment venues and by-passed popular pavilions with a long queue of people waiting to get in. For sure, I did not see much of the gigantic beast known as the Expo. Nonetheless, I made some observations and generalizations that I want to share with my readers.

All the popular pavilions metered the admission of visitors by letting in one group at a time. In some cases, the frequency of admission was dictated by presentations on discrete time segments and in others the control of visitors was just to avoid congestion at the beginning of the exhibition hall. In the less popular pavilions, we simply walked in, looked and walked out.

In general, I found that most countries focused on presenting a striking external appearance but may not have exhibitions inside commensurate with their fancy exterior. UK was one that came to mind. The exterior looked at a curled porcupine with thousands of acrylic rods sticking out. The inside consisted of the other ends of the same acrylic rods, the end of which had embedded seeds. One might have to queue for an hour or more to get inside the so-called chapel for a head-scratching bewildered “huh” response that could not justify more than a 3 minute stay.

Another enigma was the Spain pavilion. The outside of this pavilion was covered with overlapping rattan mats that gave the appearance of brown fish scales up close and intriguing mottled shades of brown at a distance,--all in all an interesting looking building. Alas, the promising allure of outside was unanswered inside. The visitor, after a long queue and finally being admitted, was visually assaulted with projection of images on the walls including that of a live flamingo dancer. The parade through the halls ended in a large area featuring a huge robotic statue of a sitting baby. The head of this baby turned, eyes opened and closed as did its mouth. I expected drool to come out which thankfully it did not. There was no way to understand the point of the many times life-size and homely doll. My best explanation was that it was an attempt to encourage birth control—and darn effective a message at that.

Admission into the China pavilion, by far one of the most popular, was impossible. The visitor first had to obtain a ticket with an assigned time slot for queuing and then return to queue for admission at the assigned time. Most of the tickets were gone almost immediately after the door to the expo opened. I did manage to enter the ground floor of the China pavilion where the cluster of pavilions of the provinces was located. These provinces actually made some of the most creditable presentations, many emphasized the tourist attractions that resided within their provincial borders.

The 4D presentations at Jilin and Liaoning pavilions were quite entertaining. The 4th D consisted of blasts of air, rocking chairs and wires that whipped against the spectator’s legs designed to take his/her breaths away while viewing 3 dimensional projection. These special effects were significantly superior to the presentation at the U.S. pavilion, though the American presentation had a touching story line while the story lines of Chinese presentations were weak.

Here are some general guidelines I would recommend to would be Expo goers:

1. It’s not necessary to get to the venue early in the morning when the Expo first opens. Early arrival simply means you’ll run out of gas earlier in the day. If you arrive in mid afternoon, some of the early goers may already be too tired to last and in the process of leaving. This way you might have some stamina left to see the Expo under the lights and might be able to get into some pavilions when the lines are not too long.

2. The local paper, such as the English Shanghai Daily, will have a summary of events planned for the day at different venues. You might want to plan your schedule to take in some of those.

3. Tickets are readily available, perhaps even at your hotel or you can simply purchase the ticket at the kiosks by any of the entrances. The tickets can be used at any time and remain valid until machine punched at the gate. I did not see any provision for re-entering the fairgrounds once the ticket has been punched.

4. Read about various pavilions as much as possible so that you can decide as to which ones are worth your while to queue and which ones to skip. I heard (but did not try myself) that local tours include a selected number of pavilions where it is possible to join the group tour line and avoid the long queue for individuals.

5. I also heard that to encourage visits to less popular pavilions, the Expo authorities will allow a visitor to jump the line after collecting a certain number of stamps on their souvenir Expo passport from the otherwise unattended countries. Domestic visitors were enthusiastic collectors of foreign chops on their Expo passports.

6. Zones A, B and C are located in the Pudong side of the Huangpu River while Zones D and E are on the Puxi side. There are frequent ferries, free of charge, to take you from one side to other. There are also free buses that go from zone to zone.

7. There are 8 major gates into the Expo grounds. You should pick the gate closest to the area you want to spend your time. For example, No. 5 and 6 gates are closest to the China pavilion while No. 8 gate is closest to the U.S. pavilion. The taxi cab can usually drop you off closer to the gate while the metro will require a longer walk.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Changting in the heart of Hakka country

From Yongding (永定), the center of Hakka roundhouses in Fujian, it was a short hop and skip to Changting (长汀)—at least it was now with new super highways that bridged chasms and bore through mountains.

I had a sentimental reason to visit Changting; I was born there. My parents were teaching at Xiamen University and the university had moved inward in anticipation of the Japanese invasion. Indeed, Xiamen port was taken by the Japanese imperial troops early in the War but they were spread too thin to bother moving westward toward the remote region around Changting.

Changting now a city of around 6-700,000 was already an important city in the Tang dynasty known as Tingzhoufu (汀洲府). The city’s tag line was that Rewi Ally said that Changting ranked as one of two most beautiful ancient cities in China along with Fenghuang (凤凰) in Hunan. Now that I have been to both places, I’d say it’s a bit of exaggeration. Fenghuang had much more to offer as a tourist destination.

Just one comparison should suffice to illustrate my point. Both cities have a pretty river flowing through the center of the city. In Fenghuang, the visitor can skip across the river over carefully placed concrete blocks pretending to be stones and hire boatmen to pole them on bamboo rafts down the river while being serenade in ethnic Miao folk songs. Changting offered a scenic riverside park for strollers but no raft rides. We did see a fisherman sitting comfortably in the middle of the river casting towards deeper pools. Ms Chen, our guide, explained since a huge flood that occurred in late 1990’s, Ting Jiang (汀江) has been reduced to not much more than a creek. The flood must have swept the resident dragon king out to sea, she speculated.

I went to Changting partly to see Fujian’s version of a Fenghuang but more because I wanted to see if there was anything left of Xiamen University campus, where I spent the first six years of my life.

Our guide took us to the largest elementary school in Changting just as the school was letting students home for lunch. This No. 1 elementary school with over 2500 students was built over the grounds of the former university. The only building remained of Xiada (夏大) was the “Daxiongdian” (大雄殿) built in the traditional style of a Chinese temple. On prominent display by the front door was a sign commemorating the former site of the university from 1937 to 1946.

Practically next door to the school was a Confucius temple, Wen Miao (文庙). My mother had told me that we lived in a Confucius temple. Our guide was quite adamant that it was not possible for anyone to live in the side chambers of the main courtyard leading to the main temple. Then my wife, May, spotted a wing of rooms in a dilapidated building in the back of the temple. A couple of rooms were still in use with beds. Others were for storing stuff and gathering mold and dust. Overall, the wing of rooms was just a slight upgrade from a manger. May and I agreed that we’ve found my likely place of birth. The feeling was personally gratifying.

Changting may not be quite ready for big time tourism—the best hotel in town did not even have a tourist map to give to the visitor, but did have an unusual local specialty called ba gan, i.e., eight dried edibles such as dried bamboo shoots, vegetable, bean curd, pork etc. The one that caught my attention was dried field mice. The advertisement showed red roasted color but easily recognizable dried whole rodent, tail and all. I was disappointed that the actual vacuum blister package contained only diced pieces. Still for about $1.35 per package, I got myself a bargain for a conversation piece.

From Changting’s museum, we learned that the old Tingzhoufu was the center of Hakka country. The displays talked about the culture and customs of the Hakka people and their five major waves of migration beginning from the great turmoil of Western Jin dynasty around the fourth century AD when they fled south from what is now the Henan region to Fujian. From Fujian, subsequent waves took the Hakkas to other parts of China and then to Southeast Asia.

Before the Nationalists and the Communists agreed to unite and fight the invading Japanese and before the Long March, Changting was an important commercial base for the CCP. In fact it was known as Red Shanghai, claiming that anything that was available in those days in Shanghai, it could be purchased in Changting. Jinggangshan (井冈山) where the main forces were stationed was just a short distance away on the other side of the Fujian-Jiangxi border.

If you are already going to visit the roundhouses of Yongding, then I would recommend a stop in Changting. The museum has excellent displays, albeit in Chinese only, that provide a thorough introduction of the Hakka people, culture and values. At the martyr monument for Qu Qiubai (瞿秋白) and the museum next to the statue of General Yang Chengwu (杨成武), one can find a lot of material describing the early days of CCP and its struggle against the KMT. Qu was an intellectual giant in the CCP’s early movement who was too sick with TB to join the Long March. He stayed behind, was captured and Chiang Kai-shek personally ordered his execution. Yang was a local who rose to become a three star general.

Going back to Xiamen from Changting only took a little over 3 hours on limited access toll road all the way. We counted 40 tunnels and probably as many viaducts in the 280 km span of the highway, from the mountainous western edge of Fujian to the seaport. Some of the tunnels were over 3 miles long. Some had serpentine curvature. Knowing that construction of the tunnels began from both ends, we marveled at the engineering skills involved and concluded that one by-product of its heavy infrastructure investment is that no one knows how to build bridges and bore tunnels better than China.

* * * * * *

Changting still has some alley sized streets that date back to Song dynasty

On this Song dynasty street, haircut still costs US 75 cents

Around the corner of the elementary school, a patient hawker was waiting for the children to look and buy his plastics toys.

The school gave the kids a 2.5 hour noon time break to give them time to go home for lunch.

A scenic view of Tingjiang River with part of the city wall visible on the right.

The riverside park just inside the city wall.

Changting also has a chenghuangmiao, a city god temple. In many cities in China, this temple is regarded as old superstition and has been torn down.

On one wing of the city god temple were arrays of small figurines that looked like depiction of historical or mythical figures revered in old China.

On the two sides of the main temple were ten murals depicting each of the ten magistrates in Hell that will review the sins committed by the new arrival and his orderlies then carried out the punishment to fit the crime.

Monday, April 12, 2010

福建土楼, Hakka Roundhouses

At one time, these structures viewed from satellite appeared to be threatening missile silos, at least to some wary American officials. In 2008, UNESCO designated these uniquely Hakka construction as World Heritage buildings. Though generically known as Hakka Roundhouses, not all are round but can come in oval and rectangular shapes as well as in all sizes and configurations. The generic Chinese terminology is tulou (土楼) meaning earthen buildings and is more accurate. Increasingly these buildings are considered as ecologically sound architectural gems and are drawing the attention of professional architects around the world.

Figure 1Bird's eye view of a round and square tulou

Though varied in size and shape, the tulous share certain common characteristics. The walls are made of rammed earth reinforced with bamboo strips, up to 2 meters thick at the base and gradually tapered as the wall rises to the roof, 3 to 4 stories high. Small windows begin on the third floor where inhabitants live. Most roundhouses have only one entrance, a thick solid wooden door heavily reinforced and protected by a water dousing system in the event of siege by fire.

Most of the community activity takes place in the central courtyard. Facing the entrance would be the altar to pay homage to goddess Guanyin (观音) and in the center of large tulous, there would be a community meeting hall. There would be at least one well in the courtyard and in many cases two on the east west axis, though never aligned for fengshui (风水) reasons. Abutting the sides of the meeting hall are pig pens and chicken coops, most of them no longer in use, as well as public bath facilities.

Figure 25-storied Yuchanglou from 1308 AD

Many families can live in one building, usually all related with the same surname. Every family occupies a slice of the roundhouse, from first floor to the top. Ground level is for cooking and eating. Second floor is usually for storage and to do the daily chores and the upper floors for sleeping. Obviously all social activities take place in the central courtyard.Figure 3Mahjong with kibitzers in the courtyard

The basic advantages of the Hakka buildings are low cost of construction and maintenance, the last one built in 1962 cost around $30,000, and long lasting for centuries. The buildings have proven to be earthquake proof, cool in the summer and warm in the winter.Figure 4Qiaofulou, built in 1962 for RMB 90,000

The Hakka people are Han Chinese and not a distinct ethnic minority. Through successive waves of migration from the north to south starting from the days of turmoil and strife during the Western Jin dynasty in fourth century AD, they came to remote regions of Fujian and Guangdong provinces. Hakka is derived from Cantonese for kejiaren (客家人) or guest people. Feeling like unwelcomed guests wherever they go, they devised the easy-to-defend roundhouses for their communities. Known for their diligence and hard work, many important historic personages are Hakka including Sun Yat-sen (孙中山), the father of modern China.

I first learned about the tulous from Professor Bill Brown, teaching at the Business School of Xiamen University and writes humor laden tour books on the side. Bill and his wife, Sue, have raised their two young kids into adulthood while teaching in Xiamen and developing a personal fascination for the roundhouses. I believe the Browns are prototypical of exemplary American ‘hakkas’ living in China.

It’s possible to see the Nanjing (南靖) tulous on a day trip from Xiamen, but that would be missing a lot. There are said to be 20,000 tulous in Fujian. One should at least stay overnight and see the many tulous in Yongding (永定) as well as Nanjing. The Yongding tulous are older and more varied. According to the tour guide at Yongding, the tulous of Nanjing were built by folks that migrated from Yongding.

Better go sooner than later. Along the way, we can see massive investment underway for modern hotels and entertainment centers and “disneyfication” of the scenic countryside is a real concern. The following are some of the photos taken during our visit.

The most photographed cluster is undoubtedly the Tianluokeng (田螺坑) village, nicknamed “four dishes and a soup.” The road to Nanjing leads right up to scenic view. After the obligatory photo stop, we then walked downhill to see and enter each of the buildings.Figure 5The 4 dishes, 1 soup cluster at Nanjing

This is a representative view of the upper structure of a roundhouse. Note the upper floor is cantilevered over the lower and the use of many bamboo baskets.Figure 6Upper floor of a tulou at Tianluokeng

Despite beams that were “off spec” causing as much as a 15 degree tilt from vertical, the building has withstood rain, wind and earthquakes for over 700 years.Figure 7Yuchanglou, mother of all tulous

The highlight of our visit was the opportunity to stay overnight at one of the tulous, Zhenfulou (振福楼) in the outskirts of Yongding. It was built during the turn of the 20th century; the third generation owner, Mr. Su and his family live in a two storied structure next to the tulou. We were their guests for the night. Figure 8Zhenfulou, now a museum on Hakka tulous

The grandfather made his money from tobacco, still grown in the region and built this tulou. The inside courtyard of this roundhouse is particularly elaborate, no doubt a reflection of his wealth and a more modern times. Figure 9The altar and meeting hall inside Zhenfulou

The first two floors of Zhenfulou has been converted into a museum on tulous and the Hakka culture. The area surrounding the building is being beautified and will become a future tourist destination as the heart of the Zhenfulou Scenic District.Figure 10The stream by the Zhenfulou

Figure 11Four generations of the Su family

The next morning we headed for the Hongkeng (洪坑村) village and tulou group. Right away, we can see that this cluster is all set to exploit the commercial potential of the recent World Heritage designation. There was a young lady waiting to guide us, and parking for our car was free since we were returning to have lunch at the hotel built at the entrance to the village.

The first major structure to greet us was Zhenchenglou (振成楼) and its prominently displayed World Heritage logo. A contemporary of Zhenfulou, this building has some advanced designs. Figure 12Zhenchenglou, Hongkeng village, Yongding

The owner, a Mr. Lin, had designed brick walls on the inside to mark off sections of the building and to act as fire breaks in case the wooden structure should catch on fire.Figure 13Inside view of Zhenchenglou

Another advanced design involved the way smoke was led away from the ground floor kitchen to the roof top via channels built inside the wall. Figure 14Kitchen smoke duct leading into the wall

Fuyulou (福裕楼 ) is also part of the Hongkeng cluster. This square shaped building is divided into three sections where, in a break with tradition, the youngest brother occupied the middle section while the two older brothers had the two sides.Figure 15Inside view of a square tulou

Kuijulou(奎聚楼) built in 1834 is a multileveled building more like a palace; in somewhat of a stretch, the guide said like the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Figure 16Kuijulou, Hongkeng village, Yongding

After lunch, we went to the nearby Gaobei (高北) cluster of tulous that included Chengqilou(承启楼), the “king” of tulous, with four concentric circles of buildings, four stories in the outer ring and a total of 400 rooms. Figure 17Inside view of the huge Chengqilou

In the same cluster is a very old Wuyunlou(五云楼) that looks shaky even to long time residents of tulou. Most have vacated and now only three elderly citizens have remained. We were told that they love having the run of the place.Figure 18Inside view of Wuyunlou, Yongding

A diagrammatic map of Fujian Tulou showed that there are more than 43 sites for tourists to visit, 8 of these are World Heritage sites and another dozen are designated as national treasures. So far availability of various Hakka roundhouse tours is not widely known to foreign tourists and that’s the best time to visit.